California Literary Review

The Dialogue Tree

A Video Game Blog

Dark Souls VS Skyrim – Part 4 – Splinter of the Mind’s AI

by

January 21st, 2012 at 7:11 am

Climb On Up and Talk With Me, in The Dialogue Tree!

First things first. Though this blog used to be known as The Metro City Reform Committee, it has been rechristened as “The Dialogue Tree” for reasons that should be obvious: I often leaf behind the roots of my topics and branch out into fruitful discussions that stump those who bough to convention . . . aaaannd I’ll stop with the puns before I get murdered by an angry mob.

Besides, it just sounds nicer doesn’t it? Hopefully it’s more memorable too. I was tired of people saying “Metro Committee? Like some sort of politics thing? Or do you work for the MTA? Both? What’s the best route to get from Landover to Braddock?”

And for those that won’t stop bugging me, HERE! Look at this map. Memorize it. Even if you don’t go to the capital, it’ll help when you play Fallout 3.

So without further ado . . .

LAST TIME I started delving into (as one reader pointed out) matters of the mind, albeit the player’s mind, and how the space of a game world could be used to affect it. This time we’re going to delve into the minds of the NPCs that inhabit our game worlds with us. Or really, into the system we call AI, which really isn’t the same thing as a mind.

At least not yet. But according to every other science fiction story it’s an eventual guarantee that we get machines to think freely.

Data from Star Trek TNG and D.A.R.Y.L.

Though I hope actual science takes its time with this. I’d rather have Data eventually rather than D.A.R.Y.L. now. That kid was so boring he made Michael McKean seem dull.

Like that one episode of The Next Generation where Worf drew in a billion Enterprises from all over the quantum universes, there are so many possibilities with this topic! AI is one of the most complicated subjects in human-cyborg relations other than figuring out how to make sex-bots socially acceptable. It’s also one of the core aspects of electronic entertainment. Something that no complex game, and certainly none with NPCs, would be the same without.

But like the more pessimistic Sci-fi stories that deal with Skynet running amok and killing all of humanity, and as the eponymous TVTropes page suggests, AI is a crapshoot. In the video game industry, this is about as close to literal as a metaphor gets. The quality of AI in video games is probably the least consistent aspect of the medium and is completely different from one game to the next.

For every game that does AI “right”, or at least as well as it can given the time it comes out in, there’s one (if not six) that do it poorly. For every moment of brilliance exhibited by an NPC teammate, there’s an escortee screaming at the player while they jump into a cyberdemon’s firing solution. For every group of enemies that use genuinely brilliant tactics and techniques to outsmart you, there’s an idiotic AI rigging the rules, because like most wives know, sometimes it’s just easier to fake it.

Shogun Total War

“AI modeled after Sun Tzu’s Art of War” my ass! Unless Sun Tzu knew how to summon armies from Outworld when he was down to his last territory and had no resources, this game cheated more than Bill Clinton at Chub-Con ’96.

So with the wildly disparate quality level of AI from one game to the next, and considering how narrowly defined it can be to fit the specific conditions of any particular game’s ruleset, and the fact that AI in games isn’t really any form of reasoning that could constitute intelligence in the traditional sense, and that the price of tea in China is currently 2 Yuan per pound, can anyone say objectively what qualifies as “good” AI?

Is it a lack of bugs? Is it the complexity of the system? Is it the ability of the AI to generate emergent behavior?

What really matters when it comes to making an NPC feel like they’re lacking that “N”?

What is the Measure of the Mechanical Man’s Mind?

Actually, I don’t think the answer to this question is all that hard to figure out. The most important thing for NPC AI for the average player is that it fulfills the functions of an NPC’s role while – and this here’s the important part – not calling attention to itself. That it doesn’t make me realize that the character Gorle Fitzpatrician isn’t a Drulluvian emissary here to convince the Conine Concord to open their borders, but just a simple Finite State Machine responding lifelessly to the piddling number of actions it’s capable of recognizing.

Keyser Soze

Like that devil Keyser Soze, AI needs to convince the world that it doesn’t exist.

The game’s AI needs to con me like a Nigerian prince after my social security number in order to facilitate a more noble cause that’s just as illusory: immersion. Immersion, or losing the sense of observing a game from without, really is one of the best things in gaming aside from all of the jet-packs and laser beams. But AI-controlled NPCs are everywhere in most games with a strong single player component, and are even likely to appear in a lot of multiplayer modes these days. Whenever you can see that the AI is obviously buggy or cheating, it breaks the sense of immersion faster than a Kardashian can file for divorce.

So making an NPC’s AI indivisible and invisible is important to making it seem alive, that’s clear. But as long as you don’t see the princess you’re protecting run into walls as often as a crash test dummy, and the enemies keep shooting or sending their armies at you, would you really notice?

In all likelihood . . . probably not. The average player doesn’t really expect much out of a game’s AI other than to not break, as most of the AI and NPCs a player encounters are probably enemies killed within six to sixty seconds of meeting them. As long as they die properly and have some sort of rudimentary ability to attack, it doesn’t really matter if the Nazi zombie has digital dreams.

“It works well enough” seems to be the motto of AI designers and players worldwide, because it’s already difficult enough to get there. If you want proof, look for notable AI developments in gaming over the last few years; aside from Left 4 Dead‘s AI Director in 2008, there haven’t been any huge leaps in the field, and that’s related less to actual NPC AI but more for a metagame system! If you’re looking for notable NPC AI, you might have to go back to F.E.A.R. in 2006 to find a game that went, even slightly, beyond the norm of “GOTO PLAYER. KILL”.

Though that WAS the notable routine for HAL back in 2001.

So is it just about the elimination of bugs that should factor into the quality of the AI then? I mean, as long as the difference engine subroutine I’m calling AI doesn’t break or cheat, it should remain like I said above: inconspicuous and intangible. If it doesn’t matter that it does anything new for most, this should be enough.

Except, it isn’t.

If you Open the role, You need to Open the mind.

You see, one of the reasons I think people are OK with the limited nature of AI in most games (say Call of Duty‘s enemy soldiers) is that the roles the NPCs are performing are themselves quite limited (shoot at the player, attempt to not die occasionally). While the quality of the AI is still a critical issue that can make or break any game that features NPCs, if the roles are narrowly defined or assigned to very simple concepts, the AI doesn’t need to follow suit.

Dead Rising Frank West Plates

The Zombie game boom could easily be due to laziness on the part of AI planners as much as it’s due to zeitgeist.

This “simple role/simple AI” mentality is what’s at play in Dark Souls. Most of the enemies the player runs into exhibit absolutely no life or intelligence. Until the player enters their range of perception, the enemies in Dark Souls act like Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and just sort of hang around doing absolutely nothing with their friends that also hang around doing nothing. If they do catch a glimpse of your character, then the beast or knight or statue or whatever charges forward blindly and tries to do to you what time will do to the cast of Jersey Shore and leave you as a corpse that resembles beef jerky.

It’s a very simple system that based upon pathfinding and territory triggers. If you move to a location that an enemy can’t reach they might resort to ranged attacks if they have them, and some might give chase for a while, but if you move far enough away all foes will eventually turn around and re-enter their original “kickin’ it” spot like a borg drone given a sleep command. And this simplicity bordering on brainlessness doesn’t just affect the enemies, for (with a couple exceptions) the friendly NPCs also hang around and won’t move from the spots on the ground they’re apparently nailed to, even when you encounter them in monster filled caves and could probably use their help.

Functionally, the AI system in Dark Souls most resembles Alan Grant’s understanding of the T. Rex – if it moves, go forward and kill it; if you don’t want to be killed, don’t move.

Jurassic Park T-Rex Flare

This is further proven by the in-game item for you to throw so monsters can go tromping after it. Of course, it’s Dark Souls, so instead of a flare, it’s a skull.

As I was saying above though, this simple AI doesn’t hurt the experience of Dark Souls much because the roles of the NPCs work with the simplicity instead of against it. Though they’re fresher, most of the characters in the game are brainless zombies, or at least one form of undead or demon. Since the developers are actively going for lifelessness, it ends up justified, if not actively helping the themes of the game. Fundamentally, the AI complexity is matching the complexity of the roles defined for the NPCs, roles which are themselves defined by the story and setting.

However, not every game gets to use this type of zombie justification. Some games want to do more, perhaps because the story and the setting demand it, or maybe because the developers just feel like they want to prove themselves. This is risky, for when the intent of the NPC roles isn’t just “stand around”, but “mimic life”, it raises the standard of quality, or rather, the expectations on the standard quality of the AI; which of course means that it’s all the easier to get disappointed if they don’t meet them.

*CUE COMPARISON TO LAST FILM IN SUPER HERO TRILOGY NOT MEETING EXPECTATIONS DUE TO VILLAIN*

One of these games is of course, Skyrim, where unlike Dark Souls, Bethesda attempts to create complex NPCs that aid in the illusion of a flowing, living world: Skyrim itself. Even though it has a few undead enemies who wander around, the majority of the hundreds of NPC’s in Skyrim fit into a rather wide variety of societal roles. Plus, each NPC is much more complex than even fitting into a single defined role; one woman can be a mother, merchant, and wife all at the same time!

Crafting such an illusion of life is a much more complex and nuanced con than making a dead world. It would take a master artist of either AI design and/or pulling one over on a crowd to create a convincing simulation of life like that! Unfortunately, neither a Noonian Soong nor Harold Hill is Todd Howard or the rest of Bethesda.

Lyle Lanley Leonard Nimoy The Simpsons

They might get up to the level of a Leonard Nimoy or a Lyle Lanley though.

That is to say, the NPC AI of Skyrim, while being vastly superior to that of Dark Souls from a standpoint of depth and complexity, doesn’t really live up to the expectations that either the developers promised or that the audience should expect from it. Primarily because it’s trying to do so much more, it crashes into the uncanny valley like a lead-lined bus full of Realdolls. I’m not exaggerating that much either; stuff like the bucket trick, which technically isn’t a bug but an exploit, just shouldn’t happen in a game shooting for a sense of naturalism.

However, this isn’t to say that nothing is gained from the AI in Skyrim, for it’s led to a realization of what must be one of the most valuable lessons in AI development for the future . . .

For the AI of a Lifetime, Recall, Recall, Recallll.

Bethesda, like many folks in the U.S., is in love with “The Procedural”. However the type of procedural they love isn’t one where after discovering a body David Caruso pulls a pun upon putting on prescription peeper protectors, but procedural generation that allows them to do less work overall. The most relevant case in point: their Radiant AI system that has governed the last two Elder Scrolls games.

Radiant AI is supposed to be an overarching mechanic that allows Bethesda to govern all of the NPCs in Nirn more efficiently. Basically, it attempts to create a generalized system of AI behavior that mimics a hierarchy of needs, so that on a macro level, the devs just plug in a few specifics about an individual character and at a micro level (that is, what the player sees) the NPC will do things you’d expect them to, like going to work during the day, sleeping at night, eating meals et cetera. Additionally, if you commit actions counter to the NPC’s needs, they will react and adapt in sensible ways that realistically portray how people would in any given situation.

It doesn’t exactly work out as planned:

YouTube Preview Image

That clip shows off the AI system at both it’s best and it’s worst. In it, several townsfolk are shocked by a dead body in a public square, so they freak out and crowd around, and then the local constabulary comes up to disperse them and investigate the crime. From the Macro level, that’s roughly what should happen.

It’s at the detailed level of what’s going on in real-time, the micro level, where it breaks down. The townsfolk react to the corpse (which is stripped of its clothing) rather slowly, considering the description says it took 20 minutes for them to realize there was a corpse in the middle of their open air market. But worse is probably the “investigation” from the town guards, who ask exactly two questions to the PC. The same PC walking around with both their sword drawn and currently carrying the corpse like it was Weekend at Bernie’s 2!

South PArk Officer Barbrady Move along people nothing to see here

The guards of Solitude obviously being trained at the Barbrady school of law enforcement.

Obviously, my point is that what works at a macro level doesn’t necessarily work in the micro. It’s one of my primary beefs with procedural generation in general.

Yet in my eyes, this isn’t even the worst problem with propelling the illusion that the little computer people are reasonably intelligent in Skyrim. The inability of NPCs to recognize very specific conditions like this really comes down to development time and planning. If the AI designers at Bethesda had more time or prioritized it more, awkward behavior like this could be eliminated by adding new reaction scripts for the system.

No, to me, the far greater issue is what’s being addressed in this strip from the webcomic Virtual Shackles. Or what I brought up in my review that reader Chris commented on. Or the following clip (especially after the 0:22 mark):

YouTube Preview Image

To subvert a Blade Runner quote: Memory! I’m talking about memory! Most of the NPCs in Skyrim, simply don’t have it.

Playing through Skyrim‘s many dungeons you will encounter two distinct forms of missing memory. The first is “Guy Pearce Syndrome” which, as in the above video, is the lack of short-term memory – where guards think an arrow to the head must’ve been their “imagination”. Next is the “Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome” where the fact that no one seems to remember or respect your deeds as you travel throughout the land implies that there’s little in the way of long-term memory.

I find the latter issue to be particularly frustrating, as the game actually does track many of your actions for its Radiant Story mechanic. This results in occasional moments where the game does bring up something from the past, but without a general reputation system working in conjunction, still results in NPCs treating you like garbage; even after you’ve saved their life from a dragon multiple times, and/or are a war hero fighting for their side. It’s especially ridiculous when you consider that Fallout: New Vegas, a game published by Bethesda and using essentially the same engine, used just such a mechanic!

Perhaps it was this obvious oversight, or maybe it was the 113th enemy that forgot an intruder was nearby after walking by a dead companion, but it eventually dawned upon me: memory, or at least the illusion of memory, is the most important part of selling an NPC to the player. For if the characters in a game can’t remember what’s happened days, hours, minutes, or even seconds before the present, then an NPC with a million unique reactions to what the player does will still come off about as intelligent as Dory from Finding Nemo.

Dory Finding Nemo

The average Skyrim Citizen, in fish form!

Now, again, I’m not going to say that Skyrim‘s AI is the worst thing ever. It’s not. It’s definitely not the best, and doesn’t live up to the reality the rest of the game world presents, but there are plenty of worse examples. Hell, there are some games where the POINT is to deal with idiotic AI.

But it does seem clear to me now, that not figuring out some way of including memory, even if it’s faked or limited, is probably what’s holding back major AI development in the industry. Especially since it’s not impossible to implement as other games have done it before. Heck, the concept is key to the “Digital pet” or “Life Simulation” games like Black & White, Wonder Project J, and Nintendogs.

Which brings me to my conclusion, which might be a solution to the problem. A “Conlution” if you will.

“Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate.”
– Leonard Shelby

Unfortunately, even if you had the time to figure out a methodology to make AIs recognize events in a timeline, you probably still can’t allow them use it. Aside from the fact that NPCs that learn too much would eventually become unbeatable and thus frustrating in a different direction, memory usage limitations (of the software variety, not the theoretical) are probably going to keep the concept in check for quite some time. Especially if the complexity of AI gets back on track and starts keeping pace with graphics development in games.

Deep Blue Ches playing computer

When we get Deep Blue here to the size of a USB, maybe. Until then, we’re going to have to fake it.

When I mentioned “Guy Pearce Syndrome” above, I was referring to the 2000 film, Memento; a film where Mr. Pearce runs around southern California (I think) trying to solve his wife’s murder. While having anterograde amnesia. That is, he can’t create new memories.

Which is the exact problem that most of Skyrim’s (and many other games) NPC’s seem to have! It’s a rather tough condition to be in, but fortunately for us, Guy Pearce and the screenwriters figured out some clever little solutions.

Namely, photographs – a way of creating facts of the moment.

Memento Guy Pearce Photo Leonard Shelby

BAM! Pics ’cause it DID happen!

To create the illusion of short term memory, give the average NPC a limited number of “memory slots” that act like Pearce’s Pictures. When something happens to an NPC that they should remember for a while – say, I dunno, maybe they think they saw an intruder, or they see the dead body of an ally, or their captain gives them a new order – the NPC gets a “snapshot” of the event that can influence or alter behavior. These snapshots can trigger different actions at certain thresholds, like going to find help if too many “fear” or “suspicion” snapshots accumulate, and they fade over time (like the Polaroid in the intro of Memento) so that in actual gameplay this system doesn’t use up all available RAM.

As in the film, the NPC can prioritize certain snapshots over others – say, seeing an ally’s body overrides going to sleep – and if the game features some method of communication between NPCs, then AI can have unique reactions when two of them compare notes about what’s going on. If used cleverly, it could allow for far more complex emergent “reasoning” to develop, like having an NPC in the role of investigator collecting statements from other AI to track the player down. If nothing else, such a system could easily be used to make it so that guards in stealth game recognize when their fellow patrolmen are no longer on their rounds with them.

As for the long-term memory issue? Well, Memento had a solution for that as well:

Memento Remember Sammy Jankis

Tattoos! As most ladies with a tramp stamp know, it’s a reputation system for those who can’t remember what happened last night!

Of course, Shelby’s Solution is just one idea. Something thought up late at night with only a rudimentary understanding of how AI mechanics work. For a problem that doesn’t seem to bother most folks. Though I can’t tell if that’s because they don’t see it, or if the half-decade of stagnation in this area has just made the average gamer give up hope for progress.

But after playing through iteration after iteration of games that utilize more complex NPC roles (stealth games and RPGs probably being the two biggest genres), where the AI never gets noticeably better, I have to try to be proactive here! So if you have any ideas on how developers can create the illusion of memory in a game, why not toss them down below in the comments? Or if you just think I’m off my rocker and this isn’t a problem worth analyzing, well it’s a free space for that as well!

The point is, I’d like to live up to my new title, and get a dialogue going.

Great Deku Tree Legend of Zelda Ocarin of Time

Most likely with some form of talkative tree.

So, until next time! When I’ll either conclude, or build up to a conclusion, this now massive series with a discussion of the opposite of the mind, that beautiful thing we call: The Body!

Dark Souls VS. Skyrim – Part 3 – Space is the Place

by

January 8th, 2012 at 3:54 am

To trace the place that is space like an ace.

So LAST TIME, I spent about a thousand words or so explaining stuff before getting to the danged point. But at least I was thorough, and ended up making a major point pretty early on in that intro, and it’s what we’re going delving into this time around: the space a game is set in defines it.

This is a universal truth of game design so obvious that it borders on banal. Kind of like “Fire is hot”, or “Utah is boring” or “Picard is better than Kirk”.

Picard's internet contribution

Just look at their respective contributions to internet fandom: Kirk is responsible for slash fiction. Picard mastered the facepalm; the only sane response TO Slash Fiction.

So yeah, that’s what we’re getting into. The big, obvious, meaning of “space”, that of place and/or setting. The macro version of space, where last we looked at the micro, and without nearly as much of a lead-in, as it’s ending . . . NOW!

It’s not the Size, but what you do with it (or so the ladies keep telling me).

First and foremost, the biggest difference between the settings of Dark Souls and Skyrim is the same as it is between most great pairings, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy, Jake and Elwood, or Master and Blaster: size. Dark Souls‘s Lordran is a world that while not tiny by any means, simply cannot compare in scale to Skyrim‘s well, Skyrim, in the amount of space the player will be exploring. We’re talking an order of magnitude in difference here.

What’s really impressive about Skyrim is that even though there’s much, much more space to tromp around than in Lordran, it doesn’t suffer from the standard downside: lack of detail. No, every room you find in every draugr filled tomb is purposely designed and filled with unique objects that move a quest along or give you some cool new weapon. Often, the designers manage to imply a sense background narrative and tell a story just by how the items in a room are arranged. It’s a rather impressive achievement for Bethesda, actually.

It’s not entirely perfect though. While there’s a definite effort made to ensure diversity of all of Skyrim’s locations, quite a few still end up reusing design elements, especially the draugr barrows and “Dwarven” (in quotes as in Skyrim, Dwarves are really a lost race of Elves) ruins. There are about forty of these two places in the game and most follow very similar architectural layouts, reuse the same enemy types, and recycle textures from one place to the next like their interior decorator was Kermit the Frog on Earth day – because he’s a proponent of going green you see.

YouTube Preview Image

At least Skyrim’s level designers are making Recycle Rex proud! Good luck getting THAT out of your head.

So while it’s definitely Earth friendly to recycle this much, enough exploration in Skyrim begins to leave the player with a strong sense of deja vu as they wander ancient halls without a sense of novelty. Not that it’s as bad as what happened in Dragon Age 2, and there is some narrative justification since its all in the same general locale, but it is a concern when comparing the two games as its a problem Lordran doesn’t have – each location in Dark Souls is quite different from the last and all feel distinct.

Yet this repetition is just something that’s bound to happen in a world as dense as Skyrim’s considering it is was made by a team of humans with limited time; unless you’re Ayn Rand, you should have enough empathy to forgive folks for not being absolutely perfect.

Besides, the issue with having such density in a game really isn’t that it’s repetitive. Especially compared to Dark Souls, which sends you through its distinct environments over and over again due to player deaths and it’s focus on grinding to get past the enemies that kill you. No the real question, the thing that will lead us to the core difference of design philosophy between the two games is the following: What does including such density in such a large environment actually accomplish?

Skyrim filled with points of interest

Aside from the fact that when walking a straight line in Skyrim you’ll stumble across fifteen unique locations within as many minutes?

Free Space is also Dense Space (unless it’s Freespace, then it’s Descent-space).

As I’ve stated earlier in this series (and if I didn’t I’m saying it now), the primary purpose of Skyrim, as it is with any Elder Scrolls game, is to create a fully realized world filled with endless possibility and numerous adventures. This is in stark contrast to Dark Souls, which seeks to create a much smaller place with only a single quest to accomplish. So it stands to reason that including a large landmass filled with tons of different things to find and do and see aids in the illusion that Skyrim is a living, breathing world.

Such density also does something else that’s far more important as it’s Bethesda’s focus; it allows for the player to have a great degree of freedom. In Skyrim, once you escape the burning wreckage that was the city of Helgen you can literally wander in any direction and are beholden to no directives other than those you choose to follow. While there is direction in the form of objectives – which can become domineering to some – the ample space and fact that no matter which way you turn, you’ll probably run into something interesting if you don’t want to do something right away (or at all).

In many ways, this is true of Dark Souls as well. With the exception of two distinct locations, you’re only restricted from wandering around all of Lordran by some really tough enemies that can and will murder you if you go a different path than the optimal one. Plus the limited scope of the world itself can also create a sense of restriction. If you see a hill in the distance in Dark Souls, more often than not there’s a pit (and twelve foes) preventing you from reaching it; in Skyrim, you’ll find a path that leads to the top, and probably six other places along the way that you didn’t even realize were there.

Basically, if Dark Souls is like Mel Gibson in Payback, performing brutal revenge on those who get out of line and try to wander off, then Skyrim is like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, crying freedom till its dying breath.

Crying Freeman Cover

No, I said Crying FreeDOM. But close.

The density of the environment is one of the key methods of ensuring true freedom in a game, as it’s the only way the developers can remove the sense of restriction brought on by the player’s knowledge that the environment is limited.

However, this density does have a dark side: after a short period of time acclimating to a world that acts like Good Guy Greg and always has your bases covered, you can come to rely on it.

Which I already hear some folks saying,”Huh? How is the fact that you can rely on Skyrim to always have something to do a bad thing? In any possible way?”

Well . . .

The Secret to World mastery is in fact, the Secret.

Considering all space in a video game is virtual and doesn’t actually exist, building a sense of continuity – a sense of trust – can be a good thing when it comes to world design. I’d say that aside from making a level actually fun to navigate and not have any map-holes to fall through, a sense of continuity is the MOST important thing to create. When the player moves from one place to the next, they need to understand without consideration that the two locations are part of a whole, that one action will lead to an obvious reaction. The designers are sort of like George Micheal telling the player they gotta have faith, but in their world, not in getting into a relationship with George Micheal.

This trust, between the player and the designer, is a sacred bond which should hopefully never get abused. This is why I think bugs in games are so frustrating; they break a small degree of trust between the player and the game. After all, if you can’t trust that a floor or a wall will act like a solid surface, then how can you trust anything else in the game? The sky could turn purple, the rocks can start insulting your mom, and tomatoes can become cantaloupes!

Ghostbusters Mass Hysteria

. . .dogs and cats, living together . . . MASS HYSTERIA!

There is an area of world design though that actually relies on deception and misdirection though, and it highlights my problem with Skyrim’s dense world in comparison to Lordran’s sparse one: secrets. By secrets I’m talking about all of the hidden paths, the invisible walls and blocks that are intended to be run into, the bonus levels and warp zones that end up as rewards for an avid fan of searching and exploration.

Dark Souls tosses in secret paths like many older games; they exist, but are quite devious to discover, while the rewards for finding them are substantial. Perhaps the game’s most obvious example being several illusory walls hidden throughout, and several of which hide new areas to explore. These walls disappear once you strike them with any weapon, but unless you know where to attack, you’ll never see any of them.

