Wednesday, February 29, 2012

#10 : Games and Storytelling

This is a topic that I have touched on in the past, but recently, I have been given the opportunity to talk about it. A couple of weeks back, David Jaffe, creator of Twisted Metal and God of War, said, regarding to storytelling in video games, “If you've really got something inside of you that's so powerful, like a story you've got to share or a philosophy about man's place in the universe, why in the fuck would you choose the medium that has historically, continually been the worst medium to express philosophy, story and narrative? While that sentence is taken only slightly out of context, and the underlying point that developers should focus more on gameplay is sound, I would have to partially disagree with Mr. Jaffe. If a developer wants to have a tightly woven, complex, extremely linear narrative, then I would agree that said developer would be significantly better off by writing a book or making a movie instead. However, if the developer wishes to explore a particular philosophy or a “What if?” scenario, then a video game would be the perfect method of expression, and here is why.

The main reason that a linear narrative does not work so well is also one of the main reasons that games continue to flourish: Games are interactive by their very nature. People who play games always make decisions and affect the game world, even in linear games. What type of weapons will I use? What is the best way to defeat all of these enemies? Should I play it safe or go all out? These decisions are constant being made, consciously or not. Games thrive on ability to thrust players into situations they are not used to and force them into the actions. Linear stories are the antithesis of this. Linearity suggests that there is only one, proper way to go through a player's journey and every other possibility is incorrect. Some games even have sections where there is a trap in the room that is dead obvious, but the player is forced to trigger it in order to advance the story. In an environment where interactivity and decisions are everything, this is the kiss of death of any serious story. Movies and books can get away with this because the readers/viewers are not insert themselves into the situation: They are passive observers watching a story play out. In a video game, this is not the case. Players of video games are active participants, affecting the outcome of events through their inputs. It is easy for a video game player to project their own emotions onto the protagonist of the game because, in a way, they are. The character becomes a culmination of the decisions and actions a player has made to that point. When somebody asks a reader of book how far into the book they are, they respond with “I'm at the part where the protagonist does X.” However, a gamer would respond to the same question about a video game with “I just did X, and I'm about to do Y.” For an interactive narrative that takes player choice into account, this is a huge boon and be taken advantage of to great effect. For a linear story, this can spell doom if, at any time, the player is forced to do anything that runs directly contrary to their logic or beliefs. There is a term for this: Railroading. It can even get worse when a story directly contradicts what is happening in the gameplay. Either of these circumstances can break immersion with the game and bring the player back into the real world. While I cannot be sure, I would imagine this is why Mr. Jaffe suggests that writers with sprawling narratives in mind should visit another medium.

Does this mean that I think video games should never have stories? NO! However, a game's story does need to keep the nature of the medium in mind. The most important thing to consider is that players will want to have a sense of agency. That is, they want to be a part of the world, they want to have their actions affect the world, and they want the world to respond to the effects of these actions. Again, if at any point a player loses his/her sense of agency on the events of the game, they go from active participants to passive observers, losing the one advantage the writer has: The fact that the player will care about the protagonist because the protagonist is an extension of the player and the ability of the player to assert his/her own will. The key is to use this concept of player choice and player influence to encourage the player to explore. I will use Fallout: New Vegas as an example.

While I have a few criticisms of New Vegas (chief among them how Caesar's Legion a little too evil and hard to sympathize with), this is one thing it did very well. In the game's first half, the player travels to New Vegas. Along the way, the player is introduced to all the major factions of the game at one point or another. The New California Republic(NCR) is the stand in for old school American politics, with all it pros and cons. Its leaders are shown to want the best for the people, yet they are incompetent on many levels and often do not understand the plight of the common folk. The opposition of the NCR, Caesar's Legion, has opposing ideals. The Legion subjugates tribes under its rule. The tribes lose all their heritage, the men forced to become soldiers, the women and children forced to become slaves. (The boys are conscripted when the come of age.) Furthermore, they reject all kinds of advanced technology, in favor of old school “Roman” ideals. However, they are all united and a sense of order can be found in the Legion. Between these two factions is Mr. House, the enigmatic leader of New Vegas. After the player has been given a chance to meet and learn about all three major factions, they are given a choice. He/she can choose to side with any of the three major factions, or reject all three ideals in favor of a completely independent New Vegas, overseen by the player character. The game and the ending radically change depending on both which of the major factions the player works with/against and how he/she deals with the other sub-factions in the game.

While it is far from perfect, this is an excellent example of how video games can tell good stories. Inform players of different ideologies and let them learn about and explore them. Once they feel like they know enough, allow them the chance to pass judgment. Let them say “I believe that X is the best choice, and as such I will support them.” It does not even have to be the grand, arching narrative. Even on a small-scale, such as with a side quest, this ability to choose is what makes games unique as a medium for storytelling. This is why so many people still laud Deus Ex as an excellent accomplishment in gaming, even though it was made all the way back in 2000. The main crux of the game was that it encouraged the player to make choices, both in the way the story unfolded and in the way they play the game. The game explores transhumanism, both in gameplay and in story. It the story, it talks about the positives of transhumanism, like how augmentations could drastically improve people's lives. However, it also explores the negatives, such as the fact that it can essentially render certain people obsolete when newer, better augments get released. The game ends by having multiple factions give you their opinion on what to do and having the player decide which is best. This sense of exploration and choice extends to the gameplay, allowing the player to go through the game as an expert in combat, stealth, hacking, conversation, or some combination of the four, and beat the game his/her own way.

While I say that games can be used as storytelling devices, that is a little misleading. What I really mean is that games can be used to explore philosophies and concepts and give the player an environment in which he/she can discover the pros and cons of particular ideologies without causing any sort of real-world harm. If a game developer wished to do this, I would advise them to go for it, but to do his/her best to not insert their own biases into the game. The point is to let the players form their own opinions, not to feed them opinions. It is important to avoid veering into the unfortunate category of “propaganda”. For better or worse, games can be used as tools to learn and explore.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#9: Difficulty in Games

There is one thing that my gamer friends complain about over and over again. Since I now have a bit of a lull in regards to things I want to talk about, I might as well address it this week. Are games too easy nowadays? The answer is not nearly as simple as you probably think. A game's difficulty is affected by several different, overlapping factors. Furthermore, easier games and harder games each have their own benefits and drawbacks that must be considered. I will attempt to touch on all of these topics, but this will not be comprehensive by any means.

