This is the Only Level: Changing the Rules

Play the game here.

If one were to judge by the title alone, This is the Only Level sounds like an easy game. There’s only one level? This should be done in no time. The layout of the level reinforces this idea. You fall out of a pipe, see a couple of platforms, some spikes, a button, a gate, and another pipe behind said gate. You take a couple of jumps and hit the button. The gate swings open. You quickly run over to the pipe and get the message: “Stage Complete! But is the level over?” It then takes you to the same level again, except now, the floor and spikes are a different color. Instinctively, you push right and head towards the button. Except it doesn’t work this time; you’ve walked backwards and ran right into some spikes. Oops.

At this point, the player has probably figured out what is going on; they’re going to have to play a single level over and over, and the rules change every time. In this particular stage, the controls are reversed. Left is right and right is left. Not too hard. At the start of each stage, one needs to figure out what the rule change is and how to get to the exit pipe. A clue is usually given in the stage name, such as “Candy stripes of doom” and “Heavy headwind, here”. Once you figure out what the rule change is, it’s usually a simple matter of getting to the exit pipe. But what’s the point of the game? It seems all you do is enter a pipe, over and over again (thirty times, to be precise).

You will have this layout memorized by the end of the game.

What this game is doing is demonstrating how suddenly changing the rules of a game can suddenly make it unplayable. While playing, there was probably at least one level that you had trouble figuring out how to beat. Now, imagine if the game didn’t give a hint on what to do. No matter how much fun the game is, if the rules of the game change and it doesn’t tell you, it will suddenly becoming frustrating. In the “game” Understanding Games, one of the points brought up about game design was that games need to have a defined set of rules given to the player. It was then noted that a game shouldn’t change the rules at will. This is the Only Level gives the player a chance to experience the possible frustrations involved with a sudden, unexplained rule change.

In some games today, even an explained rule change brings some annoyance to a player. For example, imagine an action game where you get through all situations with fighting. Suddenly, the game decides to throw in a stealth section. If you get spotted, you lose. Instantly. Many players get frustrated at this point because they’ve gotten used to getting out of difficult situations with fighting; now they have to avoid it at all costs. Another example of these sudden rule changes would be the escort mission. Similar situation as above; you’ve gotten used to getting out of any situation by fighting all who get in your way. Now suddenly, you’re tasked with protecting the life of another character, one who, usually, can’t survive very long without the player’s constant help. Both the stealth and escort mission are two sudden rule changes that many players despise.

Now imagine if such a game changes the rules without informing the player. The player would get confused at first, then frustrated at the game for not telling him. Even if the other 95% of the game is fun, the whole experience gets soured somewhat by the one simple rule change. With only one simple level and many rule changes, This is the Only Level manages to capture the frustration a player might experience while trying to figure out the new rules of a game. This simple game demonstrates one of the key aspects of game design, and does so in an entertaining way.

Author’s Note: To those interested, this game has two sequels: This is the Only Level TOO and This is the Only Level 3.

  1. The first thing this made me think of was the barrel in Carnival Night Zone in Sonic 3. It was a pretty harmless section in a fairly entertaining level, but I was interested to find out that it frustrated a lot of players. People wrote to Sega about it being a glitch and some, unfortunately, never got to play Ice Cap Zone. Today this experience lives on today in commiserating comments on youtube videos.

    It makes sense, though. The rules of Sonic were well established through the first 3 zones and the prior two games.

    1) Go Right.
    2) Go Fast.
    3) Jump sometimes.

    All of the sudden the rules changed. Now you had to press up and down. It’s not a ridiculous notion. There are only so many controls on a Sega Genesis pad. A player should figure it out eventually through process of elimination. But that was secondary. What mattered was the change in the expectation. It wasn’t an overt change; Sonic didn’t start moving backwards, but there was an established norm of gameplay that some people became bound by and then that boundary was subverted. That, for some people, was effectively a change in the rules of the game, and, for some people, it sucked.

  2. snbrown said:

    I agree that it can become frustrating when you are playing a game and the rules unexpectedly change on you. Games in general can cause frustration. Some levels are really challenging and it is difficult to advance to a new level. If rule changes are thrown into that then the game would also become less entertaining. This is the Only Level is the only game I’ve played where the rules changed during the game. I first became frustrated when I was being played in the same stage repeatedly. Then I was frustrated with the changing or the rules. I personally do not like to struggle, whether it is in a game or not, and I especially hate not being given directions or being confused. I imagine that I would not like to play any other games that resemble this one. It did keep my attention, however, for a decent amount of time. If the game constantly put me back in the same stages every time with no rule changes, and everything stayed the same, I more than likely would have lost interest in the game very quickly. it would have been more similar to The Same Dream Everyday.

  3. springsteen1 said:

    This is the first embedded post game I’ve played – not only was this interesting to play (particularly as a novice), but you made great use of the embed here, so thanks.
    I too became frustrated in the same stage. If this were a PR plan, it’s as though there is a specific strategy in play from a communications angle, but as long as we arrive the final goal in terms of PR / publicity / etc., it’s all good – yes, I think in weird circles, but yes, the game proves its point: it’s not as easy at first sight, maybe other things aren’t either. Great game, interesting post.

  4. This makes me think about what the “complete experience” of a game might be, and how a classification might be applied. Some games are better at changing the rules midway than others. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, most of its gameplay sticks to standard action-adventure fare, except for three sections (that I can presently remember): the stealth of the Forsaken Fortress, and the light touch of escort in the Earth and Wind temples. Those three sections combined don’t make up a significant chunk of play time, yet they all must be completed to finish the game. In the Earth and Wind temples, the only change to the main gameplay is the escort, but in the Forsaken Fortress, most elements of a 3D Zelda are stripped away. Does that mean the “complete experience” of The Wind Waker is a 3D Zelda game with a stealth portion? Or can that stealth portion be safely ignored?
    In This is the Only Level, the rules are regularly changed, but the game could consistently be classified as a platformer. But just calling it a platformer isn’t enough to truly encompass the whole experience. Applied without thought, genre labels can seriously affect a player’s expectations, and I think this game has fun with those assumptions.

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