Once you stumble upon one (most likely due to another player’s note), you’ll start paying attention to (if not attacking) EVERY wall, in the hopes that perhaps it might not be the solid surface it seemed to be in order to gain whatever rewards lie behind. You enter each location with a sense of wonder, a sense of curiosity, a sense of anticipation as a result of this. Considering the game already promotes taking your time and carefully exploring due to the aggressively placed enemies, Lordran becomes a place you’re constantly paying attention to, and actively engaged in, even when you’re simply walking into an empty room.

Whispering Secrets

The power of the secret is that it makes even boring things more interesting. These two were talking about the weather, but secretly, so now you want to know WHY?!

Skyrim also has lots of side paths and secrets to find for the player who enjoys exploration. In fact, there are a great many more of them to find than in Dark Souls, which fits with the overall density of the game world. However, they are also easier to spot, more obvious to get to, and individually less valuable once you actually get there. A side path in Skyrim might hide a chest containing some gold and some potions, a side path in Dark Souls hides completely unique enemies, areas and equipment to discover and can even have a bonus boss to fight.

Fundamentally, the secrets in Skyrim want to be found, while the secrets in Dark Souls must be earned.

Does that sound familiar yet? Because it’s the obvious difference in design philosophy for the two games in general, it’s just one more way in which it’s apparent.

ANTICIPATION VERSUS EXPECTATION

Now again, there’s nothing really wrong with Bethesda’s approach to building a dense world filled with lots of places to go (even if they repeat) and lots of secrets to find (even if they’re trivial). For the average gamer, the freedom gained through density is just another way of further customizing their individual story and enjoyable enough as is. The majority of the people playing will be happy relying on the knowledge that they will find a bonus chest, that they will defeat the nearby boss, and that they will succeed at everything they do.

They gain faith in their ability to experience new content and find secrets based on their reliance that the game world will cater to these desires. It’s a faith that’s completely deserved – it’s rewarded often.

Jesus Toast

Why rely on faith based miracles like your savior appearing in your toast, when you can do it yourself? It’s kind of like that.

Though I know I’m being a bit harsh with it, it’s not really a bad way to design a game. In fact, I quite enjoyed constantly running into new sights and sounds as I traipsed around Skyrim with my Nordic barbarian, even if after a rather short amount of time, I came to expect them. So I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with this design philosophy after all.

Except . . .

Well, I know it’s just my opinion and all, but when you think of any new experience, which is better? Expectation or anticipation? Do you want reliability over novelty? Or does the nervousness of wondering what’s behind the next corner matter more than the foreknowledge of success?

Catherine Marriage question

For some reason I’m reminded of Vincent’s journey in Catherine right now.

Of course, they’re both necessary aspects of a game world and both happen naturally. You expect walls to act as walls. You anticipate what’s behind a corner before you see it. Most games have some mix of both emotional states as a result of both their level and enemy design.

But I can’t help but shake the feeling that the only downside to a game that actively encourages you to anticipate more than expect is anxiety, but if that’s something it’s trying to make part of it’s main theme (as is obviously the case with Dark Souls and it’s “prepare to die” campaign) it’s only achieving success in its aims. The downside of a game that engenders expectation over anticipation, even if it succeeds in truly making a freeing game experience, isn’t just limited to boredom but could be far worse: entitlement.

The game makes it easy to find secrets, so why not make it easy to beat a boss? The game has thousands of locations to discover, so why not have just as many spells? The game let’s you do X, so why not Y? If you play enough games that completely cater to exactly what you want, how could a sense of entitlement not flourish?

But though gamer entitlement is something that seems ever on the rise, it does seem a stretch to claim that the games themselves are causing it, doesn’t it?

South PArk Cartman whining

It hardly seems fair to blame a spoiled child like Cartman on the toys he gets rather than the mom who buys them for him.

Besides, Skyrim‘s fans haven’t really been that whiny compared to many other franchises *cough*Nomutantsallowed*cough*. Maybe it’s because unlike me, they value reliability over novelty. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve taken a decidedly DIY approach to addressing their complaints, so they don’t have as many. Hard to tell, actually.

Either way, where your needs fall on the expectation/anticipation line when it comes to world design seems like a very personal choice. Whether you like chocolate or vanilla here, you aren’t wrong. It’s just a preference. A personal matter based on minute chemical reactions in your brain, which . . .

Well that’s what I’m going to delve into next week: the matters of the MIND! For playing Skyrim, I realized a few things about exactly what it is that counts when it comes down to AI in video games. It should be rather enlightening, so won’t you join me as we journey deep into the center of thought on making our NPC’s think?

Inception sleep

It’ll be just like Inception! As in I’ll probably put everyone to sleep!

Until then though, sweet dream within your dreams!

Darks Souls VS. Skyrim – Part 2 – On Space

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December 31st, 2011 at 8:59 pm

The First and Foremost Frontier.

LAST TIME I was discussing time, and how the usage of it, and specifically how the developers of Dark Souls and Skyrim let players manipulate time, reflected a core difference of focus and design philosophy. Letting the player have any modicum of control over the 4th dimension (aside from pausing) is something that’s only occurred in gaming over the last decade. What’s always been far more important though – even during the medium’s earliest entries – is Time’s best friend forever: SPACE.

Of course, when talking about space what probably pops into the mind like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are all the standard images: starships, lasers, teleportation pads, aliens, wacky robot sidekicks; perhaps even . . . a bovine or three?

Pigs In Spaaaaaace Muppets

PIGS. IN. SPAAAAACE! Because the 70’s were weird.

That’s the science fiction version of “SPACE“, which is not the “space” I’m referring to. That’s really about Outer Space.

No I’m just referring to plain old space,”the unlimited three-dimensional realm or expanse in which all material objects are present, and where all events occur” (to quote from an online dictionary). Space and Time are, like their counterparts here in the real world, the two most fundamental building blocks upon which the digital worlds of games are created.

Whereas Time is generally left alone in gaming and can be seen to function as you’d expect it to most of the well, time, how Space is used in a game varies wildly. In Tetris (and most puzzle games of its ilk) the space is the board in which you manipulate the pieces. In Pac-Man, it’s the maze haunted by ghosts and the gluttonous soul-eater that hunts them. In the Mario Bros. games, it’s the frankly insane geography of the Mushroom Kingdom that our horny destitute plumber stomps fungi and reptiles in.

The space of the game has to be as thought out as the characters the player of a game controls; it’s why “level designer” and “world builder” are critical jobs in the gaming industry.

BioShock and System Shock 2 comparison

It’s also why two games – despite sharing the same basic gameplay, perspective, plot and developer – can still be fundamentally different.

The space a game is set in defines it; yet the specific usage of these setting follow few patterns outside of genre traditions. But the setting and core level design aren’t the only things dealing with spatial relations that are important; how the player views this space is just as fundamental. However, this is where at least one pattern can be seen to occur, and it relates to yet another space: the oceanic divide between Eastern and Western developers, and their different focuses on 3rd and 1st person perspective games.

The Long and the Short(hand) of it: Where You Put The Camera Changes the Space.

For those somehow not aware, perhaps because they’re new to gaming, or because they are as inattentive Clark Kent’s optometrist, you can roughly divide game development between East (usually referring to Japanese developers) and West (usually referring to the US, but also European studios). Though there are about a billion differences you could look at, I want to look at one in particular as it relates to a key difference between Dark Souls and Skyrim: the lack of First Person Shooters from Eastern Studios.

Now, this is something that has been covered before by other folks on the internet, so I’m not going to delve fully. The smart folks in the linked video make an argument that the primary difference between Eastern and Western developers and the proclivity to make games that focus on guns, and how these guns are used, is probably based on cultural traditions related to combat and warfare. It’s a solid argument that’s well explained, and I agree with a lot of what they present.

However, I also think you can take it a step further, because they more or less focus on the “S” of “FPS”, the shooting, and I think looking at the “FP” can be just as enlightening.

You might not actively think about it, but the primary viewpoint a player experiences a game world through impacts HOW a game can be played; in a manner similar to how your primary language impacts the way you think. Using a first person perspective makes certain things, like investigating small spaces in detail, incredibly simple to accomplish. It may also have a small advantage in creating a bond between the player and their avatar, as you use the same perspective you actually do in real life. I’d claim that one of the great strengths of using the 1st Person perspective in a game is the sense of naturalism it creates. You inhabit the body of a character and literally view a world through their eyes, what could be more personal than that?

Behind Blue Eyes

Someone knows what it’s like to be the bad man behind the blue eyes: the average FPS player.

The interesting thing about the first person perspective though, is that as it was used over and over (again primarily by Western developers in the FPS) is that it developed a . . . shorthand of sorts. Certain things that might be a concern when viewed from a 3rd Person perspective are left out of a game.

Mostly, these are little things. For instance in most FPSs when your character interacts with an object on a wall, say a light switch, you won’t see the character’s hand pop into view to physically touch the switch. The switch will just flip from one state to another as if you HAD done such a thing, even though the game never showed such an action occurring.

This isn’t limited to just wall mounted switches either, picking up objects off the floor, opening doors, changing clothes, grabbing ledges and climbing up them and climbing in general (especially up ladders), all of these are interactions with the game world that in most FPSs will have no animation associated with them that the player will ever actually see. Heck, it’s a rare thing to even see your character’s feet in an FPS, even though all of them allow to look at where your feet should be. These lacking little things, this shorthand, can create the sense that the protagonists of games that use the viewpoint are all these floating sets of psychic hands when not in a cutscene.

Duke Nukem Kick

Duke Nukem is usually better about the foot thing. Of course that’s because 3DRealms wants us to literally see him kick ass due to his critically low levels of bubblegum.

The beauty of this shorthand though, is that it works. Like stenography in the written language, it allows for brevity. The players get (quite intuitively) that these actions are taking place, and don’t need to see all of these details; even including them would slow the proceedings of the game down, and this is one of the reasons that an FPS is perfectly suited for fast paced, twitch gameplay.

I mean, who really wants to see all of the realistic physical reactions to what your character is doing to the game world? Most of these little things don’t matter, and including them can bog a game down with awkward pauses and movements that don’t serve a purpose other than to be acutely detailed because geeks like me want “MOAR REALISTIC PLZ”, even if it isn’t as fun.

Mirror's Edge Balance

Or in the case of the underplayed Mirror’s Edge, caused both vertigo and nausea with it’s ‘realistic physical reactions’.

The Devil’s in the Details but the View is Myopic.

Except, there is one key type of gaming where this FPS shorthand actively gets in the way of the experience: melee combat.

Seriously, try naming five games, set in the 1st person perspective, where melee combat actually feels like it should. Go ahead, try. You probably have a couple, but I’m guessing you don’t have five, which is insane considering there are hundreds, if not thousands of games that use the 1st person perspective as their primary camera view.

I can think of three: Zenoclash, the aforementioned Mirror’s Edge (somewhat), and maybe the Thief series. But only one of those games, Zenoclash, actively tried to make melee combat the focus of the game. In the other two, the focus was either on movement or stealth – guess which one is which?

Thief The Dark Project Boxart

PROTIP: Thief is called “Thief” for a reason. Also, it’s an exception to a lot of rules because it is, in fact, exceptional.

There may be a few other examples (comment below to add the ones you thought of!) but if we’re being honest, there are VERY few other examples. Why?

If there is a major limitation of the FPS, it’s that while it makes viewing the space of a game world feel quite natural, the shorthanded nature of the perspective usually causes the small details in the immediate vicinity of the player to get ignored. Which is fine in the case of using guns or other ranged weaponry as the focus should be on accurately shooting targets from a hundred meters away.

But I believe it’s the attention to these tiny details at the short range that fundamentally make a melee combat experience good or bad.

Look at the development of any major fighting game, say Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 – by the way, totally called it – and you’ll see that both the designers and the fans put an incredible emphasis on the smallest aspects (especially when it comes to fan reactions to balance updates). If a character’s punch takes four frames of animation, or six. If the stun on blocked attack lasts a quarter of a second, or half a second. In the grand ballet of fleet-footed fisticuffs that is a brawl, these little things make or break a character, and heck, the entirety of a game. In the flow of a fight, a half second difference between stun duration in characters can determine who wins consistently and who becomes the next Dan Hibiki.

Dan Hibiki get's owned

That is to say . . . the one getting his teeth rearranged by various limbs and balls. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A complete non sequiter: you know who makes the most fighting games worth mentioning?

Japan. An Eastern developer.

You know what view is used for fighting games?

A 3rd Person view. Usually 2D, sometimes in 3D, but almost always (because Bushido Blade got experimental with this) it’s in 3rd Person.

Tying the point together.

Bethesda, the folks who made Skyrim followed in the traditions of the previous entries in the Elder Scrolls franchise: they designed the entire game with the 1st Person Perspective as the primary view of the player, even though the game can be freely switched to a 3rd Person view at any time. This means that ranged combat, most likely found when playing as a wizard, works pretty darn well.

Skyrim Mage Dual Cast Fireball

Functionally, there’s little difference between this and shooting an RPG in Modern Warfare. Which might make you want to shoot THIS RPG.

However, Skyrim is a game that relies on FPS Shorthand heavily. When you open doors or pick up a book these actions work as if you were using invisible magic, well before you learn the telekinesis spell that is the actual equivalent of it in game. It also means that when you swing your sword, it acts less like an actual blade, and more like a gun in any other FPS: you are shooting an invisible damage line at the spot you’re swinging at, and the animation of the swing is an illusion to sell the effect. The sword itself does not take up real space (unless you drop it).

This is very easily seen if you fight multiple enemies who group close together and swing a blade. You can actually see it go through both of them at times, yet it will only do damage to one of them; the one you’re aiming at. You can also see it when you’re next to a wall: the sword will slice through the wall during the swing to hit the enemy regardless of the fact that it just passed through brick and mortar like Kitty Pryde desperately in need of a bathroom break. Heck, unless you aim directly at a wall, your weapon won’t even produce a little hit “spark” or produce a reaction of any kind! Even when you do this, the reaction is simply graphical, and has no effect on the combat flow, like a bouncing back that causes your character to attempt to regain their footing.

When you look at Dark Souls however, you can notice the EXACT OPPOSITE REACTION. Differing weapons in Dark Souls have different types of strikes, and if you try fighting an enemy in a narrow corridor with a weapon that uses a lot of horizontal swings (say a scimitar), you’ll quickly find that your blade will bounce off the walls and leave you open to counterattacks by enemies, because when you swing your sword in this game it actually, you know, takes up real space. When you miss a strike your character takes a moment to get their balance back, and this sells the idea that your weapons have some weight to them.

Dark Souls Spear Lunge

This is one of the main reasons (aside from their reach) that spears are so useful in Dark Souls. Their lunge attacks allow you to poke at enemies in narrow confines without worry that you’ll accidentally create a huge gap in your defense.

I know that this seems like a minor point, but it’s actually quite indicative of a primary difference in the two games, at least when it comes to melee combat. In Skyrim, as long as you have enough health (and or potions), you can wade into a fight without care and swing your axe with reckless abandon like a kid loaded on candy and with access to a Nerf bat, and you’ll probably manage to survive. It simply careless and imprecise overall.

In Dark Souls every single aggressive action you take in a fight has an obvious reaction, even if it’s simply increased delay between taking other actions or excess stamina drain. Combined with the high damage output of enemies, even minor battles become tense duels where the tiny mistakes you make matter, thus making the player try their best to not make them. To play carefully and with concern, you know, like in an actual fight.

My theory is that this difference stems primarily from the fact that the makers of Dark Souls knew the player would always be able to see their character, and thus had to think of exactly how each of these actions would end up getting viewed. They wanted to make sure the player could intuitively grasp what their actions accomplished, and did this by paying attention to all sorts of little details, especially in animation timing. From interviews it’s obvious that Todd Howard at least, if not most of the folks at Bethesda, didn’t think that many players would use a 3rd Person view in Skyrim, and so their lack of care about what things could look like from outside your avatar’s eyes and over-reliance on FPS shorthand makes a certain degree of sense, even though it’s these little details that become very important in one of the primary scenarios a player will encounter in their game.

Skyrim Character Creator Detail

Though I still wonder how they seem to think no one plays in 3rd Person when they make sure to include a robust character creation system. How else are we going to be able to view our lovingly crafted avatars Bethesda?

Of course, there are plenty of other factors that matter when talking spatial relationships and combat. With 3rd Person cameras, you naturally have a greater spatial awareness of your surroundings, which is helpful when dealing with multiple foes or dangerous terrain. Yet, 3rd Person combat often ends up causing target selection to become more imprecise, so a lock-on system becomes almost mandatory (which Dark Souls uses), but this can induce a sense that the maximum range of the target locking is arbitrary and can negatively impact missile combat, which is exactly a problem with this system in Dark Souls. So it’s not like Skyrim doesn’t excel in something, because it does, as long as you’re playing an archer or wizard (though the laborious spell switching isn’t good).

Also, even though they are paying a lot of attention to small details in Dark Souls, they still don’t make everything 100% realistic and use quite a few “animation shorthand” tricks of their own to make everything flow smoothly. Which is fine since the attention to detail on the combat is already there, and I don’t think anyone wants every game to actually be true to life, especially when we’re talking about the fantasy genre.

So why make this point?

Well, because it seems to me that the solution to making 1st Person melee combat better in all future games is actually quite simple: make it work in 3rd Person before switching the camera over. If Bethesda had designed their melee system from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out, then it’s my belief that they could have considered all these little things, and increased the priority on making them look better and it would have had an overall beneficial impact on the game as a whole. Especially since most of the improvements made to the player character’s interactions with the physical world would carry over to all of the other NPCS, as Skyrim carries over all animations and rules for every humanoid character in the game. This might be something they want to think about for the future considering their intent seems to be about making their games as immersive and naturalistic as possible.

Skyrim Bugs

Only a cynic would point out that with the number of overlooked bugs that shipped with the game, the makers of Skyrim might not be the folks best suited for paying attention to details or immersion.

Damn, this went on long, and I didn’t even get to cover the other aspects of spatial relationships I wanted to! I’ll debate whether adding to this or not, as I really wanted to get into the detail of the different philosophies at play about how each game considers the player explore their worlds.

Hmmm. Another article perhaps? Yeah, why not?

NEXT TIME – I continue delving into the reaches of the infinite space that is well, space!

Infinite Space Game

Though not the game Infinite Space, even though it was pretty cool.

Dark Souls VS. Skyrim – Part 1 – Time Crimes

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December 22nd, 2011 at 4:30 am

LAST TIME we were here, I said I wanted to keep talking about Skyrim, and so I will. But in lieu of a neat conversation I had, I think how I’m going to talk about it is going to change a bit from my original intentions.

There were two big fantasy games that came out over the past couple of months that I’ve been able to play to some fuller measure of understanding: Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Unfortunately the latter of these two games has prevented me from playing the third ginormous fantasy epic of the season to completion. For now.

Skward Sword Title

I’ll get back to you Zelda . . . just as soon as a finish the Dark Brotherhood questline, and maybe all of the Daedric artifacts, and get 100,000 Septims, and finish my book collection, and discover all the master spells, and then there’s the . . .

Anyway, comparing these two games is intriguing. At a glance, and to those with seriously low Perception stats, they both ostensibly cover very similar ground (Medieval European Fantasy). But they both go about it in completely opposite fashions due to fundamentally different design focuses. So what I’m going to do is a small series looking at how these two games compare and contrast.

However, I’m not going to turn this into a fratastic “which game would win in an arm-wrestling contest” article based on financially motivated bias, because I have both a functioning brain, and don’t have to worry about my bosses detonating an explosive neck collar if I ever show a mere hint at not feeding you the latest line from some game company’s marketing department.

Average IGN writer

PICTURED: The average IGN Reviewer (Homo Volaticus Corpus Avari) in his native habitat.

Why? Well, mostly because these are the two biggest games to have eaten up most of my time over the last months, and I need to purge them from my conscious mind lest they start invading my dreams like mongol hordes with a quota to fill. Also, looking at the ways in which they differ could offer some insight onto the effects of particular game design choices, and why some work better than others, and some of them are simply bad ideas. You know, possibly useful insights to glean?

There won’t be a “winner” and there won’t be a “loser” in this. But for the sake of fairness, I will freely admit that I have some bias in favor of Dark Souls over Skyrim. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be even handed though, it simply means that I preferred Hidetaka’s monstrous player killing simulator a bit more than Todd Howard’s free-roaming questathon, even though I enjoyed both games immensely (hence why I’m bothering to delve deeper).

So with that out of the way, onward! It’s time for ROUND ONE!
 

IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING, OR AT LEAST THE TIME DILATION

One of the funny little things about you humans, er, I mean, humanity as a whole – of which I am totally a member of – is our innate perception of time. Unless you’re Dr. Manhattan or on some of the better psychoactive drugs, you probably imagine time linearly; going from one event to the next in a succession of events that are stored into the elaborate chemical hard drives we call brains.

But just because we (usually) perceive time as simply going forward doesn’t mean there aren’t fascinating things that occur in our experience with Chronos’ domain. Consider our ability to observe time happening at wildly variable rates of speed for instance. Everyone’s had the sensation of time moving more quickly when you’re busy or having fun, and often most of us know how when things really don’t seem to be going your way or adrenaline kicks in (getting hit by a car works for both instances) time seems to slow down, allowing us to absorb every detail of the impending trauma, both physical and emotional! It’s a rather perverse marvel of biology, truth be told. The terrible parts take forever and end up imprinted on your psyche for just as long, and the the best parts whizz by so fast that you can forget they even happened! Thanks human brain!

Whenever my brain does cruel stuff like this I always envision it as Krang, for what should be obvious reasons.

What’s really funny though, is how we’ve portrayed this ability of our minds in media. In film, “slow motion” can be used to show horrible trauma, but is just as often used to highlight something “totally flippin’ sweet bro!” I don’t have any statistics, but it seems to me that you’re more likely to see slo-mo when the hero’s Chevy pulls a corkscrew flip off a ramp made of debris while a robot explodes in the background than in most scenes of heartbreak or supreme social awkwardness. This “intensity highlighting” with the use of slo-mo seems to be a basic way of emulating the effect of adrenaline on an audience, and it’s this specific usage of time control that’s most prevalent in video games.

Though there were moments in older games where the screen would slow down due to too many lasers and bullets filling the air creating a “bullet time” effect in moments of heightened reaction speed rather accidentally, the first game (that I’m aware of) to use this technique purposefully was the Remedy shooter Max Payne. Since then it’s been a common technique in a plethora of titles. So much so, that as with the film industry post-The Matrix, there was a brief period where it seemed that every game released had to have bullet time as one of the bullet points on the back of the box, in a period of annoying bullet redundancy.

More Dakka

Of course that’s just my opinion. Some find “bullet redundancy” to be their best strategy and always go for “more dakka!”

Even though it’s not really accurate, the term I like to use for controlling the flow of events in gaming is “time dilation“. It’s more all encompassing, and in the digital world of a video game, you’re not just controlling your perception of time, but time itself. Especially if the level of time control goes beyond merely slowing down the action.

Skyrim is one of these games that allows for heightened control over the flow of time. Playing Skyrim you’ll find that you can speed up time and move forward up to 24 hours by either using a “wait” command or sleeping, you can get slow motion effects on specific perk abilities or spells, and the game will automatically slow down time at points to highlight flashy animations. But more than anything, the most common method of using (and abusing) time in Skyrim is due to its rather powerful pause functionality.

Most games allow you to pause, because hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s definitely a boon to be able to stop what you’re doing for a few minutes, but often what you can actually do when paused is quite limited; you can usually adjust a couple of options in the menus, save or exit or check your status. Rare is a game that gives the player so much absolute power by pausing as Skyrim.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a fight with a wizard and his skeleton cronies. You charge into the fray and swing your warhammer like the barbarian you are, scattering skeleton bones like you were playing 52 pickup, but then you notice that the wizard has lobbed a fireball right at your very flammable body! But no worries, you can press your main inventory button and pull a Zack Morris “Time Out!” at this point; allowing you to completely change your armor and apparel to gear that reduces fire damage, drink a few potions to recover the health lost from the skeletons, switch your weapon to a shield of magic blocking and a sword of wizard screwing, and take a moment to look at your positioning to see if you can move out of the way of the exploding orb entirely. When you unpause, you might as well have written “I eat fireballs for brunch” on your forehead, because that flimsy little spell-slinger won’t stand a chance.

For added Morris-ness, why not answer a phone call? “Nah, it’s cool. I’m not busy. Just fighting a necromancer in a life or death struggle for the fate of the universe. But that’s not important, what are you up to?”

Meanwhile, in Dark Souls:

“PAUSE THE GAME? HAH! I SURE HOPE YOU LIKE BEING GNAWED ON BY CAT-BEARS BEFORE BEING THROWN INTO SPIKES MADE OF LAVA! PAUSE? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? ZACK MORRIS? YOU KNOW WHAT WE DID TO THAT GUY? WE SHOT HIM FULL OF EXPLODING ARROWS MADE OUT OF HIS BROKEN DREAMS! PAUSE! OH YOU KILL ME. NO WAIT, I KILLED YOU – FOR THINKING YOU CAN PAUSE.”

