Monday, 17 September 2012

Pushing forward in Rage

Note: I've been toying with the idea of fully migrating this blog to Tumblr, but until I actually commit to that I'll continue to cross-post here.

One of Rage’s defining features, I found, was its focus on getting the player to push forward and become a driving force. This is embodied in its low-level combat mechanics, its mission structure and its narrative overtones.

The combat and mission structure empowers the player to press into hostile enemy territory and throw some rather large spanners into the works. There is often a strong sense that, until you showed up, those baddies were just going about their usual baddie business. This places the player in an active role which is characteristic of most id games, in contrast to the reactive role of Gordon Freeman in the first Half-Life, who’s just trying to get out alive.

Rage has drawn my attention to the slow pace commonly found in the modern CODesque cover-based shooters. In those games, player and enemy alike rely on ducking in and out of cover to take pop-shots. This creates a very detached experience in which you are waiting for brief glimpses of heads and torsos, waiting to clear an area so you can safely progress, waiting, waiting, waiting. In Rage you are very much capable of taking the fight directly to the enemy by storming their cover and tearing right through them. Conversely, the enemies who fight at close range will force you to move around a lot and engage with the intense spatial dynamics.

The story of Rage revolves around a man who brings disruption and chaos to the world, but I found this falls short in its execution. While the player’s character is touted as this powerful presence, their actions are the only thing that appears to move the plot forward in any meaningful way. This is extrapolated to the point of absurdity when every mission relies on the player going out to complete some difficult objective while the NPCs sit around and wait for their return. This is true right up to the games anti-climactic final mission, in which you must penetrate the impenetrable fortress and do something or other while your mission-givers stand on the spot and do… nothing. Half-Life 2 - the almighty benchmark against which I compare most games - at least gave the impression that everyone else was kind of busy not dying.

Lesson learned: make the player feel like they have an effect on the world, but also make them feel like the other characters are actually capable of doing something too.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Speaking with stilted enthusiasm

Last week night I was describing two of my personal projects to a few colleagues, and I realised how inept I am at describing these things with any kind of enthusiastic conviction.

When I start to describe one of the games I'm working on my mouth is often trying to say "I'm making this cool thing!", yet my brain is thinking "...but it's not really a cool thing until you work out all these kinks". The result is I uncertainly drag out a "I'm making this... ehhh... thing. It's kind of like this and stuff, but there are all of these problems".

It's not that I don't have confidence in the concepts, it's just that there's something about being in the early/mid stages of the game design process that makes me painfully aware of how much more there is to work out, how many problems there are to solve, how many of its elements conflict with one another, how the tertiary mechanics fail to support the core mechanic, how I'm going to have to resolve that pesky ludonarrative dissonance, etc, etc. None of these things are easy to communicate over drinks after work when peoples' attention is divided.

But I guess it's OK. That design gap is is a driving force which I find myself compelled to fill. It's just sometimes a little tricky to convince others of its potential merits.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Source Filmmaker - Terminal Tension

I finally got my hands on the Source Filmmaker beta! I made this animated short in about a day so I could get to grips with it. I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to keyframe animation, but oh well, I had fun making it and learned a few tricks!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Slender Thoughts

Slender is a small, low-fi horror game based around the Slender Man urban legend. It achieves a lot with a very simple system and very few extraneous elements, resulting in a very pure design with maximum impact (sheer terror). If you haven't played it yet you should do that, alone, at night, before reading any more about it.

One of the things that makes Slender such a terrifying experience is the element of uncertainty. The underlying system is dynamic and non-linear, so experiences can play out differently depending on how you explore and you can never truly be sure where or when the Slender Man will appear next.

The forest you inexplicably find yourself in is repetitive and dense, which would make it impossible to navigate if it weren't for the odd landmarks dotted around... An abandoned truck here, a concealed shower block there... Your eyes begin to play tricks on you in the monotony and you can easily end up going round in circles if you're not careful.

