Category Archives: Blog

Are Difficulty Settings Necessary?

The pursuit of a challenge can be a driving force in life. The accomplishment of something thought to be unobtainable has a certain allure which some find irresistible. Game designers tend to play off of this concept, creating challenges that seem insurmountable in the context of the game world. Typically there will be an option for the player to affect the likelihood of beating the odds through game difficulty. As a designer, the proper implementation of difficulty, in my opinion, is instituting a learning curve and building from there. Once the player has gleaned the knowledge the game has presented, the designer is free to introduce complex obstacles that utilize this knowledge in varying ways. Approaching the difficulty question from this angle allows designers to create more involving situations during the progression of the game. This concept of “learning in order to succeed” seems to eradicate the necessity of a difficulty option altogether.

Read the rest of this entry

The Philosophical Basis of Exploration Cues in Game Design

Republished from The GameSaver, whose purpose it is to use objective philosophical analysis to save the video game industry from imploding.

——————————————— 

…it’s your game. You decide how you want to play, I mean, we’re not the ones who are going to tell you how to play...” – Mathieu Ferland, senior producer at Ubisoft Montreal, describing the design philosophy of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

Obviously you can’t instruct people on how to enjoy art.” – Lisa Foiles, video game commentator (and former “All That” star) stating what she believes to be a truism relevant to a gamer’s choosing how (and whether) to explore a game world.

Together, these two quotations represent a malignant viewpoint stretching from video game designer to video game player. The second quote comes from one of Kotaku’s (few) intellectual features now roughly a year old. It is the perfect encapsulation of the average person’s view of art. Because this view is so widespread, what I am about to say is tragically controversial: there is an objectively correct way to read books, watch movies, view paintings, and play games. Read the rest of this entry

The Difference Between “Hard” and “Frustrating”

I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, “hard” is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are “hard” and those that are “frustrating.” As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the “normal” difficulty.

“Hard” games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your “souls,” the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.

Read the rest of this entry

Backlash

Human beings have an interesting reaction to Things That Are Good. Instead of loving them and appreciating them for what they are, we tend towards finding flaws, looking at the things that don’t stick. We say we want something brilliant, but when something brilliant arrives, we pick holes in it and try to find something else even more brilliant.

When something is good, we tell ourselves that it sucks and that we shouldn’t appreciate it as much as we should.

There are hundreds of good examples of this. The most famous, in my book, is Led Zeppelin, easily the most timeless and gifted band of the 70’s, who the world decided it hated because they couldn’t stand to hear Stairway to Heaven another time. It’s what happened to Final Fantasy VII: Aeris dying was the most profound moment in video games, possibly ever, so we decided to tear it apart, decrying Cloud as a crybaby and Aeris’ death as a stupid incident of polygon on polygon violence.

Recently, we did it with Bioshock, a game of huge narrative importance, by slamming its narrative’s delivery through audio logs for not being immersive enough, and its Save/Kill mechanic for not being weighty enough. The most brilliant game of the decade, and we shat on it until it fell beneath other, lesser games. We did the same to Mass Effect 2 for not allowing you to play a full spectrum of character types, for having a solveable suicide mision. We slam Grand Theft Auto 4 for being dissonant despite having one of the best narratives of revenge in any medium.

In other words, we hate success. We hate that which is good because we can never be satisfied. And now we’re doing it again, with Portal 2.
Read the rest of this entry

Role-Playing Games as Embodying the Joy of Living

Pictured: the joy of living

Republished from The GameSavermy blog dealing with philosophical issues in the field of video games.

———————————————

Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that the seeds of the ideas that ultimately led to this article were first planted in my mind when I read “Why I Like Stamp Collecting,” a 1971 essay in The Minkus Stamp Journal by Ayn Rand. I consider what follows merely my application to role-playing games of her original ideas on the philosophy of stamp collecting.

