Robert’s Inside Story (of Lameness)

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m taking a break from talking about the inconsistencies in the multiplayer modes of two of 2010’s biggest releases to make an impassioned plea: Dear Lord, help me. I cannot, for the life of me, stop playing Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.

I missed this gem the first time around, as I was in China gearing up for my first semester at Beihang University and preparing to educate classrooms filled with people that had years of wisdom and experience over me about life and finding one’s self in an increasingly complicated modern age. If you’ve ever uttered “pirate” and “China” in the same breath and you weren’t referring to Chow Yun-Fat’s forgettable performance in the even more forgettable third Pirates of the Caribbean installment, you should have some understanding and insight into my inability to secure a legitimate copy of Bowser’s for my poor, at-the-time neglected DS.

Almost two years after it came out, Bowser’s has been sitting comfortably in my DS’ card slot and my handheld is once again marked up by fingerprints across its jet black surface. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Bowser’s that makes it such a joy to play, but I can name a few things I like. It’s an RPG, all right, but it doesn’t offer me any of the niceties normally afforded from a 40+ hour investment in other JRPGs. Actually, I would hesitate to lump Bowser’s under the JRPG banner, or any “_RPG” banner, for that matter. Battles are played out simply enough through turn-based combat. Characters with the highest speed attribute get priority over slower characters and take an action. Wash, rinse, repeat. However, the added dimension is that in both attacking and defending, jumps and hammers found in the side-scrolling Mario and Donkey Kong games are used to inflict extra damage or completely avoid a ground-based enemy’s charge. If one times their jump well enough, they might land on the enemy’s head, meaning they take no damage and, to loosely borrow a fighting game term, get to punish their enemy.

Bowser’s doesn’t offer the same type of character empowerment and progression as seen in JRPGs, where picking up the Ultima Weapon or Rainbow Sword in FFVII or Chrono Trigger allows your character to deal damage higher than their own HP count. Getting powerful gear is nice in Bowser’s, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If the player has good enough timing and can predict incoming attacks while adding that extra oomph to their own attacks, gear and defensive attributes largely become moot. There’s no need for strong equipment if the player isn’t taking any damage in the fights. In some of the boss fights that the titular Bowser gets in, gear and attributes aren’t even a factor.

This is anything but a shortcoming. Bowser’s has managed to take the linearity and mechanics other RPGs hailing from Japanese studios to create something that, while firmly rooted in tradition, manages to transcend convention due to the parts of its whole. It’s largely light-hearted affair that is self-aware and seems to take joy in the moment-to-moment humor that completely glosses over the “save the princess or else” storyline. Speaking of humor, there’s tons of it in the game. Nate Bildhorff and his team of localizers are to be commended for their work: from Bowser’s tough-guy fails to Fawful’s awesomely bad Engrish dialogue, I can’t think of the last time I laughed out loud so frequently at a game that didn’t have Tim Schafer’s name on the cover or wasn’t Portal.

More on point, I brought up a historical anecdote–or historic in the sense that I experienced it–about my return to Beijing because I’m now wondering how I would have received Bowser’s at that time in my life.

That statement might not make that much sense. Let me give you some context.

I’ve looked back on a lot of my years, and in each instance, I can track one or more games to what I was going through in the days of my youth. While awaiting my C-averaged report card to come home in the mail, I would count down the days until my chastisement playing Shadowrun on my Genesis. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father was a triumphant discovery for me, and I wanted my friends to stop talking about Mortal Kombat so I could, just once, launch into a discussion about Voodoo and destiny. Multiple playthroughs of Square’s Einhander were conducted through one of my darkest periods of high school uncertainty, where friends succumbed to peer pressure and suddenly donned unfamiliar-looking masks without giving me fair warning. After watching my friend show me it for the first time and then subsequently dreaming about playing it in the months to follow, my soon-to-be stepfather brought with him from the East Coast a strong shoulder for my mother to lean on–as well as a PC equipped with a 800 MHz PIII processor and a TNT2 video card that could play Deus Ex. And I remember when I went off to college and was, for the first time, on my own, I celebrated by hooking up my PS2 and continuing my game of Beyond Good & Evil.

Anyone who waxes nostalgic about their youth and their experiences in the games they played holding analogous or allegorical connection to what they were going through in life is exaggerating through their teeth. I don’t define my experiences through games, but I view my gaming experiences as just parts that add to and augment  my total memory of things that have transpired in my life. It’s not so much that they added or detracted from my experiences; if anything, they serve as unique points of reference for me to look fondly back on. I’ll always associate “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins with junior high, the smell of cigarette smoke and vinyl seats takes me back to my summer spent in Taiwan with my grandparents, and Final Fantasy Tactics calls back memories of my first-ever breakup.

Appreciating Bowser’s Inside Story on its own merits is a simple enough pleasure, and playing through it at this point in my life is an exuberant affair to say the least. Phone contact is contact of the rudimentary sort, but it never has and never will feel like enough. When my wife finally arrives in California come late-March, it’ll have been close to six months, or half a year, since I last left her standing there in Terminal 2 at Beijing International Airport. When I inevitably look back on this moment, I’ll also see Bowser’s Inside Story and all of its humor, innovation, and joyful whims forever etched into this point in my life. It’s an association I’ll always make, and I’m really grateful for that innocent but conveniently portentous association. Like I said before, it’s all context. Wonderful, wonderful context.

