Wednesday, July 25, 2012

#31: God of War, the Dark Side of Sequels

(Series Spoilers for the God of War franchise. You have been warned.)

The concept of sequels and franchises is a very core part of our industry. Since the development and release of video games is primarily a business, it only makes sense that the head honchos of the field would look for concepts and ideas that could easily spawn sequels, continuations, spin-offs, and the like. Sometimes this leads to great games that the audience grow to love for many reasons. Other times it leads to games that are obvious attempts to grab money without any real concern for quality. Most often, the games released are somewhere in the middle. I say this because this weeks topic is largely about a game that, in my opinion (which I confess is not popular), suffered from continued sequels: God of War.

Before I go into detail as to why I think this, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I do not consider God of War, or its sequels, to be bad games. This franchise demonstrates very solid game design principles. The combat is solid, fast-paced, visceral, and very fun to play. A smart decision was made to break up combat sections with platforming and puzzles (of debatable quality, but most people agree that most puzzles were not bad). They also did, in later installments, a very good job of increasing the sheer scale of each game in terms or both the enemies/bosses fought and what Kratos was doing in the story. From the perspective of a gamer looking for a good time, the God of War games are easily some of the best, but that is not the lens I look at games with. While I always want my games to be fun, I expect much more from them. Games need to have a high-quality plot and story to go along with stellar and interesting gameplay. The original God of War did this very well, the later installments falter on this front in a pretty interesting way. (I am only including the main series games in this article as I have not and probably will not play the side stories for the PSP and the new PS3 game, Ascension, slated for release.)

The first God of War game was an example of superb storytelling in video games. The story of Kratos was a very tragic, relateable, and believable one despite the fact that the player was killing thousands of creatures at a time. It begins with the protagonist throwing himself off a cliff, and we as the players must go through his life to learn why he did this. The story of one man who needed power in a desperate bid to stay alive is an interesting one that most people can understand, even if it is not one that can necessarily be empathized with. Players can comprehend the emotions Kratos feels when he is tricked into slaughtering his family by the very god he serves. We follow him as he abandons Ares and fights for revenge, but it is more about revenge. This is also a story about one man dealing with his personal demons through war. When the time comes to confront Ares, the audience is just as eager to best him as Kratos is because they have followed him and went through his story. And it is a tale of futility. Though Kratos fought and did his best to avenge his family and repent for his sins and his family's death, ultimately he is still left a broken man and commits suicide as he is overcome with grief. When Athena saves him from this fate, we can empathize with the anger and despair he feels as he realizes that he can not find peace even in death because of the need for a replacement God of War. The violence and war that he has grown to love in life are what inevitably cause his suffering and destroy his family, some of the few people that he ever held dear to him. This is an example of a great story being strengthened and told through the interactivity of video games.

The sequel lacked the same strength of storytelling. God of War 2 begins with Kratos learning nothing from his experience in the original games and losing all pretense of grief. He is rampaging across Greece, aiding Sparta (his home country from before his ascension) in its conquest of the other city-states. Athena, desperate to keep him from suffering retribution, warns him that any further transgressions in the mortal world would force Zeus to take action and deliver divine retribution. When Kratos disregards Athena and tells her to go screw herself, the god-king fulfills his promise. Kratos is stripped of his powers and cast into the Underworld. This is where the titan, Gaia, gives him the strength to crawl back out. She tells Kratos to get revenge for Zeus punishing him just like he threatened to do. In order to do this, Kratos must find and kill the three Sisters of Fate and take control of his own thread of fate, allowing him to go back in time and get his powers back. After succeeding in this, Kratos goes back, reclaims his power, and attacks Zeus like the petulant child that he is. The final shot is him riding the Titans to the top of Mount Olympus, preparing to assault the gods in a final showdown.

This plot is much weaker than the original's for one huge reason: Kratos lacks the depth of character his first incarnation had. In the beginning, Kratos was more than just a perpetually angry war machine. The Ghost of Sparta was overcome with grief for killing his family and anger at the one who tricked him into doing it. His mind was constantly occupied with reliving and re-experiencing the memory of his greatest failure, giving him constant nightmares. Even the sex mini-game was appropriate as Kratos was trying to keep himself occupied. In the second game, he became a war machine. The newly crowned God of War spent all his time taking his anger out on the world and taking control of nations. The grieving warrior was completely lost, replaced by this reckless and stupid asshole who is disregarding warnings in order to vent on poor defenseless people. They do not even mention his family or their loss at all in the second game, which is essential to his character and what makes him so fascinating. The whole plot is Kratos getting revenge on Zeus for doing what he said he would do all along. This interesting and nuanced character became so flat and one-dimensional that it was painful to watch, which to me is the ultimate tragedy of the franchise.

