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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 Coolest Blog on the Internet

Not us, no. Gamestorm has been making the rounds on ye olde internet lately, and frankly it’s a fantastic place. What it is is a collection of early game design documents, that have on them a wealth of cool snippets of ideas that never got made (or, in some cases, have become notable indie titles). It’s basically the best concept for a blog since Pokebands, and, as someone who’d love to one day design a game, it’s given me all sorts of insight into the creative processes of other people.

I don’t have anything else to say. Go check it out! Appreciate that there are so many creative people in the world, and how they work!

The pre-boss fight: giving our nemesis context

[Contains SPOILERS for Assassin’s Creed 2, Knights of the Old Republic, and Bioshock. Consider yourself warned.]

I recently completed a play-through of Assassin’s Creed 2, which left me with a rather negative taste in my mouth. Part of it had to do with the wild ‘conspiracy theory’ story reveal at the end, but a lot of it had to do with bad game design, principally the way Ezio deals with his nemesis: Rodrigo Borgia.

Rodrigo is introduced to the player very early in the game, is clearly telegraphed as Ezio’s final object of revenge, and hovers behind the largely indiscriminate slaughter Ezio inflicts on the guards of various cities in Renaissance Italy. Despite ‘meeting’ him in various cutscenes, Ezio catches up with him for the first time about 85% of the way through the game. The battle is rather well-done at the outset, and is easily one of the more memorable parts of the game. The fact that Rodrigo is one of the more formidable enemies of the game despite only wielding a sword (though he does summon help) is actually quite impressive. Normally, sword-wielding guards are little more than practice dummies for Ezio.

Ultimately, however, this is still Assassin’s Creed 2, and combat can be overcome by mashing the attack button. Though there were a few tense moments, within a minute or two I had Rodrigo thrown to the ground and was about to kill him—and then one of my “allies” suddenly appeared, in order to “help” me—allowing Rodrigo to escape. I forget the plot contrivance for this; suffice it to say, the game designers would never have let me kill Rodrigo at this point, because this was a pre-boss fight. In other words, it is a battle that features the final boss, but you can’t possibly win (at least in any final sense).

Other players may not have triggered this interruption in quite so ridiculous a fashion, but the obvious scripting in play really pissed me off. After enduring a cut-scene, I/Ezio calmed down, and hoped for the best in our final encounter. The fight really had been interesting, so I expected Ubisoft Montreal to have something really special in store for the grand finale.
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Alan Wake Writer Blames Ludonarrative Dissonance on Game Expectations

Ah, ludonarrative dissonance: we’re all familiar with it. It’s the disconnect between the narrative and ‘play’ aspects of a game. Think, for example, how Nathan Drake is characterized as a likeable good guy and yet we spend all game killing dozens upon dozens of people: the narrative would suggest Nathan is not capable of that.

Anyway, in an interview with Game Sugar, Remedy studios writer Mikko Rautalahti has the following to say about storytelling in video games:

“I think it can be difficult to tell stories in video games. There are all these conventions – you are expected to have a certain amount of combat, a certain minimum number of gameplay hours, etc. These conventions aren’t really engineered with storytelling in mind. So a lot of the time, you end up kind of glossing over some of the details in your head – I mean, if you’re playing the lone hero, in terms of the story, does that guy really rack up a four-digit body count? Does he really get repeatedly shot with high-caliber weapons and mysteriously heal himself? And if you really get stuck at a difficult part, does that really mean that the hero also spent an hour just running around in frustration and then quit. Probably not, you know?”

Perhaps it is time that game developers start breaking convention for the sake of the medium, then, no? We know we can achieve technical/mechanical decency, now it’s time to take that one step further and achieve ludonarrative harmony. And it’s time we stop being appeasers about this all, too, stop giving game developers reasons to skimp out on the narrative. They have no reason to take narrative a step further if we’re happy with experiencing the same shoddy conventions over and over again.

Mass Effect 3, By The Numbers

In light of recent discussion regarding metrics fetishism, I’ve tried to parse Destructoid’s newly revealed Mass Effect 2 statistics with some perspective. We all know these numbers aren’t just random trivia: they will be part of the basis for changes in Bioware’s game development. Some numbers of note, along with complete speculation for what these numbers might mean or imply, as well as questions they elicit. I will state in advance that I will happily take being proven wrong on some of these speculations–designing solely by the numbers is stupid. But, let’s indulge in this thought experiment for a second.

