Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Little Things: Eye of the Storm

Blockbuster videogames are now a thing. Explosive big-budget spectacle-laden AAA mega brands like Gears, Uncharted, God of War, Dead Space, Black Ops. A few years ago I expressed concern that these blockbuster titles were getting the edge over their competition not with good old fashioned games design and mechanics, but by using their insane budgets to drench themselves in a protective coating of flash and spectacle; distracting players with a constant barrage of cinematic staging, high concept set pieces and one-shot contextual events. And it totally works. Uncharted is an adrenaline pumped roller-coaster of fun, it's no surprise people are “falling” for it. But it's sort of cheating, isn't it? Pre-canned pre-determined pre-choreographed linear events are the tried and tested tools of the other more established mediums, the reason they are so effective is that cinema and literature just spent the last few hundred years showing us how to use them. Sorry to be the grizzled old curmudgeon cradling a shotgun on his porch and bemoaning the loss of traditional values.. but for games designers to fall back on these tactics too hard and too often risks neglecting the very heart of our medium: Interaction. Luckily there's a new twist in the tale. I finished the latest Tomb Raider this week, and as Lara and I tumbled down the side of a collapsing tower, vaulting through shattering metal rods, sliding through rapids and gliding underneath explosive debris, I realized that set pieces and player agency can live together in harmony after all.

Survival Kit
Crystal Dynamics' dark and gritty reboot establishes a new grungier command list for the young archaeologist.  Lara's nifty new climbing axe can latch on to distinctive “craggy” rock surfaces Vertical Limit style, her shotgun can shatter light wooden barriers, fire can burn any object covered in white cloth, the grapple arrows can attach or yank any object wrapped in layers of rope, generic mechanics like ladders, swing poles and shimmy bars are easily recognized by their regular shape even without a constant colour palette, and if you see a gap, well, you're probably meant to jump over it. Core mechanics which are individually simplistic, but are all strongly defined by consistent visual communication and signposting. The player quickly memorizes and pairs these cues and inputs in their brains, impulses which will be cemented there for the long haul after they apply them in a few passive scenarios.

The Quick and the Dead
The most common way to give the players some token semblance of their agency back during an automated pre-choreographed linear set piece is your basic "quick time event". Like most people, I hate them pretty hard. Mostly because I regularly swap between controllers and have subsequently no idea were A, B or X are without at least 3 seconds to ponder the issue beforehand. More than that though, QTE's exist in a bubble and are completely detached from the core gameplay. If your mechanics come with immediately identifiable visual signatures in the environment like in Tomb Raider, the game designers can instead easily prompt the player to use the right button inputs without relying on tacky on-screen prompts. Crucially, the different mechanics require subtly different responses from the player which means the player has to be constantly engaged with the game; checking for visual cues and reacting with the correct input, rather than finding comfort (and thus eventually boredom) in routine. It's not unlike one of those maddening “Bop It” toys; the simplicity of the individual actions is irrelevant, it's the process of recognizing and applying the correct one under pressure.

Tomb Run
Now during the unfolding chaos of a set piece.. as the entire building is burning around you, or the whole floor starts falling away, or the boat is capsizing and water is bursting in through the windows, the player searches for the same visual cues to guide them through the debris and destruction. Funnily enough you can hold a shoulder button in Tomb Raider 2013 to highlight all the interactive objects in a room using Lara's “survival instincts”.. this view mode is pretty much just a literal version of the learned gamer instincts tunnel vision that let us pick out the key interactive elements from the anarchy of the scene. The players path is an evolving chain of the individual mechanics, and the constant assessment of the incoming obstacle and the required input to overcome it becomes the game flow, just like the Bop It. Really it's just like a fantastically staged big budget version of endless runner iphone games like Temple Run, where you learn that a gap means swipe up, turns mean swipe to the side and bars been swipe down to slide... and then navigate an assault course of those obstacles. The environmental action might be automated but the players role within the scene is not diminished as a result, and it stays engaging, in a surprisingly old school arcade way.

Tomb Raider isn't a perfect example of this yet. It still occasionally relies on the classically flawed quick time mechanic and has a tendency to break flow and hand hold the player during the trickier moments by slowing down time and flashing the input as a reminder.. but it is promising evidence that spectacle and interaction don't have to be mutually exclusive, a lesson for all future blockbuster mega games. And me, to stop being such a hater all the time.

Thanks for reading,
- Steve

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Do we need Designers?

An artist can draw you a pretty picture. Animators can make it move. Anyone who works in games will tell you that need programmers for pretty much everything else. I am pure games design, I don't dabble in the art or animation or code, and this means I basically just go around telling those sort of talented, useful people what to do. You can't really see design with the naked eye like you can see a piece of art or watch an animated movie, and it takes a lot longer to tell if it's any good.

Opinions are like nipples 
Games Designers are idea men. And I suppose ideas don't amount to much more than subjective opinions. Everybody has opinions. The majority of game artists, programmers and animators are also gamers, and these dastardly sentient beings inevitably have their own opinions about how a game should be designed. Who is to say whose opinions or ideas are more worthwhile? Job title? Designers don't even have a physical skill-set to put on the table, who made us king of the universe? It's not unusual for smaller independent teams to completely omit a pure design role in favour of group discussion and team-based idea generation. Who did the design? Well, everybody. So why do we need “designers” at all? Yikes, it's not looking good for me so far.

