Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#51: Medievil 2: Going Medieval on London

(Spoiler Alert: Both of the Medievil games are up for discussion in this article. You've been warned.)

Last week, I wrote a piece on the original Medievil game from the PlayStation era. As I promised at the end of that article, this week will be dedicated to the game's sequel, which was released two years later in April 2000. Comparing these two games from the same series is rather interesting because when these two games are compared to each other it is possible to draw parallels to the design of sequels to modern games, but that will become more clear once I have finished the comparison. Before we begin, you should know that I expect you to have read my previous article on this first Medievil game or to have played the game for yourself as a point of comparison. Since this is a sequel to one of my favorite games for the original PlayStation, it invites such comparisons. With that in mind...

The premise of Medievil 2 is a little easier to understand than the original game's. After defeating Zarok once and for all, Sir Dan returns to his crypt and finally rests in peace. Fast forward 500 years later, in 1886, Fortesque's remains have been moved to the Medieval exhibit in an old museum in London. At the same time, someone else in the city has managed to acquire Zarok's now-legendary spell book and has begun to use it for his own end, casting the spell of Eternal Night and placing London square in the throws of an age old curse. Once again, Daniel rises from the grave in order to combat this new threat, which is where the player gets involved and the game truly begins. From there he meets the ghost of a ten year old kid who was summoned to guide him to Professor Hamilton Kift, who is an expert in both scientific and magical pursuits. The professor points Dan to the Kensington district of the city in order to look for clues as to who is behind recent events. There, he investigates the site where the spell was cast and finds a few clues to take back to Kift. Before leaving, he sees an anthropomorphic lizard and dog leave the museum, lamenting the inability to enter the tomb in the King Ramses exhibit. This leads Sir Fortesque into the tomb himself (after a few puzzles), where he finds a young mummified woman named Kiya, who was one of King Ramesses II's 200 wives. After Daniel discovers that the villain is an English noble by the name of Lord Palethorn and thwarts a number of his schemes, the Professor receives notice of two sites of psychic disturbance, one in an old mansion and the other in Whitechapel district. Kift suggests having Dan and Kiya split up, but Fortesque argues against it, saying that it is too dangerous for Kiya to go off on her own.

Eventually he concedes, going to the mansion and allowing Kiya to go to Whitechapel. After returning, the Professor tells Daniel that Kiya has yet to return, sending him to go look for her. Unfortunately, Sir Daniel was too late and by the time he arrived, Jack the Ripper (who is a demon in Medievil 2) has just finished draining the soul from her body, leaving her for dead. Rather than fight to avenge her second death, Fortesque falls into a depression and runs away into the sewer system, where he meets a tribe of warriors who make their home down there and worship him as a god because they found a statue of him. They tell him that they need help because a sewer monster kidnapped all of the women of their tribe, which killed their will to live. Being the medieval knight that he is and desperate for a way to prove himself, Sir Dan rescues the women and slays the beast. Along the way, he is given a poster to the Time Machine exhibit in the Museum and safe passage back to the surface, courtesy of the tribe. As he is leaving, the tribe's chief makes a passing mention of the Time Stone that is in their possession. Once back in the professor's lab, Daniel and Kift have a talk where Kift reveals a few things. First, he tells Fortesque that he knew Palethorn was behind the second coming of the Eternal Night and that his time machine only partially works in that it moves through space, but not time.

With this information in hand, Sir Fortesque once again ignores the threat of Palethorn in order to use the Time Machine to rescue Kiya. After returning to the Museum and finding the prerequisite parts, Daniel uses the machine to head back into the sewers. As previously noted, the machine can only travel through space, not time. In order to get it fully functional and return to Whitechapel in the past, Fortesque steals the Time Stone from the sewer tribe and disguises himself as the tribe chieftain to escape and get back to his Time Machine, now in complete working order. Traveling back to the past, Daniel fights Jack the Ripper and kills him before history repeats itself. Once the battle is over, Dan meets the Dan from the past, where they shake hands and fuse together, giving the new merged Dan a new suit of magic armor. Resuming where he left off before Kiya's death threw him into a spiral of stupidi... I mean depression, the Professor has discovered that the final page of Zarok's spell book is located in Cathedral Spires. After braving the horrors of the Cathedral, Sir Dan finds the final page. It gets stolen by Palethorn with the help of a levitation spell he apparently has, and used to summon a powerful demon to begin his subjugation of the world. Successfully goading the demon into attacking Palethorn, Daniel defeats them both and finally saves the day.

Like in the first game, the plot starts off fairly strong. But as the game goes on, the story begins to feel padded out for no reason but to lengthen the game and provide additional levels to explore. For a game that is already short, lasting for about four hours, this is pretty bad. One level that perfectly illustrates what I am talking about is a two part level, the first part called “Dankenstein” and the second part “Iron Slugger.” In one of Palethorn's miscellaneous schemes in the first half of the game, he builds a mechanical monster with the intent to kill Dan, Kiya, and Kift in one fell swoop. To combat this creature, the professor and Kiya devised a plan to create a creature of their own to fight it. Dan's job for the first part of the level, “Dankenstein,” is to head into the London underground in order to collect limbs to use from the results of the professor's previous experiments in creating a superhuman through magic and science. As they are about to finish up and attach the head to it the creature, the professor trips, dropping and destroying it. With no other options, Fortesque affixes his own head to the creature in order to pilot it to fight Palethorn's monster. In the second part of this level, “Iron Slugger,” the creature named Dankenstein (Get it?) fights the Iron Slugger in a boxing match. This level and plot point seems completely out of place because it breaks the (admittedly rather loose) continuity of the game. It does not make sense for these two sides to just take a break from one-upping each other in the search for Zarok's spell book pages to have a boxing match. This not only breaks continuity, but it also inconsistent with the tone of the game. Medievil has always had a bit of comedy to it, but this crosses into the truly ridiculous.

The other example I could point to of the plot being weaker than the first game's is the whole subplot regarding Kiya and Sir Daniel's romantic interest in her. Honestly, aside from her death in Whitechapel which leads to Dan's depression and the whole Time Travel arc, Kiya does not serve much of a purpose in the overarching story. I hesitate to use the label of “sexist” because I find that the label is thrown around far too much, but it is hard to deny the fact that the only female character's major contribution to the plot is to die and postpone the conclusion of the game because Daniel had a romantic interest in her and wanted to act as her chivalrous knight. It does not help that the whole section with the Sewers and the Time Machine contains some of the game's weakest writing, approaching the levels of bad fan-fiction. Even worse is that this whole depression that Fortesque falls into detracts from his development in the original game, where the entire point is to prove himself worthy of being a true hero. It turns out that the moment where humanity needs him the most to save the day, Dan can only think of a girl he just met and how she was killed, damning everything else. I am not kidding in this either. When the professor tries to get him back into the game by saying “If we don't stop Palethorn, he'll take over the world” before he runs into the Sewers, Sir Dan mumbles (He still lacks a jaw) “He can have it, I don't care.” As a child, I just went with it because I did not know any better. As an young man, it infuriates me that they shoehorned in a love interest and completely negated the entire point of the first game.

Before I conclude in my analysis of the plot to Medievil 2, I want to note that I feel that in the designers failed to really utilize the central premise of the game effectively. What I mean by that is that I think it would have been interesting to see a resurrected medieval knight come to grips with the new reality of Victorian London. When Dan comes back to life in this new world, he does not seem to have any questions regarding the technology, society, or anything really. This is a minor point to make, but I think acknowledging and poking fun at the differences between the two societies would be entertaining while staying true to the feeling of the original Medievil, which combined humor and horror quite effectively. As it stands, Daniel has no questions regarding Victorian level technology and instantly understands everything he comes across. For a brief example, the very first ranged weapon Fortesque gains is a pistol, which he instantly knows how to use. This is not necessarily a complaint, but it is something that I feel could have been used effectively by the developers.

Now enough with the plot comparisons, it is high time we went into the gameplay and how it changed from the original. For the most part, it plays very much the same and the controls would feel very familiar to a fan of the original Medievil playing for the first time, but there are a few key differences. The first of these differences is the addition of analog stick support. However, since this was when the pressure sensitive nature of analog inputs were still in their infancy, it was difficult to use the analog stick to just walk around and for the most part it would result in just running everywhere, which made precision platforming difficult at times. While the gameplay was still similar, the level design proved to be much more lethal. Medievil 2 remains as one of the few games that I have been completely unable to beat without the use of cheat codes. (Remember those things?) There were a higher concentration of levels that involved platforming in Medievil 2. Given the health system of the series, which is the exact same system of health bar and Life Bottles from the first game, this means that unless players were willing to exit and replay levels over and over to perfection, they could lose lots of health on platforming. Even worse is that getting health back is harder in Medievil 2. I did not talk about it, but it the original Medievil there were Fountains of Rejuvenation in every level, which healed players and refilled Life Bottles when standing in them until they ran out of health. A popular way to replenish lost health was to replay the first level repeatedly because fountains “respawned” each playthrough of a level. In Medievil 2, they clamped down on that by tracking how much health was taken from each fountain even when players left a level and came back, meaning there was a finite amount of health in the game's world. Paired with the difficult platforming, this could potentially leave players in an unwinnable state without cheating.

