Opposition: A Small Puzzle Game

Posted in Games, Released Games with tags , on March 5, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

oppositionSo, there’s this cool little tool called PuzzleScript made by Stephen Lavelle. ( Of English Country Tune, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll fame) Maybe you’ve heard of it, or maybe you have not, but either way it’s an extremely easy to use tool for creating certain types of puzzle games. I’ve played a few games made with it, but I finally decided to try making something with it myself and the result is this game:

Play Opposition

I really had a blast designing it, and I hope you enjoy playing it. Let me know what you think of it, and be sure to try out PuzzleScript for yourself if you’re so inclined. :)

Lost Potential, Talos Principle

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games with tags , , , , , on February 20, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Yo Dawg, I heard you like Puzzle Games…

Sometimes when I’m talking to people about games, I describe myself as someone who likes puzzle games. What I tend to fail to communicate without much further effort is that I dislike almost every puzzle game that I have played. I straight-up loath some of them. If I’m talking to someone who says that they don’t like puzzle games, I almost always have the same misgivings about them that they do. There are very few puzzle games that I think are very good, and most puzzles in general are terrible and uninteresting. So what I really mean when I say I like puzzle games, is that I like a very specific kind of puzzle game with a very specific kind of puzzle.

There are two major categories of design from which puzzles can arise. The first category, which tends to be the most common category, is that of the puzzle as obstacle. This type of puzzle is intended to halt the player’s progress until they can solve the puzzle, at which point they will be rewarded with more of the story or perhaps a tasty nugget. The typical adventure game puzzle is of this type. Solutions to these puzzles can often feel arbitrary, even ludicrously so. (As in the cat-hair mustache puzzle) Almost the entire difficulty of the puzzle is due to how illogical they appear from the player’s perspective. The player approaches from the point of needing to unlock a door, but the designer approaches from the other end, coming up with an elaborate obstacle to prevent the player from getting into the castle gardens. Working backwards from there, the designer layers on complexity:

“Okay, the player needs to get a key to unlock the door, but just finding a key is boring, so what if instead the player finds a mold of a key? And of course, all good keys are made of gold, so the player needs to get some gold! But where will the player find the gold? Well, the player still has the golden Magician’s Chastity Belt from the joke at the end of Act 3, so we’ll just have them melt that down! Aha!”

(And so on…)

I do not like this type of puzzle in general.

The second category is the puzzle as illustration of the natural consequences of a system. In this approach, the designer defines the rules of a system and explores the space created by and surrounding those rules. Puzzles are created in order to express the interesting discoveries found by the designer. These types of puzzles are almost guaranteed to be better than puzzles designed using the first method, because a deep system gives you back more than you put into it, whereas a puzzle that comes from the head is only as clever as its designer.

This is a complete shift in approach. Here the puzzle is not an obstacle to the player’s progress, but is the fulcrum of their entire experience. In the previous method, the designer works against the game, hoping to disguise the truth of a series of locked doors and keys. But when a puzzle comes out of the subtleties of a system, it already contains something deeply valuable embedded within it, and the goal of the designer is to work with the game to express that value as well as possible.

These are my favorite type of puzzle, and there is a broad spectrum even within this approach, with better and worse puzzles. But the best puzzles are those that express something fundamentally true. Something that resonates with you. The unmistakable joy of discovering fundamental truth is what separates the great puzzles from the average ones. Without that Richness, a puzzle is just a puzzle. It fails to be memorable and fades into the background radiation of mediocrity.

Witnessing Talos

I would not have played The Talos Principle if it wasn’t for Jonathan Blow streaming the game on Twitch. Even when I first watched him playing it, it still seemed uninteresting, but as happens sometimes when you hear a lot of people talking about a game: you start to feel left out of the conversation. There are also similarities between The Talos Principle and Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness, and since that is the game that I am presently most excited for, I took some time to sit down and play Talos.

I was pleasantly surprised at first. The early puzzles, although straightforward and not particularly difficult, had some cute aspects to them that hinted at a deeper thought process and approach towards design than is evident in most puzzle games. But as I continued on through the game, I started to find the game lacking. I hesitate to use the word boring because I think that is a personal value judgment which fails to contribute to the discussion, but the game did begin to feel flat and repetitive.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of “that’s now how I would design it.” However, since several other people have had similar misgivings with the game, it leads me to believe that I am not entirely up my own ass.