Full Steam Ahead
Last year an orientation guide to working at Valve was released online. It told tale of a utopian society of freedom and equality, where humble polymathic artist/designer/coder hybrid geniuses can throw off the oppressive shackles of traditional hierarchy and company structure in favor of self-sufficient team organization, fluid job roles, desks with wheels, an in-house gym, better pay than “most studios”, and an annual company holiday to Hawaii. I'd assume all this to be a work of optimistic satire, but the alphabetical departmentless credits at the end of their games seems to back up their story. It also supports the notion that Valve may be at this very time constructing some sort of underwater city or aerial colony to serve as their new headquarters and finally escape the archaic pressures of a flawed and unenlightened humanity. Interestingly, the purist design role was omitted from their process. It actually suggested Valve didn't have room for purist anything, everyone in Gabe's glorious developer master race had to be a “T-shape” jack of all trades. For a month after it's appearance online this “orientation handbook” was a hot topic of water-cooler conversation; with a good number of my colleagues (particularly from the other departments) expressing appreciation, jealousy and awe for the rainbow drenched utopia Valve had created for its team. I personally, blew a big fat raspberry at the whole idea.

I love Valve. Judging purely by their back catalogue it seems they can do no wrong, but to me their handbook and whole “flat-land” philosophy is like the Communist Manifesto of game development; hopelessly idealistic and doomed to failure. It may promise equality and creative freedom to the masses, but it defies pretty much every way I understand human society to efficiently function. We've all been on a variety of teams by the time we hit our 20s. For class projects and sports in high school, for shared modules and contextual courses at University, for pub quizzes in pubs and beer pong at parties, and now at work every day. Over the years I have been a leader and I have been a follower, but never both at once. What happens when everyone brings their ideas and opinions to the table? Particularly a team populated by affable, hard-working, intelligent and talented people. Indeed, who IS to say whose idea and opinion is more worthwhile? I have no idea how Valve dodge the internal friction and politics inherent when dealing with passionate people with differing ideas (although I'd love to find out some day), because even if you explored all suggested ideas to their conclusion and compared results it wouldn't necessarily convince everyone which was “best”. Best isn't even a real thing. Even if it was, most companies don't have access to the luxury of infinite time, resources and money, so in my experience people, particularly large groups of people, have to be organized.

A Horse By Committee
Auteur theory versus collective production is a complex and nuanced discussion warranting deeper exploration beyond the following bold statement but for the sake of brevity: The inevitable outcome of team-based or democratic development is compromise. Great for politics maybe, terrible for entertainment. Compromise is the enemy of cohesion. Anyone who has been in a meeting room will know the meeting room tunnel vision. Group decisions made in a confined space will always struggle to balance the bigger picture with reactionary answers to presented problems. The advantage of having someone in charge of a project or an aspect of a project with veto power is that they hold all information and understanding about it and are in a position to evaluate and integrate new ideas into the existing vision without diluting it. Teams that leave too much of the design to democratic discussion can rarely offer it such protection. If “everybody” did the design, then in a way, nobody did, the project is just an ever expanding snowball rolling down a big hill. We're trying to make a painting here, not a collage.

Super Conductor
I am lucky enough to work in a “design-led” company, and I can't think of a structure that could suit me better. At the beginning the design team come up with the plan. Then they work out what tools and assets are needed in order to accomplish the plan, and then they are there every step of the way to see the plan evolve into the final product. Videogames might be composed of lines of code and pretty pictures and things that move, but all those things are working together towards something larger, towards a final cohesive vision that combines all those things into a game. A designers job is understand all aspects of a project and how they relate to the bigger picture, to communicate that to the other departments, and protect the coherence and cohesion of the project. A conductor stands at the front of an orchestra waving his arms and little baton around in a seemingly random fashion and I used to wonder.. what exactly is the point of this guy anyway? The conductor doesn't actually contribute any notes from a visible instrument. They set the tempo, they control and protect the composition. Maybe an indie team just doesn't need a designer any more than a rock band needs a conductor.

Of Mice and Mad Men
Although at first invisible, designers do have a unique and worthwhile skill-set to bring to the table. The introduction of player agency and interaction into entertainment has created a fresh universe of creative challenges and techniques, something almost every post in this blog and dozens of other websites and journals and books are dedicated to exploring. It has by necessity created the purist designer role. After all, the movie industry would never ask “Do we need Directors?”. And whose to say whose idea is better? Well, a lead designer once told me that he used to get frustrated during level reviews because even if the design presented was solid, he knew deep down that if he had been given the same level he would have done it differently. You have to learn to accept that there are a million different ways to do the same thing, and once you stop looking through the lens of your own approach, none are necessarily worse than the others. Just different. Well some are worse. But let's give them these hypothetical other ideas the benefit of the doubt. It's not necessarily about any idea being more worthwhile than others, it's about the team uniting and committing to accomplishing a particular idea. And in an ideal world, it would be my idea. Because I'm a designer and I know what I'm talking about.

Thanks for reading!

- Steve

Mass Affecting: Gaming Memoirs

All things considered this is probably the most pointless self-indulgent blog post I've ever written. Usually I'm at least trying to contribute some sort of new insight to a topic or impart some sort of low-grade wisdom.. this was simply inspired by a late night chat I had with my brother about our Mass Effect playthroughs. This is like gamer Live Journal-ing and it feels wrong. I've written about Bioware's intergalactic magnum opus before. The cascading consequences of the players decisions from one game to the next combined with a cast so developed, quirky and likable that Joss Whedon could write the TV series, lends a weight and attachment to the tactical and moral choices which is missing from pretty much any other videogame franchise. More than anything, I just wanted to keep this rag tag crew of lovable alien miscreants alive. I developed an absurd attachment to my personal story in Mass Effect, and I'm sure most people who rode a save file through all three titles can relate to that attachment. I'm going to share some of that story now so read on if you are in to that sort of thing, but like I say.. it's just pointless self-indulgence. Pointless self-indulgence with a lot of spoilers in it by the way. You've been warned!

