It’s well known that players of a game will try to find the most optimal way to complete a challenge, even if it’s not necessarily the most entertaining way to play. As such, one of the priorities in developing VSR is to make the optimal way and the fun way the same thing. I was disappointed to find that, during a recent playtesting session during a Madison indies meetup, the game was failing to satisfy this goal.
Players weren’t using the Flashback mechanic (reverting time a few seconds) much. This is one of VSR’s three big features, so by not using it they were missing out on what makes the game special. As these players had zero experience with the game, they had yet to find the “most optimal” way to play the game, and they weren’t having much fun.
When I play VSR, I find it’s most fun to use Flashback often in short bursts. I would weave between numerous attacks, shoot some enemies, but get hit by a stray projectile. Then on instinct I would Flashback, reverting to just before getting hit, then dodge out of the way. The Flashback takes only a second, which isn’t long enough to disrupt the game’s flow, and I don’t lose any health. The tradeoff is that it costs phase, but the quicker it’s done the less phase is lost. If Flashback is done every time to “undo” any damage taken, it’s reasonable to think of phase as health, but more fluid and robust.
However this isn’t how playtesters were playing the game. They knew how to Flashback, as evidenced by them passing the tutorial and correctly using it during minor puzzle sections. But it wasn’t used in combat that often. Some players only used it when they were about to die, and others just plain didn’t think of using it. Proficiency with using Flashback is something ideally the player should learn over the course of the game, but until that happens they’re not having fun. So the question is, how can I encourage players to use Flashback more?
From the very start of development making Flashback useful has been a big priority. Oracle has such little health compared to most adventure games (2 hearts / 4 HP) to make undoing mistakes more important.
But on the other hand, there are reasons why the player would feel hesitant towards using Flashback. It runs off phase from a meter, a meter that does not automatically recharge (technically it does recharge but only in limited quantity, and it works in a somewhat obtuse way so it may be worth revamping), which gives the impression that it should be used sparingly. The Vision ability would also be temporarily disabled if phase ran low enough, which felt weird, and such I’ve removed this mechanic. I have more reasons to do this and plans regarding Vision’s constraints, but that’s an entirely different discussion.
From all this it’s clear that Flashback needs to made more appealing to the player. And the Flawless Clear is a mechanic I added to do just that.
If the player encounters an ambush and can defeat it without losing any health, they are awarded with a Flawless Clear. Note that if Oracle takes damage, but it’s undone by performing a Flashback, then they’re still eligible for the Flawless Clear. The player is rewarded by having all their phase restored. The player can also freely move when this bonus is being awarded (although this isn’t clear from the above gif), meaning the flow of the game doesn’t slow down either.
So here are two ways to approach an ambush:
- Fight → get hit → get hit some more → use Flashback only when near death → win. This results in losing health and a little bit of phase.
- Fight → get hit → use Flashback → get hit some more → use Flashback → win → Flawless Clear. This results in no health lost and no phase lost.
Scenario 1 is relatively bland, and ending an ambush with less health isn’t optimal play. Scenario 2 is more involved and interesting, getting the Flawless Clear feels good, and the player finishes in good standing. Scenario 2 is simultaneously more optimal and more fun.
This is all in theory, of course. No playtesting has been done since this mechanic was implemented, so it’s possible there’s something wrong.
With my example it seems like there aren’t as many meaningful choices to make, and the seemingly “smart” option of conserving phase is no longer a good strategy. However there are still reasons to not constantly use Flashback all the time (the phase meter is limited after all). Flawless Clear also only applies to ambushes, whereas combat is a common occurrence outside ambushes as well.
It could make the game too easy. But it’s very simple to make an easy game harder (e.g. having phase drain slightly faster)
So time will tell if this mechanic makes the Flashback mechanic more popular. Of course the player has to know this mechanic even exists in the first place; whether this needs a splash screen tutorial or if the player can quickly figure it out themselves has yet to be determined. At the very least getting a reward for playing well simply feels good, so even if Flawless Clears weren’t the change I needed they’d still be fun to have in the game anyway.