  • 82 percent of players play as a male character

Despite Jennifer Hale’s critically acclaimed performance as FemShep, the likelihood of us seeing any marketing campaign giving FemShep the limelight is slim. This, too, holds true for other Bioware games: we see Garrett Hawke’s face plastered everywhere, not…whatever FemHawke’s name is (I don’t even know her name!) One part perpetuation of our little boys club, one part “catering to your audience.”

Moreover, it may influence how much effort is put into love interests–the vast majority of players are maleShep/maleWarden, so the love interests need to cater to them. I can’t be the only one that feels like the females in Bioware games get slim pickings for love interests, while the males get highly eroticized, completely idealized versions of women (who are literally perfect–like Miranda).

  • Garrus is one of the more popular choices for squad members

This one is a toughie: does Bioware bring Garrus back as a party member by virtue of popularity? Does Garrus even warrant the attention of three games? Do they take this, and instead of bringing Garrus back they form an archetype around him, since he’s proven to be a favorite (and we all know Bioware loves it some character archetypes)? Do they bring him back simply for fanservice, but don’t make him a party member (think of how they handled love interests from 1 in 2)?

  • 50 percent of players have fully upgraded the ship by the end of the game

Where some RPG aspects of the ME franchise were stripped back, streamlined, or removed, the upgrading of the ship was one of the only new additions with an RPG-like aspect. So, here’s another toughie: what does Bioware do with a stat like this? Do they keep building more systems which are governed by the same principles (upgrading vs resource management), or do they see that sort of thing as a waste of their time because only half of the users took complete advantage of it? Sure, we might not see ship upgrades in 3, but the numbers attached to the “success” of the ship upgrade system may influence how other mechanics work–most likely, in regards to their complexity. The issue here would be evaluating the statistic in a wider context: just why did only half of all players fully upgrade their systems?

  • 14 percent of all crewmembers die at the end of the game

I’m glad to hear that, for the most part, players tend to experience at least one death in their suicide mission…but then again, we must also remember that this 14 percent only applies to half of all ME2 players, since only half ever finish the game. Anyway, experiencing the death of a crewmember is paramount toward showing just how dangerous the mission actually is. After all, just how much of a suicide mission is it if most players manage to get all the crew back? Still, this means that most players only had one or two characters die out of about a dozen: does this mean Bioware made the suicide mission too easy? Do they think players actually get the gravity of the situation with that number of casualties?

This statistic is interesting to think about in the scope of ME3, if only because 3 will be when (ideally) everything falls into place. Players will, hypothetically, engage in situations that are equally high risk, if not more so. This statistic may be useful in determining to what degree Bioware molds the experience. To what extent do they give players control over their fate? How do they balance their vision and message for the game with player control? 14 percent can either be seen as a failure to properly balance player control versus vision–the player has control over too much of the system–or a success, because most players experience a death no matter what they do.

  • 36 percent of players choose the renegade option at the very end

A statistic like this might dictate how Bioware chooses to unfold the story. Yes, they will probably not issue a ‘canon-choice’ but if an overwhelming number of players choose the paragon option…well, what do you do? Do you put an equal amount of effort into crafting the consequences for both options, despite the fact that one will hold the most relevance to most people? Do you cast the importance of this choice aside because of how uneven the turnout is?

And then, the real biggie: only 50 percent of all players have finished ME2. This is probably the trickiest of them all, and perhaps the most controversial of the stats. You’ve got to wonder, just what is causing this? Disinterest? Difficulty? Both? All one can hope is, they don’t take this as an opportunity to make the game further streamlined, if not easier.

We’ll have to wait until ME3 is released to see just how much, if at all, Bioware worships the numbers. If 2 is any indication, it’s probably quite a bit.

Building a ‘soldier sim’, part 1

I’m not the hardest of the hardcore when it comes to shooters, either first or third person, but I’ve played my fair share.

There are some interesting games that really change the concept of being a shooter, my current favorite being Borderlands, and I’ll be really excited to see a game like Bulletstorm when it comes out next year. These blend sci-fi imagination with a ‘pulp-ish’ attitude that embrace, for lack of a better word, their gamey-ness. Attaching modifiers to my killing style and racking up points sounds like a lot of fun, and games that nail this can really stand out.