As my father would say, “You either like it or you don’t”, and in that sense I do like The Talos Principle, but there is a certain disappointment that looms over my experience of the game. The Talos Principle is an average puzzle game with a few great puzzles. That is more than enough for most people, but I felt as though the game fell just short of greatness.

One of the biggest design failings of the game is that the puzzles tend to approach difficulty by becoming more elaborate while still remaining relatively straightforward to solve. These “harder” puzzles are simply collections of concepts borrowed from earlier in the game, and they rarely give rise to any unique insight that was not found in their predecessors.

One puzzle in particular is exemplary of this issue.

But First, a Trip Down Memory Lane…

After I had designed a portion of the puzzles in Duet, I started to feel a bit insecure about the games difficulty. Part of what I enjoyed so much about Braid was that the puzzles could be quite hard at times, but here I was with a puzzle-solving game in which almost all the puzzles were easy to solve. Some were so trivial that it was hard to call them puzzles really. I had explored the consequences of the mechanics and assembled some interesting puzzles that I felt good about, but I wondered if people would find the game unsatisfying simply because it wasn’t that difficult.

So I sat down and built a few puzzles which layered concepts from earlier puzzles to form more elaborate sequences. These puzzles certainly took more time to complete, but I found them unsatisfying. Sure, they had a few interesting structural aspects to them, but they felt like a slog and were the worst puzzles in the game. Although I continued to struggle with the feeling that the game was missing something (and that maybe it was that level of difficulty), I ultimately cut the puzzles, feeling that they just didn’t live up to the standard I wanted.

I never really knew what to call those puzzles. They had a certain feeling to them, but I could never put my finger on a word. “Tinker Toy-box,” I thought. But it just didn’t really communicate much.

The Labyrinth

Then I played the puzzle in The Talos Principle called “The Labyrinth” and I knew what the word should be.
A Labyrinth is a puzzle with nothing new to say. It is, like its namesake, a long and arduous road with no branches. As a player, you simply must proceed from the beginning to the end. It is a puzzle whose difficulty lies entirely in execution. It is a thoughtless puzzle. Is it even a puzzle?

Unfortunately, this puzzle is not an outlier but is indicative of a core design problem. The game wears out and obscures the beauty of its concepts through repetition. Although the design of the game follows the design method of a great puzzle game, it is as though the designers didn’t see the truth revealed through the puzzles to be something to admire in and of itself, but rather as a building block for some sort of higher level “puzzle gameplay.” How many times did I have to remember that I could pull a fan off its gears and use it to depress a button? Four times? Five times? I can’t remember. It was brilliant the first time. It stumped me for at least half an hour. But the second time it felt like a cheap prank, and the third time it felt like a betrayal.

I don’t think there was a single puzzle concept in The Talos Principle that didn’t get reused at least once.

A Smart Puzzle

Jon Blow has stated that a good puzzle “knows what it’s about.” Without asking him to elaborate on what he meant by that statement, I can only offer my rough interpretation: I believe that a puzzle meeting this standard must exhibit deliberate intent on the part of the designer to avoid extraneous elements and clearly highlight what makes the puzzle interesting and unique. A puzzle that knows what it is about feels elegant and to-the-point, where one that doesn’t feels overwrought and confusing even after you solve it.

If you are a designer, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of understanding why your puzzles are worthwhile. On the receiving end, the player will be able to tell if you had a clear idea of what the puzzles in your game were about or not. The player is putting trust in you as the designer of the game, and expects that trust to be repaid. They want an interesting and beautiful experience, and since they are already sitting down to play the game, they believe that it is likely that you are going to give that to them. So your job as a designer is not to let them change their mind. This is similar to the suspension-of-disbelief concept in films. Engagement from players must be earned, and not just up front but continually across the entirety of the game.

