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December 13, 2016

Filed under: gaming»design

Guns and glory

If you'd told me a few years ago that my favorite shooters in 2016 would be reboots of Doom and Wolf3D, I'd probably have been surprised, or depressed, or both. Surprised, because both of them were very much games of their time, and it would seem impossible to recreate their peculiar arcade-oriented chemistry now. Depressed, because I probably would have seen it as a part of the stagnation of the shooter genre, with which I have a love-hate relationship.

But it's true: after I upgraded my graphics card as a birthday gift to myself, I've been going back and replaying a bunch of FPS games (for better or worse, they're the graphical showcases in my Steam library), and the two standouts have been DOOM and Wolfenstein: The New Order. I'm as shocked as anyone! They're both excellent revivals of old id Software franchises, and part of what's so interesting about them is that they're excellent in such completely different ways.

Of the two, The New Order (and its prequel mini-expansion, The Old Blood), have a heavier lift: although it's vaguely connected to the 2001/2009 games, most people are only aware of the original, which was (despite mind-blowing graphics for its time) two-dimensional in both gameplay and character. They weren't great games even back then, and they haven't aged particularly well (TNO includes "nightmare" remakes of the 286 levels, in case you forgot how tedious and confusing Wolf3D could be).

The team behind TNO is the same group that made Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness at Starbreeze, both of which took ridiculous licensed properties and stretched them past both the source material and the Steam category: Riddick asks players to engineer multiple prison-breaks with not much more than a knife, a black-market night-vision mode, and a lot of Vin Diesel dialog. Half of The Darkness is shooting light bulbs! The shape and flow of a Starbreeze game could be odd — linear chunks connecting free-form adventure hubs — but they were almost always as interesting in the downtime as they were in the action sequences.

By virtue (such as it is) of this being a Wolfenstein game, going too far outside of "open door, shoot Nazis, repeat" was probably too much to ask. But The New Order does pack a surprising amount of pathos into what is otherwise a totally bonkers 1960's alternate history in which the Fourth Reich won the war via mad science. It tilts on the action side of things, but there's still definitely a Starbreeze flavor, if you liked their other titles. Parts of it are brilliantly cinematic, including a ten-year flash-forward sequence that separates the first and second acts.

And while the gameplay doesn't go full retro, it has elements of old-school flavor. There's no regenerating health system or trendy cover-hugging mechanics here, and the use button gets a workout. My favorite refinement is the commander system, where many of the battle setpieces will introduce one or two radio-equipped officers. If you're spotted, they'll call in reinforcements, so a good approach is to stealth-kill them before mopping up the troops. Or you can play the way I do: take out one officer and then charge the other with guns blazing, before they can stack the odds too far. That this is still a viable (and fun) strategy strikes a nice balance between players who want the stealth experience, and those (like me) who are mostly in it for the instant gratification.

DOOM has no such such balance, and does not suffer for it in the slightest. There is no clip reloading for any of the weapons, and the run speed is entirely unrealistic. Unlike most shooters since Halo, everything in DOOM is designed to encourage non-stop movement toward (and through) enemies. Which is a big part of the reason why, even though it changes from its predecessor in significant ways (mouselook, a jump key, lots of upgrades and collectibles), it still manages to feel like playing deathmatch in 1996.

The two primary mechanics for maintaining player momentum in the game are a fast mantle, which gives players the ability to very quickly ascend vertically, and the "glory kills," which reward players with a half second of invulnerability (during the animation) and a quick piñata pop of health and ammo. There's no reward for staying still — in fact, like a bullet-hell shooter, players are immediately punished for remaining stationary. The goal is not to block or absorb damage, it's to avoid getting hit at all.

DOOM levels are primarily structured as a series of loosely-connected arenas, which also keeps the deathmatch feel: while hallways and platforms are used to set the mood and create checkpoints, the most intense gameplay is set in wide, 3-D spaces with multiple "circuits," just like the best Quake DM levels. Gears of War is also famous for "combat bowls" as a gameplay tool, but it strongly emphasized cover over movement, whereas DOOM almost never places waist-high walls to serve as partial cover (and they'd be useless in a game with lots of high vantage points anyway).

