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November 27, 2012

The #1ReasonWhy

This morning I discovered the #1ReasonWhy hashtag on Twitter -- a collection of thoughts about why women feel unwelcome in the games industry; I discovered it by way of Katie Williams's Alive Tiny World blog. I'm not smart enough to boil down my own anecdote into 140 characters, so I'll go ahead and post it here.

It was 2002 or so, perhaps 2003, and I was working at LucasArts. I can't recall now whether I was leading a programming team at the time or not, but by the time this happened I had led a team and shipped one or two projects, and had worked both with a female programmer and other female content people, artists and animators and designers.

LucasArts had a fairly good balance of women in those days; I think we were probably a bit ahead of the industry at the time, though it wasn't something I ever discussed with anyone there and I don't really know for sure. Over the course of my seven years there I worked with three different female programmers (one of whom was briefly lead programmer of a project I was on) and I recall at least a fourth who I never had the chance to work with -- about 8-10% of the programming staff were women. The distribution in art and animation was quite a bit higher, I had worked with a female lead artist and indeed the head of the art department was a woman. I can't specifically recall the numbers, and you'd have to go and look through old books of credits or LucasArts yearbooks to find out in any semi-scientific sort of way.

We were hiring and I had been selected to sit in on an interview; lead programmers often screened candidates by phone for the projects they were leading, and other leads were brought in to interview if a candidate was brought in for an in-person interview. I was part of a three-person interview team including the director of programming and a female programmer who had led a very successful PS2 and PC title; I don't know the financial numbers but it reached critical acclaim.

The candidate was a lead programmer on a FPS project in Texas; I can't remember more than that¹, not sure if it was Dallas or Austin. I think, based on the one question I can remember from the interview, that he was interviewing for a lead position, but he was certainly a fairly senior guy. We asked the usual introductory comfortable questions along the lines of "give us an overview of your career thus far and what you're looking for next," which were typical for us, before digging into technical or other questions.

After he had given us that, which ended with a description of his most recent experience as a lead, I asked him, "So, what was the biggest thing you learned in your first experience as a lead?"²

He didn't miss a beat before he replied, "Well, we had one rule on my team, and that was 'No hot chicks.'"³

I think I must have been visibly taken aback, because he struggled on with that but without the immediate confidence that he had started with. It's also possible that he remembered at that point that he was also being interviewed by a woman, because he went on to make some bumbling points about distractions and engineers' needs for focus, and I felt a rising sense of horror. I might have taken it for a poor joke, had he not doubled down with his explanation of how he came by this "rule".

I like to think he knew that the interview was over right then and there. Certainly all the interviewers did, and I'm pretty sure I never asked him another question. The director of programming took over the interview at that point -- the direction for interviewing was to make people feel like they had had a fair shake in their interview, to be good hosts, that sort of thing, as it was a small industry and you wanted your candidates to be able to say to other people who might interview at LucasArts the impression that we were fair but tough interviewers.

But a part of me, ever since, has wished that I had just stood up at that point, said, "Thanks, I think I have all I need," and left the room. I'm in a point in my career now where I feel more confident in my own choices than I did then, and willing to trust my instincts when faced with situations that are outside normal operating parameters laid down by policy. Being clear with how I feel about a response like that is how I would handle it if the same situation were to arise today.

We got through the rest of the interview; I think the technical interviewers came in next, I might have been part of the wave of "personality fit" interviewers and clearly we had established what we needed to. The director of programming gave an embarrassed chuckle to my female colleague and I and said, "I guess we know all we need to, and we'll get him out of here after that interview. Sorry about that."

I'd love to believe we don't have that sort of blatant sexism today; but I bet at that time there were teams or interviewers who would have chuckled along with the guy and said, "Man, I know it, you are so right." I'd love to, but I don't. I think he probably found a home somewhere else, and there are probably others like him. I'd love to think we're over that, and it's not a problem where I work... but I know it's out there. Knowing that it's out there is my #1ReasonWhy.

