Archive for the ‘ Daily Think ’ Category

Daily Think: Immersed vs Engrossed

My favorite video game genre is the immersive sim. It’s a game that strives to be what the video game should be–an immersive experience that places players within a world and lets them interact with it. As a rule, it utilizes a hybrid of first person and role-playing elements (stats or conversation systems), but it also uses more complex AI systems to help further the illusion of a living, breathing world. It’s trying to simulate a whole world. Skyrim, for example, is a game that’s more immersive sim than anything else, because everything it does is about letting you really slip into the game’s world.

Anyways, some people seem to take issue with the word immersion, ’cause they point out that they can get immersed in other games.

Well… yes and no. We have two definitions for immersion, and generally, when someone talks about immersiveness in a game sense, they’re talking about getting players to feel like they’re really in the world. They’re talking about the holodeck style of immersion, rather than the other kind of immersion, which is more along the lines of engrossed. Someone can be engrossed in a chess match, but they can never be immersed to the point where they feel like the chess pieces are a real army fighting a real war. It’s too abstract for that.

So, next time you hear someone talk about immersion, try to figure out which kind they mean. If you enter into a conversation and you use different meanings of the same word, you’ll end up with needless confusion.

Oh yeah. I’m BACK. New posts inbound, hopefully all week. My “collection of  mini reviews for this year’s games that I didn’t review already” will be up next.


Daily Think: Changing the Outcome

One thing I really dislike about video games is when you get to make a choice, but no matter which choice you make, the outcome is always the same. In other words, the devs actually changed the outcome on you. Take Infamous: no matter what you do, no matter how you’ve played, Trish will die no matter what you do. If you choose to rescue the doctors, she’ll die. If you choose to rescue her, it’ll turn out she was actually with the doctors.

I might be in the minority on this, though. I can’t remember which game it was, but there was an AAA game release recently that allowed the players to make a choice… and the outcomes were different. Like you’d expect choices to be, with consequences and all that. Some people were quite upset at this, however, and believed that your decisions should somehow lead to the same result. I can understand not wanting to deny myself access to part of a game in a playthrough, of course, but I think the decisions should always make some sort of sense. Otherwise, you have a plot hole–a gap in the story’s logic.

So, for Infamous’s decision, a reasonable way to ensure one outcome for two choices would have been, like, “just as I got to Trish, a sniper’s bullet hit her in the chest and she died. I tried to bring her back, but only for a few seconds…” and so forth.

Now, I do take issue with decisions where I can think of ways to deal with everything without an outcome I’ll regret. For instance, in Saint’s Row: The Third, I have a ton of homies. Why couldn’t I send them to rescue Shaundi and co while I went after the bad guy? Why couldn’t I do the opposite?

Why force me into a binary choice, game writers/designers, without making sure to carefully eliminate all other conceivable options?

Daily Think: Coincidences

I am writing right now because I have three hours to complete a massive assignment and I need to take a break. Regular updates will resume this coming Friday, or perhaps over the weekend–whenever I stop being burned out. School is dominating me for the next four days. The only reason Steam says I have time spent on Arkham City is because A) I needed a break and B) I forgot to exit it last night so it was up for like twelve hours.

You know what sucks? You’re watching a perfectly good TV show when suddenly someone references some character (“He’s the most dangerous assassin ever!”) the audience has never heard of, and then, suddenly, that character shows up in that episode.

I get it–in tv, you’re limited to an hour a week, and God help you if you try to go for recurring things (RIP Arrested Development and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), so introducing a character idea one day and then having him show up five weeks later might be a bit of a bother. If you were to mention him throughout the series as part of its lingo, people might get a bit confused. Plus, it might get annoying–because who mentions a character all the time without being anything other than annoying?

Still–it’s worse to mention something right before it shows up. It’s very rare in real life that I mention a guy I haven’t seen in years, only to have him enter the room twenty minutes later.

(ASIDE: it’s really annoying when someone tells you their backstory and literally everything is relevant to the story.)

Please, find better ways to introduce things than coincidentally introduce them right before they’re introduced. The ever-so-common “introduction while under gunfire,” is more desirable, for instance.

Daily Think: Problems I Have With Indie Games

I have not one but THREE blog posts in the works. School’s beating me down pretty hard right now, though, so don’t expect much for a while. Here’s an (edited) post I made on a comment thread somewhere.

I mean you do have to give the player some kind of hope, but unlike almost every genre you don’t want to empower them much at all.