There's a moment at the very beginning of the game where your character, having ripped out of a set of shackles and punched through the initial set of undead, pulls up a video screen reading "DEMONIC INVASION IN PROGRESS." As mission statements go, this is pretty much DOOM in a nutshell: crank everything up to 11 and embrace the inherent, b-movie absurdity of the thing (a similar process took place music direction, which started with no guitars at all and ended up a metal shredfest).

All combined, the end result is about as pure a video game as you can get with a high-budget, AAA studio product in 2016. It's the interactive equivalent of a Fast and Furious movie: mixing comforting aesthetics (as far as the intended audience is concerned, at least) with the maximum amount of intense parallax motion. Nobody's going to mistake it for fine art — it has none of the thoughtful playfulness of, say, Dishonored — but not everything should be fine art. It's a great game.

August 18, 2015

Filed under: gaming»design

Free Electron

When GitHub released Atom last year, there were a lot of people who thought the underlying technology — a web-based mashup of Chromium and NodeJS — was a terrible idea. They may yet be right, but Atom has gotten steadily better, to the point where I can recommend it to my students. Meanwhile, GitHub made the app runtime, Electron, available for hacking around, and it's becoming increasingly common (along with NW.js) as a way to build simple, network-savvy desktop applications.

While I'm hardly sympathetic to the people who complain about web-over-native, one complaint that does seem reasonable is the size of these applications. Electron takes up 113MB even before any user code gets loaded, and while that's not a huge footpint in today's world of terabyte hard drives, it may seem redundant when users probably already have a browser installed. If you run multiple Electron apps, they don't share runtimes, either.

That said, there is one genre of software that routinely ships its own dependencies this way, and nobody bats an eyelash: games. Looking at my Steam library, there's at least five titles there that run on Unreal Engine, each with its own copy of the engine and supporting libraries. And engines like Unreal or Unity are huge cross-platform monoliths these days, used by AAA studios and small teams alike. Many of these games probably embed a web browser anyway, since it's a great way to build UI. What if we flipped that around? Could Electron be a viable development platform for independent games?

I started thinking about this question earlier this year, after reading a post by Greg Tavares, one of the WebGL architects for Chrome. He points out that as platforms go, the browser is pretty good: features like GL are well-tested and reliable, JavaScript is a great rapid prototyping language, and cross-platform support is pretty decent. If your needs are relatively humble, or you're already well-versed in web development, why not use something like Electron, paired with Three.js or another framework as your "engine?"

I've been meaning to test out Electron anyway, so I spent some time tonight trying to answer that question. The result is You Don't Know Electron. It's a simple party-style trivia game, with a twist: instead of crowding around a keyboard or using controllers, players scan a QR code to use their phone as a "buzzer." Everything is in sync, so when the first person presses the correct answer, everyone else's device will switch to a "get ready for the next question" screen almost instantly.

Behind the scenes, the app opens up a native-looking window on the host computer for displaying questions and scores, but it also spawns a hybrid HTTP/WebSocket server for the mobile clients. The result is a little slapdash, but surprisingly responsive in practice. UI is all done through a super-simple Angular thin client, with most of the state living in the persistent Node server. And while the look of it isn't anything fancy, it's also only the result about about 3 hours of work — a little extra polish, and I legitimately think it could be a fun party game. Feel free to clone it and try for yourself.

If you know Node, Electron turns out to be an surprisingly pleasant development experience. I'm no indie game dev, but based on tonight's experiment, I'd seriously consider it if I wanted to start a new project. For casual games, WebGL (or even 2D canvas) and HTML are a solid foundation, especially since Electron's browser window is up-to-date with features like flexbox and web components. It's no Unity, but it is free and built on well-documented standards.

The fact that it's web-based under the hood opens up a whole range of exciting possibilities around little custom servers: phones or tablets could be used to show hidden information to each player (a hand of cards, personal inventory, secret messages, etc.), or additional computers could instantly turn a single player session into multiplayer. All with no installation friction: just connect to the host with a browser and start playing.

