How to Get Soaked by Rain and Enjoy It, or: I Rode My Bike and Got Emotional About Game Design
A common sentiment among game designers is that once you start designing, it’s difficult to turn your design-brain off. You’ll find yourself musing over traffic signs in a different country, or noticing how a background detail is framed just so in a film. In my case, my design brain made me very aware of (and enthusiastic about) how tonight’s commute home was a great example of a simple, well-designed quest.
Several months ago, I purchased my first bicycle in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is extremely accommodating to cyclists, so owning a bike has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Traveling the same distance in a different way has made the familiar exciting again, engaging my delight for discovery. Cycling presents a slew of new challenges when compared to public transportation; paying attention to cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists is different than when you’re on foot. The sensation of cycling is markedly different from the sensation of taking the metro.
The video game analog to buying a bicycle would be if I unlocked a new mechanic that fundamentally changes the way I interact with my environment, making old areas feel new again, and presenting me with interesting challenges.
Of course, part of cycling is dealing with the weather. I bought my bike at the end of winter, when the weather was starting to clear up. There’ve been a couple of windy/rainy weeks where I opted to take the metro instead, because I wasn’t totally used to my bike commute yet. In other words: as a player, I know my capabilities and comfort level when faced with challenges. As I grow more capable and comfortable, I take on greater and greater challenges‒ like today’s decision to cycle home in the rain.
The Call to Action
It’s the end of the workday. I’m testing the results of a task I’ve been working on, but I’m winding down. Most of the team has gone home already, save a small handful who are gathering at the edge of the quest pit, chatting.
“What happens in 30 minutes?”
“The weather’s going to be shit.”
I glance out the window. It’s still sunny, but the sky is definitely darkening. Every morning I check the weather app on my phone to get an idea of what lies ahead, so this isn’t unexpected. I knew I might have to brave the rain if I biked to work, and I know that the weather is supposed to clear later in the evening. I have a clear choice to make: leave now in hopes of avoiding the worst of the weather, or risk waiting.
Expectations & Foreknowledge
I definitely feel equipped to make an informed decision.
Familiarity with the route.
I’ve been cycling to work for a couple of months now. I know the route by heart, so I don’t need to rely on Google Maps. I also know how long it takes to get home. I can anticipate how much time and energy I’ll likely spend if I accept this quest.
Appropriate(-ish) equipment for the challenge.
I knew ahead of time that this might happen, so I’ve made some preparations. I’m wearing water resistant boots, and the most waterproof jacket I own (faux leather). It isn’t the best equipment for the job, but it’s still better than my usual loadout.
Recent rain-cycling experience.
It rained yesterday too, and I braved the downpour on my bike. I came away from the experience feeling sort of miserable, but also exhilarated. That is, I’ve finished a similar quest before and it wasn’t totally awful, so I’m willing to try again.
A reward at the end.
I have leftovers waiting at home, and nowhere I need to be tonight. I remember that getting drenched along the way wasn’t fun in and of itself, but I felt like I’d accomplished something when I was done. I also recall how satisfying it felt to change from rain-soaked clothes into pajamas, and curl up with a blanket and a cup of tea.
Changing any number of these variables would make the quest less appealing. If I were nervous about getting lost, or needing to look at my phone in the rain while cycling‒ if I had no idea how long I’d be stuck outside in bad weather‒ if I didn’t have access to “equipment” that would make the worst-case scenario suck less‒ if I’d have to expend further energy to cook when I arrived, or go out into the rain again to get somewhere later‒ I wouldn’t be comfortable taking on this challenge. But I have the tools and knowledge to prepare myself mentally and physically, so I feel empowered when I’m making my choice.
I decide to try outrunning the storm, and pack up my things. It’s already drizzling a little when I head outside, but nothing I can’t handle.
I start unlocking my bike, and the wind picks up. It’s like the universe is a cat, trying its damndest to knock my bike over because that’s just how cats do. But I push back against the wind, lean my bike against my leg, and get it unlocked.
