Archive for the ‘ Ugly Truths ’ Category

Let Them Eat Cake! Ugly Truths, Pt. II

A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges. ~ Benjamin Franklin

My father once told me about a business dinner he attended in Japan. At this dinner, he told me, the various people in attendance all asked the chef for specific cuts of meat. Dad said the chef didn’t seem terribly happy, so when it was his turn, he asked the chef to prepare the steak in whatever way he felt was best. The chef, Dad said, excitedly got to work on his steak, and when it was done, seemed very proud to present it to him. What my father did was respect the chef’s ability to do what he did best, and in doing so, he was served the best steak of his life.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, game developers aren’t chefs. They’re farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. They’re the guys who provide the means to create that delicious steaks, but they are not the ones who create the steaks themselves–no, the chefs are the gamers.

You see, in a truly great game, whether it’s Dragon Age Origins, System Shock 2, or STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, it is the player who takes the tools provided by the developer and creates a wholly unique experience. I can almost guarantee you that the way I play Half-Life is not the way you do. How we each interpret the game’s world and its rules is ultimately up to us.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

For me, gaming is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake. ~ Me, butchering someone else.

Previously, I discussed the issue with player manipulation. To recap: conditioned behavior is artificial fun and therefore lacks any meaning. Ultimately, this is a subset of possibly the worst problem in video game design right now: disrespect for the player base. At its worst, the problem means that gamers are seen as little more than sheep to be manipulated into spending money on things. Instead of being comfortable with letting gamers play how they want to, developers seem to have more interest in controlling every aspect of your experience.

In other words, the farmer is saying “hey, I raised this wheat, so I know the best way to make a cake.”

There are several examples of this. Because I already covered Valve in great detail last time, I’ll mention them briefly before moving on. The joy of cooking, as with jazz, is in improvisation. The best food is where you take the recipe and make it your own. In a cooking class, a good teacher will make sure their class understands the basics of good food before letting the students experiment with the recipes. Say the class final is a black forest cake; if the teacher’s done their job, then each student is going to come out with a cake that’s unique to them. Each student has made a true cake–one that’s as much an expression of who they are and how they interpret cooking as much as it is a great cake.

Valve, unfortunately, is a bad teacher. Oh, yes, every student will end up with a delicious cake, but at the same time, each cake will be virtually identical. Cooking, like gaming, should not be an assembly line process. The experience should not be manufactured, or it loses much of its appeal. Ultimately, a student who learns to bake a cake from Valve’s school of cooking, has baked a lie.

Okay, maybe this isn’t so brief. Back in my Eli Vance post, I pointed out that Valve also abandoned the silent protagonist approach of Half-Life for a similar, but fundamentally different approach in the sequel. Where Half-Life said “okay, you can kill anyone you want and behave however you feel like,” Half-Life 2 said “No. You are THIS guy. Even though you can’t talk, we have defined you through NPCs and how they treat you.” Ultimately, it’s as if Valve didn’t feel the player could create a compelling-enough experience for themselves, so they defined the persona of Gordon Freeman while offering the illusion of freedom.  It’s as if they want to have their cake and eat it too–they want to railroad the player through their story, but they want to make the player feel as if they’re actually free to do as they choose.

I tried to commit suicide by sticking my head in the oven, but there was a cake in it. ~ Lesley Boone 

The illusion of freedom is rather common in video gaming.

Before I get into that, however, I foresee a major objection that many pseudo-intellectuals might offer: “you haven’t really got any freedom in a video game!” This much is true. You haven’t got much freedom in real life either. You can no more move a mountain with your mind than rewind time itself, after all, so unless you’re God Almighty, when I’m talking about freedom, I’m clearly not talking about total freedom. Being a silent protagonist in a linear game like Half-Life still offers freedom, because, as I mentioned earlier, you can still be whoever you want to be. Perhaps you’re the earnest hero, attempting to save everyone from the disaster you blame yourself for. On the other hand, maybe you’re a psychopathic alien rights activist who intentionally sabotaged the experiment so you could get away with killing everyone and everything in Black Mesa!

Right. Enough about Valve.

Let’s talk about Bioware.

