October 22, 2013
Notes on Device 6
I played through Simogo's Device 6 over a couple of days last weekend on my iPad. It was delightful. The post below contains spoilers for some of the delightful visual gimmicks it contains. I'll signpost the big ones, but in general it would be better if you could go off and enjoy the whole thing freshly for yourself, and then come back and read.
Even though I grew up with text adventures, I haven't played one in quite some time -- I occasionally open up a version of Frotz with an old Infocom game, but that's mostly for nostalgia and no longer for genuine exploration of the form¹. I've played through some Twine games, notably Zoë Quinnzel's Depression Quest and Cara Ellison's Sacrilege, and though I think there's some great work going on there, I'm not deeply into that community, either, and I think you have to be, to a degree, to be exposed to the best of that or even really to know what's going on².
That said, I've often found text to be one of the best game mechanisms for promoting all sorts of feelings, perhaps explicitly because it eschews chasing a visual realism and instead interacts with the imagination, just as novels do. I jot down a sentence such as, "The crocodile catches your leg in his teeth" and you might just have a jolt of panic if you're invested. It's also possible that I just read a lot, I suppose.
I should not have been surprised that someone found a way to freshen up those old text adventure games, removing one of the most significant barriers in that finicky parser and marrying text to an infinite canvas with a little multimedia dashed in for good measure. But I was. I picked up Device 6 on the strength of Swedish developer Simogo's earlier work in Beat Sneak Bandit and Year Walk, two iPad experiences that have won awards and distinguished themselves with unique visual aesthetics. Their strength in visual aesthetics is particularly on display here in an opening sequence that reminded me of nothing so much as the opening credits of a Danger Man/Secret Agent Man or The Prisoner or the Bond films, but which doesn't much represent the play or visuals of the game proper.
To understand the game's appeal you need to know just the barest amount about its story, which starts with a young woman³ named Anna who awakens in a tower room of a castle by the ocean. She has no idea how she's gotten there. We learn this through a couple of paragraphs of text, and as Anna goes exploring, so too do we, dragging the canvas of text around following sentence lines. The interaction here isn't "read at your own pace and then tell me where to go," but "read and drag along with the story." It's a simple concept, wonderfully done, and soon you're dragging in various directions, reorienting the iPad in your hands as you do so4. The pure play is wonderful, exploring the space of the canvas while you simultaneously explore the physical space that the text on that canvas represents. It tickles two parts of your brain at the same time, in much the same way as Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves did, though here the digital format allows for an even wider range of possibilities.
Delight-spoiling mention begins here
I was especially struck by two passages that wouldn't have been possible in a traditional printed text. The first was when, having been in control of my movement through the story and canvas during the entirety of the game, I was treated to an animated descent via an elevator. That this occurred immediately after a chapter transition only heightened the surprise and the delight,and it happened deep enough into the game that I was beginning to feel as if I had seen and heard all it had to offer. It was reinforced by audio of a descending elevator. Fantastic.
The other gasp-inducing delight occurred very close to the end, when both the protagonist and I climbed a spiral staircase, which was represented in the text as a three-dimensional spiral, where it was as if I were rotating a transparent tube on the surface of which was printed the description. This was amazing; it was like a flourish at the end of a long jazz performance, when the musicians should be all tired out, a last wink at the audience to let them know they're really quite good.
End delight-spoiling mention
You encounter images that scroll by in parallaxed windows, as well as various technical drawings of the implementations of "devices," such as the one in the title. The former are largely where the various progress-gating puzzles which permit passage through the game's six chapters; they are a perfect marriage of the memory limitations of the device and creating the sense of place5. At times you only gain full view of an image by scrolling back and forth, as if you're peering around the corner of a window frame to take in just a little more of the view.
This isn't a puzzle-dense game, and the chapters are short. The challenges aren't terribly difficult, but challenge isn't remotely the fun to be had here; had I been too stumped by any single spot, I might have been tempted to put it down for awhile, rather than devouring it in a couple sittings as I did. It would have worked against the spell it cast on me.
Discussion of the framing premise which is a little spoilery, too
The frame around all of this is that the character you play, Player249, is experiencing Anna's adventure through means of a series of devices, the last of which is the Device 6 of the title. Of course, you the player are yourself experiencing Player249's adventure through a device of your own choosing. At the end of each chapter, there are little questionnaires with often bizarre premises which remind you of this fact (and often make you chuckle). The maker of these devices (The "HAT Corporation") also calls to mind Réné Magritte's Son of Man/Man in the bowler hat painting; this feels deliberate, especially when you consider the appearance of a man at the very end of the story and the callback to the painting's ocean setting. Very cleverly done. I love such allusions.
End of framing premise discussion
If you've read this far, I do hope it's because you've gone off and played the game. If you haven't, you absolutely should. It's a reminder of just how gigantic this continent of games can be if we're still finding wonderful things to do with text.
¹I've even fiddled with Inform7 a bit, but haven't produced any genuine work.
²I have some notes on a small Twine game. Writing this bit makes me think maybe it's time to start work on it. Ugh. So many ideas, so little time.
³Perhaps a spy, based on the introductory movie.
4This is my only complaint; I played the game on my latest generation iPad, with headphones in, and between the weight of the device and the cable, I would either drop it into my lap or occasionally get tangled up in the wires. A better experience might be had on the lighter Mini, though I think the screen of a Touch or a Phone would be too small for me.
5I've not developed a game for an iDevice, though I'm familiar with some of the OS restrictions in terms of working memory. In this case, still black and white or subdued in tone photos are given the qualities of film by clever procedural filtering. The image brightens and darkens as if projected by a projector, and little bits of fuzz and imperfection are overlaid on top. This is all done procedurally but gives the images a liveliness that, while not entirely fitting with one of the premises (why projected film in a space this main character is exploring), nonetheless fits the other (I'm experiencing this through a device which mediates her experience in such a way that I get some abstraction of it). Immensely clever.
August 26, 2013
Over the weekend, I participated in my first ever game jam, which is kind of funny considering how long I've been developing games¹. It was a terrific experience. Here are some simple lessons learned.
Even A Small Amount of Time Is Enough for a Jam
I had all of six hours Sunday afternoon to jam. Six hours doesn't seem like much, but it goes a lot further than it did when I was young. But in the morning I had an idea while driving to do the groceries and I thought I'd give it a whirl. To get it done, though, I'd have to:
Keep It Simple, Stupid
My idea was small and implementable in just a few hours. Based on the theme of "10 seconds", I built a simple puzzle where you have to defuse a bomb in five steps (and in under ten seconds). The only information that you had was the name of the terrorist organization that planted the bomb, and the fact that their bomb-making was never random. Simple also meant I had to:
Use What's Familiar and Lying Around
Anyway, I'm glad I stuck with the familiar because:
Issues Will Arise
As I mentioned in the footnotes, I had to download the latest versions of some things, and specifically with Python, I hadn't realized that there were some pretty significant differences between how Python 2.x and Python 3.x used various collections³. I also ditched some programmer art for some images off the web when they didn't turn out how I'd have liked. And I fiddled with how to display the graphics so they'd line up without any gaps for far too long.
But that was all fine, because I was able to:
Let Go of Preconceptions
I had a hard deadline. I needed to be upstairs finishing dinner at 6pm; which reminds me, because I also feel I benefitted from:
Regularly Scheduled Breaks FTW
As it happened, I was jamming while dinner was roasting in the oven, and every hour I had to run upstairs5 and baste for a couple of minutes. I was worried that this would break my flow, but it actually had completely the opposite effect and allowed me to instead keep my sense of urgency. As it turns out, when you're doing all the individual bits even for a stupid little game, you don't have a lot of time to get into a flow state because you're jumping into different parts of your brain -- but a sense of urgency really helped me still attain a sense of flow because I knew I had to keep tackling those things quickly. Taking those little breaks both reinforced the sense of urgency, increasing focus when I returned, and also gave me the little breather I needed, sort of like taking a drink along a running race route.
That's the Short List
Those were the things I can think of off-hand for my first game jam. You can play the result of six hours of "work" by clicking the image below:
Thanks for reading! I look forward to jamming again in the future. Now I need to go and play some of these great LD48 games. Let me know how your game jam went in the comments!
¹Fifteen years, if you've been reading. And while Bethesda had a game jam that was publicized at DICE after Skyrim shipped, the programmers were fairly busy patching issues that arose once millions of people started playing our game so much, so we didn't participate. A later game jam incorporated the programmers, but I was still too busy with other work stuff.
²To be fair, I bought a new system earlier this year and so I actually had to download and install some stuff I like to use, a particular text editor, latest JQuery, latest version of python, etc. That ate up a little time, but not much.
³It's a point release, no harm no foul... just totally caught me unawares, especially differences in how things work when they return iterators instead of collections in the functional programming stuff. 4The game's name, Ticking Down, is as much a reference to the bomb you're defusing as the sense of time eroding as I was making it.
5My treadmill desk man-cave is in my basement.
May 18, 2013
My Thoughts on BioShock Infinite
For reasons having to do with my antiquated blogging software¹, I've put up my thoughts about BioShock Infinite in a separate page. I welcome comments, which you can attach to this post... sorry for the clunky nature of that, but I have other things I need to do today.
¹Hey, it's been working for over 9 years, which is more than I can say for much of the software I use. :)
April 06, 2013
Should I Have Finished... Kingdom Hearts?
I remember being quite excited in 2002 for the arrival of Kingdom Hearts, a partnership between Square and Disney that promised a JRPG which took me to my favorite childhood Disney locales and allowed me to interact with lots of wonderful characters from those classic films. While that's true of the final product, I think there's a fundamental flaw underpinning this game that arises from the choices Square made in melding JRPG and Disney magic.
The story concerns a young boy named Sora, who lives a simple island life with his friends; this life is ultimately threatened by the "Big Bad," which is the gradual destruction of the universe by a spreading darkness. We understand that to be the product of some sort of alliance between Disney villains and a new force not from the films. Before long, in a sort of hub level, Sora meets up with Donald and Goofy, who are on a quest of their own to track down King Mickey, who has gone missing. Having similar goals, and recognizing Sora as the Keyblade Master (don't ask), the three team together and begin visiting various worlds in the Disney universe, such as Wonderland or the inside of the whale Monstro. These locations are gorgeously realized and often incorporate movement and other elements that reflect the setting, such as swimming when "Under the Sea" with Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or sliding down broad vines and swinging in Tarzan's jungle.
KH here promises to do something so very right, to allow you to incorporate special heroic characters from each setting into your party. It's sadly also where it decides to do something so very wrong, by forcing you to choose to swap out either Donald or Goofy, and not Sora, this new character from Square's imagination. I have no real relationship to Sora, and I don't really care to build one when Jack the Pumpkin King or even Simba the Lion are on offer. While he's sympathetic, he lacks the depth and the history I have with these other characters.
Furthermore, I know I'm playing a Square RPG and therefore I know that at the end of the game I'll be using Sora, Donald, and Goofy to fight the big bad enemy... and any experience points gained along the way that go into these other ancillary characters will not only be wasted effort but possibly disastrous to my ability to finish the game, or require soul-crushing hours of grind. Time Donald or Goofy spend outside the party is wasted effort, as the discarded character will gain no experience and thus be unable to help when the final battles approach. So the choice to use these characters isn't one that appeals to me as a gamer, and the character I care least about controlling is the one I'm stuck with throughout the game. It's a failure both of wish-fulfillment and fan service.
The worst part is, it was entirely fixable; there are better choices to be made here. As characters advance in levels, they gain special abilities of various kinds that can be selected as being currently in use², and this is what is potentially lost when Donald or Goofy leave the party. The fixes are straightforward: allow the player to control any character he wants, and make up his party of three however he wants (from a selection of Sora, Donald, Goofy, and the special character for the current world), and simply level the party as a unit, rather than each character individually. This would allow the player to have the Disney experience he'd most like, and yet avoid the consequences from difficulty choices on the part of design team at Square³.
I think this game came out at a point in time where difficulty was very much finding its way as games found a larger, more mainstream audience. And the approach Square took certainly doesn't appear to have hurt sales -- a cursory Internet search turns up that this series has sold more than 17 million copies to date, and recently I've heard that an HD remake may be coming. But I have to wonder how many of those copies have sat unfinished on shelves like mine, their beautiful worlds unexplored owing to lack of wish fulfillment. When you wish upon a star, indeed.
I may have more to say about Kingdom Hearts in another post, we'll see. There are some things I quite liked about the game, but this central tension between what I most wanted from the game and the terrible price I'd pay if I chose it was foremost in my mind throughout the experience.
¹The later films were not part of my childhood, but certainly may have been for some of the target audiences.
²As both a balancing and character customization mechanism, each character has a certain amount of points to spend enabling or disabling these abilities, which have different costs.
³It's fair to say these are extreme. The final boss of the game absolutely trounced me on my first attempt, and I went and ground out a whole bunch of levels to compensate. I think it consisted of something like 8 stages. It was... another poor choice if you're attempting to have crossover appeal.
March 31, 2013
It's hard to write a simple recap of 2013's GDC, which ended Friday in San Francisco. For me, the last five days were a swirl of thought, reflection, and personal connection. I love this week of the year so damned much!
Session highlightsIn years past I've described great stuff I saw, writing notes about every session. I'm going to call out just a few this time out, but over the next few months I'm going to be trying to watch so many that I missed on the GDC Vault, so those may come back up in this space or elsewhere. Here are a few; if I had to pick a session of the show for me, it would probably come from these three.
- Nathan Martz on Ideas Per Second: How Double Fine Optimizes for Human Performance. Nathan's talk focused primarily on how to build and maintain an engineering team that allows the whole team to generate as many ideas as possible. Double Fine's focus is on generating new IP and game mechanics, and as technical director, Nathan is responsible for making strategic choices that allow this to happen as quickly as possible. He specifically cited the value of engineering culture and how important every hire is, as well as some specific tactical advice at the code level. It was a terrific talk, well worth checking out on the Vault.
- The #1ReasonToBe Panel. This event got a fair amount of press coverage (example here) -- it was a powerful set of short talks about something that we shouldn't even need to talk about in 2013. Yet here we are. Personal favorites were Robin Hunicke discussing specifics over simple slides and Brenda Romero's fantastic evocation of the sexualization of E3, this time using scantily clad men as examples.
- Nels Anderson on Of Choice and Breaking New Ground: Designing Mark of the Ninja. Nels did a fantastic job of breaking down how one might innovate in a particular genre, avoiding the dangers of becoming too broad (and thereby losing the specifics of what made a genre work) and also of driving too niche (and thereby shrinking the market via grognard capture). He laid out the driving principles of what he felt were critical elements to the stealth genre and talked about how specific choices led to particular feel of play. For example, the bow in Thief requires a fair amount of player skill, and has limited resources, so it tends to work to slow the game down -- it's a choice that's not made the only way you can make it in a stealth game. Terrific stuff here and one I'll watch again.
- Seeing everyone. I felt like I saw so many people this year, even more than in previous years, and that was amazing. I can't even begin to list all the people I got to spend at least a few minutes with. You are all wonderful people.
- IGDA Scholar/Mentor program. I was a mentor to a really nice young person from Orange County, Justin Lara. It was the first time I participated in this program, and despite my concerns with the IGDA this year in particular, I'm glad to have met Justin.
- The Brainy Gamer dinner. I see so many wonderful people at this every year; many of the people I have so much respect for are present, and it has been a terrific way to get in touch with people I don't work with but would like to work with.
- Giants vs As at AT&T Park. I went with Michael Abbott and Sarah Elmaleh to a ballgame. I might have to make this an annual event. A great way to cap the week.
That's my quick wrap-up, time to power this thing off and descend into Baltimore. I'll post it up on my site tomorrow.
March 12, 2013
The Worst Thing
I just wanted to take a moment to address the worst thing that could possibly result from those Feminist Frequency videos:
Yes, that. Nothing.
Let me say that again. The worst thing that could possibly happen... is that nothing happens.
Like it or not, games are an art form, and the worst possible step forward for an art form is no step at all, no self-reflection, simple stagnation. An art form dies when it ceases to examine itself, to find things it's not saying or not able to say and ask why it isn't and how it might. If game developers aren't interested in examining what we do, and if our audience is actively uninterested in us doing so, well, we might as well pack up and go home. The unexamined game isn't worth playing; the unexamined game industry simply won't last.
You've seen this in action, no doubt. Failing to examine what a game or genre is capable of causes sequels to fail to interest you on their next go-round. You lose interest when it feels like developers are phoning it in¹, or when a new game in a genre simply repeats what you've seen before in other games. These "new" games don't capture the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling that a great game does, and the reason is that they simply copy what has gone before.
Much of the explosive growth of the games industry in the past half-dozen years or so has come from exactly this sort of reflection, where individuals are looking around at the games available and asking "Where's this game that I'd like to play? Where is the game for me?" or "What can I do that no one else has done?" The degree to which individual efforts are successful or not isn't terribly relevant; what matters is that people are out there exploring this immense space of what games can mean, what they can express, and what they can do better.
Self-analysis at a creative level is what stimulates growth in this art form just as any other. The lack of it just means getting the same thing year in and year out; it means that it dies altogether. Nearly everything you've loved about new games has likely come from someone asking a question, about taking a moment to examine what is and what could be.
Take that away and, well, you'll be left with nothing before long. I love games and want them to continue to grow, evolve, and challenge. Examination of the choices they make again and again is healthy and welcome.
So I say to Anita Sarkeesian and anyone else who wants to look at what we're doing: keep it coming.
I'll be back to examine some more games here in this space probably over the weekend.
¹This is also, I submit, what is fundamentally wrong with the crassest forms of gamification²; there's no examination of how game mechanics might actively support a particular goal, merely the addition of points, badges, ladders, leaderboards, and other "game-like" features to tasks that don't fundamentally work together.
²One could reasonably argue that it's also the reason behind Zynga's current woes, though I'm far from expert in those titles.
January 31, 2013
Bloggin' in the Round Table in January
I happened across this month's "Blogs of the Round Table" theme shortly after I wrote my post on my 15th anniversary of joining the games industry. The theme was challenge, and a lot of my article (to embriefenate for the TLDR crowd) dealt with the industry's constant overcoming of challenges, a trend I think will continue as long as people are passionate about the changes that we need to consider and discuss.
November 04, 2012
I should have finished... Shadow of Destiny
Recently I played through Shadow of Destiny, an early PS2 title originally published in Japan and released here in North America in early 2001. I found a lot to admire in the game as a developer and as a player, though the narrative ultimately left me a little ambivalent.
What impressed me most about the game, as a developer, was the way the game was designed with respect to its likely niche audience and the uncertainties of developing for new hardware at a console transition, something which developers of games that don't typically reach Call of Honor numbers would be well to remember with a coming console transition today. Faced with growing requirements for asset quality and the lengthier time to create them, and the knowledge that they might only have traditional adventure game fans in a small percentage of an initial console install base, the designers worked out a time-travel story which could be set in a single location across multiple time periods; while certainly this still entails a sizable number of unique locations, it feels both familiar and new to investigate the fictional town of Lebensbaum across multiple time periods. This restraint -- to bow to the requirements of new hardware as far as user expectation graphically and to intentionally constrain your narrative to allow heavy reuse of these assets -- is likely a winning strategy that should be kept in mind for anyone looking at ways to cut costs, whether they be indies working on shoestring budgets or bigger teams facing the uncertainty and rising costs of changes in hardware or developers attempting new IP. If it's done early and conscientiously, the result can be a little gem of a game such as Shadow of Destiny, which feels as if each choice was made deliberately and organically, rather than a result of late, frenzied cost-cutting to make a target date or budget.
Before I describe the game's design any further, I need to briefly describe the game's narrative to situate the gameplay. The game begins when the player's avatar, a young man named Eike Kusch, is stabbed in the back and dies, only to wake a few minutes earlier in a coffee shop, knowing that your death is imminent and seeking to prevent it. It's a great maguffin to prompt play, and it comes with a time limit (and perhaps the game's first design choice): if nothing changes the timeline in the next half hour, Eike will die and the player will start again from that point. A mysterious fortune-teller nearby will help guide the player to the first set of adventure game objectives to prevent Eike's death¹. These involve changing the near future to prevent your own death; since you are unable to contact yourself directly which causes some sort of game-ending paradox, your only alternative is to interact with the environment and NPCs to find a way to prevent the conditions which permit your death. The game jumps around from the present day to the 1580s, the 1970s, and around 1902, taking you through different periods and in some cases introducing you to characters and allowing you to change the outcomes of their lives, particularly between the 1970s and the present day, though your efforts can have sweeping changes in characters when you go back to the furthest past.
The choice of having a time limit for play works particularly well here -- and at half an hour, it's a good-sized chunk but not so long that it's difficult to fit these into even a busy schedule. Saving can only occur after you've succeeded at one of these chunks, which works well to prevent the player from leaving himself in a position where succeeding is impossible². It also subtly pressures the player to keep moving and to explore quickly, but gives one an opportunity to explore the narrative's possibility space fully if one so desires. In the initial sections, I felt this time pressure very tightly and rushed to get things done, but as I grew to have a mental model of the town of Lebensbaum and where all the salient points of interest were on the map, navigation became quicker and easier and this time pressure wasn't at all severe; furthermore, the amount of the town available to traverse grows over time as the story opens up.
One design choice which works quite poorly is that time traveling is limited by resource gathering. There are, in each time line, several places where you might find these "orbs" which power the ability to freely move back and forth in time -- each transition takes up an orb, and I believe you can carry up to seven of them (represented by a meter, not by items in an inventory³). Though I realize this exists to be taken away in the storyline when your actions come into tension with the antagonist's goals, I nonetheless found this needlessly restrictive and overly "game-y". Since the player will always have at least one time orb to travel to where the narrative needs him to go, it's possible to travel to any time period with that orb, even if it might not be possible to get back to the present from there due to limited resources. Therefore, the developers had to script and build those timelines anyway, since a player might choose to go there, or find another way to limit those visits. I would have far preferred simply eliminating that mechanic; it didn't really goad me to explore to find more orbs, and it existed only to limit my freedom of movement, which was already somewhat limited by time.
One last word about the narrative: by the end of the game, I found myself somewhat ambivalent about how it would all turn out. At one point in the game, you are required to make a decision which appears to potentially change who two people can actually be (one woman is an ancestor, and the other becomes your love interest). The fact that these were interchangeable seemed very strange to me -- and indeed, although I knew I was making a choice that would have some sort of strange implication on my experience, it left me a little cold. These choices weren't really interesting; the relationships between the protagonist and these women were simply too thin to care one way or the other, and the results of one choice or another didn't seem all that dire. Branching storylines can be tough this way -- and in the case of Shadow of Destiny, where the ending can change at the very last moment, there's a complete lack of inevitability to the final outcome, and therefore it didn't really resonate with me.
That said, in the end Shadow of Destiny was a really nice model for small-scale development, limiting technical and artistic scope with some smart choices and delivering a neat twist on the adventure game formula, and I'm glad I finally finished it.
¹The first time I attempted to play this game, I somehow missed this bit of information, and found myself wandering the town of Lebensbaum until I ran Eike into another timeline version of himself and caused the game to end. While I understand players who scoff at objectives and the hand-holding that goes on with many modern games, I have to point out that the alternative is someone who picks up your game, misses some vital clue in the initial rush of a substantial amount of information overload, gets frustrated, and never picks up the game again. Striking a balance and offering the player hints when he goes astray for a long time is one of the principal design issues that face the traditional adventure game -- how long is too long to be frustrated?
²This is, of course, not the only good option here. One could allow for saves at any point, which is itself a not insignificant challenge, though quite manageable. At that point, however, there would have to be the option to restart a time-slice from the beginning, which involves both instructional challenges -- you must communicate this ability to the player -- and of course, additional development time to support both save-anywhere and resettability. The solution they went for here is both less complicated and less expensive, and is probably entirely the right one for them.
³The game departs from more traditional adventure games in that it has no inventory management at all. Puzzles are typically navigated by being at the right place at the right time, or by picking things up when you know just what you'll do with them. I like that it avoids the more obscure inventory and pixel-hunting puzzles of its Western brethren.
September 10, 2012
Difficulty at the End of the PlayStation 1 Era
Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been going back and playing through games from my back catalog that I bought and either never finished, or in some cases, never even started¹. I wrote about JRPGs and grinding and Metal Gear Solid back in April, and I finished a couple more games from the PlayStation 1 era over the summer that didn’t offer enough to warrant their own posts.
One of the more popular posts on this blog in the past was one about “Managing Difficulty” -- it was reposted over to GamaSutra and so it got some notice. In any case, I picked up a couple of techniques from a couple of the games I played recently that I thought were pretty useful and worth mentioning as additional approaches for mucking about with game difficulty. I’ll just add them as new bullet points as if they appeared in the original list.
- Give your players free extra lives before particularly difficult challenges and reduce the penalty for death. This one comes from Ape Escape, one of the first games for the PlayStation to incorporate the dual shock controller into actual game mechanics. As an industry we’ve moved away from the “lives” approach to design, a holdover from arcades and their three-minute playtimes, but in the PlayStation 1 era they were very much in force. In Ape Escape, level pickups reset whenever you die, because the expectation is that you might be coming into the level under-prepared. In one of the memorable later levels, a new enemy was introduced around a particularly difficult section of environmental navigation. The designers were kind enough to place a power-up for an extra life just at the beginning of this section, and when you’d die, you’d respawn right at the point where you’d pick up that extra life, which would respawn along with you. It made what might have otherwise been a really painful episode retain its challenge and yet provide the player with the welcome ability to iterate quickly on that challenge, rather than burning through lives and having to get that far into the level again on some later playthrough.
- Reset health at narrative beats. Fear Effect 2 is a quite challenging game, so I wouldn’t typically think of it as something that manages difficulty particularly well, but one good element of its difficulty was that at many points in the game, the currently played² character’s health would reset, typically associated with a narrative beat such as a dramatic change of location or gameplay challenge. As a player, this meant that I never worried that I was going to get to a point where I quite literally couldn’t continue owing to the lack of sufficient health to get through particular challenges. While the game was fiendishly difficult at spots -- I nearly rage-quit in frustration once or twice -- I always knew that I had come into a particular challenge with the tools to get through it and could trade off health as a resource because I knew it would likely be replenished before long. While it didn’t do a good job telegraphing when this would occur, you could sort of trust that it would before too long and get a feel for the narrative rhythm which accompanied these shifts in location or character.
Since finishing the rest of my PlayStation 1 library I’ve moved on to my PlayStation 2 library, and have finished a couple of early titles in that generation. I hope to come back and post about those soon.
¹Indeed, fixing this defect in my consumer habits is largely what’s behind my motivation to go back and play or finish these games. I have dozens of games I bought and never finished and a disconcerting percentage of those I never played a minute of. This little project is keeping me from doing the same with all new games. Sure, I'll miss a few new games as they come out, but if they are really interesting I'll be able to catch up with them at some point in the future. I've never been able to keep pace with new releases, anyway.
²Fear Effect 2 features the player controlling four characters in a story arc, each of which has a specific feel to his or her combat, though all play basically the same on a fundamental level. It allows for a bit richer storyline, and was something we did for much the same reasons in Star Wars: Starfighter, though there we also felt that multiple characters coming together was very “Star Warsy”.
April 17, 2012
Aesthetics: The Grind
Lately I've played a couple of JRPGs which enable the player to grind at any point in the game to improve party stats and make for easier short-term play. It was only this morning, playing a bit of a third JRPG about which I'll blog more when I finish, I came to appreciate the aesthetics behind grinding for experience.
Often, in the first hours of play of these sorts of games is an exploratory time -- the player is just learning the mechanics of combat, whether it has a real-time aspect or contains limit breaks that can be unlocked, learning the most effective attacks or spells of the various party members, exploring the experience and leveling skill trees. This is a time where no single strategy has yet been chosen, and where grinding may not even feel like grinding to the eager new player; it's a time when I'm often excited by and truly getting lots of enjoyment just from the first blush of these encounters. Any extra random encounters here are often welcomed, at least by me, and aren't seen as any kind of chore. There's value here, too, in getting a sense for how frequent one can expect random encounters and the sorts of rewards and challenge they may bring. It's a time of tentative exploration of the basic combat mechanics that the player will face.
As one approaches the mid-game, the grind is a somewhat more practical matter -- the player can modulate his own level of challenge, or develop capabilities in characters who may not have been his initial first choices as primary party members, in an attempt to deepen the bench, as it were. The game is less exploratory at this time, but deeper aspects of play may require more playtime to understand or even to acquire, as with skills that take a certain amount of experience to unlock or use. A certain amount of random encounters will still occur, as is their nature, but fundamentally they can be minimized if the player so chooses since he's more familiar with the map and the controls. Random encounters don't pose much of a threat at this stage, but the player may have unlocked areas that provide a greater challenge, so grinding really is just another tool in his toolbox.
At the end of the game, however, the player has basically exhausted the extents of the combat systems -- he has, at this point, explored every corner of the battle mechanics that has interested him or has been largely required by play. Here the grind is undertaken almost entirely tactically to raise skills to the point of being able to defeat the game's final challenges, those often multi-stage or multi-step battles of increasing difficulty that so often cap JRPGs. Here, the better the player, the better the understanding of just how much extra effort into additional power-leveling will be required to surmount these final challenges.
When the player perfectly matches that growth curve, the final challenges of the game will approach the sublime as the player has just enough power to surmount them. This is when, at its best, the player is judging exactly what the game will demand of him to its thinnest margin -- after hours and hours of play, additional random encounters feel unnecessary and only delay the final payoff of those final moments, those final victories. The truly attentive player will squeeze through these last battles by the very skin of his characters' teeth, so near to death that it seems a humongous victory.
In my recent JRPG play, I didn't quite attain that level of understanding, though in Final Fantasy VII I came close, having only to grind a little bit as I took on that final battle, failing once. Final Fantasy Tactics, though, I completely misjudged, returning out to the world's map to grind several times to meet subsequent challenges. Both grinds will stick with me for a long time.
April 10, 2012
Sustaining Interest in MGS
I spent a little more time thinking about how Metal Gear Solid worked its magic on me recently; my post yesterday didn't really capture how the game worked its aesthetic on me, so I thought I'd try again today. I stand by everything I said in that post, but it just doesn't really get at the rhythm of the game that worked so well for me.
What really made MGS so effective wasn't just the pacing of its elements, but the rhythm and interplay between stealth, boss battle, exposition, and communication with the team. Although this last is really just another form of narrative, it's nonetheless generally initiated by the player, and provides a mechanism for slowing down the pace and also looking for suggestions or hints as to enemy weaknesses.
I felt the most appreciation for this rhythm in the battle with Gray Fox. I had had the lead-up animation to set the stage (complete with quivering dead guy in the hallway, and then Otacon getting chased into the closet). Next up was the beginning of the battle with Gray Fox, which stymied me for a time -- while I learned his methods and got pretty good at avoiding him, it felt like my shots on him were doing next to no damage. So I called up "The Master" on my Codec and got some tips -- switch to hand-to-hand! Eventually, through many attempts, I bested him, using the opportunities of him regrouping in the corner and talking at me to try and think about what I'd do next. After the battle was at last won, I had exposition with Otacon to work through to think about the next step. Terrific, terrific rhythm of combat.
The other time I most appreciated the rhythm was when it seemed to be gone -- fighting Liquid Snake atop the Metal Gear, there was a fairly brief cutscene after and no opportunity to consult my Codec. Then it went straight to another big action scene as I tried to escape the building as the gunner on the Jeep driven by Meryl. While I wasn't really bothered by this section, as I knew I had to be approaching the end, the rhythm of environmental stealth/comms/cutscenes/battles was nonetheless noticeably different to me, and highlighted the importance of that rhythm in maintaining my excitement throughout the game. This is how it plays out in my memory, in any case, though I know it's not entirely accurate -- that last Jeep ride out of the building felt far too long after the hand-to-hand battle which preceded it.
Other modern games do a good job maintaining a similar rhythm; I've seen it in the Uncharted series and God of War as well. But the agency of being able to step aside for a moment to converse with your team isn't something that I've seen in many other games, and it's a great tool to allow players to moderate their own gaming rhythm, not to mention a low-cost one. I expect it to return in the sequels, but I'd love to see similar mechanisms elsewhere in games, both to widen the cast and to give me an opportunity to make my own breathing room.
April 09, 2012
I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid
When I received a PlayStation 2 for Christmas from my then employer, LucasArts, there weren't a lot of launch titles that held my interest, save SSX, so I asked around for recommendations from the last generation that might be of interest, since the system was backwards compatible. Many suggested Metal Gear Solid as one of the finest games ever made.
When I first tried it out a dozen or so years ago, I really didn't care for it -- I really enjoyed the systemic stealth aspect, but I complained to friends about the individual boss battles, and they made it clear to me that there would be more of that coming. I stuck with it for a while, though, until I had an encounter with Sniper Wolf I simply couldn't surpass. I got frustrated, put the game down, and never returned to it.
A few years ago my friend Tim Longo wrote up his playthrough of the series¹. I can remember being there when we all first saw the game... I was working on what would become Star Wars: Starfighter at the time. His return to the whole series was in some ways an inspiration for me returning to unfinished games on my shelves.
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the plot, though my overriding feeling about it was that I truly appreciated both its detail and its ultimately anti-war stance. (The bit about Decoy Octopus impersonating the DARPA Chief, and the three-day-old body was particularly inspired, because I puzzled over it just as Snake did.) In a way, the nuclear paranoia intersecting with a terrorist act is particularly prophetic of the paranoiac society in which we now live; these themes resonate even fourteen years on, even if modern players would be put off by the low polygon models. With regards to the narrative, I also appreciated the idea of a team of people backing up this lone agent, giving the sense that he wasn't alone in there. I found the frequent focus on Meryl's polygonal hip sway and "wiggle" a little less endearing.
The play holds up terrifically -- doling out elements at a reasonable pace but making them really pay off by reinforcing them with the narrative. Although certain parts felt like unnecessary lengthening (such as returning back through most of the first half of the game to retrieve a sniper rifle to face Sniper Wolf, or the second torture session with Revolver Ocelot), I generally felt propelled forward even when I was dying frequently.
Around the time I was finishing up with MGS, the New York Times Magazine had a "riff" lamenting the fall of the Hollywood action movie, which reached its greatest heights in the 1980s, and which has been supplanted by unsurprising CGI-laden films for the most part ever since, in a long decline². But an audience looking for those sorts of films should instead turn to games: when Solid Snake downs Liquid Snake's Hind helicopter, he quips, "That'll take care of the cremation." Pitch perfect, as is Liquid's frequent return, just like Die Hard's Karl (Alexander Gudonov). Hollywood action films didn't go away... they just went somewhere we can experience them more viscerally.
I have the Metal Gear sequels on my shelves, and I'll get to them eventually. I'm very much looking forward to them.
¹I had to track down Tim's posts via the Wayback Machine, which makes me think he's abandoned his blog (or at least, forgotten to pay off the domain name registrar or whatever). I hope he'll come back to blogging at some point, I enjoyed giving him a hard time.
²I think this winter's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a welcome counter to that, but even so, it was no Die Hard.
March 25, 2012
I Should Have Finished... Final Fantasy Tactics
I can still remember the first time I discussed Final Fantasy Tactics with my colleagues at LucasArts. Chris Corry, lead programmer on Star Wars: Starfighter, had gone to a GameStop or similar to purchase some older PS1 games for our new PS2s, which had been given us by the company for Christmas. He had picked out Final Fantasy Tactics on the recommendation of Andrew Kirmse, and when he got it up to the register the young clerk tried to warn him off of it¹, saying, "Dude, you might not want that one. It's like... chess."
We had a good laugh at that, because this young guy completely misread his customer; why should we be concerned that a video game evokes one of the deepest Western board game experiences? Indeed, this was a selling point. Of course, the game is only like chess in its tactical battle aesthetic; the whole experience is quite something else, and I'll get to that presently.
I don't know why I never got very far with Final Fantasy Tactics when I first started playing it, a dozen years or so ago. When I looked on the memory card for saves this time, I discovered an 8th level character save, which likely represented fewer than ten hours in the game, though I didn't check. I blew it away and started from scratch.
The genre, for those not in the know, is generally referred to as the "tactical RPG" or "strategy RPG" and this particular entry was preceded by games like Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, as well as many others (Fire Emblem, which continues to this day, is also well-known and dates back at least to the SNES and perhaps the NES, as are the Disgaea games, which launched in the PS2 era). There's a storyline and characters which accompany the role-playing choices of different character types and builds; combat is resolved in turn-based tactical grids.
A dizzying array of choices faces the player of Final Fantasy Tactics, which distinguishes it quite substantially from chess, though indeed any individual tactical battle is chess-like, because during battle, the capabilities of each combatant are fixed -- varied, certainly, but fixed for the course of that single combat. However, it differs substantially from chess in that its central focus is not so much on the fight for control of certain space on the board but for the elimination of the entirety of the opposing set of pieces. Though there are occasional story battles in which one character is the goal of the combat, and in these cases defeating that single combatant wins the round, in most cases there is no enemy "king".
Instead, the focus of the game is really on the development of certain capabilities, drawn from RPG commonplaces such as healing, melee combat, ranged combat, summonings, elemental magics, and the like. As the player uses his the capabilities of his pieces on the board to defeat other pieces on the board, the pieces gain strength and additional capabilities.
At the heart of this is the "job" system, whereby individual pieces can be extended into different classes of character and thereby different capabilities in tactical combat. Various jobs require certain levels of other jobs to be available to that character; interestingly, the space of available options to the player is unknown at the outset, and jobs must be discovered by moving about in this space, trying on different jobs and leveling them enough to unlock others. When I ended the game, my stable of pieces was almost entirely in jobs of which I was unaware when I started playing. The game therefore marries a core tactical component with a substantial exploration mechanic, which is certainly one of its strengths.
The accompanying weakness, however, is that pursuing various jobs and capabilities through "grinding" combats thins out the pleasure of overcoming its more difficult story missions. At various points, the game can be moved further towards its greater difficulties by engaging in special story combats, which typically involve greater challenge against pieces with superior skills or gear to those available to the player. However, it's almost always the case that these are too difficult to surmount when initially encountered, and so the player must spend time wandering about drawing random encounters to level up his pieces. These randomly generated combats rarely contain much of interest, as the pieces fought are intentionally weaker to permit such grinding.
So, in the end, it's much less like chess and much more of an exploration of a wide possibility space that influences individual bouts. One distinguishing characteristic of chess is that players can be ranked against one another fairly straightforwardly, by direct play over a number of matches. But it's impossible to say with any certainty what makes a "good" player of Final Fantasy Tactics; although I've just finished the game, I frequently found myself making tactical errors even into the final battles, the last set of which I had to make a run at three or four times.²
I loved playing the game, though at a certain point I had to completely turn off my brain when it came to the story-line, which sought after the pleasures of political intrigue and couldn't remotely deliver. The final cutscenes try to resolve how it is we came to learn this story -- the writings of a character within the story who was burned at the stake, we learn, as a result of telling us all this -- and we also are treated to a view of a homicide whereby one of the characters we spent time journeying with kills another. It was a bizarre way to end the story, and I suspect they were ham-handedly seeking a depth of meaning they simply couldn't achieve. Story aside, I'm completely happy with having gone back and played through this; the aesthetic of exploring a vast possibility space and applying those skills one finds to various challenges is a terrific one.