 ----------[SPOILER WARNING ACTIVE]---------

Mass Etiquette
Despite the lofty press, generally Mass Effect still plays by pretty standard videogame rules, so the amount of meticulous care and thought I poured into it went largely unappreciated. For example, for a long time I made sure not to ask people overly personal questions before engaging in the small talk options first, because that's rude and weird, but yeah the game doesn't care about any of that, obviously. The dialogue branches are just a big old uncaring spreadsheet that spits out the pre-fab answers when you tick the boxes. I suppose it wouldn't be fair to judge gamers on their social skills. Still, this obsessive streak did at least ensure in ME2 that I did all the loyalty missions and got all the ship upgrades, and was unwilling to doddle when my crew was kidnapped, operating on a genuine “who knows what those monsters are doing to Chakwas and Kelly! ..and the rest I suppose” mentality. For the best too, because the more missions you do after your crew is kidnapped, the more of your crew is already liquidated by the time you get there. This was a rare occasion where my application of external real-world logic to the game was rewarded. Ironic in the long run, as you'll see later. 

Dead Man Walking
Going in to the suicide mission I was grimly aware that I was playing for keeps now, if I put a step wrong my people were going to die, but thankfully I must have made all the right choices because not one of my crew bit the bullet. I left ME2 on a seriously triumphant high. Led a suicide mission to the heart of uncharted space and didn't lose a single man or woman or asexual creature in the effort? That shit is going on the resume. Unfortunately ME3 made it clear anyone who survived the last game was now on the chopping block more than ever, and not just in a one-off mission. It was as if they were meant to have died then, and now death itself was stalking them Final Destination style. This set me wonderfully on edge for a lot of ME3, I felt like every small choice was life and death, and when a character found themselves in the jaws of danger, I felt a mingling of not just worry and dread, but responsibility. Could I have done something differently? Ultimately I didn't come out clean this time, I lost people. But I comforted myself with the knowledge those that died, died doing things they believed in, they died heroic meaningful deaths. Except one.

Salarian Swan Song
It wasn't witty motor-mouth Mordin, one of my absolute favourite crew members. He willingly sacrificed himself to undo his life's greatest regret, singing Gilbert and Sullivan all the while in a brilliant throw-back to a fan-favourite ME2 scene. A beautiful touch by Bioware is that he only sings this song as he dies if you talked to him enough to hear him sing it in the last game, making his exit all the more fitting for those that truly liked Mordin. I hated to see him go, but it was what he wanted and couldn't be any more perfect for his character. I've heard the ways you can keep him alive, but they would all be a spit in the face of what he stood for, so what right did I have to spare him for selfish reasons? Even if his Incinerate move is like, really useful against armoured enemies.

Scale Down
It wasn't suave memory-lizard Thane. He was dying anyway of space cancer, so if his survival let him live just long enough to settle his affairs and burn out in a blaze of glory rather than fade away, I can deal with that. It wasn't even Grunt. I had my heart in my mouth when he seemed for a moment to have died pointlessly under a wave of Rachni, so his triumphant bloodied emergence moments later led to perhaps the most potent fuck yeah fist pump of  my gaming career. It's moments like that which set Mass Effect apart and make it worth playing. Which brings me to the greatest REGRET of my gaming career. There is one characters death that weighs on me like no other. The regret and guilt is so heavy it may even rank among the biggest regrets of my actual life. Although that probably says more about my life than the game.. anyway the character that died was Jack. 

Schools Out Forever
She was never my favorite character, I must admit I didn't take time to bond with her like the others, she was aloof and aggressive and damaged and it seemed the only way to get close and genuinely help her would be to totally devote my Shepard to her cause, and I wasn't willing to spend my romance slot (metaphorically speaking) on a weird tattooed bald psychopath when Yvonne Strahovski off of Chuck had an office upstairs. I was informed of a mission in an Xaviers Institute style psychic school, and lord help me, I looked for it, but for the longest time it wasn't there. Eventually it did arrive on my radar, and I swear all I did was decide to go get some supplies from the Citadel first, maybe read a few emails. To my surprise arriving at the Citadel it was under attack, and I was dragged into a big story mission. Upon finishing this, I immediately set my sights on the school again, only for my personal assistant to casually inform me “Oh, sorry, they are all dead now.” What the whatting what. Like I said earlier, despite all the care and effort I pour into the priority and order I do and say things, the game never seems to care. In the history of the series, only one other mission had an actual expiry date, and it wasn't a throwaway side mission like this one. The one time I let my guard down and play Mass Effect like the simple digital play thing that it is, is the only time it cared. There is your irony, folks.

Jacked Up
That hurt, it was a stain on my otherwise spotless reputation, the first time I'd “failed” as Shepard in my eyes. This was my Knightfall, Bat fans. It was at the end of the game though that I discovered Jack was at that school. Jack overcame her issues and became a teacher there, and not only had she and her students been captured or killed, they'd been tortured and mutilated into the faceless psychic ninja “Phantom” enemies I'd been blasting my way through regularly for the whole game. I heard all this on a digital recording in a Cerberus lab, her angry defiant screams and all, and to add insult to injury, the next room featured a Phantom whose health bar read “Jack”. I forgot all the usual tactics and took special care to give her a quick flashy death with a Vanguard shoulder charge, and they had the cruel audacity to make her dying SFX that of her usual game-over noise.  The depth of how much I'd failed Jack and the knowledge she'd turned it all around only to fall right back in the hands of Cerberus again, surely her worst nightmare, and that all her students met the same fate and that I'd been killing them this whole time, and killing her... you sick bastards Bioware. Goddamn you. Shut up, I know it's “just a game”. YOU'RE JUST A GAME. I continued to ignore tactics and entered a righteous vengeful rage and rode that feeling through the room, pounding Cerberus into the ground for their crimes. It was glorious. Until I died because it's the last level and you can't just play it all aggressive like a moron, so I had to reload. And kill Jack all over again. That was a bummer.