The third game did its best to remedy this, which was unfortunately too little too late. The whole plot of the third is that Kratos goes on a rampage at Mount Olympus, killing all of gods and causing an apocalypse. Though Kratos is well aware that his actions are damning the people at large, he does not care in the slightest. Slaughtering Poseidon caused the ocean to grow catastrophic with tidal waves, decimating the people of the coastal regions. Ripping off Helios's head erased the sun and ushered in a literal Dark Age. The evidence was there and he saw the results, but refused to stop. Then, he learned via the ghost of the goddess Athena exactly how he needed to defeat Zeus. He needed to open up Pandora's Box, like he did in the first game, and claim the weapon hidden inside. To reopen the box, he needs to find Pandora and get her to use her power on it. Meeting Pandora reminded him of his own daughter and the circumstances behind her death, bringing back the one thing that makes Kratos an interesting character. This aspect of his character humanizes him and gives him a relateable persona. They made the right decision in this regard and played with it very well.

The back and forth between Kratos and Pandora was interesting since Pandora believes in hope and has an optimistic look on life while Kratos has been beat down so much that he no longer believes in the concept of hope. This comes to a head when Pandora reveals that she has to sacrifice herself to open the box and help Kratos beat Zeus. Kratos is highly resistant to this as he does not want to feel like he lost his daughter a second time. When Zeus shows up to officially join the fight, it was heart-wrenching as the player had to force Kratos to let go and allow Pandora to do her thing. As the box opens and is completely empty, the audience could feel the sheer gravity of the situation that left Kratos and Athena dumbstruck. Athena flips out and describes how Hope should have been in the box. She then realizes that when Kratos opened the box the first time to gain the power to fight Ares, he took Hope instead of the elements of discord that were held in the box. With this knowledge in mind, Kratos goes to fight and defeat Zeus once and for all, destroying civilization while leaving Hope for the world, because Hope is all that matters when disease, famine, and death take their hold on the land.

The best thing about the plot was that it returned to the best parts of Kratos. While God of War is superficially about one man beating up a shit load of people, there is more to it than that. They forgot about the family aspect in the second game and the story suffered for it. Bringing it back in the third was a very smart decision and added to the overall narrative, adding an element of nuance to the character once more and giving Kratos making him more believable. Sadly, this whole theme of suffering and personal repentance is completely undercut by the fact that Kratos is knowingly causing the destruction of life as we know it. They were already on that course by the time that God of War 3 began, so there was not much that they could do to remedy the plot. The ship was already sunk before it left the port, which is quite unfortunate because the writers, who were not the same people who made the original (The sequels were made by an entirely different team.), clearly began to understand the character much more after working with it in God of War 2.

In an oddly fitting way, the development of the God of War franchise follows the plot of a standard Greek Tragedy in which the protagonist is undone by the qualities that make him iconic and great in the eyes of many. People latched onto the violence and rage of Kratos when that was far from what made him an interesting character. This decision to focus on that aspect is what inevitably ruined the character. The writers did not realize what they were doing until it was far too late and the plot was not able to be fixed. It is an important lesson in game development. If you are handed a great and iconic game and asked to make a sequel, take the time to analyze the game on a deeper level and figure out what makes it so great. Look beyond the gameplay and into the plot, setting, and characters. All of this is crucial to game design.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

#30: The Reason for “Bad” Female Characters

(As always, when I do a subject like this on characters/plot, spoilers are abound. Be advised)

            Recently, a certain individual has been cropping up a lot in discussions about video games. There has been a bit of controversy surrounding her and what she says about female archetypes. Among that controversy, there has also been some legitimate criticism of her and her methods. Regardless of your opinion regarding that matter, it is hard to deny that she has started a discussion: A discussion as to why female characters are the way they are most of the time. Most gamers are all aware of the fact that finding a good female character in a game can be... difficult at times. But what is the real reason behind this? I am going to spend this week proposing a hypothesis as to why that is.

            The hypothesis is this: We see many bad female characters all the time simply because many of the characters in mainstream gaming are very poorly characterized period. We see the poor characterization of women more clearly because our culture has become far more attuned to bad female characters than male characters, due to all the baggage we have carried on from the past and the many issues regarding woman's equality we still have to address in the modern day. This sensitivity is bolstered by the fact that the fairer sex tends to not be as represented in video games as men are, so any prominent female character, for better or worse, tends to stand out to the community.

            To prove the first point of this hypothesis, I will be looking at games that are praised for characterization and analyze the characters in them, both male and female, and then do the same with games that are notorious for poor characterization to show the difference between the two. I do not feel the need to go into the other points as they have more to do with culture, not video games, and I would hope that most people would who read this already know them well. Also, I admit that I feel painfully unequipped to tackle the subjects of women's rights issues and perception of gaming culture as I do not have any experience studying culture or psychology.

            The first game that I want to analyze is one that I never tire of talking about: Mass Effect. One of the few things most of the people who play Mass Effect can all agree on is that Bioware did a really good job with the characters of the series. So much so that most of the characters that the player can ally with have huge fanbases. Whether they are a smooth talking police officer that serves as both a close friend and rival like Garrus, a scientist who committed terrible war crimes but had good, logical reasons for doing so like Mordin, or the ace pilot with a snide sense of humor, a crippling disability, and a huge chip on his shoulder like Joker, all of the male characters are well-developed.