¹Or at least, I'm somewhat suspicious of my memories. We interviewed a lot of people those days -- LucasArts was attempting to grow rapidly while losing people to the dot com boom. We also still had a really great reputation.
²This is still a softball question, to some degree. What I usually look for here is specifics -- "I had this situation three weeks ago where this interpersonal thing happened and I resolved it in this way" -- but it's still fairly gentle, and usually just the sort of question that might give an interviewer more to draw out of the interviewee.
³This is a direct quote. I might forget any other number of things in that interview, detail-wise, but that one is completely pristine. It burned right into my brain, and not in a comfortable way.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:11 AM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2012

What's with all the old games lately?

Astute readers of the blog¹ have obviously noticed that this year's posts have mostly been about old games from the PS1 and PS2 eras, with nothing really said about today's games. I was asked this question via twitter and found it impossible to boil down to 140 characters, so I'm throwing out this little post here explaining my thinking behind the decision to go back and play through my old library of unfinished or unplayed games. Note, this primarily describes my feelings as a player, not as a developer.

The Backlog

About a year ago I had cause to evaluate my consumption habits; every year I look at what I've read for the year, what I've watched throughout the year, and what I've played throughout the year. This year, I also took a look at what I hadn't read, watched, and played as well -- and I discovered that I had over a hundred games I've bought and really not gotten much out of, including 25 that were still in the shrink wrap, some of them going back over five years.

I view this as a problem.

It's a problem from a number of perspectives. First, having a hundred games on my shelf that I've not really played represents a conspicuous consumption that is rather unfortunate -- that's an investment of around $5000 in round numbers, money that was essentially flushed away. So I'm forcing myself to play through those games to cure myself of this impulse to buy new games that I haven't the time to play.

Furthermore, buying games only not to play them is a failure of my own private curation; it speaks to my inability to choose those games that I think will actually return my time investment with some kind of value. In other words, I've allowed my selectivity to wither away, though of course over the past year I've bought far fewer games -- and more about those I have bought and played later.

This is really just two sides of the same coin: make better selections that respect the amount of time I have for gaming, and learn to select those games that are going to really give me what I'm looking for in an experience at that moment in time. I'm looking to become a consumer who thinks more about what he buys, in other words.

The Escape

When I'm really honest about what most of these games are providing me, it's simply escapist entertainment, not much different than consuming dozens of popcorn Star Trek novels when I was much younger. These were books that followed a pretty established formula, and I've forgotten just about every word I ever read in any of them. And that's fine -- I'm making no elitist judgments about that, far from it.

I'm not sure, for example, that playing the latest and greatest JRPG is all that different than playing one from ten years ago, with the exception of the graphics². Although I've said before that graphics can greatly increase immersion, I think that's an initial experience with a new generation that fades over time. In the same way that people will say that they don't see violence in videogames as real violence, merely the scoring of points, I think I tend to dip into the systems that guide the experience very easily and stop being distracted by the graphics.

Setting graphical achievements aside, then, in the realm of AAA console games fairly little has changed over the last decade. And honestly, I don't think it needs to, despite what some folks have to say about how games aren't reaching their full potential. That's an alarmist position that I don't think can be supported -- there's plenty of interesting work going on in smaller games. Mainstream triple-A titles are akin to big Hollywood blockbusters: big budget films are tentpoles for their studios, but the fact is, if those really tall tentpoles didn't exist, there would be a lot less room inside the tent for the unusual, the off-beat, the deeply personal, those films that really cause us to turn a mirror on our own souls and explore what our humanity means to ourselves³.

(Put another way, without the 70 million PS3s out there made possible by the AAA experiences of Madden and Call of Honor 16: The Reckoninining, there wouldn't the same kind of market for a Journey or a Mark of the Ninja, both smaller games from the past year that I played and really loved4. There might be a way to find an audience for these games, but I suspect it would be hard work and a much bigger risk than it already is.)

Going back even deeper to the PS1 era, I will say that there were greater opportunities for variety in the AAA space than there are today in that same space, looking at something like Final Fantasy Tactics. This greater variety today has migrated to the phones and the PC (where yes, it has always been to a degree), in what Will Wright called a pre-Cambrian explosion at his GDC talk a year or two ago.

For my part as a player, I have to admit that the games we're playing today provide me largely the same escapist value as the games ten years ago. Certainly a lot of things are better, but when I sit down and get absorbed in one of these old games I pretty rarely step back and say, "That's really terrible." And when I do, I tend not to blog about it -- I'm trying to only say things when I have nice things to say, which brings me to my third and final section about why I'm playing these old games.