Combat also became much more difficult with a reliance on enemies that either become invulnerable during certain attacks or just cannot be killed conventionally. This is especially true of the levels Wolfram Hall, which contain vampires that can only be killed by moving them into sunlight, and the Sewers, which have creatures that possess the tribals and goad them into killing the player. These creatures cannot be slain until they are removed from their host and the tribals themselves can only be dazed. The puzzle element to Medievil 2's gameplay was still at the same level of the original games, but made more interesting. One of the additions that helped keep puzzles fresh was the addition of the Dan-Hand mechanic, where Sir Daniel can put his head on a reanimated, undead hand and control it remotely, separate from his body. Dan can also place his head in many different places in order to help him solve puzzles. It was a refreshing an interesting way to add variety to the game. But as a general rule, while it still plays very much the same, Medievil 2 is a much harder game than its predecessor.

The last returning element from the original game that returned is the Chalice of Souls. Just like in the first game, most of the levels of Medievil 2 contained a Chalice that would fill up with the souls of defeated enemies. Redeeming this Chalice at the professor's lab after completing a level would reward players with a new weapon. The problem with this mechanic is that it seems out of place in Medievil 2. In the original game, the Chalices came from the Hall of Heroes as a challenge for Sir Dan to prove himself. In the sequel, there is no real justification for these magic cups to be scattered throughout the world. They are just lying there waiting for the player to collect and redeem. As for why Fortesque wants to collect them, there is a small reason. The professor asks him to collect magic energy to help power his lab so that he can craft new equipment. Unlike the original game, the Chalices are no longer a central element and seem to be only a vestigial mechanic whose purpose is to make the game a “true” Medievil game. They seem to have no real bearing on the actual story. I say “seem to” because the ending is actually determined by how many of them out of a possible ten the player has collected. The good ending can only be acquired by NOT getting all ten Chalices and beating the game. In that ending, Dan and Kira return to Kira's tomb in the Museum and rest in peace together. Should the player beat the game with all ten Chalices, and thus a full arsenal, they will be treated to the game's bad ending, where Dan and Kira take Kift's time machine back to the past... and land in Zarok's arena in Gallowmere from the first game. They look up and see the giant monster Zarok transformed into at the end of the first game, except Palethorn's head will be there instead of Zarok's, and the screen fades to black. I cannot figure out how the ending could be determined in universe by the number of Chalices collected. The time machine does not need magic energy to work, it already works because there was a whole segment of the game dedicated to fixing it and getting the Time Stone. It just seems like they did it this way because the original games also did it this way, without thinking about the logistics of it.

Back in the year 2000, when Medievil 2 was first released and I was a seven year old playing a game I was eagerly awaiting for a long time, I though that this game was a great game in its own right, even if it was not as good as the original. Now that I have replayed and reflected on both of them, I have to say that this game is pretty lackluster. It had a mediocre story and extremely difficult gameplay. The game shows what happens when designers reuse old mechanics for the sake of reusing them without considering why they were used in the first place and whether or not they still fit. Developers of the game also really failed to properly play test the game since among fans of the franchise, the second game is notoriously harder than the first in an almost unfair way. Lastly, Medievil 2 suffered a major mistake by overwriting key aspects of the protagonist established in the original game's bare-bones (pun intended) plot by forcing elements like a major love interest for no benefit to the overall storyline. Since many major releases from modern gaming often have similar problems in their writing, it is still worth pointing out these kinds of mistakes when they happen. Overall, as a life long fan of this franchise, it is pretty painful for me to say this and when I went back to replay these games that was not my intent. I still hold the original game up as a classic, but I have to rethink where I place the sequel. It is just not as good as I remember.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

#50: Medievil: When Being Goth Meant Something Completely Different

(You probably don't care, but there are spoilers for Medievil, an old PS1 game. I guess you've been warned.)

A few weeks back, I went ahead and purchased PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale. I am still having a great time playing the game and reconnecting with old characters from games past. One of the characters in that game was my good old friend Sir Daniel Fortesque from the Medievil franchise. As a child, I adored these games and loved playing them. It got to a point to where I was able to play through the original Medievil from start to finish in a four-hour long play session. Anyway, seeing Sir Dan make a return made gave me the excuse to go back and replay the two games in this old franchise. While they still hold up relatively well to the test of time, they also serve to demonstrate the necessity of many of the conventions that became popular in both this console generation and the last. I think this retrospective will serve as a good lesson for both gamers and developers.

First off, what is Medievil? Medievil is a old Gothic-themed platformer released for the original PlayStation in 1998. It takes place in the fictional kingdom of Gallowmere in the late 14th century. The actual story begins in the century prior. In the year 1286, Gallowmere was in the midst of an era of peace and its citizens were quite prosperous. During this period, the court wizard Zarok was caught doing heinous experiments in resurrecting the undead and was sentenced to exile. As vengeful as he was, Zarok began to wage war upon Gallowmere, summoning an army of shadow demons to begin the onslaught. The King of the nation responded by sending his army to fight the sorcerer head on, led by Sir Daniel Fortesque, who received his title by spinning interesting stories for the King to hear (it was an honorary position as no one seriously expected to go to war). Sir Dan ran head on into enemy forces... and died in the first wave by being shot in eye with an arrow. The army fought on without him and Zarok's body was never found. Knowing the truth would cause unrest with the people, King Peregrin altered the history books to give Dan the title of Hero of Gallowmere for dying valiantly after slaughtering Zarok. Peace returned for 100 years, until Zarok was finished nursing his hatred and began his revenge. He successfully cast a very powerful spell, cursing the land to Eternal Night, robbing the townsfolk of their free will, and resurrecting the undead for his new army. Unfortunately for him, his spell brought old Sir Dan back from the dead as well. Hoping to redeem himself of his past mistakes, Daniel takes this chance to save the land of Gallowmere from Zarok for true and become the hero in undeath that he could never be in life, finally taking his place in the Hall of Heroes, where dead heroes gather to boast, feast, and arm wrestle for all eternity.

As the description above might show, this is a game that is equal parts horror and humor, and it uses both to great effect. Playing this game in my childhood, many of the enemies in the game, from the Stained Glass Demon trapped in the Hilltop Mausoleum to the Shadow Demons in the Enchanted Earth, and even minor enemies like the scarecrows in the aptly named Scarecrow Fields filled me with a mixture of dread and excitement. Seeing a monster formed of stained glass be released from his prison to terrorize me was horrifying in a compelling sense. It is a hard feeling to explain as it has been so long since I felt that way. As an young replaying the game for the first time in years, it is only now how funny that game was. Medievil has humor on both a small and large scale. Small little gestures like Sir Dan removing cobwebs from his empty eye-hole when waking up are very good moments. Other larger, repeating gags are the constant mockery of our would-be hero. Throughout the game, players can visit the Hall of Heroes to pay homage to the heroes there and earn rewards. Nearly all of them bear a grudge against Fortesque and/or mock him constantly, saying the they do not think he can succeed and will likely not be the hero. The gargoyles scattered around, who serve as the tip dispensers for the game, also constantly chastise Daniel. The other recurring gag is Sir Dan's missing jaw, which fell off in the 100 year time span since his death. This is repeatedly acknowledged and lampshaded throughout the whole game, and Daniel speaks in mumblings with subtitles helping the playing understand him.

The game also had very interesting and varied level designs. Despite taking place in a decidedly Medievil (pun intended) setting, they used more than the usual fare when designing the game. The game has many different levels including a graveyard, a mausoleum, an enchanted forest, an hedge maze, a cursed medieval village, an insane asylum, and flooded battlefield, a pumpkin patch, and a pirate ship. These areas are more varied than in just their backdrops. Each area also tends to emphasize one of Medievil's three different styles of play: Puzzles, Platforming, and Combat (much like other 3D platforming games of the time). For example, in the hedge maze level, the theme of that level is puzzle solving. The maze is ruled by a unique gargoyle named Jack of the Green. He will only allow the player to exit when they answer four of his riddles by searching the maze for the answers. While he thinks his riddles are so clever that no one can solve them, the game acknowledges that they are not hard at all and lampshades it quite effectively. The challenge comes not from answering the riddles, but from discovering what task the player has to perform to complete the riddle through Jack's growing irritation. It is pretty intuitive though, so most players will not have trouble. This puzzle heavy level leads to the asylum, which is a combat heavy level in the form of a gauntlet where players have to kill all the enemies in a room before proceeding. Lastly, there are platforming levels like the pirate ship, where the emphasis is on timed jumps and making it from the beginning to the end of the level. Each level is well planned to fit its theme, giving players much appreciated variety.