Yes, Dark Souls takes the exact opposite approach to letting the player control time, that is they can’t do it. When you go into your inventory to change weapons or armor or switch potions, the game keeps running on in the background. If you took too long or decided to take a break, you’ll usually find that some other player decided to walk into your world and murder you with your own sword.

Dark Souls Death Screen

This is what happens when you go to the bathroom in Dark Souls.

Actually it goes a bit beyond that too. Whereas the world of Skyrim has a day and night cycle that flows constantly while you run around it, the Kingdom of Lordran is always eternally set in its time of day, which seems a permanent 3:35 PM. Unless you murder the sun goddess, which actually kills the sun (NOTE: This something you can actually do in Dark Souls).

Both the “static time of day” while “constantly in the present” aspects of the game are quite effective choices though. The kingdom of Lordran is a dead place and home to divinity, so the frozen timescape ends up creating a sense of an otherworldly purgatory. The lack of pausing is a technique that’s been used in a few other games (notably Dead Space) that is meant to increase tension and anxiety, and also to force the player to consider what they’ve got equipped very carefully before venturing forward while adding a heaping helping of naturalism to the whole affair (since you can’t pause real life).

But this isn’t to say that Skyrim‘s heaping helpings of time-glue are a bad thing either. In fact, giving the player such power over the 4th dimension fits quite readily into the main point of the game: giving the player the freedom to control their own destiny. Bethesda’s mission statement in these games is to craft a huge park for you to run around in, one where you can do anything you want, and if what you want to do is command time itself to be your personal slave, well, there’s a Shout for that (NOTE: Literally. One of the dragon words has you shout at time until it stops.)

Also the day and night cycle and the fact that an in-game week can pass by over the course of a few hours can really screw up the player’s actual sense of time. Probably one of the reasons it can be so hard to stop playing.

BUT THERE ARE SOME PROBLEMS

Obviously, the biggest problem with Dark Souls bladder of steel non-pause system is just that: real world distractions like bathroom breaks can become deadly, and as the deaths pile up you can easily come to hate the “feature”. But I still think that’s more preferable than the level of time stoppage in Skyrim, which is frankly ludicrous.

I mean, the start & stop gameplay that occurs from going into the inventory menu isn’t the issue, as it’s how the Elder Scrolls games have always worked. The games are balanced around the fact that you’ll drain potions in between sword swings like you’re Takeru Kobayashi, it’s why these items have weight and cost, and you have to manage them carefully. Even if you may not want to know exactly where you store your items, considering you carry no satchel or backpack.

Here’s one theory from a pretty funny comic.

No, it’s just that when you add on the inventory pause to some of the other ways you can control time, it becomes just like bullet-time effects in gaming were after Max Payne: unnecessary and redundant. Especially since one of the other methods is completely exploitable and hurts the game’s melee combat flow.

It’s not the shout, which has a rather mean cooldown to balance out its power, but one of the perks for the “Block” skill tree:

The one I’m pointing a big red arrow at. “Quick Reflexes”

Quick reflexes is a perk that slows down time when an enemy tries to use a power attack against you and your character is blocking. In theory, this isn’t a bad concept as power attacks can be quite nasty, and you may want an edge over enemies that use them. It’s just that the effect on the perk is rather extreme. The slow down itself isn’t a minor rate – the world almost stands still – and it lasts the entire duration of their attack animation, and it stacks if multiple enemies power attack in succession, and unlike the time shout, it COSTS NOTHING TO ACTIVATE. Not only does this slow down the already stop & go combat, but it also makes one of the game’s combat moves, bash, broken.

Bashing enemies is already a really good move. It causes them to stagger back, and cancels a lot of their actions, allowing you to stun lock particularly threatening foes, but using it repeatedly drains your stamina rather quickly so, a fair trade off.

However with quick reflexes, you no longer need to mash bashes to keep a melee enemy neutered, just hold block until the world slows down, bash, slice, lather and repeat while your stamina keeps recharging between bashes. If you then get the perk that allows you to move at full speed with your shield raised, it gets even more insane: hold block, time slows down, move behind enemies with impunity, attack, repeat until dead. Melee combat ends up becoming like that time Fry drank his hundredth cup of coffee.

100th cup of coffee

On the plus side, Skyrim’s the best game starring The Flash that doesn’t actually star The Flash!

Even this wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that it then becomes the norm. Bullet Time is something that the player should never gain for free or come to use all the time as it’s not only very powerful, but can get old fast if you constantly expose the player to it. Considering the super-pause is already there, these extra effects that allow further control do little to enhance the experience, and just drain most of the excitement out of what would otherwise be visceral entertainment and many fights become boring, tedious affairs that drag on and on.

Speaking of getting boring and dragging on; this article’s gone on way too long! I personally blame the intro. Well it won’t happen in our next installment, where I want to cover the other side of the continuum opposite time: SPACE! Especially how philosophical choices vis a vis space apply to combat, movement, and exploration!

the enterprise

Sort of like Star Trek! But not really.

An Early Resolution, and How the Stars Align.

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December 14th, 2011 at 3:04 am

Hey there folks! Its been . . . a while since the Metro City Reform Committee was last called into session. I wish I could say it was due to something exciting. Like time continuum paradoxes I run into due to my future self warning me of upcoming apocalyptic events which I then spend the rest of the week preventing with an assorted cast of misfits including my best friend who has a dark past, a smart-mouthed female love interest, a token minority character with sage advice, and a lovable, but incredibly well trained wiener dog named Socrates who always shows up in the nick of time!

Socrates and the Zoo Robberies of Next Tuesday

Socrates can also go undercover. Why just last week he had to dress as a giraffe to crack the case of “The Zoo Burglars from Next Tuesday!”

But alas, no. I won’t say that this doesn’t happen, but it isn’t what has caused this lapse. It also hasn’t been because I haven’t had much to say, as my roommates, friends, and the people who give me funny looks on the street can attest to. Rather it’s been a combination of taking care of personal stuff that isn’t relevant to the subject of gaming, and the simple fact that the constant marathon of games since October have been rather time consuming. Dark Souls was particularly so, and proved (fittingly) a bit soul destroying as well, and that was followed immediately by Batman: Arkham City, and shortly thereafter by Modern Warfare 3 which then led to Skyrim which proved . . . well let’s just say I still haven’t done everything in the game yet and I’ve easily logged over two hundred hours into that beast . . .

Arrowed

. . . and almost as many arrows were lodged in my body. Much to the chagrin of the town guards.

More than that though, is the simple fact that I feel this blog has strayed from its intended purpose. Or, to be more accurate, that it hasn’t had one.

I meant for the Metro City Reform Committee to be a place where I could air various thoughts about video games and hopefully create some semblance of, well, I guess a philosophy about them. To define recommendations and rules by looking at smaller or larger trends in games and the community that makes them, in order to figure out exactly what constitutes good design in gaming, make a few suggestions on how to improve upon bad trends, and to answer some of the nagging issues that erupt in the medium.

I know it’s just a blog, and would simply be a reflection of my own personal tastes and history, but ideally it was going to be a philosophy based more on logic, acute observation, and analysis rather than simple emotionality or instinct. A philosophy that could (ideally) inspire a methodology for those that agreed with me, if not for future designers who have far more talent than myself, then perhaps at least other reviewers of games. Grandiose and a bit presumptuous, I know. But hey, if I didn’t have some sort of long term goal with it, I probably wouldn’t do this at all.

angry commenter

Cue insulting comment on how I shouldn’t be “doing this at all”, etc. etc.

Looking back at the last year of articles, a lot of the time I have been sticking to this goal. Mostly, anyways. However, I also began breaking the other tenet I wanted to maintain: I wanted to keep these bursts of ranting rulification short, concise and to the point. In this I’ve, quite frankly, consistently failed. Most of these articles go on WAY TOO LONG.

So I’m making an early resolution this year; I’m going to start treating this blog as just that: a blog, and put out more content, at a quicker pace, and in much shorter doses. I’m going to drop most of the “committee” trappings in favor of turning this into a more direct forum. Most importantly I’m going to try to keep it entertaining, or hopefully at least, interesting, and coming at you once a week, every week, and ideally on Wednesdays (which is when this post goes up).

Really, that’s about it.

Well, except for one more thing.

It’s about the game reviews, and how I rate them. More specifically, it’s about the “score” I give games and the star system I use to do so.

These guys right here.

The way I figure it, if I’m going to use this forum to mandate policy (if ineffectual policy) on game design, I might as well make my own review policy clear to anyone who cares (which probably isn’t that many, but at least it’s now on record).

The five star rating system CLR uses, and thus the same one I use, is pretty standard when it comes to reviewing a lot of other media. Movies, books, music, restaurants, cars; you’ll find most publications rate these subjects using a similar rating system. But I think for games and most gamers, it’s something of an anomaly. Especially since most “gaming only” publications rate on a different curve than how the 5 Star system breaks down here.

As many have pointed out before me, game reviews and especially the scoring system used for said reviews, are often . . . problematic. The basics are thus: most game reviewers receive a lot of corporate pressure from game publishers to rate games highly or possibly not receive pre-release games to review, and they rate on a scale based on the American Public Education system, where being in the 70th percentile is considered “average”. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned pressure (and high fan expectations) what’s become the actual average for game reviews seems to usually be in the 80th if not 90th percentile.

This is ridiculous.

Fist off, about the curve. I think I’ll let Calvin explain my thoughts on this issue:

I feel anything worthy of being in the 70th percentile is pretty damn good. Which is why the median, both for myself and in the 5 Star system, is set right where it should be: in the middle. Or basically, 2 and a half stars. Though I’d say the aggregate average quality to expect out of games put out by major publishers is closer to a 3 stars.

Secondly, the main reason you’ll never have to worry about me giving a game a rating better than it deserves: I don’t get these games any sooner than anyone else (at least not yet). It’s one of the main reasons the reviews for games generally come out the Sunday after the game comes out. I have to actually play them after all.

The other main reason is simpler though. I write these silly little reviews by a very simple motto:

“Honesty above all else.”

That’s it. I promise that I’m never going to give any opinion that isn’t my own, and as well researched and with as much depth as I can make it. I also promise I am beating each of these games to their end, or if they have no real end (such is the case with Skyrim) at least put a hefty amount of time into them. If I ever put out a review on a game that I haven’t “beaten”, I’ll be sure to point out that it wasn’t worth beating and it probably isn’t worth your time, but I haven’t had to do that yet.

Of course, it’s my hope that the readers of this site already understand that this is the case. I think you folks do. You’re a smart bunch, that’s why you’re here. It’s also my hope that most of the folks reading the reviews here don’t care as much about the silly little stars that hang above a review as to the actual text in the review itself. Again, I think most of you guys get that.

But for the folks that don’t, well I hope that clears things up. Also, why are you reading CLR? I bet you’d be happier somewhere else, right?

ANYWAYS . . . Seeing that this ended up as a mission statement more than anything truly interesting, I’m going to make it up to you later in the week. Because I want to keep talking about a little game I can’t get out of my head.

And why it’s biggest problem is also the biggest problem in gaming as a whole.

See ya soon!

The Golden(Eye) Rule of Enemy Design!

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October 1st, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Last time the committee was called to order, we touched upon perhaps one of the biggest most insurmountable and at the same time grandest issues in gaming. We also exceeded our standard session length by about 2,000 words, twenty minutes and past most folks’ tolerance for walls of text. Doing so caused an eyebrow of Mayor Haggar’s to be raised, and he calmly yet gruffly suggested that perhaps we “keep it punchy and to the point”.

Considering he’s also a published author himself, we’ll take the advice.

Though in my review of Gears of War 3 I focused on my disappointment that the developers didn’t really shoot for the stars and craft a narrative with long-term resonance, there’s a lot to love about it. Actually, that’s true about the series in general: they’re simply incredibly well designed and highly polished games.

Games which have quite a bit that anyone who wants to make a game, or just know why a game is well made, can learn from each of them. I’m obviously not the only one to think this, otherwise the series wouldn’t have pretty much spawned an entire genre of games emulating it; even if it does seem like quite a few of the folks making cover shooters after Gears missed several of the fundamentals it contains more often than not.

Yeah, this is pretty much what most in the industry took away from Gears of War. Shame they didn’t learn from so many of its other qualities.

(By the way, this pic is from a Comic that you should read. It’s hilarious.)

I’m going to talk about one of these aspects of game design today, something I like to call “The Golden Rule”. No, this isn’t about the Golden Rule of The Gears, that’s about not getting your head blown off when there are perfectly solid chest-high walls about. It’s also not about the more traditional maxim, though it is similar.

No this rule is golden to me because it stems back to my experiences with Goldeneye.

A little game. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

I absolutely adored Goldeneye when I was a kid. It is probably still Rare’s best game, did much to make First Person Shooters work on consoles and has some astoundingly good ideas in it (it pretty much created headshots among other things). Considering it seems to be on pretty much everyone’s “fond nostalgic memories” list of great Nintendo 64 games I also know I’m not the only one who felt this way. But, there was something in Goldeneye that bugged the hell out of me whenever it occurred:

The guards would sometimes roll out of the way when you aimed your gun at them, and I couldn’t.

It never made sense to me. I mean, here I am, playing as James freaking Bond, a secret agent trained in all manner of weapons, cutting edge technology, languages, martial arts (and marital arts, if you know what I mean), yet If I see a guard coming down a hall and I need to reload as he levels his AK-47 at me, the best I can do is slowly sidestep behind a wall and hope that various amount of bullets don’t hit me as I awkwardly strafe away with the game’s patented “the running man on butter-shoes” animation.

I’m the first to admit that this particular disparity really isn’t that big a deal. I mean it’s just rolling around on the ground after all, and if memory serves, it really didn’t do much to help Trevelyan’s men that much. Half the time they just rolled into walls as if they were drunkenly playing Sonic the Hedgehog.

Drunk Sonic getting a ride.

That’s actually what Tails is for: designated driver, er, flyer.

But the importance of this disparity wasn’t in the balance, which favored the player, it was in the simple fact that it broke my sense of immersion – that all important word that is pretty much the video game equivalent of “suspension of disbelief” – and that’s why I began thinking more heavily about why it did and how it could be avoided. This pondering eventually led to the first official “Rule” I had for what factored as “good” game design, though only in the very narrow category of Enemy AI and Functionality:

-THE GOLDEN RULE OF ENEMY DESIGN-

If in any video game, there are enemy NPCS (Non-Player Characters) that are the same basic TYPE of character as the PC (Player Character), they shall abide by the same physical restraints and have the same capabilities as the player and all others of that TYPE of character, not including unique training and/or super-powered abilities or skills that an individual variant such as a boss or the PC(s) themselves may have.

Or to put it at it’s most basic:

If the enemy can do unto you, you better be able to do the same thing unto them!

Capt. Falcon Punching Ganondorf Punching Captain Falcon

Yeah, pretty much this.

Seems a really simple rule right? Lots of games abide by it, in fact it super common to see games doing so. However it often seems that just as many don’t. I wonder sometimes if it’s such a basic concept of game design that the people who follow it in their games aren’t consciously aware of it.

Now, the main reason I think it’s important is mostly because of immersion. It seems pretty natural that if you’re playing, say a militaristic First Person Shooter, where you’re a soldier for one side of a conflict, and you’re fighting against your opposite numbers on the other side, that there wouldn’t be too much difference between how you use guns or cover or what have you between your character and the enemy NPCs right?

all with brown hair

While “military guy” is one of the most common video game protagonists, it’s odd that even more fit into the “White with brown hair” grouping!

So if there ends up being an obvious disparity, like say your playing Call of Duty and notice that opponents can take cover behind objects and you can’t; it just ends up making the player have to sit there and ask “Why?”

I’m not sure if there’s a theorem that totals this, but I think there’s a “Why Event Horizon” – or WEH – and if you end up asking this question either a certain number of times or at a certain rate, the WEH is reached, and immersion is broken in half like that time Batman met Bane for tea. One of the primary things this Golden Rule seeks to avoid is reaching the WEH through what is probably the most common event in the game: the constant battles you have with the normal enemies.

Now there ARE discrepancies that are acceptable for the purposes of keeping the game fun. For example, most enemies in games have infinite ammo, and often never have to reload their guns when the player always has both of these limitations. This is an area where, yeah, if the enemies could run out of ammunition, it could theoretically end up boring, so we discount it due to the “Rule of Fun” and move on.

The Rule of Fun is why the characters in Blast Corps spend no time or effort working to disarm the runaway nuclear warhead, but instead just break all of the buildings in its path with dump trucks and power armor. Makes no sense, but it’s fun!

It really seems a rather subjective thing as to what logical inconsistencies are acceptable and which ones might pull the gamer out of the game though. But that’s why immersion isn’t the only reason to consider abiding by this Golden Rule. For I find that it’s also quite useful as a guide for balance.

In general, video games strive for a sense of balance in terms of difficulty. The game needs to be challenging enough that the player is engaged and feels like they’re struggling with a sense of danger that provides tension, yet it also needs to not be so hard that they become frustrated and walk away. This is of course represented in what developer’s like to call difficulty curves.

difficulty curve

The most obvious tell that it’s we nerds that make games: we can seriously GRAPH EVERYTHING WE DO.

Now, there are a lot of factors to balancing a game so that like your girlfriend, it has a pleasant curve or two. One of these is to ensure that no individual mook or goon the player encounters is too powerful, nor too weak, and this is exactly where the Golden Rule can come into play; why not make them functionally the same? If you truly need an opposite number, why not give them all the same capabilities? It can keep things VERY fair.

This is where Gears of War 3 (and its predecessors) can be seen to abide by the Golden Rule quite well. Anything the player characters – the Gears – can do, so can the primary enemies – Humanoid Locust or “Drones” – do the same, with very few exceptions (mostly related to moving from one loading zone to another). The locust can take cover, and so can you. If you can pick up a weapon, so can the locust. You can execute a downed locust, they can do the same to you.

Sure, there are special types of locust that don’t have humanoid forms such as the “Tickers”, large explosive ticks, or the “Corpser”, a pseudo-crab-like giant monster thing, but with the baseline of equals that the drones provide, it becomes simpler to see just how these non-humanoid enemies are easier or harder than the average, and if they are we tend to forgive them for being so. This equality between Locust Drones and Gear soldiers keeps the vast majority of the game always feeling fair, even if the exact situation at the time is actually unfair due to the number of enemies or their superior position or weaponry. This sense of fairness creates a sort of respect for these types of enemies. We know they’re just as capable as our characters and so we know that if we lose to them it’s probably our own damn fault. Since the designers didn’t give them ridiculous AI advantages, if they laugh at us in our failure, it’s totally justified rather than cruel.

Cliffy B surrounded by Supermodels

Cliffy B and his supermodels chortle at your inability to beat his game!

The funny thing is, the Golden Rule keeps things from getting unbalanced in the other direction as well. Playing through Deus Ex Human Revolution it becomes easy to notice that the player (as Adam Jensen) often has huge advantages over the similarly augmented enemies he faces. Not in terms of obvious things like weaponry or numbers, but in terms of functional mastery over the environment, primarily in the fact that he can hide in vents and they can do little about it.

If you ever get into a dangerous situation in Deus Ex, you can usually disengage from the fight, run into a vent and hide – the enemies won’t find you and won’t investigate the vent past the opening. It’s a tremendous advantage throughout most of the game, but not the only one. There are other enemies that share one of your abilities – turning invisible – but none that share the counter that only you can learn – seeing invisible opponents – and thus again the player has a tremendous advantage. So it goes throughout the game, and overall the player ends with a tremendous advantage over the game by the end, feeling like a cybernetic god.

Gold Filter Comparison

Considering the game’s obsession with gold, it’s a tad ironic it doesn’t follow this rule.

Now I could go on, providing examples either in the immersion or balance categories of how abiding by the Golden Rule is more preferable than not. I could continue onto the major exceptions to the rule and spend a bunch of time explaining its importance even considering them, but I think I’ve made my point (hopefully). Besides, Haggar’s giving me the stare down of “wrap things up or else”, and I really don’t want to **** with him about this.

I’ve seen what happens:

YouTube Preview Image

Some NSFW language, but this video’s also pretty awesome.

Good job Epic Games and Cliffy B! May the others who follow your lead look at the solid design you abide by rather than just latching onto the obvious elements of coolness!

Anyway, until next time readers, this session of the Committee is ended. Stay Golden!

The Ultimate Gaming Breakdown: Are Video Games Art?

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September 18th, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Not too long ago recent facts were revealed to the world pertaining to the beloved Mayor of Metro City, Mike Haggar. In fact video documentation was published to the annals of the webiverse that detailed a particular series of exploits that justify this blog’s unending adoration of our iconic hero. The Council of the Metro City Reform Committee feels it would be to everyone’s benefit if these revelations are revealed further into the world, and so this marvelous recounting sits below.

Prepare for pure awe:

YouTube Preview Image

Yes, if you watched the attached short film, that is in fact proof that Mike Haggar, during his quest to clean up Metro City of the ne’er do wells that plagued us, did in fact pile-drive Odin, King of all the Norse Gods, once he had been slain in his fight for justice. Why? Because he still had work to do here on Earth, for us. His chosen. His constituents.

Likewise, we here on the Reform Committee have work to do and gaming debates to settle. Following our leader’s example, it seemed time to tackle something big and large, something on par with Haggar’s god-smashing.

But what could be so large?

Why, only to pursue the deepest mysteries of what a game actually is, and to tackle that big hanging question: are games “art”?

So I convened a session of the committee and we decided, like all great political bodies, to pass the buck onto others. In this case, it was decided that some hard science was naturally necessary, so we commissioned esteemed serious scientists Dr. Albert “Wily” Wilhelm, and Dr. Thomas Lighttenstaug (just “Light” for short) to look into the matter, temporarily pausing their research into something silly about “positronic brains” or whatever . . .

Dr. Noah Light and Dr. Albert Wily Working together

The two colleagues hard at work. They’re such good friends! Nothing shall ever come between them and their passionate pursuit of science!

At first the question was simple. A test really.

“What is a Game?” we asked the two venerated members of the scientific community.

“A system of Rules” replied one.

“Rules to make a fun or otherwise engaging activity.” Said the other for specificity.

“An activity that can involve one person, or multiple parties.” Being added as an addendum.

They were in agreement on this basis, nodding in unison, and the answer seemed obvious to all gathered. After all, isn’t that all any game is? A system of rules? In a game of Tag, the rules are: “It” must tag another player, who then becomes “It”. The person who is “It” when the game ends is the loser, the other the winner. Simple really.

But then there was the follow up query, the important one, “Supreme court decisions and other events indicate that video games may be art, but is this true? Are games art?”

Surely two scientific wundergeists such as they could solve this great dilemma with some lucid finality. While this might seem an unimportant exercise in semantic delineation, the answer to this question is of such importance to certain circles that it has become an Op-Ed Everest of sorts. The first person to “prove” it one way or another would no doubt be famous amongst all geekdom!

Logo of 1st World Problems

Even if the true nature of this “debate” easily falls under a certain kind of “problem”, what else are blogs for?

The two men had no immediate answer, and left to consider the question. But before we get into their response, let’s take an in-depth look at the problem for a second.

First, there’s a big issue as to who is seeking to classify games as art, and who they are seeking approval from. I suppose that right now, the people seeking acceptance for the medium are pretty much the fringe fans and certain portions of the developer community though certainly not all, or even the majority, of them. Somehow I don’t think that the makers of Call of Duty and its ilk are concerned with how you “feel” about the experience other than that they want you to enjoy it enough spend more time online with it, and to get your friends to buy more copies.

Heat map as Art

Though call me crazy, but I find the Heat Maps to be quite evocative. This is a topographical road-map of murder.

As to who they seek approval from, well it seems like right now it’s mostly from esteemed critics in other fields. Guys like Roger Ebert, who famously put forth his opinion (later recanted) that he thinks games can in no way can become art, though he was willing to accept that it might change. Now, there’s a pretty strong point to be made that gamers shouldn’t give a rat’s tuckus about what others think (here’s probably the best one from Ken Levine), but for the sake of the argument, we must wonder if there’s any merit to the sentiment: is it even possible for games to become art?

One of the points Ebert and others have made is that sports, whether they be chess or Basketball, aren’t considered art and everyone, including the players, not only agrees to that but seems fine with it. This comparison between video games and sports is actually a minor point made in many of these arguments, yet seems rather apt and probably the best place to start. Why aren’t sports considered art?

Competitive sports are also all easily classified as games since they use a similar foundation of rules at their core. Board games too, are obviously games. So are card games. So are table-top role playing adventures, such as Dungeons & Dragons or GURPS. But board games and table-top adventures and especially sports are again, rather unanimously agreed upon to not be considered art.