One the other end of the spectrum we have the ‘military’ FPS genre. In many ways, you could argue that these games are increasingly blending together, despite Medal of Honor‘s “Tier 1” ad campaign. Gameplay feels similar, and while the names and visual models of the military assets involved might be realistic, there’s not much realism to be had.

I’m not going to hate on the genre. Call of Duty 4 was a fantastic game. Its successor was flawed in many respects, but the multi-player in particular provided me with more than my $60 of enjoyment. DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 sucked even more of my life away, and provided a somewhat more involved team simulation. Still, there’s a far cry between these games and actually feeling like we’re on a battlefield.

Sure, a game–even if it could capture that essence–probably shouldn’t. I’m fine with games existing to provide entertainment value and I don’t want this to be about the games as art debate–something that with every iteration approaches the asymptote of absolute futility. What I do want this to be about is a very fundamental discussion about this question: are military-themed FPS games destined to either being realistic or being fun?

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Can The Headshot Be Replaced?

“Headshots are ruining games. Think about the arsenal they give you in Splinter Cell. Think about the remote camera, the sticky mines, the grenades, and EMPs, and all this other stuff, shotguns and assault rifles…and you went through the entire game using the default pistol and then the upgraded version of the default pistol, ’cause it’s silenced and you can shoot guys in the head with it really well…all of the spots where you are not being seen by anyone the right answer every single time is shoot that guy in the head…it is ruining games.” – Jeff Gerstmann

Quote taken from Jon Porter’s post over at Bitmob.

I have a confession. I have a confession, and I’m not sure I can explain it, but here it is: I have an addiction to crunch. That visceral feeling, a shot of adrenaline, that rush of blood. I can’t get enough of it. The rasp of your feet when Limbo’s protagonist slides over a mound of earth, Nathan Drake jumping over an impossible abyss only to land in a perfect grapple…there’s a thousand small moments that exist so vividly in my mind, that I can feel in my bones, that I can swear last a lifetime. None of these moments, however, can match the perfection of a single moment: and that’s getting a headshot in Gears.

It’s not a crunch like any other, because it exists on every possible plane. You see it, the skull pops off in this perfect arc: gruesome, but poetic, in this macabre sort of way. You feel it, that perfect surge of rumble, of feedback. And the soundbite! It should be a requirement for any game with a headshot to implement the same soundbite: there’s nothing else out there that gives you the same satisfaction as hearing a Gears 2 headshot.

And the thing is, it’s not like popping bubblewrap or smashing a watermelon with a baseball bat: you’ve got to earn the high. You’ve got to fight for it. In all the FPS games I’ve played, Gears has to be the hardest game to land a headshot in if only because of craptastic connections, and Marcus’ pin-size head doesn’t help the fact that the hitbox for the headshot is questionable. Couple this with the competition of multiplayer and a Gears player’s penchant for masochism, and you’ve got yourself a reward of the highest order.

Of course, this can be said of any game: try searching for Modern Warfare or Battlefield footage on YouTube, and try to find a video that’s not a montage of headshots. Truth is, nearly everyone who plays FPS games are addicted to headshots. Sure, it’s an efficient way of taking an opponent out: most shots to the head do more damage than bodyshots. I’m convinced it has less to do with a player’s desire to get rid of enemies as fast as possible as it does with a semblance of the headshot high.

Think about it. Sure, you can kill a guy. You can do this in a variety of ways, pinpointing a wide array of locations on the body. But there’s a tinge of humiliation that occurs when you best your opponent via headshot. You’re not just killing them, depriving them of bodily function: you’re taking them out completely, their mind is yours to claim as well. You’re turning off the lights, laying claim to body and soul. You have absolute power over them, and all because you managed to dispatch one or two well-placed shots. Power negotiations between players of opposite teams are never more apparent than that search for the infamous BOOM HEADSHOT.

In this way, I can see Jeff’s criticisms clearly: players can become obsessed with the headshot, but it’s because it’s efficient and it feels great, a testament of prowess. No one wants to just “win” when they’re playing against other people (or enemy AI), they want to prove they’re better, they’re faster, they’re stronger. The headshot embodies all those things simply and as elegantly as designers have managed to implement so far. The fact that some games, like Battlefield, give you bonus points for achieving a headshot, isn’t helping, either.