¹This was in a time when you could go to a GameStop or Electronics Boutique and get an actual opinion of a game, not a constant upsell, or quest for pre-orders, or a suggestion that you buy the used copy and save yourself a few bucks. These are the reasons I no longer go to these stores, though even if they weren't so obnoxious the convenience of Amazon Prime would likely still win.
²In many cases in the story battles, one battle will immediately follow the other, allowing the player to save between them. Games have definitely gotten easier on this point -- had I simply saved into a single save slot, I would have quickly reached an impasse where I'd be unable to win the next battle, but would also have been unable to move back to a point where I could grind to improve my scores. Game design has thankfully evolved away from such mistakes... had I sunk thirty or forty hours into the game and found myself unable to finish it, I think I would have snapped the disc in half.
February 06, 2012
I Should Have Finished... Final Fantasy VII
Well, fifteen years and five days have passed, and I finally got around to finishing Final Fantasy VII, the game which more than any other gave prominence to the Japanese-style RPG here in the West. I started it twice in the last fifteen years and never got very far with it, maybe only to the point of meeting Aeris each time. For whatever reason, it just didn't grab me at the time.
I took notes on my playthrough, though not nearly to the exhaustive level of my notes on Crash Bandicoot; there's already plenty of writing out there on this game and I don't think there's much I have to add. There are encounters with various enemies who manipulate the variables that govern combat, assign various buffs and penalties, etc. There's a storyline, saving the world, and there are cutscenes used as rewards for completing specific battles. The only bits that were somewhat unexpected were the action sequences, which I didn't recall, though they have been a feature of some of the other games. The tactical elements outside of battle largely involve determining what abilities to install into your characters; the mechanics of that weren't immediately apparent but gradually occurred to me as the game progressed (though far too late for me to benefit too much from this understanding, which was a little frustrating).
For me, the emotional core of the story isn't actually the much-referred-to death of Aeris (oops, spoilers!) but instead the touching way Tifa kept Cloud together afterwards. She is the keeper of his history.
The end of the game... well, it wasn't my favorite. It was frustrating enough to see short cutscenes every time I summoned Bahamut or what-have-you. But the Supernova video? That's insane... not only is that cutscene set in our solar system, so setting the game on Earth contrary to my expectations. That's fine and dandy, I guess, if weird; but the thing is nearly a minute long. I know that by Final Fantasy IX, they had made those long mid-battle cutscenes less frequent via an option, but it is sorely lacking here and you have to wonder how they justified such large non-interactive elements in the midst of what is the core play.
That said, it was worthwhile playing it through to the end. For my part, the story in FF IX was actually more effective and affecting, but I can see why this would have resonated at the time.
March 11, 2011
GDC 2011 - Late Wednesday to Early Thursday
Here’s the second in a series of posts covering what I saw at GDC 2011, covering from mid-Wednesday to mid-Thursday. I’m going to finish the “reporting” posts and then hopefully return with a post to tie up the kind of “themes” I was pursuing at the conference and what I learned along those themes.
After the microtalks, I walked over to Frank Lantz’ talk on “Go, Poker, and the Middle Way”, which involved an overview of the tensions in Go and a fairly personal reflection of time Lantz spent getting to know the game of poker. With respect to Go, which I gather Lantz hasn’t spent as much time with, he spoke of high-level play being a reflection of wisdom and experience, the interplay between concerns of a global nature and a local nature¹. Turning to poker, he spoke in-depth about his personal experience with the game, talking about how poker will break you, and that that is part of any deep experience with the game. He spoke of how “if poker is a meal, failure is an essential ingredient” and said that it’s not a simple thing that in-depth poker play changes how you view the world, that uncertainty becomes a kind of knowledge, and he intimated that he finds that sublime².
From talk of failure in poker I went to the “Failure Workshop”, where various indies talked about past failures and the lessons thereby learned. These were kind of “live postmortems” with personal reflections about how things went wrong, from the high profile failure of Stardock’s Elemental: Art of Magic, to unreleased work by the likes of Ron Carmel, Chris Hecker, and others. Chris Hecker identified the root issue he faced with his own failure, which was a fear of game design (he found many ways to avoid game design in development of his own failed title, including speaking at conferences, finding multiple technical solutions to problems), and which he has been attempting to address with Spy Party.
For my last seminar on Wednesday, I took in Kent Hudson’s talk about player-driven stories. Hudson presented a good talk last year on how the AI evolved on Bioshock 2, and how they addressed shortcomings in their development process mid-stream to deliver on the gameplay they really needed. Ultimately, I was a little let down by the talk; it seemed like it started to build a case for how to put together truly player-driven stories, and then came to a point where it seemed like “magic” had to happen³. I did think he made good points about story bits overall, that you can present story in some smaller, unique ways and that if you choose to go that way, you really need to “own” it -- really delivering the best you can in the area you choose, whether that be stylized still frames (like a comic) or the right kind of voice-over or what-have-you.
Thursday morning started off with a bang, with Eric Chahi presenting a post-mortem of Another World, a highly regarded game for many4. It was a really personal reflection of successful development, starting with a statement that for Chahi, “the nourishment of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves.” He described how he established his constraints early on and improvised within those constraints. From a technical standpoint, the game was built to be run with an interpreted language -- this made for the quick turn-around that permitted inspiration to flower. Chahi was really interested in the flow and rhythm of films, and he tried to replicate that rhythm in the rise and fall of action in the game. Furthermore, how scenes played out often reflected his personal feelings at the time, especially the loneliness he felt as a lone developer on this early title. This was a really terrific talk and it further amplified my interest in Chahi’s upcoming title with Ubisoft, Dust.
I'll pick up next time with another old-timer, Chris Crawford, the founder of the now 25-year-old conference.
¹As it happens, I was reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shortly thereafter, which features Go analogies somewhat heavily between two Japanese officials.
²Watch that word, “sublime”, it’s going to come back when I discuss Moriarty’s talk which was on Friday.
³Perhaps this just means a “significantly advanced technology” at this point, but the two have been epigrammatically linked as indistinguishable from each other.
4I admit that I haven’t played it, but I intend to rectify that when the game becomes available for the iPad, which Chahi announced late in the talk. It’s one I always wanted to play but never found time for.
March 07, 2011
GDC 2011 - Wednesday, Part 1
This is the first in a short series of posts about last week’s GDC in San Francisco. I’m not sure how many posts as yet, but probably no more than three or four.
I came to GDC early this year to participate in some pre-GDC stuff. Game night with friends Saturday night, pre-GDC Board Games on Sunday night, and then Monday and Tuesday caught up on the city, including a visit to SFMOMA, which is one of my favorite museums in the world, and a little time with a friend from Double Fine. Tuesday night, too, was time for friends, with dinner with some great friends from Sonoma County and a visit to the bookstore with them.
Wednesday morning opened early with a keynote from Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. It started well, showing trends in the industry over the past few years, and also recapped a little of his personal history with games and game development. Unfortunately, this was interrupted with a visit from Reggie Fils-Aime, who came up to the stage to sell us all on the 3DS. It wasn’t what I had come for, and although I wasn’t entirely surprised, I did feel like I was sold a bit of a false bill of goods by the lecture title. Iwata returned to the stage with his concerns for the future, which were loosely as follows:
- Craftsmanship: Iwata is concerned about game quality, as we all should be.
- Talent development: Modern game design and development has become more and more about specialization¹, and Iwata feels a well-rounded, balanced person is where the really great work comes from. He asked rhetorically, “Where will the next generation of master developers come from?”
- Price pressure: This one was a little jarring, coming as it did while Jobs prepared to announce the iPad2 literally next door to Moscone North. Iwata is concerned that it will be difficult to provide experiences like the Zelda games should prices be driven low, and that game quality will suffer. I could, and may, write a whole post about this, but my quick gloss would be that the landscape is changing; we need either to provide an experience which justifies its cost or bend to the current environment.
Next up was Clint Hocking, who tackled the origin of meaning. I’m looking forward to his slides, since over the course I took few notes (knowing that the slides will be forthcoming). Hocking subscribes to the MDA Framework (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics), about which much has been written, and he used it as a means to examine the potential sets of meanings which came from his own games. It was a really terrific talk, and I look forward to thinking it over further once the slides appear on his site. I spoke with Clint later in the day and commended him on what I felt was likely to be the finest talk I saw this year, and he cautioned me that it was early yet -- he was right about that, and more on that when I discuss Friday’s talks.
Around lunchtime was the GDC Microtalks, which I thoroughly enjoyed last year. This year was no different -- the format is that each speaker presents 20 slides which are visible for 16 seconds; all presentations are meant to touch on a particular theme, which this year was “Say What You Play.” Though I took notes on each speaker and enjoyed each talk, I particularly took things away from:
- Michael John, who spoke about “playing” with games by working with his daughter on building one with Scratch, something that I’d like to do with my own kids
- Jamin Warren, who urged game players to talk with non-players about what experiences they’ve had, to tell stories to encourage others to give it another look. It called to mind the gentlemen at the Radio Lab podcast and radio show, who have made similar points about the importance of storytelling to changing public perception about science.
- Asi Burak, who suggested that maybe our immense financial success has caused us to cease challenging ourselves. I’m not certain that’s true, but it gave me pause to think about it, and
- Brandon Boyer, chairman of the IGF this year, who exhorted us to speak more to the human condition, to delve into sincerity, to bring into existence what we must.²
Well, I’ve got to get up and out to work, so this will have to do for the first post. I’m about halfway through the first day, so at this rate it’ll be about six posts, but I suspect it will actually be fewer. In any case, we’ll see, join me over the next few days (and in the RSS feeds if you prefer).
¹Particularly true of programming, but not just true of programming.
²For my own small efforts in this area, see “Personal Games” in the sidebar.
December 12, 2010
What I've been working on a couple of years
Glad to have it out there. Can't wait for everyone to get a chance to see more and to have it in their hot little hands come 11.11.11
December 08, 2010
What I want for my next dashboard update
I don't often ask for new features in my console itself, because a) no one's listening and b) I rarely have cause for complaint. But I had an idea last night that, while it could be implemented in individual games, makes far more sense to be integrated by the platforms themselves.
As a gamer with lots of responsibilities and other interests, one of the things that can really be a drag is that I often have trouble keeping track of the context of a particular game I might be playing. What I mean is, while games can be really good at keeping track of specifically authored side goals, they're not really good at helping me keep track of little bits of ephemera I might like to return to later.
Take Mass Effect, which I'm finally playing now¹. On a couple of occasions I've come across planets that I land on and in the course of exploration I'll come across items that I can't salvage yet because my electronics skill is too low. This is often the case with collectibles or other investigations, or will come up in games such as Zelda or Metroid where you can't quite get to a particular location yet but once you have a special ability later on, you'll be able to reach new areas in places you've already been.
I don't mind that mechanic at all; I find it kind of interesting to see how your perspective on a location changes once you're able to navigate it in new ways and such. What I really want, however, is a simple system to remember those places, since it's likely that there will be some extended period of time between the session of play I'm ending and my next opportunity to investigate those areas. Sure, I could write it down, but the piles of paper I have hanging around my house and desk and whatnot are already sufficiently depressing without starting to add to-do lists for the various games I'm playing².
All the modern consoles have system-level software that is running in the background; this is why you can hit your dashboard button or the PS button on the controller at any point and have a standard interface come up instantaneously. My 360 has a headset that I could theoretically use on Xbox Live to communicate with friends or in multiplayer matches, but as I'm not too interested in the culture I might thereby encounter, it mostly lies around gathering dust³.
What I'm looking for is device-level functionality that lets me record little clips of audio and associate it with a game, ideally with the option to attach a screen capture to help me remember what I was doing when I made the note. The user experience would basically be, 1) Press system menu button, 2) Navigate menu to record (preferably saved between presses of the button, so that step 2 needs only be done the first time) and 3) Record my little clip.
Retrieving the data could be just as simple. Currently, my Xbox 360 lets me know what my friends are doing when I start up the device by putting little notifications in well-known spaces on the screen. Similarly, I'd expect the system software to let me know, when I started a game up, that I had voice annotations associated with that game just as a reminder, and allow me to navigate quickly to them, paging through little thumbnails and allowing me to delete them, etc.
It's not all that different from how I code, when I'm working on little projects at home, or even in the day job. I write comments in at the point I was working and expect the editor to remember my place so that it's the first thing I see when I start up again (or, at worst, it's quite visible in a diff browser).
This functionality could, of course, be a social affair. There's no reason why I couldn't share these annotations with friends, sort of in the mode of Demon Souls. And further, I could see a place for DLC whereby game developers can provide downloadable audio cues which are attached to their games, in the vein of what Valve has been doing for years, starting with I believe Episode One of Half-Life 24. Think of that as a device-supported RiffTrax.
I've long lamented the inability of games to provide me with good information about what objectives I was pursuing when I saved days or weeks or even months before; having a built-in and easy-to-use mechanism that I could use across all the games I play on a given platform would be terrific.
Sorry not to post more frequently; I have a few more essay ideas and thoughts that I've been noodling with over the last few weeks, but nothing quite ready for prime-time. I tend to write long-ish posts, and setting aside regular time to do so hasn't been easy, with all the various demands on my time. But I may have time to finish up a couple between now and the New Year, so check back. Cheers.
¹My backlog is large.
²Generally speaking, I have games going on three or four platforms, DS, PC and a couple of consoles. This doesn't help with the "extended time between sessions" problem.
³I gather that the PS3 has a similar, Bluetooth-based device for voice communication.
4It's also something we toyed with in Jedi Starfighter; we had videos of two of the levels in the game with overdubbed commentary by the game's creative director, Project Leader, and the mission designer for each of the levels. End plug.
September 13, 2010
Narrative Accommodation and Gameplay Growth
Note: this article contains spoilers both about GTA IV and Metroid: Other M. The spoilers are from relatively early in each game, I'm a long way from finishing them. Fair warning given, though.
Recently I’ve been playing both GTA IV and Metroid: Other M ¹, two games which have asked me to re-examine my identification with their protagonists. In one case, it was a little unsettling and in the other, downright disturbing.
From the opening moments of GTA IV, I identified Niko as a striving immigrant who was looking for a new life, running from a violent, war-torn past. I suspected he had done and seen things which left him damaged, and I looked forward to negotiating a storyline which threatened this humanity by dragging him back through that past. His relationship with his cousin appeared to provide a likely catalyst to the action.
Here was a character I felt I could identify with, and through this lens of seeking a better, nobler life had a historical resonance and genuine appeal. Perhaps it was a recent viewing of The Godfather Part II that made me see parallels with immigrants from nearly a century ago.
Before long, however, Niko was killing a low-life boss who had put the moves on his cousin’s girl. This was extreme but could maybe, with a little squinting, be made to fit with my existing thoughts on the character. But then came the confession -- Niko was in Liberty City not for a shot at redemption, but instead a shot at revenge.
Now, having only put a dozen to twenty hours into the game at that point, I didn’t have a lot invested, but it was still enough to be a little off-putting. I played a little bit beyond that, and haven’t been racing back to the game. It’s not even that I don’t enjoy a good revenge fantasy; I love pulp fiction novels, Kill Bill, kung fu and Hong Kong films, those sorts of things. They could have started with the revenge story and it would have made sense to have Niko laying low, learning the ropes, getting to know the city and making contacts before he made a run at whomever. This way, I’m left wondering what else he’s hiding from me, this character with whom I’m supposed to spend so much time.
But the bigger narrative problem has by far been Metroid: Other M; others have pointed out its narrative flaws. I haven’t finished the game by a long stretch yet, having put in only a handful of hours (three or four), but already I find myself chafing at the character strictures they’re putting on heroine Samus Aran.
The problem here, as far as I can tell though, is purely narrative. I’ve come to identify with a certain set of traits in Samus -- independence, stoicism, fierceness among them -- and this storyline simply strips those away entirely. I’m no enormous fan, having come to the series starting with the Metroid Prime trilogy and also playing through Metroid Fusion on the GBA, but with the number of hours I had put in, I had definitely formed a fairly strong attachment to a certain type of character. Certainly, this character was largely in my mind; the discovery elements that I had to interpret narratively in the Prime series were almost entirely about the departed civilizations on the worlds I was visiting. But she was no less firmly placed there for all of that; indeed, she was perhaps more firmly placed there because I had identified with her characteristics through hours of repeated action and life behind the visor.
Formally speaking, the game isn’t much changed from earlier games, at least thus far. Samus arrives with few powers and gains them over time. But what doesn’t work is that exploration and discovery aren’t part of this process -- always before it was finding different suits, beams, and missile upgrades, and it reinforced the spatial exploration with constant rewards that allowed you to explore even more.
I had viewed Samus as independent; now she is subservient, owing to a former relationship with a former commander. I had viewed Samus as stoically accepting the battles she had to face, in a militaristic, Marcus Aurelius sort of way, the warrior heroic in the face of death; now she mewls and remembers pasts in which she was emotional about her relationship with him and with a Metroid³. I had viewed Samus as fierce, adjusting her combat style and approach to an area based on the arsenal we had built up together over time, missiles aplenty from finding nearly every power-up.
The accommodation here is simply too much -- I am asked to cede my own independence, stoicism and fierceness. The role of the General might as well be called “Game Designer,” and Samus instead called “Player”, so direct is the dealing out of rewarding abilities. I am asked to cede my stoicism, and instead become emotionally involved in an anime-like storyline. I am asked to cede my own fierceness, and not use weapons I know Samus to have, only using what I am allowed.
I wonder what newcomers to the series will have to say, though I don’t know that I know of any. I do think that the game plays fairly well -- I’m still getting used to switching between different configurations of using the Wiimote, but it doesn’t feel terribly awkward. Visually I think it really looks like a 3D incarnation of something like Fusion (though much higher res, obviously); I think it looks really, really good.
But it’s really nagging at me, feeling as if the Game Designer has come along and told me I can’t play that character I liked to play, just as the General tells Samus when she can use what weapons. We’re still in synch, Samus and me. Just not with the character in Metroid: Other M. It might better have been called, Metroid: Other Samus.
Still planning on blogging once more about my first art game (and maybe a little about prototyping my second), as well as a few other things I've been working on. Subscribe to the feeds or check back; cheers.
¹As well as Little King’s Story, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and some PC indie titles. I do not have this kind of time. I don’t know how I am finding it.
²1UP and Destructoid also gave the game poor ratings, and Mitch Krpata mentions his story concerns on his blog.
³I know, WTF, right? Granted, I didn’t play *that* Metroid. Still, it doesn’t fit even remotely with my idea of the character.
September 12, 2010
Murder in Iambic Pentameter
I actually wasn't even sure I could lay hands on them, but as it turned out, I had most of them still around on an old back-up drive. It appears that the one in particular he was looking for was Murder in Iambic Pentameter; of the six, that's the one that's in the best shape from an archival standpoint. Because they were one-off games, I didn't take a lot of care in preserving the digital matter, and many of them aren't fully available -- in some cases, I don't even have all the printed matter, or the mysteries are incomplete because I finished them at my folks' house.
However, Iambic Pentameter was basically completely there, so I've gone ahead and converted those from Publisher to PDF, and thrown them up in a zip file.
It was written for 13 players,
- Shakespeare's ghost (typically the host)
- MacBeth (of the Scottish Play)
- Rosencrantz (of Hamlet)
- Guildenstern (likewise)
- Hamlet (yet again)
- Romeo (of Romeo and Juliet)
- Puck (of A Midsummer Night's Dream)
- Ophelia (of Hamlet)
- Desdemona (of Othello)
- Katherine (of The Taming of the Shrew)
- Lady MacBeth (of the Scottish Play)
- Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet)
I noticed while flipping through the texts that Puck is perhaps optional -- I think that guest was not 100% certain he could be there. There are instructions to other guests about how to instead tackle his accusations. I have no idea how well that will work, since I really don't remember. You could have one of your other actors play both parts as well (we had Hamlet portraying three different parts due to a sudden sickness which wiped out two guests).
If you prefer a more balanced cast in terms of gender, I remind you that performing against one's sex was a well-known and respected tradition in the time of the Globe ;)
A Readme.txt file is included in the zip archive to give some instructions as to how to print these and otherwise prepare them. It is fairly spoiler free, except that a few of the pieces of evidence require preparation, and so those clues will be available to the preparer. Not enough is disclosed, however, to piece together the particulars of the crime.
If you choose to download and put it on, go crazy, I'd love to hear back from you about how it went. Drink lots of wine, that'll help smooth over any rough bits -- I'm not a professional writer. I couldn't take money for these for myself, but if you feel like it's something you'd be willing to pay for, please take your loved one out to an evening of local theater instead. The theaters need the money more than I.
If there's sufficient interest, I'll try and put the others up online at some point, maybe one a month or so. I'm not going to put a ton of effort into restoring those that are partial, but I'm happy to provide them if I can find the materials.
September 09, 2010
It's Good to Be the King
On the advice of The Brainy Gamer’s podcasts and articles, I decided to pick up Little King’s Story from Amazon last week, and I’m really quite glad I did. The game is such a delight, and that’s really the only term for it, it’s really just delightful. It’s full of charm and quirky big-headed art and a cast of characters that draws on different elements¹.
The gameplay is a mix of something like a lighter version of Dark Cloud² and Pikmin. You don’t directly engage in combat as you try to take over the world, instead gathering a Royal Guard about your person and sending them into battle one at a time. You can only gather up a certain number of followers to take around the world with you, and your direct actions while in the field are largely strategic -- choosing a set of followers, such as a mix of soldiers and carpenters if you expect to go out and find a staircase to build. While followed, you can throw these followers out ahead of you to engage enemies, build staircases, and open up holes and things.
I’m coming to this game very late, and only through learning of it via the Brainy Gamer podcast³ back episodes; I don’t want to add much to what Michael Abbott and others have said. It’s such a lovely, quaint little game with charm oozing out of every byte. It's worth playing, and owing to relatively few titles breaking conventional molds on consoles, I think it's also worth picking up and supporting.
However, I’m always impressed when game designers find a little spot of what we who read Clint Hocking’s blog might call ludo-narrative resonance4, which to me often means finding room within your game’s fiction to reinforce constraints. In this case, the constraints were likely budget -- no one would look at this title and think it had a chance against something like a Halo in terms of sales. So, rather than providing the player with an easily accessible menu at any time to save the game or manage the kingdom’s assets, or even participate in the tutorial, the Little King has three Ministers who serve these functions.
Naturally, as they are important personages and not the hoi polloi the King trains into different functions from the idle riff-raff who are drawn to the Kingdom as you build homes and such, these Ministers are only available to the King when he sits upon his throne, which is situated in a closed, limited-rendering environment inside of the castle -- further, it’s a limited simulation, since none of the positions or current activities of those hoi polloi are currently visible, and thus needn’t be saved (for example) for the next session. The menus also only need to be rendered here, though admittedly they aren’t sufficiently complicated to be of real concern, and the tutorials are presented here in what is always (apparently) a safe environment. All narrative steps of importance seem also to take place in the throne room, so cutscenes can be managed in a single scene as interactions between the Ministers and the King himself.
All of that adds up to a nice bit of working within constraints, and doing so in such a way that the player hardly even notices, owing to its logic.
I’m really enjoying the game, and find myself returning to it again and again despite having a few games still in their packaging sitting on the shelf, and GTA IV to return to. Thanks again to Brainy Gamer for bringing it to my attention.
I should be back in the next few days with further thoughts about GTA IV, some more commentary on replaying Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and a final post about my art game (and maybe a little about the prototyping I’m doing on my next little indie game).
¹Your War Minister is a clear parody of the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote himself, and there is a cow who hangs about in your castle named Pancho, which contains echoes of Sancho Panza.
²The first one, with all the charm (and the terribly boring dungeons), not the sequel with so much more repetition (and terribly boring dungeons). While you don’t have to lay out your kingdom, you have the option of what “upgrades” you will purchase first, whether homes (which generate more citizens) or different training centers (which increase your abilities and unlock different areas on the map) or what-have-you (I paid for a florist... I have no idea what that will do for me).
³Highly recommended, by the way. I’ve only recently been listening to any podcasts, and I think that the Brainy Gamer one is my absolute favorite amongst gaming podcasts, which puts it in rarefied company, as my favorite podcast overall is This American Life.
4Strictly speaking, the better term would likely be consonance to play off of dissonance more directly, but I think the reinforcing they do makes resonance a reasonable term...
September 02, 2010
Vintage Game Club: First Thoughts
Earlier this week I was thrilled to receive Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for the Xbox from friends in the mail. I had bought the game for GameCube on release day, and at some point¹ loaned it out never to see it again. I’ve since played through the second “save point”, so I have played only 5 percent of the game; I have acquired the Dagger and learned about the rewind mechanic.
Immediately I was welcomed back with something about the game that I had intensely loved, and which was made more pertinent by the game’s ending -- the idea that you are listening to a story told by the protagonist, but that mistakes in playing the game are actually simply errors in the retelling of the story. This aesthetic also makes its way into the user interface (particularly the save system, where he’ll say things like “Next time I’ll resume from here”) and the idle animation, where he’ll occasionally say things like, “Shall I continue?”
The combat is still far from the star of the show -- I enjoy the acrobatic leaps over my enemies’ heads, but it’s definitely repetitive. It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy the combat, it just seems out of place with what I want from the game. I know that Ubisoft amped up the combat in the sequels, which is largely why I didn’t play them, and so it was a long drought between this game and the current-gen title, simply called Prince of Persia.
Even though I played this game only eight years ago, there were surprises when I returned to it. One very nice surprise was the addition of 5:1 surround -- when I had played it before, I had no surround set-up, and so the audio experience replaying it is significantly different and wonderful. The environment really comes alive; I’ve had one of those moments when a sound seemed to come from the left and behind me in my house, but turned out to be simply coming from the left rear speaker.
But the biggest surprise is how quaint some of the aesthetic choices seem now. For example, the camera changes that occur when you’re wall-running will often make fairly dramatic changes in the position of the camera, such as to watch the Prince from below, or from a very high angle apparently to accentuate the difficulty of parkour. It’s almost as if the developers are saying, “You get this, right? We’re running on a wall. A wall! That’s just crazy!” It takes me out of the moment-to-moment experience a bit when cameras are moved purely to accentuate the acrobatic nature of the Prince, rather than staying close and maintaining my flow.
Similarly, the post-combat animation where the Prince sheathes his sword on his back breaks both a potential aesthetic tension, in that one now knows that there aren’t further immediate threats, and flow, since it involves a camera change and a bit of time. It’s viewed from the front; the Prince adopts a slightly strange posture and keyframes into a sword-sheathed pose. While from a dynamics perspective it’s nice to know that the next threat will be of a platforming/parkour nature, it’s still disconcerting how it slows the pacing.
Those couple of “quaint” items really remind me of watching old television shows or old films, even from as late as the 1980s. We’ve moved to entertainments that move much more quickly to establish themselves -- whereas “going to the store” in an early film might involve a character exiting his apartment, getting in the car, jump-cutting to driving the car, and parking in the store parking lot, we’ve moved to putting that mental work on the audience by inference or implication -- nowadays we’ll simply jump to that character at the store, browsing for the meaningful thing that will show up later in the storyline.
These elements in PoP:TSoT feel unnecessary now, though I can’t remember finding fault with them before; indeed, I particularly remember certain camera jumps as accentuating the experience. But then, I hadn’t had the experience before, and so a little accentuation perhaps was warranted, to increase my game literacy, to be able to understand just how far the Prince could wall-run, for example, or to teach me what the distance looks like from below, so that when I encounter puzzles where I’m climbing up the walls in a sort of spiral pattern, I can have a sufficient mental model to be able to plan that navigation in advance.
In any case, it’s really terrific to visit with an old friend, and I’m really thankful to The Brainy Gamer for a framework that makes me want to join in and play it again. I look forward to the next several weeks of play.
¹This would have been in the last days of LucasArts, reboot #1, at the end of 2004 -- by my count they have downsized thrice more since then. My heart goes out to any who have been caught up in that this week.
August 28, 2010
On Being A Thug, II: Life in the Big City
Caveat lector: In the “thug” series, I’ll likely have spoilers in each post. I haven’t written this one, but I suspect as I play the game, I’ll simply drop in events as they occur to me while writing. The game has been out a couple of years, so that feels fair. You've been warned.
As a programmer, I look at the simulation of the drivers in the streets of Liberty City and I see a lot of bugs. There are far too many collisions -- Niko will be waiting at a stop light and he’ll be lightly rear-ended by the car behind him, just a tap, or a car up ahead will pull into a pedestrian, knocking him down and possibly even peeling out and fleeing afterwards. These seem strange to me -- they are completely out of proportion with my expectations of how frequent such events should be. I see in them mistakes, pathing that is failing, areas that maybe got less attention because players mostly don’t stop at stoplights in Grand Theft Auto games.
But as a gamer, I often assume, or try to assume, that everything that I see was a conscious choice, that this is how the game is meant to be. Certainly I realize that games are never really finished, but in its fourth incarnation sitting on the same simulation engine or more, I sort of expect that they have gotten the streets more or less like they want them to be.
What am I to make of it then? I find myself wondering whether the frequency of collisions and interactions¹ between cars and pedestrians is meant to replicate the immigrant experience for a Western viewer. A person who has seen many car crashes, or the aftermath thereof, might not really notice a single crash or bump an hour or day or what have you. But if you came from a small village in Eastern Europe, you might never have seen a car crash -- and so any car crash you might encounter in America might take on much larger dimensions.
This doesn’t really seem to make sense, though, with a character like Niko Bellic. After all, we know he was in a unit in a war, and ultimately we learn that he is looking for a man who might have betrayed him from that unit. He’s used to violence, and having cars crash into one another or pedestrians being run down in the street seems beneath his world-weariness.
That leaves me with another alternative, that the game instead is trying to create a culture or environment that is filled with a casual menace, or a casual violence, or a casual apathy about property, all of which might serve to reinforce the central mission of making the player control Niko as a thug. If you’re surrounded by these things, you find yourself more willing to participate in them.
For me, as essentially a new player to the series², I started the game not stealing cars. I’d direct Niko to borrow Roman’s -- after all, it was only a couple blocks’ walk. Then he might run a passenger around for him. Niko borrowed it to take a young woman, Michelle, on a couple of dates, had a nice time bowling and shooting pool. He’d take it easy through town using Roman’s car, stopping at stoplights, minding pedestrians. But even playing nice, with a date in the car, he might have an incident where he was rear-ended at a light and chewed out by the driver for not making way, or a would see a pedestrian being hit as a car up ahead got impatient. These things would get under Niko’s skin, a constant low-level source of stress.
Niko needed to work for Vlad, a low-level boss representing a bigger organization to whom Roman owed money. Now he was out being an enforcer, breaking windows, chasing guys down, and generally doing things that were on the wrong side of the law. And joining in with the rest of the city in not respecting property or rules or even life and liberty didn’t seem all that bad, at that point. Now, Niko’s likely to leave Roman’s apartment and walk to the nearest corner to grab a vehicle and go, ignore stop lights. Pedestrians are still off-limits; it hardly seems sporting to simply run down someone because they haven’t put themselves in a car for protection.
Vlad’s gone now, by the way, and Niko is working for someone else. Vlad crossed a line -- just because Niko’s cousin owes money, doesn’t mean you don’t treat him with honor if he’s paying it back. And as the man doing the work that pays those bills, Niko didn’t appreciate Vlad’s poaching on Roman’s woman.
¹Kind of a moderate word there, for what is often a fatal event for the pedestrian. I can almost see one of the characters copping an attitude and say, “Yeah, man, I just interacted all over yo’ ass.”
²As I mentioned previously, my prior experience was brief.
August 25, 2010
Death and Comedy
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” --various¹
Over the course of approximately a week I managed to play both Limbo and DeathSpank, and with the recent announcement that the DeathSpank sequel is shortly incoming, it seemed like a good idea to jot down my thoughts before too much time had passed.
What surprised me most about these games is how much I laughed in them, by which I mean what quantity of laughter each elicited. I expected to laugh quite a lot at DeathSpank, coming as it did from long-time comedy adventure game Ron Gilbert, and based on the foreboding atmosphere which began Limbo, I expected to laugh not at all. Pleasantly enough, my expectations were thoroughly turned on their heads.
For those who haven’t yet seen it, Limbo is a short puzzle platformer in which the player controls what appears to be a little boy lost in a forest². The controls are fairly simple, and the player interacts with what is a very hostile environment, but the shadowy presentation often obscures the puzzles, which would be immediately obvious were the game rendered in the bright colors of DeathSpank.
I don’t think Limbo is intentionally humorous, but I have to say, nearly every time death came as a very sudden and shocking surprise, I found myself giggling. Partly, I expect, it was because I was primed for laughter from having finished DeathSpank only shortly before, but most of the time I think it was just the shock of the unexpected and the bits of death animation. It was a bit like watching a formulaic teen horror movie; the deaths are gruesome but still often meant to entertain, and you laugh because it’s not happening to you.
Later in the game, this response was less frequent, and I think that’s largely because the puzzles became more involved, and death was slightly more costly. There were a few puzzles that stymied me through several attempts, and this would lead to tedium as I would often know exactly what was expected of me, but lack the skilled timing to bring it off³. Dying ceased to be easy, and so the comedy was much harder come by. My friend and colleague Chuck Jordan has written up his opinions about the last bit of Limbo on his blog and I don’t have a lot to add -- I agree that once the puzzles get a little trickier and the world a little more technical, the game loses some of its charm, and the whole experience got a little more somber.
Which brings me to DeathSpank, a game I thoroughly loved and played every chance I got4, spending time before and after work on it. But it wasn’t because I was laughing, or at least, it wasn’t just because I was laughing.
DeathSpank’s laughs for me also mostly came from surprise, but after a while my funny circuits burned out as the game constantly assaulted me with certain elements. The environments were funny, the names of the weapons were funny, the main character’s voice was inherently funny (and I can hear it in the back of my mind even now), the quests were funny (Orphans? Really? Audacious), the villain was funny, the quest-givers were funny, the critters were funny, the advanced healing options were funny, funny, funny, funny, funny. It was a constant stream of funny and after a while the humor seemed to rely on quantity rather than quality; I can’t now remember anything in particular that made me really laugh, because I can’t remember any particular event that had anything more than a very cursory level of setup. I do know that I laughed or chuckled any number of times. There was a constant level of silliness, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; it just meant for less memorability of any particular element (okay, except for maybe the voice, which I find running a commentary in the back of my head at times; I have a strange brain to live with 24/7).
What kept me coming back wasn’t just that level of humor, sort of a "humor? You’re soaking in it!" constancy, but also a really slick action RPG. While certain elements fell flat for me5, the pure button-mashy with a little bit of health and power management was really deliciously fun and a graphic fidelity that was really terrific.
Hothead Games really impressed me with the first couple episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures6, not just because of the constant humor of the writing, but because of the competent JRPG-style game underneath that skin. It’s a really winning formula, and I find myself really looking forward to a second helping of DeathSpank in September, as well as whatever Hothead applies themselves to.
Join me again in a day or two when I return to thug culture discussing more of my delve into thuggery and spend some more time discussing the things I thought about while making my divorce.
¹Actually, it might as well have been "Dying is easy. Attributing quotes is hard." because the origin of this particular quote, which everyone has heard, is quite difficult to track down. This one is attributed to Edmund Kean (actor from the 1800s), Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Alan Swann (fictional character citing one of those), and others. So I’ll leave it at "various" and soldier on.
²The character is rendered entirely in shadow. For all I know, he has tentacles for hair and a third arm growing into the third dimension erupting from his stomach. Games admit of multiple interpretations, and I’m sure one could come up with an outlandish but internally consistent justification incorporating the details I’ve just thrown out. Its stylish presentation reminds me just how much I’m looking forward to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
³Nothing makes me feel so old as to write that I am losing my reflexes for videogames. Pretty soon it’ll be all turn-based stuff for me. Roll me away to the Old Gamers’ Home...
4I’m fairly certain that I would have gotten my divorce out a week earlier had I not downloaded DeathSpank when I did.
5I don’t think I ever managed to pull off 98% of the combos, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t find all the instructional runestones therefor.
6Sadly, Episodes 3 and 4 will never see the light of day, though I gather the scripts will.
August 24, 2010
The Marriage, my divorce, and Abstraction
When I was working on "my divorce", I quite naturally spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how Rod Humble’s The Marriage worked, since I was seeking to emulate some of its themes (and steal its appearance outright).
The obvious stand-out immediately is the graphical representation. It’s as simple as can be, and I think that’s a good thing for this type of game. Humble¹ was seeking to represent at least some of the interactions at play in a marriage, and I think this sort of level of abstraction really works well for that. One can at least imagine a fully-realized, hyper-realistic third-person rendering over which we have a god-like view, with the “events” that drop down from the top of the screen represented as real events of some kind. You could perhaps imagine this sort of thing on a holodeck, which would further give the opportunity to render an enormous amount of alternative male and female abstractions.
But in doing so, much would be lost. The Marriage seeks to abstract not a husband and wife, but the masculine and feminine aspects of a marriage, which could come from either partner, and I really respected that. The Marriage could in fact represent the forces at play in marriages between same-gender partners, for example, since it’s not really about gender. And at this point, a highly representational approach would not so much break down as require many, many more plays to get at the underlying meanings, since the representation would become part of the message, and that representation would have to change many, many times for the participant to understand that the graphical representation was in some sense irrelevant to the message the work sought to impart. When specifics are available, we tend to latch on to them.
So I sought to emulate that representation. It’s possible, in my divorce, to represent either “parent” as a pink square or a blue one: they aren’t meant to represent people so much as aspects of the things that parents give their children. It’s not even necessarily meant to represent masculinity and femininity - simply that each parent gives something different to a child. The game can be reconfigured to work with same-gender parents and still be winnable, by tweaking the weights.
Discussing my divorce with a friend who has two children, each with a different father, we talked about whether the game could represent more specific situations, such as a step-parent entering the scene or other such specifics, and how a parent or the children might respond to that. I definitely considered that quite a lot before I embarked on the game, but I decided that in doing so I had a hard time separating my own response to the introduction of a new figure in the lives of the children from how that might affect them. So I left that ambiguous rather than introducing another layered mechanic -- the green, grey, and black circles are whatever you might think them to be. There’s no reason, for example, to think that a given circle in The Marriage doesn’t represent an affair -- it’s a valid interpretation, I think.
So, that’s perhaps one lesson in art games that we can take away, because it also turns up in games like Passage, one of my personal favorite games² and a well-known example of an art-game. In its low fidelity, it’s abstract already, but other elements are highly abstractable -- the “treasure chests” can represent material gains or more abstract things. Perhaps a chest is a promotion at work that didn’t work out as one hoped, or a career change that did, or a new child, or any number of things. It’s of course, only one style of art game, but I think it’s a worthwhile tool -- maybe we are the “abstractionist” school of art-game :)
This is, of course, nothing new. Due to limitations in presentation, the first video games were necessarily highly abstract -- Pong represented tennis or table tennis and perhaps even throwing a frisbee around, and with simple reconfigurations of the representations could also represent handball, racquetball, or squash. But I like the idea of using abstraction specifically as a tool to achieve a particular effect.
