Friday, 16 December 2011

Hero Core: Observations

Hero Core, sequel to Hero, is a little action/adventure/shooter game available for free on author Daniel Remar's website. It blends elements of Metroidvania (world exploration) and side-scrolling shmups (spacially-restrictive combat).

I finished the main quest (100%) in 2 hours 19 minutes which is more time than I've been willing to give a lot of full-price AAA games. I didn't tackle the bonus modes (harder difficulties, boss speed runs, etc.) as they're not my cup of tea, but the 'story mode' was a blast. If you haven't played it yet I highly recommend that you stop reading now and do so.

In this piece I will identify some of the design decisions Remar made and what I thought of the experience as a whole (short version: I loved it!).

  • Move and shoot, move and shoot! Player movement is mapped to your standard Up/Down/Left/Right buttons, while shooting is mapped to Shoot Left and Shoot Right. Splitting the shoot direction into two buttons was a smart move which allows a lot of flexibility in player manoeuvres. Often in games you have to change the direction you are facing to shoot in that direction, but here you can move in a smooth arc while alternately shooting enemies on either side. When enemies close in from all angles this is a useful ability.
  • Compressing vertical space. You can only shoot along a horizontal plane, (not up and down or even diagonally) so you are forced to close the height gap between yourself and your target. For several of the enemy types this means putting yourself directly in their line of fire.
  • Compressing horizontal space. In addition to the vertical space restriction mentioned above, there is an interesting effect which comes as a result of only allowing 6 of the player's bullets to be on-screen at any one time. If you position yourself far away from your target you must wait for your bullets to travel and hit something before you can fire another shot. This encourages you to get close to your target so that this delay is reduced. But of course getting close means giving yourself a shorter time to react when the enemy shoots back. This classic example of risk and reward allows skilled players to get right up in their enemies' faces and hammer away without any enforced delay, while giving less-skilled players a fighting chance at the cost of time. Time is obviously an important element if you are trying to speed run the game.
  • Excellent boss battles. There's not a lot I can say about these without going into specific detail about each one, but they were all great fun to fight and stood out as intense, climactic moments. Most of them explored unique ways of compressing space and promoting different move-and-shoot patterns on the part of the player. My favourite was Liquid Metal Processor (pictured above), whose weak points were on the inside, forcing you to get in, quickly deal damage and get back out before it crushes you. Another interesting boss was the Eliminator: a relentless hunter who can randomly appear almost anywhere in the game whenever you enter a new room. He retreats after taking some damage, so defeating him is tough until you have upgraded your gun. It was a joyous occasion when I was finally able to take him down (about 4/5 of the way through the game).
  • Unhindered exploration. Several elements combine to make exploration as hassle-free as possible, the most significant of which is the liberal use of save points. Touching a save point restores all of your health and you can teleport to any save point you have touched from anywhere in the game at any time. This massively reduces time spent back-tracking to get into that one little room you now have the right abilities to access. As well as this, you never have to unlock gates and doors more than once. Many rooms have their exit locked until you have defeated all the enemies in there. While enemies respawn upon re-entering any room, any unlocked doors stay unlocked permanently, even if you die before reaching a save point. When you pass through these rooms again later on you can skim past all the enemies if you wish.
  • Free-form exploration. The game world has been designed in such a way that you have a lot of choice in how to explore and in what order. Bypassing many of the obstacles requires certain abilities and upgrades, which are unlocked by defeating bosses. You can take on the bosses in pretty much any order and each boss will increase your level by 1. As far as I am aware, your suit abilities are upgraded with your level in a pre-determined order so you don't have to defeat a specific boss to gain a specific ability. This means you can, for the most part, branch out quite early in the game and choose your own route through the world as long as you make an effort to defeat a few bosses along the way. Your final goal lies at the centre of the world map so you will most likely spiral around it a few times as you search for rooms that have been made accessible by your new abilities.
  • The final boss is waiting for you. As soon as you can find the entrance to his domain and feel ready to take him on you can do so. This gives skilled players a significant upper hand in speed runs. Less skilled players (like myself) can continue to explore the surrounding world and build up their suit abilities to make the fight easier.
  • Story snippets. I wouldn't be able to deconstruct a game without mentioning story somewhere. Hero Core takes what I call the 'book end' format: a short introduction sets up the premise and the overarching goal, and an ending sequence closes the arc when that goal is met. Everything in-between is player-driven action. There are two noteworthy methods used to give snippets of backstory along the way. Firstly, the player will gradually find 10 computer terminals which download data in a sequential order, causing their character to reflect on his mission. The order seems to be fixed regardless of which order you find the terminals. Secondly, the layout and appearance of the scenery hints at its purpose and therefore the story behind it. You progress from uneven rocky asteroid caverns through to the harsh orthogonal structures of the machine factories. Numerous 'sleeping' enemies can be seen locked inside parts of the level geometry, hinting at massive production lines and giving a terrifying sense that you are outnumbered by something vast and unending. This gives an elegant, unobtrusive impression of the game world without ever stopping the player to burden them with exposition.
If you haven't played Hero Core, do it now! If you have, what did you think?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Nuggets of Wisdom: Portraits Not Stories