            And the exact same thing can be said of the female characters of the game. That is why one of the most endearing characters of the entire series happens to be female. I am, of course, referring to Tali. In the first game, Tali is the one who gives Sheppard evidence that Saren is a terrorist. She is shown to be smart, able to handle herself, and displaying a high degree of technical aptitude. When the player settles down to talk to her on the Normandy, she also shows that she is very relatable individual who has a crush on Sheppard, but is too shy to voice it. As the series goes on, she matures into an Admiral for her races fleet. The same can be said of Liara. Liara starts off as a shy, timid archeologist and evolves into the galaxy's best information broker by the third game. The women in Mass Effect are as much characters as the men because Bioware took the time to write good characters.

            Another example of strong characterization is the Uncharted series. While people have mixed reactions to the series as a whole, the main characters are by far the strongest part of the franchise. The protagonist Nathan Drake has, over the course of the series, become much more fleshed out and interesting as a result of Naughty Dog's writing. In the first game, he was just an everyman. By the third game, the audience knew enough to form a real connection with him. He was abandoned as a child and grew changed his name, making up a story about being related to Sir Francis Drake and changing his name to reflect that. He grew to love treasure hunting and danger to the point where he has a pathological need to do it despite the risks. There is also the character of Victor Sullivan, who serves as Nate's mentor and main tie to the criminal world. He is also one of the most popular characters in the series due to his personality, which was why the third game focused so heavily on his relationship with Drake.

            The women in Drake's life are also quite interesting. The most notable female from the Uncharted series is Elena Fisher, who serves as the love interest and foil to Nathan Drake. When the audience first meets her in the original game, she is a journalist looking for Sir Francis Drake's coffin with Nathan's aid. She is shown to be quite capable in a fight despite having no experience with weapons. Elena also displays great observational skills when listening paying close attention to what people around her are saying and by actively giving Nathan tips and advice on how to solve puzzles that he encounters. Though tough, she also has a genuine personality. Ms. Fisher is relentless in her pursuit of the truth and in coming to her allies' aid in the first two games. She often puts herself in great danger until a grenade going off close to her puts her in mortal danger towards the end of the second game. Afterward, in the third game, she becomes more subdued and concerned for Nate and Sully, but still willing to help them out. When Sully get's kidnapped and Nate disappears, she draws up detailed plans to stage a rescue. She is Drake's conscience and foil to his optimistic side. To that end, she is similar, yet opposed, to Chloe Frazer, who represents the devil on his shoulder and his inner pessimist. Though Chloe lacked the screen time Elena did, being absent from the first game, her character was very fleshed out and she quickly became another fan favorite.

            Both of the above franchises created strong characters and built relationships with these characters. As a result, the females among them possess strong characterization and became real, believable people. When the writer knows how to build strong characters, the gender will not be something that needs to be written around. It will instead be a logical extension of the person in question, like race, sexuality, or religious affiliations, or other traits. It should inform, but not define a character. Not all games realize this, and we get really some really painful to watch characters, both male and female, in video games as a result.

            A very well publicized example of this would be Samus Aran from Metroid. Specifically, the Samus Aran from Metroid: Other M. Most fans of the franchise refuse to talk about this little piece and for good reason. They took one of the few respected female characters in games and made her a stupid, completely subservient slave to the orders of a man who once commanded her, but no longer has the legal power to order her around. While people cried foul at this portrayal of an established icon, the problem ran deeper than that. Almost every facet of the story was poorly conceived. The characters were not interesting. The plot was filled with awkward attempts to shoehorn in the obvious mother motif. (Samus receives a “Baby's Cry” distress signal emanating from a “Bottle Ship”. Also, Other M is an anagram for Mother, if that was not obvious.) And Samus does not use lifesaving and otherwise perfectly fine gear until Officer Moron allows her to. (For example, she receives clearance to use a lava-shield after she crosses a lava pit.) This whole thing was poorly conceived. Every single person in this plot acts like a fool, result in a female character so horrible that some even go as far as to consider it sexist, though your opinion may vary.

            Another, quite egregious, example of bad writing being the central cause of horrible female characters is Tomb Raider: Underworld. I am limiting the discussion to just this game in the series not because I do not believe other games in the series have similar problems, but because it is the only game in Lara Croft's more recent incarnations that I have had the displeasure of playing. Ms. Croft, throughout the adventure, demonstrates a “strong” personality. By that, I mean that she continuously acts like a complete jerk. She seems perpetually angry throughout the journey, which is not helped by the fact that revenge is the primary motive for her actions. The two villains in the game are both women who suffer similar fates, although one is more manipulative and able to hide her anger. The few male characters in the game are not much better. They are not angry, but they seem superfluous and have no depth because they are either mooks or Lara's friends who show up in the start of the game and never again. I do not mind an all female cast, but I would prefer the protagonist to have a greater depth than “Grrrrrrrrrrr,” regardless of his/her gender. The main plot is pretty forgettable. All I remember is that it involved Norse mythology and there was a segment that had Lara kill tons of mooks with Thor's Hammer. This game was a huge failure in terms of writing and the portrayal of its feminine lead reflects that.

