Knack: An Underappreciated Lesson in Accessibility, Variable Challenge, & Cross-Generational Appeal
Updated: Apr 1, 2019
I have been waiting and waiting but finally, the time has arrived when my first-born is able to play games. Proper games that is, with an actual controller, rather than the simplistic tablet-based apps that we have previously suffered through together. It has been surprisingly difficult finding contemporary games on current consoles that are both appropriately rated for a 3-4 year old and, more importantly, actually playable for someone with tiny hands and developing reflexes. So much so in fact, that we have spent a number of months relying on my back catalogue of Gamecube and Wii titles to fill our gaming time. About a month ago though, Knack appeared as a monthly game on PlayStation Plus. A few weeks later, it was the first game that my son had ever finished, almost entirely of his own volition. Moreover, I had also finished it (on a harder difficulty level) and had a pretty damn good time playing it as well.
Watching my son play on Easy and then playing through myself on Hard gave me a unique perspective that I would have missed had I simply played through once by myself. Given the fairly mediocre review scores the game received upon release, I felt it was necessary to argue the case for this game being an excellent lesson in game design for accessibility, variable challenge, and cross-generational appeal, even if by other measures of design it may fall over a little bit. Let’s have a look!
Accessibility for the Young
I have watched my son try to get the hang of a few different games but even those that appear simple on the surface often contain hidden challenges that are almost invisible to an experienced gamer. The biggest problem I've observed is confusing camera angles or camera movements. This is much less of a problem in more contemporary titles but something still worth mentioning as this has been a source of real frustration for the smallest person in the household. He loves playing Sonic Adventure 2 Battle at the moment, for example, but is frequently annoyed by wonky camera movement and has yet to grasp the concept of button-based camera controls. This means that even more contemporary games that may otherwise be great for him to play are off-limits if manual camera control in a 3D space is required.
Knack's camera management in contrast is automated and near faultless, shifting from fixed scenes that frame the arena-style battles with a cinematic edge, through to smoothly tracking camera movement through corridors or across platforming sections. The difference this made to a young player's progress in grasping the game and starting to enjoy it straight away was obvious. There were still some examples of poor design dotted around, such as requiring the player to jump towards the camera with little in the way of scenery or character shadows to facilitate a sense of depth or distance, but these were minimal throughout.
Accessibility for games is a broad term and includes a number of different game design aspects that developers may want to consider. However, even in the Game Accessibility Guidelines there is little consideration of the role that the camera plays in making games accessible and inclusive for all, with only one direct reference to camera design (specifically focusing on things such as mouse smoothing and camera bob). In fixing camera movement to a spline path that tracks the player through a level, designers can achieve a pleasing combination of cinematic perspective and bombast for larger scenes, and closer, more tense perspectives for smaller areas that mimic, to an extent, the benefits of fixed camera positions from the Resident Evil days. Spline-based cameras also offer designers a reasonable degree of authorial control, whilst leaving players with some limited sense of control over their camera, as it moves in response to their character's movement.
The second key aspect of Knack's accessibility from what I observed of my son's play was the way the game's mechanics are almost impossible to use incorrectly and, on easy, there is minimal punishment for using them in less-than-optimal situations. Combat is simple, with basic melee combat tied to the Square button. Knack can perform a dive attack by jumping and melee attacking in mid-air. Knack can perform a quick dodge with a flick of the right analogue stick, although this only really becomes a requirement at higher difficulty levels (see later in this article). Knack also has access to three Super Moves, initiated by pressing Circle followed by either Circle, Square, or Triangle, and dependent on the amount of Sunstone energy collected from the environment. That's about it. On easy, most combat can be handled without the need for Super Moves, although some mini-boss and boss battles are challenging without them. However, even if Super Moves are wasted - because obviously, the 3 year old player likes to trigger them at completely random moments because they look cool - it doesn't take long to build the power reserves back up again. The stored power doesn't reset between deaths, so it only takes a few respawns to gain your Super Moves back again. As can be seen in many reviews and player commentary around the game, this ongoing build-up of power reserves can make it very easy to brute force your way through some combat sections, purposely dying and respawning until you have enough Super Moves to blast your way through. On balance though, the accessibility benefits of this system outweigh any detrimental effect caused by 'cheating' the system. After all, skilled players can easily choose to not abuse the respawn system - but lesser skilled or younger players would easily be turned off if they reached a section where they got stuck in a death/respawn loop with no hope of progressing. On harder difficulties, the speed at which your energy reserves replenish is also slowed, so there is some consideration integrated into the game's difficulty system already. Speaking of the difficulty settings...