This post has already gotten a little bit longer than I intended, and I’m being called to play a card game. I’ll return in the near future to talk just a little bit more about The Marriage and my divorce.
¹I remain convinced that Rod has one of the best names in game developerdom, particularly as a maker of art games.
²I have been listening to The Brainy Gamer Podcast lately and in some of the podcasts he’ll interview someone and ask what their “Last Supper” game would be. Thinking about it on a long drive recently, I realized that Passage would be mine.
August 23, 2010
On Being a Thug
Back in 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III came out, I can recall trying the game and seeing what the fuss was all about. I remember being really entranced by the opening credits, which seemed like they’d set up a great story of a life of crime. The voice cast was fantastic, the critical acclaim was living up to the hype, and it seemed like a game meant for me.
And yet, the game never worked for me. I bought or borrowed a copy, which I still have, and I played it for an hour or two before I gave it up for good, around the time when I was running a mission that involved me delivering prostitutes to a Policeman’s Ball. The controls annoyed me, the story didn’t engage me, and the sorts of missions I was running really appalled me. I could see what appealed to people in the game, the freedom, the exploration, the depth of the simulation... but those just didn’t appeal to me.
It was particularly strange not to connect with a mob story. I love mob and crime films; you can look through the last few years of films over on the side-bar and you’ll see that. In the last two and a half years or so I’ve watched The Godfather and The Godfather Part II at my beloved AFI Silver in Silver Spring, not once but twice. I love French film noir, especially those of the fifties and sixties, which are generally gangster films in some way and had a lot in common with GTA III. As far as I’m concerned, that first season of The Sopranos was perhaps the best single season of television I’ve ever watched, and the series as a whole is a masterpiece second only to The Wire.
And yet, GTA III just couldn’t connect with me, didn’t draw me in, and although I am often contrarian, I genuinely don’t believe that was the reason in this case.
As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the first two Godfather films. I keep an eye out for when it’s available on the big screen¹, and local theaters can pretty much guarantee I’ll show up to see it if they play it.
Even as I watch these films, I recognize Michael Corleone as a monstrous thug. Sure, he starts out nobly, having served in World War II and come home with all kinds of salad on his chest. But an attempt on his father’s life and corruption in the police department change him; he seeks revenge on the part of his family, beginning his rise to the top and destruction of all the enemies of his family. By the beginning of the second film, he has given in to his lust for power and has become a master of the offer that cannot be refused, framing a Senator who has slighted him to gain control over him.
But here’s the thing: I love watching Michael Corleone as he changes and embraces a sort of Nietzschean "will to power". He fully embraces his family after a traumatic attack on his father and descends into a life of crime, furthered along by a second loss. I love watching how this changes and hardens his character, while he still maintains a powerful charm and reconnects with Kay, and how that is further poisoned over time.
Tony Soprano is perhaps an even better character, in some ways, as a modernized version of the head of a crime family. He’s a lesser Don, in the fiction, because he’s in New Jersey and is looked down upon by the New York Families. The mental and emotional strain of his lifestyle cause him to need psychiatric help, and yet he struggles along within the confines of his life², raising and maintaining both of his families through guile and violence. He is a deeply conflicted character, but he clearly takes pleasure in violence and asserting his dominance over others, chuckling when he gives grief and grinning broadly whenever he feels he has put one over on someone else.
I feel for these characters because, despite being larger than life, they are recognizably human, with weaknesses and pain and foibles despite the very inhuman and immoral things they do. They sometimes feel forced to do these terrible things, but as an audience we know better; they enjoy their power or money or influence too much to be simply trapped within their lives.
Compare this with Claude Speed, the protagonist of GTA III (and I think earlier incarnations of the series). I never felt any of these things for Claude, and I don’t think it’s because he starts out the game without power, because in many ways so does Michael Corleone. I also don’t think it’s his rendering or anything like that. I think it’s that he is in many respects a blank slate.
Recently I decided to try to return to the series and see if I could again find what other people find in it; in particular, I’ve decided to give GTA IV significant playtime, not giving up early as I did with GTA III. I figured I would bull it out, put in twenty or so hours, meet it on its own terms, and simply agree to disagree with the many fans the series has if I didn’t care for it.
A strange thing happened. I became entranced with Niko Bellic, the main character from the most recent iteration of the series. I’ll return more to GTA IV and Niko in the near future; I expect this to be a small series of posts. But I wanted to start with what turned me off on the series to begin with.
In the end, what I think really bothered me about GTA III wasn’t the lousy car controls or the graphics or anything like that. What bothered me was that the main character was a blank slate, which left me in a position of needing to fill in the blanks, to occupy the role without enough distance between the character and my self. He never speaks, and so we don’t know what’s inside his head and as a character he fails to ever really develop, at least at the beginning of the game. I’m the sort of person who plays video games to be the hero; in role-playing games I am always seeking what I feel are the morally best outcomes. I’m just not interested in being a thug, and with Claude Speed’s lack of distinguishing characteristics, there was no distance to keep me feeling as if I weren’t myself the thug.
But understanding and participating in what it’s like for a thug? I can do that. I enjoy film and television thugs, and as a gamer I’ve committed enough virtual violence for a thousand hells. I enjoy watching and participating in thuggishness, if well-motivated. And so, despite not connecting with earlier incarnations of the series, I find myself really looking forward to some quality time in the shoes of Niko Bellic.
¹While I love it on the small screen, the texture and depth of color of the films are best experienced projected.
²This makes him a little bit like Achilles, in some ways, who recognizes in the opening pages of The Iliad that there is the possibility of breaking away from Fate and the will of the Gods, but feels unable to do so due to obligation and honor.
August 17, 2010
Most Expensive Meal Ever
I guess it's a first-world problem, but I have a confession to make: I recently spent quite a lot of money on not a lot of food, and it's not the first time I've done it, either.
The setting was terrific, a little place in Virginia's wine country¹ a few hours from where I live, looking out on fields in the sunset, in a very well-appointed large converted parlor of an inn there. There were amuse-bouches, a small appetizer, a small first course, a palate-cleanser, a slightly larger second course, dessert. Each portion was rich and bursting with a carefully balanced set of flavors crafted from extremely fine ingredients by very skilled chefs. The experience, and others I've had that are similar, was one of the finest meals of my life thus far.
But by the standards that appear to apply to games, I should have been nothing but disappointed by the fare -- the servings were small and served on tiny plates, no matter how attractively presented. For what I had spent on the small piece of hiramasa in my second course, I could have purchased dozens of Filet o' Fishes or greasy plates of cod at a local pub. Shouldn't I feel robbed?
But the fact of the matter is, it takes significant skill and effort to hone a craft to the point of being able to deliver a meal of the caliber I enjoyed a week ago. It takes careful consideration of the available ingredients, and selecting the very best. It requires the cultivation of an extensive wine cellar to accentuate the variety of foods which might be served. It requires the staff to prepare it and present it in such an alluring manner, in a beautiful setting. Anyone can slip a frozen fish patty into a fry-o-lator and plop it onto a bun a few minutes later... but those of us who enjoy fine food are more than willing to pay ten times for more than mere calories.
So it is with games -- trimming a game down to its very essence and only presenting the choicest, most flavorful bits requires dedication, craft, and temerity, and I see no reason not to pay a higher "per-minute" price for fun so skillfully achieved.
So bring on the Limbos, the DeathSpanks, the Braids, and dozens of other small titles I've downloaded over the years. Give me Sleep is Death, and World of Goo, or the titles by any number of the folks linked below. Give me the little projects that Double Fine will experiment with now. Give me options to spend a little more for a little better, or a little different. Give me game developers who are willing to craft the very best experience, and trim out the filler, the useless breading, the empty fat. Give me meals worth eating, and games worth playing; I'm willing to pay.
¹I note that the second-most money I've ever spent on a meal, and likely the third, was also in wine country, albeit in California. VA's wines have a long way to go but they were competent.
I wrote this in honor of today's "Indie Voices on Game Length" day... Here are some others:
Jonathan Blow of Number None
Ron Carmel of 2DBoy
Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games
Mike Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games
Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games
Cliff Harris of Positech Games
Chris Hecker of Spy Party
Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games
Peter Jones of Retro Affect
Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules
Greg Wohlwend of Intution Games
Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire
August 09, 2010
Creative Control at Activision
Last week saw an interesting bit of investigative reporting over on GamaSutra by journalist Leigh Alexander, covering reports of gender bias towards AAA protagonists by upper-level management at Activision. According to sources, Activision specifically directed a studio to change its lead character from a female heroine in the Lucy Liu mode to a male hero. It’s a nice bit of balanced reporting; Alexander reports the accusations of the Activision-owned studio, notes Activision’s rebuttal, and makes specific mention of successful action series with female protagonists as a supporting framework.
My Twitter feed that afternoon was all, well, atwitter with mentions of some of the bizarre comments that the article garnered on GamaSutra. It’s also worth noting that this article received more than ten dozen comments, which is far more than any other news item in the last week or so (I saw one with a count of 32, most were in the single digits, and many of those were just 0)... clearly this touches some sort of nerve. Amongst the comments there were a few discernable threads:
- Activision is a public company; there’s no gender bias, they’re just going after what sells for their market
- Statements that the reporting is being done owing to some sort of political correctness
- Supportive commentary (either in the “there should be more balance in representation” or the “here are some more examples of great female characters in games and movies” variety)
The thing is, regardless of what you think of Activision’s alleged policy, this is valuable news for at least a couple industry segments: independent studio owners and potential or current Activision employees. It’s not political correctness to report on the interactions between corporations or between segments of a corporation -- it’s newsworthy, in this case especially to those two groups. (I'd like to think it's of interest to gamers, too, as it is to me as a gamer... but GamaSutra is primarily a games industry site, not targeted to gamers as much as to those in the biz, so let's leave them out for a moment.)
In the case of the former, it’s well-known that Activision’s strategy for growth over at least the last decade has been acquisitions and mergers, typically beginning with a development or publishing deal for a specific piece of IP and then turning into a later acquisition. This started with Raven Software and Neversoft back in the late 90s and continuing with others too numerous to list here (a few luminaries being Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Bizarre Creations, but by no means limited to them). If I owned my own company, I’d definitely want to know that despite what they might say at the bargaining table, Activision was likely to involve itself pretty heavily in the creative process of the studio.
As for potential or current employees of Activision (or a wholly-owned subsidiary studio), well, if I were on the creative end of things, in character or narrative design, for example, I’d want to know that my work was going to be up for creative review by the bean counters at the head office based on a sales-driven market study. Those of us on the front lines pour a lot of ourselves into the games we make, and spending months or years with a character only to have him or her changed based on the mercurial whims of what space marine games sold last year would be a huge concern for me, personally.
I’m not likely to work for Activision any time soon; I’m not certain it’s the sort of corporation I’d like to work for. In the long term, Activision’s strategy will probably work with a certain market demographic, males 14-30 or so, and that market will be strong enough to maintain AAA development for years to come yet. It’s not like we’re running out of 14-30 year olds any time soon, they just keep making more¹. But a strategy which looks at last year’s hits will always just pump out iterations of, well, last year’s hits. That’s unlikely to gain new market share, and ultimately causes creative stagnation in the industry². It's unfortunate that a company which has the resources to explore new markets, even in a small way, chooses instead to chase the big hits from the last year or two; it's myopic, and regrettably it will probably work for a while.
So, Activision will plod along making the same kind of games, until it looks more profitable to jump to something else. It’s what the big corporations do. But where big corporations fail to go there is often opportunity to be had, and Leigh Alexander deserves credit both for pointing out those opportunities to smaller, more nimble companies, and to giving pause to those who might think they will retain creative control when they sign with Activision.
¹ It’s worth noting that Nintendo seems to start a little younger and last a lot longer. It’s a renewing segment, but Nintendo holds a hardcore audience well into their 30s, judging from continuing sales of Zelda and Metroid and other key IPs. (back)
² Hollywood seems to be on a cycle of this itself; every ten or fifteen years they have a few fallow years where they lack anything much of interest, and then they drag themselves out of it again. I’d say this year is a bit of a down year for Hollywood creatively. (back)
January 06, 2010
Game Design Is Murder, Part II
As I mentioned in the first part, the remaining parts of this little mini-series of posts will address how the following years' mysteries applied lessons learned from the first year.
As time went on, I became more adept at constructing the mysteries so that writing didn't take as long. Part of this was the lessons learned from the first post, but there were also benefits to be had from not having to recreate templates for each of the different types of documents I gave out (clues, participant booklets, and the like), which leads to our first tip from the "sequels".
- Don't reinvent the wheel. Sure, I fiddled with fonts and presentation a bit from year to year, but basically? The files I used the first year returned every year, but with different content. For these mysteries, the content was the important thing -- not the way the booklets were laid out. In this case, they weren't broken, so I didn't fix them. It's often tempting as designers (and also as programmers, who have a tendency towards Not-Invented-Here-itis) to revisit something you've done before and perhaps even scrap it entirely, but until it either shows its age (by being unable to support new requirements) or is the area in which you intend to take a sequel further, leave it be.
1998: Death's Disco
- Item 0: Focus on the fun. As this was set in the seventies, the era of disco, we got to bring in a bunch of archetypes from that time, from hippies/folk fans to heavy metal/rock to older Lawrence Welk fans to, of course, the disco types. I can remember a character named Lenny Hustle, and I know there were some based on real singers (maybe a Jean Bayou?). Though the menu from that evening is not something I remember, I know that we played a lot of disco, including the complete soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever¹.
- Item 1: It starts with a hook. In the second year, the mystery involved the death of a disco dancer, and I started from a sort of mental image of something you might see in Police Squad: the dead man's chalk outline on the floor in the shape of John Travolta's classic pose. That was it, that's all I started with, and it was enough to keep me amused. That said, this is perhaps the mystery about which I remember the least; I don't recall who the victim was, nor the killer, so the hook, while amusing to me, probably wasn't sufficient to justify a full mystery. It was still a good time for all, but less memorable than the others at least in terms of plot.
- Item 3: You *can* have too much content. As I mentioned in the last post, in this and all subsequent years, I reduced the number of accusations per character to one accusation and one response.
This was the first year I dropped liberal hints into the flow of the game to indicate how the murder could be solved. This is one of the 400 rules, I believe:
- Give the players ample direction. It didn't help anyone nail down the murderer, I don't think, but multiple times the homicide detective in charge of the case (i.e. myself, the host) would remind the characters that means, motive and opportunity were going to determine the killer. Only someone who had all three could be the killer. In each subsequent year, I would drop such hints directly into the scripts.
1999: Gold Rush Garrote
This was a Western theme with a lot of broad humor; it involved the death of a young man who was the brother of the sheriff who was soon to arrive in a Gold Rush-era town.
- Focus on the fun. We had all of the traditional Western types, lone cowboys, dastardly outlaws, crazy old men ("Cooter McGee", my uncle, who went without shaving for a week to look the part), prostitutes and madams, barkeeps, merchants, even the piano player from the local cathouse. Familiar archetypes (even clichés) are key if you are doing one-off fun productions such as these.
- It starts with a hook. The hook was that I was going to borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes, and be "in disguise" throughout the evening as a Chinese manservant who had come ahead of the sheriff to ready his home. In actuality, I was the sheriff himself and revealed my identity at the very end of the game. Prior to the mystery dinner, I shaved my goatee into a Fu Manchu and as dessert was prepared, I shaved the remainder off and kept my face low, mostly obscured by a conical hat² I had worn as part of my costume.
A new item from this year relates to the hook:
- Keep it fresh. Each year I tried to stretch what our participants could expect from the evening, to add a little spark and pizazz to the types of plots they could expect. While they always used elements that were drawn from classic mysteries, I tried to change up what was actually going on, in this case, with the host actually being a different character in disguise. Having a big reveal at the end made for a big splash, and kept the games from getting stale.
I expect the final entry to come in the next few days, when I'll cover the remaining three mystery dinners I wrote, as well as my absolute favorite (and one I suspect that was the favorite of others as well), as well as why I came to write these posts...
¹For the record, Saturday Night Fever is an absolutely terrific movie even if it is set in discos in Brooklyn. Travolta is amazing in what is essentially a coming-of-age story. (back)
²Thanks to a friend, James Zhang, who had actually brought it back from China with him on a visit, if I recall correctly. I was authentic! (back)
January 02, 2010
Game Design Is Murder, Part I
Although I spend much of my time as a programmer, and not as a designer, nonetheless I like to think I've contributed to the design of most of the games I've shipped. But I actually managed to ship 6 games in which I was the sole writer/designer and indeed, also served as the live team, which I'll explain. They weren't computer or videogames, but nonetheless I learned a few things from doing them that I thought I'd share.
A little back-story: On New Year's Eve, December 31, 1996, my then wife and I hosted friends for an evening of murder. At some point, I had been given one of those Host a Mystery in a box games. I don't remember the specific title or really anything of the plot, but I do recall that it was set on Maui, and so a group of eight of us got together to enjoy pineapple, fruity drinks, luau-style food, and a few laughs while the story played out over a few hours and courses. I don't think a single one of us got the murderer right, or at the very least, not for the right reasons¹. In any case, it was a good time, and the evening stuck in the back of my mind.
Over the course of the next year, a few things led me to host another for my family, a gathering that would turn out to be 13 people, myself included. At that size, buying a boxed set was out of the question, and that left me only with the option to write one myself. I've been reading mystery novels and short stories for ages, cut my teeth on Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes in my early youth and never looked back. Anyway, so began the first of several little game design projects, one a year for the next six years.
The following items come from things I thought about and learned that first year.
- Item 0: Fun is foremost. It's worth repeating again and again: focus on the fun. I had done a couple of these before as both host and participant, and had been involved with role-playing for years, so I had a sense of what would work and what wouldn't. A variety of familiar character types and a healthy leavening of humor, with lots of interaction were the key. It wasn't even all that important that anyone solve the mystery, but the clues had to be there and the story had to be something that could be unraveled, if one were paying attention, because some players really enjoy that sort of thing. Liberal glasses of wine don't hurt either ;)
I made every attempt to include fun at every step of the process, from names to the night in question. The title of the murder was "Murder fra Diavolo", owing to the theme, and the characters included Al Cappuccino, Ed Spresso, Gina Amaretto, to name a few, and myself, the chef, Scorchy Vanilli. Once there, I wore an enormous red chef's toque and had music from Big Night playing (along with some opera courtesy of my father's collection), to help further set a whimsical tone.
- Item 1: It has to start with a hook. Investing a bunch of hours into this sort of project (it would take me approximately 80 to prepare the first, not counting the night in question, with six hours of cooking), one needs to find a hook that will hold your interest long enough to want to deliver on it, and keep you motivated.
My first hook came from a film I had seen that year, Big Night. At the time, I didn't know I wanted to host a murder, but after seeing that timpano, I knew I had to make one some day. When a timpano recipe appeared in the New York Times Magazine², the wheels started in motion. I needed a celebration to make such an enormous dish, which got me thinking about New Year's Eve, which got me thinking about the New Year's Eve prior...
- Item 2: Plan, plan, plan... until planning gets in the way. Based on the boxed set I had, it seemed reasonable to have every player make two accusations and respond to two accusations; more about that in the next item. Based on that, though, I didn't want to have any one person accuse the same person twice in the game; in some cases, I wanted the responder to counter with an accusation the following round, just to give a sense of continuity. Balancing that all out is important, and planning enough of this stuff before I started figuring out what the actual clues were was important.
However, making a sensible story from basically a set of diagrams is difficult, and you have to work the problem from both sides; figure out what your story is independent of who's going to say what to whom, if you can, and then look for opportunities to wire the two together.
In the end, I ended up having to replumb the diagrams based on the coherence of the story, and rebalance as I went. This wasn't terrible, but I did end up redoing a fair amount of work as I tried to keep to the rules I had set for myself.
- Item 3: You *can* have too much content. Twenty-four accusations per round is a lot of content to assimilate; having people figure out what was going on from that was more than they could reasonably handle. In this case, I think a little more thought up-front would have helped dramatically. Based on this, I switched to a one accusation/one response per person per round in future years, which was a significant improvement. That said, people really got into the role-playing aspect of these games -- they just couldn't reasonably figure out who the murderer was with all that information being thrown at them.
- Item 4: Props are fun... In a boardgame, or interaction game like this, props are good. I brought notepads and pens with me to the gathering so that people would have an opportunity to take ample notes if they wanted to. People were encouraged to dress the part, and in invitations sent out a month or so before the big night, their characters were described to them. It was a mob theme, a marriage between the children of two Mafia families, the Spressos and the Cappucinos, with the groom having been murdered, so it was familiar enough that folks could reasonably make costumes without significant outlay. Additionally, each participant would produce a Special Clue at some point during the evening, which might be a receipt for something, a photo, a newspaper article, that sort of thing. These Clues helped reinforce the play and lended further realism.³
- Item 5: ... but be clear on the dividing line between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, that year the identity of the murderer hinged on a real physical trait of one of the participants, which didn't go well with at least one of the players, as it blurred the line too much. Although other evidence pointed in that person's direction, the fact that distinguished that particular person was a trait in the real world. If I were to do it again, I would have had the writing reinforce that fact to enter it into evidence, as it were.
In the subsequent articles in this series, I'll describe each of the murder mysteries and how the rules I learned along the way applied. Check back in a few days or so for the next installment. Regrettably, my electronic copies of these games appear to be lost, but I'll keep digging around to see if I can find them on a backup disk or CD.
¹This was actually the second time we had done something like that, I'm now recalling. We also had a group of friends over a few years previous for a similar evening with a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. (back)
²Cue collective groan from my friends, who have probably heard me say "I think I read about it in the New York Times Magazine" about eleventy billion times over the last 15 years... (back)
³Which seems particularly helpful now, in retrospect, considering some of the atrocious accents we had around the table each year...(back)
December 16, 2009
I Need the Cape and the Cowl
Caveat lector: Spoilers ahead!
Over the last week or so I have plunged myself into Batman: Arkham Asylum with alarming fervor; last night I pushed on through until about two in the morning until I had found all of the Riddler's secrets, ending with the final "Chronicle of Arkham". Nothing negative I have to say here should in the least detract from the immense achievement of Rocksteady Studios in this title. This game is far more than I could ever have hoped for in a Batman game, and as someone who has worked with a license before, I am quite honestly humbled by the degree of fan service in this game, from the amazing art (a dark vision brimming with its own artistic logic and vitality), to the gadgetry (everything I could think to want is here), to the voice performances (all the right voices from the animated shows over the years, headlined by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill), the villains, the heroes, the setting. Amazing, amazing work.
Much ink has been spilled about the boss encounters and various mechanics of the game. Most of the mechanics I found thrilling and few things troubled me, although the Killer Croc encounter left me more appreciative of just how nimbly and quickly we're able to navigate Batman through these terrific environments, when I was forced to creep along a lot more slowly. What didn't work for me, though, was stepping into the cowl myself, from either a physical or a psychological perspective.
There are a few different ways in the game to inhabit the cloak and mask, increasing in the severity of disconnecting me from the experience.
The first way in which I felt a little strange was in moving to a first person view to take "zoomed-in photographs". When Batman is wandering about, he can solve various riddles by the Riddler by photographing the answer to the question posed¹. Often it's enough to simply take a picture by standing Batman in the right place and snapping the button, but at times, you need to view the subject more closely (to be able to read words, for example), and at those times, the interface changes to seem to be from the perspective of Batman.
It's a little disconcerting -- not unusual for games, though, but in this one I've spent most of my time in the game with Batman filling up a quarter of the screen or so. Switching to a viewpoint from behind his mask seemed strange to some degree, though as I recall my introduction to this mechanic was fairly early in the game and I got used to it quickly.
More disconcerting was switches to Batman's perspective in a couple of the cutscenes; I particularly remember being grabbed by Bane and shaken like a ragdoll, and viewing that from Batman's perspective (a view that was later repeated when Titan-ified Joker pulled off basically the same maneuver). I wanted to see Batman picked up and thrown, though perhaps the developers didn't. I'm wondering if they were going for a more visceral tie to Batman, but for me, I found it disorienting and a bit off-putting. My expectation in the game was to control Batman doing Batman-like things -- not really to become Batman, which I'll address last.
The one area where the game completely fell flat for me was when the game attempted to shock me in ways that Bruce Wayne or Batman might find shocking. Specifically, these were the Scarecrow encounters, particularly the first one. Having discovered Commissioner Gordon's lifeless body, I continued on to the morgue where ultimately the point was to frighten Batman, in this case by presenting him with a vision of the bodies of his parents. This was the flattest moment of a game filled with peaks for me -- up until then (and for the rest of the game), my goals and beliefs were Batman's goals and beliefs, as they were the goals and internal logic of the game's world, the actions I could take, the information the environment would contain. But when presented with a psychological situation that required me to have Batman's own experiences, it didn't work for me, because I found myself not really wanting to be Batman, the tortured soul who is strong enough to bear everything he does.
I really like driving him around, and sharing the same goals, but being Batman? Not for me. Let me watch him, making all my fumbling inputs look deliberate and correct. It is more than enough, and Rocksteady Studios justly deserves very very high praise. I'll be there opening day for the sequel...
¹These are themselves usually nice little set-pieces that are appropriate for the characters at hand, such as Harleen Quinzel's office (complete with posters of the Joker with little hearts on them), Victor Zsasz' handiwork, and the like. (back)
November 16, 2009
My IGDA Leadership Forum Presentation
Thanks to those who came out to listen to me talk on Friday at the 2009 IGDA Leadership Forum.
For those who couldn't make it, I've updated my slides (please right-click, Save Target As or equivalent for your browser) with notes.
Reminder -- you can compete to win a little something from me if you can identify the 4 programmers and 3 artists who appear in black and white in the talk. Simply send email to the address listed on the last slide, the names can appear in any order.
September 15, 2009
Beating the Biggest
Over the last month or so, I've been wondering how industry executives are going to thank Bobby Kotick. Will there be extra fruitcake at Christmas this year? Perhaps an assortment of nuts? I mean, the CEO of the number one American publisher has been doing little else but telling his competitors how to beat him.
It started about a month ago with a report on Edge, which was quoting an Economist piece. Kotick told his interviewer that “Actually, people are happy with existing franchises, provided you innovate within them.”
This is not necessarily untrue. Indeed, Activision Blizzard posted a strong set of profits this past year, driven primarily by sequels (Guitar Hero N, Call of Duty), movie tie-ins (Wolverine, Transformers 2), and a little perennial money-printing machine called World of Warcraft. They had one significant new intellectual property in the same period with Prototype, which according to VGChartz has sold close to 1.5 million units.
Certainly, this is historically the time of a console lifecycle where one expects less new IP and more in the way of sequels and licenses. But console generations don't last forever, and a company who refuses to invest (even in a small way) in new creative ventures is bound to be unable to rise to the challenge quickly when the next generation comes around. If you leave certain muscles unexercised for long enough, they simply aren't going to pop right back into shape, it'll take time and more than a little bit of pain.
Lately I've been watching Star Trek: The Original Series with my kids; the first season is available to stream on Netflix so it's easy to put on for an episode here or there. The other night we watched This Side of Paradise in which the Enterprise arrives at a planet to rescue a colony there, only to discover the small colony in a perpetual social stasis (due to a plant's spores). In the years they've been there, they've accomplished none of their original research goals, and have lived in a sort of vapid contentment¹.
This is exactly the sort of world Bobby Kotick seems to envision for the games market; he's okay with the people already buying games being happy with the brands we have. In his world, there are only a relatively few people who complain.
This is unsustainable. Kotick should know better -- isn't the core of capitalism continual growth? Certainly, it's possible to grow in many ways -- acquisitions and mergers, for example, which has been Activision's modus operandi for years. But there's any number of ways to die off as well, and among these is complacency. After all, even mighty Rome fell² after it grew fat and complacent -- leaving room for the barbarians at the gate to invade.
In fact, even now people are beginning to get fatigued from current franchises. Jeff Vogel, over at The Bottom Feeder recently posted a discussion of his personal view of why the hey-day of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and other plastic instrument games are doomed. I don't know that they're doomed, but I haven't bought one in a while and I'm not likely to, even though Rock Band appeals. The novelty has worn off after a few titles, and it has been months since I've really picked it up, possibly even a year. I've enjoyed the games, but even if they innovate within the franchises, I'm not likely to come back. Certainly, according to VGChartz, while Guitar Hero: World Tour was pretty huge, the single-band issues haven't enjoyed nearly the same popularity.
This is only anecdotal. But I'm not solely a developer, I'm a hardcore gamer. I'm envisioning people like my neighbors, who will buy only a couple of games, but for whom something has to be fairly special for them to pick up. They don't need copies of the same games over and over. They're happy with just one plastic instrument game, if that. They won't go out and buy every copy of Call of Duty that comes out. They'll just get weary of the same old thing.
And not long after I was reading Kotick's puzzling statement, I encountered Leigh Alexander's discussion with various designers about creative bankruptcy in games. Kind of goes hand-in-hand, doesn't it?
Finally, just over the last few days, new reports of interesting statements by Kotick have come to light. Trying to instill "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" into a company culture doesn't sound like a place where I want to make games. Over the long term, in that environment, people will be unable to take the risks that will allow them to deliver the quality of games that will be needed to grow the business. We can only hope that Kotick's approach, directing the largest American publisher as he does, won't sour the market entirely.
Lately, Activision just sounds like it copied EA's old ways of doing business, while EA is trying to make something more out of itself, funding riskier projects, investing in new IPs, investing in new markets (via mobile and other divisions). It seems like EA grew up from the kind of company that Activision now is, whereas Activision now has a CEO who believes strongly that it's the best way to be. EA at the moment has Brütal Legend waiting in the wings, and Dragon Age, and they are working the Mass Effect franchise. Even my old employer is getting into the act, both in mining its back catalog to find experiences they can bring to new users (certainly, Monkey Island didn't reach nearly the audience it might have had it been released into a larger gaming culture), and using the new delivery methods to experiment, as with the recently announced Lucidity.
So, how do you beat Kotick, other CEOs? Just make an environment which rewards creativity and instills a positive outlook. Shouldn't be too hard. Wish him a Merry Christmas for me.
¹When I was in college I had one of those dorm room posters that read "Everything I Know I Learned From Star Trek". It's funny coming back to it after all these years and still enjoying it so much with my kids. (back)
²We haven't watched the Season 2 episode "Bread and Circuses" ;) (back)
August 08, 2009
One of the things I find important to any first person shooter, and perhaps any linear game¹, is the "introduction" -- how you are introduced to a new enemy, new weapon, new environment, anything. I came by this importance working with Nathan Martz, now the lead programmer at Double Fine, on Star Wars Republic Commando. As our enemy AI programmer, he really drove forward the idea that each introduction of a new enemy should be interesting and should say something about the character in question -- its tactics or its personality. In SWRC, that became important to how we introduced everything, from your squadmates to your weapons to your enemies, and it has become one of the lenses I examine games through.
So, recently I played Gears of War and in this area there were a few things I felt they might have worked better. The game is very successful in the running, gunning, and cover areas, but less consistent in how it introduces its enemies. Here are a few rules that came to mind while playing.
- Personality is key. The Berserker was a good example of this, a blind, raging character who bursts through walls. Unfortunately, the introduction of the Boomer was far less successful -- two Boomers walking down a corridor who... step on a rat. It just doesn't fit with the character -- their in-game behavior is far better. While I understand that this was meant as an attempt at levity, it was completely out of place with the tone of the rest of the game, involving slapstick rather than the over-the-top macho gallows humor prevalent throughout.
- The player has to see it. The first time I ran across the Corpser, one of my squadmates pointed him out and made some remark. Problem was, I was looking the other way, and as of this writing I still don't know what I missed. This can be a real danger in in-game introductions, where you have no control over the player's current attention. In Republic Commando, all of our introductions were in-game, so we did our best to put them in spots where it would be hard to miss them. An ameliorating factor in the case of the Corpser was that there were several introductions, building tension, which gave me multiple opportunities to see it. Many of the introductions in Gears are done through cutscenes, which avoids this issue entirely, but takes you out of the first-person perspective.
- Give clues as to gameplay. The Gears "Berserker" is a good example of this; we're told that we can destroy him if we can get him into the outdoors. However, we're in a sealed-off room. Lo and behold, this critter is superstrong and will run at any noise...
- Introduce the enemy in an appropriate location. If you're always going to fight a critter in a tight hallway, don't introduce him in a wide-open cavern. The Wretches were a good example of this done well -- they spew out of a hole in the ceiling in a tight hallway, which is a space which works well for them.
- The first impression can't be far from the payoff. With the Corpser, there were several opportunities to see what was coming, and a lot of tension built up... that was squandered as the critter disappeared until the very end of the next act, several hours of gameplay away, which for me was as much as a few days. As a counterexample, the Reavers are shown in an introductory video and immediately pay off by attacking the train you're riding in.
- Make the meaning clear. It must be clear to the player what they are seeing. In the case of General Raam, I had no idea who this guy was, and he ended up being the final boss. He appeared briefly and shot some random soldier, and then disappeared until the end of the next act, depriving that final encounter of the emotional impact it might have held.
Hmmm... I seem to be getting a bit Bullet-Pointish these days, I'll have to watch out for that. No idea what I'll be talking about next, but you can meet me back here in a week or so.
¹This is not to say that I don't believe this can be managed to some degree in open-world games as well, though it's a more significant techological and artistic challenge. (back)
August 03, 2009
The Perfectly Executed Mini-Mechanic
As you know, I've been playing lots of games again, which is nice. My travels have included the planet Sera and two trips to the Middle East, albeit a few centuries apart, and lately I've been relaxing at the mall. In those travels I've noted down a few impressive "mini-mechanics" -- little bits of games that aren't the center of it but do a good job of reinforcing the main game.
The mini-mechanics that work best for me tend to follow a few guidelines:
- They reinforce the main character. An old game development hand once said to me that characters in games had nothing to do with their personality, and everything to do with what they could do. In other words, while Mario's name was changed from Jumpman, that name almost exactly defines Mario as a character in his first game (and might therefore have been too limiting). Indiana Jones, in the context of a videogame, is his whip. Buffy Summers is a stake. Riddick is his vision. You get the idea. A perfectly executed mini-mechanic reinforces the gameplay traits of a character.
- They are brief. Hence "mini". They should fit right in with the rest of gameplay.
- They are infrequent, but hardly unique. If you're doing this every few seconds, it's not a mini-mechanic, it's probably the mechanic. Similarly, if you're only doing them once, in a boss battle, it's not a mechanic.
- They aren't required. These are purely optional; more accurately, it might be better to say that any individual instance is optional.
- They should be in situ, not apart from the bulk of gameplay. If you come out to another interface screen, as in many mini-games, you're really doing some other task, and not using a small mechanic to reinforce the main game.
- It's not meant to challenge the player. You aren't doing it enough, probably, to be able to do it perfectly every time. So, it can't be a high skill proposition; the risk-reward ratio can't be too high. It should never be a game-ender.
The first of these that really struck me was the "leap of faith", from Assassin's Creed. In each of the game's 11 locations¹, Altair may ascend a set of towers and other high points to get the lay of the land below him. Now, having gone to all the trouble to make Altair able to climb up or down every vertical surface, I would have forgiven the designers for making me control Altair back down to a reasonable location. Instead, they turned a very real gameplay problem into an opportunity for a beautiful little mechanic. Generally speaking, the place I need to go next is way down there amongst the ants, so adding a way to get me down there quickly was an excellent choice. It's flawlessly executed -- the animation is fluid and frankly gorgeous, and got me every time. Finally, it reinforces the character -- this is a man who is able to do thrilling things with his body through years of training.
The next two worth mentioning from my recent games both come from Gears of War, though I think one of them was better executed than the other.
In a few years, when I look back at this first year of HD gaming, I'm going to remember the "roadie run" from Gears of War. For those who haven't played... oh, who am I kidding, I'm last to the party on this for sure. In any case, the opportunities to use the roadie run are somewhat rare -- in any large spaces where it would be most appropriate, you're often too busy with enemies to be able to use it for pure navigation, and in smaller spaces, it's less effective. But as a means of moving up in a sort of semi-cover (crouching to make for a small target), it's terrific. It accentuates the gameplay -- Gears is almost entirely a game about cover in combat -- and it furthermore reinforces the physicality and bulk of the character, as Marcus Fenix rarely looks as built as he does when he's running in a crouch carrying all his heavy equipment. And it uses up a resource, though a hidden one; there's some sort of fatigue going on, since Marcus can't use it indefinitely.
The other is the "active reload". I was less enamored of this mechanic, primarily because in order to get the feel for it, I was constantly drawing my eyes away from the action. The active reload mechanic involved exactly timing a button press to an on-screen indicator, but I found that you could train up on it. Early on, splitting my attention between the action in the center of the screen and the reload bar in the upper right was more than I could manage, particularly with a variety of weapons, and I think this is largely the reason why this mechanic didn't quite feel right to me. Later in the game, once I had taken a look at the achievements list, I spent a minute of relative calm just doing it a dozen times in a row to get the achievement, and after that it felt good and reinforced the character. It felt like the sort of thing that some Army grunt might know -- oh, if you bang the butt of the rifle at the right time, you can kick the first round into the chamber quicker, but watch out, the gun can jam if you misstep.
That all said, this was a mechanic I appreciated rather than loved, unlike the other two. The leap of faith would have gotten old if I used it to jump off every building. I would have wished for better running and gunning had the roadie run been constant. With the active reload, I would have been more impressed had they showed a little restraint and made it only available on the one gun -- the gun with which a Gear would theoretically be most familiar. At the beginning of the game, where I was switching amongst several weapons to find the one that fit me best, the reload was a hindrance more than a help. By the end of the game, I had given up trying to time any weapons other than the main assault rifle that you start with; it was simply too distracting and not worth the time to invest to learn each of them.
Finally, it's not necessary to always introduce a mechanic, or to make a mechanic more complicated than it need to be. I appreciated that in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, there was no special trick to place a charge or tank-buster or what-have-you on an armored vehicle or other target. In these cases, it was simply a "get near and press A" proposition -- an absolutely minimal implementation. Pressing the button on the controller was like opening a door or doing something else similarly trivial. More than that would have likely led to player frustration, which should be avoided like the plague in mass-market titles.
Well, that's about all I've got for now. Join me in the next week or so again for some discussion about "introductions".
¹Sure, it's an open world game, but there are three cities, each with three districts, your home town, and the "Kingdom". For purposes of this article, the modern office building to which Desmond Miles has been kidnaped can be dismissed, as it contains no actual gameplay. (back)
July 23, 2009
Playing at War
As I recently posted, I finally jumped in and got myself a 360 recently¹. With the recent reveal of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 at E³, I felt like it was a good time to catch up on what modern shooters are doing on the next-gen hardware.
I started playing the game on June 4th, a Thursday. I started late in the evening; I seem to remember coaching a baseball game that night, so I started some time after 9. I may have had a beer with dinner, which I would have had when I got home. I hadn't played any shooters to speak of on the next generation, though I've since also played Gears of War, which I'll discuss a little bit in this space soon.
I couldn't play more than a single level of Modern Warfare, if I even finished that, and my hazy recollection now is that I didn't. You see, I've gotten back into the habit of listening to the news this year, what with having a President I can stomach and all, and while I certainly wouldn't say I've been ignorant of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's nonetheless pretty safe to say that it wasn't on my mind day in and day out. These days, however, it's more on my mind, particularly with concerns about Iran constantly popping up in the news, and reports about surges being part of Morning Edition or All Things Considered nearly every day it seems.