All of these levels have one thing in common, though. In every stage, there exists a Chalice of Souls from the Hall of Heroes. While defeating Zarok is certainly the primary goal of the game, the secondary goal for Sir Daniel is to prove himself capable of being a hero. To this end, the champions of the Hall of Heroes have issued a challenge: To gain standing in the Hall and prove his worth, Dan must collect the complete set of Chalices and then defeat Zarok. While every level contains one of these Chalices, Fortesque cannot simply collect them. They are powered by the energy contained within malicious souls. In order to materialize the Chalice of a given level, it is necessary to dispatch enough enemies to fill the Chalice to 100% capacity. Once that happens, the Chalice can be collected. There are also stages where the Chalice starts off partially filled. This is both a blessing and a curse. While it means that players have a kill fewer enemies, it also means that there are innocent souls in the stage. Should an innocent person die on Dan's watch, their energy will reduce the level at which the Chalice is filled. This can make it impossible to collect the Chalice in most cases. Again, this makes sense because Dan is trying to prove his worth as a hero, so letting people die is directly opposed to that. Completing a stage with Chalice in hand grants the player an aforementioned trip to the Hall of Heroes, where they can pay homage to one of the great warriors of the past. While few respect Fortesque and fewer still among the greats in the hall even like him, they all will offer him aid on his quest. This aid can come in the form of money, health, a Life Bottle (which can be use as an extra life), or most likely a new weapon which can make the player's life easier going forward. Also, the good ending where Daniel ascends to the Hall of Heroes can only be obtained by completing the game with every Chalice in hand. I liked this whole system of collecting the Chalices and still do because it encourages players to stand their ground and fight all of the enemies in a level instead of rushing to complete the game, which is entirely possible in most levels.

As much as I loved this old game though, it has a problem: A major problem. As with many platformers of the era, the camera practically conspires to kill the player at every turn. Replaying the game from my modern perspective, there were more than a few instances where the platforming of the game was made unnecessarily difficult by the camera putting itself in odd positions that made it difficult to perceive distance between Sir Dan and the platform he needs to jump to. The combat is also worsened by the camera's tendency to move around mid-fight and force players to adapt to a new perspective while enemies are beating on them. This different perspective often reoriented the directional controls, which further complicates what should be a simple confrontation. Also, the game was created before Ape Escape on the original PlayStation made dual analog sticks standard for most control schemes, so the camera was awkwardly controlled by the shoulder buttons and it does not work quite as well as the “left stick controls movement, right stick controls camera” style most games utilize today. This lack of dual sticks also makes platforming itself unnecessarily difficult. The directional buttons do not allow for the same level of precision that analog sticks can provide, so certain jumps are made harder because of technological limitations. This is even more painful since Medievil comes from the era where all game protagonists were completely unable to swim in water and drowned instantly, even if it makes more sense for this to affect a skeletal knight in heavy armor. I am willing to forgive it for these issues, often brought on by growing pains and worsened by the camera, simply because 3D platforming was still just starting to take off at the time. Your enjoyment of this is largely, but not entirely, dependent on your willingness to forgive the rather archaic (by modern standards) control scheme. The rest of the game has aged rather well by comparison.

Medievil was a great game and a fantastic case study for the use of Gothic architecture and themes in video games, combined with a healthy sense of humor. Few games since then have re-imagined this period of history in the same way. Luckily for everyone in North American (and I think Europe), the game is available for download and use on the PSN store for the PS3 and the PSP. It only costs around $6, so it may be worth trying out (and the PC crowd among you could probably just pirate it and use a PS1 emulator). Next week, I intend to go over the sequel*, as it has a list of pros and cons that are related, but altogether different from the original. This is a series I adore and Sir Daniel is one of my favorite protagonists in video games. I hope that one day it can see a another sequel, taking the elements that made the first one and its sequel so great, but re-imagining them using conventions and systems brought on my developments in modern game design. While still not as well known as other PS1 games, Medievil still has a huge cult following and it would be worth revisiting.
*This statement is subject to change.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#49: The 2012 VGAs: A Sign of Good Things to Come?

Despite my many misgivings, harsh criticisms, common sense, and prior threats to boycott them this year, I went ahead and watched the Video Game Awards when they aired via Spike TVs livestream. For those who are unaware, the Spike TV Video Game Awards are held annually every holiday season. Most people who follow the industry write off the award ceremony because the show usually announces the awards in the background and places a major focus on the announcements and trailers for upcoming games in their stead. While this is no less true for this year's ceremony and the VGAs were still very groan-inducing, something happened which may prove to be significant in the coming years: The Game of the Year of 2012 was revealed to be Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was chosen over Assassin's Creed 3, Dishonored, Journey, and Mass Effect 3. While some might argue that this is largely irrelevant, I would strongly disagree. This week, I will explain why this decision to make The Walking Dead Game of the Year is great for the medium. (Note: I do not intend to spoil anything about The Walking Dead and will be speaking in broad strokes. Those afraid of spoilers should not be worried.)

One of the first reasons that this is a big deal is that unlike previous Games of the Year for the Spike TV VGAs. The Walking Dead is not a AAA game. Up until now, the Game of the Year has gone to a AAA published game without exception. Previous awards have gone to Madden '04, GTA: San Andreas, every Bethesda RPG since Oblivion, and Uncharted 2. While these are all well made games that deserve some sort of accolades (even Madden, despite my total lack of interest in sports games), they are all games that come from the biggest publishers in the industry. Given the nature of the VGAs as more of a hype machine than an awards show, this makes sense and is something to be expected. However, this year, the title did not go to one of the ingrained and well-established names in the industry or one that has a very high brand recognition. It went to Telltale's take on a comic book franchise that receives a fairly positive reception, but it largely irrelevant to the industry at large. This defies the trend of previous VGA awards. Many people, myself included, figured that Game of the Year would go to one of two established franchises in the running, either Assassin's Creed 3 or Mass Effect 3. The Walking Dead is a game that is produced on a lower budget and on a much lower scale than most of the other games released this year. This proves to developers and publishers that AAA-style extremely high budgets are not required in order to game a great game that can achieve a high level of popularity and profit, which is something I have complained about more than one.

The next reason that The Walking Dead “walking” away with the trophy is a good thing is that unlike other previous winners of Game of the Year, it does not have a high emphasis on action. The Walking Dead is very much a game about talking to people, making decisions, and observing the emotional impact these decisions have on the ensemble cast of characters that players meet. It also has a slight emphasis on puzzles, going back to its roots as a point-and-click adventure game. This is not the kind of game that one would expect to win Game of the Year. Those types of games usually have a large focus on other types of gameplay. Bethesda games tend to focus on exploration of the world and dealing with the enemies and obstacles that confront them on a regular basis. Uncharted 2 is a very solid third-person shooter/platformer hybrid. Bioshock, which won in 2007, is a very tightly polished shooter. The Walking Dead is a massive change from all of these. While it does have “combat,” it is incredibly rare and takes the form of quick-time events. Players will mostly be talking and solving simple puzzles. What this communicates to the industry is that games do not always need to involve violence and killing waves and waves of mooks. It is okay to experiment with mechanics and try to make games that involve minimal killing or violence on the players part. Gamers are willing to give new ideas and concepts a chance. In the past, many people have criticized our medium for its focus on violence. Knowledge that we can experiment with this is a very healthy for the industry. Maybe one day we can see a game where protagonists can be less violent than the usual fare.

The last reason that The Walking Dead's victory is a great thing for the industry is that unlike other games who have won the award in the past, the primary reason to play The Walking Dead is its story and how players interact with it. This is directly contrary to years past, where the winning game's real draw was the mechanics and the gameplay associated with them, which were almost always completely divorced from the story. In Bethesda RPGs, the plot is rarely ever of great significance. The real reason to play is to explore the world that Bethesda has crafted and see what players can find. GTA games are well known for giving players the ability to disregard the campaign in favor of screwing around and playing in a open-world sandbox. Uncharted 2 and Bioshock do have an emphasis on story, but they are mostly referred to by their gameplay mechanics and their nature as shooters. The Walking Dead is not a game that is heavy on “gameplay” as much as it is “interactivity.” (This is going to get a little confusing as the vocabulary used to describe video games is decidedly limited.) Characters and their interactions are very much at the forefront of the game. Players are encouraged to talk to people and get to know them. Although it is a “point-and-click” game, puzzles are not the real reason to play it. The message this sends to the industry is that we encourage developers to meddle with the definition of a video game. It is not vital to include quick-time events or puzzles so that something is “technically” a video game. After all, those parts of The Walking Dead tend to be the least interesting, but not necessarily bad, parts of the game, especially in Episode 1.