On the day we registered as a married couple, Zoe and I played Gears of War 2 cooperatively. I passed Zoe the good controller, and I tested the limits of my ability with a busted Right Trigger that would clamp down at the most inopportune of moments and cause me to shred through entire clips of Lancer ammo. Howling with laughter as I bled my ammo reserves dry, I could only watch as my wife meowed like a scared cat and tried to run away unsuccessfully from a Flamer unit in Horde mode. Laughing, we decided to shut the 360 off for the moment and watch Atonement instead. So far, we have yet to complete the campaign together, and it’ll happen or maybe it won’t. That might also be why I sometimes have difficulty finishing certain games at certain points in time; like the moments I’m concurrently experiencing in my life, I don’t ever want them to end.

AC: Brotherhood’s Confidence Issues

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer remains one of the simultaneously most frustrating and rewarding experiences that I find myself crawling back to.

Engaging in tense firefights as gunships scream overhead is one thing; the heart-pounding anticipation of casually stalking and gradually approaching an unsuspecting player as he tries in vain to hide from an unseen assailant by failing to disappear into a crowd? That’s another sensation entirely.

Ubisoft has hit on something that I’m excited to see more of as hardcore multiplayer games make a segmented migration towards more nuanced modes of competitive play. In Brotherhood, it’s not so much the quantity of the kills one makes as it is the quality of the kill. All of the sprinting controls and free-running abilities demonstrated by Altair and Ezio in the two previous single-player iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series are possible in multiplayer, but the game doesn’t recommend using these maneuvers. In fact, it downright discourages it.

 

 

Using the story conceit of the Animus and the millenia-old ongoing struggle between the heroic Assassins and the tyrannical Templars, the multiplayer mode is explained away as a training simulation for Templars to utilize so as to better understand their Assassin enemies in fully realized cutscene that plays the first time players jump into multiplayer. The player assumes the role of one of many different character skins, the match then populates the map with multiple copies of identical chosen character skins, and their goal is to then pick out actual players from crowds of copies and eliminate them.

At any given time, the player will be assigned a “contract”, or an image of the skin that the player’s target is wearing. And it’s not that easy to pick out the intended target from copies. Copies will speed up their step, walk one direction only to turn 180 degrees and backtrack, and they’ll travel in packs, too. Killing copies willy-nilly until the intended player is hit isn’t possible: as soon as the player kills one wrong target, he is immediately assigned a new contract.

In order to pick the correct target out from the clones, the player is given a detection meter in the form of a radial compass. At maximum distance, the compass points out the location of the target player. As the player approaches his target, the compass fills in more and more until the player is within killing distance of his target, at which point the compass fills up completely and emits a light ringing sound.

When stalking targets, the player needs to keep his target’s “awareness”, or a passive defensive meter, into account. Running at full speed at the target immediately puts the target in “high alert” status, which is signaled on the other end by war drums and the words ‘ESCAPE YOUR PURSUER’ flashing in red on the screen. Should the target break from his pursuer’s line of sight and hide for a set amount of time, the pursuer’s contract is lost automatically and the target is in the clear.

 

 

This is where some of that aforementioned frustration sets in and things begin to fall apart. Single kills are awarded a base 100 points each, but then different bonuses are stacked on top of the base value. Eliminating a target with an increased step will either net a 50 point ‘Discreet’ or 100 point ‘Silent’ bonus, depending on the target’s awareness at time of death. Managing to flank a target without running or giving any hint as to the player’s true identity nets a whopping 300 point ‘Incognito’ bonus. In theory, the kill ranking logic is a system founded on the concept of  diminishing returns: in the time it takes one player to dart around the map and land 4 no-bonus kills, another more skilled player could easily earn the first player’s point value and more simply through patient, clean kills.

There’s a lot about the multiplayer and stealth design to admire. Ubisoft Montreal has created a very elegant system that makes sense in performing a series of checks and balances against reckless game play. However, the multiplayer system does nothing to check and balance player attitudes and eventual escalation.

What I mean by ‘escalation’ is this: more often than not, many of the players do not employ the bonuses attributed to quality kills. They’ll clamber up and perch on rooftops and earn 100 point-only kills using the hidden gun perk and perform 150 point aerial kills, and then immediately dart off. In order to pursue these targets, players will have to employ the same “tactic” of running at full speed and using long-range weapons with equally long cooldowns in order to successfully hit their target. More often than not, this will expose the player to their target, meaning that upon successful capture, the player will earn a paltry 100 points only. Escalation is when these players set the tactics and strategies (or lack thereof) that will determine the rest of the match’s tempo and speed.

This issue is compounded by an otherwise excellent tension-building mechanic in place, which sics more and more lower-ranking players on players ranked at the top of the list.  The player sitting in first place will have as many as four simultaneous lower-ranked players pursuing him at once, which means players at the bottom of list have to compete for the same target. 9 times out of 10, it will be the jackrabbit player that reaches him first, and here’s where it falls apart: the total 100 points the conspicuous player receives is not enough to bridge the point deficiency between low and high ranked players, meaning that once a match gains its tempo, it’s difficult to create any kinds of shifts in power, no matter how careful lower-ranked players are.

Each time I’ve played the Wanted game mode, I’ve always ranked in the top three slots without break in consistency. At the end-match tallies, the surface of the point total I’ve gathered from my 6 kills and 8 deaths can’t even be scratched by a player who has 12 kills and 4 deaths. A few times when I was ahead, I would mess around with the rankings and experiment. If I managed to hit over 1000 points in the first two minutes of play, chances are I’d be ranked on top. With at least a 400 point lead on the 2nd-ranked player, I started to sprint wherever I went. This caused two things; the four people chasing after me had to expose themselves every time, which meant minimal points if they managed to catch me. 50% of the time, someone did, but the rest of the time I’d use chase breakers to lock three of them out and then hide from the last pursuer in the bushes. Not only did that reset their contracts, but it earned me points for successful evasion. This gave me time to go after my contract, which was a nice breather. Because I’m at the top of the list, I’m not competing with other people for my kill. My position at the top is more or less secured. It’s things like this which make the multiplayer both exhilirating and frustrating.

