Category Archives: Opinion

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.

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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.

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…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.

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Right in Front of Your Face

Elitism still is the big divide. It’s the biggest obstacle facing games today. Elitism is the belief that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views are the only ones that matter.

We are that elite.

Many of my friends resented when Nintendo positioned itself as a beacon to attract non-gamers (including some of my non-gamer friends, interestingly enough). Now, after piling them with shovelware for years, we see our dusted Wiis and state “The Wii Is Dead” in a dismissive tone that implies “See, we were right all along. You shouldn’t have abandoned us. We are the ones that get it, not them”.

Because (OMG!) gaming is art. And we are (obviously) the only ones who can see it.
Some pieces of art are difficult to understand or appreciate. That’s why the elite is the elite; and have Bach playing on the background as they discuss the peasant situation. The thing is that while there is only schooling and experience in the way of turning the Average Joe into H. E. Pennypacker, for gaming there is also the issue of skill. How can grandpa even start to appreciate games when just comprehending the controls is bound to take more spasmodic accidents than his patience and time could afford?

Yes, folks, this is my Omnitopic entry!

No matter how unapproachable a book or a movie may be, one can always get through it. The same is not true for gaming, as the skills it requires are primarily related to manual dexterity – which is not a trivial thing to acquire. It’s mostly an aptitude after all. Gaming is built on progression and not matter whether this progression if linear or open ended, the plot is not. One cannot skip to world 8-8 if one cannot even pass world 1-1 (and the first warp zone is hidden in the world 1-2, mind you). This is troublesome. It’s like buying a movie without knowing how to read it.

I find this unfair, especially now games are maturing into a narrative driven medium. Read the rest of this entry

Surviving The Horror: Dead Space 2’s Hard Core Difficulty

When humans get scared, our bodies prepare to take action. Adrenaline courses through our systems, our heart rates skyrocket, and certain bodily functions like digestion get suspended entirely. This is commonly known as the body’s “fight or flight” response. But while “fight or flight” may have a nice ring to it, the terms suggest a simple duality that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality: our fear response covers not just fight OR flight, but every combination of the two. Furthermore, the fear response varies between people. How you react to something scary may not be how I react to it.

Horror game developers are aware of this range of response, and they design their titles to fit a certain segment of it. Some horror fans prefer games that trigger their “fight” reaction. Others prefer games that trigger their “flight” response. Neither is a more valid horror experience than the other, and, contrary to popular belief, titles like Resident Evil 5 and Amnesia can occupy the same market space.

Enter the Dead Space series. The first game appealed to both “fight” and “flight” enthusiasts with its mix of extreme player vulnerability and engaging dismemberment. The second game ramped up the intensity in all respects. The hero, Isaac Clarke, is faster and deadlier, but so are the bladed undead necromorphs he faces. With added environmental hazards, the player is thrust into situations that constantly challenge him or her. Despite all these new features, the developers at Visceral knew they needed something extra to combat the greatest enemy of fear: familiarity. As the second game in the series, Dead Space 2 would automatically start off in a weaker position. Thus, a new difficulty was included. Hard Core mode would give the player only three saves for the entire game. Checkpoints would be disabled, and death would return the player to his last save, regardless if that was 5 chapters ago.

Hard Core offers players quite a different experience than usual. The cost of failure is not a few rooms’ worth of progress, but rather, entire chapters and multiple hours of gameplay. Similar difficulty modes have appeared in other games, but it’s particularly suited to the survival horror genre. The player is already used to being extra careful about enemy encounters, and the more serious consequences serve to heighten the tension. All this is just fluffy theory until you actually screw up, however.

Then the game changes.

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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.
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REVIEW: The Brink of a Genre, Worth Exploring

Stretching The Edges of a Genre

Brink was developed by Splash Damage and published by Bethesda Softworks for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. It was directed by Paul Wedgewood, Richard Ham, Olivier Leonardi, Chris Sweetman, Arnout van Meer, Richard Jolly and Stephen Gaffney. The Xbox360 copy was played for the purpose of this review following the day one patch released from developer Splash Damage.

Innovation rarely produces perfection, but it always brings something new to the table. Something on the brink of existing standards, stretching old rules with the new ideas it brings forward. Flipping on Brink for the first time, and watching it’s lengthy tutorial videos (10-30 minutes), you get the immediate sense that you are playing an ambitious shooter. Four classes, directly interdependent with one another, three distinct body types, and a plethora of weapons and abilities help shape the battlefield of Brink in a way that is rarely seen in this generation’s “run ‘n’ gun, lone-wolf” brand of first-person shooters. Brink’s team centric, objective-based battles are laden with a variety of fun opportunities, but they are also fraught with technical issues that will leave those with slow internet connections as well as eye-candy junkies disappointed. Visual issues frequently result in constant texture pop-in and online lag often interrupts the fast-paced flow of combat. Problems with the bot’s artificial intelligence in Brink can also be downright infuriating. There, is without a doubt, mountains of lasting fun to be had with Brink, however with all it’s innovation aside, it falls short of perfection.

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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.

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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

Looking For Conspiracy In The Dream Machine

Just one disclaimer here: I don’t really play point and click adventure games. My only other experience with the genre is Machinarium. Also…major spoilers for the first chapter of The Dream Machine.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about The Dream Machine. While playing last weekend, I noticed something that struck me as odd about the way I was playing the game. After waking up from the deserted island dream, I found myself in the protagonist’s apartment. Looking around me, there were nothing but normal, ordinary objects: boxes, windows, cabinets, light switches, what have you. Nothing I would normally pay much mind to…except I was given the option to interact with the objects. Upon examination, I hardly ever found anything worthwhile and yet, there I was, in the next room, flipping another light switch on and off just to see if maybe THIS time, something would happen. Of course, nothing did. And yet once again, the next room, I found myself examining more mundane objects. Further: I was picking up items that had no immediate usefulness to me. Why was I doing this, why did I feel such a compulsion?

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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.

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