To me, the VGAs are indicative of what the average gamer's perspective. The enthusiasts like myself sometimes forget that while we love the industry and are highly involved in it, we are not the only ones in the industry. Most of the people who are gamers only buy one or two games per year, probably a Call of Duty and another game, and mostly play those. It is these people who the VGAs cater to and there is nothing wrong with that. Looking at it through this lens, the fact that a game like The Walking Dead was able to win the Game of the Year is truly astounding. It means that the average gamer is willing to branch out from their normal gaming routine and try something new and different. This can only be a positive thing. While I know this is not going to dethrone the major shooters of the industry, it is a great start to instilling some sort of change. It is a small victory that will allow us to press on and aim for larger changes. Do not think of it as a large victory so much as a shift in momentum. A small victory is still a victory and we should celebrate while we can. Now that The Walking Dead game has been achieving so much and doing so well, it allows us to call into question many deeply-entrenched beliefs and practices of the industry.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#48: The Post/Zombie Apocalypse: Is it Overused?

The prospect of zombies and the undead has always been a theme explored in video games since the days of the Atari 2600. The reasons for this are obvious, since they pose an easily comprehensible threat and provide cannon fodder for players. In recent times however, they appear to have seen a bit of a resurgence. Many modern games have incorporated zombies and zombie-related tropes and as a result many people, including myself, have begun to think that zombies, “infected,” and their ilk have grown to be overplayed, stale, and increasingly uninteresting. Having said that, I have recently finished a game that has made me rethink my sour opinion on the subject. That game was Telltale's adaptation of The Walking Dead, available now on the PC, the 360, and the PS3 via their respective online stores. After playing the game, I appreciated the zombie apocalypse (and general post-apocalypse) setting much more than I used to. The realization came that this setting is stagnating not because it is begin overplayed, but because game developers have not done anything new or different with it until now. This week, in a long overdue article, I delve into why this is and how it may be fixed.

First, we need to have a discussion on the zombie apocalypse and what it does. A zombie apocalypse is exactly what it says on the tin, it is a fantasy apocalypse scenario where, due to either supernatural or biological/scientific influences, the dead are somehow reanimated, causing the collapse of society as a whole and ushering in a new world order. This is a subset of the post-apocalypse setting, where the world as we known it is fundamentally changed and significantly set back due to some catastrophic incident or scenario (like zombies). In these types of settings, there are not very many types of plots that a writer can utilize. The only overarching plot lines that this kind of setting can support are typically as follows, but could include more.

  1. The “Fight for Survival” where an individual or group has the goal of making it by from day to day. Typically, this will involve finding some kind of shelter, gathering food, water, and supplies, and dealing with threats to one's safety or supply cache.
  2. “Rebuilding Society” where the individual or group has typically finally etched a permanent/semi-permanent existence in this new world and decides to start rebuilding what was lost, forming cities, cultivating land, banding groups of people together, and establishing infrastructure and government. This is all done in the hopes of bringing back some semblance of law, order, and stability that was lost in the apocalypse.
  3. The “Power Fantasy” in which the player is thrust into an apocalypse and told to just go wild and kill as many things (living or undead) as they possibly can. The protagonist has a large skill set and great physical prowess and/or a large arsenal of weapons and gadgets that can handle a wide variety of situations. The plot will generally be bare-minimum or fall into one of the previous categories and will exist for no other reason that to give the protagonist an excuse for racking up a large kill list.

Compared to other types of settings, this is a very small list, even when compared to other settings that are often used, like sci-fi or fantasy. Those settings allow for plots involving political intrigue between nations, world-spanning adventures, and even plots on a smaller scale like murder mysteries and revenge stories. This lack of plot types in itself is not really a significant problem. The true issue is one that lies within the sphere of video games: the plots are almost exclusively of the “Power Fantasy” variety. Out of most of the modern day games that involve zombies that come to mind, there is a disproportionately high number of zombie-murder-shotgun simulators. What my mind calls forth when I think of zombies are the likes of Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Resident Evil, Dead Island, and the zombie mode in the Call of Duty franchise. In all of these games, the zombies are nothing more than an obstacle that players point and shoot at until it falls over. This is what leads to a feeling of being overused and overplayed. It is not that we are using the same setting over and over again, but that we are doing it with the same general plot and narrative structure as well.

Fast forward to The Walking Dead, and now we no longer have a Power Fantasy. Instead, the designers at Telltale chose to embrace the source material and use the “Fight for Survival” plotline with a well developed and realistically written cast of survivors. This enabled them to focus on small scale, highly character driven, personal, stories where the player and his party are forced into desperate situations and experiment with the gameplay, where players are forced to make painful choices and bear the weight of those choices. Emotions run high and players can often be brought to tears when faced with the events that are unfolding in front of them. The shift away from the standard Power Fantasy refreshes the setting, making it new and interesting. Players never plow through tons of zombies. Whenever the zombies come, they are presented as a genuine threat and the best course of action is always to retreat. All these characters are trying to do is stay alive and see tomorrow. This is where most zombies games get it wrong. Designers forget that there are other plots they can use in this setting and go for the standard power fantasy. These other plot types can add a weight and emotional backbone to the game. There is nothing wrong with a good Power Fantasy, but gamers want more than that. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

But Power Fantasies are easy to craft. All designers need to do is create a hoard of mooks and some weapons to fight them. It takes more work than it does to think up of quality writing and good gameplay mechanics that reinforce the other two plot lines. Aside from the Fallout franchise and the flash game Rebuild, which focus on the rebuilding of society in a post-apocalypse, and The Walking Dead, where the daily struggle for survival is on display, one would be hard-pressed to find post-apocalypse games that are not strictly in the realm of Power Fantasy. (And yes, I am very much aware that there is a very strong case to be made for Fallout being a Power Fantasy. You do not need to tell me.) I would petition game designers to branch out every once in a while and break the mold. Do something different from that which we have all seen before and show the creativity in all of those development studios. I know that game designers are more than capable of experimenting with new concepts and/or reiterating on old ones in interesting ways. I just wish that they would show off the capability more.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

#47: The Dilution of Game: A Close Look At Assassin's Creed 3

Judging by my previous bodies of work, you may assume that I play only RPGs and very little else. This is a perfectly logical assumption and one that you would be forgiven for making, yet it is not exactly true. I play a variety of games of diverse genres and with different expectations for each one. Recently, I purchased and beat the third main installment of the Assassin's Creed franchise. In the early writings for my blog, I had a few things to say about the franchise, and it is about time I returned to it. While I am a huge fan of the series and enjoyed my time with the new protagonist Connor Kenway from the time of the American Revolution, I noticed that the game was not without flaws which may pose a danger to the series going forward. This is not intended to be a review of the game, rather a collection of thoughts about it that have a general theme. Also, I will not be discussing multiplayer in any shape or form: Assassin's Creed will always be a primarily single player game to me, with an added (but welcome and enjoyable) multiplayer component. Lastly, I intend this to be spoiler free, yet I acknowledge that what I say may come with implicit spoilers, you have been warned. With that in mind, here is my critique of Assassin's Creed 3.

The first thing I really began to notice towards the middle of Assassin's Creed 3 was the vast quantities of side stuff to do. Normally, I would be all for the inclusion of more content in a video game to help justify the $60 purchase price. However, in this game many of the optional missions feel decidedly arbitrary and pointless. Many of them are, and I mean this quite literally, a series of checklists of tasks to perform in order to build rapport for various factions in the game that the player will rarely see or interact with. Things like “Kill X amount of enemies with Y weapon,” “Perform a Leap of Faith X times,” or “Use Z gadget to perform X perfect hunts.” The game asks the player if they want to perform these tasks, yet offers no incentive to do so. While I have not actually completed the tasks myself, as far as I am aware there is no reward besides a useless achievement/trophy for completing them. Players are also invited to explore the underground network of tunnels built by the Free Masons in Boston and New York to unlock fast travel locations. However, the game already offers a sizable number of fast travel locations by default, so this again seems like an empty, pointless gesture, even if the tunnels themselves are very interesting in their own right. There is also an optional moneymaking mechanic in the Davenport Homestead. Connor has to renovate the Homestead and bring enough people to come to live there in order to build a thriving community. The characters and subplots introduced through this quest-line are very well done and help to flesh out Connor as a character (and I have to stress that this does wonders for making Connor a much more relatable protagonist). The problem with this is that the ultimate use for the Homestead is to craft goods and make money by shipping them to various vendors. While players can use this money to purchase new weapons and equipment for use on missions, it is ultimately superfluous because Connor's initial inventory is more than enough to take the player from the start of the game to the end of the game. Lastly, the player can take part in a series of collection quests. They can gather up feathers from the Colonial Frontier, open treasure chests scattered throughout the game world, and reclaim the pages to Benjamin Franklin's legendary almanacs. Yet again, these do not seem to manifest into any tangible gameplay benefits: Collecting feathers nets the player a Native American tribal outfit, opening chests grants the player money and recipes for the Homestead they do not need since the economy confers no real benefit, and the Almanac's again give more recipes. All of these extras are included in the game and provide extra length, yet they all (with the exception of the Homestead) feel tacked on and serve no purpose in the context of the game besides lengthening a playthrough's running time. An average player will have no need to do most of this.