I can tell myself that while Jack died that awful, awful death, I did at least spare the rest of the cast from their worst case scenarios. If a Mass Effect 3 playthrough was to go really awry, the results can be harrowing... Tali committing suicide out of abject despair after your betrayal, Wrex felled in a hail of bullets after denouncing you as a friend, Legion sold for parts and brain-wiped into a mindless drone, Miranda assassinated by that hateful Metal Gear Rising reject while trying to save her sister.. I'd hate to have to sleep at night if I was the cause of any of that. Also, a brief aside.. anyone who shot Mordin in the back in cold blood, even during a Renegade play for the sake of being a Renegade, you should probably consult a therapist about your burgeoning sociopathy, you COLD. BLOODED. MONSTER.

See? Games CAN make you feel bad. That is all.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Walk The Line

With Spec Ops: The Line, hindsight is 20/20. Everything about it is so much more fitting, more clever, and more fascinating in retrospect. For the first few hours after finishing it, my core criticism of the game would have been that it fell into the same trap that Far Cry 2 did. It seems that what both games want is for the player to feel bad about doing bad things. Like most gamers I find it easy to shrug off any supposed remorse or disgust for “my” actions when these bad things were a necessary part of progressing in the game. There was no way to avoid doing them, and if it isn't even a choice why would I feel bad? Which is when it struck me. There was always a choice. With that realization, Spec Ops: The Line became something else entirely. 

To the Reader go the Spoils
If you have any interest at all in morality and narrative in videogames, play this damned game before reading on. Seriously, it's barely 5 hours long and is averaging somewhere between 5 and 15 quid on Steam most of the time, so don't act like you don't have time or money. I contemplated putting a password on this entry, because I know there are those of you who even now intend to read this blog post without  playing the game. If what I am writing about at all intrigues you as a result and inspires you to play thereafter, you will have tainted your own chance to experience the very thing that intrigued you in the first place. Pretty ironic don't you think? I know you, obsessive self-spoiling nosey-parker. I AM you. Unfortunately that's why I know that you are still reading despite all my warnings. In fact, probably because of all the warnings because now you just -need- to know what is so special it has to be a secret for it to work. Well, I tried. 
----------[SPOILER WARNING ACTIVE]---------

Walker on the Wild Side
Although there are several moral choices in the game that the player has control over, the two really big bad things Walker does in Dubai are built into core story progression. From my perspective, Walker made those calls in cut scenes and thus the consequences were out of my hands. So while I shortly agonized over and questioned my decisions and reasoning following the moral choice sections, I felt a comfortable distance from Walker's more heinous war crimes. In fact, in place of personal remorse I felt a growing distrust and dislike for Walker himself, whose gradual moral and mental decline are ingeniously represented by a series of clever tweaks to his character which are individually subtle and collectively screaming. 

He suffers cuts and burns that literally stain and scar his original clean-cut captain America image with dirt and blood, his melee attacks become increasingly and unnecessarily brutal until they border on sadistic, and by the games end his voice (Nolan North of course) is raw with a barely contained animalistic rage. Where once there were stern military commands, now he barked for his team to murder and slaughter the enemy, now he announced his kills not with dry professionalism, but with a disturbing satisfaction. Technically he still followed my control inputs to the letter, but he seemed to take increasing creative license with them until the character under my fingertips felt more like a beast I had on a leash than a direct extension or avatar of myself.

The Blame Game
I rode this perspective to the finish line and subsequently avoided letting the game really cut me emotionally. Afterward I discovered this mentality wasn't in line with the general reaction from most critics, who did actually feel bad and responsible even though the game told them to do it. Powerfully ambiguous as “art” often is, I decided my experience was just as valid as theirs by its nature, but it was in that comparison that my epiphany was born. The two approaches here are guilt or detachment, in the form of askewing the blame by placing it on Walker instead. Think about  it for a moment kids. It's the same choice Walker has to make at the end of the game. 

Black Mirror
All along Walker has been using the looming threat of villainous mastermind “Konrad” as a scapegoat for all the bad choices he has been “forced” to make. In the end he has to confront the realization that this Konrad is not real but a figment of his imagination. Imaginary Konrad then all but spells it out for both Walker and the player. 
"None of this would've happened if you just stopped. But on you marched. And for what? The truth, is that you're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not: A hero."
Throughout the game Walker insisted on moving deeper and deeper into Dubai despite the initial mission being pure recon, always spouting saccharine nonsense about “having to do what's right” and everything that happens thereafter is a result of his refusal to stop because there is always another objective they need to accomplish first. Throughout, he insists he had “no choice” but to do everything that he does. Thus I initially didn't realize just how far through the 4th wall Konrad's message was intended to travel. This hits gamers right where it hurts, right in the wish fulfilment  It points to the childish desires that drive us to the genre and calls them out as pathetic and flawed.

I never felt more detached from Walker than when he was dribbling patriotic idealisms at the start of the game and when he was that beast yanking on the leash at the end, but it's during these extremes that Walker holds up the black mirror. The single-minded childish hero wannabe at the start of the game straining for glory and automatically following every objective he encountered without question .. and the bloodthirsty rage monster reveling in the suffering and death he could reap on his enemies. Those are the two most base desires that the military shooter genre satisfies laid bare. And we didn't like what we saw.

My revelation was confirmed when I saw that in an interview, the lead designer openly stated that in his eyes “putting the controller down and walking away” was a valid ending to the story. Walker is our Konrad, I had piled all the blame on a fictional effigy of my own making rather than consider the truth, that I did have a choice. The choice I had missed was not in the games universe but mine, I could have stopped playing, or simply not started playing at all.