So what is The Talos Principle about after all? I think the common approach to game understanding would say that the game is about robots attempting to prove their humanity and an omniscient God AI in the sky. I think it’s safe to say that the puzzles have equal presence in the game as the story and thematic elements, so what I’m really talking about is, “what are the mechanics about?” This is a strange way to think about mechanics in games, but I think it applies particularly to this type of puzzle game. I will cover the story in a bit, but since two rarely overlap—A design failing in my personal opinion—it is probably fine to treat the puzzles as their own independent entity. After all, as Thomas Grip said in a conversation on Twitter, “A horror game where an evil man forces you to solve sliding puzzles all day is still a game about solving sliding puzzles.”

There are a lot of mechanics in The Talos Principle, and to cover them all in-depth would probably be the subject of a thesis. I think it will suffice for my present purposes to highlight just one set of mechanics: the laser redirection puzzles.

Laser redirection puzzles are nothing particularly new, and maybe even their implementation in Talos is not out of the ordinary, but I found it to have some very interesting things to say.

I have been thinking about occlusion in my day-to-day life a lot after having played The Talos Principle, and in large part due to the laser redirection puzzles. The puzzles require the player to have line of sight in order to connect the redirection prisms from one point to another, and since the lasers cannot pass through solid objects, the prism must be placed at a position with a clear view of all its connections. This set of mechanics cause you to think about the environment in a different way, to pay attention to how things go from being hidden to being revealed as you move around. So in some sense the puzzles say fundamental things about what it means to observe from a fixed point of perspective inside a three-dimensional world.

Part of building a great puzzle means that you take that understanding, that core revelation, and you design the puzzle as an artful presentation of it. You architect the experience of discovery, and you can be sure that what is discovered is interesting because you had the same experience of discovery yourself. The puzzle is just an artifice which points in the direction of the truth. It beckons the player to pursue and reveal it. I would say that Talos does not do as good of a job at this as it could. There are a few puzzles that really hit on something deep, but the aimless feel of the rest of the game makes the poignancy feel like it was just luck on the part of the designers.

It is very important to maintain the clarity of your puzzles as the game goes through an art treatment, because art can have subtle impacts on how the puzzle is perceived by the player. One way in which Talos’s laser redirection puzzles fail at this is in maintaining a rigid correlation between what is visible and where a laser can be directed. Since the puzzle rooms can often be maze-like, there are some windows in the walls to allow players to find their bearings. But because lasers could be redirected through those windows, in order to construct proper challenges it is required to have some sort of window through which the player can see but lasers cannot be redirected.

This perhaps could have been accomplished with some sort of force-field, or even a glass that absorbs lasers. (Which would have allowed for glass which lets one color laser pass and not another, opening up more puzzle possibilities) Instead, the designers of The Talos Principle chose to have these walls be iron bar fences, which somehow do not allow lasers to be passed through the spaces in the bars. According to the mechanics of the game, a laser should be able to be directed towards any spot which is visible, but there is a direct clash between the art and the mechanisms of the game. The art says there is open space between the bars of the fence, but the mechanics say that the fence is completely solid and lasers cannot pass through it at all. In a sense, the art is lying to the player. It is confounding why such a poor decision was made in the art treatment.

It is not my ambition to shit all over the game or it’s designers, so I’d like to highlight one other aspect of the laser puzzles that I found insightful. There are puzzles in Talos where you sort of bootstrap something into working that otherwise would not have worked at all, by providing a laser that is only temporarily required. The power is applied and then it can be safely removed. It’s another fundamental concept, and I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s similar to jump starting a car, or the way in which static friction takes more force to overcome than kinetic friction. It takes more force to get an object moving than to it does to keep it there. Whatever it is called, it is another beautiful and sublime puzzle concept. It resonates because it illustrates something that is fundamentally true, not just within the confines of the game world, but also in the real world.

A lot of what I’ve said here could be interpreted as a suggestion that there is a recipe to greatness in puzzle game design, but I don’t believe that’s true. Although systemic behavior is a necessary ingredient, sometimes decisions must be made on just gut instinct. This dichotomy between logic and intuition can be difficult to reconcile.