Another observation I made when playing Assassin's Creed 3 is that the game has many different gameplay types, to the point where it may seem somewhat scattered and disjointed. Throughout the game, the player is introduced to a number of different mechanics that are only used once or twice and then never used again. Players will be asked to direct Patriot troops in battle in the middle of a Loyalist siege. In another mission later on, they are tasked with firing a cannon into Loyalist troops in order to stop them cold. At another point in the game, players are forced to cross through no man's land in the middle of a shootout, learning the timing and ducking from cover to cover avoiding the shots. All of these gameplay styles are only used in their respective sequences and never make repeat appearances. While they serve their purpose in breaking up other sections and providing a bit of a breather, the side quests and other missions should be doing that while the main quest sticks to reiterating on their core mechanics in interesting ways. There is one last mechanic that deviates from the standard Assassin's Creed gameplay style, but it is more ingrained into the game: The naval missions. As a part of the story, Connor gains his own ship with which he can sail the sees in pursuit of the Templars and other things. Ship combat sections appear a few separate times in the story and there is an optional quest-chain surrounding naval combat, and they are all very well done and deserve praise. However, it again seems like a distraction from what should be the main mechanics of the franchise. All of these side mechanics seem to get in the way of what should be a game about stabbing dudes in the throat.

Speaking of killing dudes, the arsenal Connor has with which to do so is a fairly decent one. He has access to Hidden Blades, Swords/Axes/War Clubs, Tomahawks/Daggers, Pistols, Bows, Rope Darts, Poison Darts, Trip Mines, Muskets, Snares, and Smoke Bombs. This is quite the inventory. But the problem is that most the this equipment feels completely useless. In my playthrough of the game, I basically only used the Hidden Blade and Tomahawk in combination with Smoke Bombs and Bows. I rarely used the Pistol and NEVER used any of the other pieces of equipment. The game bills Connor's inventory as a toolbox the player can use to solve any problem in any manner they please. However, this is not the case. Due to the optional objectives and constricted, occasionally linear level design, any decision the player might have made with tactics is immediately thrown out the window. Due to the nature of the story, with the player playing as Desmond Miles, who is reliving Connor's memory through the Animus device, the player is given optional objectives in order to improve synchronization with Connor's memory by doing things how he did it. It will give players objectives like “Kill X amount of enemies from a hiding spot” or other such tasks to complete mid-mission. So while the player in theory has a multitude of way to go through many missions, they will in actuality only have one or two “best” ways of successfully pulling it off. Also, many of the missions have the player moving from waypoint to waypoint to waypoint in a decidedly linear fashion. Even without these constraints, just going in and having an all out brawl to kill everyone is generally a tactic that works. The way levels and set-pieces are arranged, there is either very little challenge or a great deal of challenge (depending on whether or not the player chooses to go after optional objective and what those objectives are at times) without much of a middle ground or room for experimentation.

When all of these points are combined, it results in a game that, while well-intentioned, feels like it does not truly know what it wants to be. The game is lacking in an underlying core than binds everything together. It feels like it is juggling too many balls at once and is destined to drop a few of them as a result, even if the vast majority remain in the air. These mechanics dilute the game and keeps it from shining in the way it really should. For future Assassin's Creed games, I recommend making a return to the simplicity and purity of the first game where the goal is to kill targets in creative and sneaky ways, but with the advancements made in the systems by subsequent games. The first game allowed players to research their targets and learn all about their habits and routines, giving them the information to plan their assassinations. I would love to see them weave this investigation into the story-driven plots the series has come to be known for. The story would take players through the investigation, but loosen the leash during the actual assassinations, giving players much more freedom in that respect. It may be wise to kill the concept of optional, mid-mission objectives as they tend to hinder the game more than they help. Go back to the core of the franchise. For all the talk of Assassins vs. Templars, there is very little in the way of assassination that goes on in more recent games in the franchise. Assassins apparently tend to do more faffing about then actual killing.

That is not to say that Assassin's Creed 3 is a bad game by any means. In fact, after the Ezio trilogy, it is a step in the right direction. The game has returned the series to the interesting gray on gray dynamic between the Templars and Assassins over the Chaotic Good vs. Stupid Evil conflict of Assassin's Creed 2. In fact, the plot in general is very well written, even if the rewrites to history done in order to shoehorn Connor into the American Revolution feel a little like Forrest Gump. The improvements they made to the parkour systems really help to improve the overall game. This is a very good game. I am just somewhat disappointed as a long time fan of the franchise that it may be falling victim to the sin of trying of please everyone. This franchise can work, but it needs to be planned more carefully. I do not want to see it fall to the wayside.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#46: The Distressing Implications Behind “Hepler Mode”

A long time ago (at least 350 internet years, which translates to around one year ago on October 2011), a writer at Bioware named Jennifer Hepler was the object of immense controversy. At the time of this incident, one statement is particular was brought to light that she had made six years ago: She had told interviewers that she wished that developers would more often include more “casual” difficulties for people like her that do not necessarily enjoy playing video games, but like to be engaged in a good story, in which the gameplay sections are skipped in order to go from dialogue to dialogue. Though at first I was in support of this “Hepler Mode,” in time I began to change my mind. This is not to say that I am against making easier difficulties for new players. In fact, quite the opposite is true in that regards. In the past, I have been vocal in my support of simplifying systems and allowing for adjustable difficulties to facilitate a variety of player skill levels. No, the problems with this “Story” mode are related to the underlying assumptions that are implied by the idea.

The fact that this has even come up in discussion is proof of a fundamentally poor design principal which is prevalent in the gaming industry (and honest probably has been for quite some time), which is that story and gameplay can and should be allowed to exist separately. This line of thinking is prevalent in video games of all types, from shooters like Call of Duty, to open-world games like inFamous, and even Western-style RPGs like Mass Effect, which have choice and consequence as major themes and mechanics. In many of these games, there is a clear divide between the moments where the player is engaged in the story and is advancing the plot and the other moments that consist of mostly shooting mooks or other gameplay elements. These sections where the game is nothing but intense combat seem to have no real impact on the outcome of the events and exist merely to extend the length of the game. Mass Effect is a clear example of this in action. In every Mass Effect game (and many other Bioware games if what I am told is true), despite the choices the player makes and the changes to the overall timeline as a result of these choices, the player will always play through the same levels with the same enemies. The only thing that the player can do to change up these encounters is to play as a different class and/or bring different squadmates along. The opposite of this phenomenon is also true. No matter what class the player chooses, who they bring on missions, and what they do during combat scenarios, the story will never be affected by it. Each of these two sections of the game exist, for all intent and purposes, independently of the other. This is not how games should be designed. The gameplay and the story should exist to supplement each other. They should be so entwined as to be nearly inseparable. Interaction and choice are the biggest strengths of the medium. In order to use it to most effective tell a tale, designers need to keep this in mind. Spec Ops: The Line is a fantastic example of that (which will be left vague because of spoilers).

The other error in the underlying assumptions of “Hepler Mode” is the question of who this kind of mode would be aiming for marketing-wise. What I mean by that is that Jennifer Hepler notes that one of the reasons this kind of mode of play would be needed is that there are people out there that do not like video games, yet are interested in a good story. Ignoring whatever opinion you may have of Hepler, why would a game developer or publisher even make an attempt to capture a market that literally has no interest in their products? What would be gained from that? Any interest this non-gamer market would have in video games would be superficial at best. This is not the same thing as attracting people who may have an interest in games, but are put off by the (admittedly high) barriers of entry like consoles/PCs, price of games, and complicated control schemes aimed at those familiar with other games. That makes sense. What does not make sense is marketing to people that literally have no interest in the medium at all. Doing so is a recipe for disaster and one of the easiest ways a developer can piss away the good will of its fans. If the target demographic has no interest in playing games, then the odds are that they will not even know the publisher is marketing to them, let alone have any interest in the games being marketed.

