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Started by droqen, January 01, 2023, 10:25:36 AM

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I have a weird relationship with Stuffed Wombat's work! It is obvious he puts a lot of care & attention into his games, but I can never get into them. In fact, I never finish them. We perhaps have incompatible worldviews. Anyway, PRODUCER 2021, released in 2022, was the first game I played in 2023, and I didn't finish it. I got stuck, and I don't feel compelled to return. This time, unlike when I played Gutwhale and left a long unprompted criticism post on its itchio forum, I have my own forum so I'm going to post here! It serves the same purpose but without being so directly, um, combative. I mean, without the illusion I'm doing it to show someone else. This is for me.


I got stuck about 24 minutes in, in a way that reminded me of my childhood experience with Grim Fandango -- looking back at the game, I feel as though I got stuck and there's no way forward. There probably is a way forward, but I don't feel all that compelled to find it.

The tone of PRODUCER, at least of my playthrough, is one of enthusiasm barely masking what I will describe here as . . . sheer misery, depression, desperation, clawing against an enemy world. There are emotions that I would describe as negative, as extremely negative, that I do enjoy, and these just aren't them! At the same time, I don't know if I love basking in even the negative emotions I do like. I will set the problem of tone aside for now and perhaps for good.

On to the actual design craft of the game. It's easy to get lost, and getting lost doesn't seem intentional. It's not enjoyable to me: there are many tools for theoretically helping if I get lost, and none of them are working. Actually the majority of direction-finding opportunities seem to be designed in a hostile manner. I need to find the residence of a guy named BONGLORD. I obviously need to find food for the ELEVATOR OPERATOR. I need to get into the MALL. I need to get into here, there, etc. I have many goals which I soon discover are all locked doors within locked doors. Where are the keys?

The only way to gather information is to move around the world, interacting with things. Sometimes when I leave a place, I get some random piece of information or item. Actually, let's call them keys. Sometimes when I interact with something for the first time, I get a key. Sometimes when I interact with something a lot, I get a key. Sometimes when I give up on interacting with something and leave, I get a key. So I'm incentivized to . . . interact with everything a lot, but interaction is simply mashing a button!

There are individuals and tools in the world that exist to, I suppose, help? But it's not fun moving from place to place after only a little while, and the vast majority of interactions do nothing, or do nothing which I value. I get "EXP" and it's like a joke -- why do I care? I don't, and the game reminds me of the arbitrary nature of EXP. My 'stats' increase and they seem to do nothing except get in the way. ENTHUSIASM, which sounds positive, seems to serve only to prevent me from exploring. (e.g. "You can't explore, you're too enthusiastic about your job!") BACKPAIN sounds negative, and has not done anything yet. WEIRD sounds ambiguous, and has not done anything yet, and in fact draws attention to its lack of feedback by giving noticeably weird and value-ambiguous feedback.

There is a machine that I would like to give me information about BONGLORD's address. It recognizes my input ("BONG", since the input field is only 4 characters long) but it says it doesn't know.

There is a receptionist that I can ask about BONGLORD's address. I can only ask her a few questions before she stops allowing me to ask her things. I ask her what she knows, and she says she knows . . . nothing.


These are, I assume, constructs made intentionally obtuse and irritating in order to contribute to the tone of the game. Whether it is intentional or not, I think it is bad design. Bad design can be done to produce emotional effects, and may be forgivable; that is, the aggregate effect of a piece of bad design and what is enabled or evoked by that bad design may be a net positive.

For me, the feeling and tone of PRODUCER 2021 is not worth the effort required in order to overcome the obstacles it has presented.

- It has set up a basic fetch quest with themes of overwork under capitalism, in a dirty city. It's not a structure or a challenge that I find compelling or fun or novel.
- It has presented a small suite of characters, none of whom I am particularly compelled to learn more about (including myself, the protagonist). They are all quite simple, and many of them cliches. I'm not invested in the characters.
- It has given me access to a number of locations, and again, they are all not too . . . interesting? Not too deep? They are loosely assembled facades. E.g. The mall is only a mall because it is labelled "MALL". There is nothing about the way I interact with it, or about the way its interior is presented, that suggests to me it is a mall.