In Talos, the laser redirection puzzles were extended by allowing for a second laser type of a different color. This means that a decision had to be made as to what the rules of interaction between the two lasers would be. There is no real right answer here. Although the decision was made that the lasers would not be allowed to overlap, they could have just as easily passed through each other. There are other gameplay possibilities which could have been possible under these rules that are not possible under the chosen rule-set. For instance, there easily could have been more colors of laser. Perhaps multiple colors could be shined through the same redirection prism, producing a composite color laser. However, the decision was made by the designers that there would only be two colors, and that they would not be able to cross each other, and out of this decision comes a certain set of gameplay.

We can look at all the decisions that must made as part of the design process as branches on a great tree of possibilities. At the far ends of all the branches are a certain number of leaves, which are the life of the puzzles. If we were to start at the base of the tree and trace our way up, we must make decisions along the way about which branch we choose to follow. Some branches may seem large at first, but perhaps they are broken off at some point and there are not many leaves on them to be found. Perhaps an unassuming branch is just full of leaves that we wouldn’t have expected to find. It is the nature of puzzle game design that you can never truly know all of the possibilities that you have missed out on based on a decision you made earlier in the design process. There is art to all good game design, but there is also an element of luck that should not be discounted.

On To the Story

Similar to the design of the puzzles themselves, I think there are two basic approaches to narrative design in puzzle games. The first type of design is to come up with a story independently and attempt to marry it with the mechanics of the game. This can be successful perhaps in rare cases, but I tend to think that the only real benefit that this type of design can guarantee is that, if your story is good, it can be a welcome break and rest for your mind between the hard work of puzzle-solving.

The second type of narrative arises from and is therefore integrated with the mechanics of the game. I would call this Illustrative Narrative. Comparable to illustrations in a book, this method sees narrative not as an alternative to puzzle solving, but as a layer of interpretation on top of it. It is story used as a different avenue of expression to enhance the players overall understanding. It stands outside of but lacks meaning without the text, which in this case is the gameplay.
A great example of this type of storytelling is found in The Swapper. The mechanics of the game involve the player using a device to make clones of themselves. This creates a ton of interesting gameplay, which would be totally fine without any sort of narrative framework. However the game creates effective storytelling by also exploring the moral and psychological consequences of such a device.

This type of story makes the game better because it offers a different perspective on the mechanics of the game. It encourages the player to step outside the abstract mode of puzzle solving and think about the puzzles in a more literal way.

The Talos Principle uses the first method, and is left with a story that, although enjoyable, fails to connect to the puzzles in any meaningful way. The mechanics are mostly talking about movement through and partitioning of space, while the story is about consciousness and what it means to be human. The gulf between the mechanics and the narrative is a huge missed opportunity, but I don’t have any great suggestions for alternative stories. The mechanics of a game of any complexity will always be the primary focus of the player’s attention, and good game storytelling involves embracing this rather than fighting against it. Although the game does well by providing multiple levels of engagement with the story, it is sometimes preferable to forgo story if the alternative is to create something incoherent when taken as a whole work.

References:

Designing to Reveal The Nature of the Universe—An IndieCade talk by Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch:

A Talos Principle Review:

For some interesting musings on alternative approaches to game storytelling:

http://hitboxteam.com/designing-game-narrative

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2014/04/4-layers-narrative-design-approach.html

An excerpt from Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130586/book_excerpt_a_theory_of_game_.php

Title image via reddit:

http://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/2d48fa/tetris/

Using Sublime Text 3 For Handmade Hero

Posted in Handmade Hero with tags , , , on November 25, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Please note that this guide is intended as a supplement to the main video series for users who would rather use Sublime Text than Emacs, and does not cover all aspects of setting up your development environment. Namely the Visual Studio setup, which is the same regardless of what editor you are using. However, I have attempted to be as thorough as possible. If there are any errors or glaring omissions in this guide, please contact me on twitter @mvandevander and I will resolve them as soon as possible. Once again, although Sublime Text is cross-platform, this guide is not. I would appreciate any tips that would help the guide to be more cross-platform as well. :)

Setting Up the Command Line

Download Handmade Hero and put the source code inside a directory somewhere that you will remember. I put mine in “C:\Users\Matthew\Documents\Programming”, but anywhere is fine.