First off, it is important to discuss the factors that affect how difficult a game is. One of the biggest of these factors is the experience level of the player. If you own a gaming console/PC and play it often, I want you to either look at your controller/keyboard for a moment or visualize it in your head. You know everything about that controller, do you not? That controller feels comfortable in your hands and you know the layout of it. What gamers often forget is that for those who either do not play games or do so very rarely, that controller is much more complex than we realize. Take a PS3 controller for example (because it is the one I use): There are four buttons on either side of the controller for various inputs. Another four button on the top, two on each side. There are 3 buttons in the middle for out-of-game inputs like pausing or turning off the system. Lastly, there are 2 analog sticks towards the bottom, with buttons built into them as well. This adds up to a grand total of 19 possible inputs. To the unfamiliar, that is both a staggering and intimidating number. We take this for granted because we grew up with them, but those who want to join in and play games have to not only learn the layout, but then learn what each button does and then re-learn them when they play another game. Again, we can do this because we have been conditioned to expect certain control schemes with certain genres/types of games. The shoot button is almost always R1. The Jump button is almost always X. New players are devoid of this conditioning and have to figure it out, giving them a harder time than gaming veterans.

This is where adjustable difficulty comes into play. One of the major reasons games include adjustable difficulty is because they cannot be sure of the level of experience the player will have. Inexperienced players or those who do not want much of a challenge are encouraged to play on easier difficulties in order to get the best experience for them. On the other hand, the experienced and the challenge-lovers within the target demographic are encouraged to play higher level difficulties. This feature is intended to insure that the player can get the most out of a game, no matter what level of experience. That being said, some games do not always get this right by either making varying levels too easy or too hard (which is more a QA issue, so I will not discuss it) or they do get the difficulty balance right but get the implementation of difficulty wrong. Something that I have seen a lot of games do is lock the difficulty choice in at the start of the game after the player chooses it. This is a stupid move and there is no reason for that. If a player initially chooses to play a game on Hard mode, and then realizes several hours in that he/she may have gone in way over his/her head, why should he/she be punished for this? Why should the player have to choose between sucking it up and trying to proceed, quitting the game, or starting a brand new playthrough on another difficulty, losing hours of progress? The answer is that there is no reason for that. If a game is going to have adjustable difficulty, then it better allow the player to change it at any time throughout the game.

One of the last factors of difficulty in games, and I believe one of the most noticeable ones, is the player reward versus player punishment ratio. What do I mean by that? Well, in old games, if the player died or otherwise lost, it would be customary to set them back a considerable distance and force them to redo a good several minutes or so of progression in the game. No other skill-based activity does this and this is a considerable barrier of entry. For example, if someone were to want practice swinging a baseball bat, they can swing over and over, with only a little time between each swing to give the ball back to the pitcher (or to reload the machine in a batting cage). If it were a video game, the batter would be teleported out of the area and be forced to walk all the way back, relocating the baseball bat before getting another shot at swinging. This would hinder the ability to practice and improve. It sounds ridiculous, but gamers do it all the time. For new players, it can be discouraging be forced to redo entire sections just to get another shot at trying to get past the part that gave them trouble. A lot of modern games have done away with this principle by throwing in more checkpoints and more mechanics that help the player get back into the action faster. This creates an illusion that games are easier than they were in the past, but it may actually be the case that we just notice difficulty less because it does not cost us as much time to go back and redo one part of a section as it does to redo an entire section.

Now that I have discussed the factors that contribute to difficulty, it is now important to consider the pros and cons of both games being easy and games being hard to discern why games might tone down the difficulty. There are significant benefits to games being easy. One of the most obvious benefits is that an easier game has a greater potential to appeal to a broader audience. Think about it: A game that 60% of the population is able to play through is obviously much more likely to sell than a game that only 20% of the population is able to play through. This also appeals to those guys who are playing games for the first time. This is NOT a bad thing. When game developers reign these people in with easier games, then we are able to transition them into playing more difficult games, help them learn the controls, and eventually bring them up so that they can play and enjoy games as much as average gamers do. “Gateway games” are important if we want the medium to grow, mature, and expand. Another benefit in having lower difficulty in games is narrative cohesion. Games are much more than the series of “beeps”, “boops”, and pixels that they were 20 years ago. In modern times, games have grown to be full-fledged narrative mediums like books and movies. Most games have some sort of story or campaign that they want the player to go through and serves as more than just a reason to go out and blow things up. If a game becomes too difficult, then the player will take several times to go through a section. This breaks narrative flow and the player may forget details in the story or even stop bothering with the story if a game becomes too tough. Books and movies do not have this barrier. It takes no effort to turn a page in a book or stay in place to watch a movie. It takes effort and active engagement on the audiences part in order for the story to play out. This is a good thing because the player will engage more the world and the characters and empathize with them, but bad because a high difficulty will immediately shut people out of enjoying the story. Difficulty can be played with to help immersion or to hit home the themes or morals of the game, but it can never be so hard that the consumers are turned off by it.

On the other hand, there are advantages to games being difficult. The prime advantage of a hard game is that there is appeal to seeing a challenge, facing it, and then overcoming it. There are tons of thrill-lovers out there that embrace challenge and derive pleasure from success after repeated failure. Appealing to this audience can be just as rewarding as appealing to the mass market. While these people do not outnumber the masses, they are far more loyal. They will often stick with a developer if they continue to produce quality products (or even if the do not. Am I right Sonic Team?). Furthermore, a difficult game brings a feeling of excitement and tension with it. Think about it. Would you not agree that a fight where you ended with low health, few bullets left, and you got by with the skin of your teeth much more exciting than one where you launched a mini-nuke at the enemy and killed 80% of them in one shot? Players love the feeling of overcoming obstacles and figuring out the best way of proceeding through meticulous planning and strategy. This is part of why gamers decry the notion of games being “dumbed down” for the broader audience.

