Is Serious Sam 3 the Perfect Game?

(Originally posted here; got 26,402 hits–looking back on it, there’s a lot I could change, and probably will, in the future)

Is Serious Sam 3: BFE a perfect game?

I’m inclined to think so. I’ve been playing it a lot lately and… writing and voice acting aside, I’m not sure I have anything to complain about. Sure, it’s got flat levels and simplistic AI, but… well…

Okay, first, I’m going to be harsh, just to get that out of the way:

Shut up about Dark Souls. Are we supposed to be impressed that a game uses its difficulty to teach you to be a better player? If you were a real gamer, you’d be familiar with this sort of gameplay. Two of them that really stick in my mind are the STALKER and Serious Sam games. Take your pick: either this concept is native to shooters or the PC. The only reason Dark Souls is special to you is because, for whatever reason, you haven’t been exploring either PC games or shooters as much as you ought. You should get on that. I’ll be happy to set you up with plenty of great games that do this.

Serious Sam 3: BFE is a fantastic example. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Even on Normal difficulty, which I’m playing, it’s a challenge.

Part of the reason for this is that it uses health packs instead of regenerating health. WhereResistance 3 (a nice game with great art that you should pick up for $30 or less!) was a game that demonstrated a complete failure to understand why health packs exist, and this year’sHalo/Deus Ex games made a compelling argument for regenerating health, Serious Sam 3 uses its health systems to enhance the gameplay experience.

It’s brutal when you’re down at ten health and you find just six +1 health bottles, but that can lead to an exhilarating victory. There was this one level where I was trapped, in the dark, with spider monsters that could crawl on the floors, the walls, and the ceilings. I started out with 25 armor and 100 health, and ended up with just six health. I slowed down, cautiously making my way through the museum’s basement with nothing but my own fists, a sledgehammer, and a pistol. It was a truly amazing experience, and one that wouldn’t have been impossible had I been supplied with regenerating health or some other gameplay crutch.

Instead, health packs helped shape my experience in a way that helped me become a better player.

The game does it in other ways, as well.

I’ve put, what, three hundred hours into Dragon Age: Origins? It’s a great game. One of the reasons it’s so great is that I’ve only ever beaten it with one class—the rogue. Each time I replay it, I discover a new way of playing the character that I didn’t know before. For all its apparent simplicity, the game has an incredibly deep set of systems that can drastically affect your play experience. I love the depth of its tactics (similar, but apparently far more complex than Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit (?) system, according to people I know who’ve played both) system. I’ve customized it so well, that in some cases, I can beat entire bosses without actually playing the game.

…and… Serious Sam requires more of me, as a gamer. I put more intelligence and thought into that game. I’ve always disagreed with the absurd idea that shooters are dumb games that rely solely on reflexes, and Serious Sam, a game which seems dumb, is a fantastic example of what I’m arguing about (STALKER is another great one—I’ve never experienced gameplay more intellectual stimulating than STALKER‘s, and I would have a hard time believing such a thing exists).

If you believe in the theory of multiple intelligences, you should be familiar with the concept of spatial intelligence. Shooters—good ones—rely on your ability to utilize your spatial intelligence.Serious Sam‘s huge maps (regularly, monsters the size of skyscrapers appear at distances that make them seem the size of your thumb) and constant onslaught of enemies requires you to think about where you are, where your enemies are, and where they (and you) are going.

I’ve never played a game that forced me to play mental gymnastics.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Sam regularly vomits hundreds of different enemies at you. They all have various ways of attacking, too: you’ve got rocket-spraying tank creatures, zombies with shotguns, suicidal/headless exploding dudes, Syrian werebulls that will send you FLYING if they ram you…
You get the idea.

On top of this, you’ve got a ton of different weapons—easily double the number of weapons in an Unreal or Half-Life game—and they each behave in radically different ways that make them suitable for dealing with different enemies and at different ranges. The double-barreled shotgun’s a great way to make short work of a Gnaar, but not great for taking on a gaggle of Kleers.

Oh, and it’s also got the addition of sprinting and iron sights, which adds even more variety to the combat.

So, um… yeah. I think it might be a perfect video game. The only reason you should play this is if you are a baby. It may cause unquenchable bloodlust in infants.