(In fact, I've had a long-standing idea for an asymmetric "virtual board game" of Alien vs. Nostromo crew that would work perfectly with this setup. If only I had the time...)

Meanwhile, we're seriously considering this at the Seattle Times as a way to package up our tools for newsroom users. We're not the first people to do it — NPR's Lunchbox bundles up some of their social tools — but since our workflow is almost entirely Node-based, we're in a much better place to take advantage of everything Electron can do (NPR basically just bundles the static output of their Flask apps). Don't be surprised if you see more Electron-based tooling news from us in the future!

December 10, 2013

Filed under: gaming»design

Policing Procedurals

Even if I'm sticking with Steam for most of my gaming, our new PS4 did get me interested in Warframe, the free-to-play shooter that's available on Playstation and PC. I don't normally care for free-to-play, if only because I feel guilty for never buying anything, but I liked the central conceit of Warframe: procedurally-generated levels and highly-mobile Mass Effect-style combat. In retrospect, I probably should have been more skeptical. To understand why, we have to look back at how shooters have been built over the last twenty years.

There was a time, way before Halo and before franchises like Battlefield ran the earth, when one of the main selling points of a first-person shooter was the quantity of unique weapons that it brought to the table--an actual arms race, peaking with Duke3D which (for all its flaws) had some clever joke guns to go with the ubiquitous pistol/shotgun/chaingun trio. I'm not saying this was a better time, or that they were better games, but there was definitely a sense that the genre was about creative destruction, in the same way that fighting games are about combo systems and special attacks.

Then id Software built a monster for competitive deathmatch: Quake and its successors had an incredibly bland set of weapons, because in "serious" multiplayer the goal is to streamline everything except moving and shooting. This was the second refinement of shooter design, and it focused on the levels themselves, but as topology instead of as setting. Players concentrated on learning the levels so that they could plot a path that would keep them supplied, while denying pickups to the other players. A good Quake or Unreal Tournament player knew the game's weapons and how to aim, but more importantly they knew where to go, and when. Navigation became the mark of quality for a deathmatch bot.

Since then, these tendencies have mellowed as the possibility of more complex interactions and narratives has become available. Environments are built more for realism and story, weapons are more traditional and not usually why you buy the game. Which brings us to Warframe, which has basically none of these things. There's hardly any story, the "levels" are randomly generated from a series of tilesets, and the weapons are part of the free-to-play grind: either buy a new gun with real money, or spend a lot of time crafting one within the game's economy. Unlike the Mass Effect and Gears of War titles it resembles, there's no explicit cover system, but players do have a much wider range of movement options than a typical shooter: there are slides, flips, and wall runs available through various key combos.

If Warframe's computer-generated levels were any good, this would be a different post. Good levels would give players a way to put their acrobatic movement skills to good use, rewarding people who have learned the parkour system and can improvise in response to new environments. But the random generator mostly builds long, boring hallways connecting wide-open, pre-designed rooms, none of which require any particular skill outside of strafing and taking cover behind walls. Since players can't learn the levels and their flow, they can't optimize or get better at moving through them. And since new weapons require an investment of serious cash or time, almost everyone's using the same rifle and the same melee weapon, which means you never see anything that makes you want to spend any money or time in the first place.

The irony of this problem is that someone already got the formula right for doing procedural FPS games, and they did it by almost exactly reversing Warframe's formula. Borderlands has hand-built levels and enemy placement, combined with randomized weapon generation: each gun consists of components assembled onto a set of base bodies, which vary by "manufacturer" with certain preset tendencies and aesthetics. For example, Mariwan guns always inflict status effects (poison, fire, etc), while Jacobs weapons are Western-themed and can often fire as fast as the player can mash the button. Within those simple parameters, however, the results when you pull the trigger can vary wildly.