I sat there and tried to play this modern first person shooter and I just couldn't do it. I was consumed by anxiety, completely stressed out by the sounds and sights of virtual war, bothered more than I could imagine by the suggestions that it brought of real war. It was really surprising to me.
The next day I brought it into work to exchange it for something else from our expansive game library, but due to one thing or another I ended the day having not had time to select something else. In the meantime, one of my producers (a huge fan of the series) suggested I give it another go; he was surprised by my reaction, and thought the game had a lot to offer. So I dragged it back home again.
As it turned out, on June 6th I had a rare day of not much going on, and around the middle of the day I put it in again. I was still a little concerned about my reaction, but for whatever reason -- the daylight, the lack of beer, the lack of baseball, or some other random factor -- it didn't affect me to nearly the degree that it had. I still felt a lot of tension, but it was a healthier, "intense game" kind of sensation, not the panicky, rabbity-heart kind of physiological response I had had only 36 or so hours previously. In all probability I had simply become desensitized having been exposed to it once.
I played through the game on the easiest setting -- I was most interested in being aware of what the game had to offer, as an example of a top shooter, than of the story or the particular level of challenge. I was looking at it with my game developer hat on, not with my gamer hat on, and maybe in the end that made the bigger difference. I enjoyed how characters in the story showed up in a series of flashback missions, which were my favorite missions of the game, both because of that bridge between earlier games and the "present", and because of the remoteness of those characters from current world events. I found the remoteness of the "death from above" mission horrifying in the way it removed the consequences of actions both visually and in virtual distance, the way in which targets became mere abstractions.
It's quite an experience. But playing it on the anniversary of D-Day, with the graphical fidelity these machines possess, and with what's in the news day in and day out, it didn't exactly feel like a game, which I intend as high praise. Worth "playing".
Join me in a week or so for a quick little discussion of mini-mechanics I've encountered recently...
¹Although I have at least a couple dozen games on the last generation I haven't yet played, I've been employed for the last year with Bethesda Game Studios, and it seemed appropriate that I get a system at home I can play our games on. On the plus side, the company also has a sizable game library, so I will hopefully not end up with dozens of games this generation that I haven't played. Check back in a few years I guess. (back)
July 12, 2009
Eating Popcorn in the Holy Land
A month or so ago I finished Assassin's Creed as my first foray into high-def gaming¹.
I had bought myself a big TV and a 360 with Halo 3 and Fable II² and considered what games I most wanted to jump in and play. Without a doubt, the first that came to mind was AC, since I remembered being very interested in it years ago when creative director Patrice Desilets and producer Jade Raymond showed some early work at GDC 2006.
I want to say from the outset that I loved this game, but I have to be honest and say I loved it largely in the way I love popcorn. For me, there was a definite thrill to be had from the parkour elements, and the graphics were frankly stupendous. I used to be the sort of person who wouldn't really care about graphics, but to be fair in this case, they completely drew me in. In the future, I guess I'm more likely to say that while the play of a game remains most interesting to me, there are certainly large benefits in the areas of immersion to be had from excellent graphics. Not a great insight by any means, but certainly a change in my own thinking.
That said, I truly felt like the gameplay of the game was a bit schizophrenic. In essence, whilst in cities there are two forms of locomotion, walking around slowly on the ground and flying parkour style amongst the rooftops.
The action on the ground seems largely made from negative reinforcement. Moving quickly is discouraged, because if you bump anyone too hard, the guards will wake up and you'll be fighting your way clear, which is fun if you're doing that intentionally because you enjoy the combat, but significantly less fun when you're attempting to execute some mission.
A quick catalogue of the ground obstructions:
- Guards, around whom you must move slowly, because they will otherwise realize that Altair, who is dressed all in white unlike all the folks around him, somehow doesn't fit in and must be that assassin everyone's all worried about
- Beggarwomen, who are placed at various locations and who run up and deliberately obstruct your progress, crying out about their family, and how they have nothing, etc. ³
- Madmen, who simply run up and push you, therefore slowing you down
- Women with baskets, vases, urns and what have you balanced precariously upon their heads, who must be carefully navigated via the game's "push through a crowd" button
- Thieves, who can be pickpocketed for resources (throwing stars, which are of use in the rooftop game), but who, in cases of failure, engage you in a fistfight. These stop randomly, leading to failure.
- Scholars, who obscure your presence but walk maddeningly slowly. They aren't properly speaking an obstruction, but they are indicative of the problem I describe.
This is in signficant contrast to the rooftop game, which is all about speed, killing guards quickly and quietly, moving from place to place with great rapidity, and generally getting that sense of flying that I loved so much from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The extreme positive reinforcement of running around on the rooftops should be reason enough to go up there; the game doesn't need to negatively reinforce the ground game by making it so much slower-paced.
It's particularly noticeable because so much of the game must take place on the ground. Contacts are on the ground, your throwing star refills are on the ground, side missions are on the ground, assassinations are on the ground, which is perfectly sensible and realistic. However, spending time on the ground is such a slog, the differences between it and the rooftop game are so different, that the one feels constantly as if it is fighting the other, like two sides of a split personality.
How would I fix it? (After all, it's easy to complain.) I'd relax the always-on alerts until the main assassinations actually occur, or in particularly sensitive areas like palaces or guard barracks. I'd tie pickpocketing, which already exists, to a small amount of resource management whereby merchants can be pickpocketed and the money given to beggarwomen. Thieves would stop less frequently and for more clear reasons, and vase-carrying women would be automatically navigated unless Altair is running. I'd remove the madmen altogether, and I'd speed up the motion of scholars. In short, I'd aim to make the ground game more quickly paced and only deploy those resources as obstructions when they really ought to be.
I hope I'll be back soon to talk a little bit about how weird it felt to be playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on D-Day.
¹Aside, that is, from time at work spent test/playing Fallout 3, but that doesn't count -- the focus of the eye is less drawn to the positives than the negatives when you're readying a game for ship. (back)
²Both of which will likely see a write-up here at some point, since I've finished F2 already and played it quite alot. And look for a bit about FPS design in reaction to my playthrough of Gears of War, which I finished yesterday. (back)
³I actually found this quite frustrating, because what I really wanted was to give them some money and have them never bother me again. This felt a bit like a lost opportunity element; I would have been interested in paying a beggarwoman money to distract a guard. Instead I found myself tossing dozens of them aside so that I could get 5 cheap achievement points. It didn't work and led to significant unnecessary frustration, quite apart from the realism it was likely intended to convey. (back)
The whole game is simply a brilliant action package that subscribes to the Halo mantra of delivering that same exhilarating burst of action again and again - all to orchestral music that blends the chants of excitable holy men with the familiar strains of John Williams.
Jesse Harlin on the music, everyone else on the "brilliant action package". ;)
Second post about Assassin's Creed will probably drop today -- have been very busy playing games for a change. Getting a new console always seems to goose that for me; it feels like I've finished as many games in the last two months as I think I finished all last year.²
¹I was lead programmer; it's a shame we never got to do a sequel. (back)
²Patently false, by the way. I finished 8 games last year, not including the game on which I worked, and have only finished 4 this year. But it's true that I feel like I have. (back)
July 03, 2009
Assassin's Creed's Functional Story¹
I remember, back when it first arrived on shelves, that Assassin's Creed took some knocks for its story. Not the storyline of Altair, the Third Crusade-era assassin, but that of Desmond Miles, the curious young man whose genetic memories get him kidnapped and made to be part of an experiment which taps into those memories, giving us the story of Altair.
Setting aside the believability of this sort of Lamarckian idea, I've found to my surprise that this story works for me in a purely functional way -- it solves specific game-related problems:
- Make sense of gamer HUD conventions. With Altair's memories being experienced by Desmond Miles through a hardware interface, we're presented with a useful mechanism for introducing HUD elements into the experience. It's essentially as if Desmond Miles is himself a player of games... it makes sense to have the Animus hardware introduce elements that allow Desmond to manage and control his experience.
- Allow for player failure in a less jolting manner. Though Altair apparently dies, this is explained away in the fiction as something that didn't really happen, much like it was in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
- Skip the boring bits in a "realistic" manner. Although by realistic, I mean "internally consistent" with the rest of the experience, this is an interesting point as far as maintaining gamer flow. While some games allow you to travel quickly among locations, it brings you out to an interface which is clearly separate from the game. This can be seen many games, such as in Fable 2, where the player clearly steps out into the UI, selects a destination (typically by quest) and has the option to go there. In Assassin's Creed, while the mechanism is almost entirely the same, the player is instead stepping up and down in levels of the experience -- from Altair up to Desmond Miles.
- Control the experience. While many describe Assassin's Creed as an open world game, in actuality it closely follows the form of Super Mario 64, with Masyaf and the Kingdom more or less serving as the hub (SM64's castle)². Rather than requiring a certain number of stars to open new areas, Assassin's Creed opens its neighborhoods via story goals. The outer story of Desmond Miles allows the inner story of Altair to proceed at a controlled pace, with areas from untapped DNA memories being unexplorable.
- Establish options for a franchise. As with any new IP, a publisher/developer needs to establish options for sequels and new storylines. Having a story in which a character can recover memories from DNA means being able to visit potentially any time-frame, as proven by the recent E³ showing of Assassin's Creed II.
In the end, my feelings are that there were other story options here, such as a format more like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the protagonist's recollections of a series of events became the framework of the narrative and gameplay conventions. However, that may have presented difficulties with controlling the experience, and would have been a stretch at establishing a franchse. I think the "genetic inheritance" storyline presents its problems, and I'm curious where the series will go after Venice, but all in all it did a serviceable job for me.
OK, I'll be back in the next week or so with another look at Assassin's Creed before I turn my sights either on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Fable II.
¹This is the first of two posts about Assassin's Creed; the subsequent post will focus on the game's play systems. (back)
²The topology is a little different in that you're able to seamlessly move back and forth between multiple neighborhoods, which would not have been possible on Mario 64, but if you're running back into a neighborhood you've already completed, you are generally there because a) it's convenient, b) because you're headed to the local Guild office, or c) because you are looking to finish some optional goal in that area. The first case is mostly irrelevant; you are not really "visiting" the hub in the game sense. In the second case, it's more like you're returning to the hub to do unlock more star challenges in the level (i.e. advance the story). Finishing an optional goal is akin to returning to a Super Mario 64 level to pick up a challenge star or something. (back)
May 10, 2009
Finally Did It
Well, I finally broke down and bought myself a 360, after buying myself a big TV to go with it. I've been playing a little Assassin's Creed, some Braid and Schizoid, and will no doubt dip into the Fable 2 and Halo 3 that came with the Elite bundle I picked up.
A few questions for my readers. a) What's the best out there for the system? b) What are your gamer tags? If you'd rather not post to the comments, send me an invite/request or whatever at brettdouville -- inventive gamertag, I know, but I couldn't get the one I wanted and was tired of futzing with the thing at that point.
March 29, 2009
GDC 2009 Art Sessions
Having no actual artistic abilities myself, I rarely attend art sessions at GDC. As I mentioned in the last post, I pretty much confine myself to design sessions. But having attended a couple this year, I think I'll try to at least get to one each year in the future.
The Brütal Art of Brütal Legend
BEST OF SHOW
Double Fine Art Director Lee Petty gave an absolutely terrific talk about the development of three aspects of Brütal Legend's look -- its epic characters, epic skies, and epic terrain. He discussed some particular influences and inspirations for the game, such as heavy metal album covers and a specific artist (you'll have to look this one up, I'm not too up on my painters). From that, he addressed problems they encountered along the way with each of those areas and how they solved them. In a way, this was a fairly engineering-focused talk, if you consider (as I do) engineering to be a problem-solving discipline. Petty described how the characters' original look left them feeling detached from the world, in part due to low pixel density (and a lack of heft to their materials), and how they addressed that within the constraints they faced for the game -- simply throwing more textures at the problem wouldn't work, since they had the potential for far too many types of characters to be on-screen at any one time, so techniques like UV mirroring, low-frequency and high-frequency noise textures came in, with vertex coloring contributing blending information.
Petty spent a significant time describing their lighting models for time-of-day, and how that worked with characters. The big take-away for me in this area of the talk was that a simpler, if less realistic model, is a big win if it gives the artists better control and faster iteration. The original lighting model was highly complex, and difficult to control, and was scrapped in favor of better control for the artists. A sped-up time of day clip showed the results, and they were spectacular.
I won't go into any detail on the terrain issues -- primarily, they were interested in using a fairly simple height map, but addressing the lack of overhangs, and how to match models with the environment to make it closer to seamless.
This was definitely my favorite talk this year; although I'm a huge Double Fine fanboy, the game under discussion was just a bonus. What I specifically enjoyed was the application of craft to solve specific problems in the look of the game.
The Illustrative Rendering of Prince of Persia
This art talk actually straddled art and engineering in a slightly different way; rather than talking about how they solved problems with art, the presenters described the goal for the environments and the characters, and then separately discussed how different rendering techniques were used to achieve those goals. There were discussions of specific techniques (such as rendering characters' slightly bigger and only the back faces to achieve outlines), and providing bias information to artists to control when it was applied. A big take-away from both of these talks was to provide different lighting solutions for your characters, distinct from the environment.
When I'm back in Maryland, I'll be sure to finish this up with the technical talks I attended.
March 28, 2009
GDC Post 1: Design Sessions
Rather than do an enormous post about all the things I saw at GDC (like last year's post), I thought I'd break this up into a few talks basically by discipline. First up, the design sessions I attended.
It's interesting to note that in the past, for the most part I attended no programming or art sessions whatsoever, but this year I actually mixed it up quite a bit. Last year I think I may have been more interested in design simply because I was doing some of my own design, though it has been a trend for years. Programming talks tend to be less interesting to me simply because I'm in the trenches with that stuff all the time -- and art stuff is just out of my area.
Satoru Iwata's Nintendo Keynote
There were a lot of great things in Nintendo President Iwata's talk, but for me the most interesting thing was the distinction he made between the "downward spiral" many game companies face and the "upward spiral" Miyamoto's process brings. In the downward spiral, financial pressure leads to shipping early, which leads to poorer quality, which leads to poorer scores and lowered revenue. Miyamoto, instead, sees ideas everywhere and keeps teams very very small while he prototypes: this relieves financial pressure, giving them time to find the fun, which leads to better reviews and better results.
There were some announcements of new games and improvements with the latest system software, but for me the biggest insight was that above. There were a couple of announcements of games (including a new Zelda title, which I will of course buy), and attendees got a free copy of Rhythm Heaven.
East Meets West
Unfortunately, this year I had to skip out on Clint Hocking's talk, which I always really enjoy, and attended instead a panel with an American designer (Emil Pagliarulo, of Bethesda Softworks, where I now work), and two Japanese designers (Suda51, of Killer 7 and No More Heroes fame, and Fumito Ueda, of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus). These were all designers whose games I've played a ton, consuming everything each has contributed to, so this was a great talk to see.
Despite some translation issues (although they make an effort, I think perhaps development talk is too specialized for the translators we have at GDC to be particularly effective), I picked up a few observations from listening to the speakers. Culturally, Japanese developers seem to follow more of an auteur theory, with the primacy of a single designer, who tends to follow his instincts and promote a shared vision of the game that starts with him, whereas Westerners tend to value feedback and individual contribution, with more of a tension between the designer's instincts and back-and-forth with the team as a whole.
Another minor note: Ueda pointed out that he tends not to use conversation or dialogue in his games because it requires repetition to convey information to the player, which breaks the realism of the conversation itself. Since these two can't be brought into harmony, he just designs conversation out.
Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money
Last year, I particularly enjoyed Margaret Robertson's talk Treat Me Like a Lover. Apparently she must have gotten quite a lot of good feedback, because this year, she got a prime spot mid-Thursday rather than Friday morning at 9 am. This year, Robertson talked about big stories in games and how we don't need them. Progressing from the most compressed story ever written (Hemingway's six word story) to little stories in art (in the Tate Museum) and audio, she talked about how smaller ways of telling stories are a good production solution because they are far more flexible -- if your mission structure has to change, you don't have to record a bunch of new voice lines to cover the bits of stories that were taken out. She also railed against "save the world" stories -- we have saved the world hundreds of times, perhaps we can focus on something else now? On the whole, a thought-provoking topic, reinforcing just how hard it is to do a good story, as well as lots of little ways you can tell little stories well -- and making me hold our own story guys at Bethesda in very high regard indeed.
My First Time
Well, not my first time, but a Game Design Challenge presented by Eric Zimmerman that focused on sex and autobiography as themes. The big surprise was that Kim Swift of Portal fame was not permitted to participate by Valve (which I think they'll come to regret -- it's never good to censor your people). But a couple of latecomers actually managed not only to come up with a design in 36 hours, but to win! Of the three, I think Haro's was my favorite, since he actually implemented something and since it appeared to work very well, but all three presented interesting designs. I love this part of the conference every year, because it tends to showcase real games that you could actually make that are far off the beaten path. Terrific stuff.
Experimental Gameplay Sessions
Jon Blow's Experimental Gameplay Sessions are always interesting and intriguing; regrettably, I was only able to stay for the first hour this year. The first hour focused mostly on different ways of looking at spaces, with a first person game in which the user can paint a white environment with black paint to reveal the world beneath, a platformer which ran around on shadows, and a crazy four-dimensional exploration game. There were a lot of interesting games here, some really thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the lots of little games presented by the designer of Fate. Look for notes online on this talk and make sure you play them, these guys are really pushing innovation, and gamers who enjoy something new should get a look at their efforts.
February 28, 2009
From time to time, I get emails or questions about how to get into the industry; usually, these are from friends of friends, friends of family, the wider network of people I don't know directly but to whom I have only a degree of separation. A few weeks ago I got just such a request from a friend who teaches high school English, and then his student got in touch this week with a few questions. He's looking at getting into the game development business in a few years (after finishing schooling), and after a preamble asked the following three questions:
- How did you get into the industry? I guess this would be most important to me right now, given that I only have the next four years to prepare.
- What sorts of things have you found to be most essential in the development of games you have worked on?
- Is there anything that you did in particular to get yourself taken seriously? I would certainly like to find myself, at least eventually, in a position to be able to persuade a co-worker or peer to approach a project from my point of view, as it seems you have accomplished.
In the interests not of putting off these questions in the future, but of not repeating myself too much and giving anyone else interested a starting point, I asked the young man if he'd be alright with me posting my somewhat edited response here. He was, and so here it is:
There are a million roads into game development; basically everyone I've met has gotten in a different way. I'm an engineer, so I have a particular lens which might be different from yours if you are interested in design, but I'll tell you a bit about what I do and how I got to where I am.
I started gaming when I was 8 or so -- though it was obviously different from the sorts of games you've been playing in the last ten years or so. I started out playing text adventures on a mainframe -- my father would bring home a dumb terminal from his job at a defense contractor and we'd tie up the phone line for hours, pouring out 14-inch wide green-and-white paper onto the floor as we made our way through caves and bizarre rooms and avoided a thieving dwarf. When I was 10 or 11, we got our first home computer -- an Apple II+ with 48K of memory (later expanded to an amazing 64K) -- on which I wrote my first games (as well as my first 3D renderer - in wireframe). These were usually text-based, though some had primitive graphics. I picked up BASIC, of course, and even a little bit of assembly and a variant of Forth, but I stopped programming much in the way of games or anything on my computer probably by the time I was 14.
I ended up going to college for a degree in the humanities (physics and philosophy) and decided in my senior year to look for something different. I had always enjoyed computers, so I thought about going to get an advanced degree in that since physics had turned out not to be for me and I already knew what people thought of stand-up philosophers. I got a masters and was on my way to get a doctorate when I decided that an academic life wasn't really for me. So I cast around for something else, and discovered that in the years I hadn't been doing much gaming, it had grown from being a garage business to big business. I thought it might make a fine career.
I didn't know anyone in game development, but I had played some games on occasion over the years and was a fan of the LucasArts adventure games¹. I received some good advice from a friend that when I was applying for a job with a company, it was a good idea to find someone in that company that you admire and contact him, as well as sending it to the HR department. So I sent Tim Schafer (then of Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island fame) a letter and my résumé, and then followed up with a call a week later. I was going out to the Bay Area anyway to talk with someone else about a job, and asked if I could take Tim to lunch while I was there, so I could pick his brain about getting into game development.
When I turned up in San Francisco, he had set up not just lunch with himself but interviews, which led ultimately to a job as a senior programmer writing the gameplay systems for Star Wars: Starfighter. I have been amazingly lucky in my career thus far, and that was certainly the start. Never did get to work with Tim, though I still await his releases with bated breath². Maybe some day.
Anyway, that's how I got in. The advice I received about finding someone in an organization whose work you really respect was excellent advice, and helped me a lot. I might have gotten a job anyway... but perhaps not. One never knows.
I can recommend a few general guidelines for getting in down the road, once you've gone to school. The first is college... go and get a degree in something that can hold your interest for four years. But experiment, too -- make sure you try a variety of stuff, you never know what might be grist for the creative mill later. There'd be no harm in some introductory psychology, and a whole lot of reading -- personally, I think I have grown immensely through the contact with minds far greater than my own reading the classics provides. Ultimately, to be able to learn to communicate and persuade, you need to practice -- write papers, do research, argue and debate. All the stuff you'd do in college no matter what you want to do later; but learn to think in specifics, not the big hand-wavy "and magic happens" we still see in design documents and discussions from time to time.
At the same time, it's probably worthwhile to keep playing games. But you can't just play them to play them, you have to play like a designer. Take them apart with your brain, analyze how the systems go together, how the various game mechanics reinforce one another (or don't). (As an graduate student in engineering I encountered Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and spent an inordinate time thinking about how I would design the C++ object hierarchy, or solve the various search problems they had.) Think about failures as well as successes. Read books on game design (there are a few good ones -- I like Rules of Play and have been reading Challenges for Game Designers as well). But when you think about games, think about why they entertain you -- if you are just being entertained, you're not doing it right ;) There isn't a games equivalent of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, as far as I'm aware, but that sort of close reading is useful.
Finally, build games. You don't have to be a programmer to make games. You can make board games and card games. You can prototype that way, or make games that are meant to be played that way. Don't limit yourself... people who only play games are boring (and don't come up with interesting games or game themes). While you can't prototype certain types of videogames very well with pen-and-paper, such as shooters, you can still think about the interactions of systems that way.
None of this needs to be expensive -- you can often get enough of a game's design from its demo. You can build card games with decks of cards and some adhesive paper to stick onto them. There used to be a whole company devoted to making games cheaply -- you just had to supply the tokens and dice and stuff like that, they'd supply a cheap card stock board -- called Cheap Ass Games. If you're familiar with it, you can try stuff out in Flash, or in Flex, or in whatever other crazy things they have these days. Most colleges have student editions of software at a deep, deep discount for students, I bought my first C++ compiler this way.
I think that if you've been doing those things, you'll be taken seriously. Frankly, you'll need to pay your dues before you can be expected to be taken too seriously. But being in game development is great fun, offers lots of interesting challenges, and so paying those dues should be interesting. If you have passion for it, and work hard, you'll progress well. The best way to convince anyone of your seriousness is to work hard; producing good work is the only sure path to success. I've been successful not because of my big ideas of things I'd like to do down the road but because I've worked hard to make the projects I was part of a success by focusing on what needed to be done now. Being the best you can be at what you're doing right that moment is the best you can do... and it will open doors. If you have a game you want ultimately to make, you should keep it in mind and enrich it with your work over the years, and maybe some day you'll get to make it. But the only way to get that to happen is to work your hardest on whatever you're doing, and to take on additional responsibilities as long as you can do a good job of them as well. I don't say this to discourage, but rather to encourage -- take your energy and enthusiasm and invest it in your projects, and it will pay off. You may be able to make the game you want to make, or not, to be honest. Ideas are important, but they are only the seed; it takes a lot more to make a good game. Your energy and effort will be what leads to you having authority to persuade co-workers. Your effort and energy and results *are* your credentials. Even when I have been faced with projects or tasks I didn't believe in or agree with, I tried my hardest to make them work. I have been lucky in that these have been few.
¹These were not, of course, the only games I had played by any stretch. I also had a fondness for Ultima games and the occasional console title. I investigated a lot of companies. (back)
²Daron Stinnett, my boss for many years and a friend for more than a decade now, was kind enough to indulge me when I told him I probably wouldn't be getting much work done the week that Grim Fandango came out. I also waited until Psychonauts was released to get an Xbox. I'll probably by my next next-gen system when Brutal Legend finally releases. (back)
³I happen to have, somewhere, a stack of uncut cardstock for the Magic: the Gathering release that would become Invasion, though we called it Spectral Chaos. I also playtested what became Ice Age and it was made with paper stuck to common alphas like lands and walls of wood. That's how Richard made the original sets -- just existing decks of cards or card stock; he refined the mechanics with that. (back)
February 16, 2009
A Zombie Game Done Right
When I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of zombie movies -- I remember seeing a pared-down version of Night of the Living Dead, but beyond that I hadn't really seen many. I mostly got my "horror" fix when I was quite young from Channel 56's "Creature Double Feature" and then later from the early novels of Stephen King¹, as well as the occasional horror comic I could score from the houses of much older cousins, which were shocking even by today's standards, as they were pre-Code, though I didn't know it at the time.
By the time I was an adult, I hadn't seen much in the way of zombie pictures, and didn't really care to see any more. That pared-down version of Romero's classic had turned me off on them, and there was no way my parents would have let me see some of the other classics, like his follow-up Dawn of the Dead, as they were far too violent, had I even cared to. But a few years ago, a friend of mine recommended 28 Days Later and I added it to the queue. Eventually I bumped it up near the top and watched it one week when I was alone in the house.
It turned me back on to the whole phenomenon. It really transformed how I looked at the whole zombie genre, because of the fact that although the zombies themselves were a significant threat, and one that had to be dealt with, the real danger was the people surrounding the protagonists. In 28 Days Later, this was the military group who had plans for survivors. In Night of the Living Dead, which I finally saw in its entirety (both on DVD and then just last October on the big big screen at the AFI), it was some of the people locked up in the house with the hero, and then finally a bunch of good ol' boy deputies that did him in. In the original Dawn of the Dead, it's a gang of bikers. In 28 Weeks Later, it's just about everyone -- but especially Robert Carlyle, who's a big problem both in the opening scene of the film (which occurs concurrently with the original film), and not too long after, when he starts the whole thing up again.
One thing that has always concerned me about games involving zombies is how they fail to capture this basic element. Though I admit I haven't played lots and lots of them, zombie games tend to pit the player against the giant zombie army, with the tools to wreak major carnage. It's good fun, but it lacks the commentary that the zombie movies provide.
But I've finally found the game that makes other humans your worst enemy, and it's the four player co-op extravaganza Left 4 Dead.
Lots of virtual ink has already been spilled over Left 4 Dead, so I'm not going to belabor the point too much. While the game is certainly challenging, on its hardest difficulty level it virtually requires close coordination of the efforts of you and your friends to overcome. It rewards co-operative play in so many ways, and the costs of working against the plan can be extreme.
The first time I played, I nearly wiped our little party when I looked down into some tunnels and saw a critter lying, crying on the ground. Naturally, I thought, "Cool, easy kill" and shot the witch, waking her and sending her screaming up into our midst, causing all kinds of mayhem. "Who shot the witch, who shot the witch?" my buddies were yelling over the xfire or Steam chat² channel we had going. Sheepishly I said, "So, is that bad?" and had explained to me that the witch was basically a Terminator that didn't activate until you got too close or shot her.
We've had evenings where a horde would suddenly descend on us, depleting our ammo, because we hung back too much, didn't keep the forward momentum going because we're all so used to the pacing of games that allow you to spend time finding all the areas on the map. We had someone accidentally set off the fiery trap we had laid for a tank, saying, "Oops!" as his fellows fried. We've opened doors too early. We've left doors behind us open that should have been closed. We've taken painkillers we should have shared with our friends. We've failed to cover friends' backs when they manned the occasional turret. We've gone off chasing a smoker, forcing our buddies into danger trying to track us down. We left one partner to die at the very end of Death Toll, because we didn't realize he wasn't making his way to the boat, and we saw his name listed under "In Memory Of" in the credits.
I'd like to say we've made every mistake human nature allows, but I have no doubt we have several more to make. The zombies... well, the zombies are dumb, or at least, they follow easy-to-understand rules. It's the unpredictability of the humans around you that gets you into real trouble. Hearty congratulations to Valve and the team at Turtle Rock Studios for a job so well done.
¹I remember a few doozies from that time: Five Million Years to Earth, which I could recall only as "Hobb's End" until I started writing this article and found it again on IMDB, and The Brain That Wouldn't Die, now viewable on Google Video. That's what I'm listening to in the background while I post. Stephen King remains a guilty pleasure; the man scared the pants off of me for a solid two weeks of sleepless nights after I read 'Salem's Lot, even sleeping with a crucifix beside my bed; I think I was 12 at the time. Recently I read his new collection of stories, Just After Sunset and it was okay -- but last year or the year before I had to put down The Cell as basically unreadable. I give everything he writes a shot though and finish most of them. (back)
²We have an ongoing disagreement on this issue; some prefer Steam, some prefer Xfire for voice chat. It's a constant source of moderate amusement. (back)
February 14, 2009
A little shout-out to Ye Olde LucasArts crew:
The Chronicle recently posted a list of the "Nine Best Star Wars Games". Happily, Starfighter made the list.
I don't think I've played that since the year it shipped. I should give it a look again. My kids might even be able to play the sequel in co-op now...
February 09, 2009
Lately I've been playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on last gen's Xbox, and it has stirred up a few thoughts I have about difficulty, mostly because it gets it so horribly wrong. I've been gaming a long time, and have come up with a long list of must-haves for most games, particularly games which target the mainstream audience. In my career at LucasArts I helped steer difficulty in some specific directions, some bulleted below, and I actually got a game credit in the "hey, thanks" list for a late but timely suggestion to the project's design director when he used it whole cloth.
The other thing that I ran across in the last few weeks was a little video project by a blogger where he discussed what he felt was the most innovative game of last year -- Prince of Persia, which in a way dropped difficulty altogether, by making the Prince more or less invincible. The Prince was accompanied by a companion who would rescue him when he misjudged, bringing something we saw the beginnings of in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to fruition: a less punishing form of death. Now, I'm fairly certain that I would prefer the latter to the former, but I understand the impetus to applaud the designers. After all, they took a thorny problem and tried something different -- they eliminated difficulty altogether.
Now, bear in mind that I'm targeting mainstream games -- these bullet points are not for games like Ninja Gaiden, which use their difficulty to club gamers into submission. That is more or less its design goal -- to provide an extreme level of challenge, and managing difficulty for them is and should be to make the game as difficult as possible. Similarly, performance games like Guitar Hero, which have difficulty levels but for which the practicing and not the "getting through the narrative bits" is most of the fun, are exempted -- they should adopt and have adopted some of these, but ultimately, it's not what they're about. Here I'm basically talking about mainstream-targeting games with a narrative through-line, primarily action-adventure titles and shooters.
(Program note: I started this post a week ago and a Firefox crash erased it for good; hopefully, I'll recover all the points I had in mind. Crashes always throw off my creative rhythm.)
- Make it easy to switch difficulty whenever the player wants. This may have been somewhat more difficult last-gen, but not appreciably so, so I'm not prepared to give Buffy a pass for this. I'm several levels through this game, and I've decided that the difficulty level is distracting from my enjoyment of the game. I came in looking for some basking in the Buffy-sphere, and picked the "Normal" difficulty, thinking that I'd take it easy on myself, as I used to play games like this on "Hard".¹ However, here I am, maybe a third of the way through the game, perhaps half, and I'd like to dial it back and coast awhile, probably to the end, get a little extra Buffy fix. But changing the difficulty in this case means... starting over. Wow. What. Were. They. Thinking. This is rule #1. This one can't be broken.
- Name your difficulty settings well; describe the user experience for each. We have enough space on the screen to say, "Use this setting if you are unaccustomed to first-person shooters; you can always make it more difficult!" or "You will die. Many times. Most of them unpleasantly. Regardless of your experience level." It's okay to say Easy, Medium/Normal, or Hard... but we have to know what that means to the designer. I thought "Normal" for Buffy meant, "Normal for the sort of person who would watch Buffy" but apparently it actually meant, "Normal for a game designer, who has played more hours of games this week than you do all year."
Note: there may be a temptation to name this stuff from your fiction, but there's a fine line there. If Buffy named its Hard mode "Slayer", I'd want to play just because, hey, I want to be the Slayer. Isn't that why I'm playing this game? Mainstream players may not understand that you're being cute, and may be turned off when you call your easy level of difficulty "Puppy mode".
- Adjust to the player. I'm not talking some extreme form of dynamic difficulty adjustment, that fabled Shangri-La of difficulty design which somehow magically keeps the player in the sweet spot of perfect level of challenge (and which we will never reach). Sucker Punch did an amazing job with this in Sly Cooper; I don't recall it making a return in the sequels, but it was in the original game and was inspired. After dying a few times on a level, the game would grant you a "lucky silver horseshoe" when you returned; this would prevent your death, returning you to full health once over the course of the level. If you died several more times, it'd give you a gold, which was worth two deaths. It was a simple little crutch, accommodated different levels of ability and the fact that the developers may have been unable to judge the difficulty of their levels. I recommended a variant of this to my friend years ago, and that's what they implemented.
- Make it clear what dials the difficulty knob turns. This is one we sort of failed on my LucasArts projects; we had a very clear idea of what difficulty was going to be, but ultimately we didn't communicate it to the player. It's a few years back now, but what I recall is that we simply applied a multiplier to the damage enemies did to the player. The thinking was that players would get the same experience, they'd just survive longer and thereby be able to defeat more enemies.
- Provide the player with more knobs. It's great to say Easy, Medium, and Hard, but it's even better to allow the player to adjust certain aspects of the game themselves. Perhaps a gamer wants harder puzzles but simpler combat or vice versa. If your game supports jumping puzzles, feel free to give the player a knob saying, "OK, you can jump a little further." The best example of this I can recall is System Shock 2, which gave three axes of difficulty via its configuration files.²
- Do not hide the things that make the game easier. Buffy hides secrets in each level, and tells you on the pause screen how many there are to be found. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, these are things that make the game easier -- health potions that you carry in your inventory, and health and power crystals you give to Willow to power you up in between levels. This is insane. Not only is the game difficult, but I have to seek all over your levels (risking more spawning vampires) to find the things that'll make my life easier? Legend of Zelda has been hiding hearts in stray clumps of grass for years -- don't be stingy! Your mainstream players want to get through the game and feel a sense of accomplishment. Be big-hearted and let them.
- Test your difficulty settings on real people. Years ago I was playing Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, which LucasArts had released shortly before I started working there. I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting and got to the mid-game level where Kyle Katarn has to escape a falling Star Destroyer, or whatever, within a certain time limit. I tried again, and again, and again. Finally I asked a designer friend of mine, and he said that the way they set the time for that level was to take the fastest tester's time to complete it... and to subtract ten seconds. I could have played that for days and not beaten that time. Finally, I just asked for the cheat code to move to the next level and moved on. Particularly when we develop for the mainstream, we are not our audience and we do not share our audience's goals. This is true for me with Buffy: I'm looking for more Zander-Cordelia banter and Willowisms... not another ten nailbiting vampire combats.
This is true not just of combat. I knew someone who struggled with getting out of the Black Mesa lab -- because it didn't occur to him to break the glass on the elevator door with the crowbar he was carrying.
- Give players time to get used to new tools before you throw a challenge at them that demands those tools. Buffy has thrown several new kicks and spins and other combat moves at me to absorb into my arsenal of moves. However, because I can only really use these in combat (since they use up a resource that I can't otherwise recharge), I'm kind of stuck. I'd like to be able to practice these before I have to use them in combat, but I don't have any option to do so. Zelda games have historically done this well also -- big challenges appear after you've gotten a new ability, but usually you have an opportunity to use that ability in a safer, less threatening environment, typically in level navigation.
- Make suggestions. We have the tools to fight player fatigue. If a player spends a long time in an area, we can detect that and give them hints. That can even be one of the knobs, "give me hints when it looks like I'm lost." I know that Perfect Dark Zero got some flak for this particular decision, but honestly, I think it was a good one. Hardcore players should be able to turn it off, and it should never be a crutch to avoid careful level design... but it should be used as a crutch for players who are easily disoriented in virtual spaces.
- Your easiest setting should basically be "push button, win game". You will think that it can't be made easier, that there are no wall missions. You will be wrong. Make it easier.Give them an out.
I'm sure there are more, and almost certainly I had another one or two in mind last week, but I'm getting tired and thinking of finishing a movie before hitting the sack. I'll add to this if anything from last week occurs to me again, and I encourage comments to throw out ideas I might have missed or forgotten.
Difficulty often breeds frustration, particularly in the narrative-plus-action games that licenses lend themselves too. Give your players a break... and they'll come back.
¹Sad but true, I'm also getting older, but it's not a lack of finger dexterity that gets me in the end, it's the lack of time to play on a more regular basis. I got very close to the end of Metroid Prime 2 some years back and then got quite busy with work. I've never gone back, because attempting to play once your skills start to fall away is no fun at all. (back)
²Normally I'd say putting it in the config files was bogus, but it was definitely a hobbyist game, and it was on the PC, where config files were practically the latest and greatest tech. :) (back)
January 27, 2009
Suppose Death is a Woman, What Then?¹
My thinking on this issue has come together over the course of a few items which happened to come into my life at the same time. The first two of these were two terrific books, both given to me by the same wonderful woman², The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Death, With Interruptions by José Saramago.
In both works, the figure of Death is identified as a woman, and in one of them takes a rather central role. A female incarnation of Death is not, of course, new -- Gaiman's most famous creation, Dream, has a sister in Death. But for me, the character had always been masculine, whether due to the early influences of A Christmas Carol (where the ghosts appear all to be male, and the ghost of Christmas Future is closely associated with death) or of On A Pale Horse³, or even the Twilight Zone episode with Robert Redford called Nothing in the Dark. I'm not really certain where I got this idea of death as a masculine presence, but it's certainly always been there.
I read these two books within the last few weeks, finishing them within a couple of days of one another. I remarked to myself on the coincidence, two female characters embodying death, bringing female qualities to the character. In the Gaiman book in particular, the mothering traits of the feminine are emphasized... death is an empathetic, caring, figure, and that side comes out in the Saramago as well.
This is, of course, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer enters our story, though not because of any representations of death in the show. Instead, it's because my enjoyment of the first season of the show caused me to hunt down a copy of the original Xbox game which bears the license. I remembered playing a small amount of it at the time it came out because the developer was working on an Indiana Jones title for LucasArts at the time, and also because we were looking at fighting systems for the Full Throttle sequel (later canceled). I mentioned in this blog that I picked up that as my first licensed title that I bought because of my interest in the license4.
While I'll take up some other points with Buffy's gameplay later, the relevant bit here is how often Buffy, and games in general, treats death in a less welcoming way -- it's a huge obstacle. Not only do the vampires or whatever it is that killed you taunt you and trash talk you as your crumpled Buffy avatar falls to the ground, but you end up repeating everything in the level up until that point. This is a fairly common approach to dealing with death in games, though perhaps more common last generation than this. But it's an intensely rough and I would even say masculine approach to failure: toughen up and get through this!