If you’re a console snob, one of those idiots who thinks FPSes are dumb, or one of those people who wishes that shooters would be great again, shut up, sit down, and play Serious Sam 3: BFE.

Right now.

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Blog All the Things!

According to advice from Lifehacker, I should blog every day. Cool. I’ll get right on that. Today, I’ll repost some posts I’ve made on Kotaku. After that, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully, I’ll post daily, but probably not, but I will try.

Food for Thought

“Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!”

John Walker, of RPS fame, recently posed this question in his article bemoaning the lack of games that have any real substance to them. As someone who had a conversation just yesterday about all the games that I consider to have terrible stories (which is almost all of them), you can’t get much dismissive than me. So… when I recommend a game, understand that I do it because I have incredibly high standards.

…aaaaand that’s why I was surprised when John went on to say this: “I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.”

Well, um.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is that game, John.

I know, I know. Everyone wants to hate on Modern Warfare 2. They say it’s a dumb, stupid Baysplosionfest. It’s strange, really: before Modern Warfare 2 came out, Call of Duty was one of the best (the absolute best) gaming experiences in the known universe. Call of Duty 4 was one of the finest games in a year that saw Portal and Bioshock released. The nuke scene, the sniper level… so much of that was memorable and superb in every way. Like the original Half-Life before it, Call of Duty transformed the industry through the best scripted events (which are not evil in and of themselves) that had ever been seen, while maintaining a high standard level of linear, corridor-shooting interactivity.

Then came Modern Warfare 2, and all that changed. Unlike most people, who seem to think that one of the finest development studios out there would suddenly be the worst ever, I’m going to blame the rushed, eighteen month development cycle, the fact that the studio had very little love for this game (much like Call of Duty 2) and were only making it as part of a deal that would let the now-stillborn-but-possibly-at-Respawn Future Warfare project come into being, and the fact that the game, in a series birthed on the PC, became nothing more than a bad PC port. Remember the “it has mouse support” debacle? The lack of dedicated servers? For some people, those wounds are still fresh. I think that’s where a lot of the hate really comes from.

Plus, the internet is a thing. The internet is a vast hate machine. It hates what’s popular–look at all the grief Halo, a franchise from one of the best shooter developers to ever walk the Earth with games nothing less than stellar (barring Halo 2’s campaign)–received when it was popular. Look in comment threads around the internet, and you’ll still find people coming out of the closet, admitting that “it wasn’t really that bad,” or “I never really hated it.” Ignore Call of Duty’s longest-time fans and dumb the game down, and you’ll get people screaming about how stupid everything about it is. Have it beat the highest-grossing movie ever made in the span of a month or two, and you can bet there will be a backlash against the game’s popularity as well.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 did deserve some of the complaints it got, mind you. The rushed development led to bugs and imbalances, and the campaign was a bit rough. That said, the people who complained about it are drooling morons.

They love to complain that it was dumbed down and stupid, despite being like every Call of Duty before it, which was praised as intelligent and awesome.

First things first: Modern Warfare moves at a much, much faster pace than most video games. There is no time to stop and have a conversation–imagine if you never had time to stop in Mass Effect 2: you’d never get to know a single character in the game, beyond the occasional “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” or whatever from a teammate. They’d be empty shells. Because of this unrelenting pace, you never really get a feel for the characters, even if they’re actually pretty well defined. I’m not just talking about Soap and Price, either. Makarov is a particularly interesting character. Even Dunn and Foley’ve got personalities.

I believe, across the Modern Warfare series, you play from the perspectives of at least fourteen different characters: Soap, Roach, Price, Yuri, a British soldier, three marines, an astronaut, a father on vacation, two gunners in an AC-130 gunship, a dictator, a CIA spy, and others I can’t recall off the top of my head. That can get pretty confusing. The game is a lot like 24, the action show where Kiefer Sutherland punches people in the face to stop terrorism and it works. That many protagonists in a fast-paced game that never gives you the time to get to know anyone is going to confuse the shit out of people, especially those who are expecting the story to be stupid and aren’t paying attention. If you pay attention to the Modern Warfare games, nearly everything makes sense. Gamesradar’s infamous and rather absurd ‘plot holes in Modern Warfare 2’ article falls apart. The only real plot holes I can remember having any validity are “how, exactly, did Price survive and not manage to be returned to the UK, why is Task Force 141 under Shepard’s control, and how did so many Russian airplanes make it across the continental United States without being noticed before they got to Washington, DC?”