The result is a game that combines the two old-school driving forces of FPS design — clever level design and weapon variety — with the collector's urge that powers massive multiplayer games (Borderlands even borrows the color-coded quality markings from World of Warcraft, making it easy to evaluate a weapon drop in an instant). The innovation is not proceduralism — games like Diablo have long offered that — but figuring out how to balance it with the formula for a replayable and rewarding shooter. As someone who almost totally lacks a collection instinct, but loves the classic FPS genre, Borderlands 2 hits the sweet spot with remarkably few missteps (it's also surprisingly smart and funny, which is a welcome change).

I don't think procedural generation is impossible for first-person games — indeed, I think it's likely to have a bright future, particularly as web games mature and optimize for delivery size — but it illustrates just how difficult the challenge is likely to be for anyone who attempts it. For all that people talk about the genre as if it's just a collection of bro-heavy manshooters, there is undeniably a huge amount of craft that goes into the fundamental mechanics. As Kevin Cloud notes in Dan Pinchbeck's analysis of Doom (now 20 years old!),

Every genre has its real strengths, but in a shooter... if running and shooting is not fun, doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel visceral and powerful, then I think you are going to lose out.
Movement in FPS games is not just about how the player transitions from point A to point B, but about all the obstacles and decisions that make up that route. As such, building procedural content is not impossible, but it needs to provide good options for cover, paths for moving between pickups, and unexpected chances to either ambush enemies or be ambushed. Warframe may do this one day, but right now it's failing miserably. In the process, it's showing how little the developers have really thought about how the game they're building fits into the traditions of its genre.

May 2, 2013

Filed under: gaming»design

POV

There's a common complaint about the Bioshock games, which is that they're not very good shooters. People writing about Bioshock Infinite tend to mention this, saying that the story is interesting and the writing is sharp but the actual game is poor. And this is true: it's not a very good first-person shooter, and it's arguably much worse than its predecessors. But this implication of most of these comments, from Kotaku's essay on its violence to Brainy Gamer's naming it the "apotheosis of FPS, is that Infinite is bad in many ways because it's a first-person shooter--that it's shackled to its point of view. In doing so, it has become a sort of stand-in for the whole genre, from Call of Duty to Halo.

I sympathize with the people who feel like the game's violence is incoherent (it is), and who are sick of the whole console-inspired manshooting genre. But I love shooters, and it bugs me a little to see them saddled with the burden of everything that's wrong with American media.

Set aside Infinite's themes and its apparent belief that the best superpower is the ability to literally generate plot holes--when we say that it's not a good FPS, what does that means? What is it, mechanically, that separates the two? I'm not a designer, but as a avid FPS player, there are basically three rules that Infinite breaks.

First of all, the enemy progression can't be just about "bigger lifebars." A good shooter increases difficulty by forcing players to change their patterns because they're not able to rely on the same rote strategy. Halo, for all its flaws, gets this right: few of its enemies are actually "tough," but each of them has a different method of avoiding damage, and a different weapon style. By throwing in different combinations, players are forced to change up their tactics for each encounter, or even at multiple points during the encounter. Almost all of Infinite's enemies, on the other hand, are the same walking tanks, with similar (dim-witted) behaviors and hitscan weaponry. I never had to change my approach, only the amount of ammo I used.

Along those lines, weapons need strengths and weaknesses. Each one should have a situation where they feel thrillingly powerful, as well as a larger set of situations where they're relatively useless. This doesn't have to conflict with a limited inventory--I loved Crysis 2's sniper rifle, spending the entire game sneaking between cover positions in stealth mode, but it was always paired with a strong close-in gun for when I was overrun. A good game forces you to change weapons for reasons other than "out of ammunition." Infinite's close-range weapons feel identical, and its sniper rifle is rarely useful, since a single shot alerts everyone to your position.

Finally, every fight cannot simply be about shooting. Most shooters are actually about navigating space and territory, and the shooting becomes a way of altering the priorities for movement. Do you take cover, or dodge in the open? Do you need more range, or need to close on an enemy? The original Bioshock made the interplay between the environment and your abilities one of its most compelling features: electrifying pools of water, setting fire to flammable objects, flinging scenery around with telekinesis. But at the very least, you need an objective from time to time with more complexity than "kill everything," both as a player and in terms of narrative.

