Why I Love: Opening Stuff Like Doors [Amnesia: The Dark Descent]

‘Why I Love’ is a series of lessons I’ve learned from my favorite game mechanics.

Video game doors rarely have more than two states: open or shut, locked or unlocked. Walk up to a door in a game, and it is likely that it’ll either open automatically or swing completely open. Very rarely could you control how open or shut the door was. In the majority of games, being able to control that makes little sense. But in Amnesia, opening stuff like doors is one of the main mechanics, and it’s a whole thing in and of itself.

Opening and closing a door [Amnesia: The Dark Descent 2010]

Amensia was the first game that I played where you could control how the door opened. It let me open them just a crack to be able to peek through to the other side. Sometimes, I could catch a glimpse of the one of those ghoulish Gatherers, and nope right on out of there. And how about closing the door right on one of their dumb faces? It gave play to a system that I never thought of before: doors.

The doors in the old Resident Evil for instance always have some weird, obscure locking mechanism, like dragging marble statues onto switches. But once they’re unlocked, they only fake open, which means that the zombies in Resident Evil cannot cross rooms with doors between them. The monsters in Amnesia however can explore from room to room simply because the player can leave doors open. Close the doors so that the monsters cannot freely enter, and a game mechanic is born.

Hi [Amnesia: The Dark Descent 2010]

We often think of space as the 2D or 3D environment in which the characters move, but really, space exists within systems as possibility space. The Resident Evil doors have an extremely limited space where the player can only go through them. The Amnesia doors have plenty more space to crack them open just a little, swing them wide, close them quick, and many more. By allowing the player to interact with them on a more elaborate, detailed way, the game has given more play to the doors. But perhaps this can be better explained with a game of hide-and-seek.

Let’s say that you’re It. You close your eyes, count to 10, and then turn around to see me standing right behind you. Maybe you chuckle a little, but then you say, “OK, let’s play for real now,” and turn around and close your eyes. But what if we were playing tag instead? You turn around and see me standing two feet away. You step towards me, and I take off with you giving chase. That’s certainly a lot more fun than when we were playing hide-and-seek, but why?

In both hide-and-seek and tag, you were the one who was It, and you had to catch me. But catching someone in hide-and-seek is different than in tag. In one, it’s merely enough to spot me, but, in the other, you have to interact with me in a slightly more elaborate way (i.e. touch me). Suddenly, there is play when there was none before.

Lesson: Space creates play.

There is the error space, but there is also the possibility space. The more elaborate the systems are in the game, the more space there is for the player to play in. It carries the risk of becoming convoluted if not careful, but the other end of the spectrum is a game that is boring and uninteresting. Simplifying a system and reducing its space offers focus towards the rest of the game. Our objective in hide-and-seek isn’t to “catch” someone but to find them, because finding them is the whole point of hide-and-seek. So the next time you play a game, walk up to a door, and see how it can open. It will tell you a lot about what’s important in the game. And it’s probably not the door.

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Writing about video games and game design. Systems designer on Diablo 4. Views are my own.

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Stephen Trinh

Stephen Trinh

Writing about video games and game design. Systems designer on Diablo 4. Views are my own.

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