Which is why, in Penumbra, you had a couple rocks and a dog that could take you out in one or two hits. You had the chance to kill it, but its power over you made you want to run and hide.

In CoC:DCOE [Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth], you have the power to kill the Shoggoth, but to do so, you have to run like mad, unbolting doors as it flows after you, not daring to look back at it lest you go insane. It’s all about racing the creature to the plunger and blowing it up. You have a hope, there–the hope to get to the plunger, but that’s it.
That’s where their power as horror games come from.

If there’s no hope, there’s no point. I found Amnesia to be more tedious than anything. The game’s best scares were more the result of its sound design (try playing it with the sound turned off and you’ll find that it’s not scary at all, which means that there’s a fundamental problem with the rest of the game) and occasionally using monster closets (but minus the monsters) to startle you.

I don’t really feel indie games suck, if you’re looking for a strong story in those kind of games it’s more difficult to pull off. You need to have a good writer on the team, spend time and budget with your small team on delivering that story AND delivering gameplay.

Saying they sucked was probably harsher of me than I meant.

You know me, and you know I value story, but you should also know that I absolutely love titles like STALKER, which aren’t really about their story at all so much as they are about getting lost in the world.

Sure, you have a few really solid titles, like Braid or Super Meat Boy, but those games are just evolutions of the sidescroller, and while they can be absorbing to play (if you’re that kind of person, and I’m definitely not), they don’t really offer a world you can get lost in. The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike. There are a ton of tower defense indies out there. Zeboyd’s spending its times making NES-style RPGs.

While a lot of these do things to be unique, I can’t say I’m seeing a lot of gameplay innovations–or rather, sustainable ones. You might see one or two gameplay elements that work nicely in an indie game, but they rarely work in other games. I guess the core of my problem is that for all the praise they receive for innovation, indie games aren’t pushing the medium forward the way that titles like Thief (making the 3D stealth genre actually viable and inspiring all the major stealth franchises that came after), Doom/Wolfenstein 3D (all first person games), Ultima/Wizardry (creating every permutation of the RPG in existence today) and so many other games did. They have unique gimmicks that don’t really matter outside their own scope.

BONUS PARAGRAPH: [In fact, one could say that the indie games that don’t really innovate, of which there are many (and they tend to be the most well-known indies too, like Braid, Machinarium, and what have you), are basically doing exactly what most AAA games out there are doing. They’re taking existing mechanics and putting their own twist on them. I mean, why is Braid somehow more special or intelligent than Arkham City? Is it? Is it really? Arkham City’s an evolution of old-school Zelda design. Braid’s just a stylized 2D platformer. Likewise, Amnesia is little more than a not-very-good Dark Corners of the Earth with a steadfast, incorrect belief that not having any weapons is somehow scarier. So what makes indies special? That they’re not made by The Man? This seems to be the case for a lot of people. In fact, in an article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun where Davey Wreden was interviewed by Robert Yang, they kinda discuss the point, and Yang says “Then I talked to an indie dev who questioned the “personal value” angle, as if to say, “You had privilege and could afford to mod instead of work. You didn’t earn your voice.” I feel guilty. That’s what I’m facing now, that I’m not authentic.” Who cares what you go through to make a game? Just make something good. That should be all that matters, not some stupid determination of whether you’re “worthy” of making a game because you fit the definitions of some indie dev who is stickin’ it to The Man.]

They do things well–Amnesia has effective horror sound design, Limbo and Super Meat Boy have great art aesthetics, Cthulhu Saves The World has a great sense of humor, and so forth–but it’s not like they’re inventing mechanics that really change gaming. Nobody’s adopting Zeno Clash’s first person melee, for instance.

The people who tend to praise them are the same people who get really bitchy about how they miss the days when everyone was being innovative (failing, of course, to see that innovation in a given field slows down as the “Wild West” of that medium is settled, which is what has happened in gaming in a lot of ways; it’s the same reason that graphics are making less of a leap every year–the more polygons we use, the harder it is to see just how detailed things really are). They’re praising innovation for innovation’s sake, when what they claim to really want are mechanics that can be used across the field–[mechanics that really change the way we play games].

I’ve always been frustrated with this mindset, which is part of the reason I want to do something about it, as you well know. I’ve just never been able to air it properly, and homework’s giving me a headache, so I thought I’d do it now.