MJ Slamming

Not “Art”

So if many video games are considered art by myself and others, despite the fact that they are in terms of function the same as sports and board games and their like, the question becomes “why?” Why does one category of ‘game’ receive special commendation to the status reserved for the Masters of the Renaissance (and Banksy) and yet others don’t?

After all, if a video game is more comparable to basketball than Balzac, why would you consider the electronic game art, and not the one actually played by the living giants with excess dexterity and endorsement deals in real life? This conceptual clash, quite frankly, seems the soundest argument against gaming being considered an art form.

It can’t be as simple as the “jock versus nerd” quarrel either. The fact that sports aren’t art has nothing to do with athleticism. Athletic performance, as long as it’s for the sake of entertainment and expression – ballet being the obvious example – is considered art.

Ballet Dancer in Air

“Art”

I don’t think this is the one area where the artistes and the tailgaters are high-fiving each other and screaming “NEEEEERD” at the gamer, mostly because it seems everyone plays video games these days. Whether it’s a #1 Fan playing Madden on their console, a mom playing Bejeweled on Facebook, or the philosophy major espousing the wonders of Braid, gaming has gotten pretty universal.

The fact that ballet dancers and ballers are real people also doesn’t matter. We consider many forms of fiction to be art, and I somehow doubt there’s an actual pale and vague man with an unhinged jaw used as a model for The Scream.

Is it about narrative? Sports themselves offer none, other than perhaps that of the lives of the players (sometimes, that’s enough). But neither do many pieces of music, or poems or sculptures. Many are just trying to convey a thought or a mood or a tone. Besides, there’s a pretty obvious “sport” that provides enough narrative that it has to be put in quotes . . .

WrestleMania 21 Elbow Drop

“Art” ???

No, narrative just gets divided between “high brow” and “low brow”. Besides, there are plenty of video games that provide narrative anyway, so it can’t simply be that.

Does it have to do with rules? Games, as already stated, are by definition really just sets of rules. “Art” seems to often say that there are no rules for expression. Except, while that might seem true in the visual arts (Cloaca Machine anyone?), it hardly seems true of the performing arts. I mean, if a ballet dancer started break dancing on cardboard in the middle of Swan Lake, a conductor did his job with raver glowsticks, or Hamlet’s soliloquy was replaced with the lyrics of “Gangster’s Paradise”, you’d probably have a fair amount of empty seats and refunded tickets.

Offended Dowager Simpsons

And thousands of “Well, I never!”s.

So perhaps not. There ARE rules in art. I’d say the primary difference between the “rules” of a game and art is simply how easily they can be broken and when the rules are established. In a game, the rules are agreed upon before hand, are fairly rigid, though the players usually have a fair amount of choice in how they abide by them – e.g. do you go for a two-point conversion or a field goal? But in theater (for example), the “rules” are what the director says and decides on before hand, and once the production is up, the players must abide by them rather consistently, if not exactly.

Is it about competition then? Sports thrive on competition, obviously, while in most instances of the performing arts thrive on cooperation, whether it be an orchestra or a theater company. This seems a likely candidate. You won’t see many folks going into Romeo and Juliet waving a giant foam finger for the Capulets. That would be silly, like modernizing the play and giving everyone handguns!

Benvolio with "Dagger"

No one would ever do that . . .

Anyways, this DOES seem to be the heart of it: competition. At least for Sports versus Art, I’d say this would probably be the definitive answer. And in fact, when our two friendly scientists returned, the very nature of their debate centered around a very similar issue:

Dr. Light spoke first, “Though it seems my colleague and I disagree on this matter, I attest that electronic gaming is about the player struggling against forces laid out before him by the designers, in what will always end up a linear fashion. This is a directed and controlled nature, and even if the player has choices availed to them, will always result in some sort of narrative. Even if it is a narrative the player makes for themselves. As narrative is generally considered art, though it can be high or low brow, it does follow that games therefore are also art.”

“You fool!” screamed Dr. Wily, “You forget the origins of such titles as Pong or the fighting games of today! They are but simple competitions! Digital contests for those weak in body and meant to prove dominance over one another. Even in single player games, the players attempt to best each other in “score” or “achievements unlocked”. Any narrative efforts added on top are like the plots of porn; irrelevant attempts to make them seem greater than they are!”

Light VS Wily

Uh-oh. I hope this doesn’t drive a wedge between them.

“But competition isn’t always the focus!” Dr. Light countered. “Where is the supposed ‘competition’ in a game like Portal? Or Chrono Trigger? The player is struggling against forces laid out before them, and struggle is the nature of drama! There is no “competition” in that sense. No more than Odysseus “competed” with the Cyclops, for it is an inevitability that the persevering player will succeed, and see the narrative through!”

“Focus is inconsequential!” screeched Dr. Wily. “Games by their very nature must be “won”. Even in the examples you proffer, the player still “wins” the game to gain the narrative. If a narrative must be won, the nature of winning supersedes the narrative in importance. Any exercise that gives out its prize based on skill and “winning” is still a sport, and we agree that sports cannot be considered art!”

“But why can’t they?” Was Light’s only response.

They glared at each other. It was back to the question. Why can’t we consider sport art, and as a corollary, anything that offers competition?

Double Dare Dadaism

Especially when Double Dare seems the definition of competitive Dadaism.

Wily, as it turns out, did have a response to this.

“The reason sports cannot be considered art is simple. Sports, and games that seek to emulate them, are based around a single concept, that of equality and fairness. They must be fair to all players involved for everyone participating must have an equal chance at the start. There are no recognized sports and few games that allow for one side to have a clear advantage: it would be “unsporting”. This need for equality means there can be no greater or deeper message, no deeper meaning. It overrides all other emotional or intellectual factors.

Art on the other hand, has no need for fairness. If a painter is better than all his contemporaries, he alone is recognized while they wallow alone and forgotten. The director of a play is a dictator, no matter how benevolent they might be. The writer of literature is for his story, God. Equality in art is not only unnecessary, but would probably be detrimental to the process. Artists seek first to satisfy themselves, without regard to others.”

“Ah,” Light began his retort. “But that speaks only of the intent of the creator, without covering the experience of the player. Who is to say that even if the rules and their makers do not intend to move the players of their games, the players themselves aren’t moved by their experiences with them?”

Gamer Face by Randy Dorney

The “Gamer Face” is certainly that of a person absorbed in their subject matter.

“Of course that is subjective,” Wily admitted. “But again, if the player’s main goal is to ‘win’, then it overrides the openness required to experience other emotional or intellectual change. When you combine the lack of intent to change or challenge the players emotions or intellect on the part of the rule makers, along with the intent of the players to win, you have creators that intend nothing beyond thrills, and an audience not capable of receiving anything but simple engagement.”

“Alright, let’s say we concede this to be true, for SOME games. That within these games it may be impossible to say they are even capable of being emotive or moving.” Light said gently, before continuing.

“But what of simulations? A player of The Sims or Animal Crossing, or Cities XL has no real ending to ‘win’. And what of games that allow creation? A person using Minecraft to make a digital sculpture, or Little Big Planet making an automated film is making art, are they not?”

Famous landmarks made in Minecraft

The Arc de Triumph, an Egyptian Pyramid, and the Parthenon all made in the medium of Minecraft.

“Can you not concede that focus in this matter is important? That if the ‘rule makers’ are intending for their work to either not be about ‘winning’ or at least for the ‘winning’ to be less important than the story or the experience of the interaction, that a game could at least be capable of affecting the changes to perception and emotion classical art always seeks?”

“Hmm.” Wily paused, thinking about this. “There do seem to be too many variations in gaming to simply peg them all as art, or all as sport. Creations in the digital space can be virtually anything, so it is a medium capable of a large range, even in gaming. But what could allow for a medium to both be and not be something at the same time?”

A sense of cohesion seemed to flash between them. “Why Quantum Mechanics could explain it! Gaming is both art and not art!”

They both looked at us in the council eagerly to see if this was an acceptable answer to our question. We vetoed it on the account that having been down this road before, it would be preferable if Quantum mechanics weren’t involved in their answer. They make the brain hurt.

Quantum Leap Bakula

Besides, with our decisive lack of Backula, we prefer not make many Quantum Leaps.

“Well then”, said Light, “If we must come to a consensus, and we cannot state that it is a matter of simply subjective observation, then I propose this hypothesis: Disregarding ‘quality’ which is subjective, there are certain games that can be capable of consideration as art, and others that are so unlikely to achieve this status that it is effectively impossible. There is a divide of class. It is this delineation that we must now seek in order to create a taxonomy.”

“Yes. This does seem acceptable, if a bit obvious.” Wily agreed.

Interesting . . . to say that because video games have such a huge range as a medium, that trying to single out the entire medium based on a yes or no on this question would be impossible. That there needs to be at least some division of classification into games that can or cannot be capable of achieving emotional resonance beyond a simple desire to win or an engaging thrill. At the very least, it’s a compromise to both sides of the “debate”.

TP Debate

If this ends up working, I know exactly which debate to settle next . . .

Such a proposal could become some huge sweeping excel document, filled with sub-types and genres. Or at least that’s what I thought at first.

But then Dr. Light pursued this line of inquiry. “Should we begin looking at genres then?”

For a moment, Dr. Wily said nothing. He just stood there tugging at his mustache, thinking. After some time it seemed, he spoke.

“I think not my bearded friend.” Wily responded, “For that would be looking too low, at the genus, when we should be seeking the larger, more important division of the Domain. Besides, we have hit upon the answer already for this divide!”

“What do you mean?” Light asked, confused.

Wily smiled, “Heh. It seems obvious in retrospect actually: there are only two types of games.”

Wait. What?

Wily went on to elaborate for some time using a basis of Cartesian Skepticism, but I’ll spare you the long form of his logic. Suffice to say, it seemed to make a degree of sense. Even if I couldn’t pay total attention, as it rocked my belief in the apparent infinite possibilities of the medium pretty hard.

I mean there are so many different genres and classifications of gaming: Action, Racing, Fighting, Platforming, Puzzle, Turn-Based Strategy, Real-Time Strategy, 4x Strategy, Flight-Sim, Sports Sim, Dating Sim, Sim Sim, Point and Click Adventure, JRPG, WRPG, SRPG, FPS, MOG, Casual, Educational, Indie, Hardcore, 2D, 3D, Console, PC, Handheld, Episodic, Digital Download, Disc Only, Beat ‘Em Ups, Shoot ‘Em Ups, Spectacle Brawlers, Action/RPG Hybrids, Strategy Hybrids, Puzzle/RPG Hybrids . . . the list goes on. How could anyone say there are only two?!

But then he finished his long explanation with an axiom seemingly simple:

“There are only two types of video game. And they can be divided on the basis of antagonism.”

Antagone

No, that’s Antagone, who is an antagonist. But close.

Basically it breaks down as follows:

There are games designed for the player to confront AI, hazardous levels, or any other sort of prepared and controlled force of antagonism there solely because the developers intend them to be there. This intent, along with the control the developers have over what the player experiences is what allows the designers to deliver something beyond simple spectacle or engaging but otherwise meaningless activity. These games can be pointless too, but only by choice (or the budget runs out I suppose). You are in the designer’s world and must follow by their predetermined rules and regulations. In a very real way, you are playing against the designers themselves, and they need not be fair if they want to make a point or create an impact on you (Aeris’ death comes to mind).

You could view these as single player games only, but the parlance of the MMORPG is probably more accurate. This is PvE, or Player versus Environment and it seems to allow for the greatest possibility for true art to emerge in gaming. Games such as Deus Ex Human Revolution or Shadow of the Colossus are easy to see as not only action experiences, but also as artistic statements, but this isn’t a recent occurrence by any means. The earliest example I can think of is Missile Command, a game where the developer actively put his fears of the cold war into the experience, and this was one of the reasons the game was so impactful.

Doubting the subtext of Missile Command? Consider the fact that it is a game about defending against nuclear holocaust, and one in which there is no actual possible way to “win”. They made an entire film about this called War Games, and it wasn’t as powerful (but that might have been due to Mathew Broderick).

The flip side are games designed where the obstacle the player must face are primarily that of other players, or to use the MMORPG terminology again, Player versus Player (PvP). The primary focus of PvP games and modes is competition, and yes, this competitiveness effectively relegates them into the realms of sport and contest. As stated by Wily above, the overriding goal of the developers making an effective competitive game has to do with equality between the participants. The designers in a PvP mode therefore aren’t the antagonists so much as moderators or referees in addition to their role as the creator of rule-sets.

It’s theoretically possible to make a competitive game with a deeper commentary on those playing, and many fighting games certainly have characters that players become attached to, but it isn’t as likely as the priority of equal balance supersedes all others. This priority on balance isn’t a bad thing though. I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to play a fighting game where one player had access to a tank while you could only punch and kick at them, as seen in the ad for Bonestorm on the The Simpsons.

Liu Kang Versus Tank

In the match of Liu Kang v. Tank, there are no winners, only losers.

Still, it was hard to agree with the assertion that there are only these two types of game, and I posited several possible exceptions to Wily. But he seemed to have a retort on hand to most any game I could think of, explaining how they fell into one of these categories, if you break them down.

I pointed out simulations such as the aforementioned The Sims, in which there is no ending or real conflict. The Sims, like its originator Sim City or Minecraft or Spore has no actual “point”, and all of these games mostly seem to be tool sets to allow user creation for messing about.

“Ah, this so called ‘exception’ is an illusion.” Wily stated. “I can only say that either they are not actual games, and thus shouldn’t be considered, or you can look at them in another way. In all of the examples mentioned, there is still an antagonist: the rules themselves or more specifically, the world. Unless you’re using cheats, you can’t simply buy anything in The Sims and in Minecraft even if you ignore the Creepers and Zombies, you still have to contend with the limits of the game world as much as your imagination; gravity works (mostly) so falls kill, lava and fire burn, and you share a weakness with Lara Croft: drowning.”

Spaced Video Games

According to Spaced drowning Lara repeatedly is one of life’s great stress relievers.

“These struggles indicate that while there may be no ‘win’ condition, there is definitely a ‘lose’ condition. Or to put it another way, you ‘lose’ when chaos rules, you ‘win’ by establishing measured order to the worlds presented, even if that is impossible to achieve forever because the system keeps running to undermine it. It’s what gives these games their ‘gameness’, and why they aren’t just elaborate Barbie’s Dreamhouse design studios and pixelated Lego editors.”

Dr. Light pitched in on this as well. “In fact, the chaos versus order point is also easily applicable to pure puzzle games like Tetris or Bejeweled as well. Like the simulations, these games rarely have true win conditions other than a personal challenge for high score, and the player simply must struggle against a system of pure rules and random hazards to survive in a state of stasis.”

Alright, fine, then what of cooperative games? Or games that blend the two sides together? In Left 4 Dead or The Legend of Zelda: 4 Swords Adventures, you both compete against the enemies and environment, as well as with each other to some degree. Where do they fit in?

L4D Crew, Bill, Zoey, Francis, Louis

Bill’s death in particular may prove that it’s possible to create resonant moments in a multiplayer game.

Light responded first. “Well in the case of 4 Swords and the primary mode of Left 4 Dead, the competitive aspects are downplayed. Cooperation of primary importance, and it is against the environment, proving that it is not the multiplayer aspects alone that prevent the possibility of emotional impact.”

Wily expanded ,”In fact, Left 4 Dead may be the best example of what we’re describing. In it’s solely cooperative mode, tensions and emotions run high, camaraderie can be achieved as well as other more complex emotional responses. But in the game’s competitive mode, where other players are capable of playing as the enemy, the focus begins to shift again into competition and people take the game’s more emotional moments less seriously since they must focus on defeating their adversaries more.”

“Besides,” said Wily. “Look no further than game criticism itself. Notice that in games that primarily focus on Multiplayer, they are rarely considered candidates for “game of the year”, unless they also have a strong single player component?”

I had to admit some truth to this. The last purely competitive multiplayer game to win a GotY award from a major organization seems like it might have been Battlefield 1942 in 2002 (from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences). Many of the other games that have multiplayer and get considered for these types of awards ALSO have single player sequences and stories usually considered at least as strong as their respective Capture the Flag and Deathmatch modes, such as Red Dead Redemption with it’s tragic tale of unwanted revenge or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare which if nothing else, contained one of the frankest depictions of futility yet seen when it forced the player to control a dying soldier in his last moments.

Red Dead redemption

When you look back at RDR, what sticks out more? The poignant ending, or that time you won a round of Capture the Bag with seconds to spare?

But looking at these awards does reveal something. It seems that the most popular games that also end up highly acclaimed usually offer BOTH experiences. In Red Dead or CoD, sure you can hop online and blast someone into next week, but you can also play by yourself and experience the world, the characters and the stories the designers want you to. While this division in mode may reinforce the two doctors’ point, that there is a divide between what a game is capable of on an emotional level – I’ve never cringed when getting nuked in TDM during CoD, but the one time it happened in the single player it got to me – it also provides at least some method of resolution: games can be both.

Upon this speaking of this realization Wily only responded with “Well, that may be the case. But it is irrelevant to your original question. You wanted to know if games could be art. I believe that we have answered that. In theory at least, games can have the capability, but the degree in which they can be is only in an inverse to a game’s focus on competition between the players.”

Games according to Dr. Wily

I suppose it was silly to expect anything less than a graph from a scientist.

I turned to Dr. Light, to see if he could in any way negate the growing acceptance of this concept in my mind.

“Actually, in most ways I have to agree with my colleague. But for one thing.”

“Yes, there is both an inherent difference between games and art, and there are areas where they blend into each other. But what one society, or age of a society, perceives to be artistic is and always will be subjective. I suggest that while this line may function as a general rule of thumb, do not be surprised if it isn’t always the case. I accept this current theorization only as a baseline for where we are NOW. When this is proven to no longer work, and it will be, it will have to be altered or eliminated entirely. Whether it is from a truly new type of game, or from multiplayer that can make a point beyond sport I do not know. But it will happen. The digital medium, and human ingenuity, are simply too varied to deny the possibility of change.”

With that, the two left. Back off to work on more important matters. I’m pretty sure its something about making robots to do our chores for us.

I know that I didn’t get the total validation that all games were art that I was hoping for. Nor does such a simplification seem fully adequate for such a large question. But agree or not, it was an answer at least, and a definitive one. I suppose now all there is to do is wait and see if time proves it right or not.

Perhaps the next game on the docket will end up an impassioned example of subtlety and nuance that changes perceptions of what gaming is capable of and can accomplish for our inner selves, truly asking us to examine the frailties of our hearts?

OK. the one after that then?

“Summer Loving, Had Me A Blast!” – A Quick Look Back

by

August 11th, 2011 at 4:43 am

So if you’ve been following the world of video games during the last couple of months of the glorious heated atmosphere period of the North American Continent we call ‘Summer’, you may have noticed a trend. No, not that apparently, no one wants to buy a 3DS. Or that if a game takes way too long to come out, it’s probably not going to have a happy ending and in fact will turn out pretty mediocre. No, not those, even if they would both make excellent talking points.

Nor is it the personal struggle that’s plagued me throughout the heated months – my slog through Stranger in a Strange Land, which seems to get more interminable and less relevant with each passing page for anyone who was born after the nineteen sixties.
Michael Valentine Smith

I grok this – the hippies co-opted and spoiled all your best points Michael Valentine Smith. It’s a shame really.

No, the trend is none of the above. Rather, it’s a trend of theme, and the theme is romance.

Yes, love has been in the air in video game land, and the last three games reviewed over here at CLR, Shadows of the Damned, Ms. Splosion Man, and Catherine have all used the completely relatable concept of the love between man and woman as their emotional centers. It’s intriguing that all three were released relatively near each other, especially seeing as romances in video games are generally either not present at all or are poorly handled cliche storms. I’m not sure why all came out so close together . . . it’s really quite odd, but since all three handle the themes wildly differently from each other, I don’t think it’s a form of “Dualing” you see between film studios.

I want to take a second look at these 3 affairs of the heart today. We’re going to break down the core relationship presented in each and see what made it work, and how it didn’t and could have been improved. Seeing as there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, let’s do that, shall we?

Oh and Spoilers will abound, naturally, since we’re going to be talking about key portions of these games. That’s our first and last warning on that, folks.

Spoiler DC Comics

This is Spoiler, she’s just going to hang out here for the duration.

SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED

THE RELATION SITUATION

Unfortunately in my review of the game, I didn’t get to talk much about the primary female character, Paula. Why? Mostly it was due to spoilers, but since she’s already here in that tree, let’s break this one open shall we?

You see during the course of Garcia [EXPLETIVE DELETED]ing Hotspur’s journey through hell, he comes across a series of grim ‘fairy tale’ books, each telling the story of the various VIP demons (read: bosses) he encounters. Aside from a central reveal that these were all souls that lacked any sort of love in their mortal lives, which led them to awful fates, a few detail another demon hunter that once plagued the game’s villain, Fleming.

Called “The Unbreakable Huntress”, Fleming was so impressed with this woman’s independent fiery spirit (and apparently unstoppable ability with the sword) that he decided to turn her into his bride . . . of sorts. He kidnapped her soul, elevated her status to Queen, and then proceeded to spend several lifetimes killing her repeatedly in some sort of sadistic attempt to convince her to willingly be his. Or to put it in the traditional parlance of abusers everywhere, he hit her because he loved her.

Paula is strongly hinted at to be this woman, escaped from hell and possibly in a new body when meeting Garcia. The two fall in love before the game begins, and throughout the game, Garcia talks about his strange but actually tender relationship with her. Since Garcia is often the stereotypical “macho” archetype, (hard drinking, under-educated, and ass kicking) his reveals of a softer side, but only for Paula, are really the only reason he’s a relatable character at all.

Picard in Pink

Sort of a “Real Men Wear Pink” technique, but for emotional character development.

What’s interesting is how insignificant Garcia actually is. At first it seems that Fleming’s torturing of Paula (which you witness throughout the game) is meant to taunt Garcia, but it’s not. This has been going on before him, and without his interference seems like it would continue. He’s the intruder into a story that’s gone on longer than he’s been alive. So what is his role then? What’s the greater point? Or to put it another way . . .

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

Because it’s a story about breaking a cycle of abuse. Think about it; Paula is in a LONG-term relationship (eternity) that she can’t get out of with an obviously abusive ‘boyfriend’ (Fleming). She struggles to get out on her own, and in fact does succeed at some point (hence how she meets Garcia), but gets pulled back in and needs Garcia’s help to make it stick (the rest of the game), much like how many people in abusive relationships can fall back into them unless they have support. The interesting thing is that you play not as the person escaping the relationship, but as the support, which makes Garcia’s almost minor role in the game’s plot (despite him being the main character) make WAYYY more sense.

If you’re looking for subtext in Shadows then even other things pop up too, such as the fact that you are fighting demons which could be seen on a metaphorical level for this kind of allegory about overcoming inner doubts. Part of me really wants to assign the entire game this elevated view that’s deeper than it at first seems, but it’s difficult to tell what’s intentional or not. Even if that subtext isn’t intended, the obvious emotionality present in Shadows gives the gaming and romantic standard of “saving the princess” some real weight to it.

Sleeping Beauty Dragon versus Prince

While subverting the concept of “Prince Charming” since Garcia is anything but.

BUT THERE ARE PROBLEMS

Mainly in the fact that Paula herself is almost a non-character until the very end of the game, when she flips out due to all the abuse and attacks her would be rescuer for trying to help. While this makes a large degree of sense emotionally, and is the only time when the game’s Giger-esque phallocentricity pulls a complete 180 into Vulville (seriously the last confrontation is pretty much in a gigantic birth canal), it’s unfortunately presented as just another “women are emotionally unstable” trope since we never get to see Paula when she’s strong, or heck, hardly at all. Thus even if the game had more on it’s mind, it just reverts to a maxim older than dirt.

THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED

Very easily in fact. If we were given some time to see a sane Paula, or at least a strong version, then the change in her nature would have been a lot more apparent and impactful. Of course the best method (since this is a game) would have been to play as her, even if it had been in her former life as “The Unbreakable Huntress” for a level or two.

But no, we only get the male side of the equation which pretty much halts any of the really interesting subtext from developing into full blown introspection or deconstruction, especially since the game’s sense of humor is still decidedly in a “Member’s Only” vein.

YouTube Preview Image

Yeah OK . . . that was pretty terrible. Let’s move on before I get PUNished for it . . .

*dodges tomatoes*

MS. SPLOSION MAN

THE RELATION SITUATION

Actually, my review covers this pretty well, but basically Ms. Splosion man is a fully realized Distaff Counterpart game to the original ‘Splosion Man. It is a perfect homage to Ms. Pac-Man, which of course, was part of the idea. But what does this entail?

Well it means that as in the original, the story is rather unnecessary, and therefore motivation is done on it’s most basic level. You move from left to right and blow stuff up along the way.

Why?

That's Why

Because explosions are awesome. That’s why.