Lines in the Sand
Am I peddling you over-cooked pretentious tosh? Maybe! Some of you will think so. For me though, Spec Ops: The Line is as complex and layered as any book they made you write essays about in your high school English Literature class, and every angle I consider it from seems to offer new parallels and insights worth writing about. Check this out for a start: During the first few chapters Yager plays up to the players lowest expectations of the genre. A brave gamble when many designers fear an entire game can rest on the first 5 minutes, but by taking time to establish this bland baseline players will have no trouble relating to, they have cranked up the volume on any subtle tweak to convention from then onwards. As the moral consequences and serious drama ramps up, the slow motion headshots that reduce whole skulls to red mist seem indulgent and cartoonish, caricature and macabre. The endless streams of enemy soldiers the player mows through feels increasingly ridiculous, at times I spent so much time behind a turret I wondered if the enemies would ever stop spawning. And when you think about it, that Desert Eagle is sort of silly, look how big it is. Cognitive dissonance is in the games blood and bones, Yager works to put the player in a surreal auto-pilot with enough brain cells left over to recognize something amiss below the surface, a lucid dream, an itch they can't scratch. It wants players to be just slightly uncomfortable in their comfort zone.

Extra Credits offers other insights, such as the usage of American soldiers as the main enemy. While I lack the geographical patriotism this was clearly intended to prod, I've seen enough movies and played enough games to feel the slight psychological friction of shooting uniforms generally associated with my allies. Another observation Extra Credits made was the constant literal descent the player makes, every level there are half a dozen “drop down” actions or ziplines, but never a ladder or a climb spot. This is definitely a deliberate move by Yager, it is a sympathetic backdrop to the moral descent of Delta team. Ask yourself, how often do you see narrative devices like that in games? You could probably count them on half of one hand.
See the first Extra Credits Spec Ops: The Line episode here, along with the rest of the series:

Think On Your Sins
A question mark always hanging over Spec Ops: The Line was the innate hypocrisy of a military shooter attempting to provide a subversive commentary on the military shooter genre, and indeed, the hypocrisy of a product that literally makes war into a game having the audacity to fly any sort of anti-war or anti-violence flags. I think the secret ingredient is ambiguity. Spec Ops isn't saying military shooters are bad and we shouldn't play them, it's just asking us to question our motivations for doing so. It isn't anti-war it merely asks us to face some extreme consequences and horrors of war up close and personal. It's self aware, and all it asks from the player is that they be the same; it wants to shake us awake and muddy the waters. Spec Ops is about confronting realities, but it is the audience that decides how to feel afterwards. Spec Ops: The Line might even be an attempt to give gamers their very own dose of post traumatic stress disorder.

Thanks for reading, you can go download and play Spec Ops now, obsessive self-spoiling nosey-parkers.

- Steve

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Little Things: Shoulda known Better

While cautiously progressing through another gloomy school building in a zombie infested University campus, highly trained veteran bio-weapon slayer Leon Kennedy, piloted by seasoned gamer and zombie genre aficionado me, is confronted by a metal detector standing between him and the exit. The first thing that comes immediately to mind (after how grimly topical this combination of gun control and school campus’ is at the time of writing) is that a funny little known fact about Leon’s trusty pistol and knife combo is that they are both made of metal, and metal detectors make loud noises, and zombies (of which are there is an indulgent supply of nearby) are attracted to loud noises. Hah, how stupid do you think I am? I smugly move to circumvent the inevitable, but unfortunately, the knee-high desk to the left of the metal detector offers none of the usual Starksy and Hutch bonnet slides or Marcus Fenix hurdle hops. Upon begrudgingly passing through the metal detector and the screaming alarm and lights drawing dozens of undead pests, Leon has the nerve to actually display surprise and mutter “Shoulda known better”. Yeah no shit. I DID know better.

We’re talking about Resident Evil 6, whose first Leon chapter (available in the demo) was littered with conflict between glaring logical deductions by the player and the surreal ignorance of its supposedly badass street-smart player characters. Forgetting the two occasions in the first hour that Leon “wannabe Jack Bauer of the zombie genre” Kennedy hesitates to shoot obvious zombies out of disbelief that the obvious zombie in front of him could obviously be a zombie as it obviously appears to be (by all accounts the most rookie of all zombie movie mistakes) he also willingly gets into a malfunctioning elevator with a female student who was clearly shown to be bitten and a sickly looking professor regularly degenerating into a hacking cough (post-airborne virus release) without a single reluctant word or warning to his companions. Things end pretty much as you’d expect, yet again Leon has the audacity to be surprised. As everyone keeps pointing out, Leon is no stranger to the shuffling hordes, and these errors of judgement are barely acceptable from zombie apocalypse first-timers.

Another example. Bloodied corpses litter the dark halls of the infected campus, and already the gamer sense is tingling. Any of these cadavers could be a silent threat ready to come almost-alive, better put a bullet in their brains to be sure. Alas no, bullet and blade both clip through them harmlessly, so assumption turns to the idea they are just gory window dressing after all. Fair enough. Ten minutes later backtracking through the same area, they stir and rise as fresh enemies. That is just plum unacceptable.

With their invasive UI, clunky unnatural tank controls, glowing enemy weak spots and slow predictable AI, the last three Resident Evil games weren’t poster children for suspension of disbelief at the best of times, but here they are showcasing an even uglier breed of cognitive detachment. Gamers will not suffer such obvious insults to their sense of agency in the game world nor accept such incompetence from their avatars. Particularly when our character is meant to be a talented specialist.