            The problem is not that games portray women poorly, it is that they portray people poorly. It is a symptom of a broader problem than you may have been lead to believe. Fortunately, this issue is not a difficult one to remedy. If the problem with women in games stems from bad writing in general, then the solution is simple: All we need to do is improve the quality of the writing teams in modern gaming. Take a page from the staff at Obsidian, Naughty Dog, and the part of Bioware that writes character and character interaction. Focus on making strong characters and believable relationships and alliances between them. If we can begin to make stronger characters, these issues will start to fade. This can apply equally to all genres and types of stories one could find. Strong characters are free to exist in any story, whether a dark and serious or light-hearted and goofy. To that end, I encourage discussions between gamers, developers, and anyone else who loves games to talk to each other about what works and what we need to change. This is the only way we can better the medium. So I say let the likes of Anita Sarkeesian speak. If they are wrong, let us tell them why and how they are wrong and correct them. We would be capable of much better in terms of storytelling in this medium through this type of discourse.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

#29: Fallout 3 vs. Fallout: New Vegas, The Difference of Game Design Philosophy

There are many different people working in this industry. They all bring their own perspectives and biases regarding video games and what make them good. This is no less true for the designers of video games. Each design team and each person on those teams brings different ideas and different viewpoints to the table. This week's article is about how these differences can lead to radically different games. Fortunately for me, there are two games that are perfect for this article as a way to compare/contrast design philosophies. They are very similar, yet fundamentally different due to the teams who created them and the circumstances behind their development. These games are the recent Fallout games: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.

I want to start off with a disclaimer: This is not a debate as to which one these games is better. This is just as analysis of different design philosophies resulting in fundamentally different games. These games are ideal for an analysis like this. Both of these games were developed with the same engine and are in the same “Open-World RPG” genre, meaning that they look and play very similarly. New Vegas improved on Fallout 3's mechanics, but did not significantly change them, so they are close enough that it does not impact the comparison to a significant degree. They are part of the same series, which means they are using the same lore and building on the same world. On most levels, these games are the exact same. The only differences between these two games are the result of design decisions, which puts them in the perfect position to compare and contrast on a purely design level.

Fallout 3 is made using Bethesda Softworks's standard rulebook for RPG design. They applied the same philosophies that governed the creation of hit titles like Oblivion or Skyrim when developing the third installment of the Fallout franchise. They favor building open sandboxes that the player is free to explore at will, which is reflected in the choices they made. The layout of the Capital Wasteland is wide-open and generally flat terrain, allowing players to see many of the world's set-pieces from a distance and encouraging them to travel around and explore each of them. When the player first exits the vault, he/she gets an amazing view of the nearby town Megaton, a school building to explore, and the image of the DC ruins in the distance, establishing several possible destinations that the player go choose to go to.

Another strength of typical Bethesda design is that they are very good at telling small, self-contained stories within their games through careful design of the environment and the people in them. I have talked about this briefly in the past in a previous article, but it cannot hurt repeat. Bethesda puts enough detail into the places and set-pieces that they all tell their own stories. It is hard to describe this in any way put through example. In the DC ruins, there is a nuclear shelter that takes $0.10 to open. In this shelter there is a male skeleton, a female mannequin, a bottle of wine, and a clothing item called “Sexy Sleepware”. I do not think I have to spell out what all of that means. You can figure the story out without any guidance. Another example comes from a scene I once came across. When exploring the Capital Wasteland, I came across a group of wanders who were selling an item called “Strange Meat”. They claimed that it was some of the best meat in the Wasteland. Those who are familiar with either Fallout 3 or my earlier works know that “Strange Meat” is actually human flesh. Since I knew this, I killed every single one of them and gained good karma for it. I like how Bethesda just leaves details in the game and allows the player to use common sense to infer what happened. It gives the player a motivation to explore and see what else is out there.

The final strength of Bethesda's style is that they are very good at using the RPG mechanics to bolster the spirit of exploration. One of the most noticeable and well-known parts aspects of this is the level scaling mechanic they used in Fallout 3, which most people agree is vastly superior to the one they used in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In Fallout 3, every location has a level associated with it. As the player's character level rises, the levels of these locations also rise. However, when a player first visits an area, that area's level is locked, which prevents it from rising any further. The way this works gives the player freedom to explore where ever they want without fear of being completely overwhelmed (with some exceptions).