Difficulty is the kind of thing that takes a lot of effort to fine tune property. And sadly, even if a developer does, people are not going to be happy about. It is also something that developers cannot turn to any precedent in order to figure out. Difficulty has to be analyzed and determined on a case by case basis: A never-ending juggling act that is constant in flux. The next time you play a game that you find too easy or hard, do not immediately accuse the developer. Instead, think about why you find it too easy/hard and try to figure out what the developers intentions were. The answer you arrive at might surprise or even impress you.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#8: Time Travel in Games

(Spoiler Warning: I discuss Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot.)

Time travel is one of many in a list of often utilized science-fiction tropes. It is easy to understand why that would be. Most people are fascinated by the concept of going back and forth through time for a variety of reasons. Some people would love to travel to the distant past to observe how folks from olden times really led their lives with their own eyes. Others have the distant future in mind for their destination. These members of society are interested in the growth of humanity and desire to see how our actions in the present affect the what happens afterward. Still more people see time travel as a means of escapism. They look at the lives they are currently leading with disgust and repulsion. They dream of going back to the past and fixing their lives so that they no longer feel miserable. The concept of venturing across time and space permeates books, movies, and other media and video games no different. This week's article will analyze the mechanic of time travel and video games using Final Fantasy XIII-2 as the basis for discussion.

The first, I have to fill you in on the premise of XIII-2. As you have probably already figured out Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes places after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. In the game, the protagonist of the previous game, Lightning, has mysteriously disappeared from the timeline after saving the world. Everybody, except her sister Serah, remembers her fighting a bunch of monsters and getting killed in action. Serah remembers the Lightning was at her side one minute and gone the next. After three years of self-doubt, she meets a young man named Noel who claims to be from the future, a world where he is the only human left. He says that was pulled out of that timeline by Lightning and instructed to bring Serah to her. Together, they go on an adventure through time to search for a way to find Lightning and (inevitably) fix the timeline so that Noel's future does not happen.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses time travel both effectively and ineffectively. For one, its system of time travel does allow it to explain away a few of the plot holes that are typical of a time travel story. The protagonists of the game are not allowed to just go to any time period they desire. First, they have to find a gate in whatever era they are in or have been to previously. Then, the have to find an “artifact” that opens up the gate. This explains why it is impossible for the heroes to just go to the time period when and where all the shenanigans involving mucking up the timeline were originally thought up and kill the villain of the game or convince him that his plan is incredibly stupid (which it is, but that will not be touched on in this article). There is no gate that allows them to travel to that period before everything started. It also explains why the events of the first game remain intact. No time gate appears before three years after the events of the first game. The time travel mechanic also helps bring the player into the world and makes the player begin to care about the people in it. It is interesting and fun to go to different time periods of the same place to see how the world advances. Every area has at least a few interesting characters or developments that bring the player closer to the story and make him/her want to save this world. Lastly, do something that alleviates a problem that I have seen many time travel stories. In many stories, all the time travel weirdness occurs without anyone giving so much as a backwards glance, except for the protagonists. In XIII-2, the people in this world of paradoxes and time manipulation do what would be expected: They send teams on scientists and researchers to go out and investigate them to try to figure out why these paradoxes occur and fix them. Later on in the future, it is implied through an optional quiz game that time travel and paradoxes become part of a standard education. In a unique take on time/space manipulation, citizens of this world become used to paradoxes and other oddities as a such are not surprised by it. All these little details are done well and help to add a bit of logic to the world.

However, while XIII-2 does many things right with its time travel narrative, it also does many things wrong. One of the main problems with the narrative of the game is that the writers are all to eager to use the word “paradox” to explain away every and all problems that occur. While this makes sense in a time travel narrative, it is often the case where the effect of a paradox does not make any sense at all. For example, in one optional area in the game, the effect of a paradox cause a whole team of researchers to disappear, presumably to a different time period. This somehow causes red spheres filled with all of the regrets of those affected by the paradox to materialize in their place. Wait, what? How did that happen? What possible explanation could explain that? While that is only a side-story and can be easily ignored, the main quest is also filled with plotholes. When Lightning disappeared, she was sent to place outside of space/time called Valhalla, ruled by the goddess Etro. In Valhalla, it is possible to see all places and periods of time at once. Furthermore, Etro is the one who can control space/time and open up time gates. The problem with an area like this is that it basically breaks the plot. If it is possible to see every era at once and create gates to places in time, then there really should be no narrative tension. The conclusion of the game should be obvious well in advance and all of the events would be simultaneously playing out while at the same time have already been played out. It does not end there. The story constantly reminds the player of something that does not make sense: “Change the future, and you change the past.” At first, I thought this was referring to the paradoxes. I thought that meant that if a paradox began in the future and sent something into the past was resolved, then the past would change because it was no longer be affected. This made sense to me. However, a datalog, the in-game database, entry says that if the future gets changed for whatever reason, then the past will auto-correct itself so that the future will have the best possible chance of happening. Think about it for a second. How would that make any sense? I am legitimately wondering that. Anyone who can explain that to me, please post a comment. I would be eager to learn.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an interesting takes on the usual time traveling tale. It has both its good points and it bad points. Be warned, while I personally enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII-2, it is not a game for everybody. Old fans of the Final Fantasy series or JRPGs in general will find themselves right at home here. Others should borrow or rent the game first before considering a purchase. I complained a lot about the story as it heavily relies on “A goddess did it.”, but the gameplay of XIII-2 really works.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

#7: The Quicktime Event: Pros, Cons, and Untapped Potential?