But, hey, eighteen month development time. Three mistakes. That’s really not bad.

Ultimately, however, that fast pace and rapid character shift means that all the plot bits that are there–the frequently-good writing–is often ignored.

I can’t say I got much of a feel for the characters in, say, Mass Effect 2. Grunt and Miranda were pinocchios. Jacob was… inoffensive. Legion was a robot. Garrus was just Space Batmanpunisher because The Dark Knight was a cool movie. Jack was a sensitive girl who kept everyone at bay with anger. Samara was a ronin (Samara? Samurai? get it?). You can’t really say much for those characters. They’re walking encyclopedia entries with loads of personal information. Rarely do they make observations about the world (unless that observation seems to exist to contrast them to the world around, like someone writing about a kid from the country showing up in the city and going “wow, you people are strange!”), or ask questions, or demonstrate any real personality. In the gameplay, it’s even worse.

It’s interesting to get a feel for the characters of Modern Warfare 2, however. Makarov is very much a chess player. He’s arrogant. Patriotic. A complete bastard. Zakhaev’s death scarred him tremendously. Shepard’s blind patriotism to America leads him to cross the line, murdering his own people and innocent civilians to put some pride back on America’s face. Price, however, transcends nationalism, ultimately going rogue, becoming a man without a country for the greater good of the human race.

Those three characters actually sum up one of Modern Warfare 2’s major themes (did Mass Effect 2 have a theme? Nah, it was just a bad, grimdark Dirty Dozen knockoff without the all-important team-building second act): that nationalism and misguided patriotism is a terrible thing indeed. One of the quotes used in the game was from Albert Einstein, who said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease; it is the measles of mankind.” Many of the series’ trademark “death quotes” revolve around themes of nationalism, patriotism, and the dangers thereof.

People like to say that No Russian was a publicity stunt–well, it wasn’t. It was the other half of Modern Warfare 2’s point. Modern Warfare 2 flipped the war on terror on its head, putting the US in the shoes of Afghanistan and Iraq, and asked “is this just?”

Think about it! For reasons you believe to be just, you are made to do a morally questionable act because it might help stop a bad thing. Doing so turns the world on its head. Your country is framed for the actions of a few–perhaps by the country that was already planning to invade you for other reasons. One half of the game has you playing the part of the confused soldier, not knowing what’s going on, being given random, seemingly disconnected objectives, and trying to stave off a surprise invasion. The other half has you playing as the man trying to catch the people responsible.

Modern Warfare 2 ends with you stealthy murdering American soldiers in Afghanistan to pound the point home, as if it wasn’t clear enough.

Was this right? Was this just? Was this invasion a good thing?

The game’s a bit of a “blood for oil!” conspiracy-type story, I’ll admit (Russia took out the US satellite that gave them entry into the US before No Russian took place). It dwells a bit too much on the events and not enough on the characters (but… what would you do? Cutscenes? All the character time is spent during loading sequences and in gameplay dialog; the game’s as efficient as a shark when it comes to gameplay–it’s even better than Half-Life in its relentless desire to keep you in the experience–it never locks you in a room and lets you run around like a madman for ten minutes). It’s got a great deal of failings. But… it does ask questions. It bothers to be more than just an action game. I think the only other post-2007 games I played that really did that were Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den, and I’ll write about them elsewhere.

You may dislike the theme, the unrealism, or even disagree with the argument it puts forth. But you can’t disagree that it tries, and it would be hard to disagree with the suggestion that few games try as hard. The only reason it failed was because no one came in expecting it to have a good story, and then, when they did play it, nobody bothered to pay attention to what was actually there. It’s as if they were like “nah, it’s not going to be good, so I don’t care,” or maybe they just fell for the fantastic set pieces. Or, hey, maybe they all just played the multiplayer.

Whatever the case was, people ignored Modern Warfare 2’s story and point, and then they went on about how bad it was. Say what you will about its shortcomings–I can point out many shortcomings in All Quiet on the Western Front–but Modern Warfare 2 made an effort to make a point about the world around us, and there are damn few games I can say the same for.