Another good way they use RPG elements is that they give the player a clear sense of progression and a feeling that they are growing stronger as the adventure goes on. The player gains experience for doing most of the things an adventurer would do like killing enemies, completing quests, hacking terminals, picking locks, etc. As with most RPGs, getting enough experience will cause the player to level up. As Bethesda explained it in the interviews leading up to the release of the game, they wanted every level up to be a special moment that players look forward to. On that count, they succeed. Each level gives the player skill points based on his/her Intelligence stat and a perk. Perks are little bonuses that give the player a diverse and interesting set of advantages. Players will crave experience, hoping to level up and gain skill points and perks and making them want to explore the world even more. Beyond that, the perk system and the skill point system give the player a clear sense of progression. A player can feel the difference a single level in make in the character's stats.

As good at Bethesda style games are in terms of exploration, they do have downsides. For one, while they give a lot of attention to the smaller environmental details, they are not very good at looking at the big picture in terms of environment. For example, in the whole Capital Wasteland, there is no farm land anywhere. The game explains that most of the food is from two-hundred years ago and scavenged from the DC ruins. This makes no sense. Food that old, even if it was stuffed with preservatives, could not possibly be edible. They have animals and creatures around that drop meat when killed, but there is no explanation as to how they live in an area with no vegetation. Water is also a huge problem. According to the game, since DC was hit the hardest in the nuclear apocalypse, all of the water has a lot of radiation and is somewhat toxic to humans. There is a explanation for this since a major plot point in the game is providing fresh water to the Wasteland, but it still poses a significant problem. With the fact that basic resources cannot be found overlooked/omitted, the Capital Wasteland realistically could not possibly sustain life. There is no notable way to provide food or water to the people of the Wastes. Another crucial environmental detail that was overlooked was in a place called Tenpenny Tower. In this tower, located in the Southern half of the Capital Wasteland, there is a group of people who live in the tap of luxury... only there is no reason for them to be rich. As far as I am aware, the residents of Tenpenny do not engage in any sort of trade and have no real way to profit. They are only rich simply because the game needed stereotypical rich people to serve as evil-aligned characters for a few side quests. All three of the details here are crucial details about the world that Bethesda failed to take into account, either because of constraints or through focusing too much on the exploration aspects of the game, when creating the DC area in Fallout 3.

The other problem with Bethesda design is that while they excel at the use of environmental storytelling, but the storytelling of their main plots are not up to the same quality. Fallout 3 in particular had several moments in the story where either what was happening or what the player is expected to do does not make sense. For example, there is a scene in the game where the player is going into a old vault to look for his/her father. On arrival, the player is greeted by a robot and told to get into a “Tranquility Pod”. The quest objective updates to tell the player to comply. The problem with that is that there is no motivation for him/her to do that. The player is looking for his/her father. Looking around at exploring the vault seems like a better idea than resting in a pod.

There are a couple of other problem spots similar to that one. Later in the game, the player needs to go into a separate vault to retrieve an artifact called a GECK (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) to make the giant water purifier that everyone wants work. The problem is that the entrance is covered in so much radiation that it would instantly kill the player if he/she got close. The player needs to sneak around through another entrance hidden in Lamplight Cavern. The problem with that is that Lamplight Cavern is home to a group of children who formed their own kid society. They will not open the little, indestructible plywood door until the player speech checks them or goes to save their friends from slavers who kidnapped them to sell off to the highest bidder. Let me repeat that for you so that you fully understand it: Infiltrating a compound filled with trained, murderous slavers is easier than infiltrating the town of a group of little kids. This is stupid. There is no reason that a group of kids should pose any sort of obstacle to the player. These are just a few examples of the problems with Fallout 3's plot. There are more than that. This is the consequence of Bethesda's design philosophy. They build fantastic worlds to explore, but tend to forget the details that help it to be a coherent and believable place with believable people.

New Vegas, on the other hand, was made with Bethesda's engine, but not their philosophies on RPG design. Rather, it was created by Obsidian Entertainment and using their design style. Obsidian's style has emphasizes creating a believable and having the player impact that world through choice. To that end, they are very detail oriented. The first strength of this design style is that the world is much more plausible and fleshed out. The player can look around and see how people might live in a world like the one in New Vegas. Small towns are seen to have farmland and sources of fresh water. Wandering around the first settlement the player encounters, Goodsprings, he/she can look around and see farmers cultivating their harvest of fruits and vegetables. The player can travel to the springs and water pumps to take a swig of fresh, clean water. The saloon in town is a great place for the player to rest. Talking with the owner reveals that they trade with other settlements in order to get meat and other forms of protein and that she keeps caravan drivers happy by providing drinks and entertainment (for a small fee). It is more than a set-piece, it is a town. Other towns have different ways of maintaining their economy. One town, Novac, scavenges technology from a local rocket base and trading with other places for their resources.