Most gamers are already aware of what a quicktime event is. A quicktime event is a cutscene in a game where the player is required to correctly input a series of button prompts. From that base, quicktime events can vary in how they are executed. Some require different sets and types of inputs. Some restrict themselves to certain parts of the controller. Some restart the entire event if a player fails an input. Some place the player at the point they lost, possibly with some penalty like health damage. Some even continue on despite failure, going with the flow of the event. This weeks article is a discussion of the quicktime event: where they work, where they can fail, and an example from a recent game that might reveal untapped potential for the mechanic.

I understand why game developers use quicktime events. One of the positives of using a quicktime event is that it allows the developer to forge a carefully choreographed and “cinematic” sequence without completely removing the player from the game, even in the middle of a combat scenario. Games like God of War have become well-known for this. The takedowns that Kratos performs during a quicktime event immerse the player into the world and give them a sense of the brutality of Kratos's character. In this case, the quicktime event functions in service to the game and the world that the game takes place in. A quicktime event can also act as a good way to give the player a brief reprieve from standard gameplay and breakup sections of combat. A brief, easy to pass quicktime event can allow the player to catch his/her breath and relax for a second to prepare themselves for the next gameplay sequence.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the player, the quicktime event can be one of the most irritating forms of artificial gameplay. Picture the following in your head: The player has just gone through a level of gameplay and finally arrived at a cutscene, giving him/her a time to relax. The cutscene depicts the player character talking with the villain while the villain has the hero in precarious position (Because they do that instead of just killing him outright, but I digress). After this conversation goes on for a minute or two, then the villain takes a knife and throws it at the player character and the game goes “Press X to not die!”. The player, controller set on the table, scrambles to grab it before he fails the randomly inserted quicktime event. Too late: The knife hits the protagonist in the head and the player has to sit through the entire conversation from the very beginning! While this type of game play is certainly on its way out, it has been done in far too many games. I am sure that most gamers reading this can think of a game that has done something like that to the player. There is no excuse for that kind of poor design. This is not the only bad things about quicktime events. That same reprieve that I mentioned in the above paragraph could easily have a regular, non-playable cutscene take place instead of a quicktime event and the player would not be any worse for wear. Another failing of the quicktime event is that it often takes the reins away from the player in order to highlight an action that the player cannot perform in standard gameplay. Instead of making characters perform super-cool in a quicktime events, why not just give that move to the player in standard gameplay. While there are admittedly times where this could be difficult, it is by no means impossible. Going back to God of War, no one complains that they do not get to perform amazing and visceral actions in gameplay because the entire game is visceral and exiting action. Furthermore, any action done in a quicktime event is often ignored because the player has to keep looking for button prompts. In that case, a regular cutscene would be a better choice.

But despite my criticisms, I think there is an untapped potential in quicktime events that a game released very recently made me realize. As some of you who read this might be aware, one of new “features” included in Final Fantasy XIII-2 was “Cinematic Action”, aka quicktime events. While they are mostly just used as coup de graces for all the boss fights (Which I hate. I already defeated the boss. I do not need a quicktime event to show how they canonically defeated the boss. I know how it died because I killed it! But again, I digress.), the first quicktime event did something interesting that I did not expect. While it was a small thing, it had a profound impact on me and made me alter (if only slightly) my negative opinion of quicktime events. At the beginning of the game, the player fights the obvious big bad of the game (anyone who wields a weapon that looks like Soul Edge is evil) as Lightning, the hero from Final Fantasy XIII. Towards the end, a “Cinematic Action” sequence begins. Instead of saying “Press X to not die!”, the games gives the player the choice of two prompts: One button initiates a physical attack and another cause Lightning to cast Ruin. The event gives the player two more choices of attacks before it ends in a styleish and admittedly cool looking sequence. This is an interesting mechanic. I would love to see a game where the quicktime events is not the player going through a scripted sequence, but rather them going through an actual battle, making split second decisions and actually affecting the outcome of the event by what they are pressing as opposed to having a reflex test. The scene would change to show who is winning and who is losing. It could help to bring the player into the frame of mind of the protagonist and help immerse the player into the experience. I am extremely disappointed that, twenty hours in and after several more “Cinematic Action” sequences, they do not do anything similar to that again. This could have potentially revolutionized the quicktime event and made it fresh and interesting.

Quicktime events do not have to be stupid and annoying. They are like any other tool in a game designers arsenal. Used well, they can be a splendid addition to the experience and add to the immersion of the game. It is a shame that very few games ever use them well.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

#6: Using the World to Tell a Story

I have been spending a good chunk of time lately playing games made by Bethesda, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3. While they are generally great games that I would recommend, they do have their weaknesses. Bethesda games are notorious for being buggy and the bastardization of the Gamebryo engine they use is nearly broken. Also, the stories of these games tend to be fairly weak upon analysis. However, they do excel at two things, the latter of which is the subject of this week's article: Bethesda games tend to have interesting gameplay and character development, but more importantly, they are great at telling stories and informing the player about the world and the characters that inhabit it without bogging the player down with text and unnecessary dialogue.

One example of what I am referring to comes from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For the uninformed, Skyrim is a game that was released last November. In takes place in a medieval fantasy setting very heavily inspired by Norse mythology. There are nine holds in Skyrim, each with a capital city of its own. Each capital, and each hold by extension, is ruled independently by their own ruler and each ruler is assisted by a knight captain, a court wizard, a political adviser, etc. The court wizard of the city of Solitude in particular is a pretty interesting character to those who pay special attention to her. Small conversations the player can overhear suggest the wizard is particular skilled at magic and possesses training that her rather young appearance would suggest she would not be able to have. When the player talks to her, she gives him/her a typical quest to go into a cave and kill vampires. She says that she hates vampires and considers them monsters who need to die. The interesting part will not be visible to the player unless he/she took the time to train and invest in Alteration magic. When casting the “Detect Life” spell, she does not exhibit the glow that all the other characters do. However, when the player uses the “Detect Dead” spell, a spell used to highlight undead enemies, like vampires, she lights up like a Christmas tree. Put this all together, and the player gets the picture of either a self-loathing vampire trying to hide or deny her true identity or a vampire trying to avoid being caught by abstaining from feeding on humans and pretending to be a vampire hunter. Either interpretation adds depth to her character that could have been ruined if the game had explicitly made it obvious to the player through dialogue.