As a Developer

As a developer, having a bit of time between these old games and what's being played today is nice; I have to remember whenever I speak that people may take what I have to say as if I'm speaking with the authority of Bethesda Game Studios behind me. (I'm not.) So if I'm commenting on some game that came out ten years ago, people are less likely to get too outraged about it -- it's not fresh. But I'm still a person who wants to evaluate things and point out the strengths of a thing rather than its flaws; I think these old games have something to teach us5.

The other thing that appeals to me about these old games is that they were made by small teams, and that's something that is continuing to go on in the phone/pad and PC markets today; it's a direction I may go myself some day in the future though I'm far from having any specific plans. Playing something like Shadow of Destiny is helpful to remind me of the sorts of concerns one might face going through a console transition or with a smaller team or with a lower budget altogether, and how to address those through careful limitation of scope. It's good to keep those things in mind, even if you do have a much larger team at your disposal for your AAA title.

I'm also still working on some side projects, my "personal" games as I describe them. I have one that I hope to finish up by next year, and the techniques I've been using to build that come from a game that came out more than two decades ago, even though I'll be deploying it on the web instead. These projects I do are purely on my own time and aren't meant to make money; they reflect the fact that I enjoy design and game development for their own sakes.

Wrapping up

These old games have things still to teach us, and for me they are providing about the same level of entertainment to me personally as a player in most cases. I want to become more thoughtful about where I invest my time, and hopefully I can cure myself of this need to buy the latest thing just because it's the latest thing. I keep my eye on the AAA space constantly, and when I want to look for games that go a little bit deeper, I often look elsewhere. Hope that helps explain what you've been seeing in this blog space lately.

Happy Thanksgiving to my US readers; I may have time to get to another post this weekend.

¹Hello! I feel like I could name you individually.
²One note about those graphics: I love beautiful graphics, and as a player I personally don't care one way or another if the graphics in the games are state of the art. Similarly, I don't mind if the cutscene animations are blocky or the game isn't voiced, or what have you. The first games I played were entirely text, and the "graphics" in those games are richer than anything I've experienced since.
³It should be noted that before the latest age of the blockbusters, starting in the mid-1970s with Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was dying of self-importance. While I love the films of this era, typically called "The New Hollywood," and I think they're fantastically important, I also don't think they gave a broad enough audience what it was looking for, and without those broad audiences, the studios couldn't keep their doors open.
4This argument is pretty broad strokes -- I know there would still be a PC market, I get that, I'm not ignoring it. I think that the two markets reinforce each other in interesting ways, and all of that is probably beyond the scope of this already long article.
5One good example is that there is something still interesting about games that are really challenging -- they aren't for all players, but old games are far more difficult than their modern descendants. I think we both lost and gained from that change, and I think the fans of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls would agree.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:14 AM | Comments (2)

November 18, 2012

Should I Have Finished... Grand Theft Auto III?

I've talked about GTA III once or twice, and I've tried to play games in the series from time to time. In 2005, I wrote about how the representation of prostitution in the game repulsed me and then in 2010 I tried Grand Theft Auto IV, which returns to Liberty City for a couple of articles. I've never been able to finish a game in the series, until now, as I push through my back log of games that I bought but have never brought myself to finish. This time, with this project on my mind, I pushed through and finished the game -- perhaps not every mission, because there are storylines that don't need to be finished to complete the game -- but through to the end battle against a helicopter after which the credits roll. I'm still not a huge fan of the fiction in the series (although I gave GTA IV the biggest chance in those articles from a couple of years ago), so I tried to put blinders on and watch what was happening in the game systems. If you're interested in my thoughts about the fiction, go back and read those earlier articles.

What I see is a game that subtly and slowly breaks down your natural barriers to bad behavior. When I started driving around in the various cars in the game, I'd start out by simply obeying the rules of the road, stopping at lights and such. The game is stacked against you, though, and it feels almost like time at lights will be even longer if you start to try and play that way. Before long, you're running the occasional light, maybe slowly... and next thing you know you're nudging your way between cars waiting for a light. Soon, and especially after you have to do one of the timed missions that make the game particularly difficult, you're in a position where you never want to stop moving, always driving wherever there's a bit of open road, even if that open road happens to be the wrong side for the direction you're driving. Designing and balancing systems to be just this frustrating and not completely logjamming the streets must have been a difficult task.