But perhaps the most frightening mystery in the game is the very nature of the Slender Man himself, particularly his unpredictable way of moving. In what is perhaps Slender's most clever trick, the eldritch antagonist remains perfectly motionless when you are looking at him and only moves when you turn away. This would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that LOOKING AT HIM FOR TOO LONG KILLS YOU. You are forced to look away and therefore allow him to come closer, and the resulting effect is that you are never fully sure how fast he moves, or even how he moves at all. Aside from being a clever method for reducing the game's animation requirements to zero, this put me at such a frightening level of panic that I quit after a single game.

It also turns the game's villain into a kind of horrific, humanoid ninja cat.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Need for Story?

The recent announcement of a movie based on the Need for Speed franchise caught my attention. Movies based on games are nothing new, nor are they usually worth the degradation of a franchise's reputation in the eyes of its fans.

But when IP-holders greenlight such movies I think it highlights an underlying misinterpretation of the role of story in games, and that is the notion that we as players are in it for the spectacle, to observe some dramatic events unfolding, to find out what happens next, and not to - you know - do it ourselves. Need for Speed is appealing to its fanbase because it let's you drive fast cars. It has nothing to do with characters or plot or dramatic arcs.

Emphasis on character disproportionate to actual game experience.

Tadhg Kelly recently stirred up a bit of a debate by claiming that we do not care about player characters in the same way we care about movie protagonists; we merely see them as dolls or conduits for our actions and do not regard them empathetically. I'm inclined to agree, and there has never been a better example of this than a game of racing cars having human relationships shoehorned into it.

Friday, 8 June 2012

I can't tell them I'm a complete ignoramus

"Try to imagine the test-chamber sequence at the beginning of Half-Life if Gordon Freeman were wisecracking all the way through, or telling his colleagues he didn't have a clue what to do. The game would grind to a halt. Instead, the player thinks, 'These scientists all act as if I know what to do, and I can't tell them I'm a complete ignoramus.' I live to create that kind of tension in the player."

Marc Laidlaw, on the mute protagonist (source)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Noticing Something is Not a Fun Challenge

One of my criticisms of Silent Hill: Downpour's puzzle design is the way the challenge would often lie in simply identifying all the necessary components.

In one particular 'Otherworld' section very late in the game you enter a room which is mirrored vertically; the floor is reflective and you can see a copy of the room below you although it has two monsters in it and two large cages raised off the ground, which don't exist in your version of the room. You can turn a valve to rotate the room and switch between versions. The idea is to get the monsters to stand in the right spot by scaring them with bright floodlights, then hit a couple of buttons to drop the cages down and trap them. The problem was that I didn't actually notice the buttons, because they had a dull colour in a dull room and were way off at the edges away from all the other important stuff.

I thought I had to use the valve to rotate the room and make the cages fall when it turned the right way up, which I think is a fairly logical assumption (despite being in a very illogical, nightmarish setting). When I eventually noticed the buttons I nearly kicked myself, and the resulting realisation was not a satisfying or rewarding conclusion to the challenge because the solution was simple and obvious. The term 'puzzle' is applied very loosely here. It's like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing, but having no clue that those pieces should even exist in the first place. When you finally find them, well of course they go there.

It occurred to me that a puzzle is best when the player is fully aware of all its working parts, they're just not sure how they fit together (or perhaps whether they do even fit together, but red herrings are another story). Downpour failed in this respect, several times, and the resulting effect was plain frustration that these key objects were not signposted well enough.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Level With Me by Robert Yang

[An old post I wrote in immediate response to Level With Me, but didn't get round to posting at the time.]

Robert Yang has posted his conclusion to Level With Me: a series of discussions with seven sideline game designers culminating in the collaborative development of a Portal 2 mod. The regular drip-feed of articles has now come to an end and we can experience the resulting piece first-hand and first-person.
  1. Read the entire discussion series on Rock, Paper, Shotgun here.
  2. Play the Portal 2 mod here.
  3. Read the concluding words here.
Yang's interpretation of the whole exercise holds a mirror up to a deep-seated approach to game design and interpretation. It reminds us how much power we wield, yet how much we still have to learn about our craft.