 

 

My frustration is two-fold. The designers at Ubisoft Montreal have created what might be one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of all time, so I can’t quite fault them for what might be construed as poor design. However, while the multiplayer fully condones stealthy, observant gameplay, it does nothing to penalize those who set a standard of play that is incongruent with the design. I say incongruent because while it’s possible for twitchy, KDR-obsessed players to raise the bar in terms of rhythm, there’s no way for deliberate, cautious players to pull the proverbial bar back down. True, I did mention that there’s a deterrent in the form of incognito versus non-discreet kills, but it’s not a strong enough deterrent. The throwing knives perk unlocked at level 19 prevent quick-footed players from scaling up walls, but using it feels more like a concession that the designers fully anticipated this type of multiplayer environment than anything useful like the smoke bomb or disguise.

What the multiplayer is effectively doing is not outright penalizing or punishing stealthy players, but rather forcing them to adopt the sloppy methodology of their opponents. I can’t say enough good things about what Ubisoft Montreal has created, but consistent design isn’t one of those things. The multiplayer design is a mildly schizophrenic, self-conscious affair: the designers want players to play one way and promote this through mechanics and rewards, but it won’t risk turning off players who want to play an entirely different way. Something as simple as a 100 point reduction for every three to five non-stealthy kills  a reckless player makes would force players to re-evaluate their strategies without turning them off from the entire experience.

Before a game can provide something for every type of player out there, it first needs to have confident design that rewards players for utilizing the systems in place and recognizing and harnessing the patterns around them. On the same note, I wouldn’t dare to accuse Brotherhood‘s multiplayer for being wishy-washy. It’s not that. It just has a self-confidence issue it needs to overcome.

There’s no “Me” in “Kill Streaks”, but there should be

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

For a multiplayer game that offers so many game modes centered around the conceit of teams battling teams, some of Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards  since the first Modern Warfare are very odd beasts in regards to what they’re meant to accomplish and what they incentivize. One could argue that Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards were never meant to incentivize anything but player performance. In theory, these rewards are ultimately a useful motivator because veteran players attain that quick moment of satisfaction, and newer and more unexperienced players use the frequency of kill streaks they rack up as both a short-term goal to achieve and as moment-to-moment skill gauge.

 

 

I’m not saying all of Black Ops’ rewards are odd. I’ve always liked the UAV (Spy Plane in this one) reward because it provided a beneficial effect to the player’s team that was never felt too overpowered. Also, the latest addition of the SR-71 reward is great, in my opinion. The potentially destructive power bestowed by the SR-71 in locating all enemies at all times is still bottlenecked by the skill of the team exploiting the SR-71 to actually hunt down and eliminate their targets. These rewards don’t just generously affect the player’s entire team, they also emphasize and promote teamwork, providing cover fire, and mitigation of attrition.

The Tactical Nuke of Modern Warfare 2 is long gone (the total elasped time of one year feels like an entire generation when measured against the timeframe of the series’ prolific output), but the specter of what it entailed is still apparent in streak rewards like Chopper Gunner, Attack Dogs, and Gunship. Namely, the three kill streak rewards that rest at the top of reward list. It stands to reason that the only players who are able to hit the 9, 11, and 11 kill streaks, respectively, in order to unlock the reward’s effect are the most skilled in the match, and they attain these streaks by eliminating lesser skilled players.

Whenever I’ve racked up the 8 kills required (Hardline, thanks) to pilot a Chopper Gunner, my initial giddiness will always sour as I realize what I’m doing requires zero skill; enemies are painted in helpful red on the map, and it helps that the mounted machine gun never overheats, spits out insane rounds per second, and can shoot through just about any non-brick surface on the map. What I’m essentially doing is creating an un-level playing field, that, judging by the relative ease with which I obtained such a power, was never level to begin with. I’m in effect punishing the other team for not being as good of a player as I am. The last time I checked, something like this doesn’t fall under good sportsmanship; in real-life terms, this is akin to bullying.

 

 

While these rewards don’t exactly compare with the Tactical Nuke’s ridiculously arbitrary power, they still serve to promote that atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that I feel games like Call of Duty and its inevitable clones have co-opted and relied on more and more with each iteration. As a fan of most first-person shooters, including Call of Duty, I’m not sure I like the overall tone and identity competitive games such as Black Ops are assuming. More worrisome to me is the  selfish, insular psychology that kill streak rewards such as the ones I’ve listed encourages in players. For all the myriad team-based game modes Black Ops offers, there’s very little incentive for players to actually function as a team and coordinate tactics. The “Avenger” experience bonus is awarded only when you kill an enemy after he’s slain one of your teammates and minimal points are given for providing assists. True, there are point boosts for saving a wounded teammate, but that’s the extent of how deep these boosts get; there’s nothing that simultaneously rewards me for blinding an enemy with a flashbang and my teammate for then scoring a kill on him. It gets to a point that I’m not just locked in competition with the enemy team, but also with my teammates. I can safely say that I’m not a bad person for using the Chopper Gunner kill streak, and I’m also not petty for yelling at the teammate who just “stole” my kill, thus reducing my chance to unlock my reward. I use the Chopper Gunner because everyone’s using it, and while I may get additional points for damage inflicted, that stolen kill is one less notch on my KDR belt. And I can justify all of this because team-based game modes are ultimately about attrition, and by dealing out the amount of death I’ve thus created, I’m ultimately helping my team. Or at least, that’s one potential justification.