Avenues of exploration are still open to me. I could replay the game and accrue less ENTHUSIASM (by making less enthusiastic choices) in order to explore the places I want to explore. I could talk to the boss and beg for help, though the game has warned me I should only do this as a last resort.

However, I have no confidence, nor, I think, should I, that the design, events, characters, and places that hide in those crevices will give me more than what I have experienced already.


My takeaways:
  • In a longer game, something should compel me forward. Something has to be put in my head that I expect in the future. It doesn't have to be something good, but it does have to be "compelling." This is extremely distinct from addictive. See: mysteries (I am expecting the answer), conflict or tension (I am expecting resolution), rhythm/pacing in the general sense (I am expecting the next 'beat' so to speak)
  • As I learn to play a game, I am very sensitive to negative feedback. I will try something, anything, but if I get feedback that suggests my action was entirely futile, I will become less likely, much less likely, to do it or similar things. I suppose this is where the "compliment sandwich" comes from, although I much prefer constructive criticism (e.g. "This was wrong for these reasons", then I can do it again more correctly by revising my approach).


Perhaps I am very sensitive to feedback in general? I will look for "the silver lining". But feedback is also highly contextual. What am I doing, why am I doing it, and how could I . . .

In the case of PRODUCER 2021, I know what I am doing and why I'm doing it, but not the mechanism or logic of failure, apparently. Logically speaking I recognize that when I [interact] in order to [solve problem] and the interaction fails, there must be a different designed interaction which will succeed. But, I don't want to break down the game logically, at that point why am I playing? Emotionally and intuitively speaking I think, "to [solve problem] I should [interact]", so I try that and it fails. I get no feedback about why [interact]ing failed, there was really no framework for understanding why I was [interact]ing in the first place. Why would the receptionist know where BONGLORD is? AH, I got it.

1. I have to find BONGLORD's address.

2. I have no idea where to find BONGLORD's address, so I will explore by trial and error: what if I [do random thing]?

3. By chance, [do random thing] is "talk to RECEPTIONIST".

4. I am presented with an option to "ASK ABOUT". That sounds right. I choose it.

5. I am presented with an option to ask about "BONGLORD'S ADDRESS". That sounds right. I choose it.

6. I am not given what I was looking for and in fact the receptionist will no longer answer any other questions either.

From this I conclude that trial and error is not a good way to interact with this world -- simply because an option is presented to me does not mean that it will be of any use whatsoever. This takes us back to the beginning:

1. I have to find BONGLORD's address.

2. I have no idea where to find BONGLORD's address, so I will explore by trial and error

3. I have no idea how to do what I need to do and have received negative feedback regarding all the options I thought were available to me.

In this case "trial and error" is a general option, an entire strategy. Of course I have more options available, but they fall generally under the umbrella of trial and error, which has already been punished (not just in in-game resources but also my time) to the point where I no longer regard, or wish to regard, it as a valid strategy or option.

So, this is the point at which I quit:

1. I want to accomplish X

2. All strategies* for accomplishing X have been attempted, in order to assess their cost/value

3. The cost of all strategies is higher than the value of accomplishing X

4. Pursuing X is not worth the cost

*It's interesting to note how what a "strategy" is here... is a subjective thing, is patterned. Similar things can be lumped together, or separated, depending on the individual. On one hand I am tempted to say that I afforded the task of "Accomplish X" fewer strategies because I was not compelled by the game. On the other hand a game can make its player options more distinct, so that they cannot be so easily lumped together.

(a) I present the player with 10 identical chests. They open one, and it's a mimic that hurts them. The remaining 9 chests are all identical chests, and the player may assume that they also contain mimics. Why wouldn't they?
(b) I present the player with 10 NPCs who have unique sprites. They talk to one, and it's a secret assassin that hurts them. The remaining NPCs are all people, but not the same person, and the player may assume that they are also secret assassins, or they may not.
(c) I present the player with 10 distinct activities -- an NPC, a chest, a fishing hole, a door, etc. They interact with the door, and it's a fake door with a trap in it that hurts them. The player may assume all the other activities will all hurt them, but it seems unreasonable to do so after just one interaction. Maybe if they interact with another one and it's also a fake entity that hurts them, then they might begin to see all the activities as potentially fake.