This problem with “Hepler Mode” is not that it is an unsound concept, but rather that it should not be. If the combat system wears down most players so much that the vast majority of them are asking to skip it entirely, then it may be a good idea to revamp the systems of the game to make it more entertaining. It is up to designers to make tough calls like editing, revising, and even removing features or parts of levels in order to improve the overall experience because that is what they are paid to do. The gameplay is just as much a part of the experience as the storyline. To give players the option to skip gameplay is to concede the video games are nothing more than movies with playable segments in between shots. That is not acceptable! It goes against the very strengths of the medium. Games are at their best when they embrace their nature as interactive media and utilized it to the fullest. While this is an old issue, it is still an important one nonetheless and I hope that lessons were learned from it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#45: Gaming Journalism and Journalistic Integrity: The Charge of Corruption

In the past, I have had certain critiques of the machine that fuels game reviews. While many people out there think of game reviews as simple buyer's advice, I called on major game review outlets to do more in the way of critical analysis of the games that they review. That is an opinion that can be up for debate, but it is not the subject of this piece. Recently, a series of events have occurred that shine the spotlight once again on the game review industry. On the 16 October 2012, an interview with industry veteran Geoff Keighly, executive producer of Game Trailers TV and the Spike TV Video Game Awards, was published on the YouTube channel “Shifted2u.” For the duration of the interview, Mr. Keighly was shown sitting with a bag of Doritos and several 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew to his left, and a display stand of Master Chief, promoting Halo 4 and sponsored by Doritos and Mountain Dew, to his right. A particular image from this interview, one the pictured Keighley in a particularly lifeless state, spread rapidly on the internet.

Later that month, on 24 October 2012, writer Robert Florence published an article (Note: This is a reprinting of the original article, not the copy on Eurogamer's site for reasons that will be detailed shortly.) on, posting the image along with a scathing critique of game reviewers and their relationship with the PR representatives of many large game publishers. In this article, he mentioned that during the Game Media Awards, many notable game journalists were seen taking part in a publicity stunt in which a certain publisher was giving away six Playstation 3 consoles to six lucky game journalists out of all of the ones who tweeted their excitement for their upcoming game, using a particular hash tag. (To avoid giving that particular company further publicity for this stunt, I have elected to avoid mentioning their name directly. If you are curious, you may wish to look this incident up for yourself.) In this write-up, he quoted the twitter responses that some journalists made regarding the backlash they received from these tweets. One quote, from game journalist Lauren Wainwright, in particular reads: Urm… [redacted] were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that's a bad thing?” Because of the use of said statements in the article, Intent Media, a firm that Ms. Wainwright works for, allegedly threatened to file a lawsuit against Eurogamer claiming libelous use of her words. Due to the resulting pressure, Eurogamer had no choice but to release Mr. Florence from his employment with the company. Furthermore, they had to edit the article, removing the quotes used. The revised version remains on Eurogamer's site for all to see.

The combined weight of these incidents has rekindled charges that the gaming press is corrupt and “bought” by the major publishers of the industry. After looking at all that has happened recently, I can understand why people would say that. It is even easier to see how something like this might happen. Game journalists and PR representatives both have a passion for the games on display and love to talk about games. Furthermore, PR representatives need to find a way to release the information they want to be released to the audience for their products and game journalists want information to release to their audience, which is, of course, the exact same audience publishers wish to give information to. Since these two sides have similar goals, interests, and audiences, it is no surprise that there is something of a symbiosis between them. They rely on each other in order to be successful at their jobs. This, unfortunately, makes it easy to lose sight of one's responsibilities. When game journalists start to think of the people they get press releases and information from as friends, things start to go awry. This can easily cloud their judgment when writing reviews and previews, discussing the games in their queue, and even when contests and special events are run. I do not mean to imply that these relationships between PR and journalists are necessarily bad things. However, they must be kept in check by both parties, else people may (as has already been demonstrated) begin to question the validity of the whole process. Both sides of the relationship need to be vigilant that friendship does not cross into professional responsibilities. Most likely easier said than done, but it is necessary if journalists want to maintain their legitimacy.

Another factor in contributing to this air of corruption is the fact that game journalists are essentially just fans of the games. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does help contribute to all of this nonsense that we are seeing. Very few personalities in gaming journalism actually have training and/or education in Communications or Journalism. Most are just people who began to write about video games, either on small start up sites or just for fun in their spare time, and rose to their positions through meeting people, generating a solid fanbase, and/or sheer tenacity. The one thing they all have in common is a passion and fandom for video games and the medium as a whole. Just as with their relationship with PR, this can cloud their judgment when not kept in check. With the advent of blogging and other means of releasing opinions for the world to see, it is even more important to do so. If people find that a reviewer's fandom is clouding their better judgment and leaving them susceptible to corruption, then their audience can easily move to one of the thousands of other competing outlets and ignore them entirely.

I am not a gaming journalist: All I am is a lowly blogger, in a sea of lowly bloggers, with a passion for the industry. I will not make the claim that the gaming press as a whole is corrupt. I follow many of them on Twitter and have even had very interesting conversations with a few of them. However, what we have all seen in recent times is indicative of a problem. There are indeed some people in the gaming press that do not understand the need to stay on the high and narrow and not fall victim to many of the tactics that PR use to spread information. Clearly, some do not realize how much value can be lost to unprofessional conduct and behavior. Regardless of whether or not there is actual corruption in the gaming press (and, let us be honest, there definitely are very sketchy, at best, news outlets in the industry), there is, at the very least an appearance of corruption, which is a very big issue in and of itself. If even a select few make the press look disingenuous and corrupt, then that has severe negative repercussions on the whole industry and how people think of it. It is vital that the press clean up their act and begin to look more like professional journalists. This does not mean that they need to stop being silly, making jokes, or enjoying their jobs, but it does mean that they need to maintain a level of transparency with their readers/viewers. As one Escapist Magazine News Team Staff Member, Jonathan Grey Carter, said, “Taking your job seriously does not equal taking yourself seriously.” With regards to gaming journalists themselves, he added that “You are not an important person, you write about toys for a living. Perspective always helps.” While I like to think of games as slightly higher on the totem pole than “toys,” the point is still valid. Journalists can maintain transparency and a sense of integrity while still being passionate gamers that care for the industry. All it takes is a little bit of thinking before taking part in certain contests or giveaways and an acknowledgment of mistakes when they happen. This is not a call to get rid of the advertising money that major publishers spend on the gaming press. Let us be honest, the press is a business and the money needs to come from somewhere. It is simply a word of caution. To the gaming press, please be a little more careful and understand that when we raise issues with things you do, it is because we want you to do better and we believe that you can. Like many of you do to the games themselves, we criticize because we care.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#44: Standing By Your Work: Why Video Game Development Takes Guts

It cannot be disputed that gaming has grown to become a legitimate form of expression and speech. Over the years, it has acquired a legitimacy previously in dispute and constantly vied for by developers and publishers. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered its ruling on the matter and sided with us, the gamers, this is no longer a matter up for debate. Despite the fact that we have reached this point, it seems that developers can still be susceptible to the pressures and influences of the media and major news outlets. It is not the norm for developers, but it does happen often enough and gamers can get caught in the crossfire when it does. This week's article is dedicated to these instances and what is wrong with them. Instead of my usual format where I make a sweeping general statement and then support it with facts, I will do things in reverse. I will outline three different cases and then tie them together with my point in the end. Now, without further ado:

The first case will be talking about was somewhat controversial when it was announced: Six Days in Fallujah. Many of you many have heard of this game, developed by Atomic Games, a company that specializes in war games like the Close Combat and World At War series. The story behind the creation of this game is a very interesting one. One of the many divisions of Atomic Games was contracted to create a set of training tools of the Marine Corp of the United States. In order to do this, Marines from the Third Battalion, First Marines were assigned to them. In the midst of development, these Marines were deployed to the Battle of Fallujah. After returning to continue development, the Marines themselves requested that the developers make a game about their experiences during this conflict. From that request was born the desire to make a realistic and true-to-form tale of what the soldiers go through, based on actual testimony and experiences from returning US Marines, Military Officials, and other experts of combat in the modern age. While actual gameplay footage of Six Days of Fallujah, at least the footage I found, reveals very little about the game itself, Atomic describes it almost as survival horror game. Players were to assume the role of a company of soldiers in the Battle of Fallujah, going through the mission in a way that actual soldiers would go about it. This would entail constantly being on edge and being unable to predict what could come at the player next. The player would have gone up against tactics used by enemy insurgents and combatants in real world conflicts. It was to depict the physical and psychological toll that war takes on the people involved, similar in a sense to the more recent Spec Ops: The Line, although with an even stronger grounding in reality. This game was originally going to be published by Konami. However, on April 27, 2009, they backed down from the project when faced with pressure from media in the US. The outcry came mostly from the parents of soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict speaking out against it for fear that they would not treat the subject with respect. Because of all of this, the developer was left to fend for itself. Though the game has long since been finished, Atomic has yet to find someone willing to publish it. To this day, they have been reduced to a minimal crew of few people and are still trying to find someone to help them bring the game to the public.