Yang draws the conclusion that we place too much importance on the cold, mechanical structuralism of game design. That we reduce our creativity to systems and formulas when there is so much more to be derived. I think that this is true of many designers, although your average journalists and consumers also seem to be a further step behind (through willing restraint or otherwise) and generally lack the vocabulary and critical eye required to deconstruct games on even this mechanical level. This is to be expected and by no means frowned upon; a layman will always use layman's terms after all.

But Yang urges us onwards and upwards to a higher level of game reading, one in which mechanics, art, sound and structure combine to produce meaning. It is this meaning that the games industry seems painfully unaware of (or worse: indifferent towards). Those involved in development owe it to themselves, the medium and the consumers to read games more closely, to never take conventions for granted, and to examine the underlying messages these texts communicate. Words on a page are worth more than mere ink and paper.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Nuggets of Wisdom: the Joy of Discovery

Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness, recently spoke about what he thinks modern Japanese games tend to do badly.

They don't just give you a simple situation and let you work it out. They explicitly tell you what to do and then say "It's not hard, don't be worried, go ahead, you try now". You know? And then you try and you do it and half-way, when you're in the middle of doing it, it stops you and it says "Now remember: during the next part rotate the block to the right!".
Once you've done that it eliminates the joy of discovery which, as I've said, is something I really value. I really value that click that happens in your head between you see something and you don't quite understand it and then suddenly you do understand it. And that is a fundamental part of human existence in the world, is that kind of mental growth, that kind of expanding my sphere of understanding the world around me. And when you build an entire game that's "I tell you what to do then you do it", OK you're not going to lose the player, but you've prevented that player from having any of joy of discovery at all, and I don't want to play games that are like that.

Of course, this flaw is not exclusive among Japanese games. Many Western games fall into the same pitfalls in their relentless quest to ensure games are seen 'the way they're meant to be seen' and the player is reduced to little more than a kind of 'God of the gaps' role. Japanese games do tend to be a little more heavy-handed in their approach, though (Ghost Trick springs to mind as a recent example).

I strongly recommend you listen to the full interview with Jonathan Blow.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Nuggets of Wisdom: Zelda's Storysense

All right, I'll come clean: I've never finished a Zelda game. The early ones passed me by. I didn't own an N64 so I never played much of Ocarina of Time, the game everyone loves to remind me is the 'greatest game ever' (it's not, it's Half-Life 2). The ones I have played failed to hold my interest for more than a few hours.

But thanks to the plethora of articles available I've been able to learn a great deal about the design of the Zelda games and, because I have no personal attachment to any of them, I think I've actually managed to retain a somewhat objective view of the series. The latest essay I read was an opinion piece by Tevis Thompson about where the games went wrong over the years, notably how their stubborn commitment to convention hampers the very essence of exploration: a voyage into the unknown.

In many ways this statement (and indeed the whole essay) could apply to games as a whole when we examine how they have changed over the years. There is an ever-growing tendency fill in all the gaps, to tighten the designer's grip on the experience, to ensure that every secret gets discovered at just the right time and no one gets too far ahead of themselves lest they feel lost or confused. My goodness, what a terrible experience that might be in a game about exploration! There are certain kinds of games in which 'hand-holding' is appropriate, but there are other kinds in which it utterly undermines the central idea the game attempts to convey.

Anyway, this whole post was made to highlight one particular part of the essay which has little to do with any of the stuff I just said. But it is about story, which I find interesting. Enjoy.

The game mechanics of early Zeldas provided plot enough, the kind that is boring to tell (then this, then this) but thrilling to play. They required no narrative scaffolding to be justified; they justified themselves. And strangely, the iconic simplicity of early Hyrules fired the imagination the way a good map does, opening up story possibilities rather than narrowing them down to just one. Story flowed from world instead of world from story.