Another excellent example comes from Fallout 3. For those of you who do not regularly read my articles, Fallout 3 takes place in post-apocalyptic Washington, DC, lovingly(?) referred to by the local populace as “The Capital Wasteland”. This particular example comes from the village of Andale, located in the southernmost part of the Capital Wasteland. When the player first arrives to Andale, they are greeted by an unassuming and rather innocent-looking town. When the player talks to the people there, that is the first indicator that something about this town is slightly “off”. When talking to the husbands of the two families, they talk about how they “work to feed their families”. Considering there is no official institution of jobs and wages in wasteland (at least on the East Coast, but that is another conversation for a different article), the player is confused as to what the characters are talking about. Talking with the wives is even more unsettling. The wives go on about how they take care of the house and that “Andale was voted as the best town in the US for 150 years in a row.” Just like with the husbands, the player already knows the no such contest exists in the wasteland because most people are more interested in everyday survival and no form of nation(or even state)-wide communication exists, so this statement does not make a much sense. The player can go even further and talk to one of the kids, who says something interesting that can potentially be missed if the player is not paying attention. He says that he has liked the other kid (who belongs to the other family) “since before Mr. Wilson (who is the neighbor) stopped being my dad's brother”. This sheds light on the fact that they are severely inbred. While this fact is creepy and disgusting to think about, it is understandable given the nature of the wasteland and does not quite explain why the town is “off”. The creepy part can only be seen if the player decides to stick around and investigate. If the player steals a key and enters either the basement or the backyard shack of one of the houses, he/she will see the true horror of Andale. Both of these rooms have deceased wastelanders on operating tables with bonesaws and chainsaws around them. Refrigerators around the room are filled with a unique food item called “Strange Meat”. After exiting the room, the player is confronted by the adults in the village. The player can either speech them, convincing them that he/she is also a cannibal (this speech check can be bypassed with the Cannibal perk). They could also shoot, maim, or otherwise slaughter the adults in the village to stop them and gain good karma. This is one of the most interesting areas in the game and a pretty good short story in the compilation of stories that is Fallout 3.

Telling a good story without forcing endless exposition upon the player is a feat and Bethesda is a developer who excels at this. It is important to note that neither one of my two examples are forced upon the player. Both stories are completely optional fluff that Bethesda put in the game to make the world feel like an area that is inhabited by people instead of robots (even though Fallout 3 actually has robots). Most players probably will not see these little nuggets of content. It is the little details in a game like these two that immerse the player in the experience. Future game designers should take this into account when developing games. While an excellent story is also important, it is more important to have a fully envisioned and realized world than an excellent story.

#5: Why Horror in RPGs Doesn't Work

Horror is a unique beast amongst entertainment genres like movies and especially games. Everything has to be perfected in order for it to succeed. The visuals have to be compelling while simultaneously disturbing the viewer. The audio has to be suitably creepy. Any slight disturbances in sound can throw the viewer out of the experience and remind him/her that he/she is safe in secure in their chosen venue. Without either of these properties, a horror movie cannot succeed. For horror games, there is an added element: the gameplay must convey the feeling of helplessness and danger while at the same time keep the player immersed in the experience. Two semi-recent RPGs attempted to add horror to their game in the form of downloadable content: Mass Effect 2 with Project Overlord and Fallout 3 with Point Lookout. These two experiences conveyed one thing to me: It is impossible for RPGs to be compelling horror games by their very nature.

Before explaining why, I feel compelled to explain the overall premises of the stories in these two pieces if downloadable content that I am referring to. Mass Effect 2 is a hard science space opera revolving around Commander Sheppard's struggle to save the galaxy. In the Project Overlord DLC, Sheppard lands on a planet where a rogue AI has taken over a base, after an experiment went horribly wrong, and threatens to expand even further. The commander then has to stop the AI before bad things happen. On the other hand, Fallout 3 takes place in the Capital Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. that exists two-hundred years after a global thermonuclear war between the United States and China. The player character has spent his formative years in an underground vault and, due to events out of his/her control, had to leave. Point Lookout takes the player character to Point Lookout, Maryland. The land is filled with radioactive swamps, mutated and inbred citizens out for blood, and loads of other spooks. Both DLCs seek to add horror elements to their respective games, but both fail for differing reasons.

The reasons that Project Overlord failed were the due to the player character and the setting of the DLC. As previously stated, the player takes control of Commander Sheppard, as he/she does throughout the main game. The problem with this is that Commander Sheppard, no matter what the player does or what paths the player chooses, is a badass who regularly murders thousands of evil, corrupt aliens or mercenaries on a semi-regular basis. This kind of character is extremely difficult to pull off horror with. A player will go through the DLC unafraid because he/she knows that Sheppard will be able to easily trounce whatever enemies that impede his/her progress. But even if the player was not playing as an awesome space marine, the setting also detracts from the feeling of horror. Throughout the DLC, the rogue AI takes control of computers and watches you as you proceed through the levels. He often yells at you through the screen with an unintelligible squeal. While this seems like it would be scary, I was never even remotely frightened by him. In fact, I grew irritated because the squeals were so much louder than any other sound in the game. All it made me do is turn down the volume so that I would stop hearing it over and over again. The minute that a big scary villain becomes annoying, scary ceases to be part of the equation.
Point Lookout has similar reasons as to why the horror did not work at all. To begin, odds are that the player will begin the DLC after they hit level 20 or so. This means that the player has accumulated tons of skill points and equipment at that point. Most enemies, at this level, will be felled quickly by a semi-competent player. By the time I played Point Lookout, I was equipped with indestructible power armor, a sword that is covered by gasoline and on fire, and several high-powered energy weapons. Even if the player came into the DLC with bad equipment, the enemies drop their own powerful weapons. The level-action rifle from the DLC might be one of the most powerful small guns in the game. It also takes cheap and plentiful 10mm ammo, so odds are the player will have thousands of rounds for the weapon. So if the player entered weak and under-leveled, they will be extremely strong by the end of it. Another way they break the horror is by making the world extremely open for exploration. The player is allowed to roam freely, giving them leave to retreat if they need to and look for items they can use. All of this ruins any feeling of powerless and inability the player might experience. Helplessness is the key to creating compelling horror. The games own systems are what prevent Point Lookout from being truly scary.

