This is a cross-post from my game design blog. You can find the original article here, as well as more like it.
It’s a statistical fact that most people don’t finish video games. Whether it be life getting in the way or overwhelming difficulty or just not enjoying one’s purchase, only a relative handful of a game’s players will see the credits roll. So it may seem insane then that Reventure, a game about winning through losing, asks players to complete it 100 times over. How does it seek to accomplish such a task, and in what ways does it succeed and fail?
To be upfront: saying you have to beat Reventure 100 times is a tad facetious. It’s essentially a game about collecting endings, some of which can be found within a minute. The first fates many players will encounter include getting shanked by a minion after walking out their back door (bam, playthrough over, start again) or tripping on a pebble after walking out their front door (bam, playthrough over, start again). Or they’ll grab the legendary sword and stab the Zelda-esque Cave-Dwelling Elder, just to see what’ll happen (also pretty quick). Yet while these endings are doled out fast and loose early on, the developer’s hurdle comes in keeping players engaged past the initial blitzkrieg of humorous game-overs. This necessity informed the entirity of Pixelatto’s approach to building Reventure’s world.
Within the first few endings, most players come across two key items: the sword and hookclaw (a grappling hook that pulls you up toward conveniently-placed wooden ceiling tiles). These discoveries are critical as the former will be your main form of offense and the latter a traversal necessity. Having just these in your toolkit opens up a plethora of the game’s possibilities. Within the same screens as these lie— as well as in the few in-between — you’ll also come across the majority of items you’ll be using with regularity, including the shovel, gliding chicken and bombs. Also unmissable will be visual cues like bombable cracks in the castle’s floor and dirt patches where you can dig into underground caverns. The game quickly sets you up with the knowledge of where things are and initial places to use them (a.k.a. how to read the game’s visual language). Best of all, it’s all within immediately reach of the starting point which reduces feelings of unnecessary backtracking upon consecutive runs.
Reventure’s mode of storytelling also lends itself well to prioritizing ease of access: every ending results in the passage of time which means some of your actions will result in lasting alterations to the world. For example, if you bomb the castle floor then it stays bombed, allowing you swift passageway to the castle sewers (though they really couldn’t afford to fix the gaping hole in the floor?). Other milestone endings will move the sword to your house and create portals to areas across the map. The key word here is milestones which is to say that conveniences come as a reward for big accomplishments. You still need to figure things out for yourself before being given shortcuts, but in turn the game respects your time by acknowledging your mastery thereafter. And even then, areas of import are spread across the map so the function of a few portals (mostly to the same general area) is lessened. They may help you get to the Princess quicker but you’ll still need to venture out on your own lots to find every ending. This is important.
Memorizing every in-and-out of Reventure’s labyrinthine landscape is one of the game’s greatest joys. The best gaming worlds are those that the player becomes intimate with and this is no exception. Every discovery implants itself in your brain as you catalogue the intertwining passageways and secrets tucked behind hidden walls. Finding natural shortcuts in the world’s layout is empowering as you’re able to weave through the land quicker and quicker. And most importantly, any direction you set out in from your house is always housing something new. Unlike a traditional side-scroller, running left is just as viable as running right. This open world approach keeps every outing feeling like its own non-linear experience. The design decision is amplified when contrasted with a prototype of the game unlockable upon completion wherein the character always follows a linear path. Even with only eight endings it quickly felt like a grind as each attempt had you crawling just a bit further down a glorified hallway before resetting and doing it again. In the final game, even if certain endings would have you returning to the same place for different results, repetition is broken up by having the option to go elsewhere for a bit.
But the options don’t stop with where you go; Reventure’s item system is constantly re-contextualizing all these places you’ve come to know. Your jump’s verticality is spry as an upstart adventurer, allowing you to reach a majority of areas that require nothing but platforming. Technically, this is all you need to save the Princess if you know what you’re doing. Reaching most endings will require picking up items, though. The catch: every item you accrue reduces your mobility, up to the point where certain areas can become completely inaccessible if you’re holding too many. You can’t carry more than four items and you can’t drop items once they’ve been picked up, thus creating organic puzzle scenarios where you have to decide exactly what items you’ll need for a given outing and sometimes what order you’ll pick them up in (the wrong order could make one of the items unreachable). The major flaw in the game’s item design is that the hookclaw has such vast utility that it often makes up for a sluggish hero who’s grabbed one or two superfluous things. Fewer locations to grapple could have heightened the importance of player choice in item gathering and prevented the hookclaw from being something you pick up on nearly every occasion.
Arguably the most important method of engagement in any game is the desirability of its reward. This is where Reventure is elevated by its sharp penmanship. Each ending comes with a touch of the unpredictable, a twist on what you’re expecting either given the set-up or common tropes. Sure, you rescued the princess or hugged a sentient boulder, but the tantalizing bit comes in the “then what?” that the writer devised. And even while not every ending is created equally enthralling, many come along with a skin unlock or alteration to the world that give your actions a sense of ongoing significance. Too many games treat collectibles as a number, a commodity for completionists to pick up. Reventure’s endings are always substance, something you want to have on an individual level. They’re about the journey rather than the reward at the end. Given that collecting isn’t the option but rather the requirement of Reventure, nailing this was critical.
Even so, only 1.68% of players completed their collection according to the game’s own tally. As stated earlier, few players complete games but even then this number is exceptionally low. Despite all attempts to design around player fatigue, has the game ultimately failed? I’d argue that it hasn’t (see: everything written thus far) but it does make a few missteps that likely keep many players from reaching the finale — or even knowing there is one. It’s not clearly indicated to the player at any time that collecting every ending will lead to something more. The room the final ending takes place in is behind a hidden wall in an area players aren’t likely to suspect, and while entering it is required for one other ending, its visual design doesn’t scream ultimate importance. I’d wager that a large portion of players saved the Princess and called it a day as that complete’s the quest given to the hero, even if the ending that doing so provides is hardly a conclusive one.
Additionally, even with the multiple hint tools provided by the game as you progress, players are bound to end up with a handful of endings that they’re just stumped on. Solutions are readily available online but once the process turns from making your own discoveries to running down a checklist of someone else’s, much of the premise’s luster evaporates. This is increasingly prevalent the earlier on a player reaches this point of stuck-ness. Poking around would likely lead these players to new content but there’s simply no escaping that when a player perceives a roadblock, they’re more likely to walk away. A fix could have been giving players the option to see more in-depth hints within the game itself but such an inclusion is only marginally better than looking things up online; it’d provide the same transition to a feeling of list-checking. Ultimately, a game about collecting is going to have a low completion rate no matter how much you do to circumvent repetition.
These few drawbacks don’t negate Reventure’s fantastic approaches to world design. The team at Pixelatto provided constant solutions to potential monotony and turned a game that on paper sounds laborious into one players will at the very least see much of the way through, if not all the way. To put it in terms of a cliché: Reventure makes the path most traveled just as exciting as the path less traveled.