Create a batch file named startup.bat and place it in the Windows “Startup” folder, which can be found in the start menu or at “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup”

Inside the startup.bat file, you will want to put the following, replacing the directory on the right-hand side with the directory which contains the “build” and “handmade” folders:

subst w: C:\Users\Matthew\Documents\Programming

Now after this batch file is run, W:\ will point directly to that directory. Double click the file to run it. Since we put the batch file inside the Startup folder, it will run every time windows is booted and we won’t have to worry about setting it again.

Note for Windows 8 users: Once again Microsoft has seen fit to make things harder and more complex for users who want to get things done. On Windows 8, when you “run as administrator”, it is considered a different user than your base account. Therefore subst will take effect under the “user” that you ran it from. If it is run from cmd as admin, you have it there but it doesn’t show up in explorer normally, and if you just run it without the admin privileges, it won’t show up if you run cmd as administrator. So be sure that you are not running cmd from a shortcut set to launch it as administrator. We will never need a command prompt with admin privileges. Also be aware that there appear to be issues if you actually do subst the same directory under both and admin and a normal user account.

Create a new shortcut on your desktop (Right Click->New->Shortcut) and paste the following into the location box:

C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe /k w:\handmade\misc\shell.bat

Name it “cmd” or whatever you like.

Right click on the new shortcut and hit Properties to edit it. On the Shortcut tab, under “Start In”, Put W:\. Feel free to go to the Colors tab and change the text and background colors to whatever you like. Here are some nice values:

Screen text: 200, 180, 100

Screen background: 20, 20, 20

Pop-up text: 20, 20, 20

Pop-up background: 200, 180, 100

While we’re at it, let’s go to the Font tab and change that awful default font to something nice. I chose Lucida Console at size 14.

Adding Sublime Text to the Mix

Download Sublime Text 3 and extract it into a directory you will remember. I put mine in C:\sublimetext

Inside W:\handmade\misc, add a new batch file called “edit.bat” which we will use to launch Sublime Text.

Put the following code inside edit.bat, changing the directory to the one you put Sublime Text in:


@echo off

start C:\sublimetext\sublime_text %1

Now if we click our desktop shortcut, we can open Sublime Text by typing “edit” and hitting return. We can even open up files by appending them to the edit command like so:

edit handmade\code\win32_handmade.cpp

If Microsoft Visual Studio is installed, we should also be able to build our game from that command line, by typing “build” and hitting return. Magnifico!

Integrating Our Build System with Sublime Text

But what would be really awesome is if we could get our builds working from inside Sublime Text with just a keypress!

Open Sublime Text. Go to Tools->Build System->New Build System

The contents of the file should look like this.


{

"shell_cmd": "build",

"file_regex": "^ *([A-z]:.*)[(]([0-9]+)[)]"

}

Save the build system file as “handmade.sublime-build”, and make sure it saves into the User subdirectory of Sublime Text. (It should by default)

Now if we open win32_handmade.cpp inside Sublime Text and select our new “handmade” build type from Tools->Build System, we can build the project by pressing F7 or Ctrl+B. We can even jump between any build errors by using F4 and Shift+F4. Neat!

So far, this is all going pretty great. But we can make it a little better by installing a couple of packages. In order to make installing packages easy, we will want to first install a plugin called Package Control. We can do that by going to this website and following the instructions there.

After you have installed Package Control, go to Preferences->Package Control, and on the pop-up click Install Package. You will want to get SublimeLinter, SublimeLinter-annotations, and Highlight Build Errors.

Exit and reload Sublime.

Now all of our TODOs will be marked, and we will get line highlights for every build error.

Additional Tweaks

If you would like to change the settings for the highlighting, there are lots of options that you can access simply by right clicking in any code window and going under the SublimeLinter submenu.

I would suggest changing the Gutter Theme to None to remove the dots in the sidebar, and changing the Mark Style to Fill. Keep in mind though, that if you want to use the other linting features of SublimeLinter, most of those require those Gutter marks.

You can also edit the JSON file directly by either clicking Open User Settings from that menu, or you can go to Preferences->Package Settings->SublimeLinter->Settings – User. I am not sure why (probably a bug), but for some reason the settings file will be blank unless you have made changes to it from the right-click menu. To get the file to fill out, you have to save it and reload it.