Dragon Age Origins is a great and wonderful game, and you ought to give it a playthrough. It might not be as rich or unique as, say, any isometric RPG ever made, but it has got things like great graphics, interesting ally AI, and better gameplay going for it. Dragon Age 2 is the worst RPG I’ve ever played. I’m sure there are worse RPGs out there, and I know for a fact that, say, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has a more convoluted menu system, worse graphics, worse sound, and lower production value in general. Dragon Age 2 is still worse.

You see, one of the most important things in an RPG is player choice (JRPGs haven’t got this, which is why they aren’t JRPGs; they’re adventure games with stats in). Your ability to impact the world around you through your decisions is why the RPG is different from, say, a military arcade manshoot, where your job is just to shoot lots of things. This isn’t to say that every decision in an RPG must be a hugely meaningful one (such as choosing whether or not to topple an entire empire); merely that decisions must have some point. The FPS and the RPG fundamentally different game types, and as such, players expect fundamentally different things from them. I expected the ability to make meaningful choices in Dragon Age 2.

It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it. ~ Richard M. Nixon

Instead, what I got was an adventure game with stats in–a lot like a JRPG, in fact. I can honestly only think of two instances in the game where a choice I made served any purpose; one decision led to my mother’s frankensteining, and the other led to one party member leaving my party. In other words, none of my decisions had any positive impact on the world.

Indeed, Bioware was so intent on very specific outcomes that every decision that ought to have been a major one was steamrolled over by bad writing. Sided with the mages? Too bad! All but one will resort to using blood magic, and that one will hate you for a good long while. Kept the magic tool-thingy that is the only way to complete the magic mirror from Merrill? Too bad, she’ll fix the mirror anyway, and the game won’t even acknowledge it. Want to kill that Chantry woman who is trying to get you to killed? Too bad, the game won’t present you with the option to do so.

A good RPG would take into account everything the player wants to be able to do and allow them to attempt it. If Bioware’s writers really didn’t want you to kill the Chantry agent, then they could have had her run away, but they should have given you the option to attack, and you should have been able, at the very least, to kill her bodyguard person. In Mass Effect, how you treated Wrex ultimately determines whether or not he commits suicide. In Dragon Age 2, no matter how you treat Anders, he is going to straight up murder a bunch of innocent people because he is an insane psychopath. Unfortunately, if you want to keep him as a healer (Bioware refuses to let you teach anyone else anything from Anders’ bag of healing tricks), that isn’t going to happen.

In fact, the only choice the player can have is who they’d like to have a relationship with. Bioware’s gone a total 180 here and turned the game into a (pretty poor) dating sim, and you can romance almost any member of your party, regardless of gender, personality, or anything else. It’s not like the choices are that great–you can select from an emo elf, a walking STD farm, a naive/possibly underage welsh blood mage, or a complete murderous psychopath (who is like the worst spirit of Justice ever; and yes, I realize he became vengeance, but how did that happen, exactly?), for instance.

Once you get rid of integrity the rest is a piece of cake. ~ Larry Hagman

So… congrats. In the end, the one choice you make that matters is which character will leave with you at the end of the game because your character hates both the templars and the mages, ’cause they’re both stupid.

Much of the joy of Dragon Age Origins’ simplistic story revolved around how the player treated it. You could be whoever you wanted to be, right down to appearance, backstory, and race. Dragon Age 2 ignores this and locks you in to a rather boring story with two-dimensional anime-ripoff characters and relationships right out of a bad fanfiction. It’s got some great ideas, but it’s so intent on making sure you experience them that it forgets to give you any choice.

Could you imagine a jigsaw puzzle where every puzzle piece is numbered and you have a nice background to set all the pieces on? Where would the fun be in that? All you do is find piece number 1 and put it in the top left hand corner. Piece 2 goes next to that. Piece 3 goes right next to that… and on and on it goes. It’s not fun.

Another example: imagine that you buy a sandbox. Now imagine that you want to make a sandcastle in it. How much fun are you going to have if the guy who sold you the sandbox keeps coming over and telling you how you ought to build your castle? What happens if he kicks down everything you do that isn’t to his standards, ensuring that any decision you made that he didn’t want you to make is quite meaningless. Is that a sandbox worth having?

No, not really.

Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake? ~ John Heywood

Developers need to respect their players. Their responsibility is to design a framework around which players can have fun, not create an intensely controlled environment where even the most basic player response is a learned behavior. What makes Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Witcher/Witcher 2 such great RPGs is that the player is taught how to play the game and let loose in the world to behave as they feel like.