Please keep in mind that I’m not proposing some kind of egalitarian multiplayer system that rubber-bands the competition and handicaps accurate and strategic players for being “too good”, or however the game might define that within it’s parameters. While writing this, I’m aware of the fact that there will always be a rift between good and bad players, talented and less talented individuals. This is an unavoidable truth affixed to the societal and biological glue that holds our society together. I’m not discounting that. Rather, I’m in favor of more good ideas like the SR-71 that feel rewarding, promote a healthier playing field, and rely on skill to make full effect of. Without getting too political, I think games such as Call of Duty and its ilk have huge educational potential in not so much hard data and facts, but addressing the burgeoning social skills and interactions in younger players and cementing as well as affirming these skills in older, more mature players. Call of Duty and games like it do not need to tone or dumb down its violent subject matter; in the hands of a responsible parent, a first-person shooter has much an averse affect on a child’s development as any R-rated or TV-MA designated show the child will inevitably come across. All I’m saying is that this subject matter needs to be presented with a higher degree of responsibility and good taste. War may tap into some of mankind’s darker aspects, but games, even those based on war, shouldn’t have to.

Modern Warfare 2 already left a bad taste in my mouth by offering the player the “No Russian” stage, which promised thoughtful controversy but only mustered half-postured hand-wringing in the single player campaign, and then allowing the player to have clever tags such as “Joint Operations” and “Blunt Force Trauma” in the multiplayer. Not exactly the apex of the series’ finest moments. Black Ops‘ multiplayer is not so much an improvement over Modern Warfare 2‘s as it is a step backward and then two more steps in a separate direction (almost forgot to mention the Commando perk, which turned even the mousiest of players into Chow Yun-Fat). I like Black Ops, and I’ll continue playing with the Chopper Gunner and “Me versus them” attitude in tow. I just wish there was some way for me to get that lingering bad taste out of my mouth.

The Value of Cinematic Experiences

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

In its formative years of self-realization, video games have undergone constant reinventions and crises of identity as the industry and those who follow it attempt to give a concrete definition as to what games really, truly are. From time to time, games have been given the label “cinematic” or featuring “Hollywood blockbuster-scale action”. While this is certainly a telling indicator of how gaming has progressed, what’s more telling is how the term has almost evolved (or devolved, depending on your definition) into a slightly pejorative term that indicates non-interactivity or little to no player agency in a tightly scripted roller coaster of sights and sounds.

I don’t exactly like that Hollywood analogy, not so much from the fact that it seems more and more developers are becoming averse to taking risks and opting more to emulate the aesthetics of a non-interactive medium rather than incorporating those parts into a ludic whole; if anything, I dislike that analogy because it simultaneously glosses over a central rift between the two mediums and it sets up unrealistic terms for games in particular. As the cost of producing games and maintaining games as a hobby ramp up, gamers over the years have come to define their software purchases through pure value. Namely, if I pay $60 for a game, how many hours of meaningful playtime am I looking at?

 

 

This year, two of my more  memorable film-going experiences were Inception and Black Swan. One film is a cleverly plotted heist movie that challenges our perceptions of waking reality, while the other weaves a melodrama around the  fracturing sanity of an aspiring dancer dealing with pressure from all facets of her life. Inception has a runtime of 148 minutes, while Black Swan has a runtime of 108 minutes, or a 40 minute deficit compared to Inception’s. If we define these movies based on the value I procured, then Inception is hands down the better value. The action is faster, there’s more moments of interaction between the characters, more variety (a car chase, breaching a fortress, two stealth sequences, and gunfights peppered throughout), and it’s longer. And let’s not forget the winding plot, which brings more meaningful replay value (a second viewing to decipher all the hidden meanings).

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that any movie critic that quantified his or her review scores in such a manner would likely be out of a job.  On the same note, I’d guess that any respectable critic working in the field of any artistic medium wouldn’t dare offer a review based on such a rubric of value. So, if we’re insisting as a collective audience that games are, regardless of Roger Ebert’s opinions, indeed an art form, why do we fail to treat it as such?

The comparison between film and games is a bit lazy, but I think influence of Hollywood on game design and production isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I believe that if gaming is to thrive as an art form on its own terms, developers are going to need to start redefining what it means for a game to have cinematic qualities. People showered praise and adulations upon Mass Effect 2 for its emotionally affecting, open-world gameplay and dialogue, but not all games can exist comfortably within this realm of open-endedness without feeling unnatural.  There’s still a great amount of potential in linear, scripted narratives in games, but I believe an equally great amount of creativity is required to reach this level of potential.

 

 

Narrative driven games are constantly striking the balance between story-telling and gameplay, with a caveat being the more immersive a game’s mythology is, the easier it is to see the cracks. Of particular note are games such as Uncharted 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV, two otherwise tightly plotted and well-written pieces of interactive storytelling that constantly break the fourth wall by reminding you that yes, this is in fact a game. GTA IV’s biggest flaw was the constant angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulder struggle the protagonist Niko Bellic was facing in terms of how the player played Niko versus how the designers conceptualized and edged along Niko’s story of revenge and redemption. Uncharted’s problem was also in the same vein; although the bottled animations and dialogue for Nathan Drake were superb and very naturalistic, the wholesale slaughter of literally thousands of mercenaries and treasure hunters at the hands of a supposed “everyman” made the game’s mythology that much harder to swallow.

A game like Ninja Theory’s criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction partly because all the pieces and visible gears of the game are parts of a greater construct designed in deliberately in such a way so as to sidestep the traps of that disconnect between narrative and gameplay. All elements in the game, right down to the UI and mission blockers that serve to both pace the game and impede early progress are all explained in the form of the Slave Crown that the player character Monkey is affixed with at the beginning of the second chapter. The owner of the Slave Crown, a girl by the name of Trip, has her uses for Monkey and needs his agility and fighting skills to keep her alive. The catch is, if he wanders too far off or lets her die, the Slave Crown detonates, taking Monkey with him.  It is at this point a lively, fully animated HUD pops up on-screen; if you’re going to keep Trip alive, you’ll probably need to know how she’s doing health-wise.

