Ah, the palate cleanser, that bit where a game throws you a curveball for the sake of variety and to keep you from getting bored.
In this post, I want to discuss what I think makes a good palate cleanser versus a bad one mostly by contrasting the shoot-em-up inspired sections of Rayman Origins (2011) to those of Rayman Legends (2013).
Let's Get Our Terms in OrderFirst things first. What do we mean when we talk about palate cleansers in games? I first heard the term used by Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski to describe those sections of a game wherein players are asked to do things which aren't part of the usual set of actions required by the core gameplay. Many first-person-shooters, for instance, ask players to put aside the usual running and gunning to partake in the occasional genre-ubiquitous "vehicle section". The goal of these, so called, palate cleansers is to fight player fatigue by offering up a different activity for a while before returning to the game's core mechanisms and gameplay.
I, personally, have a strong preference for variety within a game's core mechanisms rather than asking players to, essentially, put aside the game they've been enjoying to play what is essentially a different game for a bit. For example, both the Halo games and the Call of Duty games are first-person-shooters and both series include the ability, at times, to drive vehicles. The big difference between the way these "vehicle sections" are handled serve as a perfect example and counterexample of my prefered approach to variety in games.
The Good and the Bad
Vehicles in Halo, especially the original trilogy, are part of the larger gameplay sandbox, as it were. Players are free to hop in or out of any available vehicle at their leisure and the spaces in which players are given access to these vehicles are generally open battlefields which promote tactical thinking and allow for all sorts of chaos to ensue. On the other hand, Call of Duty style vehicle sections tend to be heavily scripted cinematic sequences in which the player is given little freedom as to where they can or can't go and generally involve some sort of dressed up obstacle course meets shooting gallery.
Halo's approach to controlling the vehicles also contributes to them feeling like they are part of the same game rather than a temporary switch over to a driving game. Many shooters which allow you to pilot vehicles will switch up your control scheme significantly. The Halo games on the other hand try to keep your control scheme as unified as possible throughout the experience. Wherein, while at the wheel in some games, you might be asked to treat your controller's trigger buttons as an accelerator and brake pedal while using your left thumbstick to steer, Halo has you using your left stick to control going forward or backward while you use your right stick to look around, with your vehicle steering itself to align with your view. You see, Halo isn't trying to simulate the controls of the vehicle you are piloting, it's trying to keep to the same controls you use to manoeuvre on foot and map them to the same intents while at the wheel.
A Tale of Two RaymansSo, this finally brings us to Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. Both are, by the way, great games that any platformer fan should check out, but there is definitely something that Legends handles much better than its prequel and that is it's shoot-em-up style levels.
|Flying on mosquitos|
In Rayman Origins, these levels have you mounting a giant mosquito which can shoot projectiles out of its proboscis. The levels play extremely similarly to side scrolling shoot-em-up games like the classic R-Type. Your left thumbstick or d-pad are used to move you freely around the screen while your jump button gets reassigned to shooting. The types of challenges you face in these levels are also straight out of the shoot-em-up genre, as you are tasked with taking out enemy formations while attempting to dodge hazards which float at you in patterns which become increasingly hard to negotiate.
|Riding the air currents|
Many of the boss levels in Rayman Legends offer a very similar experience involving flight, shooting and precise dodging. The major difference between the two is the way these are weaved into normal gameplay in Rayman Legends. You see, whereas Origins has you hopping on a mosquito and asking you to rethink your controls, Legends will grant you a powerup which essentially extends your normal attack to also shoot out flaming boxing gloves and has you flying not on a mount but on currents of air using the jump button leveraging the hovering ability you normally have available to you.
In both cases, you're given a break from the usual running and jumping gameplay of the regular levels, but in the latter, it's done in a way that feels less like you're being asked to play an entirely different game for a level. Both games take the same premise of using shoot-em-up style gameplay as a palate cleanser but while one simply has you play a shoot-em-up for the duration of a level, the other weaves that gameplay into the rules already established by the core experience.
Variety is important in games. Repetition is boring and games are meant to entertain, so keeping things fresh is important. I, however, commend designers for keeping things fresh without pulling me out of the game's core experience.
The Spice of Life
What Rayman Legends gets so right is that it's full of surprises and widely varied but you are inarguably playing Rayman the whole time. You have the same set of actions available to you throughout the game and the variety comes in the form of the challenges you are asked to surmount using them.