4/23/2013

Evoland - the study of game design evolution

When it comes to this game, I am probably in the most biased group that exists. I am completely aware that it is made exactly for people like me. The ones that can't decide whether they liked Final Fantasy VII or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time more. I am pretty sure the guys responsible for Evoland are sitting on the same fence and hell, we are all feeling quite cosy here. 


Evoland is a game about games. To be more specific, it is a game about evolution of two brilliant series of jRPG - Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. It borrows almost everything from these games and as a huge fan, I was enjoying every tiniest bit of it. Every gag, every little mechanic, every little reference made me smile or straight out laugh and run to my wife to first explain the background to her, then tell her the joke and then get angry that she doesn't get it.

Guys from Shiro Games came up with a really cool mechanic: opening chests rewards you with new game features! You start in black and white 2D world where you can only go right and evolve it into a 3D world that gets textures, prerendered backgrounds, higher resolution, better music. But the evolution isn't limited only to graphics or music quality. You get awarded such things as enemies, inventory, health bars, breakable pots and pushable crates or random encounters and turn-based battle! You get all kinds of game elements that upgrade your experience from earliest 80's to the first decade of the current century.


Almost all the mechanics that you can uncover are taken straight from either FF or TLOZ, and later a bit from Diablo. Since it is a game about game evolution, it wouldn't make sense to add some new revolutionary mechanics that didn't exist before. The designers decided that there's no use hiding their fascination with the two titles. They even went a step further. Everything in Evoland reminds us of two studied series: names of characters, shape of an airship, sword design, mood of a town, battle menu layout and color... All these are an honest tribute to the two great series.

Putting aside my undying sentiment to last century RPGs, Evoland does one thing that I am not sure it intended to do, but it does it extremely well. It actually teaches the player a lot about game design. Every new element that you discover in Evoland gives you new ways to interact with the environment. When someone plays a regular game, he is given a series of mechanics that are usually complimenting each other in a fluent way. He rarely analyzes how they affect the general gameplay and interact with each other. In Evoland you never get two new mechanics at once, letting you focus on one element at a time. And it shows you, how this element changes the game. How adding NPC's adds a dialogue option. How placing a key in a chest forces level designers to place an unlockable door somewhere and how it affects the level design options.


One other aspect that is just exemplary in Evoland is the learning curve. It introduces every single element separately, starting from scratch - moving right. Every time a new gameplay bit appears, you get to use it right away. You get a key - you open a door. You get a bomb - you blow up a wall. You never have to wonder what, when and how to do. And you are never attacked by tutorials or popping up hot tips.

The game is short - only a few hours of gameplay. But also, it's 10 worth of a game design analysis of two greatest jRPG series. There's no denying Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda series, at least in the last century, were all very good games. Seeing them broken down to single pieces introduced one by one is of indisputable value for every designer. I would be in a pickle if I were to choose between spending $10 on a book about game design or on Evoland.


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