So what are the lessons here? 
Unless you want the player to feel like they are babysitting, the protagonist character has to be as (or ideally more) capable than the player themselves think they would be in that situation. When we are trapped in the narrative choices of the character, it’s flat out unfair when they make bad choices that the player is yelling at them to avoid. You could argue that in this case it’s a horror genre trope for character to be intellectually challenged, but it’s different when the character is landing BOTH of you in hot water. Steering the car into traffic, and then expecting you to take the wheel and get them out of this mess.
Speaking of unfair! Designers, you may not be able to predict every bright idea the player has, but if there is a simple solution to a problem, don’t arbitrarily deny the player access to it because that’s not what you want them to do. Take a run through the level design with your common sense cap on, and see how often you trip.

Thanks for reading! Can you think of any other examples of incompetent avatars and arbitrary denial of player gumption? I’d love to hear them. Sorry this had nothing to do with Christmas. Happy holidays!


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Combat Snob: Playstation All-stars

Gentlemen, I love Brawl. Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers series is a surprisingly under-rated gem, and while even many within the combat snob community refuse to recognize it alongside “real” fighting games like MVC, Tekken and such, I think any combat system versatile enough to function just as well as a frenetic clumsy free-for-all party game for 4 players as it does as a tense and technical one on one fighter for 2, deserves only the sincerest of praise. Given my deep love and respect for the Smash series it occurred to me that even an utterly shameless lower class rip-off of Smash would be worth a modicum of my time. Besides which, how could any self-respecting combat snob pass up the chance to pit Kratos, Raiden, Nariko and sort-of-Dante against each other in direct battle? I shrugged off the leers, jeers and well-intentioned warnings from my friends, flatmates and contemporaries, and retrieved the game from Blockbuster in the dead of night. But this isn't a review, this is about combat.

A Few Dozen More: Drowning in Inputs
The sheer amount of moves each character has at their disposal is initially dizzying. There are three attack buttons, and since All-stars is set in a locked 2D plane like Smash itself, adding a direction to these attack inputs can act as a modifier and perform a different attack. Thus, each character has a standing attack, forward attack, upward attack and downward attack on ALL THREE of their attack buttons, for a whopping dozen ground attacks each; some of which lead into combos when pressed repeatedly, some of which can be charged by holding them down, and some of them (as if there weren't already enough options on the plate) that can be cancelled into new attacks by pressing more buttons during the attack itself. And that's not all, because in the air all the attacks are different again, offering yet another dozen potential inputs! And then you have the 3 directional grapples on the right analogue stick to boot, phew.

While at first this immense library of attacks can be confusing, a bit of personal time with a character will allow you to reason out their at first seemingly random and unmanageable command list and get to grips with their individual play style. Without slipping too far in to review territory, the attention to detail with the characters animations, sound effects and tactics will leave fans right at home when playing as their favourites  I am all about the options, and having over two dozen potential choices at any moment isn't something I'm likely to complain about. 

Flash in the Pan: Invincible Frames and c-c-c-combo breakers
The core flaw with All-stars which prevents it from even brushing the hem of Brawl's illustrious cloak is that instead of doing the hard math and genuinely balancing the myriad of overpowering character attacks in the game, All-stars has instead taken a shortcut; after every attack or concluding hit of a pre-set combo, the game blows the whistle and calls time-out; your victim simply enters a flashing invincible frame knockdown state where they stop reacting to your attacks and thus have a brief moment to recover and escape. This is clearly just a cheap way to stop any stun looping or infinite combos in their tracks.

While the movelists in the game have a lot of knockback and weren't really designed for flowing or consistent links anyway, clever players could still have enjoyed finding ways to entrap and juggle targets between their various attack options. The fact I can't use Drake's slide attack as an OTG (a move that wakes up enemies from a grounded state) for example, is really disheartening, and I can all but hear characters like Dante and Nariko weep at the ultimate ineffectiveness of their various elaborate combo animations. Mostly, this time-out “feature” wasn't much of a problem in full 4 player matches, but during one on one the game inevitably becomes stop and start, players taking turns knocking the other into invincible frame reset. More of a back and forth joust than a sword fight. This is where All-stars really shows itself up as the poor mans Smash Bros, failing where Smash excels most, the ability to provide both flashy anarchic brawls AND grounded technical duels.

Some example lacklustre one on one combat with Nathan Drake and Dante, two of my favourite All-stars fighters to play.

He ain't Heavy: He's my Smash Brother (sorry)
Given Nintendo's unique reputation for avoiding or minimizing violence across their platforms, throwing it's most beloved family friendly mascots into an arena where they would beat the snot out of each other was a brave move at the time, requiring a brave new approach to measuring victory in combat. For those that don't know, in Smash the goal isn't to “kill” the other characters, but to simply knock them off screen, out of the arena. The more damage you deal them, the higher their damage percentage becomes, and the lighter they are, making it increasingly easy to send them flying to the edges of the screen and away into the hammer space from whence they came. It's an absolute masterstroke, testament to the continuing elegance of the games design in all of Nintendo's flagship brands. While All-stars is content to straight-up reskin the majority of Smash though, Sony of course doesn't worry so much about the idea of not killing your opponents. And yet, there is no real sense or concept of “health” in the game. All-stars characters don't even tally damage. 

Super Duper: Finishers and Specials
It is irrelevant how much you are knocked around by your rivals, all that matters is that you generate power points by hitting people with your own attacks, in order to save up enough to perform your super attacks. These “super attacks” are the only way to genuinely defeat or destroy an opponent in a match, which makes them the combat equivalent of the final round in a game-show that makes all the others that preceded it irrelevant.

It's a nice “game-changer” if you pardon the pun, keeping everyone on a relatively even playing field and lending regular tension to matches when you realize someone nearby you has one of these supers stored up. It has the manic desperation of chasing a Smash Ball intermingled with the risk/reward gambit of spending an MVC3 ultra, and the only problem I can see is that there aren't many ways to reduce a rivals power points and hamper their climb towards their supers. Some grapples and items do shake them down for a few orbs, but mostly the majority of the balance lies with the user of the super somehow missing or messing up when they unleash it. But I suppose this isn't too unlike other fighting games, now that I think on it.