Bioshock Infinite has, in all seriousness, no period I can remember when my objective was not reduced to "kill everything." Combined with a bland arsenal and blander enemies, this makes it a tedious game, but it also puts it at complete odds with its characters. The writing in Infinite is unusually good for a shooter, but it's hard not to notice that Elizabeth freaks out (rightfully) during one of Booker's murderous rampages, comes to a cheery acceptance with it a few minutes later, and then spends the rest of the game tossing helpful items to you under fire. That's writing that makes both the narrative and the mechanics worse, by drawing attention to the worst parts of both.

It's not the only shooter with those flaws--people just had higher expectations for it. The average FPS is badly written, and it's a favorite genre for warmongering propaganda pieces. But that's true of many games, and yet we don't see pieces talking about the "apotheosis of platformers," or talking about RTS as though they're emblematic of wider ills just because Starcraft II is kind of a mess. And there's still interesting stuff being done in the genre: Portal and Thirty Flights of Loving come to mind. To say that FPS have reached their limits, ironically, seems like a pretty limited perspective.

January 30, 2009

Filed under: gaming»design

After Life

In his post on a short experience in World of Warcraft, PeterB hits on something fairly profound:

Throughout the parts of the game that I've seen, never once while in-game have I had to sit and wait for a "Loading..." screen. If you have to descend into a cave to search for loot, it flows smoothly from the outer world. Fly across the ocean to another continent, and you watch the scenery below you as your griffin beats his wings beneath you. Surely there is some sort of loading or paging going on under the hood, but the user never feels it.

I describe this achievement as 'technical', but its impact on the immersiveness of the game can't be understated. Like so many other people, I have a short attention span. "Loading" screens do more than provide entertainment while the computer gets work done, they provide a cognitive break. When I'm playing a game and a load screen appears, more often than not I will look away. Maybe I'll go get a cup of tea, or pause the game, or check my email. World of Warcraft doesn't have these cognitive breaks, except for those that the player makes for him or herself by retreating to a safe place. The end result (at least for me) is a sort of tunnel vision composed of equal parts concentration and fatigue. You eventually look up and find that several hours have passed, and you hadn't noticed.

If this sounds very familiar to you, maybe you've been playing Geometry Wars 2. I certainly have. Despite promising myself that I'd stop trying to beat a pesky leaderboard score, I wasn't able to kick the habit. The thing about GW2 is that it's really, really easy to spend a relatively long time chasing high scores in it, partly because the gameplay is very good, but additionally because restarting a level is practically instant. I can be playing Pacifism, run into an enemy, and before I've finished yelling at the game I'm already back at the start of the level. Just hammering the A button--which, helpfully, is not used for anything else in GW2--runs the user through the menu as fast as they can thumb. There's no death animation. There's no menu lag. There's nothing, in other words, to provide the "cognitive break" that Peter's discussing above. Instead, the game is constantly rewarding players with stimulation. Combined with the quick start-up of XBox Arcade titles, this means I end up playing a lot more Geometry Wars than I probably intend to do, because it's easy to get into it and surprisingly hard to get out.

You can, in fact, judge how likely I am to stick with any given game by determining how quickly and effectively it reloads after I die. I was astonished by reviewers who punished the new Prince of Persia for simply eliminating death-by-falling: that's exactly what I want! Hurl me directly back into the action, don't make me sit through a non-game sequence first! We can even take this further: the less I am punished for any failure, the more likely I'll keep playing. That doesn't mean the game is easier--feel free to make tasks difficult. But when I fail, I don't want to have to replay large chunks in order to reach that point again. I'm an adult, I understand: the failure itself is punishment enough. Anything else is just kind of rubbing it in.