I'd like to see a more humane approach to death, a more feminine approach to failure in games -- treat me more kindly as you kill me off. Don't make me repeat more than is necessary for me to learn my mistake. Don't tell me how much I suck as I die, an experience which gets its fullest expression in the Unreal Tournament series, where to add personality to the 'bots, they have all sorts of voice lines that imitate the sorts of things you'd hear from a deathmatch with human players on the Internet, which is precisely why I have no interest in playing competitive shooters like Halo on the Internet. Treat me with empathy, say "Gosh, you died. You might not have realized that such-and-such creature is more dangerous, and you should focus your fire there first" or "If Buffy doesn't crouch to go down a ladder, it's not a ladder." (Granted, better art often solves that problem entirely.)
The last bit that brought it all together was Shamus Young's "video project," where he discusses what he feels to be the most revolutionary game in 2008: Prince of Persia. He finds it revolutionary because the player is simply not allowed to die. I've embedded it below for your viewing pleasure -- he makes a cogent argument that I'll not repeat in its entirety here.
Now, I'm not arguing for games that make failure impossible. I'm enough of a hardcore gamer that the mere whiff of failure isn't enough for me -- I want the actual opportunity to fail, so long as that failure feels fair to me, although I would certainly enjoy a more empathetic solution. I'd like to know why I died and get some strategy pointers, and I'd like the opportunity to attempt that same challenge again as quickly as possible.
At the same time, I can see a great deal of value in providing difficulty settings that move away from "Easy" "Normal" "Hard(core)" to something more useful. More like, "Navigation Difficulty -- Your sidekick will rescue you, Your sidekick will rescue you n times, You will learn by constant failure" and "Puzzle Difficulty -- Puzzles will nearly solve themselves, You will be given clear hints whenever you spend more than 3 minutes on a puzzle, You will need your Internet connection to check GameFAQs when stuck." Give me knobs and dials to customize the level of challenge I want, and stop treating me in demeaning ways when I inevitably fail. I'm not looking for challenges that take me hours to overcome -- I'm looking for new experiences that hopefully teach me a little something along the way. Treat me with a little empathy... and Death as if she's a woman.
I'll be back to this space in a week or so with another post... I've no idea yet what about. :)
¹Normally I would apologize to an author for appropriating his line, but given Nietzsche's misogyny, I'll pass. (back)
²In fact, this same woman has helped contribute to me blogging again, so, all my readers should be glad that I have made her acquaintance. All three of you! (back)
³Wow, who knew that Piers Anthony returned to this series a little over a year ago. I'm rather too old to read Piers Anthony anymore, but perhaps at some point I can entice my sons into the series and sneak their copy of the eighth book when they check it out of the library. :) (back)
4 While I certainly own other licensed titles, those are almost entirely due to my former employer. I also have a 007 title because it featured a co-op campaign, which Andrew and I played a bit of, and some stuff I bought for the kids. (back)
January 20, 2009
I always keep my eyes open for something a little different, especially on the consoles and handhelds. I'm particularly interested in the weird stuff that turns up on consoles because they seem to have the greatest mass market reach in some ways, while also being clearly intended for gaming use¹. This is why I have copies of things like Rez, or Killer 7, or Okami; they're different, and different sometimes goes a long way.
It's also why I picked up a copy of Persona 3: FES, which came in its extended edition last summer or so. I was enticed by the mix of traditional JRPG fare with some weird slants. First, and probably most visible to non-gamers, was the decidedly quirky method of summoning critters to do battle for you -- the protagonist and his party cast their various magics by, well, shooting themselves in the head and heart with some sort of pistol-looking thing². This was enough to provoke mild curiosity, but not really enough to draw me into the game -- it's really just a different animation for summoning and except for what it says about culture, has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever. What really drew me in, and what garnered it critical acclaim, was the non-traditional play whereby you gained in power by strengthening relationships between the hero and various other characters in the high school which he attends.
That seemed really cool. I liked the idea of having more powerful magic in the areas in which I was investing the character's time. So I started off, getting a few social ranks with the "mage", a geeky character who wanted to pursue a romance with his teacher. And then I found myself in which the "Chariot", a jock who was pushing himself tremendously hard on the swim team, to the point of passing out in practice. There was also the "Hermit", a character I met in the game's MMO. And the "Lovers". And the "Emperor". And. And. And.
Soon I had at least half a dozen storylines that had hooked me enough that I wanted to know how they turned out. I began to devise strategies and jot them down in a text file on my laptop (open while I played, so I could remember which spells were "ice" and which were "fire" etc, since the names didn't map to my Final Fantasy knowledge). "OK," I'd tell myself, "I can go to the student council meeting on Tuesday, but then I need to go to swim practice on Wednesday and make sure I get down to the art room on Thursday. Oh, but wait, what about the mage?" After a while, I started to feel exhausted at the thought of playing, and would turn to other things.
It's analysis paralysis. I didn't actually care much at all for the actual use of the magic I was getting, which was typical RPG repetitiveness. I just wanted to know how the stories would play out, and I had this anxiety about whether I was spending enough time with each character to bring those stories to their conclusions. Would I end up finishing the game but only partway through half a dozen storylines? That wouldn't do at all. Could I add more to my schedule?
In the end, I feel like the game gave me lots of interesting decisions to make, but unfortunately, I'd need to go elsewhere to understand the longer-term ramifications of those decisions. This hasn't been a problem in other RPGs, in my experience; I've always known more or less where a particular road would take me, even if in general terms. Or I knew, as with Fallout 3, that I'd have time to explore all the options in which I was interested, so long as I didn't finish the main quest.
It's not as if the stories were necessarily all that interesting, even. It's just the thought that I would start a story and maybe not get to finish it. There was just enough mystery there to hook me.
In the time since I've stopped playing, I've several times thought of going over to GameFAQs and tracking down some sort of story document. Something always stops me, maybe some vague sense that I'll get back to the game some day or feeling like it's just not right to do it. I'm still wondering how I would resolve this in the game, and some day maybe I'll find out. I'll let you know.Maybe I just need to find the right frame of mind.
Anyone else have this feeling with a game? Also, join me again in the next several days or so for a discussion of Death... as a Woman.
¹Despite Sony's protestations to the contrary. (back)
²I'm convinced that this is a Japanese thing, along the lines of drawing power by being totally committed to a plan of action. I remember reading in James Clavell's Shogun a scene in which the hero gains new life after deciding to commit seppuku when commanded to by the titular character. Although he fails in the attempt (a faster, samurai-guided hand intervenes and plucks the dagger from his grasp at the last moment), he nonetheless feels suddenly, completely, vibrantly alive having decided to pursue death in that manner. (back)
January 12, 2009
One of the books I read as last year drew to a close was Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, a collection of essays about his influences, his thoughts on genre, and of particular interest to this specific entry, his thoughts on writing. The pieces cover all manner of influences, interests, and beliefs regarding writing (both his own, and others'), and he reveals much of himself; many of the short pieces appeared previously, and in advance or concurrently with the novels they prefigure or discuss. It's clear that Chabon deeply inhabits his interests as he writes, that he's passionate about his influences and that he shares much of himself in his writing.
"Golems I Have Known¹", the last piece, is of particular interest to creators of all kinds and to me particularly. As the title might indicate, the essay deals a bit with the creature of Jewish folklore that has crossed over to various other locations -- I met my own first golem in Dungeons and Dragons², and you can see them all over the place, including World of Warcraft and any number of our electronic entertainments. The famous Golem of Prague featured prominently in my favorite Chabon novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the essay touches on this golem and others that supposedly the author has personally encountered, as well as other literary golems such as Frankenstein's Monster. The essay is adapted from a speech that Chabon gave several times earlier in the decade, often for book-signings and the like, and I can't help but think that I would really have liked to hear him give this speech.
Although he spends some time describing the construction of a golem, and the dangers which lie within the process (especially at its termination), the folkloric creature is of less interest to Chabon (and to me) than the metaphor he weaves from it. The folkloric golem is a product of devotion and ritual, a constant outpouring of oneself that presents great dangers to its creator, who at all times is at risk of being destroyed by his creation. The golem thereby is a metaphor for all worthwhile creative endeavor; the artist puts more than simple effort and craft into the making of a work of interest, he puts a great deal of himself, perhaps all of himself. When the creation is completed, it is animate, a living thing that can destroy its very creator, if it has been made properly, that is, if the creator has risked everything. Coming at the end of a collection in which Chabon makes clear some of the direct events in his life which are reflected in his work, the discussion is a powerful one.
And of course, here's where games come in. Of any creators, we game-makers arguably make the most living simulacra out there. Other media seem dead by comparison; we make systems that live and breathe if we choose them to, though in many cases we simply follow closely the frameworks of other media we're interested in emulating, or which have informed our own growth. Yet so many of our creations strike me as curiously lifeless, as if no one has given anything of themselves in making it. Not all, for certain, and I'll talk about some that I've played and read about that seem to me to have a bit of life to them, but many -- most -- of what we put out on the shelves or the web or what-have-you seem to barely skim the surface of actual individual lives. At least in the triple-A space, we bring dozens of unique life perspectives to the table, if we're lucky and yet, as anyone who has played them for years and years can attest, this year's games aren't really all that different from last year's, in terms of actually carrying real emotional content. I'm not even asking about whether they can make you cry, or whatever, I'll take as read that at the very least we can make some cutscenes tied to gameplay about characters we can manufacture some feeling for (through tricks we steal from film, primarily) -- I'm talking about lasting emotional impact, characters or events that educate us. As I've mentioned in other ways in this blog, I think this shallowness is a real problem for us.
There are counterexamples, and they give me hope. I think there were a number of games over the last year or so that bore the mark of the people that made them. Some I think show promise that more of interest is coming³, some that are already quite interesting (Jason Rohrer's work, or Rod Humble's The Marriage), some that I need to play (here's looking at you, Braid), and then the occasional Tim Schafer game. I've always felt that you can learn a lot about Tim Schafer from playing his games -- he creates characters from aspects of people he has known, his subject matter is always fresh and interesting and clearly of personal interest; clearly, business decisions did not drive LucasArts into Grim Fandango. His games remain some of the few story-based games I've played more than once, if not the only ones.
So, I'm calling on those game developers who stop by this blog to invest something of themselves in what they make. You can create animation that contains quirks from that third-grade gym coach, you know, the one with the bushy mustache and what seemed like the longest arms in the world -- perhaps something in the way he held his arms out when he was frustrated can make it into a bellow. You can model based on the outsize oddities you've encountered in your life. You can write from stuff in your life -- in the thousands of little datalogs and books and whatever that is "background material" in many of our games these days, you can craft a story that is touched with just enough of your personality to elevate it beyond the trite, rehashed bits we see in so many stories. You can say, as I've heard it said, that we're in a business, that we make "games not art", that we are hit-driven and product-driven and our audience doesn't want that, and it's all about the money. To that I say, echoing the title of the other book I received along with Chabon's: Shakespeare Wrote for Money.
¹Subtitled, "Or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name Is Napoleon," which I like for many reasons, not least of which is that it properly indicates that Chabon has exactly two sons. :) Yes, I am also a geek about language, but of course, you knew that already. (back)
²Of stone, as I recall. (back)
³Everyday Shooter, while it feels personally influenced, also feels like the product of someone who hasn't lived a lot yet, and I don't even a little bit mean this as a slam. I honestly look forward to great things coming from Jonathan Mak, when he learns a little bit more about the human condition or at the very least, if he already knows more than he's saying, when he can put it into gameplay. (back)
January 04, 2009
Where the Time Goes
Over the last year, I've tried to keep reasonable records of what I've read, watched, and played, trying to get a feel for how I spend my leisure time. I didn't do it as a specific sort of experiment, nor did I use it to drive what I consumed; I mean, I didn't specifically keep tabs on how many movies I had watched, nor how many books, and didn't decide with what to entertain myself next based on how much I had done. I took stock mid-year, just before I started working in an office again, just out of curiosity, but continued on as I had. Yes, I am completely aware that such categorization and records make me a complete geek. This should not be news to anyone.
Here are the numbers and a little explanation of what each of these meant or entailed. This only includes films, books, or games that I finished this past year, and was regardless of whether I started them this year (though you can safely assume all films were started this year ;)
- 192 films: More accurately, 192 film or video experiences. I saw 36 movies on the big screen, but also 16 seasons of television (I consider each season a single unit, rather than by DVD disc), and a large handful of Dr Who episodes from the '70s that I watched with the kids. So call it 150 movies, and nearly 50 'other'.
- 62 books: This is pretty accurate; I 'read' 3 audiobooks (I feel sure this is under by a couple), 9 were non-fiction, and a few of these were graphic novels or comics compilations¹.
- 8 games. Yeah, let me repeat that: 8 games. This number climbs to 9 if you count Fallout 3 which I played through twice at work. It's probably fair to count it. These are videogames only, not the boardgames I played at the couple of Game Nights I attended this year or the multitude of games I played with my sons, nor any of the time I spent at their baseball games or anything like that.
There are a few ways to interpret this data or to blog about this information. I'll talk about the game-related stuff primarily, since this is mostly a game blog, but there's overlap for sure.
The Resolutionary: I could, of course, look at that list and say, "Hey, I need to resolve here in the New Year to spend more time playing games over the next year." It's fair to say that this just isn't going to happen. I have to say, I've found myself less and less interested in spending my time playing them. I enjoy them socially -- I recently started up World of Warcraft again to be able to play with friends in California once a week. I try to play co-op once a week (and it's more like once a month, if I'm lucky, given the time difference), and I enjoy that when I play. I love sitting down and playing co-op Gears of War or competitive Guitar Hero with a friend. But sitting playing a single-player game hasn't grabbed me all that much lately.
The Accountant: That bit about playing a single-player game not grabbing me isn't entirely true. I played Fallout 3 in its entirety twice through, clocking around 350 hours with the game, though I was being paid for this time. Perhaps a better title to look at would be Ratchet & Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal, which I played probably for nearly 100 hours, since I managed to max out every weapon, get every bit of armor, and find every secret whozit or whatzit. If I look at the hours I spend at each of these activities, they are roughly the same: if you discount audiobooks and consider books to be three or four times as long as movies, and consider movies at about two hours, and games to be an average of about 50 hours or so, this all seems to come out in the wash.
The Biorhythmicist²: I could say that these things go in cycles. I do know that I spent a significant amount of time last year playing games, having finished 5 games in the last 3 months of 2007. And I know that towards the end of 2006 I had a bunch of time to play as well, and did so. This has a little bit of weight, because there are times when I definitely feel the itch to play games. But I haven't spent any significant amount of time on a game since August, which is when I started playing Persona 3: FES.
The Apologist: Hey, maybe I'm just not playing the right games, the games that will really grab me and not let go. This may be true -- I did not yet buy Braid, although I definitely intend to when a PC version is available, or when I buy a 360. [I admit, I am rather dying to play that game, but I'm not going to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars (I don't yet have an HD TV) to play it. I'm sure it's good, and I will play it.] Also, games tend to be less and less about finishing them, and more and more about the experiences of playing them with friends, for example, and certainly if you have a Wii, which doesn't have lots of traditional single-player games. Both of these arguments have some force, for sure. I have spent several hours on Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart Wii with the kids, though I haven't been too interested in "finishing" them. I am unable to finish any of the Guitar Hero games on Expert because I tire of playing the same songs over and over in practice mode to be able to beat them and move to the last tier or two of songs.
In the end, all I can really say is that I didn't play a lot of games this year, although there are a few that have caught my eye that I'd like to play in the next year or two. I'm going to keep track of this stuff through the next year as well, and see where we are a year from now.
One thing I can say is that I'd like to blog more about games in the next year. I didn't blog much over the past year, less because I didn't have things to say than that I fell out of the habit. In the end, maybe that's all that's happened with games this year. Maybe I've just fallen out of the habit? I don't feel like reading and film are habits, but games, games definitely might be. And that may say a lot about my relationship with videogames.
Okay folks, my laundry is out of the dryer and awaiting folding, so I'm going to leave you with this and come back soon with some talk about making golems.
¹The graphic novels were generally compilations of comics, and I counted these as a single item per title. So, for example, I read all 9 of the extant Y: The Last Man collections and counted them as one, and similarly the first six 100 Bullets collections. I think I may have read a few others (Invincible, for one) but didn't record them. I did also read a couple of years of Best American Comics and counted each separately. (back)
²Warning: I entirely made that word up. Do not attempt to float this word by William Safire at a party, as he is likely to laugh directly in your face, perhaps spraying you with a fine gin and tonic. (back)
September 17, 2008
A Quick Note for SWRC Fans
So, I was at the Maryland Rennaissance Festival this past weekend and was thoroughly overwhelmed by one tattoo in particular:
I asked him about it (rather than surreptitiously snapping it) and he said that he loved the game and although he wanted to get the appropriate helmet for the tattoo, he couldn't find reference art on it.
Nice to meet friends in the strangest places, isn't it?
August 24, 2008
That One Time It's Different
Spoilers ahead, including in the footnotes.
Over the last several months I've been occasionally dipping into No More Heroes, Grasshopper Manufacture's first title for this generation of machines. I had played Killer 7 while between contracts a year and a half ago and had enjoyed both the gameplay and the bat-shit craziness of the storyline, elements of which are still pretty memorable. I had also seen Suda51 last year at GDC and found him really interesting¹. I was curious to see whether his latest game lived up to the title of his talk, "Punk's Not Dead." By and large, I'm happy to say it did.
The game is interesting in its punk aspect -- it knows it's a game for hardcore players, and characters constantly deride the hero for being an otaku and play up stereotypes associated with gamers. So right off the bat, it's snubbing its audience. If the game had a face, it would be a sneer.
But at the same time, in little ways it entirely embraces its audience. It knows it's not going to be mass market, and so it does things that might not fly in a mass-market game. In particular, there are several "one-offs", little things that are different here and there, and which tell me that someone at Grasshopper was passionate about something. There are other things about it that both mock and embrace their audience, but the one-offs are what have survived in thinking about this article.
Now, I confess, one-offs are something teams I've always worked on have tried to avoid. They're the special cases that games that are intended for the mass-market try to avoid, for at least a couple reasons:
- They can be confusing, or at least, we as developers think they might be. Usability studies give us some belief in this: players want clarity in how their expectations are met. We strive to give them this by a consistent interface (and perhaps an interface which is consistent with other games in our genre). They know that Y means jump always. They know how the jeep is going to behave, because we played Halo and it works just like that. So we attempt to lower the bar to entry by working within the constraints that seem to apply to the mass-market. I'm sure we're not always right, but with millions of dollars on the line, we're trying both to provide a particular wish-fulfillment fantasy and not alienate a large segment of the audience.
- They can be expensive, or perceived as so. Once you hit your stride in developing a game, it turns out that you have almost no time left to actually finish it. And at that point, adding in features that are going to be used in exactly one place seem expensive (in terms of cost per gamer-minute playing it vs. the rest of your game) or frivolous (Joe's doing what again? he could be supporting three animators for the same amount of tech!). They get cut in proportion to how much work they seem to be -- we cut a major enemy in Republic Commando a full year before ship because the work just didn't justify the one-off, as the rest of the game would have suffered. We would have used the enemy maybe twice, and that would really have been once too many, since the environments would have had to be highly constrained.
Now, you might say that this is all foolish, that the market's really hungry for something different and wacky, with lots of individual one-offs. But as I write this, No More Heroes shows 200K sold in the US, Zack and Wiki shows 250K in the US. Both of those have been out for months (8 for NMH, 10 for Z&W), and yet Madden NFL 2009 has been out about a week and sold 1.33 million.
Anyway, so it's a bit of a pleasure to find a game that in little ways does things a little different from time to time. Here are a few examples:
- Scorpion Extermination: In the game, there are lots of "odd jobs"... these are part of the filler material that happens in the open-world game between the boss battles². Now, each odd job could be considered a sort of special case, I suppose. But really, as a coder, I can see how I would have coded them to make them all the same. Basically, they tie together a location, an animation, and the way you have to wiggle the Wii-mote to achieve the goal. The content is different every time, from picking up coconuts to cleaning graffiti, but it's basically the same gameplay, much like God of War's door opening animations. I've digressed. The Scorpion Extermination one is different in that it's the only one where the title of the mission is displayed on screen, up in the top-left, in one of those "monster" style fonts.
How did this happen? I'll tell you exactly how it happened. Someone passionate on the team, someone like my buddy Nathan ³, liked something about the idea of this mission. I can just hear him coming into my cubicle now and saying, "Dude, we need to put the mission name on the screen for this one." "Why?" "Because it's (cue emphatic voice and dramatic hand gestures) Scorpion Extermination". And that night that guy would stay late and code it in somehow, maybe as a horrible special case, and a year later I'll still be remembering that silly little mini-game that was different from all the others, because someone's passion showed through.
- Leaving my apartment, and Jeane the cat: So, your apartment has a few functional things in it. You can save your game, replenish your health, look at your collection of Lucha Libre masks, learn a new wrestling move, etc. And, to no apparent benefit or interest whatsoever, you can play with your cat, Jeane. Playing with your cat involves watching an animation of you playing with your cat -- feeding it, petting it, teasing it with a toy, lots of little stuff with no real interaction (though I think you can press the A button to advance it in some way). It's totally minimal, and yet I did it every now and again just because hey, why not?
When you leave your apartment, every time, the game stops at a particular frame of the "walk through door" animation, does their specialized render frame buffer effect for load transitions, and plays a guitar chord. Well, every single time except exactly once. One time (one time!), they don't stop it there. The main character exits, and the door stays open, and his cat wanders around near the door and then slips out, only to appear in the boss battle (as a totally minimal element) that comes up not long after. A year from now, I am going to forget many details about this game, but I am going to remember the one time that the cat got out.
- My shorted lightsaber: Okay, they're not called lightsabers, they're called something else, but to me, if it walks like a duck... Anyway. Nearly every mission in the game is fundamentally the same. You walk into an area, turn on your lightsaber, and carve up a bunch of low-level baddies until you get to the boss. There are a couple variations on this, and those are interesting, but they don't stick in my mind as much, mostly because they're not as fun. The one that really sticks with me is the level where Travis walks in with his lightsaber, and then someone turns on the sprinklers, which causes it to short out. However, it doesn't just short out, it shorts out and starts hitting Travis with zaps of electricity, so he walks as if he's being electrocuted at each step until he can find the sprinkler controls and shut them off. He goes through the whole level this way, and then has to fight his way back because progressing to the next level happens where he started. It's brilliant, and a year from now, I'll still chuckle about it.
I don't know, maybe this stuff just sprung from the mind of Suda51, but it didn't feel like it, or perhaps it's just not how I imagine it based on teams I've worked with. Cheers to the special cases: as a manager responsible for hitting dates, I hate them. As a player... yeah, they're what I remember. I like Suda51's games precisely because they show exuberance and passion -- their gameplay is decent, but their passion shows through in a lot of little ways.
Believe it or not, I have a couple other posts brewing, so the few of you who still check back here now and again, make sure you comment so that I know you're still reading ;)
And yes, that's two in one night. Hell, that's two in one
¹Also super interesting from Japan that year were the Ouendan guys -- their characterization of Japanese culture as "hot" vs the West's "cool" was almost revelatory. (back)
²I know what you're thinking: "Brett, you're talking about a game with little inconsistencies and special cases, and it has bosses? Aren't those all special cases?" In this case, they're really not. The boss battles, while they have varying art, are actually fairly similar in play to one another. Each boss may have a slightly different special attack, but the battles basically boil down to a strategy of waiting for a special move, making sure you're not in front of it, and stepping up to whack the boss a few times. If not for the completely crazy situations in which they're set, they would be thoroughly uninteresting. This makes them entirely different from Zelda, where each boss has you using a new trick, or Shadow of the Colossus, where each boss is a different navigation puzzle using a very small set of skills. (back)
³I specifically mention Nathan here because of Wookiees. In Star Wars Republic Commando, Nathan came to me and said that he felt like the Wookiees were lacking -- and they were, their weapons didn't feel sufficiently cool and as an occasional companion, they didn't really differentiate from the squad except for being, well, less cool. But here they were, modeled to be bigger and bulkier and generally meaner-looking than Chewie, but undersold by their animations, AI, and accoutrements. (How's that for alliteration?) Anyway, he suggested we give them killer melee attacks, which sent my lead engineer worries abuzz -- too frivolous and expensive! But we found a way to data-drive it so it felt like a relatively small amount of tech for a large amount of variability, a clear win. And to date, they remain some of my favorite animations in the game, including the one that I told Dave Bogan we couldn't include both because of being worried about memory late in the project and our ESRB rating. Damn, Dave, that was cool. It was the right decision, but I wish I could have made it differently. Still have it somewhere? I'd love an AVI :) (back)
May 19, 2008
Respect My Time
So, lately I've been playing Dark Cloud 2. Honestly, I'm no longer sure why, as I've stopped taking much pleasure in it. Generally speaking, I love Level 5's games -- I played about 100 hours of Dragon Quest VIII and beat every available puzzle in Professor Layton's Village (even helping Stephen Totilo over at MTV's "Multiplayer Blog" find one he had missed). I even played quite a bit of the original Dark Cloud, though I had gotten stumped at one point, being unable to beat a boss due to how I had upgraded my weapons or something. When my original PS2 was stolen in a burglary, including the memory card, I was glad at least that I no longer had to be guilty about not finishing Dark Cloud¹; although I really enjoyed the hook of the game, being stuck in that spot with no way forward nor back was frustrating.
I was really drawn in by that hook: the "georama" elements. The bad guy was out there destroying the world by sucking up all the people and their homes and villages and what-not, and imprisoning them in little spheres that he distributed through dungeons. Sure, it's not the most amazing premise, but what it underlied was a fun little puzzle game. You'd go through the randomly generated dungeons, finding the little bits of geometry and the parts you needed to put everything back together, and then you'd return to the original village's spot and lay stuff down. The real fun for me came in interacting with the newly regenerated villagers: they would complain about not wanting to live next to so-and-so, or "wouldn't it be nice to have the river nearby", or some other simple requirement, and then you'd go and move everyone around until you had found an arrangement of homes and other cultural objects that made everyone in the village happy. It was not so much a process of restoring the world as restoring it and granting everyone's wishes in the meantime. It was immensely more satisfying and innovative than I had a right to expect in such an early PS2 title.
The things that reviewers faulted the game for were things like how generic the dungeons were, or how generic the story was, or that the action combat was just button-mashing, or whatever, the usual complaints. But I was quite happy with all the effort they had put into the little villages -- the feeling that there were lots of individual little people living out their fairly simple lives, yet who had enough personality to describe in nicely written prose (no voice acting) what would bring them contentment. If you had simply looked at the GameFAQs list of things to do for each village, you would have robbed yourself of all the little pleasures that the game offered.
So, I was really thrilled to move forward and play the sequel, which I finally picked up recently for a song. I remember being quite busy when it came out, and so its release passed me by, but it garnered significantly better reviews (and checking game rankings, it looks like it nearly hit 90%, whereas the original was just under 80%). Lately I've had a little more time and so I pulled it out and started plowing in some hours. The thing that has been biting me again and again is one of the points that Margaret Robertson made at her GDC 2008 talk, "Treat Me Like a Lover." This game has absolutely no respect for my time. Here are the principal issues:
- There are keys in the game that only unlock one thing. This is fine; for example, each level has a monster who will drop the key to exit the level, which is a one-time use item used when, bingo, you wish to exit the level. (Some levels also have rooms with their own locked doors with a separate unique key. And there are also chests which are locked which have a third type of key.) What is not fine is that every time I go up to the exit, I have to open my inventory with a button², and page through all of my stuff until I find the item. If I accidentally select the wrong item, I am "rewarded" with a little, unskippable animation of one of my lovable little avatars shrugging his or her shoulders at me. "Too bad, you doofus," they mock, "that's not the item. Come on, you can do better than that!" This whole thing should have been a one-button procedure -- bump into the exit and get a dialog which asks, "Do you want to use the Airy-Fairy Key to move to the next level?" or "You need to find the Airy-Fairy Key to progress."
- There are chests that are empty. Admittedly, a chest that were placed by a level designer in a hand-constructed dungeon would be even more perverse, but in the use of randomly generated dungeons, somewhere someone built a treasure table and included a line in it that said, "1% chance: empty". As the player, I go up to the chest, I hit a button to "open" it, and then I watch slowly in anticipation as the chest opens to deliver... nothing. Just another few seconds of my life. Gone. This is another easy thing to fix -- if you want to have some chance that some dungeon floor will have less loot, you have a weighted distribution of the number of chests on a given floor. One percent of the time, a floor has nine chests, and the other 99% it has 10. Fixed.
- Dialog lines are skippable. Woo-hoo, right?! I can read the dialog and skip ahead at my own speed. Terrific, since I read far faster than the voice actors can deliver their lines, especially the old tree god thing, which talks as if it had just woken up and hadn't had caffeine in the last thirty or forty millennia. Except that, although I am able to skip over the dialog, I am unable to skip over the animation which accompanies each voice line, so in 90% of the lines, I read through it quickly, skip over it, and then wait while some culturally generic shrugging or hand-waving gesture is displayed on screen. The solution is obvious -- we have the ability to randomly access memory, guys... we can skip ahead in the playback. If you are streaming animation data from disk... well, it's time to look into animation compression so you can load the whole shebang in at once.
- There's a health item vendor. Terrific! Except... well, to get one of those villages back up to 100%, I had to install her there. Which means that every time I want to load up on bread, I need to sit through two load screens (one to exit the dungeon, and then another to go to the place where the bread vendor is) to get there, and then another one to get back into the dungeon. This is meaningless time-wasting, and there are design solutions. Just go ahead and give me UI elements between floors of the dungeon; I'm certain that every player has had to exit the dungeon at one time or another to fill up on health stuff, since you can only carry 20 of them. There is no reality issue here -- I'm playing a game where I am placing all kinds of stuff into the world and moving it around as if it were SimCity. No one would have quibbled... and in fact, if you wanted to preserve "realism" as a player, you could certainly make the trip any time you needed to.
- There are several mini-games going on that I'm not sure whether I need to participate in. For example, I can photograph stuff and combine the photographs to come up with ideas to invent things, for which I can buy the requisite parts. However, I'm not sure that's necessary and hopefully it isn't -- since I stopped doing that a long, long time ago. You can also gain medals by doing various things in playing the levels, like beating them under a time limit, or only using one of your weapons, or catching fish of a particular size. By the time I realized that wasn't necessary to do, I had already amassed quite a few of them. These "collectible" elements are part of a "more is more" strategy that has just completely backfired here.
I think these are the major culprits. There are some minor quibbles which have more to do with not having a good idea which way to power up a weapon, which isn't really an abuse of my time, it's more just an anxiety generator as to whether I've made the right choice. There's the scaling of difficulty -- I've had to replay early dungeons tons just to power up my weapons enough to get through the later ones. I lose time every time I die because I want to skip over the "GAME OVER" fade-in and go right back to the main menu so I can continue my game from the last save point, except that there's no way to do that and I instead end up pausing the game by mistake.
All of this would be reasonably fine for me if they hadn't replaced all the charm of the georama world-building with an element whereby you have to recruit people from the town in which you originate to populate the new towns. Gone is the back-and-forth with villagers about what they're looking for, and instead, you have a charmless task of simply filling in the blanks that are generated by a list of requirements you slowly uncover -- it largely becomes a UI game at this point. "Oh, I need to put this person here. And his house has to be purple. Why couldn't I ask him that?"
Well, now that I've gotten all that off my chest, I actually find that I have no need to play further. Wow. I didn't expect that. Catharsis! Geez, I guess I should blog more often! ;)
¹For those playing our home game, the other I was most glad I didn't have to feel guilty about not finishing was Kingdom Hearts, where I had gotten as far as the Tarzan levels. That was another game I really wanted to enjoy but... well, not so much. And for the sake of full disclosure, I also didn't come anywhere near finishing GTA III, but I didn't even care enough to feel guilty about that one. (back)
²Not the X button -- the square button, which I usually forget, so habituated am I to the right thing to do is always the X button on the PS2 controller. Why I am I habituated to do this? Because it's a recommendation in the TCRs Sony makes everyone follow - make the X button the right thing to do in any given situation. (back)
April 03, 2008
This Message Brought to You By...
The other night I was watching The Weather Man, a quirky little film starring Nicholas Cage¹. Although it turned out to be somewhat mixed up with the point of the movie, product placement featured heavily in it, particularly early on, with three very prominent fast food franchises appearing in the first 30 minutes or so of the film. It was so blatant that I had to hope that it had something to do with the movie, but at the same time, I was still being subjected to a bunch of marketing. All of this had come a scant half hour after watching an hour of HBO's The Wire², where the detectives were sitting around a table, a Dunkin Donuts box prominently displayed in the foreground. I'm thinking of switching entirely to period pieces and science fiction³ to get away from the constant incursions of advertisting.
You know, it starts to get annoying, ads all over the place, the constant encroachment of other marketing opportunities on entertainment. It's twelve minutes of previews before a film, preceded by a slide-show sponsored by Coke. It's DVDs where you can't skip past all of that with a simple tap of the menu button. It's constant and everywhere and very hard to escape, even in a world which includes TiVo and its brethren.
I hear about in-roads being made to place advertising in games. There was a story up on GamaSutra just this past week or so, two companies joining together to provide ads in future games. And since I've begun writing this piece, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford has shown up on GamaSutra to discuss the benefits of ads in games. Pitchford identified three reasons for in-game ad placement: authenticity, budget, and cross-promotion. Although I have some thoughts about those last two, I want to focus on ads and authenticity.
Authenticity is an interesting beast. I haven't played Gearbox Software's games, except for a little bit of that multiplayer Wolfenstein game, but on the face of it, authenticity seems like a fairly reasonable argument. Pitchford cites specific examples of real-world corporations that participated in the Nazi war effort4, such as Philips and Opel. Not having agreements with these companies, says Pitchford, would mean leaving out authentic details like the Philips and Opel logos.
Now, I'm not going to claim that there aren't any players out there that would miss such details, but I have to say, I suspect their numbers are relatively few. And as soon as advertising money starts getting in there, I start to wonder about things. I'm not asserting that there was or has ever been any impropriety at Gearbox -- Pitchford is in the industry news a fair amount and he seems like he has integrity. But when I read Philips is giving them money and at the same time hearing that one of their levels "happens to take place in" the Philips factory in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands), I see the potential for the whiff of impropriety.
It's my feeling that when you deal with corporations about issues like this, you need to question their motives. In the case of Philips, are they hoping to get a fair shake from history about their involvement with the Nazis? I gather (from Wikipedia) that some would call Philips' actions during the war collaboration. Are they simply looking to get the brand out there, assuming brand growth simply from recognition? After all, most people don't associate Tylenol with poison despite the Tylenol killings (still unsolved!) back in the 1980s. Wouldn't it be better to associate the Philips name with a pleasant series of scheduled rewards, make the consumer associate heroism with the Philips brand. Are they going further, suggesting that a helpful supplier of intelligence might be a Philips manager, wearing a Philips cap?
Honestly, I don't know. But I wonder how I would be able to determine authentic from ad-driven in Brothers in Arms. I doubt we'll get information about what Philips paid for, and how much they paid, as most companies would consider those to be trade secrets. We have Pitchford's reassurances, but once money enters the equation, it's hard to know where the authenticity line is. The point is not that I think Gearbox's games will be less authentic as a result; the point is that I won't know what's authentic and what's not, despite being a fairly well-read and literate consumer of games. It's distracting not knowing while I play.
I'd like to see Gearbox be able to just use the material, since it was clearly present in photographs of the period; then at least I'd know that it was coming from their own point-of-view, and I could read their attempts at authenticity as genuine, as a selling point, or as a creative drive. But I know that lawsuits, with their immense expense, have had a hugely chilling effect of the use of such materials. I look around at some of the threats of lawsuits and such and wonder what brought us this far. It's crazy to me that the Anglican church would threaten to sue a video game maker for the portrayal of Manchester Cathedral, a long-standing public building. I realize that England's protection of speech is likely different from the Constitutional protections we enjoy here; even so, it seems that it would be covered by the freedom of expression article in the European Convention on Human Rights. I almost wish Sony had just stood up and said, "You know what? Sue us, we'll defend under freedom of expression" to set a precedent, particularly given one impression I've read of the deeper meaning of the Cathedral gameplay. They have the deep pockets to do so, and thus, they can and should act as a vanguard -- if only to prevent such chilling effects on the industry in the future, and therefore help to ensure their long-term business.
I've been playing co-op games of Rainbox Six Vegas for quite some time now, and it's been interesting to see the advertising at work in that game. From what I've seen, the ads tend to be on the billboards outside the missions, in the helicopter-ride cutscenes. One night in particular I noticed an Axe ad on the billboard, which might fit in perfectly in Vegas, I have no idea, having never been. But I'm fairly certain that it wasn't the same ad that had been there the last time we had played; the art stood out like a sore thumb, since it was easily twice the resolution of the rest of the level (which gets all blurred out due to post-processing effects).
In cases like these, where the cutscene occurs at a particular time in the story, the changing of these ads is remarkably distracting. I mean, that's sort of the point, in a way... if I hardly even noticed the ad, or didn't notice it all, it wouldn't be doing its advertising job. But it works directly against the grain of the game, which is, of course, the thing I purchased. I am distracted from the game I'm playing by the sudden lack of realism in the environment -- the inconstancy (in time) and the inconsistency (in visuals) of it.
I expect advertising in magazines; they're set apart, though I don't like the ones that mask themselves as if they were articles (with a discreet "Advertisement" across the top or bottom). I expect previews before movies5; I can at least attempt to ignore them. But I don't expect ads in books. I don't expect them in the midst of television shows or movies, as product placements. And I certainly don't expect them in games. In these latter three examples, they almost always distract and detract. Advertising, even when well done and even in the service of authenticity, pulls me out of the game; it's an unwelcome incursion.
¹Cage does the occasional quirky performance, in things like Bringing Out the Dead, but oddly enough, it turned out to be directed by Gore Verbinski, recent headliner at DICE and director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the first of which I really enjoyed. (back)
²Until recently, the best show on television, but it recently finished up after 5 seasons. I can't wait until it turns up on DVD. (back)
³I was thinking of Battlestar Galactica as I jotted that down, which doesn't have any of that, but of course, Blade Runner featured an early, particularly egregious example of in-film advertising, which might have fit the setting but still came off as garish. (back)
4I had assumed that Philips was a German company, but as it turns out, it is headquartered in the Netherlands. (back)
5Even though there, too, they work against my needs -- watching most previews is usually enough to fill me in on the plot details. I'll never forgive Warner Bros. for the detail of Richard Kimble jumping... well, if you've seen it, you know. Of course, Chris Corry won't forgive me for giving away Half-Life 2, Episode 2, so who am I to throw stones? (back)
February 25, 2008
I've just got back from the 2008 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, and it was again a great time. Great to see people who I generally see once a year now that I'm out here in Maryland, and great to get all energized about game development again. Last year I don't think I posted anything about the conference, but as I used to do at LucasArts, this year I'm going to go ahead and post little capsule reviews of the talks I attended. I'm not going to go into lots of detail on any of them, but these are what I saw for better or worse and the slides and such should be available on the Game Developer's Conference site eventually; some contributors post their slides and text to their blogs.