Our next case was much luckier than Atomic, but it is still a very telling one. We are going to talk about the reemergence of the Medal of Honor series, now published by EA and developed by Danger Close Games. Before the days of Call of Duty's dominance, in the time of World War 2 shooters, Medal of Honor was one of the top dogs in the FPS genre. When it was going to be reawakened in 2010, people were naturally curious about the subject. However, one design decision in particular caused controversy. In the game's multiplayer mode, instead of making one side a generic, nameless terrorist organization, the game was going to mirror real life warfare by making them the Taliban. The problem arose from the fact that this meant that many players would inevitably play as the Taliban's forces against representations of soldiers from the United States and its allies. Faced with pressure from different groups, and with US military officials banning the sale of the game on their bases, Danger Close and EA folded, changing the name of the terrorist group in the game to the OpFor (Opposing Forces). Though the game did reasonably well, it was far from one of the top sellers. With the exception of the controversy surrounding it, there was nothing noteworthy about it and it quickly faded into obscurity until the sequel emerged.

This last case study differs greatly from the first two. Not only is this one not, strictly speaking, a war game, but it also did very well in many aspects. Nonetheless, it will follow the themes laid out in this article and needs to be discussed. One of my favorite games to discuss and criticize, this one will be an old hat to returning readers of my series: Mass Effect 3, published by EA and developed by Bioware. Now, given the circumstances behind the last two cases, I think all of you can guess what I will be discussing here. When Mass Effect 3 was released to the public earlier this year, it was highly praised for the most part. People were enjoying the final chapter of the franchise. Then, all of us reached the ending of the game. This caused people to... react... negatively. Rather than defend their work with logical, well thought out arguments, Bioware initially decided to hide behind the veil of something as obscure and meaningless as “artistic integrity.” Later on, they recanted their previous statements and released the Extended Cut version of the ending. This was not a change to the ending, but rather a revision of it. While this revision is generally a good one, combined with the response from Bioware to the response of the original ending, it called the developer's practices into question. After the issues people had with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, along with the Day 1, On-Disc DLC of Mass Effect 3, Bioware was on thin ice. The way they handled the ending of the franchise proper was not helping to smooth this over.

So what do these all have in common and what is this building up to? Well, it is pretty simple. While cases like these three are fairly rare, they do and will probably continue to happen, meaning they need to be called out now so that developers and publishers can learn from them. All of these games had controversy surrounding them and the developer and/or the publisher was responsible for mismanaging the controversy and doing for harm to the product and brand than they needed to. In the case of Six Days of Fallujah, Konami failed to address the naysayers and instead opted to sever ties with Atomic. They could have easily decided to stand by the game and addressed the critiques of the project. Going in, Konami had to have known that this kind of reaction was possible, they are not stupid. It would have been necessary to make a plan to address this. Since the developers seemed to have known what they were doing, it would have been easy. Spec Ops: The Line later proved that games can and should address the subject of war from an pessimistic and cynical point of view as opposed to the military bravado expressed in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. They did not support the statement this game would have made and decided to abandon it, washing their hands of the whole affair.

In the case of Medal of Honor, gamers stood up for EA and Danger Close. We as a whole felt that it was okay for them to make the move to have the Taliban as part of the multiplayer mode. When they decided to cave into the pressure and change the Taliban to the OpFor, they lost any support that they had. Once they no longer stood behind their product and their decisions, gamers could no longer do so either. They had felt betrayed that they had stood up for EA and were then left in the dust. This brought negative attention and spite to the Medal of Honor brand that it could never truly recover from, even if the game itself was not as mediocre as it was. The US Military still refused to stock the game in stores on their bases well after the developers made the change, meaning that it was for naught. All that Medal of Honor left it its wake was bitterness, and its okay sales reflected that.

As for Mass Effect 3, like I said, Bioware initially did their best to respond to the criticisms and stand behind the ending they created. However, instead of using logical and sound arguments to support the ending like the themes it was supposed to represent, the obvious lack of resources and time, etc., they chose to use “artistic integrity,” a useless phrase that has no meaning. Then, they released the Extended Cut as a way to “clarify” the ending, changing a few scenes and ret-conning the destruction of the Mass Relays. Neither one of these reactions was good and both brought the wrong kind of press to Bioware's doors. By hiding behind “integrity,” Bioware opened itself to many criticisms and made itself look pretty weak all things considered. And then when they released the Extended Cut, they sent out another subtle message to their fans. By changing the ending, they show, perhaps unknowingly, that they did not fully endorse the product they were sending out initially. If this was indeed the case, then it should have never been released in the state it was in. Just like with the case of Medal of Honor, if Bioware cannot support the game they release, then how can they expect fans to do the same. One of two reactions could have helped to mitigate the damage. Bioware could have fervently and forcefully stood behind their ending. While, as a detractor of the ending, I would not have liked that reaction, I would have understood it, accepted it, and finally moved on after awhile had they supported it enough. The other possible reaction was to simply admit that they made a mistake. Telling the public that they took a risk and it did not pan out is not the most pleasant thing to do, but it would have reduced tensions. Gamers knew something was wrong with Mass Effect 3, they are not stupid. Saying that would lay many fears to rest, since the imagination can often times can be worse than the real thing.

The underlying moral behind all of these issues is that people involved were not willing to stand behind the work they did and caved in to pressure. In all of these cases, doing so led to a generally weaker position for each of these projects and negatively impacted them in some way. Let us all be honest here, making games is not a science: It is very much a creative endeavor. As such, it important to have courage when developing games. In much plainer language, if developers and publishers do not have the guts to stand behind what they make, then they have no business being in this industry and need to remove themselves before they grow bankrupt. Making safe bets and following the leader will not work here. It takes ambition, creativity, passion, and guts. Bowing to pressure is the biggest indicator that companies do not belong in the industry. This is something I feel strongly about, and I would hope you all do too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#43: Complexity is the Enemy: Why Video Games Benefit From Simplicity

It is no secret that video games have been in a constant state of evolution. Unlike books, movies, and music, our medium is still very much a young one. We are constantly pushing the limits of what interactivity with media can do. As gaming continues to push and grow, it has begun to demonstrate a very clear trend in recent years. Rather than strive complex, intricate systems that require a lot of patience and skill to master, most games have opted for simpler, easier to pick up and play systems. Many people lament this change. They feel that games are being “dumbed down” and think of it as a worsening of the medium as a whole. I disagree with this assessment. I believe that simplification is a good thing for our industry. In this week's post, I will explain my reasoning.

The primary reason simplifying games is a good thing is that it leads to a bigger audience for them. Before you moan about all the “f***ing casuals” or “'hardcore' Call of Duty players,” please take a moment to listen to my point. Bigger audiences allow developers to do more, since their sales are likely to be much higher. A degree of risk can be taken and further innovation can be made if sales of other projects can be virtually guaranteed. As much as we complain about the dullness of yearly release schedules for games like Call of Duty (and let's be honest, the yearly release does negatively impact Call of Duty games), the profits on these games could be used to fund other projects that are more risky and may not be as well received. (They are not, usually, because of the way AAA companies work, but they could be.) Look at Valve for an good example of the positives of guaranteed profits. The near monopoly Valve has over PC gaming thanks to Steam virtually assures them that they will make profits no matter what they do with their money. Because of this, they are able to take (Valve) time to plan out, tweak, play-test, and re-tweak all of the parts of their games to ensure that they are of high quality. While people do bemoan the how simple modern games have become, they do help to attract these revenue streams that allow for more risky projects to be developed to advance the medium and cater to other tastes.

The other benefit of this extended audience, due to simplified systems, is that it brings in a more diverse and interesting set of viewpoints into the industry. This may seem something unimportant, but it is crucial to the advancement of the industry. Most people who have knowledge of the industry are aware that it is pretty much dominated by 20-30 something white men. While this should not be unexpected, it is detrimental to the industry. There is only so many ways 20-30 something white men can look upon a subject or topic. If we can bring in more demographics and people, each with their own perspectives, viewpoints, and biases, then we can broaden both the types of games that get released and their themes and topics. In any sort of entertainment industry, injecting new people and experiences will be a good thing. It helps to avoid stagnation and keeps things fresh and exciting for people. Different demographics are inherently going to have these new viewpoints due to the fact that they live different lives. Having a higher audience increases the number of people interested in games, which leads to more folks wanting to make a career out of it. This influx will invariably lead to more diverse people simply due to the law of averages. With that, we could see some much needed diversity in video games.