Horror requires a high degree of subtlety and skill to successfully pull it off. RPGs, by their very nature, undermine any kind of horror. The ability to develop and strengthen the player character gives the player a sense of safety, which is counter-intuitive to horror. To clarify, I would not recommend Project Overlord even as an enhancement to Mass Effect 2. While the plot behind it and the end choice are both interesting, the gameplay was sub-par and the DLC became extremely boring by the mid-point of it. On the other hand, while Point Lookout fails at being scary at all, yet it was still an excellent expansion of Fallout 3 and probably one of my favorites. It has an interesting plot, new and interesting equipment, and while the open-world does not make it scary, it is conducive to Fallout 3 gameplay and strengthens the experience. I would recommend it to any fans of the vanilla game.

#4: Is the Boss Battle Outdated?

Games have evolved in a great variety of ways over the years. Graphically speaking, there is no comparison between the games of today versus the games of yesteryear. Voice Acting and Music have evolved from beeps and boops into amazing vocal performances and sweeping orchestral scores. The advent of motion capture technology has greatly improved animations. Games have also become a great and immersive medium for storytelling. And while gameplay has also evolved along these lines, one holdover from the old days may be beginning to overstay its welcome: Boss Battles.
Every person who plays video games knows about the Boss Battle. After the player has completed the level/dungeon, he/she encounters an enemy more powerful than any other seen before this point. The player is forced to defeat this challenger (whether a person or a creature) in order to advance through the story or on to the next level. Done well, these fights with larger than life enemies can be satisfying while keeping the player immersed in the game world. Poorly executed, they frustrate the player and break a games flow and immersion. These encounters should also serve as a test for all of the skills the player has learned, over the course of either the game or the level in question. The question remains: Has modern gaming outgrown the old Boss Battle, or is there still a place for them? Many games that have been released in the past few years have had poor Boss Battles, but I think that it is possible for Boss Battles to do well: The designers of the game simply have to take the type of game they are making into account.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player can play the game with a variety of styles. In any given situation, the player will usually be able to:
  • Fight his/her way out by killing or knocking out the guards.
  • Sneak his/her way out of the situation completely undetected.
  • Hack through security, clearing out a path or obtaining vital information.
  • Talk to people in order to gain information or clearance to explore.
This enables the player to tailor the game to his/her personality or preferred playstyle. In general, the game succeeds at letting any style get through any level. Then the game's boss battles happen. During a boss battle, the player had the following options:
  • Fight the boss.
  • Go back to a previous save and look for weapons, because he/she has to fight the boss.
The game has gone from four viable play styles, to one. The old school boss battle feels annoying and out-of-place to the vast majority of playstyles.

A boss battle could work in a game like Deus Ex, but it must allow for the breadth of approaches that a player might want to use. It should be possible for a player to sneak past the boss and seal the door behind him, forcing the boss to give up the chase. It should be possible to use hacking skills, either to disable the boss's equipment or to use the environment against him. Lastly, the player should have the option to convince the boss to let him go or even to side with him. These approaches are allowed to vary in difficulty, but they must all be viable methods of defeating/bypassing the boss. It requires significantly more effort to pull this off, but it transforms a frustrating and potentially difficult chore into gratifying test of skill. Other modern games like Alpha Protocol are equally guilty of similarly poor design choices.

Some other games have different problems with regards to bosses. In Assassin's Creed 2, the player character has been exceptionally trained in combat, stealth, free-running, and several different types of weapons such as hidden-blades, swords, smoke bombs, poison, a hidden-gun, throwing knives, and daggers. Throughout the game, even the most stealthy and merciful player will slaughter thousands of unnamed, faceless guards who get in his way. Then the game reaches the last part of the game where the player, for story reasons that make sense in context, fights an old man for control of a powerful, ancient artifact. This old man is fat and frail in the game's story. However, during the fight, he has the more health than any enemy in the game, he is immune to poison, the hidden-gun, and instant assassination using the hidden-blade. Also, he summons guards after the player beats him and then the player immediately has to fight him again at full health with the guards and is quite capable of dodging attacks on occasion. While the fact that the game pigeonholes the player into using the sword or the dagger is a problem, it is not the underlying issue as a decent player will have no trouble getting through this fight even with low-level weapons and armor. The problem in this case is that this fight makes no sense from a plot standpoint. The player is immediately thrown out of the experience and thinks “Ugh. This is a typical video game boss battle.”. A frail old man is stronger and more agile than someone who has trained from most of his life in order to kill the corrupt. No one could believe this. This could be fixed by a little preplanning on behalf of the writers and game designers, but this confrontation did not need to happen.
Boss Battles can work. With a bit of forethought, bosses can present an adequate challenge and test the abilities that the player has learned while making sense from a plot standpoint. That is the key: A boss has to be tailored to test the abilities taught to the player and it has to make sense that the boss would be challenging. Game designer should keep this is mind when making trying to think of boss battles in their games.

#3: Stick with Your Idea (Or, Why I Hated the Last Half of Mirror's Edge)

Every once in awhile, a game comes along that dares to be different. It dares to stand out from its peers and deliver an experience that is unique to the industry. One such game was made by developer DICE and published by EA in late 2008: That game was Mirror's Edge. The premise of Mirror's Edge was that the player would travel through the levels using parkour-inspired moves. The problem with the game is not the overall concept. In fact, the game had the very opposite problem, the last half of the game partially abandons this concept in favor of brief sections of combat-focused gameplay.