In keeping consistency with the main character, everything’s ‘girlified’, but aside from an undercurrent of romance at a couple of points it’s not fundamentally any different from the first game. Until you get to the ending, where Ms. Splosion Man must fight off a monstrous rival for Splosion Man’s affections and then they get married and ride off into the sunset on a motorcycle. This finish definitely cements the minor elements of romance the game presents earlier into a core theme.

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

Because it’s a completely even and equal treatment, while giving us at least an attempt at a female perspective.

Ms. Splosion Man (the character) is no better or worse than the original pyromaniac protagonist of the first game. He innocently blew things up, so she does to. He loved steaks, she loves shoes. He spouted random strings of nonsense words, and she spouts random lyrics to pop songs (so the exact same thing really).

Plus gaming, as with television and film, has the vast majority of protagonists being white and male,so it’s just a nice change of pace. Especially for a female character doesn’t conform to the established gender roles in the medium, which (for the few non-gamers reading this) are as follows:

If you get the Irony of this – A WINNER IS YOU. If you don’t, enjoy it.

(Clearer Image Here)

Ms. Splosion Man is a female that is both completely equal to her male counterpart, but retains a definite femininity. She isn’t put into any sort of “support” role, and she isn’t put in a kinky outfit or overtly objectified. Though the game doesn’t pass the Bechdel test or anything, it does present a woman as a hero who rescues her man rather than needing rescue herself, and that goes a long way.

Ms Splosion Man

As long as you can qualify a being made up of living napalm as a “woman” that is.

However . . .

THERE ARE PROBLEMS

While I’m sure I saw a few names in the game’s credits that must have belonged to women, Ms. Splosion Man also feels a lot like a guy’s interpretation of what women are like. You collect shoes, you hang out at the mall, you want above all else, to get hitched. Perhaps it’s because these girly aspects are much more pronounced when compared to Mr. Splosion Man, who just comes off as a spaz rather than any sort of “manly”, but at times the game (and thus Twisted Pixel’s) views on femininity seem like a comedian’s mediocre standup act on women.

“What’s the deal with women and shoes? You don’t need that many. But the average girl has over twenty pairs! No man in the history of the world has ever needed that many pairs of ANYTHING – except Noah, and I’m pretty sure that’s because it was a direct order from upstairs. Which, isn’t that proof God is a woman? At first Noah was probably like any other guy ‘C’mon God, we really only need a few for specific functions right? Cows for meat and cheese, Chickens for Eggs, Dogs for stupid pet tricks?” But no! God wanted all the pairs of animals for the same reason Women want all the shoes – Accessorizing! You never know when you’re going to need a stink beetle, but you’ll keep them on hand . . . just in case! Oh and further proof? Like God, a woman is never wrong!”

What's The Deal?

“While we’re talking . . . WHAT’S THE DEAL With Deal or No Deal? Can you Dial friends to delegate a deal? Or is that a ‘no deal’? What if I want to deal on the dial? Deal? No Deal? Dial? Derl-Der-Der- DeeERP!”

So even though it’s cool to play as a girl who is both girly and heroic, it’s also coming from a place that, while not mean spirited, still seems to be playing to stereotypes a tad too much. I guess if I have a real issue, it’s the marriage between the Splosions occurring directly after the two characters meet for the first time. Ms. Splosion Man immediately decides to get hitched to her male compatriot because . . . why exactly? It’s not like the two ever go through any kind of courtship or dating montage, it’s just, “Hey! You’re also made of fiery death? Me too! Let’s get married!”

THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED

I suppose this would have been a non-issue if the two characters had some reason to want to get together earlier on, or heck, even knew of each others’ existence. If Ms. Splosion Man had seen the Mr. beforehand, or if there was a level of the two holding hands and blowing things up as a couple before the wedding, or well, something that doesn’t just promote the idea that women are just going to get married to the first remotely available dude that works.

But if I might have been reading too much into Shadows of the Damned, I’m definitely reading too much into Ms. Splosion Man; a game actively trying to be a light and shallow experience. So while it might not be the best implementation of a romance or even of a female perspective, I’d be making a mountain out of a molehill to judge it too harshly for these ‘faults’ when it’s still fundamentally about blowing stuff up above all else.

CATHERINE

THE RELATION SITUATION

In my zeal to cover all aspects of the game in the review, I neglected to cover the finer points of the relationship drama at the heart of Catherine. Vincent, the protagonist, has to struggle with a choice between Katherine, his long time girlfriend, and Catherine, a cute coquettish (and possibly crazy) girl that’s recently entered into his life.

Catherine Alurring Picture

Guess which of these two ladies is strongly featured in all of the game’s advertising?

He wakes up next to this alluring temptress one morning and she claims that he was great in the sack, and yet he has no memory due to what is (presumably) too much alcohol. As the days progress, he finds himself unable to just call things off with Catherine immediately, and since Katherine keeps bringing up pressing concerns of their relationship (such as her possible pregnancy and marriage) and he does claim to love her, he ends up painting himself as a cheating louse. When you take into account the game’s pseudo “morality” meter (though I suppose it’s more about views on personal freedom) which affects how Vincent reacts in major situations, the game is at first glance is a deep look at a common relationship dilemma: go with stability but possible boredom, or break with tradition and accept excitement with a new love?

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

Because in the game’s best moments, the whole situation feels very real. Even if the specifics might not be the most common causes of such drama, the core dynamic of choosing between two prospective mates, one relatively stable and the other a bit wilder, in a love triangle is something so fundamentally basic that anyone can relate to it. Who hasn’t felt the tug and pull of the heart to these polar opposite types of potential love?

Though it’s not like this hasn’t been done before (Betty and Veronica anyone?), Catherine manages to tweak and subvert several of the dynamics into a more acceptably realistic and yet wildly unique blend. Katherine fits the role of the demure one, yet she’s a more aggressive and successful individual than Vincent ever is. Catherine meanwhile, is definitely the “wild unobtainable girl” who not only throws herself at our protagonist, but actually professes a need for his stability, kindness (and ironically), fidelity. When you count in the game’s other elements, such as the dream-scape explorations and the undercurrent of a magical serial killer, the end result is a completely skewed version of the archetypical “who will he choose” plot it at first seems to be.

Punisher and Archie

Archie occasionally mixed things up too, but the results got a bit . . . strange.

Then there’s the simple fact that the game gives plenty of weight to the rather hefty issue of infidelity, something that’s been done to death on a Lifetime movies of the week, but is just unheard of in video games where it’s actually rather fresh. Taking something trite in another medium and bringing it to more fertile grounds in another has also been done before, but you know what? It works!

BUT THERE ARE PROBLEMS

But in the end (AND HERE BE THE SPOILERS), it turns out that Catherine isn’t exactly “real”. No one but Vincent ever actually sees her, and this is pretty obvious to the player, but still rather neat at first, since the idea that she’s representing some sort of internal psychosis over Vincent’s fear in his waking hours would still be compelling. But no.

She is in fact, a sort of succubus preying on men around the city and was summoned by an elder demon/god (of sorts). It’s all a part of the game’s background plot that involves all sorts of crazy demonology, curses and supernatural happenings and it just feels . . . “less than”. I mean, it’s sort of the equivalent of, say you were watching a really solid serious drama, Casablanca maybe, and you find out that at the end of it all it turns out THE DEVIL was the one keeping Rick and Ilsa apart and was actually her husband all along, and instead of Bogart being faced with a quandary of what to do, he just asks Renault, who turns out to be a priest capable of exorcism, to participate in a ritual to drive the demon out of the mortal plane!

South Park Satan

Oh look the bad guy turns out to be SATAN! Bringer of evil! Tempter of the innocent! Destroyer of . . . dramatic responsibility.

THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED

If this were another game perhaps, but Catherine is actually sort of a spin-off of the Persona games, which are guess what? About demon summoners battling . . . survey says: DEMONS!

So complaining about such a thing is rather a null issue I guess, especially since I’m not complaining about this aspect of Shadows of the Damned. But in Shadows, the mystical elements are inherent to the drama and setting from the get go; the story wouldn’t work without them.

In Catherine, even though the demon magic stuff is worked into the game rather well and does create a solid explanation as to why Vincent is exploring the dream-scape, the choice to keep the the allegorical elements as a metaphorical method of delivering the game rather than make them “real” would have been a stronger one. The game is in general BETTER when it sticks to the realistic and relatable problems that people actually wrestle with. When it veers into it’s magical territories, it works, but also isn’t playing to its strengths.

Actually, this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. David Cage’s (of Heavy Rain fame) earlier game Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in the U.S.) had a similar issue. What started out as an interesting and grounded serial killer Noir story ended up delving into Zombies and AI and cults and all sorts of incoherent wackiness that completely derailed everything up till that point.

Tommy Whestphall

Then it turns out it was all in the head of an autistic boy playing with a snow globe. Otherwise known as the Tommy WestPHAIL.

Unlike that travesty though, Catherine still ends up rather decent and keeps most everything together to deliver a satisfying (enough) conclusion. Plus it at least hints at all the demon and magic stuff throughout the game, so it doesn’t really come out of left field even if you didn’t play any of the Persona entries. At the end of the day, the romance elements do work well despite the distracting demonic influence, and this is still probably the best example I’ve yet seen on how you can do a romance in a game. Even if there isn’t a LOT of competition there.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

So yeah, it’s a rather weird occurrence that all these games came out so close together, but in a lot of ways it’s weirder that they decided to focus on this subject. Though each of them have problems and issues unique to them, it’s still impressive that some developers are at least trying to reach beyond the expectations of the medium.

All three do end up with another problem I haven’t mentioned though: none of them create gameplay mechanics regarding their romance.

In all three, the romance, while key, is part of the story more than what you actually do (though in Catherine there is a touch of gameplay with the drunken texting). Considering that the method of gaming is about the player actively participating, doing rather than watching, this is actually a bigger problem. One which seems to lurk in the background of many otherwise viable genres of games that can’t be made unless its resolved.

Devil Dinosaur NEXTWAVE

This problem is sort of the Devil Dinosaur behind the MODOK Baby behind the robot behind the Evil CEO behind the Evil Corporation – one problem obfuscated by many others (NEXTWAVE Fans know what I’m talking about).

But it’s a problem not easily solved. How do you make romance as interesting to play as shooting Nazis? Dating Sims are the closest thing to doing this (aside from straight up “Erotic” games) and really, they’re pretty boring.

Part of it has to do with conversation in games, which, as a gameplay mechanic is something I still think no one is doing in any sort of interesting or fun way. Since a lot of what would be important in playing a game about relationships and love would require the dialogue to be interesting to play (as well as well written), it’s probably the biggest factor holding back the romance from becoming a straight genre in gaming, but it isn’t alone. Gauging empathy, creating subtle problems that are misdirected lest the player game the system, crafting fun activities out of spending time together (without dipping too much into the weirdness of digital sex) . . . there are a host of issues in getting this to be a viable genre in the western gaming world.

Unfortunately, as much as I want to discuss this further, this session’s probably gone on long enough. So I’ll table it for now and leave this as a subject I’d like to bring to the committee at a later date. Perhaps trying to tackle individual elements one by one (such as Conversation and Empathy separately) would be the best course of action, but . . . I think I’ll take a cue from the book of Doctor Henry Jones Junior and figure that out once we come to it.

Indy Bridge

Or as he could say, ” I’ll cut that bridge in half when I cross it.”

Until then, keep fighting the good fight gentle readers! Gaming will continue to improve, as it always does. Games like these three are proving both that the medium is growing and there’s still room for more growth – all at the same time.

This meeting of the committee is now ended. May you never be surrounded by cultists who want your heart, scientists who want your genes, or demons who want your soul. And may all your romances have a happy ending!

Dissatisfying Difficulty in the Digital Domain!

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July 27th, 2011 at 5:56 am

This is going to be a quick one folks. Partially because A) I’d like to see if that’s possible, and B) I’m in the middle of Catherine, and boy is it . . . interesting.

Catherine, Vincent with Sheep

Catherine‘s version of “interesting” involves a LOT of sheep.

So I was originally going to review Captain America: Super Soldier, but I obtained a copy too late to write a timely review (ironic seeing as Cap first appeared in Timely comics, but I digress).

Besides, after playing through it . . . there’s just not that much to talk about. It’s basically Captain America: Arkham Asylum. No, seriously. The game’s combat system apes the now classic 2009 “I am the Bat” simulator so fully it could be prosecuted for infringement if such a thing were possible. It’s not though, which is why this thing tends to happen in gaming all the time.

The game does have a few differences from the curse-breaking Batman game, both good and bad. On the good side, the use of Cap’s shield is a pretty solid risk/reward battle mechanic. Holding onto it gives you extra defensive options (including the ability to bounce bullets back at baddies), but it’s also a very useful weapon to knock out groups of weaker foes, and disrupt the larger ones at a range. This addition that’s definitive of the character actually gives the combat something unique and may actually just make it better than Arkham’s system.

On the other hand, Arkham Asylum wasn’t just combat, it also had excellent stealth segments and puzzle solving, both core elements of Batman’s characterization. Super Soldier doesn’t know what to do to make up for this really, only offering some very lame acrobatic sections to capture Cap’s athletic prowess, and nothing to represent his leadership skills. Thus the only thing the game has going for it is the combat, which would get repetitive if the game weren’t so short. So if you can’t wait for Arkham City, go ahead and rent it, but do not buy by any means. Other than that . . . it’s just another movie tie in, better than the majority, but not great by any means.

Like I said, not too much to say.

Captain America Picture

Other than the supremely inappropriate irony of making a video game about a Nazi smasher which has the abbreviated subtitle “S.S.”

Well, except for one thing, and it’s going to be the issue brought before the committee today: DIFFICULTY.

No, this isn’t going to be about how games have gotten easier over time (they really haven’t, they’ve just branched into differing genres to accommodate tastes). This is about how game developers tend to portray difficulty selection in games, and how they usually do it wrong.

You see, one of the aspects Super Soldier also copies from Arkham Asylum is how the difficulty selections work. As with most games you pick up, at the start you’re given a choice between three options: Easy, Medium (or Normal) and Hard. This is very standard stuff, seen as far back as Doom, Commander Keen, and Wolfenstein 3D.

Wolfenstein 3D Difficulty Selections

Though back then, games had no qualms about making fun of you for playing the game on “Easy”.

So it’s not the options themselves that are novel, far from it, these are more vanilla than Robert Mathew Van Winkle. Rather, it’s how these options are implemented that makes them interesting.

Normally when you make a selection in a game on difficulty, it usually changes exactly ONE THING: relative health of the player and damage dealt by the enemies. It might also change how much recovery items recover, or possibly how many supplies you obtain in general if they’re thinking it through a bit more. Rarely, it will also affect enemy capability, but this usually done rather simply as well; in shooters the enemy accuracy gets better, and in some action games, foes move more quickly.

For the vast majority of games though, difficulty selections still only affect that ONE THING: health and damage scaling.

Knights of the Round Table Boss

You know what they say: Larger feats mean longer health bars.

Ignoring the fact that this is just boring because it’s ubiquitous (it’s tempting to say this is the core problem, but standard techniques are usually that way for a reason), this method of altering difficulty feels . . . rather unsatisfactory to me. Mostly because it has such a narrow focus.

If a game has literally only one aspect to it, say combat, then changing the health parameters on different settings works fine. But most games don’t just feature combat. Most games also challenge the player’s ability to explore, solve puzzles or avoid instant death traps and hazards. A damage scaling system does nothing to affect the player’s ability to overcome these problems.

Sure, putting Doom on hard will make all the enemies tougher, but it does nothing to help the player find the red key they need to progress. In Call of Duty, yes on higher difficulties you will get shot more quickly, but the hidden intel items are just as difficult to find on “Recruit” as they are on “Veteran”. Then there’s just the simple fact that Lava pits are still pretty much death, no matter how hard or easy you set a game.

MArio in the Lava Pit

Lava = Dead. Even on the cover of the game.

So if your game features elements of exploration, non-combat challenges, or player controlled acrobatics (not the uber simple Prince of Persia 2K8 kind) then difficulty selection that only affects the combat isn’t really doing its job properly. Why is this something which doesn’t have to be a problem? Well, that takes us back to Captain America: Super Soldier actually.

In Super Soldier, changing the difficulty alters a heck of a lot more than just Cap’s ability to take a hit or the HYDRA soldier’s ability to do likewise. For one, it removes the medium and easy level health regeneration entirely, and this forces the player to rely on Cap’s special abilities to regain health mid-fight, which has the effect of entirely changing how you play the game. But more importantly, it borrows the Arkham method of adding or subtracting visual cues to the game.

See, when on “normal” or “easy” in both games, when a baddie is about to punch your hero a little warning symbol appears. In Arkham it was, naturally, a Batman logo. In Super Soldier, this takes the form of different colored rings that flash around the enemy indicating whether an attack can be dodged, blocked or countered. Playing on hard in both games removes these cues entirely, which does make it more difficult to battle enemies (as you have to rely on watching enemy animations for tells), but you also get the immediate benefit of a much cleaner presentation. Action sequences look a lot nicer without a bunch of random colors and symbols flying all over the place.

Batman Kapow

Not being seen when this is on screen: someone getting punched.

So far this is just another way of affecting the combat, but that’s when the developers of Super Soldier actually thought things through a step further. As these visual cues also apply to the game’s collectibles and interactive objects. On normal, you get little highlights around these items. On hard, you don’t. This means that the game actually DOES make exploration and item finding easier for those who want it, and harder for those who don’t want the help. Thus, actually addressing difficulty for more aspects of the game other than just the combat!

Good job Next Level Games! You get it. I’d give you some pie, but you’re Canadian . . . so Poutine?

Poutine is kinda gross looking.

How is it that this is a Canadian staple, yet it’s the U.S. with the obesity issues? Oh no, wait. I remember. It’s because we made the Double Down, isn’t it?

The last time I actually saw something similar was way back in 2008, in Bionic Commando Re-Armed. Actually, I still consider that game’s difficulty modifiers to be one of the best examples of how to do them properly.

You see, in BCR, difficulty affected every aspect of the game. Sure enemies had more health and did more damage, but it also added a whole lot more to their actual abilities too. On higher difficulties, they also gained the ability to toss grenades and shoot diagonally, or even chase you from place to place, putting greater pressure on the player. Easier modes also gave you unlimited lives. But every difficulty selection affected the hacking mini-game (which you did at least once a level) dramatically.

On easy the mini-game, which was sort of like a weird game of labyrinth in a cyberspace Rubik’s Cube, could usually be solved in three or four moves, and there was no time limit. On harder modes, it got far more complex, added extra elements (like teleportation), and had a time limit on top of it.

Most interestingly though, were the ways the game improved safety while swinging around on easier difficulties. Here, extra platforms were actually added to levels, some over deadly pits and traps that would otherwise kill you outright. If you played the game on a tougher mode, these objects were simply excised, so you wouldn’t even notice there was anything amiss. THIS is how you do difficulty folks!

Bionic Commando Rearmed Poster

Oh and the rest of the game is like, totally amazing and stuff.

So why do most developers not go above the norm? Why is it we usually get only the simple system of “hard means you shoot the baddie six times instead of three”?

Well, as with most apparent oversights in game development, time is the most likely culprit, along with the belief that it’s just not worth the effort. Crafting unique ways to aid the player or altered situations based on difficulty requires extra work done on ALL aspects of the game. Yet, since people usually only play a game once (and most won’t even finish them) the unique content on the other difficulties they won’t play, is also content they won’t see. So why bother making things that a third to two thirds of your audience won’t even know is there in the first place?

It’s much, much simpler to just fiddle with a few ratios and sliders here and there, and alter a couple of preexisting background statistics. Keep difficulty on it’s simple focus on health rates. Besides, at this point it’s an almost completely accepted, dare I say it . . . TRADITION?!

*looks around*

Whew.

I was afraid for a sec.

You see, if you ever say “TRADITION!” too loud, this weird milkman comes by an-

YouTube Preview Image

Personally, I prefer “If I Were A Rich Man”.

Wow, how did we stray into musical territory? Tevye!!! Curse you and your catchy refrains!

Anyway, I think I speak for the rest of the Metro City council when I say that the “traditional” system DOES work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for more. So I’m just going to say propose a simple recommendation of commendation.

It is hereby recognized by the council of Metro City, that should any developer(s) go above and beyond the call of duty, and break with the time honored (if uninspired) tradition of only creating a system of difficulty modifiers based on health and/or damage scaling, and instead create a more novel and interesting system based on multiple factors and covering all aspects of the game’s mechanics, they are to be commended. Doing so will immediately put the developer’s works for immediate consideration of an official seal of approval from this governing body. In addition, it entitles said developer(s) to one entry ticket into the Monthly Metro City Raffle. Winners will receive one (1) Certificate of Mayoral Pardon, which will legally spare them a single punch from in the face should they make a future error in judgement, and also one (1) free pair of Mayoral Slacks pictured below.

Mike Haggar Slacks

So until next time everyone, just remember that just because it’s tradition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow it.

Strive for the best! Reach for the pants!

City Tuesday and Chris Zukowski – An Interview with an Independent

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July 18th, 2011 at 8:40 am

In our ongoing mission to define the facets that make gaming the unique art form it is and has to potential to become, the Metro City Reform Committee has attempted to contact various people who actually make games. Unfortunately most were intimidated by our impeccable physiques, “accept no substitutes” attitude, and brilliant repartee. These jealous fools were afraid to return our calls, and even now hide in shame over it.

One developer wasn’t afraid though. His name is Chris Zukowski, and he’s got a little Independent Game coming out later this summer. It’s called City Tuesday.

For those not familiar with the scene, Indie games have been steadily gaining popularity and notice over the last half a dozen years or so. Whereas in 2004, the few resources and high costs of entry forced those attempting to break in to rely on only the most traditional of methods, namely shopping around to secure a publisher (as with The Behemoth’s Alien Hominid), nowadays there’s a new venue that an individual or small development team can turn to in order to release their games to the public: the downloadable marketplace.

Downloadable gaming’s low cost of entry has made it a haven of self-reliant digital dilettantes trying to break into the industry and prove their worth. One needs to look no further than the enormous success of Minecraft to see just how far reaching an Indie game can get.

Minecraft Demotivational

Never underestimate the power of building things out of other things.

For the console users that want to experience this swiftly growing, rambunctious community, they can turn to the Xbox 360 sitting in their living room. Thanks to an initiative started by Microsoft in 2008, you can peruse over a thousand Xbox LIVE Indie Games (or XBLIG for short) available.

Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, here are 5 worth checking out for only a buck each.

“But wait!” you say, “Those games are all old! What if I want to play something new? Something exciting? Something that truly shows off what Indie Games are all about?”

Well that brings us out of our introductory tangent and back to the matter at hand: Chris Zukowski’s City Tuesday.

YouTube Preview Image

For those not watching the video (even though you should), in City Tuesday, you’ll take control of a man (via a delightful art style inspired by subway safety signage) and live out the last five minutes of his life. The goal? To try to stop a recently discovered terrorist plot. But there’s a catch.

Taking a page from the 1993 Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, these five minutes repeat endlessly until you get it right and prevent disaster from striking. As in that film, you’ll spend just as much time observing and learning about the residents of the city as actually trying to prevent your eternally repeating fate.

It’s an interesting concept, one worthy of a closer look. To that end I, action correspondent Adam R. Thomas, sat down with the game’s creator Chris Zukowski to discuss City Tuesday in depth. Or should I say, he was the one brave enough to face a certified member of the committee? Regardless, we got to talkin’ ’bout stuff.

Be warned: The following, though merely a transcription of our discussion, is so full of insight and intrigue that we must recommend those not yet at ease with their personal philosophical stances on the world, and expectant mothers not read, lest they forever have their minds altered.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Adam Robert Thomas: First and foremost, how are you doing? Need anything? Coffee? Tea?

Chris Zukowski: Coffee please. Thank you. (sips coffee) What is this, it’s delicious! Wait, let me guess. An Italian roast with a hint of . . . a Kona blend?

ART: err . . . Folger’s Instant actually.

CZ: Oh. Well. It’s still pretty good.

ART: Also, to get this out of the way . . . .A/S/L?

CZ: I’m 31. Male, obviously. Tucson, Arizona.

Picture of Chris Zukowski

This is Chris. That’s his boomstick.

ART: So why five minutes? Was this something you figured out from the start?

CZ: My goal with City Tuesday is to get players to really learn a crosscut of a moment in time. After playing the game for a while players would know what was going to happen because they remembered it from a previous play through.

ART: But why five minutes? Why not three, or ten?

CZ: Five minutes allows the player to see the curve of the earth so to say. If it was just one minute for example, the world is over before you can get acclimated. You don’t have time to sit and just watch the world go by or for any of the games characters to do anything. If it was longer, a player’s short term memory would get confused and you couldn’t remember what happened earlier in the cycle. Plus, it’s a good hook. You can always say “Just one more try, it’s only five minutes.”

ART: So if I had stupidly good reflexes, this a game I could finish in my second or third five minute cycle?