Also, is the only game I’ve played with homages to one of the best action movies ever: The Rock. Saving the White House, riding on the underwater subthingies, and fighting through the showers were all direct references to some of the best bits in the movie.

The story has its problems, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of actually bothering to ask good questions, Modern Warfare 2 does its job. If you want something greater than baby food… give Modern Warfare 2 a thoughtful go. To run with Walker’s food comparison, I’d say that Modern Warfare 2 is to game stories as a jelly sandwich is to baby food–it’s food for five year olds as opposed to food for infants. Games do need to grow up. They suck. I hate nearly every game story I’ve encountered, unless I’m in a mood for bad stories (which I am, on occasion), but Modern Warfare 2, despite all the hate it gets, is actually one of the few steps in the right direction.

Update

The final Freedom post is incoming! Should hit some time Thursday!

Not sure what all I’m going to be blogging about soon, though I’ve got some ideas. I’d like to touch on the concept of people who only react obviousness (most gamers), but I need to come up with some theories of how to circumvent it. An article on what makes a good PC game might be neat, and perhaps a discussion of Microsoft Flight and Age of Empires Online, or, rather, The Fall of Microsoft Games Studios, would be cool. I’m working on the Half-Life 2 breakdown, but I don’t really want to dig at it until it’s complete. Then there’s Dark Souls and my frustrations with it. I’m playing Thief right now, and it’s cool, but I’d like to get further ahead in the game before I really touch on things. I’ve got a neat thought about it I don’t think people have really touched on before, and it relates to old-school 3D games in general.

One Reason Gaming Has a Bright Future (or: why PC gaming will save us all)

Are you afraid of the future? You don’t need to be.

I remember, about a year ago, I spoke with a friend regarding how exciting the future of gaming was. I told him I was excited with where things were going. He was… well, we don’t talk much anymore. See, his perception was that games were getting inherently worse, and he thought I was getting excited at this prospect. This made him extremely angry. That’s not at all what I was (and am) excited about. You see, at the beginning of the present console generation, and even, to an extent, to this very day, we saw an increase in the number of games made multiplatform, and, far more importantly, compromised in order to work properly on consoles and to appeal to larger audiences. In many cases, this meant that the PC versions, and complex games in general, kinda sucked.

Originally, this was mostly because the devs had new hardware to play with and were trying to figure out what to do with them. As any developer can tell you, a limited platform means that what you can do is limited, and when you’re still figuring out how to make a piece of hardware play nice, you tend not to focus on the elements of design as much as you ought. This is a problem that’s endemic to consoles, because with every new console release, there’s going to be a massive change in what you can do. With the constant pace of PC development, you never really go “oh, I have to learn this whole new thing.” It’s an iterative process. Things are easier, which means that design can come first.

Games have been improving recently. In 2011, we saw some pretty smart games, like Skyrim The Witcher 2, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Bioshock Infinite is now coming with the promise of a hardcore ‘1999 mode,’ and I believe other developers have been considering similar options. Far Cry 3, from what little we’ve seen, looks to be a massive improvement on the excellent, but flawed, Far Cry 2. Games seem to be getting smarter, and surely, we can fully welcome this trend. Dark Souls has found great global success–something that a game two or three years ago (hi Demon’s Souls!) could not have done.

But you know what? It gets better than that. Right now, we’re on the cusp of a radical transformation in video gaming, and by that, I mean that PC gaming is about to change everything for the better.

First off, we need to talk about why PCs are great. Above all else, the PC’s advantage is freedom. Want to play at your desk? Bam, PC’s got it. Couch? You betcha. Take your PC to work or school? Sure, why not! I could be playing Skyrim right now if I wanted to, even though I haven’t got a tv nearby and no way to safely carry my discs around. Want to motion game, use a racing wheel, use a mouse and keyboard, play with a controller, or just about any other control interface you could possibly imagine? You can do this on the PC.

Then you’ve got the fact that games are developed on PCs. Due to open source software and ready-to-go game engines like UDK, making games has never been easier. Modding has brought us several highly-acclaimed games–in fact, nearly everything Valve has ever made comes from modding. It was modding that introduced a ton of game mechanics we find in regular games. Even now, with the formatative years of video game development behind us, we can still see mods influencing game design, most obviously in Fallout: New Vegas, where entire game systems were poached directly from popular mods and implemented into the gameplay, greatly benefiting New Vegas’s design. On top of that, you’ve got indie games, which are boldly trying things nobody’s ever tried before, even if a lot of those ideas are evolutionary dead ends.