Variable Challenge for Young and Old
Much has been written around difficulty in video games and particularly, around how to make adjustments to it via different game components. Historically, difficulty levels were differentiated via some simple statistical changes - increasing enemy health; decreasing player health, or power, or both; removing or limiting beneficial resources or power-ups, etc. Difficulty levels were set (e.g. Easy, Normal, Hard, or some variation on these) and the player selected one prior to play. This developed over time into Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, or DDA, systems, that sought to keep players in a difficulty 'sweet-spot' by making those underlying statistical changes on the fly in response to player successes or failures. Knack makes use of the fixed difficulty system, offering Easy, Normal, Hard, and Very Hard modes. However, along with the typical statistical changes (i.e player/enemy health, power, etc.) the selected difficulty also modifies platforming sections to require more precise jumps on harder difficulties, as well as modifying enemy combat animations and movement. The result is a game that scales in all areas of play and, more importantly, links difficulty to a combination of player dexterity and knowledge of the game's mechanics. The combat, being the main aspect of the game, is worth considering in more depth with regard how it provides suitably challenging gameplay for both young and old alike.
Combat in Knack at the lower difficulty levels, as previously described, can be overcome with minimal respawn frustration, a little bit of practice, and just enough persistence to not turn off the less experienced or younger player. However, at the harder difficulty levels, the game can be a punishing affair. One-hit or two-hit kills are frequent and respawns equally so. However, considering the underlying perceptual and psychological mechanisms at work under the hood allow us to see that, as with other aspects of the game, the combat at these higher levels rewards practice, memory, attention, and reflexes.
Every enemy in Knack has a small set of attacks. Run-of-the-mill grunts may have a couple of different sword-based attacks, for example. Bomb-throwing enemies throw their ordnance in one of a small selection of patterns. Almost all of these attacks are telegraphed through the enemy animations, allowing time to identify and respond appropriately to different ones. At a purely mechanical level, Knack's combat is not really melee combat at all; rather, it is a game of pattern recognition and response selection dressed up with some entertaining audiovisual sparkle. This pattern recognition is made harder as different combinations of enemies are thrown at the player, requiring them to recall multiple sets of attack patterns whilst visually tracking multiple enemies around the screen.
The ability to track multiple objects in the visual perceptual field has been demonstrated to be enhanced in regular players of fast-paced action games (see for example, Zhang, Yang, and Li (2010)). Thus, one would expect more experienced players to find the enemy-tracking tasks in Knack's combat easier than less experienced players. Knack counters this by increasing the enemy animation speed and decreasing the enemy idle time between attacks at higher difficulties, shifting the challenge away from tracking multiple enemy objects and toward a test of memory, recall, and response time. Thus, while less experienced, younger players can focus on developing their multiple object tracking and pattern recognition skills in the slower-paced combat at easier difficulty levels, experienced players can still be challenged at the other end of the spectrum. As animation speed and thus, player response speed during combat increases, the pace of the game naturally increases. The connection between a game's innate 'rhythm' and the pacing of gameplay affects a player's enjoyment (Compton & Mateas, 2006). However, other work has focused on their direct connection to game difficulty. Previous work has suggested that both rhythm and pacing can be directly linked to difficulty. Smith, Cha, and Whitehead (2008) for example, used the concept of 'rhythm groups' to examine difficulty in 2D platform game design; a concept also picked up again in similar work on incremental difficulty design in platform games by Wehbe et al. (2017).