To start, consider just what a role-playing game is. I define an RPG as a game in which (1) character customization occurs, (2) there exist quests or missions that are freely chosen, and (3) non-linear character advancement of some kind is present. These features can vary immensely in scale.  Read the rest of this entry

Los Angeles Confidential (L.A. Noire Game Diary) – Prologue

Prologue

It was another hot summer in L.A., and I could feel the heat from the pavement seeping in through my stained walls. It had been a while since I last had a case to work on, not enough women with missing jewelry or dirt bag husbands to investigate I guess. I lean back in my chair, the creak moaning off of the walls like a man dying, taking another sip of my glass of Bourbon. I was going crazy without work, I may have turn to some form of menial work to make money at this point. But, fortunately for me, ask and ye shall receive.

Loud foot steps rang off of the walls in the hallway outside of my office, they were sharp: stilettos, six-inches, 135 pounds, 5’5″, walks with a swagger. Trouble. Women are always trouble, especially the ones who end up approaching me in my line of work. A shadow appears in the window of my door, and I slowly sit up to prepare for probably one of the most interesting cases I’d ever take. The door knob turned slowly, and the door pushed open. There she was, the blonde bombshell of the century: blue eyes, elegant facial features, red lip stick, light blush, slender figure, black dress with a fur shawl over her shoulders, and an attitude in the sway of her hips as she walked. Like I said:

Trouble.

“Are you detective Passley?” She asked in a seductive voice.

Read the rest of this entry

The Liberation of: Mass Effect


This article was originally posted on The GameSaver, an Objectivist blog I run dealing with philosophy and how it is destroying, and can save, video games. The title of this piece refers to the fact that I, the GameSaver, liberate games by revealing the philosophy hidden underneath. This Liberation begins with a tripartite breakdown, and continues with an essay-style explication and elaboration of that basic breakdown.

The breakdown will consist of (1) the philosophical essence, (2) the theme, and (3) the plot of the game. The “philosophical essence” is the philosophical core of the game, or a brief description of the game’s integration of theme and plot. The “theme” is the abstract idea that dominates and integrates the various parts of the work. The “plot” is the physical, concrete series of actions that takes place in the story and is the content from which the theme is derived.

One more thing: any words that are also links are explained by me somewhere in the text of the blog post, so there is no need to interrupt yourself while reading just to figure out what I am talking about. They are there just in case you are interested in reading more on your own.

———————————————

Mass Effect

The Philosophical EssenceAn abstract battle between Hobbesian personal subjectivism (Renegade) and Kantian social subjectivism (Paragon) played out in the concrete form of Hobbes’s “state of nature” versus the “Leviathan” (or Sovereign).

The Theme: The destructiveness of an individual mind’s control of reality, and the benevolence of collective control.

The Plot: Saren and the Reapers (representing personal subjectivism) attempt to impose their will and evaluation of truth on the galaxy, while the diverse, multi-species civilization that inhabits it (representing social subjectivism) fights back by sending Shepard (representing the player’s preference, through his choices) to stop them. Read the rest of this entry

This Terrarian Life

Death is a concept any living being is familiar with. One day your body will cease to function and that is the end of your mortal coil. Then whatever afterlife you believe in kicks in. In gaming, however, no one ever really dies. Permanent death is an alien concept to developers and players alike. Think back to the last time you played a game that involved permanent death–and running out of lives doesn’t count. I personally struggle to come up with more than a handful of examples. Most games use the fear of character death as the primary driving motivation for players. The fear of having to start over, or losing items or money makes players try. However death isn’t permanent and all you have to do is wait a bit and you can be right back in the action again. And usually you can recover what it is that you have lost in the process, totally nullifying the consequences. Players have grown up expecting a respawn or multiple lives in every game, a redo for every mistake. No matter how many times a monster kills you, if it doesn’t instil fear then somewhere the monster has failed. So I’ve decided to partake in an experiment where I play through Terraria with a single life–no respawns, redos, nothing like that. One life, that’s it. I want to put the fear of death back into gaming.

Teraria allows a player to respawn any number of times for a slight monetary loss. Death is more of an annoyance than the great equalizer that we all know it to be in real life. In Terraria, we fight monsters to keep ourselves from dying, and we build fortresses to give us safe places to hide from them. With death being such a minor event I sometimes found myself not caring if I lived or died, though. Ultimately we fight for survival which is the primary goal of Terraria. Survive long enough to get better equipment and then use that equipment to survive even better.

