Breaking the Horizon

A game’s Horizon is ‘where you think the game ends’, but it’s also ‘how far it seems like the game’s content will take you (and stay the same? i’m not good at defining this, apparently)’. The way I feel as I approach a so far enjoyable game’s Horizon is best described as: worried I’m going to be disappointed. This is why I love it when Horizons are broken.

OPEN SKYRIM EXAMPLE BLAB (to skip, ctrl+f “CLOSE”)

Skyrim never breaks the horizon, or at least it has never done so for me: it’s never even come close. New magic spells and new magical equipment, the most likely HORIZON BREAKERS (aside from the story — more on that later), are very often boring as hell. In almost every case I’m presented with a few numbers that I can tell are going to go up as I improve. Numbers are kind of boring. There are then the cases where I do get a genuinely new piece of equipment: however, HORIZON BREAKS are at their best when they are dramatic, as with all things, no? Skyrim — along with many games! It’s not just Skyrim, I’m just picking on it! — is a dense, slow burn through content. LIST TIME:

  • Short-range flames to FIRE BOLT! — Disappointingly inefficient without spending a perk on apprentice magic (the possible mini-horizon break is muffled and left until later; it’s a horizon nudge at best, assuming the player wasn’t expecting a goddamn fireball spell eventually anyway), and too small a change: I already had archery, and probably even a fire arrow. So, you might say, what about new bows?
  • Bad bow to AWESOME BOW! — Numbers? Are you trying to buy me over with numbers, Skyrim? Holds true for all sorts of mundane weaponry and equipment. Slowly increasing numbers are boring because they don’t break horizons.
  • Dragons are awesome, though. (Or…) — The first dragon was not frightening, and I didn’t get to fight it. It might be the Dark Souls in me talking, but when I fought my first dragon for real, I was… disappointed. Then I fought another dragon, and then I fought a blood dragon — and by this point, dragons were just kind of things to fight. Right from the beginning of the game, the game said “Okay, cool, dragons are within the horizon. You’ll be fighting them.” And then I did. Even if the first had impressed me (it didn’t!), would the second or third be any different? In every situation, all of your enemies can be turned on the dragon anyway.
  • Magical Equipment. — Numbers numbers numbers numbers numbers. So afraid to run out of content early, it doles out tiny percentages where they don’t matter. I pick up some GLASS ARMOUR OF RESTORATION and it’s better than what I have by a bit, and it increases my “restoration skill” by 22%. Of course, before this I’d already learned “better armour” and “better restoration”, so this is just a… combination of the two.

CLOSE SKYRIM EXAMPLE BLAB

Dry Voices is a game about DISCOVERY (anagram title!). I made it for Ludum Dare once. I decided that the player would keep discovering new and unexpected things and, now, I’ve finally coined the action I was attempting so long ago:

Breaking the Horizon

is when a player’s comprehension of a game is expanded so much that his or her previous understanding has been SHATTERED.

La-Mulana is a game all about breaking the horizon! Around every corner, there is something new and ridiculous: a new puzzle, a new item, a crazy new way to travel, a new thing like an area with an incredibly slippery floor (I have never experienced a more slippery floor in any game, ever) when every floor previous has provided 100% perfect control.

Regardless of the way you feel about horizon breaking, these are absolutely moments that players REMEMBER. There may be other moments, of course, but anyone who’s paying attention to what a game is as they’re playing it will remember these moments when suddenly you punch out the floor from beneath them.

It is possible to sully a game’s horizon by breaking it too much — to the point that the horizon becomes shattered and uncertain, or to the point that the player starts figuring out which horizons look particularly breakable.

BREAKING THE HORIZON is not the perfect solution to every problem, and it can’t be all you have going for a game. However, placed properly, one huge change that breaks a Horizon is far, far better and far, far memorable compared to several small changes that leave no room for doubt about the future of the game.

So fucking break it, game designers.

You Found The Grappling Hook!
La-Mulana
More to be added, probably.

Also, this is seriously the messiest post I’ve ever made! “Sorry!” and/or “Deal with it!”

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About Droqen

Droqen is a game designer/developer/creator/etc. from Toronto, Ontario. View all posts by Droqen

6 responses to “Breaking the Horizon

  • jmickle

    I think something you probably should mention is the importance of defining the horizon in the first place. With Dry Voices, you /never/ know how long the game is, just when you first “complete” it, you know it is then /much longer/

    Very intriguing read overall, though.

  • Droqen

    Whoa, shit! You’re totally right.
    I feel like I could write a lot about Horizons :/

  • Kyle Dougherty

    I had this experience with Starseed Pilgrim, when I figured out the power of the “Hopeless, I ignored it.” guy. I was playing under the assumption that he operated like all of the other characters in the game, more-or-less. I played for a while, following my usual routines, and eventually ran out of seeds. I was in a high place, so I considered my options, and jumped as close as I could to where the key would be.

    THEN MY MIND SHATTERED.

    Needless to say, I figured out his power, and realized I was totally screwed. I then retried his level, and was absolutely dumbfounded. My whole way of thinking about the game had to be re-ordered. I found myself playing as I normally do, even though I knew I’d have to completely change my play style. A really memorable experience, as I’m not sure any game has ever pulled the rug out from under my feet like that!

    I’m employing this design technique in one of my upcoming games… It’s nice to have a name for it!
    Great post!

  • Russell Borogove

    Portal kind of does this on two levels. The test chambers carefully introduce new play mechanics one by one – small horizon breaks. Then, midgame, you realize that what you had thought was the game was actually the tutorial – big horizon break.

  • Games that are more than they seem « It's a Tarp

    […] Here’s an interesting article that was recently reposted in several places– it was written several months ago by Starseed Pilgrim’s designer, Droqen. It touches upon the kind of thing (Droqen calls it “horizon breaking”) that a lot of these games are doing. […]

  • Rubna (@rubna_)

    I totally see where you’re getting this! When I was playing machinarium, I got through the first 20% of the game, and I assumed it was a linear game, because it was, UNTIL I got to the main town square. Suddenly, there was a WHOLE world to explore, or so it felt. I did not expect that and it gave me an awesome feeling.

    Great post!

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