In making my first game I’ve noticed that building mechanics around the idea of “Call and Response” to be something that greatly improves the fun of a game, and that such call and response ideology is far too rare in game design these days. To explain what I mean I’m going to look at a few other art forms first. In music, a particular instrument will play a melody and another set of instruments will respond with a particular phrase. In dance, the drums might play a particular rhythm cueing the dancer to begin a particular movement. These are called, you guessed it, calls and responses. They serve as a sort of dialog between the pieces of a performance, and this interaction makes that performance much more interesting to watch.
This call and response mechanic applies directly into the world of games as well, and not only does it apply, it’s actually a favorable outcome. Chess is a game that’s been around for a very long time and for a very simple reason. As each player moves a piece, the other player must respond directly by moving a piece that counters the previous motion. One player calls, the other responds.
Magic: The Gathering, a more contemporary example, is the same way. The game is built around building a deck of cards with an assortment of calls and responses. Each turn is setup to allow each player to call and then respond to every move made. Say I draw a card. In response to my draw, you cast a spell that makes me discard and lose life. I respond by countering your spell. You respond by sacrificing a creature to remove the spell from the stack. I respond by hitting your creature with direct damage, etc, etc, etc. Call, respond, call, respond. Magic decks are built around the idea of outsmarting your opponents by including calls to which they can’t respond, but the fun in the game comes, not from deck building, but in the playing the game and actually testing those calls and responses. Some people may derive more joy from the deck building, but I guarantee that without ever having seen the flow of the full game, they would not enjoy building a deck on its own.
What I’ve noticed is that this carries over into video game design as well, but it’s not something taken advantage of as often as it could be. In video games most devs give you a single call. You’re able to call damage down onto your opponents. You can shoot fireballs or rockets or bullets or call the hand of God down to smite your opponents, but regardless of the form it takes these are all the same call. I’ve noticed that top-down games like Magicka, League of Legends, or Diablo all have a much greater variety of call and response available to them. You can summon walls to block your opponents, put them to sleep, leap forward to catch them with your sword, or summon illusions to confuse their responses. The best game of this ilk, in my opinion, is NoX. NoX is a game built around a wide assortment of calls and responses. You could shoot fireballs at your opponents, yes, but you could also just make a wall of fire in front of them. Or just a wall. Or you could redirect their fireball back at them. Or just counter their spellcasting. Or give yourself protection from fire damage. Or swap location with the caster just as their fireball is approaching. Or just make yourself invincible for the duration of the spell’s hit. The volume of calls and responses available in NoX was astounding.
So why do so few games do that? Why don’t we see more shooter games with the ability to make walls to block our opponents’ path? And then to lay explosives to knock those walls down? Why don’t we see more abilities in games like Skyrim that let us switch locations with an opponent or redirect an incoming attack? Why don’t we see more arcade racing titles with the ability to set your opponent back to a previous point on the track, or yourself forward on the track? Why are almost all games made today made with only a small handful of calls and almost no responses? Why do games go out of their way to include features like being able to open doors in new and creative ways, yet leave their combat systems out in the cold?
Almost all games are built around the idea of fighting an opponent, yet almost none of them allow you to approach this any way other than mindlessly spraying them with bullets.
Well the answer is obvious enough, it’s because it’s difficult. It’s much easier to control balance in a game where there’s only one call and one response. But we must not settle for this. We must not be content with a song only played by one instrument. We must not accept a dance with only one combination of steps. We must call for more options in our games, we must call for more choice in how we approach our problems.
If we call, they will respond.