Beyond the towns, the inhabitants of the Mojave Wasteland are equally fleshed out. The owner of Novac's general store and gift shop has a collection of dinosaur toys from before the war that he tries to peddle off to every person who comes around because they simply take up so much space. In Goodsprings, the local doctor mentions that he grew up in a vault and learned medicine there. Later, he found a woman that he grew to love and later marry, but she died later on. There is a farmer, located on the outskirts of the Vegas strip. He is a part of the New California Republic's sharecropping program. As he goes about his daily tasks, the player can strike up a chat and learn that the NCR is bad at resource management and that the farmer might be under quota because of it. These people are not at all vital to the plot of New Vegas. They are background decorations, but they all have stories and personalities of their own. They are people inhabiting this world that the player has also chosen to inhabit. This is a reflection of Obsidian's ability to make a believable place with interesting locals.

The second strength of this philosophy is that they are very good at guiding the player in the direction that they want him/her to go while keeping the plot consistent. One of the best examples of this is in the beginning of the game. The very first scene of the game involving the player character has him/her being shot in order to secure the package he/she was supposed to deliver to the New Vegas strip. Naturally, the player will want to seek revenge on the guy who did it and his obnoxiously loud checkered suit. This whole scene sets up the plot in a way that when the quest objective says “Find the man who shot you,” the player goes “I thought you'd never ask.” It hooks the player into the world without creating any of the inconsistencies that plagued the plot of Fallout 3. While some parts of plot are weaker than others, most of the things that the player is asked to do make sense. The player naturally goes from town to town in order to track the shooter down. Though the people often make requests of the player in exchange for the information necessary to keep going. It is an easy enough motivation for people to understand (though it does relies on the player having a tolerance for revenge stories).

Obsidian's third strength lies in its ability to use choice in its narrative and have those choices produce realistic consequences. The second half of the game is almost completely dedicated to this principal. Once the player tracks down the shooter and extracts revenge, he/she learns that his motive for trying to kill the player was to attempt to take control over New Vegas. From this point on, as I have gone over before in older posts, the player can choose which faction of the big three to side with in the war for New Vegas. Alternatively, the choice can be made to screw all of them over in a bid to maintain New Vegas's independence. This choice radically affects the route which the player will take to get to the end of the game. However, each faction will ask the player to deal with the various side-factions of the game (as does going Independent). The final battle and the ending changes radically depending on which faction the player sided with and how he/she dealt with all of the side-factions (or, sometimes, if they were even dealt with at all). This system is great because it encourages the player to think about what they are going to do and how it will affect the citizens of New Vegas and the Mojave.

The choice of which faction to side with has real, lasting consequences after the story is over, but the player is never locked into a choice until the quest line they are on is near completion. At any time they can switch to a different faction (provided their reputation with that faction is not too low) if they feel that the story will not go the way they want it to go. The player can convince most of the side-factions to align with the major factions and turn the tides of the war one way or another. The player feels like they are playing an active role in determining the future of New Vegas through the choices they make in the plot, which increases his/her immersion and involvement with it.

The theme of choice extends to day-to-day operations in New Vegas. Obsidian has a style that focuses as much on customization as Bethesda focuses on exploration. Many of the weapons the player can use have weapon mods that the player is allowed (and encouraged) to find/buy and install, increasing the weapons effectiveness and physically changing its appearance. Another change that reflects choice is the crafting system. While Fallout 3 had crafting, it was nowhere near as robust as what is seen in New Vegas. The former only allowed for the creation of specific weapons through crafting, the latter does much more. New Vegas allows for the creation of new weapons and armors, custom ammunition, medical supplies, healthier and more nutritious food and drinks, narcotics, poisons, and repair kits. The player is completely free to skip crafting entirely, but taking advantage of it will give him/her an edge over those who neglect it. It can even be enjoyable to gather ingredients and create custom stuff for some people, letting them build their own fun.

The next place where Obsidian's preference for choice shines is in the changes they made to the leveling system. The reduced the number of skill points accrued at level up and reduced the perk gain rate to every other level. Plus, they changed a few skills around, added a new Survival skill and many more perks than Bethesda did. This means that every point the player allocates and every perk they choose become much more crucial choices than they were in Fallout 3. In Fallout 3, the player was guaranteed to be incredibly strong by the end and able to take on most threats. In New Vegas, the player's power is more limited. The player has to choose which skills they will specialize in and which perks to select over the others (unless the player install the DLCs, which raise the level cap by twenty).

The way skills interact with the world also reflect choice. Obsidian made each quest in the game so that there are several ways to approach a given situation. For example, when a military doctor asks the player to find out who has been stealing his supplies, the player can has a choice between different solutions. He/she can just sit in the tent and watch for somebody to come around. Another option is to sneak around the base and look for clues. Lastly, the choice exists (provided the player has enough Medicine skill) to learn the symptoms of addiction to the particular stolen drugs and catch the thief by going around and looking for somebody with the symptoms and diagnose them. These are all viable options and all of them solve the quest in a good way. Other quests will need high skills to get good resolutions and/or to skip objectives. It allows for players to see their skills having an impact on their experience, encouraging experimentation with different character build and propagating a notion of choice.