The Witcher 2 has a great story, not just because of superb characters like Letho, Foltest, and Roche, but because it manages to really make you feel like you’re part of the plot, not just an outside observer. Some events will happen because of the (often difficult) choices that you make. Others will happen regardless of what you choose, and some will even happen despite your presence. It creates a realistic world where you have freedom, but some things are still beyond your control.

Ultimately, The Witcher 2 respects its players. It doesn’t ignore your choices, nor does it defer to you every time you want to do something. It says “alright, you can do this–so let’s see how you handle this kidnapping!” This sort of respect is a hallmark of great gaming: STALKER gives you a gun, some ammunition, bandages, and a first aid kit. It tells you how to play, but it doesn’t hold your hand. The onus is on the player to keep an eye on their health and armor, as well as to watch out for anomalies and enemies. STALKER trusts you to be good enough to carry the right gear and to be observant, and it’s certainly never cheap. If something kills you, it’s because you screwed up. I’ve heard similar praise in regards to PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls.

The best games are those that respect their players and help those players craft a unique, exciting experience. I don’t know anyone that says “aww man, I did this thing in Half-Life 2 that was so awesome!” or “hey, in Dragon Age 2, I managed to…” I do, however, know people who play games like STALKER, Demon’s Souls, and The Witcher 2, and they absolutely love telling me about the decisions they made or the fights they got in.

Developers, respect your gamers. Give them a framework to operate in, but don’t treat them like they’re toddlers. In the end, they’ll love you for it.

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Ugly Truths, Pt. I

Surgery, for the uninitiated.

Many people have asked my why I don’t enjoy Valve or Blizzard games as opposed to other titles. After all, they’re hugely popular and nearly everyone enjoys them, so why not me?They also find it odd that I enjoy other things that are similarly popular, but less universally loved. I’ll admit that this is rather strange, particularly since I’m such a huge fan of the first-person shooter genre, and that’s practically all Valve makes. My reasons are fairly straightforward: I feel that these developers manufacture enjoyment rather than make fun games. To explain it better, I ought to provide a little bit of background first.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the type of person who is said to find enjoyment by taking things apart and putting them back together; that’s me–the clockmaker type. While I’ve never been mechanically gifted, I do find myself applying this thought process towards entertainment, particularly in regards to film and video games. I cannot watch films without thinking about how lighting and framing are used, and I cannot play games without thinking how their levels are designed or how sound effects the player.

In many ways, this enhances my enjoyment of whatever work I’m experiencing. The Third Man, a film by Orson Welles, has taken on new meaning for me because I have, over time, learned to understand the elements that went into the film’s production; for instance, lighting is used to set the scene as well as establish the characters’ intentions. Anyone can have fun watching The Third Man as a straight crime noir film, but anyone looking for more depth and detail can find it, which enhances the experience.

Scarier than Clint Eastwood, smoother than something really smooth.

Unfortunately, this mindset has its downside. It can reveal ugly truths about things we may enjoy–a character may act a certain way simply to gain our sympathy instead of being genuinely sympathetic, or a gameplay mechanic might utilize operant conditioning to disguise repetition as fun.

Ultimately, that’s why I have a hard time enjoying Valve and Blizzard titles. You see, these companies prefer to engineer enjoyment, to manipulate the player’s feelings, rather than to just try to make fun games. For them, their products are rigidly designed and structured in a way to effect maximum positive consumer response. Team Fortress 2, for example, isn’t that special beyond its art aesthetic; instead, much of the game’s draw relies on the human weakness for unpredictable rewards. There are other ways to do this, of course. Intangibles, like achievements and TF2’s hats, serve no purpose other than to stimulate the “gotta catch ’em all” part of the human brain. The fun–the act of actually playing the game because it’s enjoyable–has been ripped out of many games and replaced with things that are designed to keep you around so you keep paying subscription fees or from reselling your games.

Chances are, you know this already. After all, this sort of thing has been covered in-depth elsewhere, and if you haven’t checked those sources out, you should do so.

You might think that the problem is minor–perhaps you’re one of those rare (as in unicorn rare) individuals who hasn’t succumbed to anything mentioned above! If so, good for you. Those things are all pretty basic psychological tricks that anyone can understand and combat. Problem is… it’s a bit deeper than that. There’s something else Valve does to the player, and it’s something that the industry has slowly been warming up to for quite some time, and, because it actually alters the way how the game is designed and played, it’s far worse than simple achievements or free hats you get for pre-ordering another game.