Even the disembodied vertical camera shot that lays out all the traps of a room to the player is explained away as a mechanical dragonfly that scouts out dangers ahead for the player and his companion, while the robot sentries that are scattered about have one primary directive, which is to kill any bipedal organism with a pulse. The different enemy robot types that are encountered throughout the game are introduced within the first two or three chapters, and there’s little to no variation between them. There’s no difficulty ramp in terms of enemy strategy, but the combat does become more difficult due to the number of enemies fought in one segment and the size of the monster room. Awkward camera control not withstanding, the robots are pretty vicious, as each robot sentry the player comes across alternates between a series of attack combos and dodges, occasionally falling back to let his buddies step in and take a few swings. Early combat encounters are excellent; tough fights are overcome by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the battle. Later fights suffer from a tech tree imbalance, where putting all experience towards five or so specific attributes in staff and combat upgrades makes Monkey a counter-attacking, overdriving juggernaut, essentially negating any need to upgrade shields or health even a single notch. Many upgrades feel like a hanging afterthought. It almost feels as if the designers centered the majority of their attention on story and level design as a complement to story.

 

 

As expected, the most affecting part of the game is the relationship that arises out of the two main characters, Monkey and Trip, something potentially gimmicky that is handled maturely and with class. Enslaved writer Alex Garland takes the exact opposite of the Master Chief/Gordon Freeman school of character purpose; Monkey’s got a very distinct personality, as well as an unspoken code of ethics, and it’s clear he feels something for Trip. Moreover, the game’s script never takes the time to do lengthy exposition into Monkey’s past or set up scenarios rife with sexual tension or comedic mishap between the two characters so as to elicit some kind of response from the player. The player’s role in the game, then, is not so much an observer embodied by the avatar on-screen, but almost a silent guardian whose goal is to help Trip by using Monkey as a vessel. Because the characters are not so much likable or relatable as they are believable, the player’s motivation for seeing things through is more or less founded on a the level of curiously invested spectator; the motivations behind Monkey’s decision to help Trip even when she sets him free might not be one that the player shares, but it makes sense because it’s Monkey’s decision.

At the risk of succumbing to the “this-but that” formula of game criticism, I’m going to pull up the previous example of visible cracks in an otherwise spotless foundation. Many of Enslaved’s boss fight sequences require Monkey to chase down the rampaging berserk Dog enemy and get close enough to initiate a QTE-lite sequence to put the boss down once and for all. This is where Monkey’s Cloud device, a hoverboard-like tuft of matter that allows Monkey to jump, glide, and hover at increased speeds, comes in. Riding on the Cloud the first time is nothing short of a joyous affair: composer Nitin Sawhney’s wonderfully subdued score kicks in as the player discovers a new form of movement that provides even more freedom than Monkey’s normal Parkour-ish maneuvers. However, it is in providing the Cloud that Ninja Theory begins to pull down the tapestry around that fourth wall. The Cloud, as explained in the game, can only be called forth in areas without electro-magnetic interference. Fair enough. Also, because of its specifications and partly as a failsafe, the Cloud can only recognize Monkey’s weight and carry one person at a time, meaning Trip’s out of luck. Okay. That’s a good amount of mythology right there, but what the game fails to explain is the Mario Kart-styled “boosts” that are sprinkled throughout areas where the Cloud is available, giving a quick burst of speed when Monkey moves through one. Like waist-high barriers and walls in Gears of War that signal a firefight is about to take place, spotting a boost pocket is the surest indicator that a chase sequence and/or boss fight is about to commence.

It might sound unfair for me to nitpick on the game in this regard, because for the most part, Enslaved does what it does effectively, and with a good amount of heart. If anything, it’s yet another reminder of that rift I mentioned earlier. Cruise any movie’s page on imdb.com and you’ll see posted under the “goofs” section countless anachronisms, inconsistencies, and otherwise blunders that keen-eyed viewers spotted or heard in their viewing of that movie. The closest equivalent in the games industry might be a bug, but going off that, what can be said about Enslaved’s glaring inconsistencies? In this case, it’s more an aesthetic flaw than a technical one. And although I haven’t talked to anyone who’s played Enslaved yet, I can imagine a possible criticism of the game’s seemingly obvious focus of putting storyline and character over gameplay is, “If I wanted to experience a good story, I would watch a movie.” That’s a very valid point that I can’t argue with. But, for me, Enslaved is more than just a story layered over a shell of mediocre gameplay (despite some of my nitpickings, the game is, for the most part, a fun experience).

 

 

In my humble opinion, good game design isn’t just about compelling rules, goals, and mechanics to push players forward in achieving these goals. The key word here is “interactive.” Games also have the power to stimulate and trigger responses from simple tics to empathy on a deeper, more buried level. Take Gears of War and its cover system for example. The player relies heavily on the cover system and never questions any potential over-usage because in the player’s mind, taking cover is an absolute necessity. And on top of everything else, it works well, too, as taking cover is highly responsive, intuitive, and fluid. In my first playthrough, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it didn’t just make sense to take cover, it felt good. Really good. More than just well-timed animation, snapping into cover creates a certain sensation in the player. Just the right amount of dust is kicked up, there’s a slight affirmative grunt from Marcus (or Dom), and there’s a tangible tactile weight that is subtly communicated to the player through light haptic feedback in the controller vibration and barely noticable screen shake. The cover system isn’t just a game mechanic, it’s stimuli and it, for lack of better description, feels awesome. Enslaved, in turn, has its own deliberate design that is not accidental. When I came to the realization that I vaulted Monkey across a chasm to pull Trip up from falling to her death not out of fear of repeating the sequence again from a checkpoint, but out of an innate desire to protect my companion, it dawned on me that Ninja Theory was doing something, and they was doing it right.