In Mirror's Edge, the characters live in a society where all information is being monitored, so some people hire couriers called “runners” to carry packages and information via the rooftops and other discrete pathways to avoid prying eyes. The player is one of these runners: a young woman named Faith. In the beginning of the game, the player is given the goal of handing off their package to another runner so that the package reaches its client. The player has to navigate a variety of obstacles with a myriad of acrobatic and athletic maneuvers. Along the way, the player encounters the city's police force, who attack for reasons unknown (and never really stated). Anyway, the player is told that fighting them would be suicide since the cops have weapons and body armor and the player character lacks both. Instead, it is best to conserve energy and momentum by running away from them and continuing to the goal because it would difficult to isolate them and take them out one at a time. Later playthroughs even allow the player to partake in time trials to get to the end before the target time. Other early chapters of the game function similarly, with different justifications for being as swift as possible.

However, in later chapters, as events unfold, the player has to infiltrate various locations in order to find information or complete some other moderately-justified objective. While there is still an emphasis on parkour-inspired platforming, it is occasionally separated by segments where it is difficult, if not impossible, to run through the guards, meaning that the player has to fight them before advancing through the level. This severely breaks the flow of the game and makes playing through these parts a little annoying and very unfun since the player character is fragile (remember, no body armor) and has no weapons of her own. These levels also allow for time trials, but it is noticeably more difficult when the player has to deal with both the level structure and the guards.

This should serve as a very valuable lesson to game developers. Feel free to experiment with new types of games. In fact, I implore you to do so for the sake of the medium. However, should developers do so, they should remember to stick with their idea for the duration of the game. Do not approach a new concept halfheartedly. It is an all or nothing deal. It may be tempting to add things in for “mass appeal”, but doing so will only ruin the final product and leave a bad taste in the consumer's mouth. Mirror's Edge would have been a good game had it only kept going with the parkour concept originally laid out. I would have criticized its flimsy plot, but like Assassin's Creed 2, I would have called it a great game. As it stands now, with the way it partially abandons the core concept, I can only call it mediocre. Nonetheless, I hope this game gets a sequel and the developers learn from their mistake.

#2: Story Versus Gameplay: An Assassin's Creed Anecdote

(Spoiler Warning: This article discusses the first two Assassin's Creed games in great detail.)

Story and gameplay are two essential parts to current generation games. People play games not only to have a good time, but also to be immerse in breathtaking narratives and interesting worlds. Many developers struggle to find a balance between these two core pillars of game design. Hideo Kojima has been criticized for his over-emphasis on the storyline of the Metal Gear Solid series and many people believe that the most recent games in Bioware's Mass Effect and Dragon Age series had weaker plots than their predecessors, in exchange for vast gameplay improvements. In this article, I will be using Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed 2 as my examples for story emphasis and gameplay emphasis because while I believe Assassin's Creed 2 is a better game, the first one had a much better plot.

But before I get into that, it is important to provide background information on the premise of Assassin's Creed. The series takes place in September of the year 2012. Most of the action takes place in a machine known as the Animus, which allows its user to relive the memories of his/her ancestor in a computer simulation program. In the first game, protagonist Desmond Miles is kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation to access the memory of Altair Ibn La-Ahad, an Assassin who fought against the Knights Templar the Third Crusade, for an unknown purpose. Altair is at first shown to be an arrogant and egotistical Assassin with a blatant disregard for his order's ways. After his transgressions allow the Templars to find the location of the Assassin brotherhood and attack, Altair is disciplined and brought down from Master Assassin to Novice. To restore his rank and his honor, he is assigned nine targets who bring harm to the people of the Holy Land (modern-day Syria). These people are later on revealed to be Templar Knights on both sides of the Crusades and who have their own designs upon the Holy Land. During the game, it is revealed that Abstergo is the modern-day front for the Templars and that the war between the two factions never ended.

In the sequel, the modern-day Assassins rescue him and recruit him. To acquire Assassin training, Desmond relives the memory of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Italian noble who joined the Assassin order during the Italian Renaissance. His character arc begins with the death of his father and brothers as the cover up for some sort of conspiracy. Ezio embarks on a quest for revenge beginning with the men directly responsible. During his journey, he is made aware that his father and his ancestors were in the Assassin order and that his father's death had something to do with the Assassin/Templar war. Ezio's quest for revenge eventually becomes a quest for truth and he finds himself traveling to many major cities in Italy and bringing many cruel people to justice by killing them.

In my sincerest opinion, the first Assassin's Creed has an excellent story. One reason is that the player is given sufficient motivation to go after his targets. The way they do this is fairly interesting. Because Assassins are never allowed to just go out and kill their target, they first need to gather information on their target. Before each kill, the player learns both the why as well as the how: The crimes these people have committed as well as the method in which to dispatch them. This gives the player a context for their actions and begin to empathize with the Altair and the people whose lives are to be enriched with the death of his intended victim. This also highlights another reason I love this game's plot: There is a distinct moral ambiguity between the two factions. As Altair slays his targets, he learns many things from the conversations he has with them as they succumb to their wounds. What they say reveals the big dichotomy in the game. Both factions wish for world peace, yet they disagree with the methods with which to attain that peace. The Assassins believe that peace must be earned by educating the people and celebrating the diversity of the world while removing the arbitrary labels that separate us. To this end, they would murder prominent figures who seek to keep people divided and fan the flames of war. They will also vehemently protect those who would spread knowledge. The Templars, on the other hand, believe that it is impossible to dissolve the barriers between people through normal means. They believe that people cannot know true peace so long as free will exists. To that end, they try to find ways to force people to adhere to a strict order so that they might find peace. Because the player is an Assassin, the story will obviously be told from that viewpoint, but at no time is the player ever told that either side is right or wrong. In fact, it is made very clear that both sides are in the right. This allows the player to ask himself the question: Is it possible to obtain peace and if it is not, is it worth the price of free will? Any story that can get people to think has, at least in some way, succeeded in telling an interesting tale.