But while this style has its strengths regarding story and choice, it has its own, critical weaknesses. The most damaging of these weaknesses is that while the world is very rich and detailed, it is simply not fun to explore. Several choices made that help to promote verisimilitude are detrimental to exploration. The biggest example of this is the topography of the area. Where Fallout 3 was a vast, open area, New Vegas is much filled with much more hills and valleys. This in itself, while it makes the world feel smaller and discourages exploration, is not inherently detrimental. What is detrimental is the fact that there are several mountains and hills that the player should be able to climb thanks to the games engine, but are blocked off from the player by invisible walls which Obsidian put in. This makes the world less fun to explore because it feels like the game designer actively discourages players from doing so.

Another way exploration is discouraged is in the placement of enemies. In a Bethesda game, the enemies scale to the player's level. In New Vegas, enemies have predetermined spawn locations and minimum levels. This means that if the player decides to make a trek directly to New Vegas (because the fact that the shooter is from New Vegas is fairly obvious if the player is familiar at all with the region), then the going will be difficult because of creature tens of levels higher than they are. It is not impossible, but it is difficult enough to dissuade even the most determined of gamers. The game uses these spawns, coupled with the layout of the Mojave, to funnel the player through a decidedly linear path during the course of the first act. It also inadvertently makes wandering, even on at higher levels, an annoyance instead of a pleasant excursion.

The interiors areas of the game are no better in this regard. In fact, more often than not, they are far worse. Many of the locations are incomprehensible rat mazes with several different paths that all look incredibly similar, yet lead to different locations in the building and the map often does not help. Several times when I gave up and decided to use the map, I ended up slightly less lost, but still so lost that I had to rely on luck to get through the area. This is nearly every interior space large enough to take multiple floors. While all of the above criticisms of this style essentially come to “The world is simply not fun to explore,” this is a critical problem. After all, the player will be spending hours exploring in order to get from location to location and dealing with the trials on the way. For this part to be boring is almost akin to intentionally sabotaging the game.

While this is not immediately noticeable in Fallout: New Vegas, there is another problem with this plot and choice focused style. All of these choices and branching paths take time and money to create, especially since it requires voice acting and other assets. In the AAA gaming industry we have right now, this kind of commitment is incredibly difficult to pull off. This often results in Obsidian releasing products that are either unfinished or lacking of a degree of polish that other games have. This was a first noticeable in New Vegas with all the bugs and glitches (many game breaking ones) that it had upon release. Since then it has mostly been patched out, but there is one feature that was left on the cutting room floor, one many fans were angry about, because of time and budget constraints. The team at Obsidian was originally going to allow post-ending play so that the player could see the aftermath of the game much more visibly than through the slideshow they used and continue to explore the Mojave. The reason they avoided this was because lacked the time, money, and processing power to make alternate versions of the places that would be visible affected by the ending (notably New Vegas and Hoover Dam). New Vegas got off easy, usually this kind of concern ruins Obsidian games in other ways.

As for which design philosophy or which game is better, it is completely subjective and dependent on what you are looking for in a video game. And these two styles are far from the only ones. There are tons of different design styles that developers use and they each have their own pros and cons. This is just to show how much the design has an impact on the final product. Thought these two games have the same engine, the same gameplay, the same lore, and the same genre, they are radically different and showcase two totally separate ways of thinking about games and game design. Keep this in mind when playing your next video game. Think about the design and the intent behind each choice the developers made. Think about how it affected the experience. You might be surprised at how much you learn.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

#28: Why People Were Getting Sick of Ezio

Throughout this console generation, many companies have tried to create new IPs that successfully stick with audiences, feel fresh and unique, and generate income for other projects they wish to work on. While many of them failed due to a number of reasons, one of them stuck in a big way: Assassin's Creed. Thought the original game had its flaws, it was a unique type of game that innovated on several fronts and was more successful than Ubisoft imagined it could be. One common complaint, among the tedious investigation missions and seemingly psychic guards, was that Altair Ibn La-Ahad was a rather bland and boring protagonist that did not have much in the way of personality. When moving from third Crusade-era Syria into Renaissance-era Italy for the sequel, Ubisoft took steps in order to avoid making the same mistake again. The result was the very well-received Ezio Auditore da Firenze. While many people loved the Florentine murder-machine at first, the longer his contribution to the series went on (in both Brotherhood and Revelations), the less people took kindly to him. I wondered to myself why that was, which inspired this week's article.