I would suggest tweaking the file by adding “NOTE” to the list of warnings, so that NOTE is highlighted in our code. So that section will read like this:

"warnings": [

"TODO",

"NOTE",

"README"

]

We’re all set and ready to rock now! Happy heroing!

Alien Isolation, Ludonarrative Consonance, and Soft Rules

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Reviews, Games with tags , , , , on October 26, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Alien
I am amazed at how difficult it is for me to talk about my thoughts on Alien Isolation without talking about Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Perhaps that reflects negatively on the game since it fails to stand on it’s own, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think that Alien Isolation is simply the first AAA horror game to take direct cues from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In that regard, it is somewhat successful in recreating the tension found in that game. And somewhat unsuccessful in many other aspects.

So what do Alien and Amnesia share at their core? They are both horror simulators, games which put a disadvantaged player in a spooky environment with a deadly monster. Perhaps you could call them the antithesis to the power fantasy. Unlike Amnesia, in Alien you do actually get weapons as you go through the game, but they are extremely ineffectual. You always encounter enemies in groups, so even if you can bash one over the head with a wrench then another will be sure to shoot you in the head while you are doing so. And of course the Alien is pretty much invincible, much as it should be, so direct confrontation is just a no-go in that department.

I have been playing the game on the hardest difficulty level, which is the suggested way to play the game. In this mode, all enemies can spot you fairly quickly across the map. If you can see their eyes, they can see you. Or, in the case of the Alien, which has no eyes, if you can see it at all, it might see you. The game is brutal and death comes quick. You can still sometimes outrun a pursuer, unless that pursuer happens to be the Alien.

Though I found myself tempted to lower the difficulty upon hitting a wall early on, I still think it is the proper way to experience the game. Since Isolation is a horror simulator, it only makes sense to have a low chance of survival when sneaking around through a facility that is full of threats, including a 9 foot tall murderbeast. Hard difficulty creates the greatest opportunity for frustration, but it ups the overall tension of the game tremendously.

As terrifying as the classic monster design is, when viewed too closely, it appears as a goofy off-balance looking video game creature with imperfect animation. Knowing that you cannot get a good look at the Alien without being murdered allows the monster to retain at least a modicum of mystery and horror. When only seen from afar, it does better at remaining what it was designed to be: a lightning fast death machine. The mind is the greatest tool for terror.

Unlike Amnesia, Alien Isolation is a game that is so much better at tension than it is at elucidating genuine panic. The build-up to inevitably being spotted is intense, often unbearably so, but after being spotted, there is usually not much to do other than just watch yourself die. Amnesia had several sequences in which the player runs as fast as they can away from a monster and narrowly escapes with their life.

However, the downside to attempting these types of sequences is that they are rarely repeatable. If the player slips up and is killed by a monster, frustration occurs almost immediately if they are asked to repeat the same flight of terror sequence. Amnesia got around this in some ways through its unusual treatment of death. When the player died, they would be teleported somewhere else in the level, and something about the game world would be subtly changed. This definitely alleviates some of the possibility of fear turning to frustration, but there is only so far you can go. It is likely that Alien Isolation, with it’s rigid save structure, would’ve been more likely to spend undue amounts of time in the frustration spectrum.

There are several different types of enemies to encounter in Alien Isolation, but the best part of the game is the encounters with the titular creature. This is good, as it would have been easy to have had a game that failed to deliver the goods, but Isolation may suffer from the opposite problem: too much of a good thing. I think that the game would’ve benefitted from some heavy editing, leaving a much shorter game with more downtime between the appearances of the Alien. Giving the player a breather is a quite important tool for pacing a horror game properly. Amnesia did much better in this department as well, although it slips somewhat towards the end.

Ludonarrative Dissonance has become the sort of term in games writing that induces eyes to roll out of people’s skulls, across the hall and down the emergency stairs. However, I think it is important to recognize that game mechanics which do not match up with their narrative trappings is pretty much the status quo for video games. Therefore it is also notable that Alien: Isolation does not follow this trend. All of the verbs afforded the player are explicitly designed to play into the horror fantasy. You can hide in closets or under tables, you can lean back into the shadows and hold your breath. Guns are all but useless except for drawing attention.