CZ: No. A player like that won’t finish it any faster than someone who is trying to paying attention. I actually hate those parts in games with a “ticking time bomb” and you shoot your way to the end in time. City Tuesday is not that.

ART: So it’s more like Majora’s Mask, where your ability to learn over each individual cycle is what gates your progress?

CZ: Exactly. Observing the city and watching where people go is the path to victory. Players will go through many cycles that won’t yield any bombs, but in each they will gain knowledge for the next play through.

ART: I’m a big fan of the overall concept by the way.

City Tuesday Screenshot Valet

Its easy to see multiple influences on City Tuesday in this one image: Frogger, Pitfall, valets trying to get tips . . .

CZ: Well, thanks.

ART: So what was your inspiration?

CZ: I love it when a game allows you to play with the impossible. I don’t just mean some fantasy like being a knight or shooting someone and getting away with it. Cosplayers are essentially pretending to be knights. You can play paintball if you want to shoot someone.

I am talking about games that aren’t possible due to the laws of physics or technology. Think of Portal. There is no way I’ll ever be able to approximate that in the real world. City Tuesday allows you to play in a world where you know exactly what will happen. I think we all have fantasies about what we would do differently if we could relive high school knowing what we do now.

ART: So what happens when time runs out?

CZ (with a devilish grin): The end of the world is an awesome thing to behold. Even if it happens every five minutes.

ART: Will the skips be tracked like lives? Can I compete with other players to see who can complete the game in the fewest skips?

CZ: They are tracked, but I don’t want to make it a competitive thing. If there’s a reward for solving the game in fewer cycles it implies that it’s bad to just to hang around and watch the world go by. The world in Groundhog Day was both a heaven and a hell. I want the same feeling in City Tuesday.

ART: The map design and theme remind me a lot of the old Activision Atari game Keystone Kapers; a 2D playing field divided into segments and rooms connected like corridors, with a theme of stopping a crime. Is this an intentional decision or a coincidence?

CZ: I never played Keystone Kapers actually.

ART: Oh? Well let’s see if we can’t fix that a bit.

(We watch a clip of the game on YouTube)

CZ: Hmm. Funny enough, my biggest inspiration for level design was another Atari game made by Activision from the same timeframe: Pitfall. I really like static screens that reveal themselves when you get to the screen edge. You anticipate what’s going to be in the next screen. Sometimes it even surprises you. Old Sierra adventure games, Pitfall, Metroid and the first Zelda are excellent examples of this. We lost that in most contemporary 2D games since the world scrolls with you, and in 3D games you can always see into the distance. It’s less surprising when small bits of the world drip into view.

ART: You’ve mentioned on your blog for the game that the art style was inspired by subway warning signs on the way to GDC; care to elaborate any further?

CZ: The BART signs were the initial spark, because those signs in particular create such a story! Several little stick figures escaping from a disabled train!

BART warning sign

Notice the blank faces. As calm as Hindu cows.

It’s always morbidly funny to see warning signs. Such horrible things are happening to these stick figures but they remain calm, expressionless and almost . . . noble. I wanted to expand on this tension between horror and humor, and that’s why I used that visual style.

ART: So did you just choose the BART signs and go with it, or did you “audition” other styles from around the world? What makes San Francisco’s warning signs stand out from say, a United Airline’s pamphlet?

CZ: Actually, I did quite a bit of research into signage. One book that was really key was Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw. It’s all about how hard it was to get standard signs implemented across all of New York City. I was also influenced by all the infographics that have become popular in the last half decade. There are a bunch of signage styles all mixed in.

ART: Do you know when exactly the game is releasing on XBLIG? What are you charging?

CZ: No. It will be this summer though. It’s in the running to become part of the “Summer Uprising” promotion, but the votes aren’t in just yet.

ART: Well, here’s hoping you get in.

CZ: Thanks.

ART: I’m sure you’re more than aware that very few XBLIG reach huge sales numbers, even some of the better ones. Why do you think that is?

CZ: I don’t know why XBLIG have such poor sales. I mean, it is right there on the dashboard along with the arcade games. Maybe it’s because it feels like the public access channel of gaming? There’s also a lot to sift through.

ART: True.

CZ: This might be controversial to say with the XBLIG community –

ART: It’s OK, we like controversy here.

CZ: . . . but what if it’s fine that a good XBLIG game sells poorly? Despite a game being a quality product that also gets good press?

ART: Well, the obvious reason would be that it means people are missing out on some great games.

CZ: True, but hear me out. XBLIG is a great platform for new developers. There is no piracy, and it is a standardized platform that has all of the same hardware. There are no complicated contracts, and no complicated online store to set up. All of this means that primarily, it’s a great wading pool to get started.

ART: I can see that . . .

CZ: If you fail, there’s little risk. If your game is well received by reviewers it might be a sign that it’s time to move up to a bigger platform, like XBLA or Steam. The baseball farm system is a good metaphor. In the minor leagues you don’t earn a lot, but you want to play harder so that you can eventually move into the big leagues. There are a number of really great games, such as Miner Dig Deep and all the radiangames . . .

ART: I was a big fan of Fluid actually.

Fluid picture

“Visually striking Pac-Man in the bloodstream” is probably the best descriptor for Fluid.

CZ: Exactly! If no one’s picking it on XBLIG, it should be on Steam where it can sell better. Hopefully getting poor sales but positive reviews can encourage them to pursue a bigger league that appreciates them more. But, that will mean more complexity, such as negotiating contracts and hiring artists. I think XBLIG should maintain it’s almost zero cost point of entry in order to serve as an incubator for future game developers.

ART: That’s a fair point of view. So, maybe I misread this, but on your site you mentioned something about being in some form of gaming journalism?

CZ: No, I was NOT in game journalism. I wrote game walkthroughs on a site called gameintestine.com. It’s still live, but mothballed. The idea was to provide a game walkthrough on how to solve the game’s puzzles but coupled with commentary. Kind of like a director’s commentary track, but by someone who had nothing to do with the game.

ART: So why give it up?

CZ: It was super time consuming. Also, although it was fun, I felt like I was just describing something I wanted to do rather than doing it. Rather than just talk about games, I wanted to make one. So up comes City Tuesday. Plus, more people want to play games than read about them.

ART: Hey!

CZ: Well it’s true.

ART: Yeah, well we commentators at least provide a service, when we’re promoting you developers.

CZ: Heh. Fair enough.

ART: So how are you endeavoring to keep the game intuitive for the new gamer?

CZ: One of the leitmotifs that City Tuesday plays off of are the overly specific tooltips accompanying many info graphics. They help describe the basics and fit into the theme. For a more seasoned gamer these tips will be humorous and just part of the game’s world.

ART: Speaking of the seasoned gamer, how are you trying to appeal to the hardcore crowd?

CZ: Lord help me if I try to make a game for the hardcore. I don’t know who those guys are. I always picture the guys who rant on forums. They are an intimidating bunch and they don’t seem to enjoy things.

ART: Hmm. Considering City Tuesday is fundamentally asking the player to see what they would do if they knew a terrorist attack was forthcoming – what would you do yourself in that situation?

CZ: I’ve thought about that, definitely. I’d probably do something very passive aggressive to stop it. Like, extra locks on the gates they’d go through, or stand next to a security guard and say “doesn’t he look suspicious, sure would like to see what he is hiding.”

City Tuesday Bank

Or another solution? Rob a bank and get the cops in on the situation. Or just rob the bank to get some cash, either way you come out ahead.

ART: So what’re you playing these days? Or have you found that making a game has drained you of your desire to play other games?

CZ: Not my desire, just my time. I have several games on backlog to reward myself with when I finish City Tuesday. I did play through all of Portal 2 and loved it. Also I sneak in sessions of that puzzle game Chime. I love how it feels like a really hip bar that is cooler than you but you go anyway because everything and everyone in there is pretty to look at.

ART: While we’re on it: Favorite game of all time?

CZ: It shifts but my favorite games are the ones that help me think about what I’m making. Right now it’s games that have a real persistence to them. I loved Animal Crossing because you were stuck in a town with a structure that you could modify. Similarly I really like the X-COM games because you play within a globe that you had to really invest in and slowly build up your bases.

ART: Who’s your gaming hero? I suppose that could be open to interpretation actually, so who’s your game MAKING hero?

CZ: I think Will Wright. More than I like his games actually. I just love how he uses everything to influence what he puts in them and man can he talk about them.

ART: What’s your philosophy on designing a game?

CZ: Well that’s a pretty broad question . . .

ART: Fair enough. How about, say, specifically in regards to challenge?

CZ: I like to play games that you have to master to enjoy. I love Starcraft 2, Ninja Gaiden, and N+. But when I’m making a game I want people to hear what I am trying to say and see everything that I made. Working on City Tuesday sometimes I feel like I’m creating this awesome model train set so that I can someday have everyone over to take a look at it.

ART: So this isn’t going to be Super Meat Boy’s bonus stages then?

CZ: Oh, definitely not.

ART: You’re doing this all yourself. How long has this project taken?

CZ: It’s taken me about six months now. I probably have two more months to go.

ART: By the way I was wondering: did you do the theme from the trailer? If so, nice job. If not, what is that and where can I buy it?

CZ: No, I’m no musician. Zero rhythm. The trailer music is by Isolée and the song is named Schrapnell. It was used as the intro music to the New Yorker fiction podcast and I kept listening to the podcast just for the intro.

ART: Big, loaded question time: Do you think the gaming industry is entering an “Age of the Auteur” as I’m beginning to suspect? It seems more and more notice is being given to individual executive producers/directors etc. Even in the big budget AAA games market. Personally I’m seeing this at least in part, as a reaction to the success of indie games as an outlet. What’s your take on gaming auteurs in an industry that’s so team and studio decision oriented?

CZ: I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion about auteurship –

ART: Yeah, we could be here all day.

CZ: Exactly. But I do wish all XBLIG devs would just put their names up front instead of some silly studio name they made up with their friends like “dancing squirrel games” or some random crap like that. I mean, i know their game studio is just a couch in their living room. Why hide that? Try and sell your game on the personalities of the group of guys making the game. If I learned who the person was making it I would be more likely to buy their next game even if I didn’t like the genre.

ART: Own up to the fact that you’re an individual, in essence?

CZ: Yeah, just put your names on it and try to make it personal to you. Don’t try and pretend that you’re some professional game studio. I think game developers revealing more about themselves can help make their game stand out.

City Tuesday Cityscape

With it’s striking and simple art style, this is definitely a game that has no problem standing out.

ART: So have you found the Indie Games community helpful? What don’t you like?

CZ: I’m still pretty new to the scene; this is my first game. But so far everyone is nice.

ART: On the other end of that question: Is this it for you? I mean, if you could never make another game again (I dunno, you lose your hands and tongue in a freaky glue mishap), would you be happy with just City Tuesday?

CZ: Hmm. Well right now I feel like I want to make 1000 games before I die. So I sure hope it isn’t the only game I can make.

ART: Well, what if it does well? What would you do with more of a budget? Or an unlimited one?

CZ: I’m not entirely sure, but I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to make games that take me 2 years to create and are “epic tales” with cut scenes and dual wielding and karma systems, water physics and procedurally generated worlds. I prefer short novellas.

My game may be a little rough around the edges, but at least it’s interesting. Besides, I can try something new in another 6 months.

ART: Sort of like a short story. Actually, that’s pretty admirable.

CZ: Thanks.

ART: That reminds me of something, I think it was Stephen King maybe? “A Short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger”. Sometimes that’s all you really need at the moment.

CZ: Sometimes it is.

ART: Alright, let’s wrap it up. So why should the folks reading this first check out, then immediately buy City Tuesday?

CZ: City Tuesday is a really different game and nothing in your education or experience can prepare you for it. Too many games are based in a fantasy world that doesn’t have the slightest resemblance to your life (unless you are a warrior prince living in a far off land). I want to change that with City Tuesday. I’m not sure you will like it, but I am sure that it will be a very strange game that will make you wish more games should try something like it.

ART: Well, I know I’m sold at least.

CZ: Heh. Thanks. I just hope others are too.

ART: And thanks again Chris for your time.

CZ: It’s been a pleasure.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

We here at the Metro City Reform Committee would like to thank Chris yet again for spending his time to talk. He’s one of many independent game makers out there, struggling to craft unique entertainment in an industry that often seems like it only ever wants to throw the same brown-and-gray military shooters at us over and over again. Folks like him need our support, and more importantly moohlah if they’re ever going to keep trying at stuff like this.

So do him, and yourself, a favor by checking out City Tuesday when it comes out a bit later this summer. We’d have a more specific date for you, but “The Man” is keeping us down. Don’t worry, the MCRC has sent our finest goons to beat the info out of him.

Until that happens, if you want further information you can also check out Chris’ website about the game: Return to Adventure Mountain!

If you made this far . . . thanks for reading! Next time: we bring you ROBOTS!!!

Cover of City Tuesday

Batman, Auteurism and Supreme Court Decisions! Oh My!

by

July 12th, 2011 at 5:44 am

Events are brewing in the world of gaming dear readers. Big events. Sure, I suppose that’s pretty common – something’s always happening somewhere.

But one of these events is of a political nature, so it would be remiss of we members of the Reform Committee to let them slip past without comment, as you might with a very attractive call gir- I mean . . . er, there’s no way any upstanding citizen would let anything slip by our ever vigilant gaze! Never!

So let’s take a look at a trend that’s been building, and a little decision made recently by the Supreme Court of these United States shall we?

But first, some old business.

Um, not THAT old.

After the intense scrutiny given to the issue of health regeneration in video games, a faithful reader sent me an email that posed a solid question. Rephrased for time it boiled down to:

“If regeneration is so terrible, what’s the best way to do health recovery in a game then, smart guy?”

Firstly, thank you for recognizing my intelligence.

Secondly, the obvious answer is that there isn’t a best or perfect method that will fit all games. Ideally, every game should use a system that is tailored to the experience, and hopefully newer methods for health systems are currently being devised by the game developers of the world to increase the sheer number of options available in the future.

However, that’s kind of boring, so if I had to pick one, I’d say the absolute best health system currently out there is the one featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Why?

What he said.

Though the “Goddamn Batman” he might be, for many years Bruce Wayne’s track record in gaming was . . . less than great, one could say. If they were being generous. If they weren’t, they’d say that almost every Batman game prior to Arkham Asylum contained more suck than Vampire Kirby at a Vacuum convention.

Thankfully though, Arkham Asylum broke the curse of terrible Batman games with its strong narrative, excellent combat, well constructed level design, and thrilling stealth. But one thing it also had going for it, was a beautiful solution to health recovery.

It was incredibly simple actually: you recovered health in equal measure to experience gained. You earned experience for all sorts of things; from beating up bad guys to discovering collectibles or solving the little puzzles left for you by the Riddler. At first this may not seem a big deal, but it solved a lot of problems.

First, it was already tied to something you would gain and want anyway – experience points. Second, if you walked away from a fight injured and low on health it provided an added incentive to explore the game and discover the many hidden items tucked away, as this was also HOW you got health back. Third, if you were in the middle of a fight, it meant that the fastest way to get some HP back was to quickly knock out another opponent, thus promoting swift conflict resolution and aggression. Finally, since the game had a multiplier for experience based off not getting hit, the best way to get the most health back was to actually play the game better!

So . . . it promoted exploration, aggressive actions over cowardly ones, and improvement to your game skill, AND was tied into a system you’d already want to maximize?

Elegantly simple, and brutally effective.

Both accurate descriptors of the game in general, actually.

If there’s a problem with this method, it might be that it really only makes sense FOR Batman. Or at least for brawlers, where the vast amount of damage received is from punches and kicks and the like, so you could just say Batman is “shrugging off the blows” due to his immense willpower. It makes less sense in games where you’re getting shot or stabbed . . . but then health systems rarely worry about this sort of thing, so I dunno.

Anyways, this is not the topic we’re looking for.

Move along. Move along.

One of the major points that’s been made in the whole “games not being a valid form of art” argument is that there are no gaming auteurs, or at least none that go un-neutered.

I’m not going to go completely into what an “Auteur” is other than to say the basic idea for those not in the know, is that in film, despite the fact that movies are usually made by many, many people, one person (most often the director) holds the process together and it is their vision and desires that shape the final work into something that reflects themselves. Or to put it incredibly simply: One dude (or dudette) is in charge, and it’s their movie.

The sentiment that there are none of these talented individuals in the gaming industry is true in part; many games are designed by committee, or publishers used executive control to stifle a personal vision from being fully manifest. Rarely was the moment in the last century where you could just play a game and know who made it before looking at the credits or without being told. Heck, early on, developers had to stick their names in as secrets if they wanted their names on a game at all!

However, if I can get a little Lady Galadriel on y’all: The world is changed. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. The world of gaming is changing, and soon none will be left to remember how it once was.

This guy remembers. But the chances of him passing the histories of gaming to his kids are the same as what he isn’t: slim.

As I mentioned in my review of Shadows of the Damned, we’ve hit a turning point, and officially entered a different era in gaming; where the auteur is going to be come more and more important. Shadows of the Damned just feels like an official “coming out party” to me. And it’s about ‘damned’ time.

Eh? Eh? Get it? “Damned” is . . . in the title? Ah forget it.

I’m not going to get into a big spiel as to why this happened, or go through the hidden history of the “secret” auteurs in gaming, or even debate whether or not it’s a good thing (and there is a very valid argument for why auteurs could be detrimental to games). I could easily spend entirely too much time on this subject and I still want to talk about other stuff today. Suffice to say I earnestly believe that an epochal shift has occurred over the last decade.

For one thing, thanks to the internet it’s now much easier to know exactly who is leading our games. Many (though certainly not all) of these folks have imparted signature styles of their own into their works, and since we can now track them more easily, we can see how they grow (or don’t) as auteurs. Heck, that’s not to mention the slowly (and I do mean slowly) rising importance of the indie games scene, which pretty much depend on individuals trying their best to bring their unique visions to life.

The major studios are just starting to catch on to this, so soon we’re going to be awash in gaming auteurs. With the next wave of game developers coming from schools now offering degrees in the game design, the surplus of ambitious kids wanting to be the next big thing will all but guarantee this becoming a permanent addition to the industry.

Tighten up those graphics

Behold the future geniuses of the next great art movement folks! They might not look like much yet, but give them time.

If you still don’t think we’ve reached this point then I simply ask: why not?

I’d also ask you to consider a few designers and their works. People like Fumito Ueda, a painter of pastoral tragedy; Ken Levine, a playwright who prefers the plot to engulf you; Warren Spector, who espouses a philosophy of designing problems instead of puzzles; consider these men and try to deny that more and more, we’re in an age of the auteur.

Mind you, even if you want to drink from my kool-aid supply, it doesn’t necessarily make identifying a gaming auteur any easier. If two games have similar art styles, it doesn’t necessarily mean a damn thing about the design of the game. Then there’s the fact that so many games actually are designed by committee, yet resemble another work that originally was an expression of personality and stylistic choice. How do you tell them apart?

Thankfully, benevolent Mayor Mike Haggar is here to give us some pointers!

Mike Haggar by Crowbrandon

  1. Since games are fundamentally rule sets, the main signature of a gaming auteur is how they craft the rules of the game, not if a game shares a similar art style with another.
  2. Since a genre could easily necessitate a specific rule set, a distinctive implementation or philosophy of the same rule set over multiple permutations of the same game aids in identifying a style of design.
  3. Since the mark of a great auteur is that they can be distinctive in multiple genres, themes are just as important as rules in identifying them (especially if rule sets must necessarily change due to genre shift).

Therefore: In order to best identify a gaming auteur they have to have led multiple games, possibly overseen at least one sequel or similar kind of game, and ideally, a few more games from different genres (which is quite rare).

Thanks Mr. Mayor!

Of course these are just some preliminary ideas on how to go about this, if you’d even want to. An in-depth investigation will need to be held if we want to really figure out the best ways to identify gaming auteurs at all, and debate the merits of the concept. For now, I’m going to tentatively file this under the {FUTURE TOPIC} folder.

Still, if we could, one day all the gaming connoisseurs and aficionados will have a nice clear method for looking at a developer’s string of games and being able to know their best works from their least, when they were constrained by publisher mandate and when they weren’t, and of course the time honored tradition of acting snooty around those that aren’t as well versed in the subject matter.

Art Critique of Sonic the Hedgehog

Personally, I prefer the early works of Yuji Naka, and anyone who doesn’t is obviously an unwashed heathen!

Unfortunately, even if gaming has and is going to promote more individual creative control more and more often, it still doesn’t settle that nagging question: are games art? After all, you can have a personal creative vision on building different types of sex toys for women over 60, that doesn’t mean that you’re making art, it just means you have a good sense of craftsmanship.

Which brings us to our final topic folks. . . the big ‘un.

Take it away, judge from Phoenix Wright!

Phoenix Wright Judge Supreme court Video Game ruling

Yes, by a 7-2 ruling, gaming is now protected under the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution. Legally, the medium is now the same as sculpture, painting or film. It is OFFICIALLY ART.

Again . . . it’s about damned time.

But what does this mean, really?

Well first off, hopefully gaming can no longer be used to further the political agendas of politicians pandering to generational fear and lawyers with about as much credibility as Cassandra trying to make a name for themselves and failing harder than Snooki at a spelling bee.

It also means that without a legal Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, developers are better able to defend their works on the grounds of artistic integrity. With such a precedent debacles such as the one over Six Days in Fallujah may never need to occur again.

This also sets a precedent with further connotations. Namely, if games are now legally art, can the artists apply for existing grants for the arts? A small enclave of game makers with better resources than current indie developers and no obligation to marketing teams or meeting sales figures is bound to generate some truly wild results.

EDIT: Apparently, this isn’t as theoretical as I thought, it’s already begun.

Most importantly though, it means that publishers and developers are now beholden to no one but themselves. They can no longer cowardly pretend that a controversial choice could set a precedent that would harm the medium. There is no longer a refuge in adolescent claims that “The Man” will stop you if you try to do anything new and groundbreaking. “The Man” is on your side!

Heck. He even wants to go out for burgers!

But with this new found protection and officially recognized legitimacy there also comes a responsibility: game makers must prove themselves worthy of having earned these rights.

With this protection, there will be no long feared backlash. No unjust banning. No fascistic enforcers ruining a programmer’s magnum opus. What happened to the comic book industry in the 50’s, won’t happen to this medium. If a decade from now, gaming remains in the cultural ghetto it’s arguably stuck in with comic books, there is now no one left to blame but game makers themselves!

If the United States recognizes the medium as an art, there’s no reason NOT to elevate the medium to compensate! Prove the Eberts of the world wrong, and encourage games like Heavy Rain, Peacemaker and Echo Bazaar to appear in greater numbers! We need more of THESE types of games!

Not because our current “Murder-Death-Kill simulators” are bad, or that we’re ashamed of them. But the audience for gaming is both growing AND getting older, and we need to give gamers more intellectual and emotional engagement opportunities along with the machine gun fire. To prove to our critics that we, both the players and developers, enjoy cracking open our skulls with insight as much as with bullets! To have a more balanced cultural diet, if you will.

Video Game Meathead Team

We’ve got MORE than enough protein, thank you.

But . . . these are just my hopes I suppose. Just a pretty good idea of where to take the medium now that there’s a moment of respectability to build upon. There’s just as much a chance that the industry could fall off this precipice by giving into sensationalist, detestable drivel now that there’s no way to stop it.

This doesn’t seem too likely. But then, who would have thought that gaming could have crashed once a different court decision allowed 3rd party development (and thus a flood of crap) to be introduced back in the early eighties? Atari couldn’t stop it then, and look what happened to them.

Gravestone of Atari

To be fair, they’ve risen from the grave and roam the earth once more. But then, this industry has always loved its zombies.

All I know for sure (and as I said earlier) is that the world of gaming IS changing. The shift to supporting the auteur, along with the legal protection to further guarantee their creative vision all but guarantees that this is the case.

What will it change into? I have no idea.

Should we be concerned? Only if nothing is done to change the status quo for the better.

Will this change be a good thing? Again, I really haven’t a clue.

Oh wait! I still have a “phone a friend” left. Maybe we can answer that last one. But seeing as Haggar already chimed in; who to pick? I know! I’ll pick . . . M. Bison!

Hey Bison! Is it a good thing that the gaming industry is changing?

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There you have it folks!

If even an evil Dictator bent on world domination; for whom no day is more important than any average Tuesday can see that . . . who are we to disagree?

The Defense for Regeneration (and Canada).

by

June 30th, 2011 at 7:48 am

LAST TIME an the Metro City Reform Committee - SOME STUFF HAPPENED. Then a Recess was called.

THIS TIME on the Metro City Reform Committee - RECESS IS ADJOURNED! Let’s finish this.

When last the Committee was called to order I detailed four major problems with the rising trend of video game health regeneration, but there were still left over questions and I promised to offer some answers . . . just not right then. As it turns out, NOW is then. Or I mean, then is now. Or maybe it’s –

Now and later?

oh screw it! I’m getting to the point already!