Our rhythm groups are analogous to musical phrases. They have a distinct start, middle, and end, and culminate in a cadence. This cadence is a place where the rhythm of the player’s movement significantly changes. It could also be an area where the player is safe to rest and pause before continuing a new challenging area. Such rest areas are especially important in difficult levels, as long periods of action with little time to pause is more likely to result in player error. A transition between rhythm groups marks an area of rest, and could also be a place where there is a save point or reward for completing a challenging section of the level. Smith, Cha, and Whitehead (2008, p.78)
While the authors apply the concept to platform games and the rhythm and pacing of the player-character's movements, a similar argument can be applied to the combat sequences in Knack. This is due to how the enemy animations functions, the requirement to perform certain movements in response to certain enemy attacks and, importantly for the concept of rhythm groups as above, the way the battles spawn new enemies. As difficulty level is increased and enemy animation speed increases, the 'beats per minute' of the game is increased. The player must perform more actions in a given timeframe in order to avoid death during combat. Performing more actions increases the chance of making a mistake and thus, the game requires greater skill. At the higher difficulty levels, Knack requires players to make much greater use of its jump mechanic during combat and also, the dodge mechanic. While combat on easy can be handled in most cases through hammering the melee attack button and occasionally jumping out the way of certain attacks, this changes substantially at higher difficulty levels. The 'rhythm groups' of the game's combat become more complex connections of jumping, dodging, retreating, attacking, and the occasional Super Move, all driven by the conductor-like enemy animations that telegraph their attacks so clearly.
The above-cited research describes breaks between the rhythm groups (e.g. flat areas in platform games that are relatively safe from threat) as both allowing time for player's to rest, as well as signalling a change in pace or tempo. In many combat scenarios in Knack, a similar structure can be observed. Many battles are split into a handful of discrete waves, each of which spawns into the arena after the previous one is defeated. These waves constitute similar changes in pacing and/or tempo as the above research identified in the platform game context. Some waves contain a large number of small, 'cannon-fodder' enemies best dispatched with an area-of-effect Super Move. Some contain a smaller number of large enemies that hit hard and are best handled through careful dodging and picking the right time to attack before retreating back out of range. Some waves combine these enemy types, at which point the challenge of multiple object tracking as described previously comes into play, with players needing to pick off smaller enemies whilst avoiding the powerful attacks of larger ones, for example. Each type of enemy combination requires a change in player behaviour and prevents combat becoming too repetitive.
Conclusion: Cross-Generational Appeal
Knack is by no means an outstanding game - the original reviews were fair in their criticisms of aspects such as the strange mish-mash of themes and the inconsistent tone of the game's story; goblins, guns, airships, hover cars, traditional prop-planes, magical relics, modern-day cities, medieval-looking castles... all in the same game?!
However, not only did I still enjoy playing it, a 3-and-a-half year old did too (yes, it is rated 12, but I can't for the life of me see why!) and that is an accomplishment not to be sniffed at. It is damn hard to make a game that a small target demographic like, let alone demographics so far apart in age.
I wonder how many of the original reviewers played the game on its harder difficulty setting. Certainly, even on normal, combat can be quite simplistic and not require too much strategic or tactical thought. This is very different on hard and the game, from an experienced player's perspective, becomes a different and much better beast at that level. I suppose I should go and pick up Knack 2 now and see what the sprog and I think of that...
Compton, K. & Mateas, M. (2006). Procedural Level Design for Platform Games. In Proceedings of the 2nd Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference.
Smith, G., Cha, M., & Whitehead, J. (2008). A Framework for Analysis of 2D PLatformer Levels. In Proceedings of Sandbox Symposium 2008, Los Angeles, California.
Wehbe, R. R., Mekler, E. D., Schaekermann, M., Lank, E., & Nacke, L. E. (2017). Testing Incremental Difficulty Design in Platformer Games. In Proceedings of CHI 2017, Denver, Colorado. Zhang, X., Yang, B. & Li, Y. (2010). Impact of 3D/VR Action Video Games on Players' Cognition, Problem Solving and Its Implications in Simulation Training. In Proceedings of Hybrid Learning: Third International Conference, ICHL, Beijing, China.