UPDATE! I'm now playing Ocarina of Time on the 3DS. Check me out.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Episode One's Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

I was off work sick today and decided to use to the time to revisit Half-Life 2: Episode One, generally considered to be the weakest link in the series and indeed earned the lowest Metascore of all the Half-Life games. I had a blast with it today, as I did when I first played it in 2006, and it got me wondering why it has earned a somewhat sour reputation among hardcore fans.

Friendly warning: this post is full of spoilers and intended for those who have finished Half-Life 2, Episode One and Episode Two.

Episode One occupies this strange transitory space between Half-Life 2's broad narrative strokes and Episode Two's relatively heavy-handed exposition. There is a great deal of foreshadowing of events to come: the transmission from Judith, the emphasis on Eli and Alyx's strong father-daughter relationship, establishing the Vortigaunts and the G-Man as key players in the greater conflict, and of course bringing the dreaded Advisors creeping into the limelight. Yet much of this foreshadowing can go unnoticed on your first play-through as we know very little about the importance of these elements until Episode Two, so your attention remains focused on the pressing urgency of stabilising the Citadel core and escaping City 17.

Given that Episode One largely takes place in environments familiar to players of Half-Life 2 it comes as no surprise that many felt it was too derivative of its predecessor. We return to the Citadel interior and fight through war-torn city streets much as we did in Half-Life 2, albeit with a far greater emphasis on indirect combat through use of the Gravity Gun, various inventive gadgets/weapons, and your trusty sidekick. Indeed, the vast majority of its art and sound assets are recycled and it features only two new enemies, one of which was present but posed no threat in Half-Life 2 (the Stalker) and the other being an amalgamation of two other enemies (the Zombine).

But one point that Episode One really nails is the sense of a world in motion (the storysense as Tadhg Kelly would put it). From the very beginning, we bear witness to world-changing events that affect the lives of every individual in the vicinity, be they fleeing citizens or desperate Overwatch soldiers. This is an area in which Half-Life games have always excelled in my opinion, ever since the series opened with the Resonance Cascade which still hangs heavy on Eli's conscience. In this particular episode we witness the changes brought about by our own actions as the Citadel reels from a heavy blow, eventually leading into a cataclysmic eruption that opens the gateway to vast legions of alien invaders.

At the end of the day Episode One functions as a great segue from the monolithic release of Half-Life 2 into the bite-size episodic format. It has some obligations to tie up certain loose ends (the fate of Gordon, Alyx and the people of City 17) which flow into subsequent events (the opening of the Combine superportal and the hidden transmission of the Borealis data packet) but it places such a firm focus on the immediate goals that I for one was swept up in the adventure before stopping to consider how it all fit into the bigger picture. I believe it is for this reason that replaying this - or any Half-Life game - remains such a joy even more than 5 years later.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Badcat Wants Salty Bacon update 2


Play it in the same place as before: here.

Coming next: stuff to do with scores and front end stuff

Badcat Wants Salty Bacon

I've often wanted to participate in a 48-hour game jam but have always been to sleep-deprived or busy to actually do it. Yesterday, a friend at work challenged me to make a game in 10 minutes. This is a far more reasonable amount of time to allocate to game development so I accepted the challenge and set myself the following guidelines:

  1. The game must be a game in a vague sense; it must have a clear goal which can be attained. This was one area where my previous game jam fell down.
  2. The game must be feature-complete; all the gameplay elements I plan to include must be included in the first pass.
  3. Graphics and sound are low priority and can be added later. They just need to be at a functional level so you can tell what's going on.

As it turns out, 10 minutes is an unreasonable amount of time in which to make a full game so it spilled over to the 30 minute mark. Still, I met my goals, and the game is winnable with a vague sense that you could have done better if you tried a bit harder next time.

The first pass of Badcat Wants Salty Bacon is playable in your browser here (I accept no responsibility for any keyboard damage incurred).

Coming next: GRAPHICS.