The first part of this discussion received flak from some who felt it only presented one side. I disagree, as I pointed out how regeneration worked rather well in Halo (and subsequently Halo: Reach/ODST, which used the original system). But taking a council seat in Metro City means I have an oath to abide by. Part of that oath requires that I give equal time to both sides of an argument in the interests of fair play, so that’s what we’ll discuss today.

Also I realize that I may have used Wolverine (a Canadian), and Canada overall in a pejorative manner. Considering the things I love about Canada; William Shatner, Kids in the Hall, BioWare, the concept of apologizing . . . I just want to say I’m sorry.

Yes you are Canada. Now stop rioting over hockey.

People I am not apologizing to: Marc Guggenheim, game developers who procedurally generate levels. They know why.

Before we get to the ways health regeneration can work, I’d like to address some of the points made by some of the people who submitted feedback to the previous article –

The Counter Arguments:

1) It allows for less waiting due to fewer reloads.

Part of the double-pronged primary argument for regeneration based on time. Basically, the idea is that before regeneration players were constantly reloading quicksaves whenever even a minor mistake was made (aka “Save Scumming”), and the cumulative wait-time of hiding behind cover is less than the waiting during these reloads.

At first this seems pretty reasonable. No one likes waiting. If you’re saving the player time overall, it’s a net gain. But I call shenanigans on this “Anal-Retentive Player who is min-maxing their progression, yet has other stuff to do” defense.

Shenanigans: It’s a good, bipartisan, “mob rule” initiative.

Quicksaving is only a feature on some (but not all) PC games. Most console or portable games don’t have it. So this argument that “everyone” did it is specious at best, ignoring a large portion of gamers who couldn’t have been doing this. What of games with negligible load times? Regenerating health would be the cause of delaying the player, NOT the quickloads. But even if it weren’t dismissing such a large segment of the gaming population, or that it’s really quite specific to the streamer used in the game, constant quickloading is a player choice.

Even if you never realized it was a choice, it was. Formalized, the choice would read “You’ve taken damage but didn’t die, do you reload to try again for a greater margin of success, or press on hoping to recover later?”

Pure health regeneration creates incentive for the player to not make this choice, or removes it entirely. This isn’t by itself terrible, and some would say the choice was needless anyway, but I’m of the mind that any game is usually better if the player has more choices available.

A minor point, but if I want to attempt a personal challenge to restrict health items on a playthrough, it’s good to know I can make that choice.

Also consider, if the delay time between quickloading and waiting for HP to regen is equivalent, then when replaying a section over you’re actively engaged in playing the game some more! When waiting for a health bar to fill on its own, you are not. All things being equal, is it not better for the player to be active over being passive?

Overall, if you favor an active player and want to encourage experimentation this is a pretty weak point in favor of regeneration.

Char’s Counterargument this ain’t.

2) You don’t waste time scrounging around for health between fights.

Pretty self-explanatory. You aren’t hunting for items that heal you because you don’t need them, and therefore saving time by moving onto the next area more immediately.

This may be the best argument for Health Regeneration. You don’t have to spend time dallying between battles and it allows you to get back into the action more quickly. In an action game, this is usually a good thing.

You know what? I’ll concede this point. I had a whole thing about how inventory health items usually work to accomplish the same function, but it’s a bit redundant. This counter isn’t exactly amazing, but I understand folks not wanting to wait around collecting a bunch of stuff because they feel forced to.

Spider-Man says everybody gets one

So sayeth the Spider . . . man.

3) It prevents impossible scenarios.

Also a simple concept. In theory, since you can’t run out of the “resource” that is the health pickup, the user never causes a “No-Win” scenario due to their own lack of skill or foresight.

This holds up pretty well . . . IF YOU:

> Disregard the fact that usually you’d have to be terrible at a game if you’re on the appropriate difficulty for your skill level (most complaints to the contrary come from those who overestimate their abilities and can’t admit it).
> Pay no mind to the idea that perhaps cheap enemy design is the greater factor in these types of situations.
> Ignore the elephant in the room: the only case this makes for regeneration is that it’s a good technique for easier difficulties, but not overall.

I see no problems with this counter whatsoever. Apropos of nothing, I also see no one in the backseat of the Venture 1.

Let’s be honest here folks. If you get stuck in an unwinnable situation that isn’t due to a bug, then the designers have probably screwed up in other ways. This may have been valid back in the days of Wolfenstein 3D where there were a lot of enemies that had unavoidable attacks, so you pretty much had to absorb hits in order to progress, but guess what? The problem was that the enemies had unavoidable attacks!

Besides, using this reasoning as an excuse to justify enemies that can auto-hit the player was my thinking behind the final point in the last article.

. . .

So where are we so far? Count?

The Count counts to one

“One point in favor of regeneration has gone undisputed. One! Ah ah ah!”

Thanks Count. Seeing as I still need to present some definite positives, let’s move on.

When SHOULD Health Regeneration be used?

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons HP regeneration is a preferable choice over other health systems:

A) You want a “roller coaster” experience.

Take a look at this image, which has been tossed around the internets:

Map Design Over Time

It isn’t far from the truth. Levels in older FPS’s were labyrinthine affairs mostly gated by sets of color coded keys. Nowadays many FPS’s (and games in general) having been freed from the constraints of key hunting, are choosing to become railroads of explosions and set-pieces only paused with exposition that might explain why you’re blowing everything up in order to grab the next Egg MacGuffin. Exploration has become the exception, not the standard.

‘Twould be silly to assume the Guggenheim Effect is the sole cause of gaming trends toward linearity, but it has occurred at roughly the same time, and is probably a factor. The two “features” often come hand in hand, and work very well together considering both are synonymous with pushing the player forward with little time wasted.

Personally, I don’t prefer this type of level design as I’d rather be a rat in a maze than a horse pulling a cart. But that doesn’t mean it’s “wrong”, just different. So for those who prefer this style of level design in your games, go ahead and enjoy the gecko’s advantage of regeneration, as long as you can accept the blinders of a workhorse.

Mr. Horse

Well if I have to be one, I choose Mr. Horse. I hear he doesn’t like it.

B) You don’t know who your audience is.

If there were ever a mechanic that screams “I have no idea who I’m targeting this to”, it’s health regeneration.

If you make a fighting game for example, you know what the standard conventions are: decreasing health bars that fill between rounds. Should you go out of your way to subvert convention, you must make an effort to surprise fans cynical of your changes, or endeavor to improve on an older system. If your changes are ill thought or arbitrary then they’ll be considered self defeating at worst, or interchangeable at best.

Double KO SF2

Not that interchangeable defeat isn’t familiar to fighting game fans.

Point is, many genres have conventions and expectations based on the demographic they appeal to. Ideally, you tailor design decisions to work with or against these expectations for any given audience. When you don’t know who exactly that is though, or you’re trying to expand your audience, using health regeneration can be a good decision since it’s both forgiving and most gamers understand its principles by now.

For example: Mass Effect 2. In the first game, BioWare was appealing to their normal playerbase of RPG aficionados, albeit with a game that emphasized action. For health recovery this meant using a healing potion system, in the form of futuristic “medi-gel”. With the sequel they obviously went for a wider audience and focused more on refining the action elements; tossing in a CoD-like regeneration mechanic was a safe choice since they knew that many action game fans would be familiar with it.

There is nothing wrong with a developer or publisher wanting to expand their player base, and we shouldn’t poo poo those who try to do so. Gaming is a business after all.

. . . and that’s the best I can do on the “Pro” side of this issue. I still feel that the cons more than outweigh the benefits, but though I may not like it (see previous), I do understand that regeneration isn’t going anywhere now its established. This being said, the mechanic can be implemented in a better fashion than it is overall, so let’s look at how that can be (or already has been) achieved.

Thus we enter:

So we enter endgame

ENDGAME.

If you ARE using Health Regeneration, how do you ensure it doesn’t suck?

Let’s look at Mass Effect 2‘s system for a second longer. It’s not exactly a great implementation of regeneration. Why? Well, there’s the fact that it segments the health bar into “health” and “shields” ala Halo but as both regenerate at the same rate this accomplishes nothing, but that’s not really the problem.

You may have noticed a general trend in this regeneration investigation – I find the Call of Duty system of “Pure” regeneration to be the rankest form of the mechanic.

It does nothing to assuage any of the problems already mentioned: lack of scratch damage, annoying bloody screen, promoting cowardice and lazy design overall. But I get its use in CoD seeing as it’s a roller coaster trying to appeal to an incredibly wide audience. But Mass Effect 2 is (in theory) also an RPG, a genre that usually promotes player choices, customization and exploration over linearity.

FF 13 Sazh Scared

Unless you’re playing FF13. In which case, may God have mercy on your soul.

Basic CoD regeneration makes the best sense if you’re never capable of stopping for breath as the game moves along, but Mass Effect has plenty of moments where the player is spending time doing other things: wandering your ship, exploring cities, shopping . . . all times when the player could obtain healing items naturally. Ignoring any other issues, such a simple implementation of the mechanic just seems at odds with the other elements of the game.

Come on BioWare. Other developers have tried to make the mechanic more involved, or tailored the mechanic to work better within all the elements of their games. Using such a simple method is mundane and ill-suited to your purposes. Perhaps consider seeking a new way to use regeneration next time?

A New Way from Wet Hot American Summer

What did you call it . . . “A New Way”?

So let’s propose a bill in the hopes that even if a developer does go with regeneration, it doesn’t need to be as problematic as Call of Duty‘s version. Or to remind developers that they CAN in fact adjust the concept to fit their needs. Thus I present:

The Better Healthcare in Gaming Initiative of 2011
( a.k.a The Commander Shepard Inapt Design Crimes Prevention Act)

In concordance with the by-laws of the Metro City Council, the following is a list of actions developers can undertake in order to improve the gameplay health mechanic wherein the Player Character recovers hit points automatically after not receiving damage over a period of time, otherwise known as “Health Regeneration”. All of these actions have been previously implemented in other games (sources cited).

As the primary goal of this initiative is to prevent mismatched implementation with overall design by providing options, it is strongly recommended that a developer using “Health Regeneration” commit one of the following:

  1. Include another system of recovery along with regeneration.
    Ideally grants players more control over their health, and promotes varied tactics. If no other system of recovery is present, then fewer subsequent options are available.
  2. Examples – Red Dead Redemption (Medicine), inFAMOUS (Electricity)

  3. Use two disparate health bars/states.
    As long as each recovers health in a noticeably different manner or rate. Please note: if BOTH bars regenerate, and do so at roughly the same speed, then this implementation is moot.

    Examples – Halo: Reach (Shields/Health), Gears of War (Standing/Crawling)

  4. Segment the health bar more than once.
    Segmenting the health bar into sections that regenerate individually, but require other mechanics to regain lost segments allows for cumulative (Scratch) damage to remain a threat, ensuring a disincentive to avoid minor injury.
  5. Examples – Transformers: War for Cybertron, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Resistance: The Fall of Man.

  6. Regeneration only refills a segment of total health bar.
    Cumulative Damage is relevant without being too punishing, regeneration still has benefits. A solid compromise.
  7. Examples – F.E.A.R., [PROTOTYPE]

  8. Include standard regeneration, but status effects to prevent it as well.
    Can be used to increase impact on specific threats, or create tension.
  9. Examples – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (Radiation), Metal Gear Solid (Bleeding)

  10. Include standard regeneration, but reduce maximum health with damage.
    Cumulative Damage is present and accentuates overtime whilst maintaining higher effectiveness overall. Perfect compromise?

    Examples – Ninja Gaiden 2, Dragon Age 2

  11. Healing not regenerative, but draws from other resource which is.
    Allows player control of when to refill health, increasing interactivity. Cumulative damage technically present, but likely not common.
  12. Examples – OddWorld: Stranger’s Wrath, Second Sight

  13. Finally, if using regeneration, do not implement a “bloody screen” effect.
    Seriously. This has to stop.

If you are using one of the above systems, then conglaturations! You have prooved the justice of our culture! Now go and rest our heroes!

Though developers are free to ignore the preceding, it is not recommended, as to do so would cause Metro City Mayor, Mike Haggar, to become sad.

However, it is well documented that “A sad Haggar is soon a mad Haggar” and this is not a preferable state (see Mad Gear Incident).

From the council members of Metro City, U.S.A.

Enforced by Presidential Decree 1989-Ld a.k.a. the “The Lead Pipe Initiative”

Though they’re probably more angles to be examined, I hereby consider this matter closed, and would like to thank you for your time. If there are any dissenting opinions, be sure to inform your Congressman by commenting below.

Oh and do be careful. Gaming trends to the contrary, hiding behind a wall for a few seconds is NOT a cure-all to your injuries, and we don’t have magic potions available for purchase at your local grocer. Or at least not in America anyway . . .

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The Guggenheim Effect on Gaming

by

June 15th, 2011 at 6:29 pm

During the grand Marvel comics crossover event of 2006 – Civil War – Wolverine, the clawed Canuckle-head, chased after the super villain who triggered the whole shebang, Nitro. Nitro is a guy whose power is to blow up, not in the “I ated too many pizzas” sense, but rather in the “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a human bomb” conceptualization. Now this was a match-up that made little sense for Wolverine as his capabilities consist of stabbing lots of things quickly; he just didn’t have the ability to contain Nitro or prevent him exploding like a Michael Bay movie.

Still, writer Marc Guggenheim had Wolvie go after him. Guess what happened?

Predictably, Nitro blew up. But rather than have our hero dodge out of the way or shield himself behind some cover, Wolverine took the full brunt of it, and ended up a bit, shall we say, disintegrated?

Right down to the furious fuzzball’s metal skeleton.

No, the outcome wasn’t that surprising. Nor was what followed – Wolverine got better – it was his book (and he has a super human healing ability) after all. But what was surprising was how damn fast it happened. It was just a few minutes later that claw boy had enough skin and muscle to attack Nitro full force.

This was the moment where Wolverine effectively became broken.

Thanks Mr. Guggenheim!

“That expression of gratitude is registering off the charts!”

Sure, Wolverine had been messed up and recovered before, that’s his schtick. But the level of destruction here was easily the most damage he’d ever received; there was nothing left to regenerate from (or at least nothing visible). Having him recover in a month or more might have been stretching it, but minutes? What then is a threat to the character? You can’t even delay him much if he can recover so quickly. As a result: how can there ever be any drama in a battle if there is no peril?

Sure, we all watch movies or read books and know that the “good guys” are more than likely to win the day. But usually there are costs. An injury is sustained that the hero will carry forever. Their friends may perish. They too, may die for the greater good. The point is, we have to see the struggle and it’s effects on them for anything to matter at all.

If an actor can’t show us the struggle WITH their face, then we better see it ON their face.

But how can you have a thrilling battle with a character who can recover so fully and so quickly? The answer is simple: you can’t. If that’s the case, what’s the point of following a character who has these traits? At least for myself the answer is simple: I don’t – they’re boring.

So how does this relate to video games?

If you read my review for L.A. Noire, you’ll notice that I had some issues with it, especially with the combat. Aside from the lack of novelty in the cover shooter mechanics used, probably the biggest problems are that the player both has unlimited ammunition on their pistol (which is both accurate and powerful) and has incredibly swift health regeneration. These two facts combine to make combat altogether too easy, which drains confrontations in the game of any actual danger to the player, even when the game is trying to be dangerous. Notice a trend here?

Now I don’t have too much problem with the gun that has an infinite amount of ammo. While in certain cases it is a bit much (and perhaps I should address it in the future), it’s not that bad. Heck, any “Shoot ‘Em Up” game comes with infinite ammo on the main gun, otherwise they’d probably be unwinnable. Besides, reloading is rarely a plot point in most action movies . . .

Unless it allows for the hero to say something really cool.

No, as with Guggenheim’s Wolverine folly, it’s the health regeneration that I’m focusing on for this session of the committee. It’s a “feature” that’s all too prevalent in gaming these days. I for one feel it’s just a lazy bit of game design, and ends up ruining many more games than it improves. So I call this session of the committee to order! It’s time to get into the nitty gritty of the primary Healthcare issue of gaming: redundant regeneration!

First let me state: this is not about difficulty.

Though I definitely come from an age long past, where games were “Nintendo Hard” because we were playing Nintendo games, and as a result I prefer a game to be more challenging, health regeneration by itself has nothing to do with difficulty. There are plenty of games out there that have HP regen that are still difficult, and games without it that are too easy. My preference for tougher games has just made me more aware of this as a problem, but that doesn’t mean my bias precludes it from being a problem.

So no, I am not just being a grumpy old man complaining about the “Kids today, and their new fangled game mechanics!”

Or at the very least, I’m not being OLD. Yet.

So what’s wrong with regeneration? Inherently, nothing. It’s a design decision based on choice or preference like any other, just as using a system of lives is, or having bosses. When implemented well it can definitely work.Specifically, it’s a technique used to manage player health, which is already a rather nebulous concept that generally only works as metaphor anyway.

Actually, in order to properly get into the heart of this, understanding the conventions of health in games might be useful. The quick rundown is as follows: early games often ran on an on/off in regards to player health. You were either alive or dead, resulting in a plethora of games that essentially ran off the “one hit and you’re dead” motif. . .

. . . which as The Silver Surfer knows, can be quite frustrating.

So in order to give players more of a chance, as it’s pretty easy to fill games with hazards and overwhelm the “One Hit Point Wonders”, developers started to include multiple gradations of damage until death, which are commonly known as “Hit Points” (or HP for short). It’s a rather odd concept as it rarely makes actual sense – a tiny bunny bite and a battle-axe blow might both hurt equally – but it does give the player more room for error before they have to restart from a checkpoint. Really, that’s all any game’s health system is about: how many errors can the player make before they have to try again?

As time went on, the idea of how hit points were represented and how they could be recovered evolved into a myriad number of ways. There are games where you can’t get life back until you beat a level, games where you’re protected by magic greasy rings, any RPG Inn has beds featuring magic fingers (of health!), and of course there are just plain old magic spells and potions available in every fantasy adventure. The variations on healing are as endless as they are insane.

Here in Metro City, we find that eating any food you happen to find on our streets does wonders for your immune system!

Regenerating health has been around for about as long too. In the early days it was rather slow, often taking several real time minutes to recover even half your HP. Often, this was supplemented by another system for more immediate healing. But then in 2001, Halo was released.

In an effort to further reduce the time a player wasn’t fighting, Halo: Combat Evolved had regenerating health in the form of energy shields that were built into the protagonist’s armor. When your shields were brought down due to damage, you could find a safe spot to hide and they would recharge within a few seconds. It was a dual-layered health system though, as you still had traditional hit points once your shields were down, and this damage could only be recovered through the ubiquitous med-kit recovery item that was the traditional form of recovery in previous FPS games.

Well, Halo proved to be VERY popular, and soon everyone was adding health regeneration to their games, especially in other First-Person Shooters. When Call of Duty 2 released in 2005 – also ditching med-kits in favor of regeneration – it solidified the popularity of the concept, and soon everyone was doing it. Nowadays regenerating health is pretty much the norm for most action games, all but guaranteed in a FPS, and has even bled into a the occasional RPG or three.

The big wave of games that cemented regeneration came out around 2005-2006. This is both when people started to implement the concept poorly, and also when Guggenheim’s run on Wolverine pretty much did the same, hence the titular “Guggenheim effect”. Of course that’s probably just a coincidence.

It’s not like Lost‘s Jacob can touch EVERYONE. Right?

And though I know that Mr. Guggenheim only ruined one comic character and has no causation over what’s happened to gaming, I still think the effect of overpowered health regeneration is best represented by his short stint on Wolverine. Mostly because it’s a well known example of someone missing the point entirely with a concept that isn’t fundamentally bad, which is what has happened in video games when it’s applied poorly.

So how is it that the concept can be done poorly? Why is Halo‘s implementation good and other versions bad? Are we finally at the main point of the article?

Yes, we sure are. So let’s delve into it my lovelies!

When a game has simple HP regeneration as the core health mechanic it fails the user in four unique and distinct fashions:

1) It prevents certain types of danger from actually being dangerous.

This is my biggest issue with the concept by far. Normally, you’d think walking through say, a room of flaming napalm wouldn’t be a good thing for a guy’s longevity right? Well, in a game that has health regeneration, often you can walk through such a hazard with few ill effects. Sure, you’ll take damage, but cross through it quickly enough and wait twenty seconds, now you’re completely better and non burned.

It’s an issue of attrition really. With HP regen, you cannot be worn down from enough small mistakes. Some see this as a benefit (as it’s very forgiving obviously) but it means you eventually learn to stop fearing any “small” danger that won’t kill you outright. Stuff like fire, or poison gas, or in the case of L.A. Noire, handgun bullets.

Soon enough, facing a mook with a pistol isn’t dramatic or interesting because you know he poses no threat. When this is used to make your character seem the badass, in a universe that stretches credulity anyways, then this macho, gung-ho, “I don’t have time to bleed” mentality can work as a benefit. But when a game plays it straight and treats these non-threats as seriously as they should be, especially if it’s in an otherwise realistic or mundane setting, it leads to a weird tonal disparity.

Pictured: Weird tonal disparity, the definition of.

Considering that the core drama in the action moments in any given games is “Trying not to die”, making certain things less dangerous and therefore less dramatic by removing danger is just bad storytelling. Didn’t game designers learn that you should always raise the stakes?

Besides, there is the other major corollary to this. The lack of minor (let’s call it “scratch damage”) wounds over time removes some player agency in a theoretically interactive experience. If you avoid all of the scratch damage on the way to the boss, you’re in no better shape than the guy who didn’t.

It’s also bad for player training, since how you perform in fights actually less meaningful if you know there is no consequence. Just barely getting by with a bunch of wounds is as good as excelling with none. There is no real reason to learn how to become good at the game as a result!

How did Halo avoid this? By having the hero’s regenerating “health” only being half the system. Once Master Chief’s shields go down, he can be injured normally, and that level of “actual” health is recovered via traditional means (again with the med-kits!).

2) It’s just as silly as med-kits and potions, but involves more boredom and/or hindrance.

One of the main reasons that this method of recovery was initially applauded was that it was deemed “more realistic” as the player didn’t need to find a magical healing item that worked instantaneously, such as a potion. However, the main way you recover your health with a regeneration mechanic is by waiting in a safe location. Just plain waiting. As in doing nothing.

Heck, it even removes actions you would be doing in a game that uses a recovery item, such as searching (or running in panic) for a med-kit, or going into your inventory to inject the nano-gel. How is that an improvement? Not only is this just as unbelievable as applying a band-aid to a dragon bite, it’s boring.

Canada level boring.

Seriously, if the point is “realism”, then it should be brought up that few games explain how their health systems work, and fewer make any sense whatsoever. Crawling behind a rock to let your constitution kick in is just as silly as anything else.

Not only is it boring to wait behind rocks every couple of minutes, but it’s aggravating. Why? Because usually games with regeneration have figured that since your HP no longer needs to be quantified it doesn’t need to be shown, so they got rid of the health bar. Instead you get the weird bloody screen that obscures your vision, and the heavy breathing that dominates your audio.

So I really hope you enjoy looking at the beautiful landscapes and models the developers spent ages on through a used maxi-pad and listening to the boom mic in a porno that’s too close to the dude. Oh you don’t like those things? Well too bad. Apparently, that’s what happens when your HP regenerates.

What’s going on here? Where am I? Why does blood get in my eyes when my foot got shot? Why is it OK to remove the health bar, but not the ammo counter or radar?! It’s a bloody mess!

How did Halo avoid this? First off, they explain the regeneration as a working defense shield, which makes at least some sense in their science-fiction setting. Especially since real damage can still be dealt to your body requiring more traditional health items. Also, the screen doesn’t get stupidly red because you still have a health bar, which is consistent with all the other HUD info on screen.

3) If handled poorly, it promotes cowardice.

EDIT: Hereafter called the Duke Nukem Corollary, since this problem plagues his less than triumphant return.

Simple to explain really. You recover health by running away and hiding. Unless you’re playing as a coward, this probably isn’t what you want, as it can be pretty antithetical to making awesome action.

You have to figure out a way to hide this fact in a game if you do use health regeneration. Otherwise you’ll just end up looking like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The silly version of King Arthur, I mean.

How did Halo avoid this? With the techno-babble explanation that the regeneration was for something as cool as a personal energy shield. Plus by making a point of having every character in the game refer to your bravery constantly in order to make up for it.

4) When the sole means of recovery, it makes balancing difficulty more challenging and developers lazier.

Ever play Halo 2 on Legendary? Call of Duty on Veteran? They both have health regeneration, and they’re plenty hard. This is the main reason I claim that regeneration has little to do with difficulty.

That being said, unlike in the old days where it was too easy to make a game too hard, when you have regen on it becomes just the opposite. Without careful attention, many challenges from older games just aren’t threatening, and I’d posit that L.A. Noire is an example of this.