Then it starts to hail.
Again, nothing unmanageable‒ I’ve lived in Colorado, a land of Very Dangerous Hail, and this hail is puny and unthreatening in comparison. But it’s still hail, which I haven’t ridden through before. I laugh at my apparently rotten luck, but I still feel in control of the situation, even though things have changed. Although I’ve mentally accepted the quest, I’m at the very beginning. If I really want to I can go back inside, or wheel my bike to the metro instead of riding all the way home. The “game” is giving me a taste of what accepting this quest entails while I’m still capable of changing my mind. That makes the wind and the hail feel like challenges I’m choosing to face, instead of hardships that are thrust upon me, so I commit to my choice.
There are two different routes I take‒ one in the morning, and one in the evening. A few of the intersections along the evening route can get a bit dicey, but they’re all spaced such that there are at least a couple of blocks between them. My route also happens to have a ferry ride right in the middle, which makes a perfect mental landmark. It’s a moment of rest at the midpoint, with the knowledge that I’m halfway there. After the ferry ride, the obstacles shift from crowded intersections to terrain-based challenges; there isn’t much height variation in the Netherlands, but I live near a hill, and have to cycle on it to get to/from the ferry.
There’s always enough physical distance between obstacles that I have time to mentally recharge, and the obstacles along the way are themed for each leg of the route (city challenges in phase one, and tackling the hill in phase two). If you made an intensity curve for my ride home, it’d look pretty solid. I hadn’t noticed this consciously until today, when the travelers crowding beneath the ferry roof made me think of adventurers huddling around a campfire for a few moments of respite. Balancing moments of intensity with moments of quiet is important when crafting a quest, and my commute nails it.
Subversions & Payoff
The last aspect of my commute quest, and what really makes the journey for me, are the unexpected details. Having a clear starting point and knowing what to expect is great, but if everything happens exactly as expected, there's no story to tell afterwards. It’s important to sprinkle in moments that elicit emotion, like the appearance of a new enemy, or a heartwarming vignette with a cherished companion.
These moments don’t need to be huge to be memorable. I experienced a small handful on my way home:
The hail as I was preparing to embark was hilarious.
Many of the roads I use were far less crowded than usual. Experiencing a crowd-lite ride home was interesting.
My jacket held up better than I expected in the rain, which made me feel smart for the forethought.
Every. Single. Light. That I encountered. Was red. Another “lol, of course” moment.
There’s a large bridge near Centraal, and several cyclists and pedestrians were waiting beneath for the rain to pass. I’m very Slytherin, which means I’m competitive even when I don’t mean to be, and I definitely felt a moment of strength for daring to continue when others had given up.
One part of my journey edges close enough to the curb that cars splash me with water as we pass each other. I learned this the hard way yesterday. Today I contemplated a detour, but ended up unable to take it. I was mentally prepared to get splashed again, but traffic worked out such that I was off that stretch before any cars passed me. A stroke of fortune!
And finally, a moment so rewarding that it deserves its own paragraph: on the last 3-5 minutes of my ride, the sky had cleared, and the sun was out again. It was still drizzling, but I enjoyed the end of my journey in the light, starry-eyed over a beautiful rainbow. With clothes near-soaked by my journey, doing something that brings me joy, basking in the sunlight and taking in the view, I felt a rush of love and euphoria. I love my commute. I love cycling. I love living in Amsterdam. If I can design a quest that makes its players feel the way this bike ride made me feel, I’d consider that a resounding success.
A well-designed quest challenges its players and rewards them with moments of triumph. It gives them opportunities to show off what they’ve learned, and to discover things they may not have noticed about their world. It keeps them on their toes without overwhelming them, and gives them time to catch their breath. It reminds them of what they love about the game, and keeps them playing.
Today I accepted a quest to ride my bicycle in the rain, and it exceeded my expectations in the best ways possible. 10/10, would get drenched and ramble about game design again.