I think there will always be a place for cohesive, tightly designed single-player games that don’t require a multiplayer mode or artificial gameplay lengthening, but in order for us to have more games like Enslaved, developers need to be willing to focus on taking risks while acknowledging their output as an artistic endeavor first and a product second. I am confident that a great deal of developers do view their work as art, but I’m promoting this as a mantra that is constantly reiterated through competent story framework rather than as an afterthought or a bullet point that moves more units. Finally, I believe that as fans and enthusiasts, we also have a responsibility to propel games forward as an art form and start to challenge our pre-conceived notions of what “value” truly means.

This hazy definition of value I’ve floated around is not one of replay value or achievements, but of artistic merit or what a game, for all its flaws, does to push the medium forward technologically or otherwise. Based on my own experiences with literature, fine arts, and film, I’ve come to define artistic merit and value as a piece of creative work that is conceptualized and put into production as a means of entertainment, emotional gratification, and sometimes as an educational device. I think it’s entirely possible gaming will one day be the standard of which an emergent form of media or art is measured against.  For now, we have games like Enslaved, which I encourage everyone to play on a relaxed weekend. You’ll love it or even possibly hate it for the same virtues I’m extolling, but regardless of your feelings, it will garner some kind of palpable emotion that you’ll take with you. Isn’t that the purpose of good art?

Layers upon layers

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a continuation from my previous post on the upcoming game based on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. These are just some random scribbling on some things I would like to see and things I hope the designers will keep in mind when creating the game.

Player Character


Cobb works with a team of specialists that each have their own skill sets and contribution to the mission. However, the narrative is squarely centered on Cobb as he undergoes the biggest (and probably only) character arc on his team. In hewing with the structure of the movie, we won’t necessarily have to make each, individual member of the team explicitly playable. I’m thinking of something like Mass Effect, where squad abilities are mapped to an action wheel. Some of the roles in the movies aren’t quite clear, so I can probably only make educated guesses. The Point Man serves as the “second player”, or the player character that is statistically identical to the main character (Mario and Luigi, or for more modern examples, Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago from Gears of War), but the other characters’ roles might be harder to utilize. The remaining members of the team are interesting in that their contribution is entirely behind the scenes, or on a very subtle level. The Confidence Artist has the ability to gain access through camouflage and subterfuge, the Architect creates misdirection by creating a sandbox from scratch, and the Chemist tweaks dosages that puts the target and team members under for however long needed.

I think it’s a fun challenge to come up with ways in which to successfully weave these secondary characters into the gameplay, but at the same time, I don’t think the results would be very fun. Nevertheless, the role these characters play is far too interesting to not include into the game somehow. Although it might be difficult to translate these character roles into something the player could tangibly use on the fly, it would be cool to see these as enemy types for the player to defeat. More on that in the next section.

Enemies


Fischer and Saito presented obstacles  but could hardly be considered villains. In terms of the nameless projections, they’re mooks, grunts, and cannon fodder that are easily dispatched and impede the player’s progress on a short-term scale, but also not villain material. If anything, the one true villain in the film was Mal, or more specifically the projection of her in Cobb’s subconscious. The relationship between Cobb and Mal in the film was so affecting because even if the audience has never come across a personified force of nature like Mal, they’re empathic to Cobb’s plight and the recurring theme of guilt. Mal was such an effective foil for Cobb because he defined her and subsequently empowered her, so I’m not sure how the designers will incorporate this into the game’s overall narrative. One strong recommendation I can offer is: don’t reuse the wife motif. It’s an emotionally resonant one, which is exactly why it shouldn’t be abused.

I’d say the game can handle this in one of two ways. The first would be for the designers set a concrete projection of a loved one for the main character to struggle with; however, taking cues from Silent Hill 2, the shared history between the player as main character and the loved one as well as the extent of trauma inflicted on both persons is entirely defined retroactively by how the player perceives this projection currently and the choices they make when confronted with their loved one. The second would be for the projection to completely adhere to a preset, planned background on a set path and agenda. This hews closer to the film, and like Cobb, the player must ultimately find or not find closure for their character through their choices. Either way, I’d be interested to see how it’d pan out.

Also, as I said in the first section, while characters such as chemists, con artists, and architects might not translate well for the player, they would be interesting enemy types to tussle with. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer is a good example of NPC and player interaction that requires equal amounts of instinct and pattern recognition on the player’s part and I could see this mechanic working for stand-offs with confidence men.

Narrative


One of the inherent difficulties in translating the story of Inception into a game is the fact that, unlike the protagonists of the movie, the player is not engaging an unaware individual in a masquerade of his or her own design; if anything, the player is the unaware individual in question, taking a tour of someone else’s illusion. Framing the narrative around the well-oiled machinations of one of these teams might be doable, if only on a very superficial level: Using maybe a series of complex Rainbow Six styled planning systems coupled with squad commands on top of dynamic, shifting terrain ala Fracture, the player would be in control of the illusion as it goes along. But that’s only to an extent. Inevitable cracks in scripting would rear their ugly heads, as the illusion set forth by the designers for the player to experience would ultimately fail to predict every which move the player makes. I don’t have any experience in this field, but I’d be willing to say that as of now, it’s technologically and humanly impossible to frame a tight narrative around procedural Minecraft-styled player-created content. If we’re going to follow the logic of dream construction in the film, exposing cracks in the foundation to players is a fatal shortcoming.