Since there is no scratch damage to factor in developers usually try to compensate for your regeneration so enemies deal far more damage than they would before the Guggenheim Effect began. But it’s not that simple either. If an enemy can kill in two hits, he must be able of doing them in succession as running and hiding nullifies the damage completely.

Trying to find that “sweet spot” where enemies are threatening but the difficulty isn’t frustrating is a challenge under any circumstance, but now the dev has try to make something threatening without one of the tools (scratch damage) for it. It’s another X factor that wasn’t there before.

Countering this, theoretically having the player’s health be a known quantity (since it isn’t player dependent) would make balancing easier, and it does if the developers are good. But good devs would have made a well balanced game regardless of regen or not. Where it really matters are in the decent to mediocre developers.

Enter Call of Duty: Black Ops.

In “BlOps”, there were several scripted sequences where you can’t move or take cover when enemies were still shooting at you. On normal difficulty, these were used to give you some “barely survived” moments. However, on the highest difficulty the higher damage would often kill you before the sequence ended so you’d die through no fault of your own. The only way to proceed was to hope that the AI spawned in poorly upon loading the checkpoint – it was like playing Russian Roulette with only one chamber empty!

Because if there’s a game that looks like fun for the players, you should turn to Russian Roulette!

It was an unwinnable scenario except for pure luck and random chance, one that seems due to an oversight in their health mechanic. They probably forgot to tune the damage for these sequences because they figured the regeneration would be enough to carry the player through. This is especially ironic considering one of the main reasons developers liked health regeneration in the first place was that it theoretically allowed them to avoid “unwinnable due to low health” states.

Much as players themselves get lulled into complacency with regenerating health, so do developers. Why spend time worrying about whether an action sequence works well on multiple difficulties? Just add regenerating health! Why spend time thinking about where to place health items? Just add regen! Why worry about this unfair AI? Regen!

It solves everything!

If there’s one thing about developers, it’s that they love single solutions to multiple “problems”. Soon enough they’re just going to solve the “problem” of level design too!

Oh wait. Some devs already do that and claim it’s a feature. I forgot.

*sigh*

So how did Halo avoid this? Well, again, they didn’t rely on regeneration solely, and they were one of the first to implement it, so they actually did have to think about how it worked. Besides, Bungie is a good developer.

Caveat emptor – all these “Halo avoided this” counters were immediately thrown out in Halo 2 since it had simple regeneration in it. Awesome right? (again with the sarcasm!)

So there you have it folks! The primary problems with regeneration. But I’m not quite done with this topic, there are a lot of questions till left unanswered.

Are there solutions? What alternatives exist already? Will health in gaming ever make sense? Can it? Will I ever write a short article?

Valid queries all. Queries I intend to answer next time we meet. That’s right, this one’s a two-parter folks! Until then, I declare this session of the Committee is on recess!

See You next time! (I promise it’ll be shorter.)

Sex, Choice and Video Games . . . on a Quantum level.

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May 4th, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I, along with most of the free world, have been playing Portal 2. Perhaps thinking 5th dimensionally has put everyone in the mood for science, as there’s an interesting issue that the Metro City board of certified physics professors has brought to my attention.

Normally they stay in their labs figuring out the mysteries of the universe, like just how much faster than the speed of sound Mayor Haggar moves during a piledriver, or the mystery of why citizens store perfectly good food and hard currency in trashcans. Recently though, one of them remarked about an interesting phenomenon in gaming. Discussing this phenomenon led to a debate, then a vote, then another debate, a couple of filibusters, and was finally settled via the standard Metro City tradition of a no-holds barred cage match. The following is just a decent summation of our findings.

Now before we begin in earnest, this article has a bit to do with Quantum Mechanics. So if you don’t know your Planck Constants from Desmond being your Constant, be wary;  this session of the committee may get a little complicated. Though I will try my best to keep it from getting too confusing, I can’t promise anything. That being said, let’s get technical!

Let’s Get Technical by Olivia Newton John never really caught on. Probably why she changed the name.

So maybe I’m still shaking off the effects of indoctrination, but my mind keeps wandering back to Dragon Age 2, and BioWare games in general. Especially after playing through the railroading linearity of Homefront, it’s nice to see that there are still developers out there who make a concerted effort to try and get gamers to truly take advantage of this medium of gaming’s greatest features: freedom and choice.

Commonly the choices in games are an under-appreciated aspect for players as the developer has to usually do twice the work for something the average user hopefully won’t notice after a decision is made. In a lot of cases the choices are tiny things and so ubiquitous we no longer think about them at all or expect them to be standard, like having multiple paths to the same end point of a level, or a selection of guns.

Then there are more obvious things like factional decisions; if you are presented with an option to ally your characters between two sides, for example pirates or ninjas, then choosing to work with the pirates will make the ninjas antagonists and vice versa.

But why would you ever side with pirates when Ninjas can do stuff like this?

Crafting choices like these can lead to some extra development time, but they can also make a game very engaging, and possibly worthy of multiple playthroughs. Some games, like Starfox and Heavy Rain revel in this concept, as multiple paths in an otherwise quick narrative lead to a sort of interactive movie experience. Other games will let you generate a unique custom avatar, down to crafting what they look like, what they wear, and perhaps even their back story; features prominent in most Western RPGs.

Still, these types of options aren’t too complicated to understand. You are given a choice in the present, it effects events in the future in a continuous timeline that makes logical sense: turn left at a fork and see what happens differently from turning right. When it comes to character generation, you’re working with a blank slate that lets you own the character fully in a past state, generally before the action of a game begins in earnest. This too will usually make at least a modicum of linear sense.

What’s really intriguing though is that all of these choices, even though they seem simple enough to understand, always exist in (at least) two parallel states at all times. If you chose to side with Ninjas, then that’s your reality; if pirates, this too is also the only reality. At any given time in any game with a decision that matters, the game runs sort of like portal in the show Sliders, creating multiple alternate realities at the drop of a hat, with you the player as the indeterminable particle in flux.

Does that make sense?

I see that I lost at least one of you.

Alright, I am sort of jumping to my conclusion immediately so perhaps an example is in order. For this we turn back to Dragon Age 2, as a very concrete example has to do with the game’s more amorous activities.

In Dragon Age 2, four of the characters you travel with are possible love interests that you can pursue to get involved in a romance subplot (awww). This doesn’t carry any real benefit in terms of the over all game, it’s just for role-playing a character and seeing what their love life would be like. Although . . . if your social skills are really quite terrible, then perhaps they can serve as a sort of instructional simulation on how to no longer be quite as lonely. Loneliness being a state of being many gamers know all too well.

Personally I blame this state of affairs on the Power Glove. I mean look at that guy, he’s never going to live it down. And he represented us for a GENERATION.

Now two of the “romanceable” (for lack of a better term) characters are men, Fenris and Anders, while two are women, Merril and Isabella. Interestingly enough, a character of either sex can pursue any of these characters into the bedroom and beyond!

The “beyond” isn’t terribly interesting, it’s just stuff like the arguments over furniture decorating decisions that come hand in hand with any serious relationship.

This is a decision that garnered the game a small controversy, where a few gamers found that having same-sex characters hit on their avatar an affront to their heterosexuality. It’s a silly complaint to say the least, as the game always gives you the option to just say, “No, I don’t really fancy you.”

What’s more important to the topic at hand though, is what it means for the characters themselves. Are all four of these companions bisexual? It would make sense, as this would account for the fact that no matter what sex the player chooses to be, they could be attracted to them (assuming you don’t make your hero hideous in the facial editor). One of the four, Isabella, actually confirms this in some ancillary dialogue; speaking of several affairs with both men and women.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for all of them. In fact the game presents a unique instance in Fenris, the runaway elven slave. If you don’t pursue either Fenris or Isabella, then they end up involved with each other. OK, fair enough.

But you can also pursue Fenris romantically. If you’re female, then Fenris seems to be the model pale angsty pretty boy from a quasi-human race that’s into protagonistic gals . . .

Hmm, I wonder what demographic this type of character could possibly appeal to?

. . . but you can also play as a dude and pursue Fenris for some sweet man on man action. Since Fenris doesn’t comment on his preference for either the lads or the ladies in dialogue outside of this subplot, we have no real way to know if the bisexuality is supposed to be part of his character as it is with Isabella. The fact that he ends up with Isabella if you don’t try to get in either characters pants may seem to indicate that he may be more into the fairer sex, but it’s not a very strong indicator, so it has to be classified as an unknown factor.

In a very real sense, you decide then whether or not Fenris is gay or straight, either through action or inaction. Both choices are valid, and so both are “true”. It’s sort of a case of Schrodinger’s Cat. Until the player “opens the box” by making a choice, the character (in this one sense at least) is both gay and straight at the same time, and it’s up to an outside factor (the player) that determines which is the truth of their game’s reality.

But what really blows my mind is that if you really think about it, ALL choices in a gaming, even several instances which aren’t active choices, are fundamentally similar. This is what I was trying to allude to above. The developers have to build in outcomes for any choice you make after all, so both outcomes will always exist in this intangible state until you make them. For another prevalent example, look at how deaths work in most games.

When you die in a game and respawn to try again, what happens to the game world in which your character perished? Occasionally, a game will go out of its way to explain this. Like say in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which due to the framing device of the game being a story told to an audience, meant that someone had interrupted the Prince’s tale . . .

I can see the Prince denying a particularly underwhelming movie adaptation from having occurred in the game’s continuity as well.

But the vast majority of games do nothing to explain this eventuality, so what happens in them?

Theoretically, the villains succeed, and the heroes lose – hence the “GAME OVER” screen that follows your death. With each respawn, you’re sort of creating an alternate branch of reality where events can play out differently. If you’re persistent and don’t get discouraged enough to quit after many deaths, eventually the hero (I.E. you) will succeed. Though not exactly like Schrodinger’s famous feline, this scenario also has a physics thought experiment associated with it called Quantum Immortality.

Now, obviously this is over thinking things to a ridiculous degree. Functionally, having extra lives or respawning is necessary so players can make mistakes and still eventually see the ending; choices allow for a more unique experience for the player and it logically follows that they need both outcomes to be fully realized. Seeing as this stuff is integral for any game, we tend to just ignore the further implications of these concepts so our heads don’t explode.

Otherwise, this warning label would have to be on every game, and that might hurt sales.

Now, is there a point to all of this other than to simply ruminate on the deeper ramifications of abstract concepts? Especially since this state of affairs is pretty much the de facto condition of all games?

Yes in fact, there is.

Complaints can be levied towards how these choices are implemented by developers. First, sometimes a developer of a game will take advantage of the indeterminate nature of a game’s reality to force a particular outcome regardless of the choice the player makes. A quick example is a jar/key “puzzle”.

You enter a room and there are three jars in a row. You know a needed key is in one of them. Normally you’d think that you have a 33% chance of guessing correctly on the first try except . . . the developer forces it so that no matter what, you have to check all three jars. Why? The key is always in the third jar you check, regardless of the order you check them in. If you go left-center-right, it’s in the right hand jar. If you go Center-right-left, it’s in the left hand jar, and so on.

If you ever played a Zelda game, this is Jar-Key situation should seem rather familiar.

This type of puzzle is just a small example of how a developer can take advantage of the fact that a game’s reality is never concrete until after the fact in order to railroad the player into a predetermined outcome. It’s common enough to have a page on TV Tropes called Schrodinger’s Gun (warning: as this is a TVTropes link – it may lead to decreased productivity).

Now this technique does have it’s uses; namely to ensure that no matter what, the player ends up in the state the developer needs them to be in, while still participating in the illusion of making choices. As with the fundamentals of player death in games, it can be highly necessary. But when it becomes obvious that the technique is being used, it tends to make your choices feel meaningless.

With the jar example: say you die after obtaining the key. You will restart just before the jars and have to do it over again, and then the fact that it’s always in the third jar becomes VERY apparent, and it’s a bit of a letdown. It ends up feeling like a cheat.

Which might not be too bad, the Cheat seems pretty soft.

I feel that the indeterminate sexuality of the four love interests of Dragon Age 2 is the reverse of this issue, as it actually makes player choice too important in an area they probably should have limited control over.

After all, if you meet someone for the first time, you have no way of influencing any aspect of their character. If they are an oafish lout, asking intelligent sounding questions wouldn’t turn them into a highly educated diplomat, they’d still be an oafish lout responding to smarmy questioning. I’ve been in too many awkward social situations caused by one party not recognizing my repeated hints that a subject was taboo to another person to not accept this fact of life.

Seriously Barry! I kept telling you she’s sensitive about her head cancer. I can never take you anywhere!

Perhaps what makes this more awkward to me though, (using the example of Fenris again) is that not every aspect of Fenris’ personality is as player centric. A core issue in the game is whether or not to support policies of policing mages. Fenris thinks that they are dangerous and should be controlled. You can agree with him or not, and though he reacts accordingly, his general position always remains the same. It seems then that his political beliefs are more firmly entrenched than his sexuality!

(though I do know there is some historical precedent for this, so maybe it’s not as inconsistent as I think?)

Having an NPC’s core sexuality, or religion, or other major aspects of their character being directly under player control seems to be counter-intuitive to the concept of an NPC, as they are generally written as someone the player has limited or no control of. Their purpose is to be an other, a mirror to what the player decides to do. It becomes even more noticeable if, as in the case of Fenris above, they are apparently inconsistent on this, with some aspects being informed by player choices and other being immune to them. To me at least, this type of control and inconsistency can pull me out of a game’s sense of immersion.

This is the major problem: sometimes a developer’s manipulation of reality becomes too apparent. Games at large are part illusion, and that which breaks the illusion is probably best avoided.

All else being equal, it’s better if the key is always in the same jar, or randomized to only ever be in one of them, not skipping around reality. It’s also probably better if an NPC is strongly defined and not as malleable to player choice when it comes to core aspects of individuality. Or at least it should be consistent, if they are capable of changing to fit player desires, it should probably be across the board rather than in an apparently arbitrary manner, only affecting certain parts of their characterization.

Whew! This has been a long one hasn’t it? Alright, I’ll wrap it up.

Basically, developers . . . I know it’s probably more work, but can you try to not break Newtonian Physics as much? I mean, come on, all this quantum stuff makes my brain hurt. If you do, please try to justify the malleable reality in some way shape or form! Just don’t make the justifications more nonsensical than the indeterminate game world itself.

Yeah . . . don’t do that.

The last thing our world needs is this explanation being accepted as a fact of life. Just because some people seem to think this is an acceptable solution doesn’t mean the rest of us do.

With that, this meeting is adjourned!

The Trap of Indoctrination in Gaming

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April 17th, 2011 at 5:23 am

The committee’s been out of session lately. Unlike some almost government shut downs, this wasn’t due to a bunch of politicians arguing over partisan issues, but rather events far more mundane: I got sick. The most common thing the world really. But then I got hooked on something far more sinister during my recovery.

No, not morphine. Something far worse: BioWare games.

Getting through Dragon Age 2 for my review took some time. In fact it took 2 full weeks of almost non-stop playing in any spare moment I had to get it finished. No big surprise there, RPGs tend to be long affairs. Unfortunately as I finished the game and sent in the review, my body was hit with a strain of influenza so bad I was starting to worry that I would soon dream about Mother Abigail.

M-O-O-N. That spells a Stephen King reference.

So, sick as a dog and stuck at home, I decided to kill time by burning through some other BioWare RPGs, namely Mass Effect 1 and 2. So though my body eventually fought off the disease that kept me couch and bed bound, I found myself unable to stop playing through Commander Shepard’s tales of inter-galactic peril.

I beat ME, then it’s sequel with my imported character . . . then did it all over again. On both games. This meant clocking in roughly fifty hours for each playthrough . . . so yeah, there’s a period of roughly 200 hours of my life that are just gone. Poof! I left them in Citadel space somewhere.

I won’t bore you with a “survivor’s tale” of how I managed to overcome my “crippling addiction” that “destroyed my life”. Far more troubled writers than myself have spun that yarn before me, and unlike some Oprah guests, are usually telling the truth about it. Besides, it’s not like this is even a surprising event really, video games can be addictive, occasionally dangerous things. Not to be too cynical, but with the speed the internet age moves, this type of story seems “a tale as old as time”.

No wait, that was Beauty and the Beast. Belle eventually left the prince by the way. He neglected her in favor of World of Warcraft.

So what changed? And why does this matter? Do I even have a point? Or is this all just a bunch of overblown nonsense to a threat that doesn’t actually exist?

The answer key: I’m getting to that. Probably not. Hopefully? Most definitely.

Two things occurred. First, I received an email about my Dragon Age 2 review. Some fine soul disagreed with my assessment, wanting to know how I could have given such a positive review to a game that is, “objectively bad to anyone being honest with themselves” ? Though usually I wouldn’t give stuff like this too much of my attention, I was still reeling from space-age fever dreams. As a result this polite hostility actually got me to think about it, since it only took a tiny bit of research to realize that the rest of the internet seemed to agree with him.

While I know “thinking” is just another in the long list of things I probably shouldn’t let myself do (in between starting fires on the lawn and eating only cheez-whiz for a week straight), the question of why my mostly positive opinion of the game clashed with many others bounced off an idea that comes from a plot point during the gameplay of BioWare’s other game franchise, the one I was currently waist deep in the middle of.

During Mass Effect the main antagonist, an alien cyborg dragon-man named Saren, is able to (through means that are spoilertastic for those who haven’t played it) convince practically anyone to follow him in an apparent crusade to wipe out all life in the universe. Obviously this is the type of goal only a small handful of nutballs would ever agree to, but somehow Saren is able to worm his way into the minds of the hundreds of followers actually required to pull this off. The characters in the game don’t like to call it mind control, because that would make it silly. Rather it’s called “indoctrination”, which is apparently the “serious” way of saying the same damn thing.

It was when these two ideas collided in my addled brain pan that it hit me:I’ve been indoctrinated by the very game using indoctrination as a plot device!

Is Saren here actually powerful enough to break the fourth wall?

Alright, that might be a bit alarmist. No, a video game wasn’t actually controlling my mind, but it definitely felt like it was. During this time, had you asked me what my opinion of Mass Effect was (my review of it if you will) it would be enormously positive. Not that this isn’t without cause of course. Both Mass Effect 1 and 2 are pretty universally acknowledged to be some of the best bits of science fiction currently available in any medium. Hell, there are already a few tie-in novels and comic books for the series, and there’s the just announced movie in the works.

(Of course video game films don’t have a great track record, so I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath over it, but it definitely means this series is growing in the world’s collective imagination)

So getting addicted to a good series of games, while definitely not healthy, can’t necessarily be a problem- right?

I suppose not, but here’s the thing: a smaller form of this type of indoctrination occurs with every game. Don’t worry, I’ll explain how in a moment. But more importantly if this is the case, can any review of any game truly be objective?

Despite the fact that I usually pride myself on keeping a distance with the games I review, I’m starting to think the answer is no. Especially in games that are particularly long.

And long games are all these Canadians ever make.

Unlike any other medium in the history of human entertainment video games are unique in that they involve a rather hefty ( hefty hefty!) amount of involved learning in order to get through them. This is no surprise for anyone in the industry. In fact, many developers actively try to turn games into digital skinner boxes in order to keep players actively involved.

Even in games that aren’t actively trying to manipulate you into addiction, you still have to learn the game’s rules in order to play. In the case of the complicated, massive RPG adventures like Dragon Age, you have to learn almost a countless number of rules.

You have to learn the character class you play, which entails learning their strengths and weaknesses, and what options you have to build your character and the areas you should prioritize to make them stronger. Then there are rules for items, for weapons and for armor. There are rules governing money, of upgrading items with runes, of finding resource points, of scripting your AI companions, of general battle tactics, of timing in combat, of romance reactions, of . . . well the list of goes on and on and on, ad nauseam.

Now, the developers of such games have gotten quite good at making us learn these rules without us ever even realizing it. This is mostly because well . . . games are fun. So we want to learn the rules in order to participate in the fun, and developers do their best to sneak them in so we don’t even think about them too much.

As the military knows, if you drill enough rules into a person’s brain they eventually lose perspective and become easily suggestible to any other ideas you have to offer. Most of the time this is exactly what turns people into the effective unified fighting force we need them to be.

Although, as illustrated in Full Metal Jacket, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out the way we’d like it to.

So the theory is, basically, “In order to play a game, you have to learn its rules. But the more rules you learn, the more difficult it becomes to maintain objectivity and distance to the material. Therefore, if a game is particularly long, it may be impossible to maintain objectivity at all.”

For the most part, this is just a sort of acceptable hazard of being a gamer. But when reflecting on that email, it hit me. Maybe this is why the vast majority of video game reviews skew towards the positive?

Seriously, look at the average review scores from most video game critics on exclusively gaming publications; they’re usually average out in the 70% range or above. Due to this, most folks think a 70% rating on a game is a rather negative score, because they don’t often dip below this margin. 70%! To paraphrase something Calvin once said to Miss Wormwood, “How is 70% average? If everything in the world worked 70% of the time, we’d be living in a utopian society!”

Before he began urinating on everything, Waterson’s kid creation was actually quite the observant tyke, wasn’t he?

Hell, even when game reviewers try and to be fair and present multiple viewpoints, it often seems like they’re drinking from the same kool-aid. The most notorious example probably being Game Informer’s “Second Opinion” reviews which are almost always deviate less than a single point, or are even exactly the same as the original reviewer’s score. That’s not a second opinion, that’s a reinforcement of the first one!

Since there’s no way publishers can be buying the reviews of every gaming journalist out there, this “indoctrination effect” may actually be the reason (at least in part) so many game reviewers usually seem like they’re little more than corporate shills. Even if a reviewer is aware of this danger though, they still may fall into its trap. Speaking as someone whose been in this field for a little while now, I think we may fall prey to it for actually trying to do our jobs properly and maintain some professionalism.

After all, you wouldn’t want to read a film review if you knew the critic writing it walked out of the movie half way through right? Nor would you trust a restaurant review from someone who only sampled the bread sticks. Well we game reviewers know this, and speaking for myself at least, make sure we at least “finish” the games we’re reviewing. Or at least as much as we’re capable of, since some games don’t really have an “ending”.

Actually, I hear the plot twist at the end of Tetris is quite mind-blowing.

Thinking back to my time with Dragon Age, it seems a distinct possibility that I had fallen into this very trap. At first, my opinion of the game was actually pretty negative. I found the opening ludicrous, character animations stiff and unresponsive, and the combat kind of boring. But since I had a job to do and integrity to maintain, I made the choice to see it through till the end.

While a poor opening sequence in a movie only gives the audience about an hour or so to turn itself around, this was a long, plodding RPG, so it had another eighty to try and change my mind. Eighty. A much longer time to change an opinion, and plenty of time to slowly massage someone’s thought patterns.

Reading my review again, I definitely concluded that the game did turn itself around from this poor opening act. But was I just adapting to the mechanics and slowly becoming indoctrinated to its world, or was it actually improving as it went along?

I may never truly know. But I honestly don’t think I was swayed by the siren song of subtle mind control. Partially because most of the time, I’m a rather stubborn guy. But mostly because I actually did make a point in my original piece to highlight many glaring flaws the game has that even some other reviewers are apparently overlooking (such as the issues with it’s narrative structure). I never said the game was perfect in the least. Even looking back on it with all a new perspective in tow, the most I might alter on the review is the actual score, which I might lower half a star. Not because my viewpoint on the game has truly changed, but in re-reading it, the score doesn’t quite match the body of text that follows it.

That’s it.

Guh? Really? After all that build up, the most I can admit to is a tiny difference in a rating?

Yes. Sorry to burst your bubble “guy who emailed me to tell me I had no idea what I was talking about”, but though I freely admit to losing my head for a while to Mass Effect, Mass Effect is not Dragon Age 2 (despite what some folks are claiming online). Besides, though I might have spent far too many hours getting to know all of the nooks and crannies of Kirkwall, I also did the one thing that helps diffuse the effects of indoctrination. I waited for a bit before writing about it, trying to turn mere contemplation into something more akin to hindsight.

Hindsight isn’t just 20/20, he’s also a snappy dresser!

Though I know for some reviewers publication deadlines and the always present desire to beat out the competition probably prevent this sort of waiting from occurring too often, it’s something that needs to be done from time to time. Especially if the game is long. It’s the little bit of deprogramming that’s necessary to form as objective an opinion manageable, and something I’m now doubly sure I abide by. So even if true impartiality may be impossible, I’m going to try to be as damn close as I can manage.

As for myself, this whole “addicted to BioWare” thing has definitely been a learning experience. It’s not something that happens to me often actually. I think the last time it did was with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when the Wii launched back in 2006. So maybe videogame addiction really IS a disease in that either your immune system must be weakened (which in my case was a literal thing) or it has to be a particularly virulent strain of game (see every MMO and/or Pokemon game) in order to catch it?

At the very least, now that I’m “healed”, I shouldn’t have to worry about this happening again for another half a decade or so; there’s no more Mass Effect for me to actually play! I mean, it’s not like there’s another installment looming over the horiz. . .

*Ahem!*

Aw dammit all to hell!

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