I arrived for 10:30 on Wednesday, not expecting there to be much that would interest me; what I didn't realize was that that would also be the time of the Microsoft keynote, which didn't interest me enough to have me pile into the big hall in which it was held. So, I ended up bumming around the West Hall expo, running into friends and generally getting a handle on what I was going to do that day. Onward to the talks...
Rules of Engagement: Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design
This was a solid, practical talk by a VP at Blizzard, Rob Pardo. While I haven't myself spent a lot of time worrying about multiplayer game design¹, I appreciate the issues involved. While there were several good points that came out of this talk, the big one for me was to Overpower everything, at least at first. There are several reasons for doing this:
- Every strategy seems unbeatable, until it's beaten. The idea is, people feel really powerful with overpowered strategies, tactics, and all that, and what you need to do rather than super-balancing things and thereby making everything equally bland is making sure there are appropriate counters in place.
- It makes things get tested in beta. If you overpower things by a little bit, it will focus your beta testers on that strategy because they're competitive and want to win. If you simply bring something up to be on par with other strategies, it won't likely get the test time it really needs. Giving the impression that it's overpowered will cause more people to experiment with it, which will help you find the balance more quickly.
I'm a huge Jonathan Blow fan, I'll go ahead and admit that right up front. I had listened to his Montreal Game Summit talk some time after it was given and was looking forward to seeing his further thoughts on that topic at GDC. Of course, since he was already happy with the talk and it had gotten plenty of press, he decided to give another talk, which turned out to be about ten ways of looking at games.
I didn't have a particular takeaway from this talk except that we should continue to re-examine our assumptions about what games can be. Jon gave ten different ways of looking at games, and only the first two were the common ways we look at games, as consumer products and as escapist entertainments. He presented eight more, and there are almost certainly others. Instead of attaching those two viewpoints to our heads as a pair of nicely matched blinders, we should only put those on when they're appropriate.
Structure vs. Style
Chris Hecker gave an interesting talk² about how to view programming problems, and AI problems, as a differentiation between structure and style. (His canonical example was that the programmatic data structure encapsulating a polygon or a triangle is structure, whereas the actual model data is style). He thinks AI is the big problem for games coming up and for the near future, and he thinks that this is largely because we haven't found the structure/style distinctions in AI yet. I'm sympathetic to the view, but I need to think about it more before I can say I think he's right or not. Anyway, interesting food for thought.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
I largely went to this talk because this product is what I would have been working on had I decided to stay with LucasArts several years back and not moved to Maryland. I still have a lot of friends at LucasArts, and it was nice to finally see a bit of the game running. The takeaway: you can't afford to build a game, a team, a studio, and a technology pipeline at the same time unless you have the backing of someone like George Lucas.
I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Game Design
Clint Hocking is another one of those guys who I have lots of respect for -- I've made it to his talk each of the last three years and always find them interesting. Clint talked about two types of immersion, sensual and formal, and how they work in games -- taking Trespasser as a touchstone for much of his discussion. While I had some minor quibbles with some of his specific non-Trespasser examples (in particular, Guitar Hero), I thought his final points about how being able to explore things like emotions through formal systems could allow us to reach out and touch people by presenting games and other interactive experiences which actually explore the human condition. Look for his talk to be posted on on his site in the not-too-distant future.
Experimental Gameplay Sessions
This was another Jonathan Blow session, though he's primarily there as the organizer in this case. This year, I actually almost sent something in for these, but I don't think I would have had enough time to get either of my ideas finished for the show. There's always next year, I suppose. In any case, about a dozen interesting games were shown, mostly small web- or downloadable games, around a few different topics, such as Obfuscation or Two Worlds. I'm hopeful that Jon will put up the full list and links over on his site.
The Game Design Challenge
Hmmm... this is another one I go to every year. Perhaps I'm getting into a rut. In any case, this year, returning champion Alexei Pajitnov faced Brenda Brathwaite and Steve Meretzky with the challenge of designing a game for humans and one other species. Personally, I found Brenda's superior, though Meretzky's delivery was hard to beat.
The IGF Awards/Game Developers' Choice Awards
The IGF Awards remain great largely due to the energy and eccentricity of the indie developers themselves. Lots of good titles were shown up on the big screen, and some truly interesting games won.
Regrettably, the Choice Awards were presented by Jason Rubin. Admittedly, it would have been difficult for anyone to top Tim Schafer. And perhaps, in their desire to be "presentable" for a G4 audience or something, perhaps the writers of the show simply stayed away from anything... funny or meaningful or really of any substance whatsoever. Message to CMP and IGDA: Bring back Tim Schafer, let him do his shtick. He almost certainly won't have a crab or octopus or other form of marine life in his chest next year.
Treat Me Like A Lover
BEST OF SHOW
I dragged myself out of bed Friday morning both to be there in time to meet someone and to attend this talk, about which I knew nothing but the title. I am so glad I got there in time to see it -- it was a presentation by British journalist Margaret Robertson (whose blog, Lookspring, has been added to the sidebar). The hook of the talk was looking at games (and designing them) through the lens of a romantic relationship with the player. Though this was useful, what was particularly great was the specificity of her examples -- she pulled out little bits of games that did things right and wrong for each point, and her analysis seemed spot on. An absolutely terrific talk; I hope she'll come back next year.
What's Next for God Games
I generally really enjoy Ernest Adams' talks, much as I generally enjoy his GamaSutra column. But this year's talk, which was essentially the God game Adams pitched to EA years ago (and which was never built, though it was prototyped), fell entirely flat with me. While I agree with his main thrust, that exploring different areas such as actually addressing religion in a God game is interesting, telling me so would have taken about the 5 minutes it took me to write out this sentence. I have high hopes for the return of a more interesting talk next year. Perhaps it was simply that he didn't have his usual top hat.
Game Designers' Rant
Hmmm... yes, another I attend every year. I was particularly moved and motivated by Jane McGonigal's talk, and to a lesser extent, by Clint's. I suspect Jonathan Mak has simply always wanted to get a huge room of people playing with balloons, so I'm glad he got his wish here. McGonigal pointed out that game designers are the smartest people on the planet at making people happy -- it's time to get out there and solve reality, since in her view, "reality is broken". A terrific talk, well presented, and thought-provoking, although the problem is probably just that game designers looking to fix reality just haven't met up with the right programmers... :)
Three 20 Minute Sessions
I attended an hour comprised of three 20 minute sessions. One was by my friend and former co-worker Tim Longo, who tried to present 10 keys to working with an established IP in 20 minutes... which was about half an hour too short. I worked on most of the projects whose examples he cited and still had a hard time following him -- perhaps you can bring it back next year as a full hour, buddy? I think it would work that way. How to Create the Greatest Boss Battle (and Why Not to Do It!) and How to Pick a Lock: Creating Intuitive, Immersive Minigames were a bit better-suited to the time allotted, and presented good examinations of those topics. If you're working on either minigames or boss battles, I recommend tracking down those slides to see what those guys had to say.
Dynamic Cinematic Gameplay
This was a talk addressing the specifics of issues the speaker had in creating Stranglehold's "Tequila Bombs", which were cinematic moments in the midst of gameplay. While I think the idea of the topic was a good one, I felt like the presentation got mired in details about the specific elements in that game, which I haven't played. A slightly higher-level talk would have almost certainly been more helpful to the audience; I think there are lessons there that can be more globally applied. As an example, it's probably worth saying "Plan to have multiple camera views of your character during each shot... and schedule plenty of time for them" rather than going into the minutiae of what kind of cameras you had and what bugs each exposed in your engine.
I got to see lots of friends while I was out, both during the week and on Saturday. Great to see you, Andrew, Jen, Evan, Tim, Harley, John, Jamie, Bill, Nathan, Greg, Daron, Reed, Chris, Susan, Hal, Pat, Jeremy, Matt, Riley, Morgan, Charlie, Troy, Tim M., John S., Haden, Chris, Rich, Ric, Geoff, Jeff, and anyone else I ran into but who I've forgotten in this mad list. I'm looking forward to next year already.
¹Though each of the games I've shipped had some sort of multiplayer component, and I worked on an MMO for a couple of years, I haven't been terribly involved in the design of the multiplayer aspects to any great degree. I do contemplate multiplayer issues for my own game designs, but that isn't my particular focus. (back)
²And one I admit I hadn't planned on attending -- the creator of Heroes was supposed to be on at that time. I'm a big fan of the show and so I decided to take that in... but Jesse Alexander was a no-show. Bummer. (back)
December 11, 2007
Here's a blog post I wish I had written
Steve Gaynor presents his thoughts about a games industry version of film noir.
I think this is happening to a certain degree, just not in the 3D space -- admittedly, there's room for improvement. Apparently folks are still making money with text (see Skotos Tech, which has been around for quite a while now) and as Gaynor mentions, 2D abounds. It may be that 3D just hasn't hit the 'cheap enough' mark; it may be that the casual/downloadable game space represents this market to some degree. But it's worth reading and thinking about.
December 03, 2007
Rewarding the Long Look
Warning: The following article contains a significant spoiler for Half-Life 2 Episode 2. Caveat lector.
So, a few weeks ago I found myself in San Francisco, happily at the same time that the Jeff Wall exhibit was at SFMOMA. I first read about Wall's work in the New York Times magazine some time ago -- probably around the same time that this exhibit opened in New York, though I didn't make the connection at the time.
Wall works in large-format photography; he takes photographs that he then blows up to fit inside of lightboxes, you know, those advertising boxes that you find in places like bus stops and in airports. Typically, his photographs might occupy a sizeable spot on the wall, up to 12 by 12 feet, though I guess they are mostly six by six. The diffuse, rear lighting accomplished by fluorescence enlivens the photographs and enables the viewer to spend a lot of time discovering the photograph.
Case in point: A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947 was a photograph I looked at for a long time. In particular, after a bit of time, I was looking at the shadows on the ceiling cast by the balloons. When I finally connected the shadow of the balloon in the left center of the photograph with the orange balloon perhaps held by the little girl seated at left, and then to the light to the ventriloquist's right, the room came alive for me in an extraordinary way, perhaps because it suddenly felt like a very, very real place and time to me. The effect of the golden light gave it a warmth that I could almost feel, even though I was in the far starker setting of the white-walled exhibit at the SF MOMA. It was simultaneously like occupying a place in that room and at the same time feeling like I was looking at someone's photo album, perhaps a grandparent or something, telling me about the time when she was a young child and a ventriloquist came for her brother's birthday.
As I mentioned, I had read not too long ago about Wall's work in The New York Times Magazine¹, where it described his process as an artist, something which was apparently discussed in a documentary/interview at the MOMA, though I was so interested in the photographs I didn't take time to learn more about their construction at the time². He uses a technique which he describes as cinematographic; he carefully stages his photographs and particularly the people in them, giving them directions as to what they should be doing, but then fades back behind his lens to wait for the picture to arrange itself. (He also uses digital techniques to merge several images together at times, though not always, and his pioneering use of digital apparently caused some backlash way back when.) It's almost as if Wall himself is taking a long, long look at his subject matter and awaiting the photograph he wants, waiting until just such time as he understands all the elements at play.
I felt this way about several of the photos, such as Steves Farm, Steveston, which is a wide-format landscape incorporating a decaying farm (nonetheless bursting with life) set side-by-side with soulless tract housing arranged geometrically beyond a barren scrubby area populated with dead trees. Wall generally stages his photographs, and no doubt some of that was going on here (particularly with the man walking towards us not far from the center of the image, and perhaps with some of the animals), but this image is of a real landscape, a real place, and it must have taken quite some time to find the correct vantage point to capture this image. But what an image! I stared at this photo for probably ten minutes alone, walking up closer, discovering the human figure, moving slowly past it from left to right, trying to puzzle out its meaning. Or at the very least, coming up with some meaning for it from within myself.
The rewards that come from the long look at Wall's work come up elsewhere as well, from the connections you draw, once you've spent a lot of time with a medium or a couple of media. With regards to film, I've been watching (and re-watching) V for Vendetta over the last couple of days, and while of course I've been interested in the connections (and changes) from the graphic novel, I also look at John Hurt as the authoritarian High Chancellor Sutler and think, "Did they choose him because he was Winston Smith?" Great casting in any case, but when your despot can call up echoes of that greatest of dystopian novels, it's brilliant.
When I started this article/essay/ramble, I didn't expect to end up discussing Lucky Wander Boy, D. B. Weiss' novel about one man's obsessive quest to find meaning in old videogames, and particularly in the meaning of the titular arcade machine. But it fits so perfectly. In the novel, the protagonist is driven to compile a "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments", in which he discusses the deep inner meaning of various classic videogames, and several of these articles are reprinted in the book³. When he writes, "It is difficult to ignore the similarities between Donkey Kong and the demiurge of the Gnostic heresies" it's completely believable -- not necessarily believable that such an association exists, but that someone who takes a long look at early videogames might come up with such a connection.
In the case of our intrepid hero, he is particularly obsessed with Lucky Wander Boy, the imagined unemulatable arcade game which gives the book its title, but also reflects this same sort of long look. In the game, a player who spends enough time exploring the game is ultimately rewarded by entering the third level -- no one can agree on how this happens, but picking up items in the appropriate order might have something to do with it, as might the order of traversal of the landscape of the second level. It's bizarrely described, but I think we're meant to understand that the game makes a model of the human playing the game and tailors the third level specially for him. Lucky Wander Boy is therefore not just the name of the game, but role of a player who explores the game long enough, who wanders about in the empty second level aimlessly until the third level reveals itself.
One interesting statement made in the "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments" and one that long-time readers will be unsurprised resonated with me was the following, which appears early in the book.
< Game > showed and showed well that video games can traverse the entire range of imagined experience, and resonate effectively with the wider world of which they are a part.
Lately, of course, there's been a bit in the gaming news about Jon Blow's talk at the Montreal Game Summit in which he decries what he feels is a lazy game design. He spoke, of course, of industry darling World of Warcraft, which boasts something north of nine million subscribers and climbing. Having played it entirely too much myself, I can understand what he's getting at -- WoW presents a constant but ultimately meaningless chain of rewards, much in the same way Diablo did. I've not listened to the full talk yet, and so won't comment on Blow's talk at length either, but it seems that Jon's trying to get us to make games that reward a long look at the lessons they teach4, rather than those that simply spoonfeed sugary snacks to our audience.
I know what he means. Although I thoroughly loved Half-Life 2, I recently played through the episodes and found the second one to be especially forced in its storytelling. Clearly, the fine folks at Valve are reaching for something here, trying to tell a story with more resonance than your typical first-person shooter. But in making NPCs who act primarily as vehicles to tell you the next bit of story while they (frustratingly slowly) open a door between bits of excitement fails to deliver on the promise of the title they extend. Half-Life 2 was very memorable to me -- so much so that I recently played through a whole bunch of it again -- and I think that the opening of that game tells a story in a much more compelling way through knowing how to draw the player's attention, through prodding the player just enough so that he gets the correct impressions but not so much that he feels the prod.
Instead Episode 2, while still enjoyable as a pure shooter, relies on thin Hollywood tropes and such blatant manipulation to attempt to deliver an emotional punch in the death of Eli Vance that I ended up feeling more annoyed than saddened. Eli constantly telling Gordon how he's as proud of Gordon as if he were his own son. Alyx making more frequent contact with him. Eli looking at old photographs and worrying over Judith. Eli telling his daughter to look away, to close her eyes, as he died. Alyx' tearful voice over a black screen as we await the credits. I was meant to feel sorrow and empathy, but the manipulation was so unsubtle as to leave me feeling merely hollow and uncaring.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad someone's trying it; even if the result didn't work for me, perhaps it's working right now for someone else. But I look forward to subtler storytelling, something that rewards deep thinking about the result. Something that rewards a longer look.
¹Every time I mention the NYT Magazine to one of my friends I assume that he mentally rolls his eyes, since it seems so much of my view of the outside world comes from there. I've been reading the magazine religiously since about 1997, week in, week out, and have missed only a small handful of issues. This is far longer than any other periodical has been able to hold my attention. Which I guess is another long look... (back)
²I did, however, purchase a coffee table book of Wall's work, which incorporates a lot of interview material, and have been reading bits and pieces of it. I've never bought a coffee table book before, though I've always had books on my coffee table. :) (back)
³As someone who himself discourses at length in his blog, I found these to be the most interesting element of the book, which is not all that surprising, I suppose. (back)
4Braid has jumped through its first hoop with XBox Live Arcade certifiication, so it looks like I'll have something else I'll want to play on XBox Live when I finally buy one some time next year -- I mean, in addition to Schizoid. (back)
October 19, 2007
So I Guess I Know When I'm Buying a 360
October 01, 2007
Our Lost Classic
September 22, 2007
The Zelda Economy
What is it with the Zelda economy?
I recently finished The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dungeons were exciting and interesting and puzzling, and because I spent a significant time doing side quests, travel times didn't bother me as much as they did in Wind Waker¹. Sure, it had the same structure as every other Zelda game -- run around finding the three pieces of this, so that you can then go find the four pieces of that, which will mean you need to go and get the eight pieces of the other thing, and then you'll open the portal to that place, so that you can go and fight Ganondorf. It's a series of locked doors, each with its own key, most of which have to do with some new object you can equip and use in an interesting way.
Money, of course, is every which where. While it's not technically true that it grows on trees, it's frequently in barrels, boxes, blades of grass, urns, under rocks, and of course, jumping out of the puffs of smoke from the disappearing bodies of your vanquished foes. You are frequently maxed out on money, even when you go from the kiddie wallet to the adult wallet, even when you go from the adult wallet to the ultimate wallet (a quest which was a significant contributor to the running all over Hyrule).
In past Zelda games, I never found anything to spend all that cash on; but then, I was generally focused only on the main storyline, and not running around finding golden spiders or Poes or whatever the Wind Waker equivalent was (undersea treasures, I seem to vaguely recall, but I may be confusing things there). And indeed, in Twilight Princess there was only a couple of times that I can recall having to actually purchase something necessary to continue: bombs of a couple different varieties. It was actually kind of shocking, returning to play it after some months away, to have to buy something I'm used to finding in Zelda games under bushes and such.
But aside from these two necessary items, I didn't have to spend money on anything. And yet, there was a significant side quest to be able to carry more of it. There's a young woman in the city who collects bugs, and she's trying to collect enough to have some sort of bug ball. There are twelve pairs of bugs out in the world, which you can spot reasonably easy with your wolf sense, once you're able to transform into a wolf at will. A few of them are off the beaten path, but in general, you can find them, and as I recall, there's even a bit of an audio cue to let you know one's around. The male and female of each pair are generally found fairly near to one another, and so you can track them down with a bit of comparing the map to places you've already found bugs. The bug collection screen is fairly helpful in this respect.
You get the adult wallet, moving your maximum funds from 200 to 600, when you first turn in a bug; after that, Agatha gives you 50 rupees for every bug you bring her, unless it completes a pair, in which case you get 50 rupees for the bug and 50 rupees for finding a match². I brought her bugs all the time even with my wallet maxed out, just losing the money to finish the collection quest. After bringing her every pair, I was granted the "ultimate" wallet, which allows for holding 1000 rupees at a time. Let me tell you, a thousand rupees takes a long time to find, unless you find some of the special little hideaways with chests containing 100 rupee gems.
Around this same time, other side quests opened up around the Zelda economy. MaioMart wanted to open a branch in the city, but to do this, there were two separate things going on. On the one hand, you had to buy enough stuff from the store (and keep in mind, this is generally stuff you can just find out in the world, like bullets for the slingshot or whatever) to make Maio have enough money to purchase the existing store in the city. And a beggar appeared in MaioMart asking for donations to repair some bridge to make commerce between the towns and the city possible. The need for this wasn't entirely clear, as Link had no trouble getting to the city, but hey, given the already bizarre nature of the Zelda economy, who was I to quibble?
Having donated enough to those causes to open up the city branch of MaioMart³, you could now purchase the Magic Armor, which cost 600 rupees -- the complete contents of your adult wallet (though not of the ultimate wallet, which you received from Agatha). And what's the magic ability of the Magic Armor?
To consume rupees. The Magic Armor converts damage to a loss of money, and slowly burns through money whenever you're wearing it besides.
That's right, the whole exercise of spending something like 2600 rupees (easily found, slow to amass unless you're thinking about it) was to be able to convert money to health. Something that you could do basically the first time you got an empty bottle -- by buying red potions to fill that bottle from a local vendor.
Now, I didn't feel gypped -- it more felt like some sort of cosmic joke, really. I had a bit of a laugh when I got the ultimate wallet and the magic armor, only to find myself quickly penniless (rupeeless?) whenever I wore it. It came in handy really only in one circumstance, in the Cave of Trials, a 50-level dungeon of increasingly difficult combatants where there was virtually no health to be found. There were, however, three Poes to be found in that vast time-sucking dungeon, and that's what I was really after.
I can think of two explanations for the Zelda economy in Twilight Princess. The first, and the one I want to believe, is that the designers are trying to say, "Money isn't everything. Money just gives you means to do stuff. Doing stuff is more important." The other is that it's essentially the biggest shell game I've ever participated in.
Come to think of it, it's probably both.
¹Although, I have to say, I far preferred the look of Wind Waker to the more realistic look presented here. In a way, the realism accentuates issues like the Zelda economy -- with a world that looks so real, how can there be money under every bush and tree? In the GameBoy games, in Wind Waker, and in games like Four Sword Adventures, the fact that money is hiding in all those places matters less, somehow, because the look better lends itself to it. (back)
²Somewhat amusingly, the last pair you're likely to encounter is the snails. Snails are natural hermaphrodites, and she even mentions this in the little song she sings or poem she speaks when she receives them. Subtle humor entirely lost on young'uns, I suspect, who are thought to be Nintendo's target audience. (back)
³Itself a supremely surreal experience, with disco-style lights and dancing patrons and a dancing storekeeper who appeared to be singing some sort of song to you... (back)
September 09, 2007
A week or so ago I finished BioShock, tearing through it in what seemed like fairly record time, at least for me. I enjoyed it more than any shooter I've played since Star Wars: Republic Commando¹. Again, spoilers will occur, caveat lector.
At the time, I was in the midst of playing Rise of the Kasai, a sequel to the very enjoyable 2002 SCEA action-adventure title, mostly remarkable for its art style and innovative combat style. I mention this because we'll return to Kasai in a little bit, because that game seems to want to offer some sort of interesting choice, but fails so miserably that it's an object lesson in What Not To Do™².
Much virtual ink has been spilled over the moral choice that BioShock provides -- to rescue the Little Sisters or to "harvest" them. To recap (and to spill a little more): either choice will give you a certain amount of Adam, a useful game resource which effectively gives you weapons and other increases to your abilities (more health, more power for your bio-weapons, better ability to hack in-game computers and other security devices, etc.). Rescuing a Little Sister frees her from her endless quest to find Adam in corpses throughout the underwater city of Rapture, turning her into a human girl again, while harvesting her generates more Adam for you, but at the cost of the life of the Little Sister, who does not survive the procedure. I haven't seen the result of harvesting, but rescuing them is a decidedly creepy affair, with chilling Exorcist-style lines and animation, with the ultimate result of a tranquil little girl who thanks you and runs off to the nearest Little Sister tube, apparently so they can creep around Rapture hiding from Slicers much like Newt.
I read in a couple places where critics/commenters indicated that this was a false moral choice, since as gamers we would choose the option which had the greatest game utility. While I'm sympathetic to the argument, I don't think it applies to BioShock, simply because this utility was false -- or at least, I perceived it to be false.
The issue is that the resource -- Adam -- wasn't rare enough for the choice to be all that meaningful in game terms. I ended the game, on normal difficulty, with several hundred Adam left over, which would have been enough to buy myself a couple of new powers, or more health or energy (had either been available to me at that point). I had maxed out the plasmid attacks I used most frequently, and even some I pretty much never used (freezing, for example, or incinerate). I guess I could have gone and bought additional attacks -- but I already had more than the 6 plasmids that could fit in the plasmid attack slots. The utilitarian value of the Adam resource was simply too low for me to care one way or the other, which made it no choice at all -- in a choice between doing "good" and doing "evil" in terms of the game's fiction, no matter ambiguous they try to make the choice.
It wasn't just on the subject of the moral choice that the game's choices felt meaningless -- it was pretty much across the board, in every choice I might make. Late in the game there were goodies hidden behind glass (health, ammo, that sort of thing), but breaking the glass would cause drones to fly after me for a minute or so. Choosing to break the glass to get at something was fairly meaningless -- the drones were not much of a threat, since my first person shooter skills are pretty decent, and a cost-benefit mostly came down to whether I felt like adding a couple of drones to fight on my behalf for a little while, since they could be fritzed out and hacked to fight for me. That's just an example -- I simply never felt that my decisions had much in the way of long-term impact, either because my first-person skills would save me, or because of other in-game helpers (the ability to completely swap out plasmids for other ones, for example).
It's hard to be down on them for that, though, since the pure play was fantastic -- Ken Levine frequently said that it was a shooter first, and absolutely, the shooter elements are fantastic. I can also see that the ability to switch out plasmids is a natural response to complaints about being unable to understand which choice you'd prefer to make between competing augmentations in Deus Ex. I can also understand why the degenerating weapons of System Shock 2 would be abandoned -- why spend time thinking about what weapons to use, if you have plenty of ammo and oodles of weapons? It keeps the pace going, and makes you less cautious about mistakes.
Of course, I liked having to take a moment to think about what augmentations would make sense to me; I think another mechanism could have been chosen to improve on Deus Ex's augmentation system. I also loved System Shock 2, even if I did get to the end only to discover I was effectively unable to continue (not enough psi power) -- I didn't feel cheated, I felt like I didn't pay attention and make good decisions, it was all above board.
With regards to BioShock, this sense of decisions not really mattering all that much was the same with the Little Sisters: sure, I could "rescue" them and get X Adam, with some additional Adam every time I had rescued three. I could "harvest" them and get Y Adam (with Y greater than X) with no such promise of later reward. I have no idea how balanced this equation was, but I had so much left over at the end that arguing that the choice had a significant gameplay impact seems a bit wrong-headed.
Now, one thing I will say that they did very well is to telegraph that this would matter in some way, that some sort of reckoning was coming based on how you treated the Little Sisters. It was very evident in the way that Tenenbaum would speak to you that the game was keeping track of every decision you made with regards to those little girls, even saying at the end that "even losing one" was bad, was a tragedy. It strongly reinforced that the choice you were making was a moral one, in the context of the game, even if in my view there were really no game system consequences to one choice or the other. So, I was left with a choice where the gameplay consequences mattered little, but I knew that might be some long-term result that mattered one way or the other (could be game-play, might not be). I hadn't read any spoilers beforehand, so I wasn't aware that there were multiple endings; but I could tell something was going on, even if the game wasn't explicit.
I mention this in particular because of another game I've recently been playing, Rise of the Kasai, which doesn't telegraph that you're making choices that have any long-term impact at all. The game had a host of problems and head-scratching design decisions, from the minor (unable to determine how many of a particular collectible are left to be found while in the level) to the horrendous (when I'm busy doing some other task, it is unforgivable that the AI controlling the other character die somewhere else in the level if there's nothing I can do about it), but the core combat remained satisfying when used skillfully, and the stealth kills were still memorably savage and rewarding to pull off.
I was a fairly big fan of Mark of Kri, which I thought presented a really interesting combat system -- simple enough for button-mashers, but still satisfying for those who could get into the nuances. I hope that will survive somehow into this generation; it'd be a shame to see such a clean combat system go, but I don't think that poor sales of this sequel are an indicator of the strength of the core gameplay. I also liked the strong, silent hero, Rau. In any case, each level in the game offers you the choice to play either as Rau or as his sister, Tati, and after playing the introductory level as a character more like Tati, I had decided to stick with Rau and if I really felt like it, I'd go back and try a few of the levels with Tati.
Well, apparently that choice had an impact, which was never specified nor explained. Late in the game, two or three levels from the end, Tati was faced with a choice to join the Dark Side or not4. And apparently, whether or not you had much in the way of input into that choice was decided based on whether you had played her very much, or whether you were playing her then, or something. In any case, I was unable to choose for her to stick with Rau and team up to fight the bad guy. Instead, my only option was to have her join the enemy, and apparently kill her. I replayed to that point several times, and came up empty every time -- while there was a little bar indicating that the decision was somehow being made, it was completely unclear to me what I had done to affect the decision, if anything. To date, I don't know -- I started playing some of the earlier levels with Tati, but after it crashed a few times in loading screens, I gave the title up for good. I'm very forgiving, but even I have limits.
What killed me about it was that apparently out-of-game choices were influencing in-game results; there was some meta-tracking going on that mattered to the game but which was unclear to me. I would happily have taken a little control over the story -- but I need to be nudged to know that's what I'm doing. I'm not sure what was going on, but it seems unfair that the story would be forced into a path where the AI's choices have turned my characters against one another. The lack of agency on my part to influence that decision was appalling, and were it not for my curiosity to figure out how it was supposed to work, I would have probably broken the disc in half right there.
So, systems designers: giving us choices that impact real game results: good. Not telling us that we're making those choices? Bad.
¹That's about as blatant a plug as I think I've ever pulled... ;) To be fair, I haven't played oodles of shooters in that time, though I played Quake n (was it 4? it was completely bland), Doom n (okay, being snarky, it was Doom 3), Deus Ex 2 (not better than SWRC IMO, falling far short of the bar set by its predecessor), and Thief 2, which I finally finished after a multi-year hiatus, and which was probably better than SWRC but so significantly different it's not realistic to compare them. Anyway. (back)
²Or maybe I should say "Patent Pending", since it came from Sony. Sony, this generation at least, seems to be driving very hard towards What Not To Do. Yes, that's a Sony slam -- the PS3 has a ways to go this generation. I think the power of the brand is strong enough to overcome all of their missteps, but poor PS3 market performance is clearly hurting them. (back)
³It's confusing, which is a whole different problem with the game altogether. The story weaves in and out of time, going back twenty of thirty years to lay some groundwork, then bringing it forward, then swinging back again. The two character archetypes are reflected in each set of characters, though -- there's really only two ways to play the level, but even that is a step up in terms of replayability. In theory, you can play the whole game twice, and other than cutscenes you'll pretty much see new level areas. (back) 4Or the legion of evil, or whatever. Who even cares. The story is pretty forgettable, even twisting through time as it does. I did like how they were able to generate player interest in a character who was going to die, but that's a tricky one, since it's a character you play, and having him die later on... (back)
July 17, 2007
Peanut Butter in my Chocolate. Again.
Elsewhere in this increasingly sporadic blog I've commented on how it can be interesting to mash together unusual elements in the hopes of finding new nuances or textures¹. But it can be equally uninteresting to add the same old elements to every experience. [Note: spoilers ahead.]
Case in point: The Departed, which I finally caught on DVD the other night. There are some really interesting performances here, and a terrifically bleak atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Everyone is in bed with everyone else; the first substantial character to die is also perhaps the most virtuous. Admittedly, some of the direction seems almost heavy-handed, particularly in the treatment of Matt Damon's character, who Scorcese seems to be at pains to paint as the worst of a bad bunch - he's the only character whose face gets roughed up, and at least the last quarter or so of his film time shows him with cuts and scrapes; furthermore, we never see him do anything that isn't underhanded, he's the least ambiguous character in the film². It's a great undercover story, with everyone undercover, even the ones you least expect to be.
But tacked onto this really interesting and ambiguous environment is a love interest angle, with Vera Farmiga in the center of it³. I like her and all, she's nice to look at and has very alluring eyes, but come on! Not every movie needs a love interest. I don't mean to say that her character has no place in this film whatsoever -- actually, I think it's kind of interesting that we see Dicaprio's inner turmoil reflected in a visit to a shrink4, and the economical laws of screenwriting almost guarantee that that character needs to play a double role in the film, but come on. It's like a recipe written by a committee -- "no matter what the chef says, our focus groups say that everything's better with butter, so add a stick to that saffron-mint lamb chop you've been working on". It's as if Griffin Mill had creative input on the project5.
I came away feeling that a very good movie could have been a half hour shorter, lost an unnecessary element, and become substantially better.
I felt exactly the same way playing Trauma Center: Second Edition recently. In fact, I had to put the game down and haven't picked it up again, except to demonstrate for friends and family some of the more interesting uses of the Wii-mote I've seen.
I was really enjoying this game, essentially a fun update to Operation, the wacky doctor game, except that instead of merely steady hands, you also needed to remember procedures and work pretty quickly to get the best scores for each surgery, and the nunchuck and wii-mote interface which feels really slick and nice. Plus, there was a little side story going on, reminiscent of cheap "nurse and doctor romance" paperbacks of the 1950s, about a young doctor (ostensibly the player) who was trying to learn the ropes as a surgeon. There was also a parallel storyline involving a doctor who seemed to be living life a little bit like a fugitive -- I don't really recall the details of that, because I hadn't gotten much into that storyline yet.
So, here I am, thoroughly enjoying this environment, when all of a sudden, I begin to see signs of something unnecessary intruding. First, it's that the main character is apparently the descendant of Asclepius, the Greek demigod of medicine. That made me a little nervous... but it allowed for the ability to add bullet-time, and it's hard to swing a dead cat around videogames these days without having some sort of bullet-time. So, I tried to chalk it up to some sort of special focus that the character had, and tried to leave it at that. But it was nagging at me.
Another operation or two down the line had me facing a young girl who had tried to kill herself -- a fairly simple case, mostly involving suturing lacerations, if I recall correctly. But the storyline took a weird turn here -- after we spend a little time with her in a cutscene, we can tell she was depressed and feels pretty bad now about what she must have put her parents through. Suddenly, she's back in the O.R., where her lacerations are showing up again suddenly and spontaneously. Back in we go.
That's where I had to put the game down; I had been enjoying this reasonably logical surgery game with a side-story with perhaps some romance and soap opera elements when suddenly and spontaneously magic appeared. Here I am, no longer a struggling young doctor, but instead the direct descendant of a demigod, fighting the physical manifestations of Guilt6. Was this really necessary?
It's not that I was looking for realism -- after all, there's a sort of magical cleaning/healing antibiotic solution that helps promote blood-clotting or something. But the unrealistic elements were in service of gameplay -- the sheets of tissue-healing stuff you'd put over an internal incision was simply a step on the way back from having cut out a tumor and needing to patch that hole (and could be sufficiently general purpose to serve this role in multiple surgeries, rather than a specific device which might clutter the interface). I was enjoying building up my skills along the lines of what a real surgeon might be called to do -- first simple, external procedures involving removing broken glass, then more involved internal issues like broken bones, then tumors, maybe building up to things like transplants and other really complex real-world examples, while enjoying the story of Derek learning how to be a Real Grown-Up Doctor™ and maybe falling in love with a nurse or this other doctor character. Instead, I got magic. Instead of a courageous and interesting fiction, which I agree with Tadhg Kelly is important, I got something out of the Hardcore Gamers Focus Test Playbook -- when in doubt, add some magic to the mix.
I'm not all "holier than thou" about it -- after all, I did spend the first seven years of my career making Star Wars games, and the number of times we'd wave our hands over some bit of magic and say, "It's Star Wars" is not small (and LucasArts employed someone just to be on top of such canon and "extended universe" fiction issues). But we were making Star Wars games for Star Wars fans -- not growing the gaming market, as Nintendo purports to be doing with the Wii and DS. My mother enjoyed our brief time playing Trauma Center: Second Opinion together, even trash-talking my suturing skills (she's an Adult Nurse Practitioner), but had she been playing it alone and not skipping past all the fiction, as I was doing, I suspect she would have gotten to the magic and been a little let down, as I was.
Designers, feel free to take chances -- you don't have to fall back on the Playbook. It may not always work, but please, give it a shot, because sometimes it will, and the games will be more interesting for that.
¹Indeed, this was part of the charming description of cooking presented in Ratatouille, which I finally saw this weekend with the boys. It was a great little movie, and one I'd highly recommend, but not the subject of today's chat. (back)
² It's almost cute how he is surprised and bothered by the fact that Nicholson's character has been feeding information to the "feebs" for years. (back)
³ And there's another bit of directorial heavy-handedness for you: while we see Leonardo Dicaprio's character romancing Farmiga, we see very little of that with Matt Damon. In fact, Dicaprio gets the love scene with her, and Damon's bed scene with her is considerably less romantic, where he basically says, "If this isn't good, you'll need to go, because I'm Irish and I'll stick with it even if it's bad." (back)
4 One almost wonders if there's more to that story, that maybe there was something having to do with his mother or his estranged uncle that ended up on the cutting floor or was part of the formative years of his character. Dicaprio's performance is splendid enough to make you believe there might be.(back)
5Bonus points to those playing our home game if you knew who Griffin Mill was without checking, and keep in mind, we're using the honor system. I had an unfair advantage, I just watched that again last year. (back)
6To be fair, Gamefaqs indicates that apparently this "Guilt" turns out to be some sort of terrorist-created virus -- but to me, that's not a lot different, and maybe even a little worse since it's inconsistent with the Asclepius angle. It's still magic. (back)
June 15, 2007
In response to Dead Man's Hand
(Further note: this is not a dead blog. I've been working on a post lately about transgressive media. It's been a little slow. Sorry. Just lost the blog-o-rhythm.)
[Spoilers virtually in every paragraph coming up, you’ve been warned.]
Last night, Longo, Reed Knight and I were playing Neverwinter Nights 2 co-op. It features a very cheap-shot death quite early on, and then a much better departure for a character. Through a day at the Fair, you’re exposed to a few characters, who are ostensibly friends of yours, with whom you’ve grown up. You spend a day at this fair, even controlling each of these characters, and one in particular, Amie, is extremely likeable (the other can be a bit whiny).
That night, the village is raided, and a powerful wizard kills her. It comes out of nowhere, it’s unavoidable, and there is no way to counter it — it happens in a cutscene, and no one will resurrect her. You’ve invested maybe a few hours in the game at this point, and in my case, I had really come to like her character, and was actually looking forward to seeing more of her. I think the idea was probably to put across the idea that the world is a dangerous place, or some such cliché, but it completely fell flat in my case. I even spent time noodling around online with gamefaqs and what-not trying to see if there was some way to avoid that, but apparently not.
On the other hand, the other character from that day at the fair stays with you a little longer. You can help him save his mother and siblings from marauders. He accompanies you into a dungeon on the edge of town. Sure, his voice can be a little annoying, but he’s a decent fighter and helpful.
You return to town, and you’re about to head out into the world beyond, and you ask if he’ll accompany you. But he declines, saying that he needs to stay close at home with his family.
At that point, my feelings for that character totally grew — he felt like a real person all of a sudden (despite living in the uncanny valley, art-wise). He made a departure from the story that didn’t feel cheap or forced, and that felt consistent with events that had gone before.
There are a couple of deaths in games recently that worked for me. One was the “death” of Agro in Shadow of the Colossus — I had really come to love that horse in my travels. I tried that jump several times, hoping that there was some way to get past it, even as I knew inside there wasn’t. It was shocking to feel that way — Shadow mastered “less is more” both in its gameplay and its ability to draw emotion from the player.