Let's take this even another step, outside gaming: the less my workflow on any given task is disrupted by either failure or success, the more progress I find I can make. For example, I used to do my audio work at the Bank in Pro Tools. Unlike a lot of people, I really like Pro Tools. It has a fantastically well-designed toolkit for patching and editing audio (one day, I'll write a post about how the connection routing of audio software is possibly its most crucial feature). As a result of this incredibly flexible routing matrix, bouncing audio from multiple tracks into a single mixdown track is a joy. There's just one problem: partly as a consequence of that design, Pro Tools can only bounce in real-time. So while the user experience of mixing is very pleasant, it involves a lot of sitting around and waiting for the audio to play through the mixing bus. During that time, I tended to get distracted--or, on long projects, even leave the room to work on something else.

Nowadays I do my audio work in Cubase or Sonar, neither of which is anywhere near as graceful as Pro Tools. Bouncing a track in these apps requires 1) soloing the tracks in questions, 2) running a mixdown command to export the mix to a file, and 3) importing the newly-created file to its own track. Both Cubase and Sonar kind of apologetically include options during mixdown to automate this process, but it still feels clumsy compared to the Pro Tools mixer. The advantage they have, however, is that these packages can bounce audio as fast as the computer can process it, usually far faster than realtime. As a result, I don't enjoy my new Cubase workflow nearly as much as I enjoyed editing at the Bank, but on many projects it has made me much more productive, and not just because non-realtime bouncing is technically faster. There's no "cognitive break" during which time I would be tempted to multitask.

I think there are two interesting items of note here. The first is to note the degree to which gaming often associates punishment (including death, which barely deserves the name) with wasted time. It's the accepted method of "charging" a player for failure--either take away their time during an animation/reload/restart cycle, or force them to spend substantial time recovering lost ground, or both. This actually strikes me as particularly perverse, given that the audience has grown older, and has less spare time to spend. There are plenty of currencies that could be used punitively in design: loss of experience, equipment, or even simple mockery. And yet we return, over and over again, to design decisions (no quicksave, sparse respawn points, long menu trees) that make failure above all a lengthy and slow process.

Second, I think it's kind of funny that--even though gamers are often considered part of a "multitasking generation"--one of the most important factors in a game's addictive potential is its determination to keep the user focused on a single task for as long as possible. You'd think, if the trend were really so pronounced, that the most successful tools and entertainment would be those that work around a multitasked mindset, not one of constant obsession. It's almost like that kind of generation-gap jargon were just some kind of nonsense buzzword invented by would-be social critics.

July 2, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»art

Cricket

I love this portion from Gamasutra's interview with No More Heroes audio designer Masafumi Takada:

How large is the audio team size?

MT: Right now there are four people.

And do you have a sound studio here? Like a foley room and stuff?

MT: No. I do everything at my desk. Even if you don't go all the way to a studio, if you have a microphone and a tape recorder you can recreate sound effects anywhere, like this [Takada demonstrates at his desk].

So here, in this office?

MT: Here, after everyone leaves and goes home.

No More Heroes had great sound design, although a lot of it was either synthesized or in the music. But it's both amusing and oddly heartening to imagine the head sound guy recording foley effects at his desk in an empty office.

June 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Purple Haze

It's a shame that Haze, the PS3's recent shooter, has gotten such poor reviews for bland design and inconsistent storytelling, because I think the basic concept deserves better. Let me first explain my impressions of that concept, since they apparently might be entirely unrelated to the finished product.

Haze (as I understood it) was supposed to be a meta-game commentary, in many ways. The story's fictional soldiers are dosed up on a drug that leads to some conspicuously game-ish effects--dead bodies simply vanish from the field, enemies are highlighted against the terrain, and their wounds and cries of pain are filtered out.

There's a potential here for what could honestly be a horrifying moment. We're used to games where the enemies just disappear once killed, which tends to nullify the impact of the action. Or where there's no real realistic visuals for the horrible wounds inflicted by weaponry, and the reaction to being shot is as simple as a flinch and a canned sound-bite.