The second advantage to making systems simple and discarding complication is the way that it reduces tedium in game mechanics. This is something most people are at least aware of, even if they do not exactly know it, but it needs to be said anyway: Just because something is complex does not make it deep. On the other hand, just because something is simple to pick up and play does not make it make it shallow. Depth comes from the degree to which one can learn and master the systems at play. Though not, strictly speaking, a video game, Chess is the ultimate example of this. The game itself is simple to understand. There are only a limited number of rules one must need to know. However, everyone knows that chess is a game of intricacies and depth. There are hundreds of thousands of possible permutations of the game board and equally as many tactics to experiment with. While anyone can play to moderate success, someone who is an expert of the game will easily defeat a novice or intermediate player. We have seen video games with similarly simple, yet deep mechanics. Final Fantasy V is a good example with its job class system that has many different combinations. Another demonstration of this would be the recently released Dishonored. The game has a fairly limited tool-set that the player can use. However, the level design and game systems encourage experimentation and combination of these tools to efficiently and skillfully get passed a number of different situations. Like the other games in that fit this description, it falls into the category of “easy to learn, hard to master, ” which is something I whole-heartedly encourage. If developers keep mechanics simple, it forces them to use them in more creative and unique ways, rather than bloat their games with unnecessary filler.

While I support this trend of keeping games simple, I must confess that we must be careful with it. There is such a thing as over-simplification. Some games do benefit from a slight amount of complexity. It depends on the game in question. Other times, the mechanics are so simple and the level design is so mediocre that it makes for a generally bad experience. It is necessary to balance simple systems that any player can use with depth that allows others to go into the system and try to fully master it. Depth is what is most important, not complexity. Developers need to make deep experiences in order to attract people. We do not need excess complexity in games anymore. That is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

#42: What is Needed to Evoke the Feeling of Horror?

Out of all the genres of video games, few a more fascinating than the survival horror genre. It is one of the few existing genres that has the express purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. Because of this, the genre has tougher standards and is more of an evolved and practiced science than others. There are tricks and tactics developers can ascribe to that are tested and true. With the release of Resident Evil 6, which was very poorly received by the gaming press and public, the subject of horror has once again become relevant. This week, I want to talk more about the genre. I will discuss what is, in my humble opinion, the best way to invoke horror and why you will rarely see new horror games outside of the indie scene.

One of the first factors that horror developers must keep in mind is the concept of atmosphere. The tone and layout of the environment is a very key factor in this. Horror relies on the player feeling like the environment is out to get them. They need to feel weak and oppressed and the world needs to reflect that. To invoke this feeling of helplessness, a developer can do many things. One of the easiest things they can do is limit the resources a player has access to. By giving players limited resources, developers force them to use those resources as efficiently as possible. When confronted by a group of monsters, the player would need to decide whether it would be more beneficial to engage them, take the risk and try to run past them, or retreat hoping to find more resources and/or find an alternate path. Making a player decide this on the spot creates suspense and tension, creating an oppressive atmosphere conducive to the feeling of horror. Another strategy for building a scary atmosphere is to use unsettling set pieces to creep out the player. Now, when I say set pieces, I am NOT referring to the explosion-filled, Micheal Bay- like linear levels in a Call of Duty game. Instead, I am referring to the self-contained stories told via the environment similar to those common in Bethesda games. Using the environment to tell small stories regarding the people in an area is a powerful narrative tool, especially in a horror game. When it comes to scaring the player, their own mind is the most effective tool a developer can use against them. Knowing this crucial piece of information, a designer can implant details into a room and maybe include a note or audio file or two to draw a scene in the player's head. While the designer will be able to create the general idea, the actual image will be generated by the player's mind, which means that it will be custom tailored to frighten them. This further creates an unsettling and frightening atmosphere for the game.

Keeping with the idea of using making the player draft up details in their head, horror is often best achieved by showing as little as possible. Obfuscation is a very valid method for supporting the idea of horror in a video game. Many of the most successful horror games have worked well because they embraced their technical limitations and kept many details obscure. The most well-known example of this would be Silent Hill 2. Due to the limitations of the original Playstation system, Silent Hill 2 was not able to draw all the details of an area on screen at one time. In order to compensate, they blanketed the area just outside their draw limit with a dense fog that kept it out of view. This, combined with the unsettling atmosphere, had the beneficial side-effect of letting the players use their imaginations when traveling through the titular Silent Hill and added to the tension of what was going on in the game. The other way a designer can force the player to use their imagination is through keeping a minimalist mindset when designing the game. We humans are used to living in densely populated areas for the most part. Thus, we feel naturally freaked out when we see areas devoid of life. When a designer deliberately places few, spaced out lifeforms (friend OR foe) in an area, it invokes the Uncanny Valley effect. Seeing a familiar urban setting without the familiar urban population is close to what we are used to, but not quite close enough that we feel comfortable. This also calls forth a feeling of isolation. One man/woman, alone against overwhelming odds with barely any ability to fight back is inherently terrifying. A good example of this is in the free indie title, Slender. Though like any horror game, its effectiveness depends on the person playing, the developer of Slender was highly proficient at using few details in order to terrify the player. Trapped in a small, enclosed, wooded area with exactly one for, the Slenderman, players have no way to fight back and no one to support them. This is about as bare-bones as a horror game can be and, when it works, it works to great effect. When my friends and I played the game, one of them had to leave the room and go take a walk outside after playing in order to calm himself down. Another jumped the moment I moved the chair a few inches. This limited, but precise use of details and obfuscation was highly effective, yet it is also the reason AAA developers have such a hard time capturing the essence of horror. Games like Dead Space and the newer Resident Evil games are funded with multimillion dollar budgets and top of the line technology. Because there are few limits, they make highly detailed models for all of their monsters. With foes that well-rendered, it is far more tempting to throw them all into the limelight and force players to look at them than it is to keep them in the dark and let the players keep their imaginations and sense of tension active. This makes it hard for them to truly frighten the player beyond mere jump scares.

However, despite all of this, it is important to do one last thing when building horror games, and it is something that is critical to the art of fear. For prolonged, enduring play sessions, which many gamers can be prone to at times, being tense and on edge the entire time can be incredible taxing in a mental sense. In order to avoid depleting the player's mental stamina, it is important to give them well planned and spaced-out areas of safety where they can take a breath and relax. This gives them time to rejuvenate themselves, manage their inventory, and plan out their next move without the overbearing weight of an oppressive atmosphere. Generally speaking, these are also places where the designer would offer the player the option to save their game. While allowing players a chance to relax is a good thing, rooms like these, where the player does not have to worry about confrontation, serve a duel purpose: They serve as a contrast from the oppressive atmosphere. If a player experiences nothing but horrors and nightmares, they will slowly build up a tolerance to them. When developers have these periods of rest, they expose the player to a different stimuli and vary the atmosphere a little bit. It serves to remind the player that there is an opposite to being under constant threat, which in turn makes the threat that much more terrifying. Done well, these areas can serve to make the player scared to leave them. The player will know that they are in a safe haven, but leaving will place them in a hostile environment again. This leads to some players procrastinating and waiting as long as possible to exit. While some designers may see this reluctance to move on as a sign of failure, the opposite is true for a horror game. If a player is too scared to leave a safe haven, then the developer knows he/she did their job properly. This contrast between the safety of an area of respite and the danger of the rest of the game is a strong asset that ought not be taken lightly.

Horror is a very fickle beast. It requires immense effort to uphold and maintain throughout an entire experience. Even when it is done well, it is all up to the individual players and their mindsets to be truly effective experiences and will rarely yield similar returns to that of a shooter with an equivalent budget and attention to detail. All of the factors that determine the likelihood of AAA doing it and getting it right work against it. When designing games that are designed to invoke fear, developers need to be extremely careful and use deliberate, well-thought out strategies for keeping players engrossed in the atmosphere of their game. This is easier said than done and is the main reason why many of the well-known titans of the genre, like Dead Space and Resident Evil, have begun to shift from horror to action. Even thought this is the case, fans of the genre should not lament it too much. Humanity will always have a place for horror in its heart and people will always be there to try to satisfy that demand. Given that many old genres like isometric RPGs have been seeing a resurgence of late, it is not implausible that even should the horror genre fade (which is highly unlikely), it too will return in due time.