The other interesting death in a videogame recently was in God of War (the first). In a game filled with death, from dozens of different methods, the scenes close to the end which explain how Kratos came to be the “Ghost of Sparta” truly fit the epic scope of the story and his revenge — the death, at his hands, of his wife and child, while they were disguised in an illusion by Ares. It’s a game of truly Greek proportion, with outsized personalities and motivations, something very primal, and the story works precisely because of what various deaths in the story mean to Kratos. Compellingly done, and perfectly in keeping with the type of story they’re telling.
¹ OK, Feil, you called me out, so I went ahead and cross-posted per your suggestion. I think you only updated your blog today so that I couldn't similarly call you out! I've got your number, Feil.(back)
February 28, 2007
The Pleasures of Training
This is an article I've been trying to write for a good six months, but it's always eluded me, for reasons I'll lay out presently.
The spark of this post was seeing Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day at GDC last year¹, and then purchasing it a few weeks later. I played it for a solid week, getting in my half hour or so a day, testing my brain age on occasion, and trying out new tests as they came on line.
I thought a lot about the experience in terms of training -- as a simulation of training, and comparing it with training I had done in the past. At around that time, I started running again², and having run under a coach back in high school cross country and track, I spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the two experiences.
The one overriding thought I had was that training in running typically has a goal or a series of goals. In the case of cross country, for example, improving your performance at each meet or contributing to the team's overall score, with an end goal of participating in regional or state level competition at the end of the season. So, having started running again, I ultimately latched onto a long-term goal -- running a half-marathon with my brother-in-law, which was several months off. In the meantime, I'd table my thoughts about Brain Age and come back to them in September.
I thought a lot about the goals, though. Brain Age doesn't really have an explicit goal. Implicitly, however, the sense of achievement you get is from acknowlegement of progress by the polygonal head of Dr. Kawashima, whose research into "brain age" in Japan is what motivated the game. He seems genuinely excited by your progress, with hearty chortles and double- and triple-takes, and he commiserates with you when you have an off day at a particular activity. He's such a simple character -- probably a few dozen polygons at most, from my recollection -- but he manages to convey just the right amount of emotion. He even manages to give you unexpected compliments: there are times in the game when you'll be asked to try to draw something, such as a rhinoceros or a particular famous landmark, and your image will be compared against a professional illustration and salient features pointed out ("Note the large horn!"). One day, I was quite surprised to have Dr. Kawashima ask me to draw myself -- and then afterwards, having nothing to compare it against, he said, "Emphasize the good loooks!" This kind of feedback from an abstract character really elevated the experience from something I would have done a few times to something I did for a solid month or so; it should also be noted that my view of Dr. Kawashima, someone who I know very little about but who nonetheless manages to motivate me, almost exactly replicated the experience I had had of my coaches in the past.
The addition of new training techniques over time also reminded me of past training in running. At the beginning of the season, you'll start out simply by jogging and running each day, usually starting out with a little stretching³. Soon, though, you'll add a variety of training methods to your arsenal -- you'll add fart lek, interval training, hill training, Indian running, and others. Over time you'll intensify these -- tougher hills4, longer distances in your intervals with shorter cool downs. This is all exactly analogous to the training approaches provided in Brain Age.
The real difference, I guess, was that Brain Age lacked the specific orientation towards peak performance that would often accompany my high school running -- emphasizing certain aspects of your training to cause your body to peak during the crucial last few weeks of the season, when all the big meets (regional and state contests) would occur. Brain Age doesn't provide anything like this, as far as I can tell -- Dr. Kawashima never says, "Well, we're heading into a few weeks of intense brain training to help you lower your brain age. Get ready for a workout!" So there are some differences, too.
Unfortunately, towards the end of August, I ceased to be able to run, and had to abandon my half-marathon. I have an old knee injury (high school indoor track) and some trail-running in California had caused a recurrence; I was out for a ten mile run just a few weeks shy of the half marathon when I had to abandon running altogether due to the pain5. And with it, I abandoned this article; and around that time the blog stopped too.
But around the time I started having the knee pain, I got back into training of a different kind. For about a year now, my sons have been training in karate a couple of nights a week. In the late spring, they started pestering me to join them; it was a few months before I did, joining them in the dojo about a month after my knee failed me. Here was another sort of training, less specific in terms of performance -- no direct comparison of your performance versus another student's, with the exception of sparring -- but still with a lot of similarities. Karate training doesn't really have goals; attaining belt ranks is not really the focus of the training, though it is a useful way to track when you're able to take on more (to add more forms to your repertoire, for example, or to judge your relative strengths in sparring). The idea of training is to improve your karate, to improve your skills, moving them constantly towards a perfection you will never reach.
In January, I had my first belt test, and tested well, attaining my yellow belt. And at that point, I decided it was time to increase my training; prior to that, I had almost entirely been training with the childrens' classes, since that was when my sons would train. But after my first test, I was ready to start training more seriously, to push myself harder and further. Over the last few weeks, despite some pretty severe bruising (the adult classes introduced me to contact training, which involves tagging punches and kicks, and let me tell you those black belts can hit pretty damned hard!), I've thrown myself into the training, spending many more hours in the dojo in a given week. I guess that refocusing, and that belt test, were what got me thinking about Brain Age again, and the pleasures of training.
Over the last several months I've gotten out of the habit of blogging, of writing these articles about games and other media (and now, I guess, other experiences). But lately I've been missing it, and I'll make an effort to get back in the habit. It's like a different sort of training -- keeping your mind sharp by thinking about the implications of something you've been reading, or playing, or watching, turning it over in your mind and applying it to games.
Hope to see you in this space again soon, and thanks for waiting.
¹ I had the opportunity to get a free copy at GDC, which was a good move by Iwata, giving away a thousand or so copies for good word of mouth. However, I held off, because Will Wright's Spore keynote followed, and I really didn't want to wait in that line a second time. (back)
² This was the result of a competition with my father -- a "biggest loser" style of weight loss competition. Although there was a bottle of scotch on the line, the real competition was for bragging rights; it has been nice to have had a good six months of trash talking my father since I won, and now I'm doing that online to my, ahem, vast readership. :) (back)
³ Come to think of it, the little illustration exercises in Brain Age generally preceded daily training or brain age testing, which sort of made it a good form of stretching. (back)
4 For me, hill training will always mean what we on the cross country team called "ass break hill". I have no idea what the real name of the hill was, but on relatively flat Cape Cod, it was a doozy. (back)
5 This made me very aware of the physical analog to Brain Age: body age. Nothing makes you so acutely aware of your aging body than having to limp several miles back home due to joint pain. (back)
October 18, 2006
Le jeu, c'est moi!
Not too long ago I was watching an Ingmar Bergman film, puzzling at the meaning underlying the story, trying to understand what it was that he was really getting at. As it turned out, certain characters in the film stood in for parts of the psyche, somewhat related to id, ego, and superego, though not directly. The moment I understood this was an epiphany, that piercing of the veil to let a little truth in, and it was heady, made more heady, in fact, because I felt such a strong recognition of myself in the mental life that the film represented.
I felt an amazing kinship with Bergman in that moment, knowing what a personal filmmaker he is, knowing that he may have been trying to represent aspects of himself.
It recalled for me a statement by Gustav Flaubert, who said of his famous heroine, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". Now, there are any number of ways to interpret that statement -- that the book is him, that the character is him, that the forces which give rise to a book and character like Emma Bovary are what give rise to an author like Flaubert. In most ways of interpreting his statement, however, it's clear that Madame Bovary is an immensely personal work, one that only Flaubert could have envisioned and executed.
Finally, I recently read the following bit in prep by Curtis Sittenfeld¹:
I have always found the times when another person recognizes you to be strangely sad; I suspect the pathos of these moments is their rareness, the way they contrast with most daily encounters. That reminder that it can be different, that you need not go through your life unknown but that you probably still will -- that is the part that's almost unbearable.
That moment of recognition was something of what I felt for Bergman (and in myself, through his film); that recognition is something Flaubert perhaps sees in Emma (and therefore perhaps we can see in Flaubert). And it's a recognition I never see in games.
That's not to say I don't see parts of people in games -- Tim Schafer's desperately manic humor comes through in both his games and in person -- but it's rare that I can look at a game and feel like it's telling me anything more about myself, or that I can recognize myself in it.
I don't think it's an inherent limitation in the medium. I can sort of do a gedanken experiment where I envision an interactive experience along the lines of Grace and Trip in Façade which isn't all that different from the film I describe². In such a game, the characters might experience several scenes, rather than just the one, and their available mental states might be highly constrained according to the point of view the auteur is trying to put forward³. This doesn't seem like it need lead to some sort of fatalism -- after all, the film that Bergman constructed is only one of myriad possible scenarios between these characters, and perhaps the interactive experience involves finding new juxtapositions, experimenting with the potential relationship space that those characters represent.
I think a contributing factor to this lack of recognition is that we work in such a highly collaborative medium these days that single auteurship has pretty well gone out the window. When so many people work together in close collaboration, it's often to the benefit of the game, since so many shifting viewpoints will hopefully create fun for a wider audience4. But this is very counter to the experience in watching films by those directors we call auteurs (and naturally, entirely different from reading a book) -- directors who chose collaborators who were able to work within their framework.
In terms of the fun gaming experience, though, maybe the best we can hope most of the time for is a game which uniquely caters to one's own sense of fun -- one to which we respond, "That's my fun!" rather than "That's me!" It's a small mirror, to be sure, but a mirror nonetheless, and I'll keep holding out for the bigger ones, that reflect more of us.
¹Though I enjoyed the book, I'm not in complete agreement that it was one of the most notable books of last year. It seemed a little, well, chick-litty to me. Which yes, is an admission that I can enjoy certain forms of chick-lit, I suppose. But I'm man enough to admit that without feeling threatened. ;) That said, a quote like the one that follows above is sometimes enough for me, though the density of such quotes was pretty low here. I feel like I could jot down passages from just about any random page in Saramago. (back)
²Oh dear, I've done it now, I've painted myself into a corner where I must reveal the film, and therefore perhaps reveal a bit of my psyche. In any case, the film was Bergman's Cries and Whispers, a totally great film. Wow. Anyway, psyche exposed, let's now continue. (back)
³With all due respect to the makers of Façade, it doesn't feel like this level of authorship is at work here -- and in fact, that might work counter to the goals of the exercise, or simply be a side effect of the limitations that they have, in terms of a character's sublety of emotion. (back)
4Which is a great reason to diversify our industry; wider inputs probably mean a wider audience. Suits take note, if you can find a way to incorporate a more diverse team, you will likely sell more units. (back)
October 12, 2006
Something that rang a bell
I know, I know, two posts in as many days. No doubt I am spoiling my readership. How are you, my reader?
Anyway, I've been thinking again about the whole marketing push whereby Sony declares the PS3 to be a computer (rather than a gaming device). It has been gnawing at me for awhile, and I couldn't really figure out why.
Then it came to me. Just like other claims Sony made about the PS2, this one I've heard before. You see, while describing the PS3 (or for that matter, the PS2) as a computer doesn't make much nevermind to you or me the consumer, since we'll basically play games on it and nothing else, the EU makes a useful distinction, to the tune of a 2.2% duty on game consoles.
Now, granted, 2.2% on any individual unit isn't a lot -- it's about $12 in the States for the "high-end" PS3, give or take. On the other hand, if you multiply that by a few million units, it starts to add up -- and in fact, there have been around 40 million PS2 units shipped to Europe over the course of the console's cycle. Let's say that adds up to around $4 per console over the cycle on average (the PS2 being quite cheaper than the PS3); 160 million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, even for a big corporation like Sony.
I was thinking a little bit about this recently because of some of Mark Rein's comments about Intel -- basically, he claimed that Intel, by using integrated chipsets incapable of running higher end graphics, exactly the kinds of high-end capability that the Unreal 3 engine depend upon.
The differences are clear, and were essential to the EU last time around: when someone buys a PS3, they're buying it to play games, so the tariff is justified. In the case of Intel, when someone buys a PC, they are most likely not buying it to play games (and certainly not the high-end games such as Epic provides) but to fulfill some generic function (probably business-oriented).
Basically, I think that in both cases, the companies are doing the right thing for their bottom lines -- Sony wins if they fight the tariff, because they charge the same price either way, and Intel wins because they can afford to shave some of their profit margin to compete against AMD in the wholesale market. This leaves me thinking that Sony is basically trying to market their way out of paying a tax, that Intel is just doing the smart thing for their market, and that Mark Rein is... well, kind of not focusing on the right things.
Honestly, I don't think that most people who buy a PC with an integrated chip are going to want to play an Unreal Engine-licensed game. Those who want to play high-end games are going to continue to pay for high-end cards -- they will buy a PC for the flexibility it provides to their home in general (Internet browsing, printing, word processing, their home finances, whatever) and buy the card if they want to play games. Everyone who owns a PC is a potential customer for Epic only in the sense that they own a PC -- not because they have, or will ever have, much interest in playing Unreal games. My folks, my grandmother, my sisters -- these are people who might be interested in games, but just not those sorts of games, and these are exactly the folks who would have an integrated chipset.
October 11, 2006
Irregular Feature: Stuff I've Been Playing
Tomb Raider: Legend, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
Titan Quest (also bought), Evil Genius (demo), ElectroPlankton (also bought)
Okami, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls
So, yeah, been a while. Sorry about that. I've got a few things coming down the pike, so keep an eye on this space for future posts.
It's actually been a busy month or two in which I managed to play a few games, primarily of the action-adventure stripe, broadly speaking.
I mentioned some months ago on the Evil Avatar podcast that I had been playing Tomb Raider: Legend; it definitely seemed like a very refined, polished, Lara experience. Comparing it to older games in the genre, I realized how much this genre refinement addresses simply making it easier and or prettier to do things that were annoying in the past.
The biggest gameplay improvement here is in lining up jumps; old-school games like Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine required you to perfectly line up your jumps and ladder-climbing, which was irritating at best. The latest incarnation of Tomb Raider allows a free-form jumping experience that goes further and adds more forgiveness to badly placed jumps. In other words, if you miss the jump but are close, Lara will grab on and give you the opportunity to recover by pressing the Y button. This is a nice addition -- turning the annoyance of death and replay into an opportunity for agency -- but I'd love to see it go further. Lara is quick-thinking and agile; giving players the opportunity to stay alive in a variety of ways as long as they keep doing something, that's what I'm after. Make death a thing of the past, as long as the player does something appropriate -- whether that's throwing out a hand to catch a niche, or shooting the grapple hook above the ledge she's seeking to grab. My hope is that this would turn what is a false agency that merely eliminates an annoyance into a potentially meaningful choice -- perhaps missing and grappling gives you an angle on an enemy that would have been impossible otherwise, or causes the AI to peer over the ledge, allowing Lara's lovely legs to sweep up, encircle his neck and snap it.
Another refinement came in the form of inventory management. In the older games, managing inventory for things like health packs and weaponry was flawed -- it involved pausing the game to pop up an interface, and navigating this interface to find the thing you wanted, and then applying it, a sequence of three or four button presses². In TR:L, this is whittled away to a single button press on the D-pad, and there's no management -- Lara can hold three of them, and use them at any time, picking up more as she goes along. Less distracting, no need to interrupt play or the rhythm of a fire-fight, it's a win all around. If games today are shorter, but leave out some of this useless fiddling, that's a big win in my book.
I know that the idea of going back and finishing a sub-par game from years ago probably seems a little nuts. In this case, I was talking with one of the original designers via IM³, when I said that I wouldn't mind playing another similar game in the near future, if I could think of one. I joked that maybe I should go back and finish his game (I had never played any of the levels he designed, which occur late in the game), and over the next couple of days I did.
It was a bit of a perilous experience. The game's technology had aged quite poorly4, which was unsurprising, considering that the technology was pretty poor when it debuted. The art was quite below today's standards, but this didn't bother me a bit; comparing it to current games was meaningless, and even thinking about what it might have looked like compared with other games of its time was pretty pointless. The art more or less faded into the background. Certain macro-design issues were difficult to comprehend -- the inability to turn Indy around quickly (another thing that later games have improved on); a poison mechanic which wouldn't go away over time; the inability to move Indy while he was delivering such cinematic, mission-critical lines as "I don't think that will work". On the macro level, the design could have been significantly improved; the combat, in particular, had aged extremely poorly.
What stood out in the last few levels I hadn't played was the level design, in particular Mëroë and the Aetherium. Mëroë was everything I could possibly want in archaelogical exploration: labyrinthine tunnels that wound beneath the surface of the sand, connecting in "real" but still surprising ways. Though there was some combat, it was limited and really only a bit of a spice to what was mostly about puzzles and exploring; in essence, it was very similar to the movies in this way. The interior of the Infernal Machine was great in this way too -- not lots of combat, but interesting puzzles and good exploration that all tied together really nicely.
And then, there was the Aetherium, the final level, which did something few games manage to do well -- to take a 3D experience and make it do strange things, in this case, by bending "reality" to create passageways where passageways should not have been, due to intersecting other geometry in an Escher-like way. This is something I've always expected more in games, particularly in certain licenses, especially superheroes and anime. Combat in comic books and cartoons doesn't obey physical laws -- it obeys dramatic ones. When enemies or heroes are knocked back, they are thrown through what looks like a really big space -- even if it's only a 20' by 20' room -- without showing lots of detail of the room other than color and a lot of motion lines. I've seen this a lot lately on Teen Titans, which I watch with my sons -- there's a constant playfulness with reality, some of which is to show the emotional state of the characters, and a lot of which is to dramatize the combat to make it feel, well, "super". I'd love to see more of that in action games.
I see a little bit of that in the Sly Cooper series. Like the Ratchet and Clank folks, they've ignored animation advice to "not stretch bones", and as a result, they end up with characters whose animations better emphasize the characters themselves. Sly, of course, stretches longer when he jumps, but I think there's also some stretching going on in Murray when he bounces, and of course, Bentley's turtle nature virtually requires stretched necks and arms at times.
It's a pity that I came away from the last in this series feeling that they had made refinements that didn't meet my needs. In the first two, bottles were placed throughout the environment, which encouraged exploration -- those were removed here. Exploration in platformers is often good, because it gives you an opportunity to improve navigatoin skills you'll need throughout the game -- in Sly's case, this is his jumping and cane use, but it might just as well be Psychonauts' use of the acrobatic skills of Raz. There's also a 'cool factor' of being able to use these skills to get to places in a level you might never expect, such as the top of a very high tower. With the variety of new characters and skills available, I would have loved to have kept this element, if only to have exploration-based ways of improving my skills with these new characters.
The further refinement to take the place of these were 'challenges'; accessible from the main menu, you could return to certain sections of the game and repeat them, often to beat a time or a specific scoring metric (taking very little damage, for example). Unfortunately, these were essentially removed from the normal play of the game, and didn't encourage things I enjoyed. I played several of them, but only enough to know that I won't be going back now that I've completed the main storyline.
So, I guess in the end you need to be very careful where you refine. Refinement that eliminates annoyance or enhances agency? Good. Refinement that eliminates features which encourage exploration and skill-building, bad.
Well, now that I've posted again for the first time in a while, I hope to have a few more posts5 in the near future -- it's not for lack of thoughts, just prioritization of time, and now Okami and Zelda are beckoning... Cheers.
¹This irregular feature is completely stolen from the Believer column of a similar name by Nick Hornsby; I may even do a "Stuff I've Been Reading" column. We'll see. (back)
²Another implementation, which was visually cleaner than Indy's but no less distracting, was the inventory management of Metal Gear Solid.(back)
³Tim Longo, who was designer or director on each of my own three shipped games, is now at Crystal Dynamics, new home of Tomb Raider; I was giving him my thoughts on the game and the genre. (back)
4In particular, there was an assert which would trigger frequently; eventually, I realized that this was due to how much faster PCs are these days than when this was released, when a 233 MHz machine was pretty beefy. As it turns out, (back)
5Including one that discusses some elements from Castlevania... (back)
May 26, 2006
We Were Superb
I know, I know, I said a couple of days for the Brain Training thing but I just haven't gotten around to it¹.
Anyway, happened upon a brief mention of Jedi Starfighter over at Wired today. I missed this column when it came out, but it popped up in my RSS today and I was pleased to see one of my games mentioned as being a great Star Wars experience.
JSF didn't do tremendously well in the marketplace; it didn't sell nearly as well as the original, which became a Greatest Hit on the PS2 and a Platinum Hit on the Xbox, leading to a long life of sales via the 'long tail'.
Despite the relatively weak sales, I was very proud of our accomplishments in JSF: we improved performance by a factor of 2 to support lots more ships and huge capital ships, we introduced some great new gameplay elements (a tug of war mission by John Drake, a missile command mission by Rich Davis), a couple of big boss battles (Doug Modie, Troy Mashburn, and Rich again), cool new uses of the wingman feature, and a multi-mission arc involving the theft and reconstruction of an enormous space cannon (just about everyone was in on that -- so I'll additionally mention John Feil and Quentin Westcott). Plus we added the Force Powers and additional weapons and all that under Tim Longo's overall design direction -- it was a sequel of which I'm very proud.
I could go on and on about the successes of the team, which was composed probably of 50% new folks and delivered in under 9 months. You should check out the MobyGames page, everyone made great contributions. (A couple more: Lynne's contributions as art lead were great, Rebecca Perez saved our bacon and delivered stunning animations to boot -- plus a whole bunch of extras that late-night contributors like Ryan Hood put together, Greg Land was great at keeping design on track and bringing home the performance and memory savings at the end of the project, god, there's too many to count.)
So, Brain Training, this weekend, really.
¹I'm actually glad I haven't, since I played it all week and have a lot more thoughts than I had last weekend. Anyway².
²Sorry, Nartz, no footnote links -- if this doesn't fit in a single browser window you should stop reading on your cell phone.
January 22, 2006
Obsessions and Compulsions
Some time ago I watched Sideways on DVD; at the time I hadn't the faintest clue what I would blog about it. Some months later, I happened upon the audiobook version of Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist at the library and eventually it all started to coalesce a bit.
Both of these works have strong elements of obsession. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti's character Miles is obsessed with everything: obsessed with his ex-wife (and her pending remarriage), obsessed with perfecting his novel before he can send it off (and making it more and more like the headache-inspiring tome in The Information), and of course, obsessed with wine, particularly with pinot noir. Certainly, the film is about other things too, and is remarkably funny and fresh; both the director, Alexander Payne, and Paul Giamatti were seriously overlooked by the Academy on this one, with neither of them earning an Oscar nomination for their work here. But when I think back on the film, I remember the central facet of Miles' character being his obsessions, contrasted starkly with his buddy Jack, who appears so laid-back that if he's obsessed about anything, he's obsessed with relaxation. Towards the end of the film, Miles is starting to relax his obsessions, and in so doing, open up his life a little bit.
The Disappointment Artist, which includes an interview with the author in its audio version, presents a series of essays about Lethem's obsessions, which include certain types of music, certain films (including, bizarrely, The Searchers, which gets a full essay here), and comic books, among a few other things. Listening to the book as read by the author gave these obsessions more palpable force, as he still clearly carries these obsessions with him, or at the very least, can clearly remember what it was like to be in their grip.
I thought a long time about this post; I finally gave up on finding exactly the right angle for it and just started writing because I wanted to get something out today, which is the one-year anniversary of this blog. What got me thinking originally about the obsessive elements in these works and the relationship to videogames were a couple of things. The first was the obsessions I was undergoing myself at the time, one of which still grips me: with Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando and with Guitar Hero. The second was my general process of writing this blog, which involves constantly looking ahead to what I'll soon be blogging about, keeping detailed lists of what I read/watched/listened to when, and consultations back to movie reviews and book criticism and what have you. I don't think I'll talk much about this second element, but the first is something that should be familiar to videogamers everywhere.
I've taken a look over my game shelf¹ and thought about the games I can remember there, considering most closely those I've played this year. One very common element through all of these games is the collection/completion elements in them which spur the obsessive in me, who feels a burning need to find all the shines, collect all the figments, discover all the platinum bolts, and perform my absolute best in these games I play. Here's a sampling of just the games I've played at least a time or two in the last year and their corresponding OCD elements:
- Animal Crossing: Fill the museum with butterflies, dinosaur bones, etc.
- Ratchet & Clank GC: Platinum bolts, weapons
- Resident Evil 4: Treasures
- Psychonauts: Figments, memories, cobwebs, brains, mental baggage
- God of War: phoenix feathers, unlockables for multiple playthroughs
- Sly 2: messages in bottles
- Jade Empire: fighting styles, side-quests
- Guitar Hero: 5-star performances, multiple levels of difficulty/skill
- Indigo Prophecy: bonus cards
- Metroid Prime 2: scans, missile and other power-ups
Now, not every game I played had such elements (a couple notable exceptions being Shadow of the Colossus and Mario Kart Double Dash, which we play obsessively anyway), but it's a pretty overwhelming commonality on my shelf. And you could say that a couple of these above are a bit of a stretch -- Jade Empire's side-quests probably stand out -- but my response to these elements is just as obsessive as with the others, since I'll spend all kinds of time making sure to get every possible side quest in Jade Empire and will be annoyed and frustrated when one escapes me².
There are a number of ways to explain this. One obvious one is to say it's me: that the games I enjoy playing tend to have these sorts of elements to them, and there's just no two ways about it, it's me. I don't think this is the case: I think the list above is indicative of a lot of folks' game shelves in terms of it's obsessive content. Granted, I respond to some of these elements more obsessively than they probably warrant, but they are there to be obsessed over.
Another way to explain it is that game makers are simply trying to include "something for everyone" when they're building their games, and that includes us obsessives out here in gamerland. I don't really think this is the case; I think it's more likely that it's simply ingrained in the culture, and is an easy thing to include in your game to get more time out of it. The recent rise of achievements on Xbox Live via the 360 reinforces this opinion -- now literally every game released for the platform has some sort of OCD element to it.
Regardless of the explanation, I'm going to come right out and give some feedback to my fellow developers on some things I'd like to see in every game which includes these elements. It's probably too late for me to be anything but the obsessive player that I am, but these would at least help me to get through these obsessions a little more quickly.
- Give me an easily accessible counter. I want to know how I'm doing; I want to know how many things I need to find in your level or area or what have you; I'm completely willing to run all this stuff down, but you need to give me a little help. Sly 2 did a good job of this -- just pressing down on one of the analog sticks would give you an explicit count, at any time, of how many message bottles you had found and how many there were left to find. The original Metroid Prime was rather poor about this -- other than telling you what "percentage" you were through the game, you had no feedback whatsoever how many items were left -- I quit looking for missile powerups when I got to 150 missiles, only to later learn that there were more than 200.
- Maps are good. It's okay to wait until near the end of the game to give me a map which will help me run these things down, as Ratchet and Clank 2 does, but please provide the option. I spent a good couple of hours in Psychonauts looking for the missing figment on the Napoleon level, nearly making me a candidate for the nuthouse myself. Hey, I'm even willing to spend some in-game cash to get those things; one of the first things I bought in Resident Evil 4 was the map for the treasures.
- Tell me what good they do, or at least be honest that they gain me nothing. I've been picking up these bonus cards in Indigo Prophecy, having no idea what they're for. Contrast that with the elements in Psychonauts which would lead directly to improved psychic abilities or bonus material such as "the good Chans" that Tim used to always give me a hard time about.
- Don't make me play through the whole game again, or at least make it easier somehow. God of War breaks this one for me: there's simply no way I'd be able to make it through on super-hard-mode just to watch the movies. It's nice to reward your hard-core players this way, but it leaves me feeling left out in the cold -- I beat your game, why can't I watch the yummy extra content? Ratchet & Clank follows the second half of the rule: you have to go back and play the game some more to get the greatest weapons (though in theory, you could simply play in easy mode for a long long time), but they multiply up your score based on how long you can go without being hit by the enemies, which is generally pretty long.
- Give me alternative feedback to help me find them. The Sly series is very good about this -- all those message bottles make a little dinging noise. If you listen carefully, you can find them this way, which is great when you've found 99% of them and just need that one more.
And of course, finally, you can think about the last suggestion: don't include them at all, like Shadow of the Colossus, which was one of the most remarkable game experiences I had this year. As with Giamatti's character in Sideways, sometimes you need to let go of your obsessions to grow.
¹My game shelf these days is entirely console titles, since my PC games haven't yet made it out of the boxes they got stowed in when I moved from California. I don't think what I'm discussing here is a purely console-oriented phenomenon by any means, but I haven't exhaustively considered the PC games I've played. (back)
²Most notoriously, there was a closed fist approach quest that I simply couldn't have garnered, but which stayed in my quest log mocking me for almost the whole game. (back)
December 30, 2005
A quick entry today before an extended one in the next couple of days.
I managed to get out and buy a few games that I've been meaning to get for one reason or another. I had a $150 gift card to Best Buy burning a hole in my pocket, and so I headed over there to see what could be seen. Here's what I ended up with.
- Gun for Xbox. A little while back, I blogged about Westerns in these pages. Gun is a new entry into the genre, and I've been meaning to get around to it. Reviews have been mixed; they seem to take a lot of hits for the story mode being "too short". If it's ten hours, I'll have gotten more than my money's worth, so that works for me.
- Indigo Prophecy for Xbox. I've been hearing consistently good things about this title, which may have something to teach me about videogames and stories. So, we'll see. Sounds interesting anyway, and since I gripe about story here a fair amount, it only seems fair that I should give one of the better-reviewed story games on Xbox a try.
- Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal for PS2. I'm currently enjoying the second in the series, and I figure I'll want to come back and play this one at some point too. It joins Star Wars: Starfighter¹ in the Greatest Hits collection; at $20 it's a steal.
- Rise of the Kasai for PS2. I saw this sitting there for $10. For $10 I simply couldn't pass it up. I remember the reviews being mixed; on the other hand, I really enjoyed the first one. So, we'll see.
- Fire Emblem for Gamecube. Admittedly, I was really looking for Dragon Warrior VIII for PS2 (and they didn't have it), but I've never played a substantial role-playing game on Gamecube, thought I'd give it a try. This one I think got pretty decent reviews, and extends a decent portable line. I'll let you know. One of these days.
Here are a few things I decided to pass on this time:
- Minish Cap for GBA. I re-started Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga over the break, so I just wasn't in the market for another substantial GBA title at the moment. I'm still finishing the last Zelda I started on the GameBoy, for that matter.
- Geist for Gamecube. I don't know. I just couldn't see it. It sounds like there may be some compelling play there, so I may get back to this some day.
- Killer 7 for Gamecube. This was probably the hardest to pass up: I'm still really interested in this title, and I'll probably pick it up at some point.
- Dragon Warrior VIII for PS2. Admittedly, I've already mentioned this one, but worth pointing out. I hear it's about 100 hours of play, though, so maybe it's better that it wait a little while.
Anyway, that's what I picked up in my foraging today. I'm curious to hear what my vast readership is up to, games-wise, since most of us have a few days off right now.
I'm still getting a lot of mileage out of Guitar Hero -- trying to get 5 stars for every performance on medium, and I've got them all up to Crossroads, which remains elusive. I've gone back to Resident Evil 4, which got sidelined for a little while there, and since I only play that at night, I've been hitting Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando during the day.
TTFN, I should be back tomorrow with a post about obsessions and compulsions.
¹Okay, that's about as blatant a plug as I can possibly pull. :o) (back)
October 17, 2005
What? We're over a Mountain!
As the voice of Nym, Mr. Rocket completely brought that character to life for me. Until we received the voice recordings, Nym was a pirate captain without a soul, a character on whom we had hung a bit of a story, who had been the focus of some cutscene work.
But having the voice, this boisterous, brash, guttural boom suddenly coming out of the speakers at me really brought the character home. Nym was suddenly alive in a way that Rhys Dallows and Vana Sage never were. Even Adi Gallia, who had actually been a character in Episode 1 (albeit briefly), never felt as real to me as Nym did. And the voice was a huge part of that.
I guess part of it was that he was a main character in my first game; in fact, it was the first game for at least a few folks on the team. I had helped invent the character near the beginning of the project -- a pirate captain with a whole set of missions as a bit of an anti-hero -- and he had later been better incorporated into the storyline when we added a proper writer to the project¹.
The title of this post refers to something of a weird project battle cry, taken from one of the voice lines Rocket had done. I don't think the direction on that particular line had been all that clear, and it came out a little confused -- we ended up pulling the line from the shipping product and refactoring the mission in which it appeared.
But from that point on, whenever we needed a little comic relief, or when the pressure of being the company's first PS2 game was a little high, or when we were all just a little confused ourselves, someone would yell out the line in their best befuddled Nym impression. It was good for a laugh every time, a little letting off of steam. It continued to be in the years afterwards, and I'll occasionally get it in the odd instant message from an old teammate to this day.
I never met him, but he touched my life in a small way. I'm saddened by his passing.
October 12, 2005
Back in April or so, I went back and played through¹ The Fool's Errand, a game I had played on the Macintosh years and years ago, based on an article I had found on the fine website Tea Leaves. There isn't alot to say about the game that Tea Leaves hasn't said already, so I both commend them and recommend their article. Good reading.
Cliff Johnson is that relatively rare beast in gaming today, the lone auteur -- in our very collaborative development medium, he has largely worked on his puzzle games alone. And he has another Fool's game coming out soon, so you fans should head on over to his site to check it out, as well as a couple of other games by him you might have missed.
Not too long ago I posted an idea I had for making games more accessible to build by smaller teams. I have others, but that's a start. I was, of course, thinking primarily of games more or less as I play them now -- these big, triple-A titles with tons of assets and thousands and thousands of man-hours of work behind them.
There is, of course, another way. One other great area where games can still have single auteurs, and have something meaningful to offer, is in Interactive Fiction. This year's Interactive Fiction Competition has more than 30 games to give a try. There are probably very few people with time enough to play them all -- the voting closes in a little under a month -- but I'm willing to give a few of them a try. You can register on the site and even have it generate a random ordering of the games for you, so you don't need to feel like only the first few are getting a shot.
So, that's what I'll be doing in the near term, game-wise. In a time when I've been getting a little disillusioned by what the mainstream has to offer us as far as gaming experiences go, I'm willing to go back to where I started, in a crystal cavern. Because these days, the gaming mainstream often feels like the real maze of twisty little passages.
¹It's worth noting that at the time, I only had 30 days in which to beat the game, or have it be lost to me forever. I used a walkthrough mostly at the end -- those final puzzles are far beyond my ability to do them quickly. Good stuff, though. Apparently the Windows emulator for Mac OS has been extended to run for the next 14 months or so, free of charge, so feel free to give it a whirl, you'll have more time with it than I did. (back)
October 01, 2005
Sacrifice: God of War
Note: this discussion contains plot spoilers not only of the game in question but of a few Ancient Greek plays.
It's almost unheard of that I get halfway through a game¹ and feel the tug of moral qualms countermanding my desire to see it through. I had just such a moment in SCEA's God of War, which I finished shortly after completing Psychonauts a few months back.
I had reached the point in the game where Kratos was encountering the Challenges of the Gods inside of Pandora's Temple. The game had shown me all kinds of savagery -- ripping undead sailors in half, tearing harpies limb from limb, driving my blades into the throats of countless minotaurs -- but I was completely caught off guard when it became clear that Kratos had to make a human sacrifice to continue. I had come to a point where the Gods demanded sacrifice, and that sacrifice was available to me -- a man standing in a cage, at first certain that I had come to rescue him, but soon realizing otherwise, and screaming for my mercy. And ahead... the flames.
Now, I'm not particularly squeamish, but this was a bit much even for me. I paused the game, and I put down the controller, and I stood up from the couch and walked around for a bit. Granted, these were mere pixels and polygons, but that wasn't enough to make me able to overcome my qualms. After all, I was being asked to push a man (albeit a virtual man) helplessly into jetting flames.
It was the tensest moment in the game for me. I had seen scenes of immense beauty, such as the sewer entrance masked by the enormous statue of Athena with its bridge constructed from her sword. Kratos had been bathed in the light of the Gods and granted enormous powers. All that remained was this last shred of his humanity, and soon he would defeat a God.
It was at this point I was grateful for the third-person perspective in games. I could disassociate myself from the horrors that Kratos performed, since they grew from his character, and not from mine. The story was already laid, had already unfolded, had already occurred -- I was just experiencing it.
Because you see, the people of Ancient Greece were almost completely alien to our own sense of morality; they treasured might and strength and honor where many of us believe in self-sacrifice and helping others². Cronus, Zeus' father, attempts to maintain his throne by eating his own children, and Zeus attains his throne by cutting open his father's stomach to retrieve his siblings. And as terrible as their myths were, their entertainments contained similar themes: Euripides' The Bacchae and Medea offer denouements where mothers destroy their children. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus puts out his own eyes. These are brutal events, tragic events, and they flow from the savage, passionate characters who personified the human condition for the Greeks³.
Thinking these things, I came to the conclusion that I could continue to participate in the story, to be the agent that moved the story forward, to participate in the myth just as I had when I read The Bacchae. I could see Kratos not as an extension of myself, but as his own character. While I controlled his moment to moment action, the elements of his story were not mine to take moral responsibility for -- they were his own destiny.
And so, I picked the controller back up and continued. I guided Kratos through a sacrifice of a human being to attain his destiny.
For the most part, I'm glad I did. The story structure of the game was remarkably well-done, with wonderful reversals and a brilliant return to a visual element which I had found stunningly beautiful when I encountered it. In entering the sewers of Athens4, I had crossed an enormous sword into the body of the statue of Athena which held it -- and returned later to wield that sword, having been enlarged by the power of Pandora's Box.
I have a few quibbles, of course: for example, the time Kratos spends in Hell was such a departure from the rest of the game that it felt like I myself was in hell, which brought me closer to the character but not in a good way. And whenever I had to cross a narrow beam or tightrope of some kind, I felt decidedly unheroic -- here Kratos is, up against a God, and yet he teeters and frequently dies whenever walking across something less than a foot wide. This was particularly disconcerting after having finished Psychonauts, where our young hero regularly traipses up and down tightropes without missing a beat or even really slowing down.
But for the most part, Kratos' tale was a remarkable one, and it helped to elevate the straightforward (if highly polished) beat-'em-up play that was the bulk of the game.
A game that makes me stop and consider whether I want to continue due to moral questions is one that I feel I can recommend.
¹... or a film or a book. It happens, but it's exceedingly rare. Usually once I've made the investment, I feel bound to continue. I look at all the games on my shelf that I've started and not finished, and it's usually because something else comes along, not because I gave up on a game. (back)
²For those who are interested in a philosophical assessment of how we got from one to the other, I can recommend Friedrich Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals. Be warned, however, because Nietzsche's analysis is somewhat unflattering of Christianity's moral framework, at least in terms of its origins. (back)
³It's worth noting that Shakespeare also involves a fair amount of brutality, especially in a play like Titus Andronicus but even in tales like The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. It's interesting to me that the most revered writer in English uses his tragedies to externalize the human condition, just as he often does in his comedies, this may be something you see in a post someday. (back)
4Must every game have sewers? I'm fairly certain that sewers were not an invention of the Greeks, though they did have aqueducts to bring their water down from the mountains. (back)
August 26, 2005
Golfin' with the Boys
Lately the boys and I have been getting into Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for the GameCube.