The self imposed rule of only one life will require that I study my environment, that I respect the creatures and the natural landscape. A more ‘scientific’ approach favoring observation and knowledge. The permadeath approach makes my survival paramount and makes me less inclined to embark on a careless genocidal spree. Under these circumstances, I expect that flight over fight will sometimes be the correct choice. Thus, hopefully this will be the start of a small series of articles to better understand the behavior of the monsters and the ecology of Terraria.
Read the rest of this entry

The Complexity of SeeD


The trend in gaming has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. If games are easier, more people will want to play them. If games are less complex, fewer people will quit them midway through, and the more people who beat games, the more people will play more games, more sequels.

Simpler games mean more money, put simply.

Complexity in games is certainly different from difficulty, the subject of this month’s omnitopic, though the two are often related. The earliest games were extremely difficult, but most featured two buttons and few had even the most rudimentary concepts of player progression and development. In Super Mario Brothers the only way to get better was through trial and error, and the tutorial was the first goomba, walking at you. In Final Fantasy, you improved by leveling up, but the concept of leveling up was not much more complex that killing enough monsters to get more hit points. It was Mario’s trial and error codified into a straight, simple progression, mostly because you couldn’t get much better at hitting the attack button. Contrast this to modern games, where tutorials are all consuming but the games themselves are easier than ever. In fact, they are designed so anyone can complete them.

During the Super Nintendo days, when all games came out of Japan, none of the truly complicated ones ever made it over to America. People look at me funny when I say the SNES had some brilliantly complicated games, and they remember Mario World, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI*. My first reaction to this is always to claim Final Fantasy VI is secretly a very complicated game, with arcane, unexplained mechanics that allow you to completely break your party, but then they retort by saying they never understood any of them and still beat the game. Fine, I respond, and list off a string of titles: Final Fantasy V, Bahamut Lagoon, Romancing SaGa, Shin Megami Tensei. All very complicated games.

All very Japan only, too.
Read the rest of this entry

LA Noire First Impressions

Despite being only about an hour and a half into LA Noire, boy has the game got me thinkin’ about a million things already. So here’s my gift to you guys: a bunch of disjointed, but hopefully interesting, thoughts!

I am impressed at the difficulty of interrogation and clue finding.

I was initially worried that lines of inquiry would be too obvious–whether by interrogation or by finding clues–but this hasn’t been the case at all. Things aren’t always what they appear. In fact, I’m messing up interrogations or missing clues more often than I anticipated. That’s not a fault; I actually appreciate being able to be wrong and to mess up and having to deal with the consequences of thinking through the case shoddily.

I am not, however, impressed with the facial animations.

It has nothing to do with their quality (though having such intricacy and depth attached to expressions seems misplaced relative to the quality of the rest of the model), but rather how forced it all is. People overact, are way too obvious; even the worst liars I’ve ever met are not as terrible as some of the people in this game. I’m not sure if that’s because this quality demands that we judge the acting, or if that’s because Team Bondi didn’t want to make reading people too difficult (or both!). The thing is…reading in real life people IS difficult, and thus what LA Noire offers thus far is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Requiring us to engage in more inference when reading people–looking at the possible motivation, the evidence and using some good ‘ol intuition–would have been more rewarding despite the possible difficulty hike, though.

The narrative seems too segmented

Is there really no other way to tell me Cole Phelp’s backstory than to interject a cinematic like every 5 minutes? I mean, it’s all engaging and well written but you already have the modular structure of the cases–each one literally segmented by having a title before playing it–that interjecting “the past” on top of that feels a little jarring. Like watching an episode inside an episode of a show, and inside THAT episode is a showcase of segments of an earlier episode that was never aired.

The action feels out of place

The action–chases, anything involving the car or shooting–seem like too much of a stark contrast to the slow, methodical structure investigation. It’s almost like those segments are only there to appease players who would find the investigation monotonous and boring, and I say this not because I can’t appreciate the action conceptually (you’re a cop and, the hard-boiled ideology has a propensity for violence) but because of how simplistic the action seems in execution.

Read the rest of this entry