I've noticed Tadhg Kelly's comments on Gamasutra draw a fair number of negative responses, particularly when he declares that games are undebatably ill-equipped to tell stories. This week I took the time to read through several of his blog posts and was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of correlation with my own game narrative philosophies, particularly the importance of brevity and the argument against heavy-handed, one-way gushes of tedious exposition. I'm sure this is something many writers and designers would agree with, but few seem willing to take an axe to quite so much of their painstakingly crafted 'content', whatever that's worth.

I think this excerpt sums it up nicely (the emphasis is my own), but I urge you to read the full article when you have time.
Storysensing is not storytelling. In a dramatic arc, the structure, pace and timing matter a great deal for delivering impact, but storysensing is better when focused on enhancing the portrait of the game world. Unlike storytelling, storysensing does not need to be dramatic. It can afford to be loose around the edges as long as those edges are not too apparent to the point that the player is seeing the frame.
Left 4 Dead creates a zombie-infested world and places guns in the player’s hand. Through a combination of co-operative dependent loops, and a game dynamic that deliberately paces out the encounters and objects, the game conveys a world in motion. Add a layer of snappy character dialogue and numina such as posters on walls and other touches, and Left 4 Dead draws the player into its world so completely that he wants to play it again and again.
Storysensing is best when deft rather than deep. Roleplaying and adventure games have tried for decades to use mechanisms like branching dialogue to storytell to the player, but in practise these mechanisms are heavy handed. Mass Effect in particular is an example of a game whose rush to storytell is so replete with redundant detail and branched dialogue that it just becomes tedious. It actively works against the sense of story because it reminds players too often that they are watching a mechanical game system simply go through motions.
Source: Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story

Incidentally, the idea of 'painting a portrait' rather than 'telling a story' is a technique I have been experimenting with for Luminesca.

Super Mario 3D Land: Observations

This post is a list of observations I made while playing through Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. It's part opinion, part design analysis, and all waffle.

  • It is short and easy, but with reasons to come back. Completing the 8 worlds is not particularly difficult if you're vaguely familiar with Mario games. There is an abundance of 1-Ups if you take the time to search the nooks and crannies as well as a generous, widespread distribution of coins which seem to reward a vast array of actions in a way that is reminiscent of certain online FPSes. By the end of the game I had over 130 lives. But then you have the Star Coins to find (three giant coins hidden in each level, which usually require extra poking around) and completing the game unlocks a large number of 'special' levels. I have only played a couple of these so far, but they seem to mix up the standard formula with special twists to the usual rules like a 'Dark Mario' who chases you round and prevents you standing still.
  • It shows off the 3DS' capabilities. There are few cases where stereoscopic 3D actually brings something worthwhile to the table (mainly depth perception which greatly helps with judging your position mid-jump). But beyond this, SM3DL is packed full of little moments that would simply not look/feel as cool in 2D. Some memorable highlights were the giant screws on the airship levels that come hurtling towards the camera in synchronised aggression, seeing Mario bounce up into your face in the top-down perspective levels, and the Piranha Plants that spit inky goo on to the screen.
  • Mario loses his hat when he's small. Did this happen in other 3D (not stereoscopic) Mario games? I suspect it is because you no longer have the consistent sense of scale that you get in 2D ones, so this change was probably made to provide additional visual feedback.
  • The Tanooki suit makes jumping easier. You just need to hold the jump button after lift-off and Mario will slowly glide back to the ground. This makes long-distance or precise jumps much easier to execute. I suspect this may be a response to both the inherent flaws of distance-gauging in 3D (although the 3DS should alleviate this) and an attempt to make the game 'more accessible'.
  • The boss battles were repetitive. There were only 3 types of boss battle in the game, although each one changed the arena layout and added threats like fire pits in the floor. Figuring out and exploiting the attack patterns of the bosses is one of the things that makes them so rewarding to beat, so it was a shame to diminish this by making you fight the same boss with the same patterns several times (although the game pretty much redeems itself with the exhilarating final boss battle).
  • The contraptions make you look before you leap. There are these platforms that flip between red and blue every time you jump, leaving a drop into oblivion wherever the other side of the platform was. It's very easy to jump about wildly when you play Mario games, but these really make you stop and think one step ahead to anticipate where the platforms will move to. They can, however, be somewhat undermined by the Tanooki suit as seen in the linked video.
Next stop on the 3DS Express: the special worlds, then Mario Kart 7!