I think some players misunderstand the intention of the mechanics. The “mini-games” that you play to open doors or otherwise progress through the game are not designed to be fun or exciting. They are designed to facilitate a specific experience. Yes, they almost always take excessive amount of time for a simple action, involve pressing an obscure button combination in a very deliberate way, or matching things that are stupidly easy to match. But when you are scampering across a hallway and attempting to unlock a door, your heart pounding because the Alien could come back at any moment it creates a tense moment that echoes the classic “struggling with the keys” moment from many slasher flicks. That is what it is designed to do and it is undeniably successful at that. Calling it “work” or “boring” is simply missing the point.

I think there is room for “soft rules” in computer games. Rules not explicitly enforced by the computer, but which by following, the player will be most likely to enjoy the game. We already have to concede that we will never be able to fully deal with “asshole players,” but the vast majority of players actually do want to play along and have the intended experience. I think Alien Isolation made a big mistake in not aping Amnesia in this department. A simple message at the start along the lines of, “This is a horror experience, do not play to win. Try to let the mechanics of the game fall out of your mind and instead focus on role-playing as if you were actually in the scenarios depicted. Play in short sessions and take breaks whenever you are tired.”

It might seem condescending to suggest to your players that they might be playing the game wrong, but the fact of the matter is that games have trained people over decades that the best way to play them is to approach with an analytical mindset; dive deep, deconstruct their systems and look for exploits. Alien Isolation, simply put, is a bore to play that way. Even Amnesia, which I consider to be the scariest video game ever made, falls flat if you play it like other games. So I think that through soft rules, we can at least in some part counteract the possibility of players who will choose to play the game “wrong” and thereby negatively impact their own experience.

There is certainly an argument to be made that any computer game that can be played wrong is, in fact, designed wrong. However, I think by accepting that some players will have a bad experience because they have disregarded a suggested method of play, we open up the possibilities for the experiences that games can deliver immensely. I would argue that without soft rules, games cannot truly be scary, since they are inherently built upon systems which can be deconstructed, picked apart, and ultimately understood. Irrational emotions require an irrational mindset to experience. Terror requires its object to be vast and unknowable, so by deconstructing enemy AI routines, we ruin the fun of being terrified.

Some people read books back to front. We don’t need to worry about those people, or hang out with them. They sound dreadful.

So yes, Alien Isolation is not designed to entertain, it is designed to recreate a certain type of experience. Crawling through a ventilation duct with a glaring flashlight and a loudly beeping motion detector, with nowhere to turn and the possibility of dying at any moment. Alien Isolation lets you live out these moments. Does the overarching story or characters rival the Ridley Scott classic? No, of course not. In fact, they suck, but it doesn’t matter. The story in the game is basically just an excuse for the gameplay experiences.

Alien Isolation is a true horror game. It is a simulation of powerlessness, of helplessness. Survival is optional.

Some VR thoughts…

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

So, my last post was definitely reactionary. Though at this moment I have not went back to read over it so I’m not entirely sure what my feelings were at the time. But as for now, I have still not cancelled my DK2 preorder, and it is now July, the month when it is supposed to ship out.

My thoughts on the Facebook acquisition now go something like this: I think it’s good for VR, but ultimately bad for Oculus in the long term. Facebook is no less creepy, and I still think they will do bad things if they have access to retina or iris identifying information through a HMD. Or even if they only get gaze tracking. Facebook has not shown discipline when it comes to handling a large amount of personal and private information, so I don’t expect that pattern to reverse itself.

I am also disappointed with the way that the VR community (particularly in the oculus subreddit) has finally joined the rest of the internet in consisting primarily of entitled morons and assholes. I may be excited about the concept of VR, but I maintain a healthy skepticism about the reality of it. Oculus has a lot of challenges ahead of it.

They still don’t have a good input solution, for one. And it’s impossible to say what the level of VR that a general public will accept or consider valuable enough to overcome the dorkiness will be. Is a 1440p screen enough. Is a seated experience enough? Is a gamepad enough?