One thing that impressed me is that the city feels real enough that you get a sense for how it's laid out, slowly building a mental model of the connections between various neighborhoods and which streets go where, what the fastest way to get somewhere might be regardless of what the map indicator reads. In that way, it's almost like a real city, and that's impressive in and of itself. This was a little diluted for me as the game grew into additional islands that were blocked at the start of play, and because those locations had fewer story missions in them (and perhaps also because I had grown impatient with driving at reasonable rates of speed long before them) I never felt like I got to know those locations at all. If you dropped me on the first island even a few months from now, I think I'd know my way around -- but not anywhere else.

There are other things that feed into the systems, and one I pursued a bit more were the collectible packages throughout the cities. I'm certain that I didn't collect them all, but it was helpful to find those (and indeed, to get a sense for where the designers would place them) and to slowly earn benefits to my hideout, such as more available weapons waiting for me when I'd load my save. These were a nice diversion and I could feel myself dropping into the mindset of the designers -- another mental model to build of the space around me.

I never fully grasped the rules behind when the police would elevate or lower my mayhem rating, those stars up in the corner of the screen. It seemed as if staying out of their sight for long enough could do it, as could driving into a paint shop (something I did frequently in a mission where you had to steal several sports cars in short order). I found a few items that could lower this rating as well, though those were few and far between. This doesn't unduly trouble me, but it did make for some significant difficulty in a few missions where I felt as if I just understood the police better, I'd have been able to get out the mission in less time.

There's little impact of your choices on how the story turns out; you're going to get the same story no matter how you play, from a macro level. And I suspect, lots of little stories about particular situations are also probably pretty similar. By the end of the game I had earned a little over half a million bucks doing all these missions and in the end I gave it all up for a woman I clearly had no interest in -- you can even hear Claude shooting her in the credits¹ -- and I had to appreciate the circularity in that, almost as if the game's writers are thumbing their nose at you for all the hard work you've put in, just to get back to where you started.

I also have to admit I'm very impressed with the technical feats of this game -- a game of this scope running as well as it does on the PlayStation 2 is a very impressive feat. Playing it, I reflected with a fair amount of shame that the load times going between cities took less time than loading up a mission in Starfighter or Jedi Starfighter -- even a space mission. I have to tip my hat to that.

On balance, I'm glad I've played it and it closes a gap in my open-world knowledge now that I'm working on open-world games myself. But it's not a world I want to return to, even with the recent announcement of another game in the franchise. I know it will do big business, but the worlds and the acts I'm asked to commit in them just don't appeal to me.

¹It shouldn't be surprising that I find the treatment of female characters to be at best troubling in this game. But then, the game really has no attractive characters of any kind, and treats them all with similar nihilistic dismissiveness.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:41 PM | Comments (2)

November 11, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Dark Cloud

I remember in 2001 how much I looked forward to the release of Dark Cloud, a role-playing game from Level Five, particularly owing to its "Georama" system, which allowed for a small amount of SimCity-style gameplay, though admittedly far less economically focused.

The narrative behind the game is fairly straightforward save-the-world-and-its-bacon sort of stuff: a wizard seeking power frees a great evil which then goes on a world-destroying tear, and your young hero is chosen by the forces of light to restore it and defeat the Big Bad. Typical stuff, from a story perspective, but what most caught my attention back then was the ability to restore the world directly, to take those parts of the world that the Dark Genie had stolen away and, using the strange mechanics of the game, to place those pieces back in the world.

It worked like this: in each area of the world, you would delve into a dungeon¹ and find pieces of the world wrapped up in little balls² and store them away. On returning to the surface, you could then place these items in the world in a special grid layout mode. For example, you might find a building and its occupants, as well as various adornments that would dress up the place (storage space, signs, benches, etc., which could not be placed in quite the same way, they were simply parts that had to be restored). Once you had enough of the building you could place it, and once all of its places were restored you would be treated with an event of some kind, a little bit of story about that building and its occupants. It's fairly innocent stuff, especially in the early villages.