The Input Crowd: New modifiers and combo branches
It wasn't All-stars' combo-breaker, super moves or dizzying command list that truly made it worth writing about though. The point of these Combat Snob articles is for me to pick out new ideas that have attracted and fascinated me, and I found a few of those amongst the whirlwind of traditional, melee, combo, chain, air and range attacks on show here, like needles in a haystack. 

First up is Mr Nathan Drake, by all accounts my favourite character to play as in All-stars, who, as if the bakers dozen of inputs and all the directional modifiers he already had weren't enough, has an attack on Triangle where he produces and fires an AK47 machine gun. If you press forward during this attack however (as in, while it is active, rather than with the attack button) it changes the move into a running charge that in turn ends in a rifle butting if the enemy is close enough. Using an active move in conjunction with a directional modifier is brave stuff, and I found it very satisfying to find amongst Drake's abilities. His standard combo also references the original Uncharteds branching melee mechanic, with throwing the first punch transforming the other commands into further combo options.

Ninja Theory's new anarchic retro-punk Dante (whose own combat system went under the microscope in my last Combat Snob article) had his melee and range attacks helpfully swapped in All-stars to be the complete opposite of what they are in the actual DMC series ..which was a bit of a pain.. and at first it seemed he was quite a clunky character; his swings were heavy and all of his Ebony and Ivory moves were C-notes robbing Dante of all his momentum and leaving him stranded in pose when you used them. Dante however, comes with an odd design choice that sets him apart from other characters; you can cancel out of the majority of his moves in order to perform his trademark DMC crazy combos, but there are rules. A Square button attack (generally Rebellion related) can be cancelled into any of the Ebony and Ivory moves on the Triangle button, which in turn can be cancelled into any of the Circle moves (mostly Arbiter or Osiris) .. basically you can travel around the controller clockwise cancelling into longer combo chains. It reminded me slightly of the low, mid, high, launch clockwise melee combos from MVC3.

Meanwhile NT's original combat mascot, Miss Nariko of the Heavenly Sword, accesses her more long term combo chains a slightly different way. At the end of her basic Square combo, a ring appears beneath her feet, which signals that a new input window is open. During this window the four inputs of the Square button (up, down, left/right and standing) will activate alternative combo extensions, instead of performing their usual attacks. It reminds me of the negative edge windows I highlighted in DmC. A definite theme forming in these analysis pieces is “modifiers”. Tricks and ideas that allow the limited number of inputs on a controller to perform an increasingly vast range of functions in combat. Despite it's shortcomings and limitations, one thing All-stars has for a Combat Snob to enjoy is a smorgasbord all-you-can-eat buffet of character mechanics, play styles, and inputs.

It's still no Smash, though. Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Combat Snob: DmC Demo

Don't even get me started on Devil May Cry and Ninja Theory. *end of article* Seriously though, let's just skip that paragraph or 3 that you don't want to read almost as much as I want to write them. I should also stress that these are impressions from the recent marketplace demo, and not the full game... although seeing as I am analysing the core principles rather than the frilly specifics, I would estimate these observations holding true right into January release and beyond.

SSS- An Angel and a Devil on your Shoulder
Reflecting Dante's new status as a “Nephilim” rather than a run-of-the-mill half-blood, holding L2 applies the graceful flowing “Angel” weapons while holding R2 engages the vicious and aggressive ”Devil” weapons, handily putting the classic light/fast heavy/slow attack trade-off at the players fingertips. The upper 3 face buttons provide a melee, range and launcher attack, which as standard call upon Dante's classic core weapons, the ever reliable “Rebellion” sword along with a firearm such as his trusty pistols, Ebony and Ivory. By holding down the angel or devil back shoulders however, Dante equips another weapon and a modifier replaces the face commands with that weapons moves instead. Thus, the player has smooth on-the-fly access to three distinct weapon sets simultaneously, and can quite easily lift and drop the modifiers on and off the face commands, having three melee combo variants and three launcher combo variants to choose from in any given moment. 

The really nice thing about this arrangement is that the player has the core set to fall back to when between modifiers, so on-the-fly swapping feels like layering rather than truly changing between move and mind-sets.

SS – To Me To You
Devil May Cry 4 introduced new character “Nero”, who showed up to the party with a trick up his sleeve.. literally. Nero had a possessed “Devil Bringer” arm that could grab enemies from a distance and yank them into melee range. Such a thing is perfect for a franchise like DMC which is all about sustaining combos, as it allows the player to regain grip on an enemy for further hits after they have been catapulted away by knockback. With heavier enemies, Nero could not yank the enemy and instead yanked himself to them, which is similar to the teleport “tricks” Dante's brother Vergil had at his disposal when he was playable in DMC3 Special Edition. The new DmC expands on these mechanics using the aforementioned “Angel and Devil” modifiers. While holding either modifier, the range/firearm button becomes a grapple whip; in angel mode the player yanks themselves to the enemy, and in devil mode the player yanks the enemy to them instead. This provides the player a lot more scope in how best to continue and maneuver themselves and their combos in battle.

S – Osiris Scoop
Just a little one this; the Angel weapon showcased in the demo was an extendable Scythe named Osiris. It's aerial special essentially scrapes the area directly below the player and drags any enemies up from the ground into reach of your aerial combos. This is the first “launcher” performed from the air that I have seen in a game, unless you count the Devil Bringers grapple ability.