So then the question would be, can you replace the headshot? Is there a way to one-up it, as it were?

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Well Of Course I Saved The World: Thoughts on the Ending of Persona 3


(Spoilers for Persona 3 follow.)

Well, Persona 3 duped me. I honestly thought that I’d get my ass kicked at the final battle, since that’s what the game told me. That’s not what the protagonists thought, of course–they were confident that they were going to defeat death somehow. Crazy kids. I thought they were just being stupid, but no, they actually did it. We kicked Nyx’s ass and saved the world.

I just feel as if there was such a huge missed opportunity here: why not make it impossible for me to win? Why not make that the ending, the fact that we went up against death itself and lost? Yes, this is seriously what I am saying: that the game should make the player fail at saving the world. Sure, Persona 3 sort of did this: Ryoji gives you the option of forgetting about everything, and if you do so, then you fail at saving the world. But, I doubt very many people chose this option–why should they, when the other choice promises the “better” ending, where you get to save the world once more? It’s really more of the “I’m a terrible person, look at me not care about what happens to the world” option, which only utter, utter dicks took.

Yes, having us go up against death, losing, and then having the world end would have been mightily depressing. Who wants to play that? I guess I do. It would play heavily with my expectations of what I should be able to do in a game, and very few games toy with that notion. I’d be tempted to say that perhaps this approach shouldn’t be taken by Persona 3, but then again, what better game to present such an ending? The entirety of the game is depressing. We are continually reminded that humanity “asks” for its death, that we long for it, what have you. It’s not as if the themes of P3 are particularly uplifting.

The only way this could work, though, is for the rest of the game to become worth it. FES calls that first part of the game “The Journey,” and, if the journey is the entire point, then this ending wouldn’t have been so offensive. Yes, I ended up caring a lot more about my friends in acquaintances once I knew exactly what was at stake–and this was me thinking it was all futile. But, it was sort of a “you poor, poor saps. you have no idea of what’s going on, do you?” I’d be lying if I said I thought that the relationships the game offers you are good enough to sustain this proposed ending. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re decent enough for me to care slightly, but after playing Bioware games, my standard of “engaging interaction” was not one that was met by what Persona 3 offered. So, the relationships are not particularly special–and they’d need to be striking and engaging in order for the whole idea of the “journey” to hit home. Yes, you’re going to die. Yes, you can’t do anything about it. But you have all these things to show for it, you’ve made all these fantastic connections, and maybe, just maybe, everything was worth it anyway. The only way this could work is if the writing and characterization was excellent, and right now, they’re just okay.

Of course, this is just all idle speculation. I don’t know if Persona 3 would be any better by giving you the ending I’m proposing. Still, it’s an interesting idea, no? I’ve never seen a game that denies you the opportunity to be the hero, I don’t know if such a thing exists. Ultimately, saving the world isn’t really the point of the game. It’s about friendship and appreciating the small things in life–saving the world is just a pretense. And you know what they say, you don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone. I enjoyed Persona 3 as is, but I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t have loved it all the more if it had dared to do what no game would ever do.

Community-Driven Gameplay

As I gear up towards learning about game design, I’ve been thinking a lot about what sorts of games I’d like to make. To this end, I started thinking about games that I like–RPGs and multiplayer games like Brawl or BF:BC2. While I always pine for intellectually stimulating games, I find that games which fulfill this role are not games I can usually replay and enjoy as much as the first time. I always come back to the multiplayer games, though. I explained this a bit in The Ultimate Reward, but the gist of it is, human controlled avatars are fluid. I can come back to the same level, map, or enemy and it will always react in a dynamic way. Where a game like ME2 is one that keeps me thinking about it long after I finish, it is not a game I can play multiple times.

In ME2, while all the decisions you make are intellectually stimulating, they become noise you don’t pay attention to if you play through a second time. You already know what your choices and their consequences are, or at least an idea of what they would be, because situations are always posed under the paragon/renegade system. You already know what your crew members say at which points, though the nuances may be unknown to you. Characters in the game never change, even though you might be playing a completely different Shepard from the first time. This is a problem because you may make a connection with a crew member, only to have them reach their scripted ceiling and repeat the same thing over and over again. This breaks the illusion.

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I AM A CHANGED MAN

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