It’s called training.

I am the sports!

Most developers use training rather innocuously–to get you in the game faster and avoid the unnecessary time it takes to develop a training level, most games’ first levels are also their training grounds. This is a pretty basic thing, and it’s generally a good way to design a game, unless your name is GSC Game World and you design your games for people who know this stuff already. For the generic AAA shooter, like Crysis 2 or Bulletstorm, it’s par for the course. It’s good to get people who are unfamiliar with the game and its mechanics some hands-on time, rather than hope they remembered everything in the manual. Generally, the player learns everything they need to know, and then they get loose into the game’s world, ready to experience the story and all it has to offer. It’s great!

I was going to mention Modern Warfare 2, but it actually has a training level.

Valve, though? Valve does it differently. Instead of approaching a game as a fun thing to be played, Valve approaches a game as a thing its players cannot understand, and players are put through consistent in-game training until they’re unconsciously just doing what they’ve been taught to do. As soon as they’ve completed the most advanced activity that Valve has in store for them, the skill is dropped and not picked up again.

Portal is a game about being trained to do things. Portal 2 is a game that somehow manages to restrict the player even more and scream it in your face: “THIS IS A GAME ABOUT TESTING!” It’s as if Portal 2’s team weren’t sure anyone got it, because, presumably, they didn’t feel the audience was bright enough to understand, so they decided to make absolutely sure that you were aware of this by telling you every chance they got.

However, Portal is such an easy target, so I’m going to talk about Half-Life 2: Episode One instead.

Half-Life 2: Episode One has a great example of in-game training. For anyone who has played it, you’re doubtless aware of the incredibly tedious sequence involving a lot of energy balls and the sockets they go in. Where a well-designed shooter, such as the original Half-Life, would have taught you how the balls and sockets worked, then left you to your own devices for a series of puzzles, Half-Life 2: Episode One puts you on a rigid path of puzzles of one type that increase in complexity. This is endemic of the Half-Life 2 series as a whole: in general, when a Half-Life 2 series game wants to do puzzles, it only gives you one type of puzzle, then slowly increases its complexity. It’s unnatural (from a believable-world standpoint) and manipulative (from a game design) standpoint.

If Dog is a great character, Bay’s version of Bumblebee is the greatest.

If you’ve ever flown an airplane, it’s a remarkably liberating experience. Imagine learning to fly and having your flight instructor grip the controls every time you tried to do something, never allowing you to just get up there and muck about with the skills he’s taught you. Would that be any fun? Sure, you’re in an airplane, and that’s great, but learning to fly has no purpose if you never get to apply the skills you’ve been taught beyond flight training.

This is how Valve seems to approach its single-player games. It says “you! I want you to ride these rails. I want you to see what I want you to see when I want you to see it. Every choice you think you’ve made, I have predetermined.” Do you see why that’s terrible? Gaming, at its absolute best, is all about putting the player into the world and letting them experience it. That’s why games like STALKER and System Shock 2 are some of the best games ever, and games designed to control your every behavior, like those titles manufactured by Valve, are not.

I’m not suggesting that these games become non-linear open-world experiences (though I do think the industry could use a lot more of those); I’m saying that it’s a good thing to let players think for themselves and use the skills they’ve learned in the game. There’s nothing wrong with an incredibly linear game like Max Payne that teaches you everything you need to know up front, then lets you loose with the skills you’ve learned! Even the original Half-Life is great precisely because of its linearity. Instead of drip-feeding increasingly advanced puzzles, linear games should be designed more like the original Half-Life. If the player comes along and finds an obstacle in their path, they should have to try to solve it, rather than simply instinctively know what to do because they’ve been subtly trained how to think.

Manipulating the audience is one of the worst things any artist can ever do, but Valve seems to believe that it’s the only way to make games. To their credit, it has worked well, and if their ultimate goal is to make lots of money, then designing addicting games is a good way to make money. But… I’m a gamer. I want to play my games, to experience the worlds that game designers have crafted for me. Manipulation is anti-art and anti-game, but it’s just a symptom of something far, far worse.

I’ll cover it in Pt. II.