A – Negative Edge and Input Tricks
There a few subtle input tricks I liked in new Dante's move-set, for example when using a negative edge or “alt” combo (the player performs part of a combo string and then stops briefly before continuing, triggering an alternate end to the combo using the negative space itself as an input) the weapon will gleam just for a moment during the negative space, just to inform and encourage reluctant or less experienced players in their timing. I think this is also the first time I have seen negative edge in air combos. Performing alt-combo inputs in the air will cause Dante to perform a different attack that launches the enemy even higher into the air rather than knock them away like the final hit of the standard aerial rave. 

A final note about the alt-combos, since they all have their negative edge at the same point in their combo string (after the first two slashes) the player can remove or apply a modifier during the negative edge moment and essentially skip from the first half of one weapons combo to the alternate ending of another weapons combo, which is a nice way to buffer in the Arbiter's overly devastating alt-combo finish. One last input trick I liked! A quick slap of either melee face button immediately after a grapple move will perform a bespoke hand-to-hand attack, either an uppercut punch or a powerful kick.

Here is a guy with some skills showing off some of the best DmC has to offer. I can tell by the description that he played the original franchise. "Oreo the Wolf", we salute you.

Attention all blog passengers, we are now approaching the less positive portion of this entry. Those of a delicate or melancholic disposition may wish to alight the web page at this time. 

B – Back to Basics
I like combat systems so much because they are a microcosm of everything I love about games design and gaming; mechanics, balance, rules, technical application, reflexes, timing, challenge, talent.. and DMC was king in my eyes because every entry in the series drove the genre and design forward in ways I couldn't have predicted or pushed it myself in my wildest dreams. On-the-fly weapon swapping? The style system? Even DMC4 with the Red Queens “Exceed” mechanic, genius! And you can't tell me it's nostalgia or experience talking, because Bayonetta was still able to surprise and amaze me with the masterpiece that is dodge offset. DMC used to be top shelf top class combat design, which is why I'm so sad to see it fall back on the basics.

DmC utilises a lot of rock/paper/scissors advantage/disadvantage design; certain enemies only react to certain weapons or attacks, some of them have shields that most be removed or broken to make them vulnerable to your other moves.. some enemies enter a glowing “super-armour” state to stop the player interrupting them when they are charging their attacks. This is Combat 101 stuff, guys. Arcade hack and slash fare. Sure, it works, but such base approaches to combat design should be below a series as veteran as Devil May Cry. I have implemented all three of these combat mechanics into Lego games in the past year.

C – It's Ridiculously Forgiving
There is no doubt in any combat snobs mind that DmC has been streamlined for accessibility to newer or weaker players. It's these sort of acute imbalances that scream bloody murder to a seasoned fan yet whisper sweet nothings in the virgin ears of a more casual player. The negative edge combos I mentioned earlier only function because the input windows are open for business for what seems like days, and overall the player has a much longer time to input follow-up or extension commands to their attacks, which in turn keeps them trapped in those moves a lot longer and creates a more sluggish uncommitted Dante with less flow than his white-haired ancestor. This may well be a necessity of the lower frames-per-second DmC runs at compared to previous games, but let's leave the lid on that can of flesh-eating worms.

The air time on each move is truly excessive, allowing the player to stay airborne for incredible periods of time (and thus isolate enemies from groups as a safety measure) and the dodge dives have a hilarious number of invincible frames, while both the grapple yanks don't merely help fix-up after an overzealous knock back, but can slap a handy bandage on pretty much any mistake or miss that the player suffers while trying to cobble together a chain.

Worst of all, none of this will be punished because this DmC style bar is so laid back it's passed out in the corner, happy to judge almost any player step or roll as reason to keep the bar afloat, and ignores even the most obvious  and embarrassing player miscalculations. It's never looking when you all but trip and drop your sword and simply rush to cover it up with a grapple yank or two, and while it doles out gradual praise for versatile combo chains and juggles, it will lose it's absolute shit if you simply manage to hit more than one enemy with any of the Devil axe's area of effect attacks. "Arbiter axe alt-combo? Oo-er! SSS, 5 stars for you my friend." Go home style bar, you're drunk. Fact is, DmC is a whore of a game, it's input windows are gaping and open for abuse, and it won't even judge you afterwards.

D - No Hard Lock
My kingdom for hard lock. Immediately the game feels looser and messier than it's predecessors, and while it's annoying that the auto soft lock is as twitchy and unreliable as I'd assumed it would be (especially when trying to prioritize the bothersome aerial enemies over nearby ground enemies) the real loss is the modifier effect it provided. Holding lock-on used to lock the player into a faux 2D plane with the enemy, allowing directional inputs to be combined with the face buttons to perform the key DMC attacks like Hightime and Stinger. With the removal of this lock-on state, these attacks have now been displaced to new inputs; Hightime finds itself on a new dedicated launcher button (a bit like in Marvel Versus Capcom 3) while Stinger is ousted on to the hideous input command of forward forward melee on the analogue stick. I know right? Threw up in my mouth a little bit just then. Pressing jump during lock-on used to do a combat roll that formed the players core evasive tactic, so with that modifier gone a dedicated dodge button has been added., which took some getting used to Well, two dodge buttons actually.

Although holding down the Angel or Devil modifier adds new tactical abilities to the dodge skill, the two separate dodge buttons themselves seem identical save for the fact one takes the player left and the other sends them right. This would make sense as a strafing mechanic, but ironically without a lock-on to provide a center point to dodge around Dante simply dives long and far in a relatively random direction and takes the camera with him. The fact a shoulder button is wasted on an extra unnecessary dodge command makes the decision to cut hard lock even more maddening. I can see no reason to remove it save a) to be different for the sake of being different or b) because at some point during development hard lock was decided to be not casual friendly. But this seems ridiculous, since the most complex application of the lock-on is the modifier it provides, and the whole game is based around two modifiers anyway.

Worst of all though, his hair is the wrong colour. Jokes.