One of the most obvious reasons for this is that as Ezio's contribution to the story went on, the gameplay became less and less fun. Assassin's Creed 2 gave Ezio plenty of ways to go through a mission and a variety of equipment types to use. The player could blend in with crowds in order to hide from guards on the way to a target. He/she could use parkour-style platforming to sneak across rooftops and alleyways in order to reach the target. Ezio was able to just storm in and fight his enemies head-on through swordplay, throwing knives, a gun, and/or a very offensive use of smoke bombs. The player could use any of these tactics and even combine them or switch them out on the fly thanks to Assassin's Creed 2's systems. While this was true in the original game, the sequel expanded on it with new moves like pulling someone over a ledge, pieces of equipment like smoke bombs and poison, and systems like notoriety. Many people would complain that the new additions made the game too easy, which was justified to a degree, but overall they were very well received.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood added even more to the game. Though Ezio was in his mid-forties at the time the game took place, he gained many new skill that made combat an even more viable option. He could now do chain executions. After killing an enemy he could immediately attack another one, killing the foe instantly regardless of health. This could go on until either Ezio got hit out of it or there were no more enemies left to kill. Another new addition which was well publicized before the games release was the Brotherhood system that allowed Ezio to recruit commoners to his cause, train them to become Assassins, and call on them for help during missions. His experience even gives him the ability to wield the gun at the same time as his sword and throwing knives at the same time as his shortblade. Lastly, he could purchase and use a crossbow that functioned like the gun, but was completely silent and did less damage when Ezio was detected and, if the player completes an optional quest chain, parachutes to move greater horizontal distances and descend slowly from tall buildings. While they tried to balance these new additions with more and stronger enemies, the result was still a game that was even easier than Assassin's Creed 2. It was still interesting, but it was noticeably less fun.

And then they released Assassin's Creed: Revelations. In addition to the thing from the second game and from Brotherhood, Revelations brought even more stuff to the table. The biggest things added to the game in Revelations were the addition of the hook-blade, which allowed Ezio to scale buildings even easier, use zip-lines throughout the city, and run past guards, using the hook to maintain momentum, and bomb crafting, which allowed Ezio to make up to three different bomb types (Lethal, Distraction, and Tactical) with different ranges, shell types, and effects. Ubisoft Montreal even changed the inventory into primary and secondary weapons to compensate for the vast quantities of armaments Ezio could have on his person at any given time. While they tried once again to compensate by making new, tougher enemies and again, the game was easier despite their best attempts. In fact, the game was so easy that it became almost boring. The new additions felt superfluous because Ezio was already on the verge of being overpowered in Brotherhood. There was never a need to go out and craft bombs because Ezio could shoot people with poison darts, bullets, or a crossbow, stab somebody with a hidden blade, a sword, or a dagger, blend in with crowds, parkour through the world, call Assassins to bail him out of tough situations, and chain executions together into a string of murder, despite the fact that he was in his sixties. The hook-blade seems worthless when Ezio was already a parkour god. There was no difficulty to the game no matter how skilled the player might or might not be. With each game, Ezio became stronger and stronger thus the game became easier and easier. Without a sufficient challenge, it is nearly impossible to get real enjoyment out of a video game's gameplay.

The other reason people were getting sick of Ezio was that it seemed like the series was wasting its potential on him. This is because of the main plot device of the series: The Animus. The Animus is a device that allows people to relive the memories of their ancestors in a video game simulation. Using this device, the writers literally have the potential to set Assassin's Creed games and stories in any period of history they desire. All they have to do is plausibly explain the ancestry of the person in the Animus. Up to the point in time I wrote this article, the series has always used historical setting that are criminally underused in video games. In the first game, we explored Syria during the Third Crusade through the eyes of Altair. At the time, this was an incredibly unique setting which drew the interest of countless people. The second game was equally unique in that it was set during the Italian Renaissance and told from the perspective of Ezio, again drawing in interested eyes.

The fans were hooked by this point, wondering where and when the next Assassin's Creed game was going to be set and what would the new Assassin be like. Speculation was rampant when Ubisoft announced... the Italian Renaissance again starring... Ezio... again. While the fans were mostly disappointed with that announcement because they had expected to play as someone new in a new location in space/time, they were content to play as Ezio again because he was an interesting character that they had grown to love in Assassin's Creed 2. Then Revelations came and people were getting a little tired of Ezio. Not because he was a bad protagonist, but because they were eager to see a new face. Even though they moved to Istanbul and left Italy, Revelations still took place around the time of Renaissance. (It had to since Ezio was the protagonist.) While it was a setting that is not often used in video games, it was also eerily reminiscent of Syria from the first game. While the fans wanted a new Assassin in a new setting, we received the same old and tired (literally) Ezio in a seemingly even older setting.

Both of the above reasons are why Assassin's Creed fans are eagerly looking forward to the upcoming third main installment in the series. On one hand, we are hoping that with a new game, the developers trim the fat, reduce the amount of equipment the player has at his disposal and make the game slightly more difficult so that it becomes fun again. We also expect that the new Assassin will have his own style and his own skill set similar to how Ezio felt fundamentally different to Altair. On the other hand, we are eager to see the story move past the Renaissance so that we see a new take on Templars vs. Assassins from a new point of view in a new setting. And the American Revolution is indeed a new setting for video games. The protagonist is even more unique because he is half-Native American, a demographic rarely represented in video games, let alone as a protagonist character. Being able to reinvent itself while maintaining its core principals is the biggest strength of this series. The last few titles have not been utilizing this strength and thus felt weaker as a result. It is a lesson that is hopefully well learned.