You know what we’re working on, and how it’s… well, ideally, the best implementation of its type. It’s intended to be an evolution of the way people look at this particular mechanic in games. It’s definitely going to be a step up. Part of the reason I’m aggressively targeting this as an integral part of the game is because I want people to look at it and go “oh. Yeah. We can do better than we’re currently doing.”

A lot of the indies I come across tend to be just doing unique things within their own little spheres of influence, and that’s it.
So when you say:

Usually its slight tweaks to an established formula with some good polish, which is fine to a point, but doesn’t push things forward like I want in that area.

I get that, but I feel like Indies are failing to do this too.

ANOTHER BONUS PARAGRAPH: [If anything, I’d say I feel that a lot of indies are basically just doing slight tweaks to an established formula (Limbo, The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, Braid, Cave Story…) as well. The main areas that indies do things differently in are in aesthetics or turning out games like World of Goo and Minecraft, which are evolutionary branches of gaming that kind of go their own way. They don’t really… add anything to gaming the way that a lot of early “AAA” titles did).

Some indie games lack polish on the mechanics they design, but many squeeze the most they can from 1 or 2 innovative mechanics to drive the game, and for the money I have fun with them.

And that’s good! You should have fun with them!

I guess I feel like people are treating indie games as though they’re like the gaming industry when it was younger, striving to push the medium forward, but the truth is that indie designers are more like Keita Takahashi, doing things that only work in their specific games.

Where I see mechanical progress in games is on iteration of the way characters interact with worlds. Instead of trying to create the next radical paradigm shift in gaming like the Ocarina of Time or Half-Life or something, I think it’s time to focus on radically improving existing concepts (e.g. character interaction through AI, consequences through choice, in-game training).

In a way, that’s what a lot of indies already do (such as the earlier platforming example).

Heh, maybe I’m just angry that people are praising indies (including the indie designers themselves) for being like something that they’re really not.

For a filmic parallel, a lot of people perceive the gaming industry now as they perceived Hollywood in the 1960s and early 1970s. They’re demanding gaming’s equivalent of the level and variety of innovation found in the 30s and 40s–stuff like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane. Then they’re looking at indies, the French New Wave Cinema of gaming, and acting as if it’s the cure. That’s not the cure and it never was.

As valuable as they were, gaming doesn’t need a Godard or Truffaut right now–it needs the Spielbergs, the Kubricks, and the Coppolas, the kind of people who don’t so much invent the wheel as reinvent it.

I hope that makes sense.

Daily Think: It’s Okay To Make Stuff I’ll Never See, You Know

Sup, Game Devs.

Skyrim is upon us and it’s got me thinking: I remember reading a while back about how developers (It might have been about Bioware specifically, but I can’t be sure) were worried people wouldn’t get to see everything in just one playthrough, so they weren’t making as many secrets or allowing as many choices and so on and so forth.

I get that. You spend time on something, you want people to see it. It’s natural.

But might I suggest that doing the opposite might make you more money?

You’re trying to combat used sales, right? Sounds like you hate it as much as piracy, and I don’t blame you. People are basically spending their gaming dollars on things without you profiting, and that kinda sucks. Barring the obvious way to combatting this (psst: look at PC gaming, specifically discs that ship with Steamworks!), it seems that the most obvious solution would be capitalizing on something else. DLC is nice and all, but some people don’t love your game enough to want to spend more money on it. The guys who are looking to save money are the same ones who are the least likely to buy DRM and the most likely to buy used games, after all.

I’m talking about replay value.

Surely you remember it? It’s a metric that a lot of people still mention in reviews, talking about whether or not people will want to keep playing a game or not. If you want to keep people from trading games in, then provide them with enough content to keep them from trading in the game the second they’re done! I’m not talking about useless flags or feathers either (I’m looking at YOU, Assassin’s Creed!). Nah, I’m talking about new areas and quests depending on the choices players make in a game (after all, there is no such thing as a “meaningful choice,” only “meaningful consequence,” and if players make different choices that lead to different consequences, that’s a good reason to want to replay). If that doesn’t suit you, what about NewGame+ (Mass Effect’s awesome NewGame+ mode is one of the reasons I loved replaying it and bought a second copy when it became available on Steam)? Remember unlockables? Those were pretty awesome, you know. Letting people beat the game and then replay it with a new skin was a pretty enjoyable thing once upon a time. I get that you might want to make people spend $7 on the game, but just how much money are you losing with every copy of your game that gets traded back in, huh?

You know what else works?

Lots of content.

