asphyx is a game that does something most digital game authors seem terrified to do: to allow the player to keep one of the rules. whenever the protagonist of the game is underwater, the player is expected to hold her breath. if she breathes in, she’s expected to tap out by hitting the ESC key. there are some neat moments when you might miss a jump and find yourself having to suddenly hold your breath unexpectedly.
an argument against designing around something outside of the author’s control is that different people have different lung capacities: a player might be physically incapable of playing the scenes you design. but conventional game skill – the hand-eye coordination and knowledge of game conventions required to play most games – is also an ability that not everyone has. but by giving the player control over one of the rules of the game, we’ve also given her the ability to better adjust the game to suit her own abilities – to choose her own handicap. one player could be really strict about the breathing rule, another player might give herself a little more time.
i just finished reading bernie dekoven’s book, the well-played game, from 1978. he discusses handicaps and rules revisions as a means to helping players better reach the level of play at which everyone can get the most out of the experience. digital games, whose rules are typically all kept by the computer, can often be really inflexible when it comes to player ability, and that can often get in the way of what dekoven calls a “well-played game.” by shifting the responsibility for some of the rules enforcement to the player or players, digital game creators can maybe give players more ability to edit their own play experience.