Using Path of Neo as an example yet again, it may not be best in this instance to emulate the narrative and structure of the movie. We’ve already established that a) many auxiliary characters’ strengths are played in the backdrop and b) the game itself is an illusion. As such, it would be not only difficult to pull off a game that follows the structure of the film, but it would feel forced and gimmicky if the game uses what I described above.

I think that in order for the game to maintain a standard of strong writing and characterization, the narrative should not be framed around an extraction (or inception) team. Rather, I think it would be much more interesting to play as a character who is the target of the grift, not the grifter. The only difference is, this character is fully aware of the fact that he’s dreaming. In fact, the character allowed himself to get caught and sedated by the team that’s now running the extraction operation on him. They know something he’s been fighting to figure out (murder of family member, who framed him, etc.) and in order for him to get to the ringleader of this detail, he’ll need to play dumb and run along with them for now. He has no idea what exactly the scale of this operation is; there could be literally hundreds of sleepers posing as projections for all he knows. But luckily, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to manipulate and maneuver the dreamscape and take out his enemies one by one.

Also, if Cobb’s foil is guilt, our character’s foil would be obsession. Just throwing that out there.

Levels


This section practically writes itself, thanks to the clearly defined “layers” presented in the movie. Without getting into too many theories centered around, “Cobb’s still dreamin’, yo!”, we’ll say that for the sake of the argument there are three unique environments that the player can interact with: the real world, dream layers #1 to infinity, and limbo. Each environment would ultimately have different rules and logic to adhere to, and the existence of all three presents yet another challenge: how does the game strike a balance between seamless transition between dream layers to real world to (possibly) limbo without letting the player lose grasp of his current environment’s parameters and rules?

A big mechanic that will have to be squared away is player death. As we’ve seen in the movie, violent situations are a quick ticket out of a dream state. Barring heavy sedation, the dreamer will snap back to “reality” or at least ascend one dream layer. The designers will be free to play around with this concept, on the same note, because as stated in the movie, Limbo is shared dream space. The player can ideally interact with Limbo in one of two ways: manually entering Limbo with the character fully aware of the fact that they are dreaming, or entering Limbo through forcible circumstances. I’m more interested in the former of those two interactions. While that separation between the mind and powers of perception is a strong plot device, it doesn’t exactly scream “fun” and wouldn’t be exactly easy to communicate. The player is constantly aware of the fact that they are willfully engaging in an illusion of someone else’s design. I know I’m stating the obvious, but I think one of the concessions designers have to make is knowing when to tastefully omit unworkable parts of the property in favor of tighter design.

Gameplay


The character’s abilities and interactions with the environment need to feel significant, but like in the movie, there should be a system of checks and balances in place to prevent over-abuse of powers. Some of the more interesting things seen in the movie are zero-gravity fighting in which we see a trained Arthur glide and shimmy across the ceiling like a monkey ninja against a hapless projection, the distortion of time when descending in dream levels, and Ariadne’s manipulation of architecture and paths on a gargantuan scale. If we’re using the set-up I wrote up in section 3, both the constant danger of exposing one’s self and angering local projections into action would be effective power checks akin to Assassin’s Creed‘s guard reaction to abnormal behavior.

The most obvious mechanic would be combat. Unlike the explanations offered in the Matrix, it’s never explained how Cobb and his team enter any shared dream already packing heat and gear. It might sound nitpicky on my part, but I’m actually saying this is to the designer’s benefit because they’re free to play around with this however they choose. They’re free to justify weapons as part of the dream-o-matic program, or why ammunition has the same lethal effect on dreamers as it does on projections, who are manifestations of the subconscious and logically should not perceive lethal damage as such.

One of the harder plot points in the movie to reconcile would probably have to be time distortion. Without cinematic framing devices, I can imagine it’d be quite difficult communicating simultaneous actions to the player without breaking some sort of fourth wall such as sloppy HUD notifications. I don’t think it’d be much fun or very original to justify the time distortion that happens when descending in levels as a time attack or imposition of a conditional time limit. Entering dream levels should serve the purpose of extraction, or mission blockers that require the player to find Key A and Key B before proceeding, only it’s more interactive and less passive, with the target’s mind serving as a type of dungeon that the player must clear before continuing with the story. Extracting information from a con man might highlight potential targets or personnel that the player didn’t know about, while extracting information from an architect opens up the map and points out locations of weapon and info pick-ups.

Another possible mechanic could be the manipulation of environment, but not on as large a scale as seen when Ariadne essentially folds a crowded Parisian street on top of itself. I’m thinking more along the lines of the Primrose steps that Arthur improvises and pushes the guard projection off of, or subtle visual and angular puzzles akin to Echochrome, where new paths can be opened and closed depending on how the player positions the camera. The player could wind corners down a bricked alleyway and create dead-ends for pursuers or use mirrors to create a straight shot down an otherwise labyrinthine hallway.

For the designers, they would have to come up with some way to communicate clearly to the player how many different types of interactions there are without making the player feel restricted or giving them too much sense of freedom. Using Assassin’s Creed as an example yet again, the strength and possible flaw in Ezio’s free-running ability is that it’s sometimes inconsistent; I can leap from walls to other walls of stacked height, but for some reason, this pillar of equal height remains inaccessible to me. At the same time, I’ll still experiment whenever I come across one of these obstacles, because I feel that based on what I’ve seen thus far, I should be more than capable of scaling this surface. I might get it the next time on a whim, but having me pick myself up and climb back up to my original position to try again dramatically slows the action down and is inconsistent with the parkour-godliness the game so very much wants to communicate.