There is no gaming experience you can’t have on the PC, and there is no gaming experience that can’t be enhanced by the platform.

…but you should know all this already. This is nothing new.

One thing you may not have realized, though, is that the success of Western games on the consoles is due to a large portion of these devs being PC dev who’ve migrated over to consoles before digital distribution became as successful as it has. See, they got to experiment on the PC first and eventually work their way “down” to consoles. Their PC roots meant that they had a bigger, more expanded idea of gaming’s potential. Not having many limits will do that to you.  In fact, you may have noticed recently that major devs like DICE have said things about how it’s best to work from the PCs first and port down to consoles, because it’s easier to cut things than add them, and they’re absolutely right. A console game can benefit tremendously from a game with the PC as the lead platform, but there are no games that have benefited from having the console as a lead platform. It’s the nature of limitation.

If you’re struggling to get at what I mean, think of it like, oh, writing a paper. If someone says “write me five hundred words!” it’s much easier to create more than necessary and cut down. If you try to work under that limit, you often find you don’t have enough words. If  you write too many, it’s significantly easier to cut down while retaining more information overall.  Likewise, it’s harder to adapt a good PC game from a limited console one, while it’s significantly easier to cut or redesign PC features and create a good console experience.

So, by now, you may be wondering what my point is. It’s this: everything has been building up to this moment. I’ve demonstrated that people want more and that games can benefit from PC development. Right now, we are in a situation that is ripe for games to become more varied and rich than they’ve ever been. It’s a perfect storm, and here are the key elements that facilitate it:

1. The internet has gotten faster. This is the foundation from which everything else springs. It means you can access games without worrying whether they’re still in print or not. It means teams can work across the globe. It means, ultimately, that there are no restrictions anymore.

2. Mod tools have trained a lot of people. There are a ton of people out there good enough to make games, but maybe not good enough to work on an AAA game.

3. Digital distributors, like Steam, let devs and gamers A) play with and learn from old, more experimental games (hopefully putting us in the mindset of trying new things), and B) lets devs sell games without as much risk and without the need for a publisher (not that publishers are inherently evil). This means that devs are empowered. They can now release A and B level games, rather than AAA games that must be huge and must make lots of money to guarantee a profit. I have to disagree with this kotaku article, which suggests that in the future, only AAA games will be viable–this belief has been around for pretty much the entirety of this generation, and the recent indie explosion (and increase in indie titles, with games like Killing Floor, Hawken, and Natural Selection 2), not to mention the crazy amount of cash Double Fine just got to make a point and click adventure, proves that AAA games aren’t the only way to go. Sure, maybe on consoles, they are, but if that’s the future of console gaming, then I see no reason to continue my life as a console gamer. Even non-indie games like Dead Rising: Case Zero and Gotham City Imposters have proven that there is a market for smaller, non-retail releases. People can make money here.

4. Preexisting, free to use engines such as UDK, Unity, and Cryengine, enable gamers to develop games much more quickly and simply than they could ten years ago. There’s now no longer a need to develop an engine, now people have access to documentation and forums and other things that will ultimately save time. Want to implement cell shading in your game? Cool, someone’s already figured it out and has probably posted a method on a forum somewhere. This saves time and allows developers to focus on making the game, rather than building the tools to run it. In addition, you’ve got easy access to a lot of open source tools, like the Bullet physics engine (Max Payne 3 from Rockstar is using it!)

5. Version control software, like Perforce, while bad news for mods (this is one reason why Alan Wake isn’t shipping with mod tools), is great news for indie devs. It empowers teams to build content, even if they’re not in the same room together. This means that people in areas without game dev teams, or those who can’t afford to rent their own office and build games there, can work together. It also facilitates greater interaction between people. Maybe I don’t know enough programmers where I live to make a game. Cool. The internet can provide them, and version control software can help us share our assets easier.