The more time I spend playing your game, the less likely I am to want to trade it back in, especially if I feel like there’s more to discover. Ever wonder why Bethesda’s games sell so well? Exploration is a HUGE element of that. If you go “well, we’ll cut exploration since only 15% of our players will see that,” you run the risk of making an inferior game. Look at Dragon Age 2. They made a game without of the content and variety that Dragon Age Origins offered, and as a result, released a game that reviewed and sold worse. When Bioware forced players through one specific story path, limiting a portion of their player base to playing just a few ways, the customers reacted and sales of the game dropped like a stone. Freedom and variety are vital to a good game experience (unless, of course, you’re making a linear shooter or something, where you can do variety a lot of other ways).

You don’t need to be afraid, devs. If I don’t see your stuff the first time through, that’s okay. It means I’ve got an incentive to play through again, and that means I’ve got an incentive not to trade in my game. If you get over yourselves and spend more time on games I’ll spend time on, you’ll make more money.

…assuming your game’s any good, of course.

Daily Think: Totality

People like talking about things like Freedom and Originality. Things that aren’t TOTALLY free or TOTALLY original, though, often get dinged for not being this way.

That’s kinda stupid.

Look, did Frank Lloyd Wright reinvent the basic room archetypes of door, window, wall, floor, and ceiling to create those totally sweet houses that he designed? No. He didn’t. Did William Shakespeare reinvent the mechanics of the English language in order to tell his amazing stories? Again, nope. What about Francis Ford Coppola? Did he reinvent film technique in order to direct Apocalypse Now or The Godfather? Uh-uh.

Nothing is TOTALLY original. Once you write about a thing that has existed, using words that have existed, you’ve stopped being completely original. If you tell a tale about a cat who is a detective but also a ghost, and that story’s never been told before, you’re still not being totally original. But you ARE being original.

That’s fine!

Freedom’s the same way. If you walk into a store and ask for pickle and telephone ice cream, and they turn you down, BAM, FREEDOM DENIED. You can never be totally free. You still have to make sure you eat, sleep, and have shelter to keep on living in life. Sometimes, you’re forced to do things that you don’t want to do. Maybe you have to pay the bank a bill in order to keep on living in your house. Maybe you can’t murder that guy’s dog that barks annoyingly when you’re trying to sleep because there are laws against it. Maybe you can’t leave a maze you’re in because you’re just not strong enough to walk through concrete walls.

You’re not a god, perfect and all-powerful, you’re you, a person bound by a ton of rules and the decisions of other people.

So when a game comes out and it claims to be original or offer freedom, why not really evaluate it? Maybe it’s a tale of a thief (not original) in a bleak, rainy city (crime noir), waiting for an asteroid to wipe out all life on earth (again, not particularly original). The elements, taken by themselves, aren’t original, but put together… well, I’ve never heard of a story like that. I’d be quite interested in checking one out if it existed. Maybe it’s a game that, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sends you off on missions around the world, but there are a few times when it takes your freedom away. Does that mean that the game doesn’t offer freedom? Don’t be absurd. Sometimes, in real life, we’re put in situations where we must do one and only one thing to get out of that situation.

What’s important is that that lack of freedom makes SENSE. In Human Revolution, being compromised by a flirty Asian woman you’ve come to kill doesn’t make much sense. Being trapped in a room with a man who has an arm that is also a gatling gun, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. Freedom doesn’t matter unless someone takes it away, but that’s a talk I’ll save for later.

Don’t call a game bad because it’s not 100% original or 100% free. That’s stupid, and you will never, ever find something that truly offers those things to you.

Daily Think: Why Trilogies?

A few years ago, people were wondering why trilogies exist. Some people viewed it as companies getting greedy, others were clueless, some didn’t understand why there weren’t septilogies, blah blah blah.

The simplest reason to explain why people do trilogies is simple: the three act structure. The Greeks talked about it ages ago–the idea of each story having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it seems humans across all cultures prefer this to any other sort of story type, for whatever reason. Japanese drama has Jo-Ha-Kyu, while Opera Seria was structured fast-slow-fast… ultimately, people just like to have things that work in three parts. For whatever reason, it’s easier for us to process. Obviously, you have series that go longer–just look at Discworld–and you have single stories and duologies as well, but people really like the idea of a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s why we have it.

BONUS: Almost all stories are structured this way, and generally, stories that are widely considered bad do not adhere to these principles.

Time for Saint’s Row. Adios.