Themes


Above all, a proper adaptation of Inception would need to incorporate the source material’s themes of perception and how our subconscious holds sway over us. This is something I’m least worried about, as I believe a strong resolution and methods of integrating said themes into the game will came naturally upon closer analysis of the design and narrative. As a virtual construct, the game world of Inception has serious hurdles to overcome in that it doesn’t have the luxury of winning over an audience that is participating in a sequential series of predetermined outcomes. Video games, in turn, are a puzzling beast in that they possess equal parts immersion and transparency based on the fact that they are interactive pieces of storytelling largely encumbered by the fact that they don’t want to hold the player’s hand, but ultimately have to if both parties involved are to reach a mutual desired outcome. Bearing that in mind, we can throw the theme of reality out of the window because I’m sorry to say, it’s a moot point in a video game.

Unfortunately, there might have to be glaring omissions from the film that won’t make it into the game. Chalk it up to lack of imagination on my part, but I’m having a hard time figuring out a way to incorporate totems into the game without ultimately falling flat of the profound thematic weight totems carried in the movie in terms of acceptance and letting go of the past. It worked in the movie because Cobb’s ties with his totem were twofold: it represented both his dependence and guilt towards the memory of his wife. What can be said of the player’s emotional bond to whatever totem their character totes around? Thus far, I think the only “totem” I’ve ever felt a tinge of emotion towards was the Weighted Companion Cube in Portal, but I have a feeling this was due to a combination of isolation and GLaDOs’ script.

The theme that I’ve been relying on to flesh out my ideas, as well as the theme I’m hoping the Inception game focuses primarily on is perception, or challenging the players perceptions of the game world as well as his interactions with NPCs. I’m really only scratching the surface of potential here. Having something like, say, Brink‘s competitive drop-in drop-out where actual players could jump into an existing campaign and essentially run a grift on the current player’s campaign progress while satisfying their own set of unique objectives and staying undetected would not only be potentially really fun to design and play, but it’d also be true, if not faithful to the film’s themes and plot points.

——–

Those were just some random ideas and thoughts I had floating around. I have a feeling it’ll be a while before we hear any concrete details about this game, and I’m hoping it doesn’t become vaporware years down the road due to overly ambitious design that fails to fall within the scope of the game’s technical capacity (nothing like what I’ve just outlined, nervous laughter). Ah, well. Even if that ugly outcome rears its head, at least I’ll always be able to play my version of the game… in my dreams

BWWWWAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH

(No subject)

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

This is how we do it, it's Friday night

I’ve been out of the blog game for too many years. There was a time in my life that I was a prolific blogger, clacking away on my keyboard in the insulated security of my own room in a house nested in the impenetrable bubble of middle-class suburbia, waxing faux-philosophical on topics that I had no authority on such as politics, the decline of standards in popular culture, and most of all, relationships. I would attempt to posit myself as a worldly observer, offering insights into the follies of man. Other times, I’d utilize my acerbic wit to deliver screeds on things I hated while simultaneously juggling a self-aware propensity to poke fun at my own cultural shortcomings.

Wait. Disregard all of that. I think I’ve romanticized a lot of my past writing; looking back, my blogging was nowhere near the level of “meaningful” contribution I’ve just described. Mostly, I liked to bitch. A lot.

I’m currently 27 years old, and I’ve spent more than a better half of my post-collegiate life halfway across the globe in Beijing. I’ve just returned back to a flailing economy and zero connections and/or tangible work experience due to my extended sojourn in the Middle Kingdom, and now I’m preparing myself to support my wife emotionally and financially as she prepares to make the big jump out here. I think right now is as good a time as any, to bitch to my heart’s content.

Except, I don’t feel like it. I’m hoping that when I look back five to ten years down the road, I can nod my head in respectful silence as it slowly dawns on me that it was at or around this moment in time that I shook off the vestiges of my angry, youthful self and entered the realm of mature adulthood. It’s not that I’ve entirely grown numb towards the slings and arrows of misfortune, or however I might construe them at this point in my life, but that I’ve learned to make compromises.

Rollin' wit' my homiez

What will I blog about now, then? I can’t give a 100% concrete answer, but I’d venture a guess as to say: games of all shapes and forms. Although my tenure in game development and design was short and sweet, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t face impending Mondays like a prisoner on death row who wasn’t even granted a final meal. I had real passion for what I did; a lot of things that I didn’t know before just clicked over time and as for things I didn’t understand, I put in time and effort to own. That was a great feeling and I’d like to recapture that.

I view this blog as a tool of sorts, one that I’ll use to keep me focused in my endeavor to hold onto that feeling. One thing that pisses me off about mainstream media is its ability to sensationalize events and gloss over the real meaning at hand, but you probably already knew that. Lots of people would say about Kelly Clarkson, “Oh, look, she’s a waitress who happens to have pipes and real talent.” No, wrong. She was an aspiring singer who had a dream and took up waitressing to support that dream. Now, I’m not comparing my plight to hers or saying my level of talent is commensurate with Kelly Clarkson’s vocal abilities; if anything, that’s my way of telling myself that it is entirely possible that I will have to take one, possibly two, or even three more jobs that I don’t have passion for before I break into the games industry out here. Also, I could never be a waitress, on account of the fact that I’m a boy.

Maybe in a couple of years, I can look back on this blog as wistfully as I have with the ones I’ve doted on before and think, “man, what a punk.” That’s the hope, at least. For now, I’ve got my youth, shoes on my feet, and a pocket full of dreams.

How’d that sound, future Robert?

Categories: Life and Such

Hello world!

February 17, 2011 1 comment

“Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!”

Thanks, WordPress. I think I’ll do just that.

Categories: Uncategorized