I’m playing through Monochroma at the moment – it’s a game my brother got me for Christmas. Bit slack, I guess, only getting around to it now – but there you go. If you’re feeling uncharitable, you might summarize it as shitty INSIDE, or black-and-white Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from way back in 2013. The basic premise is that your younger brother is playing around in this near-future dystopian uber-industrialised nightmare world, and he sprains his ankle or some shit. You then have to carry him everywhere. Little bit INSIDE, little bit Brothers.
So the core mechanic revolves around the idea that you can’t jump as high when you’re carrying your brother. He weighs you down – so you’ve got to drop him off at a designated ‘happy space’, navigate the environment, and then come back for the little shit when you’ve dropped a ladder somewhere. Now, normally I wouldn’t complain about a lack of realism in these things, but weight has been introduced as a mechanic. We’re expected to see it as part of the world. What struck me was that this kid can’t jump as high when he’s carrying his brother, but he can also carry his brother and hold their combined body weight up on a rope using just his arms. That kinda annoyed me – it’s not a huge complaint, it just seemed like mixed messages. It would be nice if weight impacted everything, not just the ability to jump.
It’s not a huge complaint – that is, I’m not really criticising the game that heavily. It’s just a minor picky thing that annoyed me, and (more importantly) prompted me to think about the idea of endurance & weight in general. It’s also possible that I’m only thinking about this because we just watched Ultimate Beastmaster on Netflix. It’s a stupid obstacle course show with Sylvester Stallone as an executive producer – it’s dumb, but it’s pretty entertaining. Anyway, watching those guys on there, they can hold themselves up by their arms for a certain amount of time, but beyond that – nope. Then when Monochroma tried to introduce the idea that weight impacted your athletic ability, but didn’t apply it consistently – anyway.
On the one hand I appreciate that endurance mechanics aren’t always practical, just in terms of gameplay. It’s a puzzle game, so it’s naturally going to be more focused on negotiating environments almost on an intellectual level, rather than anything else. The thing about puzzle games is that they’re often more dependent on you figuring out the correct combinations – the lever goes up, and then the box drops down and the bees spill out and chew the ropes but only after I’ve winched the piano into position – you get the picture. Actually carrying it all out is almost secondary, in the sense that the game doesn’t necessarily apply a great deal of skill to the performance. If it’s just about pulling levers and winching pianos, that’s not hard to do. The ‘game’ part is figuring the puzzle out – it’s more of an intellectual game, as opposed to shooting games or platformers where the difficulty & emphasis is based largely on your performance as a player.
Of course, sometimes you do get things in puzzle games where you are working on a timer – I’m not saying puzzle games have no performance-based skill, just that they’re mostly more intellectual. From that perspective, I can appreciate that an endurance-based mechanic is sort of going against the grain. It’s not about how well you negotiate the course, it’s more about figuring out how to do it in the first place. Endurance doesn’t really factor into that, because it adds more of a performance basis to your game. It makes the success dependent on how fast or how skillfully you traverse things, and as a designer, you just might not want to tip that far towards performance.
It might help put Monochroma into perspective if we were to create a loose grouping of games based on their approach to endurance. You get games like Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls, Shadow of the Colossus – all of these games have some form of endurance mechanic. The first two revolve around stamina management for the sake of fighting. In Dark Souls particularly, combat is about strategy. It’s about finding the gaps in enemy attack patterns, and exploiting them to deal damage. Shadow of the Colossus is sort of similar, but in that it’s about timing your climbs and not falling off the monsters. Functionally it’s sort of similar, in the sense that both are about managing stamina in service of combat, but one’s about managing your ability to climb, and the other is about managing your ability to block and dodge.
On the other hand, you get games like Assassin’s Creed, the Arkham games, and even Dishonored – they all have similar sort of environmental-navigation things going on. A significant part of the gameplay there is about getting out and about the place. However, none of them use endurance mechanics. Monochroma falls more in line with this pile of games – if only in the sense that it avoids talking about endurance in order to focus on other things. The Arkham games are all about flow and environmental awareness – they don’t want to have to deal with endurance, because – well, a) because it’s Batman, and he does what he wants, but b) because they want you to focus on feeling like a badass and beating up thugs. If there was a Daredevil game, that might focus more on endurance – thinking about taking punches, brawling, conserving your energy – that was a big focus for the Netflix show, that whole idea of fighting like a boxer.
The Arkham games are probably the best comparison, actually – specifically in the stealth sections, where you have to take down baddies with guns using the environment. Well, you can just sneak up behind them and take ’em down, but it’s much funnier to push them off ledges or lynch them from gargoyles. In that sense, endurance as a mechanic would just get in the way of what they want you to focus on. It’s really the same for Monochroma. It’s not that endurance is bad, necessarily – it just takes you away from the puzzles themselves.