Imagine a scene where the player suddenly stops being dosed, while teammates remain on the drug. They're still cheerily massacreing people left and right--but now you can hear the victims pleading for mercy, see the sickening effects when they're hit, and stumble over the mounds of dead lying around. It would be like watching a DVD of Commando, only to realize too late that you'd accidentally put Saving Private Ryan into the player instead.

Indeed, that scenario isn't just a commentary on video games. It remarks on how we treat violence in a variety of media. And I don't even think it's entirely a negative commentary, but it is thought-provoking and has room for subtlety. In this theoretical situation, fellow soldiers aren't monsters, they're just blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions. They're gamers, in more ways than one. The point shouldn't be to turn on these former allies and kill them in revenge, but to open their eyes to the truth. Ultimately, the question is: when we discover that our actions might not be harmless, how will we react to that new ethical uncertainty?

Sadly, Haze doesn't seem to have taken that route. Instead it demonizes the drugged soldiers, and turns the game into just another shoot-em-up. Several reviews have commented that once the player character changes sides and can't use the performance-boosting chemical anymore, the game loses what little individuality it had--and what a loaded statement that could have been, when gamers found themselves wishing for the comfort of selective perception. In Wired this week, Chris Kohler has written about how these questions can surface (albeit in a limited and unintentional manner) in Ninja Gaiden 2. But Haze had a chance to address them directly, taking advantage of next-generation console power for a thoughtful and provocative message, and it blew it.

April 29, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»art

Pongversation

Just an idea I had last week.

Possibly useful information: the physics are not terribly complicated--returning the ball with the edge of the paddle does not change its trajectory. But it will sometimes put a little spin on the response, if you take my meaning.

September 21, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Master of Unlocking

Metroid Prime 2 just makes me tired. My old roommate was a Prime nut, and bought the game to play on a GameCube that didn't even belong to him. When I moved out, he gave it to me, and it's just kind of been staring at me ever since, from the shelf where I keep all the other games that I don't play. Many of them, I will never play, but I don't get rid of them. I think in the back of my mind, I'm assuming that at some point I might contract a horrible illness or something and be bedridden for a week, in which case even Baten Kaitos might look pretty entertaining.

The original Prime is in a slightly adjacent category on the shelf: games that I've started, played a significant amount of, and then have not touched for months. I'm actually at the last boss for Prime, but I just can't bring myself to pick it up and keep going. After long enough, I start to forget where I am in these games, and then I definitely won't pick them back up, because I'll have no idea what's going on. At the same time, I certainly don't want to start over, because I remember full well how many hours it took the first time. If I don't run through a little bit of Twilight Princess soon, it's going to join the half-finished category, which would be a shame.

But with Prime 2, I just started the other day. I figured that with Prime 3 out, and being more of an FPS (my favorite genre), I might want to complete at least one game in the series before failing to finish the next one. But after fifteen minutes, I was confronted with the following demands from some half-translucent alien bug:

  1. The energy power station is broken, and should be fixed, which requires the player to
  2. "Cleanse" (i.e. sterilize with a laser beam) a Dark Temple (or some such nonsense), but you can't get into the temple until you
  3. Gather three keys that are hidden across the world, each of which will probably be placed behind impenetrable barriers until the player can
  4. Upgrade the power suit's capabilities with another beam, or visor, or something crazy like that.

I get a little Scott Evil just thinking about it. "Seriously? All that, just to fix your generator? Look, I've got a toolkit back in my spaceship. I'll go back, get a screwdriver, and we'll fix it together." And then Space Roach McGee has the nerve to tell me that I've got to do all of that three times, at which point he will send me on another long quest gathering parts to fix his lawnmower or something. Who does that?

I think what annoys me most of all about it isn't actually the fetch quests, it's that they're explained as "looking for keys." People in video games do not seem to understand the point of keys. It is a wonder that they don't suffocate after rolling the windows up in their cars. I love this idea that they have, which I think came from bad fantasy novels: when in danger, lock something up and then scatter the keys. Or even scatter them preemptively, because evildoers might be able to master hugely destructive weapons and build their own army, but they'll never take the time to look for your three hidden whatsits, right?