I'm not usually into golf games; indeed, I'm not really into sports games at all. If it were Tiger Woods, I'm fairly certain it would pale pretty quickly. But having those fun cartoony Nintendo characters really works for us, and of course, the boys find it more interesting too.
Part of the appeal for the boys is that they themselves have played a bit of mini-golf, and Luc has actually gotten out to the driving range with me and his grandparents a couple of times¹. Both enjoy swinging a set of plastic clubs, too².
Mostly we've been playing stroke play, but that's not really fair. The boys are mostly competing just with each other at that point, and they try to keep track of any holes they beat me on. We're going to switch to the skins game, so that it evens up a bit. We end up splitting the holes a little bit better if you ignore score -- when I mess up, I usually bogey or double-bogey, whereas it's not uncommon to see one of the kids go +6 a hole or two per round. I'll also switch back to using the swing meter in the more complicated mode, with the multiple button presses, and let them keep going with the automatic swing, which is a nice feature that should also help balance the play.
Toadstool Tour is not without some flaws. The most annoying thing is that to unlock additional courses, I have to go back and play the single-player game some time when the kids are in bed. That just drives me crazy, particularly considering that we played through all of Double Dash entirely in co-op, completing the whole game. The models of the games are a little different, but it's still something I find completely frustrating, and it's not hard to imagine pitting my threesome in a skins game or stroke play against some of the other Nintendo characters. We have about six courses open right now, and we've played most of them, so I'm going to have to open up a few more over the next few days.
Anyway, we're looking forward to Mario Baseball coming out next week. And the news that Mario's going to be showing up in the next SSX makes it likely to be the first snowboarding title I'll pick up since Tricky. It'll be bound to entertain.
¹He's surprisingly good. We didn't go this year but last summer he was hitting really well, which was pretty amazing considering he was only about six at the time.
²When Luc was five, he could hit those plastic clubs with better form than I could swing a driver -- it's humbling how many habits we have to unlearn, how much we have to get our brains out of the way when we do physical activities. At least, those of us in the not-so-active-nor-ever-so-graceful set.
August 25, 2005
Discussion: Two Plus One
Jules et Jim is a great little movie about the complications of friendship and romance, of the duties we owe one another and to our own happiness. The titular pair are great friends who meet in Paris, Jules an Austrian and Jim a Frenchman. They grow to be great friends, thoroughly understanding one another.
Soon, a woman enters the picture, Catherine, and her amazing resemblance to a statue they both admired in Greece strikes them both, and makes them realize that she is somehow different than their other girlfriends, which they have sometimes shared. Catherine is a free spirit, and as portrayed by Jeanne Moreau, she crackles with a frantic, radiant energy that must be seen to be understood. Both men fall for her, Jim perhaps the hardest, but Catherine chooses Jules, and Jim respects her choice and does not try to interfere.
It is at this point that the film gets a little strange, or perhaps, a little stranger; war intervenes, and Jules returns to Austria with Catherine now his wife. Time and the war pass quickly; each man worries for his friend and hopes that he will not meet him on the battlefield¹. They do not, both survive, and time marches on until one day Jim pays them a visit.
Jim encounters the couple, very unhappily married, with Jules still caring only for Catherine's happiness so long as she can be made to stay near to him, to still share in his life if she will not share his bed. She has had lovers, and soon takes Jim as a lover, with Jules' blessing, as they will live in the house, and no harm will come to Sabine, Jules' and Catherine's daughter, thereby.
There are other wrinkles, but by this point in the story I've told you enough to impart the film's strange flavor. At the time that I watched it, I was a little stymied, but like most great films, it sticks with you and grows a little bit in your mind; you recall its images and its subject, and it ends up making you think a bit about what two people who love each other owe to each other, and what concessions they should make for the other's happiness. In the case of Jules and Jim, there are three pairings -- the two men clearly love each other, and each of them loves Catherine. Where it gets interesting is when that third wheel is added to the mix².
It's funny, but I kind of feel the same way about Façade, the research project everyone's been talking about³. What's interesting about Façade, at least in theory, is that it does exactly what Jules and Jim does, but it puts the player in charge of exploring his relationships with these other characters.
It's not properly a game, unless you'd call it a role-playing game, with a heavy emphasis on the role. Players4 arrive at the home of Trip and Grace, a married couple who are clearly having a domestic dispute which is interrupted by the ringing of the bell (at a point of your choosing).
The simulation takes input through typing, as anything you type is something you say. This is, unfortunately, a rather clumsy interface, and even with my very high word-per-minute rate, I continually find myself just a beat behind in conversation, often cutting off one of the participants mid-sentence as I furiously pound out my words. That aspect is quite frustrating.
What really thrills me about it, though, is that I can approach it with my own role in mind. Am I to be the cad, who has always had the hots for Grace and now can make my move? Am I supportive of one character or the other? Am I uncomfortable? Interface issues aside, it aims to let me make these choices, and despite those flaws, it's still really interesting. Jules and Jim explored the interactions of two people and one other, and so does Façade.
I wondered over in Jamie's blog whether the implementors had done any filmed tests to see what worked for the experience and what didn't. Often in academics, you look to see what explanatory power your model has, and sometimes you take what you have and measure it against what people actually do5. I think it'd be really interesting to take some blind subjects and run this scenario with real people -- actually walk these blind subjects up to the door with exactly the information they get when playing the game, and let it unfold with a couple of actors.
I'd love to know how they might have changed their simulation in response. Would people ask "Well, wait a minute -- did I meet Trip first, or Grace first? How long have I known them?" How much more information would people want before they felt comfortable? In what ways would they connect with the characters that weren't reflected in their simulation -- longer hugs? Back rubbing? Peering attentively? Making faces? There's so much richness there, and I'm curious about how much of it you'd have to add in to feel like you had enough interface to emote properly?
Would speaking directly to it be enough, through a microphone? I don't know. But it'd be a start. I don't want to push more hard problems on them, but given the simulation, that kind of real-time interface is pretty desirable. Had they simply presented it as a text "adventure", the typing interface might have worked much better, though the results wouldn't have had the immediacy. Maybe playing it out as a text adventure and then playing it back as film might work.
So, I guess I think Façade is pretty important too. Like Jules and Jim, the more I think about it the more questions it makes me ask, the more it makes me think. That's a significant contribution.
¹Talk about your pronomial binding problems. Anyway, Jim worries for Jules, Jules for Jim, and neither wishes to meet the other in battle.
²Note: Wildly diverging metaphors!
³See site for links and quotes. I learned of it through Ernest Adams' write-up on GamaSutra.
4Interactors? Consumers? Experiencers? Participants? Since it's not really a game, it's not really proper to call us players. An experience which drives me to seek new terminology is often a good thing.
5Years ago when I worked in graphics research, I was co-author of a paper about generating speech and gesture for animated conversations, which still shows up in searches on my name. Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about the project was some of the errors we would get, and the ways it would fall into the uncanny valley (behaviorally speaking; visually speaking, the poly models were far below what we have today). The chief researcher, Justine Cassell, had done her graduate work in gesture, and behind her theories were some good indications of why we actually can mis-gesture. Fun stuff. While academia is really not for me, some of the intellectual questions it poses are still really interesting to me.
August 16, 2005
Gunslingers and Samurai
It's certainly been remarked before that there are a lot of similarities between samurai films and Westerns; indeed, some of the greatest Westerns were inspired by films by Kurosawa, including A Fistful of Dollars by Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven by The Seven Samurai. (Sanjuro, which I recently watched, is itself a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo; another parallel can be drawn with the spiritual successor For A Few Dollars More.)
It's fairly obvious with even a little bit of thought why there should be such a close correspondence. After all, both genres deal with violent historical periods where life was fairly cheap. Both deal with time periods that are distant enough to be romanticized and yet not so distant as to be forgotten or undocumented. Both eras came to a close at about the same time, with the Meiji era in Japan beginning at roughly the same time as the West becoming more civilized². Both times deal with questions of honor and moral ambiguity, with hired guns and ronin facing off across moral lines. Both genres also point a bit to the souls of their cultures -- with Westerns portraying the lone individual surviving by his wit and skill, and samurai films portraying men bound by honor and code and tradition.
Both genres are also highly malleable; periods of great violence at an individual scale³ lend themselves to all sorts of investigations. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a single murder causes one man to lose his grip and become a bum, while another rides the coattails of the fame it grants him to become a Senator. This is similar to Twilight Samurai, where a single event causes a man to overcome his concerns about a marriage he would make for love. Both are capable of morality plays (for example, The Ox-Bow Incident4). Both have enjoyed cycles of popularity, with periods of reinvention and rejuvenation; in getting a television series in Deadwood, it's my hope that Westerns may get another here in the States.
But enough about similarities.
One of the things I find interesting as a gamer are the differences between the Japanese market and the American market, and one notable difference is that these two genres are reflected differently in the games made in their native countries. In short, while there are several games reflecting samurai culture in a given year (Dynasty Warriors, the Onimusha series, games like Way of the Samurai or Musashi Samurai Legend), Western videogames are comparatively rare. I can only think of a few, and even then, I need to stretch a ways back (Outlaws, Red Dead Revolver, er...).
Why is this? I'm not certain, but I think it's probably about the guns. Why play an action game with guns where the pistol only carries six shots and the machine gun has to be left in a fixed position? Also, a hip young friend of mine tells me that Westerns just aren't cool anymore. I certainly hope the film genre doesn't die out altogether, though Clint's gotten a little old to get out there riding horses, and I'm not aware of any other stars who could even revive the genre anymore.
Whereas gracefully wielding a katana is eternally cool, as Kill Bill points out.
In the end, I'm not even sure I want to know why. What I really want is a few more Western games, though preferably not ones that drag in other genres to try and make them cool. I have high hopes for NeverSoft's Gun, which comes out this fall.
¹I suppose I should change my category names to DVDs rather than Movies, since I don't want to add something about television. I'm not going to, even though I suppose I should. But for anyone who regularly reads it, read Movies as a broad category. :)
²The Meiji era (beginning 1867) was a time at which Japan began to modernize; by 1876, samurai were forbidden to carry their blades in public. By the early 1890s, most of the Western territories such as Montana or the Dakotas had gained statehood, and with it legitimacy and the rule of law.
³As opposed to the scale of warfare, I mean.
4There's another interesting point to be made about The Ox-Bow Incident, and that's that it was adapted from a play. I actually think there may be another interesting blog post about adapting films from plays and the problems that that caused film and television early on -- since we face some of the same problems with videogames. But that's for another time.
August 06, 2005
Why I've Stopped Playing World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft is a truly stunning achievement. It's beautiful, it's enormous, and it deserves every bit of its success.
And yet, I've completely stopped playing. Twice, actually.
When I first picked it up, what I really wanted was a way to keep in touch with friends on the West Coast. I moved to Maryland from the Bay Area at the end of last year, and I had a lot of friends online playing WoW. I figured this was a good way to get my cooperative game on and still chat with friends about what was going on in their lives. Unfortunately, the three-hour time difference was a killer, and it was very rare that I could actually get in any time with my friends -- typically, we could start no earlier than 11 pm my time, which left a very narrow window, since I was getting up at 5 am.
But the game thoroughly sucked me in nonetheless. Before long I had levelled a Tauren Druid up to the mid-twenties. And one weekend that server had been down, and I had started a human Warlock on another server. Before long, he was into the mid-twenties as well.
Mostly, I played solo. On occasion, I'd group with one or two other players, and we'd do a few quests. This was all just happenstance, however; I'd be up in that area doing a quest anyway, and another player would happen by, and we'd end up grouping and doing something together.
In that way, I met Renwok, a troll rogue who in real life is an 18-year-old New Zealander; while adventuring, we chatted about his foray into Zen philosophy, and we discussed our thoughts about Suzuki and other enlightened thinkers. I also met a fellow programmer who had worked at Skotos Tech one night; we didn't group, but we were in the same neighborhood for a while and were just having a conversation.
These were really interesting evenings. But they were one-offs, and that was kind of unsatisfying. I would occasionally whisper to Renwok, but he'd be busy on some quest or whatever and, given his ability to spend far more time in the game than me, we'd probably never get to play together again.
One night, I actually played with Jamie for a while; I started a new character and we leveled up to about four or so before he had to go and take care of the baby. It was fun, but again, a one-off.
And I joined a couple of very successful groups, always with complete strangers. I did the Van Cleef thing, which was an awesome few hours of play. I did the Wailing Caverns with some folks I didn't know. I did a few things in the neighborhood of Lakeshire with groups. And this was all really fun, for a time. But joining with some people only to never see them again was ultimately disappointing.
Basically, every effort I've made to get to know someone, to spend some time adventuring with someone, has come to an end in an evening. While I really enjoy the serendipity of doing something and having someone come along who can help, I don't like letting go of that so quickly.
Most recently, I had an acquaintance start playing and we planned to spend some time adventuring together. So, I picked up the game after having put it down for a few months, and I quickly leveled a new character up to 12 or so, and I joined him in Westfall for an evening of adventuring. But there again, it ended. He was in the early throes of WoW, putting in a lot of time every week, while I could still only find a night or perhaps two a week to jump in and play. Soon, he had passed 30, while I languished at 17 or so.
I don't fault Blizzard for any of this; I think it's a built-in peril in the MMO framework, built as it is on somewhat flimsy social networks.
I know it can work; I know that there are people who find and form lasting relationships from their MMO play, either entirely online or moving offline. There are guilds where members don't know one another personally at all (in terms of meeting in the flesh), but who nonetheless have strong personal associations through their characters. But what I find¹ is that these are people who typically spend enormous amounts of time in the game, and that's something I simply don't have time to do.
While the first twenty or so hours of playing a character have always been immensely rewarding² because of the density of quests and the little chains of related quests that will take you through a few levels, this thins out after a time (towards level 20 or so) and there aren't enough quests you can do solo for the game to retain that level of enjoyment.
So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. As with anything, you'll get out of it what you're willing or able to put into it. And as a father of two young boys, a film and book buff, and also a console gamer, there are other things I want to spend my time on that return the rewards I want from them.
I'll always look back fondly on my time with WoW. And in fact, I'm not entirely ready to turn off that account yet³; a small part of me wants to explore being in a big guild, to explore that aspect of the framework. I may even give some upcoming games a try -- D&D Online or Star Trek Online. I have friends and acquaintances working on both of those games, and I'd really like to see what they come up with.
But for me, I think couch co-op games with friends and my sons are going to continue to be the best format for me. In these cases, the games we play may be one-offs, but we'll play them because the gaming will grow and inform our existing relationships, not serve as a source of them. At this point in my life, that's the most that I can ask from a game like this.
¹Anecdotally, of course. I had a colleague at LucasArts who was spending some time playing Everquest at work during the week or two after his project was cancelled, and I asked him how much time he spent on it. So, he typed some command in and it told him 135 days. So, naïve me, I said, "Oh, so you've only been playing for a few months and you're already level 60?" and he said, "No, that's the total number of days I've actually spent logged-in." I was amazed. That's a significant amount of time, when you think about it. It's about a year and a half working a standard 40-hour-a-week job, for example.
²I've created about eight characters that I've taken to level 10 or beyond, and a couple that only made it to level four.
³Making me exactly the kind of customer that every MMO dreams of -- the paying customer who doesn't actually play.
July 26, 2005
The Persistence of Mythology
So, my recent post about Psychonauts got the juices flowing again a bit.
Another thing I think is really remarkable about Psychonauts is the degree to which the game's themes have been allowed to permeate into the play.
Often, in platformers, we're asked to collect abstract things which then become part of the mythology of the game. Stars and shines and coins for Mario, rings for Sonic. Taking something and making it a more real part of the game world gets done as well: Jak and Daxter has its Precursor Orbs and Power Cells, Ratchet and Clank has bolts and tons of weapons, it goes on and on².
One aspect of the brilliance of Psychonauts is that it finds a way to use these conventions but present them in a way that is thoroughly consistent with the game universe. You're off digging around in psyches, and you don't find rings and coins: you find figments of imagination, and mental cobwebs, vaults, and emotional baggage.
Okay, so you've let that sink in, have you? Of course, when you encounter the baggage, it's crying, since it has no tag (and thus, can't be sorted). When you give a piece of baggage its tag, it is super happy. See, it's not just baggage, it's emotional baggage. Once you've sorted out all the emotional baggage, you get what in other games would simply be labelled "concept art". But in Psychonauts, they call it Primal Memories¹.
This is taking an idea all the way through. It's a level of polish a dress sergeant would be pleased as punch to have on his boots.
It's throughout the game. Your power-ups: clairvoyance, pyrokinesis, telekinesis. Hey, you even get to float around inside of brains using a thought bubble.
And that's just the stuff you get inside of people's brains. When you're out in the physical world, you're still a kid at summer camp. You go on scavenger hunts, finding just the sorts of weird off-kilter objects you might actually look for at summer camp. You collect arrowheads (remnants of the Indian tribe that once lived there). There's a bully and his lackeys. There's a girl who can't make up her mind about who her latest crush is on. You get merit badges for your achievements. It's wonderful.
This level of attention to detail is what made me go through and collect every single thing in the game, every challenge marker, every scavenger hunt item, every mental object of every stripe. There were gameplay side benefits -- some level challenges were almost certainly easier because I had achieved all sorts of bonuses to my skills. Sure, it was just another game where along the way you're collecting items. But weaving these collectibles so closely into the fabric of the game's story elements made this remarkably satisfying to me³.
After an experience like Psychonauts, collecting shines and rings seems so... pedestrian.
¹Side note: I was extremely happy to see these. Back in my early days of working for LucasArts, I was able to see huge amounts of Grim Fandango concept art just by stopping by the huge corkboard wall outside of Tim's office there. It was filled with great images by Peter Chan of the various locations and characters in the game, as well as some great pieces which just gave you a feel for the game.
²It will no doubt continue to go on and on in the next round of platformers, on our new dark masters starting to arrive this fall.
³And, let's face it, to my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I sort of lamented that there wasn't any character really suffering from OCD in the game, but I forgave them, since that character was me.
May 21, 2005
Six on four yields two to eight
It's back to Mario Kart this morning for a brief note: my kids are still playing a lot of MK:DD. Lately, we've been trying out the "versus" modes, or rather, Luc and Jordan have.
It's interesting how this game can level the playing field. Usually, Luc's two year advantage in age gives him the upper hand in any contest, but in Mario Kart last night they played Balloon Battle for the first time and Jordan dominated, winning 8 out of 10.
I have to say, for kids, I love these kinds of competitions -- not who can kill the other the most, but who can take the other's balloons, or who can hold onto the "shine" the longest. I wish there were more such games. If anyone knows of a few that the kids would enjoy (platform not an issue, although I've only one PC), please send your thoughts my way. I'm looking for games which are E for Everyone and would possibly extend to E10+¹.
¹Hey, not familiar with game ratings? Check them out at the Entertainment Software Review Board's site.
April 18, 2005
Jamie Likes SWRC
Quick blurb this morning¹; Jamie Fristrom, designer of Spiderman 2, long-time writer of articles about game development, gamedevblogger, and friend has posted up on his blog his notes on Star Wars: Republic Commando.
I'll have more to say about some of his notes later on in his comments and perhaps here, but for now, thanks, Jamie!
¹Since I'm at work and shouldn't really be posting at all...
April 01, 2005
Discussion: Einstein's Dreams
Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams is not a novel, even though that is its subtitle. It is more a collection of sometimes philosophical, sometimes romantic, always thought-provoking meditations on the nature of time, mildly wrapped in the idea that these are things that Einstein himself was dreaming of when he wrote his seminal paper way back in 1905. There is so little of this part (a few pages at beginning, midpoint, and end) that Einstein hardly figures into it at all. It might as well be called Lightman's Dreams though I suspect that would have sold fewer copies.
In any case, in its form it highly resembles an Italo Calvino 'novel' such as Invisible Cities¹, a group of thematically connected thoughts in the forms of chapters. Although the idea of Einstein having these thoughts gives it a frame to hang on, the little vignettes about time are the great reason for its being.
Of the books I've read lately, this one is the most structured like a videogame. You can certainly think of each concept as a level, for example, but an understanding of time being your ultimate quest, perhaps. Time is a thread through this book, and each chapter a knot in it.
I can just see the levels now: Road of Time, City Where Time Sleeps, The Shifting Sands of Time, Time Is An Arrow. (Hrm. I wonder if those Prince of Persia guys read this book.)
It's a short book. I'd probably read it again if I were doing a game with a clear central theme, just to get my brain turning on how to deal with variations on a theme. An acquaintance who has recently completed his very excellent game, Psychonauts² used to fill up notebooks with ideas that all surrounded the stuff he was doing, just brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming. This book seems like that sort of thing -- a group of ideas that came up out of a brainstorm, then polished into a bunch of wonderful little gems.
We did something like that near the end of Star Wars: Republic Commando, a brainstorm that is. We got everyone on the team, including our test team, and dragged them off to a space we rented somewhere offsite and picked everyone's brains for hours. I was one of the moderators (we had four groups, and we wanted to make sure everyone was communicating and that we got the info back together to present to the larger group after, hence moderators). It was great. There were some wonderful ideas that came out of that -- but mostly, the benefit was how much it re-energized the team, made them go that little extra mile for the last months of the project. We tried to focus people on things we could achieve in the final months of the project, polish stuff, areas that were really deficient -- but we didn't shoot them down over stuff that wasn't really able to be fit in scope.
I think one of the things that came out of that was the "communication" between enemies -- in an attempt to make the Trandoshan mercenaries seem a little smarter. There are times where it really works³, and they really seem a little smarter.
Anyway, we've gone a bit far afield from the original topic. But what I'm getting at is that just letting your mind flow and make associations can come up with some good stuff. This book is a great illustration of that, or at least, I imagine it is. Any game developers out there do this?
¹I use the term 'novel' loosely because Calvino bends it so much, which is a huge amount of his charm.
²Yes. I am doing the web equivalent of name-dropping.
³Which, emergent gameplay, god, the number of blog entries one could write about that.
March 07, 2005
Man, PA Really Loves RC
Penny Arcade¹ gives Star Wars Republic Commando some more loving. Thanks again, guys, your positive thoughts are very heartwarming.
¹Previous disclaimers as to overall Penny Arcade content still apply.
March 02, 2005
More on Quality: The Role of Critics and Criticism
So, a while back, Jamie Fristrom was talking about yardsticks of quality in measuring videogames. He pointed out the problems with various other metrics (game sales, user reviews, how much my friends like it, etc). Yup, all of these have problems.
Right now, I think that videogaming suffers from a dearth of good criticism. Yes, I know, I know, nothing particularly original in that thought. The problem is, I don't think there's a significant market for it -- a co-worker¹ came back from DICE recently and mentioned that some editor or other was up there saying that "We don't write more serious-minded critical reviews because our audience doesn't want that."
You know, it's completely true. When I was 17, I didn't care much about what Siskel and Ebert were saying about a movie, I just liked to watch them argue and ultimately just went with the thumbs up / thumbs down -- essentially a ratings system with only three stars. Of course, when I was 17, I also went and saw nearly every movie that came out, so I wasn't exactly exercising my critical faculties most of the time. What I'm getting at is that our audience, young as it mostly is, isn't terribly interested in deconstructing Mario, Lara, Samus, or Master Chief.
So, having said that, I'll go on to the value I find in criticism these days. My criticism mostly comes from a couple of sources: for films I use Roger Ebert's website, and for books I read the New York Times Book Review.
With Roger Ebert, I'm relying on someone with whom I often agree -- and who can discuss film at a level that's comfortable for me. I definitely often disagree with him -- he gave Sky Captain four stars, whereas I only gave it two and a half², and I can't even conceive what he was thinking when he gave Blood Work three and a half. On the other hand, I never would have even thought to check out an old silent film billed as a horror movie had he not convinced me it was worth my time. We're in rough concordance more than we're completely off, and his vast knowledge of film gives me some pointers that I might not otherwise know about.
So, with Roger Ebert, I'm relying on a critic who has a pretty vast knowledge of the subject, who often points me in the right direction. I never find that in game critics -- game criticism hasn't been around all that long, really, and game critics seem to move around pretty quickly. There used to be a few at Computer Gaming World whose names were recognizable, but most of them have moved on.
The other thing about building up a relationship with a critic about games that is daunting is that it takes a long time for me to play a game. Ebert's reviews come out once a week and feature around half a dozen movies -- and I could conceivably go and watch all of them myself that week³. Movies are around two hours long. Games range from ten hours to over a hundred. There's just no way I'm going to be able to even remember what a critic said about that experience unless I go and look it up, whereas I can always remember the general gist of what Ebert had to say -- which bears again on the quality of the criticism. Most print reviews are short enough that they present no meaningful information to me, no mental outcroppings I can grab onto and remember three or four months later when I maybe finish a game. Without those, I simply can't remember enough about a review to think back and agree or disagree with it, or with its author.
My other main source of criticism is the NYT Book Review, which I've been reading for years, although I often get far behind and have a stack of them sitting somewhere. (Books get dated over a longer period than games.) What I respect in this source is the institution itself; the Book Review has been a voice in literary criticism for a long time. For a book to be considered seriously, it probably needs to be reviewed there; it's a mark of distinction to be considered "notable" by it.
In this case, I'm also going on a relationship -- it's pretty rare that the Book Review steers me wrong -- though not with a particular person, with the institution. But the institution extends great editorial effort to matching interesting books with interesting and appropriate reviewers, and even here, there are reviewers' names I've seen many times, or there are authors whose books I've read and admired who are themselves reviewing books.
This case is also similar to games, in that there's simply no way for me to consume that much reading material in a given week. Even were I to give up work and probably sleep, I don't think I could guarantee I could get through everything in any given Book Review in a week (heck, most weeks I can't even get through the whole Review). But there's still that hook that I remember that I read about it in the Review, and that I thought it was interesting enough to stick it in my PDA so that I might some day pick it up at the library. With games, there really isn't that kind of source -- no institution I turn to and say, "Well, hey, they liked this and even though I've never heard of it, I'm gonna give it a go."
Well, that about rounds up my available blogging time for this evening, and I still want to put out one other brief entry. Next time I revisit this subject, I'm going to actually work out what I think quality in games really means, coming towards a definition, instead of doing all this talking about how to measure it.
¹A word I still find funnier hyphenated as cow-orker. But then, some things easily amuse me.
²Where he saw innocence and camaraderie, I saw shallowness and lifeless archetypes. We agree about how pretty it is. Of course, the movie has a role for Anglelina Jolie, of whom Ebert is a big fan.
³That is, if I wanted to give up games, since I'd have to go and see late shows every night due to having two young kids, etc, etc. But very possible if it were a priority to me.
February 23, 2005
SW Republic Commando Reviews Start Hitting
Many thanks to Jen Sloan for this link, and the killer quote from the (generally positive) article's intro:
Normally we're a tad suspicious of LucasArts for its obsession with continuously yanking on the flaccid teats of its most lucrative intellectual property - and for very good reason.
Overall, the game is doing well in rankings -- at the moment, it's between my other two games, Starfighter and Jedi Starfighter. I'm curious to see where it ends up.
February 11, 2005
Penny Arcade Really Likes Us
Thanks Gabe & Tycho!
February 08, 2005
Qualities of Quality, Part 1
Jamie Fristrom recently posted in his blog some thoughts he had about quality as it applies to games, and it got me thinking about my own thoughts about quality. I started writing a comment over there, but it started getting out of hand in length, and so I've moved it over here. Not to mention that I'm just getting warmed up¹: I think there's three or four posts worth of thought that I have about the subject.
One of the things that I think makes games so difficult to describe or rate in terms of quality is the mere fact that games encompass such a wide variety of experience that it's difficult to measure them in any reasonable way. When you are speaking of a genre that can have high quality from GTA 3 to Half-Life 2 to Tetris, you at least appear to be describing a fairly wide variety of possible experiences.
When I look at a game like GTA 3, for example, I have a hard time calling all of it "high quality". The graphics are merely average, and the storytelling is not particularly strong (for someone who is a fan of storytelling in games, as I am). Yet fans of this game love the immense variety of choices -- the options you have for playing the game. The game presents an astonishing variety of play styles -- from the range of vehicles to drive and pilot to the weaponry to the sorts of missions -- and later installments extend that even further. It presents enormous breadth in its play space.
GTA 3 is a very, very different game from Half-Life 2, which presents a story told in a compelling way, incorporates some new and pervasive physics gameplay, but is very, very linear -- your play space choices are limited to things like weapon choice (itself constrained by ammo, though infrequently) and very quick tactical issues². It's a very different experience, presenting a very different set of play styles. Like GTA 3, it would be hard to describe it as anything but a high quality game.
Then you take Tetris. With Tetris, you're talking about a game which can be described fairly mathematically: at any point there's a very clear set of input states (possible blocks to drop in addition to the current alignment of placed blocks) and output states (the combination of ways in which those blocks can be added to the current placed blocks). It appeals to our pattern-matching and the intuitions that derive from that -- things that we're good at, that as a species from which we tend to derive some short-term pleasure. Again, a high-quality game, but quite different from the other two examples I've mentioned.
Add in your favorite RPG, your favorite MMORPG, your favorite text adventure, your favorite platformer... you see where I'm going. There is simply an enormous variety of possible gaming experiences to be had, and addressing them all with some sort of common metric seems very difficult indeed.
And yet, critics and their audiences in other media have found some sort of common ground for discussion even when they rate a variety of examples of the medium. Take movies and Roger Ebert³. I was quite surprised a few years ago to read his review of some sort of light summer movie and give it four stars. I'm not sure now what the movie was -- I think it might have been The Cell -- but I remember being thoroughly surprised. The movie in question was formulaic, and not all that interesting.
I had the opportunity to hear Ebert speak directly about that movie a year or so later, when a friend was interviewing him for City Arts and Lectures and asked him, "How did you come up with that rating for that movie?" reminding him that this was the same rating that he would give a masterpiece like Citizen Kane.
He said, "Well, when you're talking about this sort of film, there are... gradations." He was pointing out that people should be aware that he's not making a direct comparison with Citizen Kane, just indicating that this was a really great film... of that sort of film.
What does this mean for games? Well, one thing that it means is that you probably can't look at scores of one game absolutely against another -- you might try and use relative ranking against others of its same type. For example, if Half-Life 2 or Halo 2 is at the top of the shooter category, and Zelda is the best action-adventure title, then you might say those games are roughly equivalent in how great they are, in how high quality they are. And that might be a useful way to look at GameRankings. Also, you're unlikely to be able to look at two games that are too distant at time and directly compare them -- keep in mind that the greatness of today's game (like the greatness of a film of today) is built partly on the back of the common knowledge of some game of the past. That's a topic for another time, but in our medium especially, you can't set something from even five years ago next to a game from today. GoldenEye may have been great when it was out -- but how many people will choose it over Halo?
Another thing that stuck with me from Ebert's talk was the following quote, which speaks a little bit to criticism. "A man walked into a movie theater, and the critic was that man." But that discussion is for another post.
¹Actually, exactly to mention it.
²Where to take cover, how long, etc. Very good twitch players may find they are capable of not even really requiring to make such tactical decisions, as enemies may not live long enough to be a threat.
³I'm going to use Roger Ebert a lot as an example here, since I've read more reviews by him than any other film critic, not because he's the best living critic, nor because he's an expert on criticism, simply due to familiarity.
February 06, 2005
Let the sinking of time begin...
...And I thought I stayed up too late in the past. Tonight, I jumped in and started playing World of Warcraft -- sure, a couple of months behind everyone else I know, but better late than never, I suppose.
For the few people who read my site but don't know what I'm talking about (that'd be you, Mom & Dad, and Cara and Lea if they've found this yet), World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game¹. I picked it up mainly to spend some time having fun with friends in California; I played some text-based MUDs back in college and grad school, they're fun, but this is the first time I've played one of the more modern ones, i.e. post-Everquest.
I'm not going to go into too much detail about my feelings about WoW just now, but I will say that first, it's a solid role-playing game. The quest system is elegant, the interface simple and functional; there doesn't feel like an epic story is coming, but then, it's not that kind of environment, and every now and again it's fun to just play a game.
The other thing, if you're out there reading Tim, is that tonight I was soloing out there around Camp Narache, and took on a quest that was just about the edge of what I could handle alone. I'm a Tauren druid, and I was out there running around when I ran into a Shaman² who grouped with me and helped me finish my quest. You're right about that -- the sorts of things that can happen in this environment are much better than they used to be, and it added to the fun.
So, there you have it. You won't hear it often, but I said Longo was right. Jeez, it really must be time for bed.
¹MMO or MMORPG for short. That next one coming up, MUD, stands for Multi-User Dungeon, if I recall correctly.
²Nice fellow, from Chicago. Plays a lot with his 8-year-old son, but was soloing this evening with a newer character.
February 03, 2005
Gaming as Pastime: MKDD
Just this past weekend, on my birthday no less, my sons and I finished Mario Kart: Double Dash. Finishing the game means beating every "cup" at every speed -- you might think you're finished when you beat the "All Cup" at 150CC, but you're not. They unlock Mirror Mode at that point and you get to do all the tracks again, flipped 180. Once you've beaten all this, Nintendo shows you an image with all the characters in it saying "Thank you for playing" and changes the start image at boot time; you also unlock the last Kart you'll unlock for the game.
The amount of stuff to unlock was quite remarkable. Normally, I could care less about unlockables (although I liked them in the Metroid Prime games), but the shear amount of stuff is ridiculous. Karts, characters, etc., one for every gold trophy you earn. I thought that would end once we beat the normal tracks, but even in Mirror Mode you get goodies.
We play sort of a quarterbacked version of the co-op game -- I drive, they control the character on the back, and I shout out when I want them to deploy the shell or banana or whatever.
When we first started playing the game, the boys weren't all that good at it. They would forget who was holding the controller (!), forget what button to push, or have to look down at it to do it. Now I've freed them up to make their own decisions about when to do certain of the power-ups, etc., and we have been mastering the "super start". Pretty soon I'll have them add in counter-steering for the super boost, and we'll really be in business.
The amount of fun we've wrung out of this game far exceeds any I've gotten out of any other game bar none, and I've played a few games. Part of it is the game itself, sure, but largely the fun comes from interacting with my boys -- I'd never have had this much fun playing through the game alone. My sons get caught up in which characters are behind us, which character belongs to which track, and the constant struggles we had in defeating the 150cc mode for the harder tracks.
We've finished the game now, but we're still playing, working together, trying new Karts¹ and characters. It's moved from that area of "thing of the moment", which is where games usually reside with me, to "family pastime" -- quality time with the kids doing something all three of us enjoy.
Part of me, as a game developer, would really like to be able to target that experience, to move something beyond the 12 - 50 hours it takes to play a game these days to something that you constantly go back to because of the environment it engenders. As a player, I'm already wondering what else I should buy that the kids might like -- maybe a Mario Party game, or Animal Crossing, or Wario Mega Whatever -- trying to find something else that just brings out this sort of friendly competitiveness.
I know in a few years they'll want to play things like Halo 5 and the like, and they'll be handing me my hat in those games. It'll be fun, I'm sure, we'll have good bonding time, trash-talking, all that cool guy stuff I'll want when they're into their early teens and such.
But I'll tell you one thing: I'm not packing up the Gamecube for a long while. I'll want us always to be able to slip in that easy fun we've had, and keep having. Pretty soon, they'll be able to drive the Karts too, and we can move on to switching back and forth, and that'll be fun too. Before long, they'll be quarterbacking me -- "no, Dad, throw the shell forward *sigh*".
That'll be fine by me.
¹Actually, this was one of the things that made it difficult to beat in the first place. As driver, having the same Kart every time would have been beneficial. As players, my kids constantly wanted to try new Karts, leaving me scratching my head as to how to play them -- I got really good with quickly acclerating (but lower top speed Karts) and have only recently been getting better with heavier ones.
Penny Arcade Likes Us
Quick entry about P-A for those of you who haven't seen it.
Yesterday's Penny Arcade newspost mentioned the new PC demo of Star Wars Republic Commando, my most recent game, quite favorably. Actually, they liked my last one too. It's nice to have some fans over there, since Tim Longo and I are big fans of theirs -- we even used Penny Arcade for our "unlock everything" code with JSF.
Anyway, I'm a big fan, and their shout-out means a lot.
For those of you in my family who aren't up on Penny Arcade, watch out. This comic helps sum up their world-view. And don't even search for "American McGee's Strawberry Shortcake"... you won't get it.
January 23, 2005
It seems like not a lot can happen in four minutes. After all, four minutes is all it takes to steep a pot of french pressed coffee¹.
But in four minutes in Half-Life 2, you can
- Learn to play catch with the gravity gun...
- Overtake a heavily fortified position with the help of ant lions...
- Pull into a friendly outpost on your dune buggy and prepare to defend it...
- Make your way from basement to rooftop of an enemy-held building...
This last week, I've been playing Half-Life 2 in the mornings before I head upstairs to paint my sons' bedrooms. Typically I'll have a pot of coffee or two while I play, which stretches out into a couple of hours on most days.
Brewing a pot of coffee once the water's all boiled takes about four minutes in a french press, as I mentioned. But that time passes in an instant while I'm playing Half-Life 2. No sooner have I sat down and done something extraordinary than I'm up at the request of the kitchen timer to finish brewing. It is a mark of the game's genius that real time can flow so quickly while you're playing.
This genius isn't necessarily easily achieved, though Valve certainly makes it look easy. Having played through once for fun, I feel like I should go back and play through again, taking careful note of just how they do it. There's the story-telling, which is accomplished by methods both direct (moderately interactive cutscenes) and indirect (background). There's the million little audio touches, from the myriad sounds of each of your guns to the death throes of your enemies. There's the little graphical touches -- a bit of light on each of your guns, the motion of a character's skin as he walks away from you.
Each medium has its crucial elements, those building blocks that, properly executed, drives the work forward. In television, for example, it's the scene, usually no more than a couple of minutes in length. The first season of The Sopranos expertly delivered on each scene, which caused me to burn through those fifteen or so hours in just a week of watching. In music it might be the melodic line, or a recurrent theme (think opera).
I think that games have many crucial building blocks, from a micro level to a macro level -- and that's part of what makes producing a truly superior product really really hard.
One of the crucial elements for a first person shooter like Half-Life 2 is to deliver a compelling experience from the beginning of an enemy encounter to the end -- from enemy introduction to enemy death. If everything that's a part of that experience is great, that shooter has achieved that building block. On this reasonably micro level, Half-Life 2 does very well -- weapons are satisfying, the interface provides the required information with a minimum of fuss, enemies die well (with nice physics provided by Havok).
But with games, we need to take it a bit further -- that single element, repeated for hours and hours, can grow stale without something to drive you on. That's where the macro level can come in.
In Half-Life 2, there are a few things going on at the macro level. There's a storyline evolving, which drives you on if you're the sort of person who really enjoys storytelling in games. But there's also a good deal of gameplay variety -- vehicles, simple squad play, ant-lion control, in-engine cutscenes -- that keep it fresh from section to section.
I may come back and review Half-Life 2 again: the game developer in me wants to take this apart bit by bit and really understand what's going on from moment to moment. The player in me just wants to play it through again. Four minutes at a time.
¹I recommend the Bodum double wall press (called the "Columbia"), myself, in chrome. Keeps the coffee hot long enough to drink the pot.