Beyond that, you could interact with the little computer people and determine their various wishes, such as "Oh, I'd like to be by a little stream" or "It would be great if I didn't have to live next to so-and-so, his chimney stinks" or what-have-you. These little bits of story really made the world very vibrant and when I played the sequel some years later, I was very disappointed that these things had gone.

However, as I played the game anew, I saw the progression of world-building from village, to town, to city, to a logic puzzle of a tribal village in the desert (complete with totems), to a giant magic robot and a spaceship³, and finally to a series of memories of how the Dark Genie came to be and how it came to be imprisoned and all of that. This last section was particularly affecting, assembling the back story of the game and even having the opportunity to participate in it in a small (cutscene) way. What I realized, as I got to the end of the game, was that this particular idea, the "Georama" idea was completely played out; they had done basically everything I could have wanted with it, and indeed, also did a few things I couldn't have anticipated given the game's setting. There was nothing more to do.

The reason, of course, is the limitations of the approach -- there's only a single arrangement of the world that is "perfect" and the stories that come from it are fully based on achieving those arrangements. Characters may wander a bit near their newly rebuilt homes, but they don't interact in any different ways if you place them differently, nor do they seem to interact at all except in the most scripted of ways -- cutscenes, again.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; an early launch window RPG like this couldn't be expected to do more than the many things they already did (new platform, randomly generated dungeons, many many monster types, a six character party with individual environmental interactions4, a fishing mini-game, etc. etc.). But the Georama concept had reached its limits simply because it was little more than a collection game gating game progress with a very light logic puzzle element. It only could have gone further if there had been more Sim in this City.

What remains is a very inventory-management heavy game: sure, there's the combat in the levels, but what I spent much of my time concentrating on was the various ways in which I could power up my characters' weapons. The main character wields swords, and they can be built up in various ways until they are at a power level required to beat the game's hardest monsters and final boss. This requires a lot of inventory management; you have the various items that are in your main inventory (cures for various status ailments, primarily, as well as potions and equipment for fishing), but you have secondary inventories of the weapons themselves and of the items that power them up. There's no stacking in the game, so you're constantly storing items away for later use as you power up the weapons -- these secondary items, which grant elemental damage powers, are put on the weapons and then stored there until you've slain enough monsters for the weapons to consume the material and level up. Weapons also only have a certain amount of swings or shots in them before they break, so you'll end up carrying lots of items to repair them.

What remains, then, is a highly repetitive RPG involving an enormous shell game of inventory space management. For example, fishing bait can be turned (via a mini-game) into more of these power-ups, which frees up one type of inventory for another. Furthermore, there are characters in several of the towns who serve as overflow inventory slots. If you ever die, you lose half of your gold, so you may also want to trade in 1000 units of money for a bar representing that amount... in this case trading inventory slots for post-resurrection security. Sadly, all of this inventory management gained the play nothing whatsoever, as discarding items or figuring out what to store where was largely a matter of seeing how much I had of one thing versus another -- the game would have lost nothing by stacking equipment in a manner akin to a Final Fantasy game, or indeed most RPGs.

On the whole, it was a game I really enjoyed, to the point of finding myself grinding away to improve my main weapon just to see what it would turn out to be. When late in the game I accidentally allowed one weapon to break and decided I didn't feel like playing the last half hour or so again (the time since I had last saved), I knew the game was over for me, and I just powered through and killed the final boss at that point. Good game, but its inventory management had overstayed its welcome, and the original Georama conceit had played all of its cards.

¹Randomly generated and, as a result, more or less completely forgettable. Each time you entered the dungeon, it would be randomly generated anew.

²Considering the genie destroyed the world by eating these pieces, the provenance of these pieces of balled up world is rather dubious and probably quite unclean.

³I know, right? A giant magic robot to do battle with the genie in what amounted to a boss battle.

4These amount to the characters in question just being special purpose keys to procedurally placed locks, and some crucial interactions to make boss battles work. I don't say this to be dismissive, because it's clever and ties well to the save-the-world story, with many characters from all over coming together.

Posted by Brett Douville at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

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.

Posted by Brett Douville at 04:53 PM | Comments (0)