On the other hand, where I found that the first game had a strong story, the sequel's plot was much weaker in comparison. First of all, the Templars in Assassin's Creed 2 lack the ambiguity of their predecessors. While the Templars are seen committing many of the same crimes the Templars in the previous game, they are never given any redeeming qualities that justify their actions. Not once is it mentioned how these things further the cause of the Templar order. Furthermore, when Pope Alexander VI (He is the leader of the Templars and the final boss. Just go with it.) eventually tells Ezio why he is going to all this trouble, he tells him that he was hoping to open a vault underneath the Vatican and, using a super advanced mind-control device, bend God to his will and conquer the world under the Templar banner. This is a stupidly evil and ridiculous motivation that could never possibly make any sort of sense. Which transitions nicely into the other gripe, many plot points in the game are completely, ridiculously rife with plot holes. Take the Carnival segment for example. Ezio has to kill his target, but he will only come out during his party in Carnival. The party he is throwing is a masquerade ball with special golden masks. He cannot steal a mask because they have numbers on them (Which does not make sense, but I digress.), so he has to win a mask by winning four games. The games are stupid games like Capture the Flag and footraces (Which are not really fun either, but again, I digress.). When the games are rigged and someone else wins, he has to STEAL the mask to get into the party, which he should not be able to do, because they are numbered. And during the segment, Ezio is a wanted man, so he blends in by putting on a silver mask, despite not changing his absolutely, flamboyantly, bright white robes. It was the eyes that gave him away, not the distinct and very easy to see Assassin's robes. This is the most extreme example, but there are others like a fistfight with the pope, etc. Bottom line, I find the first game's story to be much better.

With that in mind, it is time to compare the gameplay of the two games. Assassin's Creed laid out a good groundwork for the game, but it was not perfect. The investigations, while they helped flesh out the story, began to grow repetitive around the time of the third assassination. The player quickly begins to realize that they are playing the same five or six missions over and over again, only in different locations. Players with low tolerance for repetition will be immensely turned off by these missions. This is not the only issue that crops up. Towards the end of the game, the combat system begins to grow tiring and the guards WILL attack the player at the slightest provocation. It can take a very long time to get through fights because the player can easily have over twenty guards fighting them at once. Fights like this can take several minutes and running away from them can be almost as long, if not longer because other guards will spot the player as he/she runs away. This is exacerbated by the end sequence where they throw waves of enemies at the player and enclose the area so that he/she cannot run away.

The sequel did well to improve many of these aspects. There is a variety of missions throughout the game so that it never feels repetitive to the player. There are platforming sections, chariot chases, theft missions, beat-up events, etc. Assassin's Creed 2 also improves the guard detection system of Assassin's Creed. The game features a notoriety system so that the player is not bombarded by guards unless he/she deliberately goes out of their way to attract attention. Items like smoke bombs can allow for quick escapes when the player feels overwhelmed and can also be used offensively to blind enemies, leaving them vulnerable. Other new tools like poison, throwing money, and a hidden gun also give the player options when dealing with encounters and assassinations. Combat has also been overhauled and the guards are far less likely to swarm the player. The sequel's gameplay is vastly superior to the first game's gameplay.

While Assassin's Creed has a much better story, Assassin's Creed 2 greatly improves upon the gameplay. While being in the same series and telling similar stories, the two games each have separate things to add to the table. Both are great games in their own right and future game designers should study these games to perfect their craft.

#1: Random Encounters in RPGs

I have been playing RPGs for a very long time. It is one of my favorite genres. Recently, I bought Final Fantasy V on the PlayStation Store and decided to play it for the very first time. I had heard that the game is one of the most beloved Final Fantasy games to series fans. After playing it, I have come to understand why. The job system allows for great customization of the characters, the story is amusing (not very deep, but interesting and a good excuse for dungeon crawling), and it harkens back to old school game design philosophies budding game designers can learn from. However, one of the well established tropes of this old school philosophy is one of the reasons this game is a hit-or-miss for many people: Random Encounters.

As I played through FF5, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly annoyed by the shear amount of random encounters in the game. It seemed like I could not advance very far without fighting another group of monsters of varying levels of difficulty. It made me think about other RPGs and how random encounters were killed sometime in the middle of the PS2 era. At first, I was thankful for the change, but then I thought about another example of random encounters, one that I did not seem to mind so much.

In September of this year (2011), Atlus released a remake of Persona 2: Innocent Sin for the PSP. Instead of updating it for modern gamers, Atlus decided to leave the game mostly unchanged with the exception of a few graphic updates. This meant the random encounters were left in the game. While my excerpt from Final Fantasy V would suggest that I would dislike this, I ended up loving P2 and now consider it one of my all time favorite games. I wondered why this difference would exist because random encounters are one of the few things that annoy me about old school RPGs. After carefully pondering this, I eventually found an answer.

It has less to do with the system of getting into battles and more to do with the rewards for participating in the system. In Final Fantasy V, the reward for winning a fight is experience, money, and ability points used to advance in your party's chosen jobs. The only real benefit to gain experience is a level up, which leads to an increase in stats, and while ability points advance the character's job, the advances eventually become so infrequent that it becomes less a reward and more of a “About TIME!!!” in the player's eyes.

On the other hand, in Innocent Sin, while the rewards are a little different. Depending on whether or not you won the fight through combat or persuasion (which, admittedly, also might contribute why the random encounters seem less bothersome) the player will be rewarded with either experience points or tarot cards that the player can use to purchase new personae. While leveling also gives the player characters an overall stat boost, it also unlocks new personae for the player to purchase and use. This both encourages the player to change-up their strategy (persuading one group while fighting off another) and makes rewards more frequent over all. Players are given new personae at a rate slow enough that they do not feel like they are constant trading out personae, but fast enough so that the player never feels like the game is beginning to hold out on rewarding the player. By the time this cycle of trading personae and growing in power begins to lose its charm, the game has already reached its final act and the player has become enthralled in the storyline.

The overall point of this is to realize that a game's overall quality is not determined by what mechanics are being used as much as how these mechanics are being implemented. The overall package must also be considered. To clarify, I think that both games are excellent in their own right and would recommend both to RPG fans. This was more of an analysis than anything else.