Hey, maybe they're right. Works on me. I just hope the Evil Overlord doesn't have access to a slim jim or a metaphorical credit card to slide into the door jamb.

The whole concept is just silly, and annoying, and juvenile. I almost prefer the way games used to handle it, before they started thinking that they could tell you a story. Remember how Doom handled limiting the player? Now there's a game that practically embodied the phrase "key hunt." Being a janitor in Doom must have been the worst job ever.

"Hey, I've got to mop the floors upstairs. Anyone got a key?"

"Naw, of course not. We keep the upstairs door key all the way across the building, on its own little lighted pedestal."

"Okay. I'll just grab the other keys while I'm there."

"Well, you can't do that. We keep the other key in a room over there, behind a door that you can't open without the first key."

"What is wrong with you people?"

The cleaning staff for the Doom probably cheered when the demons invaded, hoping that someone would finally give them a keyring, or a master key. I can't imagine how disappointed they were when the Imps called a staff meeting and said something like, "Now, we're going to switch all our door locks to the weird crystal skull system..."

August 3, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Reaping the Consequences

If permadeath in RPGs is anything like Fire Emblem, don't ever sign me up with the hardcore.

Permadeath--the idea that a video game character gets one life, ever, and must start completely over in case of fatality--is generally restricted to gung-ho online gamers, who can usually be considered insane in the first place, or the Steel Battallion series, which is unquestionably mad (sure, I'll pay $200 for a video game that comes with a fake cockpit for the giant robot and deletes my save game if I die. Then we can practice home trepanation for fun). But it's also a "feature" of the Fire Emblem series, a series of cute wargames that permanently removes from play any units that fall on the field.

If I were trapped on a desert island (one that somehow had power generators--what kind of desert islands are these scenarios, anyway?) with a single game, it'd be Advance Wars, so I figured I'd like Fire Emblem too--same company, same basic gameplay with a few twists. I could handle the death thing, I figured. I was wrong. When a character gets wiped out, they make this little speech about how they'll never see Paris or something, and it hits me right in the perfection reflex. I can't help it: I immediately restart the level from the beginning and try to get through it without losing any of the main characters. I have to start the battle over, actually, because the designers have anticipated that I might just save a game while everyone is alive and then reload it, so they added backup autosaves after every turn. I appreciate the idea, but I wish they'd just let me cheat.

This wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't the astonishing weakness of some of the troops. Of course, if the player doesn't use them, they won't get any stronger, so you've got to take them out--at which point the enemy AI will probably also take them out, if you know what I mean. I've played through the fifth level at least twenty times now, and this Ross kid keeps biting the dust. Which means I keep starting over. I've about reached the limit of my patience with it.

If I just let the virtual grim reaper carry off the odd straggler, I'd probably have a much easier time. But games elicit a powerful impulse to do things perfectly and minimize loss. I'll only play through this thing once, probably, so I don't want to miss out, and I don't want to get slammed in later levels because I let one too many units pass on. Instead, I may just pass on the game. I am not this hardcore. I've got better things to do.

Indeed, if the permadeath experience is indicative of anything, it's how little tolerance for mistakes that games instil in players, and how players react to that. The people who are the biggest fans of permadeath are not really interested in realism, I'd guess. They're interested in perfection--they want to force players to play a completely clean, rational, sterile strategy. Perhaps it appeals to their heightened sense of order. Maybe they're just jerks. Either way, their obsession is unnatural compared to other media. While my other hobbies--music, writing, a rare sketch or two--can find new opportunities or inspiration in mistakes, I'm not aware of any game that rewards errors, other than the sense of recovering from them. That's too bad. Mistakes add richness to life. They're at the heart of scientific progress, and the inevitable byproduct of any creative endeavor. We should be encouraging mistakes in interactive media. I just have no idea how to do it.

I know how I'm not going to do it, and that's playing through level five again. It gets one more try, and then me and Fire Emblem--and permadeath with it--are quits.

Future - Present - Past