6. No greater obstacle exists to the creation of video games than finding funding. Fortunately,  Kickstarter solves this problem. Don’t believe me? Double Fine made a million dollars in roughly twenty-four hours, just by asking for money. Obsidian is considering using the same model! Developers, ones people know and trust, can go to Kickstarter and, completely risk free, try to fund a game’s development. Project CARS and Minecraft, made by people who didn’t/don’t have the level of trust and support that guys like Obsidian and Double Fine do, allow people access to their alphas and betas in exchange for a preorder. To get more initial sales, they could consider employing the shareware method (F2P is nice and all, but the sheer number of people who say they’d rather pay full price for an F2P game isn’t one worth ignoring; distributing part of a game for free to hook consumers is what shareware is all about, and it should be resurrected, especially now that digital distribution is so viable).

7. Steam Workshop means that it’s even easier for people to get into modding and distribute their work, which means that people have an easier time getting into game development.

What does all this mean?

Well, some time ago, I read a gamasutra article once talking about, like, flash mobs, but for video games. You’d have a bunch of devs, they’d get together quickly, and they’d develop games. The problem with this idea, as many pointed out, was that there really isn’t a central dev city location, like there is with film. Films have Los Angeles. Games don’t quite have that. It’s harder to have freelance/contract workers when you don’t have all of the expertise concentrated in one area. Sure, there are hotspots, like Seattle, Dallas, and Montreal, but it’s still a risky proposition, especially when games take significantly longer to make than films (you don’t need to support many people in pre- and post-production on a film, so you’ll only need an entire team for maybe twenty or thirty weeks at most, as opposed to two or three years for a game).

The internet fixes that.

I’m working, right now, on making an immersive sim–if you’re familiar with Thief (and if you aren’t, it and its sequel are for sale in working condition on GoG) or Deus Ex, you’ll know what I mean by this. It’s set in the 1960s. It’s a spy game–something that hasn’t generally been commercially successful in the past (but, to be fair, the few spy games that have been made haven’t been very good, so it’s not the genre’s fault). This isn’t something I could have done five or ten years ago, but it is something I can do now. I’ve got a team of people working alongside me, most of whom are in the US, but all over the continent.

Effectively, a bunch of talented people can get together and build a game over the internet, rarely/never meeting in person. With tools like Skype, IRC, gmail, and forums, they can build a game. They can release it at an aggressive, 15-30 price point, and make enough money to keep making games. This leaves corporatism and focus testing at the door, meaning devs are free to make what they want, and innovate/experiment more often. It also means that someone could make a game like, say, Unreal Tournament in a modern climate and not have to worry gimping the game for consoles because of the risk a $50 PC release poses at retail (Gamestop and other stores make most of their income on game trade-ins; PC games don’t have this, so these stores refuse to support PC games).

The main problem I have though is… well, getting team members. Presently, I don’t have enough to do this awesome 60s spy-fi game. I don’t personally know any professional devs, much less devs who would want to help out. My team and I hope to get a demo level up and raise awareness through youtube demonstrations, but that’s really all we can do for now. It’d be cool if there was some place where people could post game pitches (real ones, not just a moddb style “hey u no metrud i lik it can games u make with laser aslo it cud b mmo plz?) and their skills–a networking site, basically, for professionals and amateurs who want to make games.

Imagine a place where a person like me could go looking for, say, animators or AI programmers to help out with his project, while AI programmers or animators could look at a list of pitches that need their skillsets and apply! People could have profile pages that show their skills, past projects, and portfolios. This kind of site could facilitate the birth of small game teams that can make their own games and profit from them. If the people enjoy working together, then hey, they might even go on to make more, or form their own indie companies. Maybe it could also provide hosting and version control software for development, so people wouldn’t even have to build their own.

Right now, the PC is primed for action. You can make anything on it and be successful, so long as your game is good. You can try anything! Even Kinect is available! On the PC, there are no limits. There is no entry barrier. You have everything you need to get started making whatever you want and not having to worry about being profitable. The risk is minimal. Look, I don’t know what the future holds more than anyone else. I can only comment on the trajectories things appear to be taking, and what I see looks good. All the pieces are in place to facilitate a bright, innovative future, not just for PC gaming, but for gaming as a whole. The question now is whether people are willing to do it.

I’ve Been Away (and I’ve got a great reason)

I’ve been away because I am making a video game, as well as beginning the new semester and getting more hours at work.

Yes.

I’ve been making a video game. It’ll be awesome.

Semi-regular posting will resume next week.

Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.