Play too often worlds can look like static backgrounds for gameplay. But by incorporating elementary reactions, developers bring complexity and characterization to a player’s environment.
By now we’re all familiar with the Overused Explosive Barrel Trope. One bullet is enough to create an explosion that can take out multiple enemies, turning an element of the environment into an interactive arrow in your quiver as you progress. While environmental storytelling has stolen the show when it comes to designing spaces, emerging environmental storytelling is quietly the biggest innovation happening in games right now, with elementary reactions being the easiest to grasp.
If the games are big cause and effect iterations, then the elemental reactions give players very clear and logical feedback on exactly what their footprint is on the world. Plus, modern games that embrace elementary reactions, like Divinity: Original Sin, Genshin impact, and Witch, also give their worlds and characters more personality and texture, creating a much more lively and fluid space than what you normally see in game worlds.
What are the basic reactions in games?
The explosive cannon example works like this: you wait for enemies to be near the cannon, and then somehow ignite it, causing it to burn and send them flying. The cause and effect here are clear, and the game world is part of your strategy. Suddenly, the environment becomes more of a third party that you can use and interact with. In the old days of games like CONDEMN (1993), this meant keeping an eye out for more explosive barrels, but the games ultimately improved in environmental interaction by focusing on other elements.
A classic example is puddles used in tandem with BioShock (2007). Just like the explosive cannon turn, you have to wait until the enemies are in position, but here the impact area is marked by wet ground, so you can clearly see who and what will be affected. More importantly, however, is the fact that this interaction is immediately apparent without much explanation to the player. Of course, zapping a puddle will electrify anyone in it. Basic elementary reactions are effects that everyone can intuitively.
At the same time, elemental strengths and weaknesses, explicit and implicit, have been part of role-playing and card games from the start, with roots reaching back to the tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and reaching a climax. . with Pokémon, both as a video game and a collectible card game. The backbone of both Pokémon games is a complex array of type strengths and weaknesses, making it a convoluted game of rock, paper, and scissors. This is why elemental diversity is generally encouraged in most competitive Pokémon teams, and while card games cannot be diverse by design, they can work to alleviate any drawbacks they encounter. Each type of Pokémon becomes something of a character in itself.
How Developers Use Elemental Reactions to Improve Gameplay
Of course, Pokémon usually doesn’t deal with interesting combination effects very often, just doing more or less damage. Recent strike Genshin impact goes further and incorporates basic reactions to both combat and exploration. You play as a group of characters that you can swap on the fly, each with an elemental quality to their powers. Combining certain elements will create new effects that can make your strikes more powerful, hamper the enemy, or even get you more resources. The combination of ice and electricity, for example, produces a “superconducting” effect, which inflicts ice damage in an area and reduces physical resistance. And the fact that you can switch between characters on the fly means you can smoothly create big effects, depending on what you’re up against, in the blink of an eye.