Certainly for a small audience of enthusiastic and hopeful techy people, we can put up with a device with a lot of shortcomings. I mean, we’re willing to dismiss when a device makes us physically ill, for Christ’s sake!

But we are not normal people. We are dedicated and frankly, at this point, a lot of us are crazy. We believe so strongly in an idea, that some of us can’t stand the possibility of disillusionment. We don’t want our bubbles burst.

So what is VR going to be? Not the holo deck, and not the matrix. At least not anytime soon. Instead it’s at least going to be a box you strap to your head that some people think is too heavy and too low resolution, and too expensive, and whatever else.

If that’s all it is, then it won’t succeed. But the jury is out on what Oculus will bring to the table as far as a consumer product, and what ultimately will be enough to satisfy a general public.

Even still, it’s not satisfaction that counts for mainstream success. It’s not novelty. It’s applicability. It’s utility. The average person needs to see how it is too difficult to live WITHOUT VR in order to convince them to live with it. So it needs to have practical applications that outweigh any downsides.

And there will be downsides. It will either still make people sick sometimes, or the resolution will still be impractically low, or the tracking will be a bit…unreliable. Or something. Nothing is perfect, especially when it has to be designed as a one size fits all device.

So this is all a bit ranty, as it’s quite early in the morning at this point. But I felt it would be worth while to follow up on my last post about VR with some of my later thoughts. Still haven’t even tried VR, so it’s just musing anyways.

Rooting For The Little Guy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 26, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Facebook, you probably have one, you may even use it every day. You probably kinda hate it too. Don’t feel too bad, you’re just like everyone else on Facebook. Remember when we were excited about social media? Now it has become a basic utility we use to keep in touch with each other. Nobody is excited about Facebook, just like nobody is excited about the power company.

What is it that keeps us using it then? Thumbing through our news feeds with glazed eyes and a sort of blasé attitude? Is it the dopamine release you get from seeing a new post? Is it that little squirt inside your brain’s reward center when you check a notification, only to find out that it was so-and-so’s birthday for 12 hours today and actually you just don’t care? Why are you Friends with him anyway? Randomized schedule, randomized rewards. It’s the definition of a Skinner box.

Or maybe we really do just like staying connected to people. Even if in a strange and ethereal way, maybe it’s totally good natured friendliness. If it is, you have to admit that rummaging through dozens of personal pictures of all your friends would’ve sounded pretty creepy about a decade ago. Now it’s an afternoon’s leisure activity. They posted those pictures expecting you to look at them. It’s a strange mixture of desperation and honesty.

On top of all this mostly harmless but potentially creepy windowing into our personal lives and thoughts, Facebook is building an empire. They are logging all those status updates, geotagging your pictures, and using facial recognition to find you in others. They are mining through your “private” messages to friends to find keywords that might, just might, suggest that you’d be the type of person who likes to “Eat Fresh.” You may know this, you may have come to accept it, but I guarantee that you have friends, real life people you care about, that are oblivious that they are being spied on by Facebook. Or that anyone, anywhere, can read their posts if they know their name, including the government.

“So how did it get this way?” An outside observer might ask. “Who would ever choose this dystopian nightmare?”

We were never really given that choice exactly. It happened through a long process of accretion, like water wearing away a boulder. The argument was never “Do I want a Facebook that spies on me and sells my identity or no Facebook at all,” it instead became “well, Facebook with ads is better than paying for Facebook, I guess,” and, “well, Facebook with targeted ads is better than Facebook with more ads, I guess.” If you make the damage smaller and dose it out over time, it becomes easier to accept. Frog in the pot with the heat slowly turned up. You stick around instead of running because there’s no shock.

So why does this matter? Why care? I mean, it’s just Facebook. Don’t use it if you don’t like it. (Full disclosure: I do have a Facebook, bear with me) Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Facebook has a profile for you, even if you aren’t a member. They are gathering data on you from wherever they can get it. Shadow profiles. Once you come, you can never leave, they keep your profile information indefinitely on their servers.

So all this seems pretty creepy, not exactly a “Friend” you’d want to hang around with, you know, virtually. Related or not to the creepy factor, they have been bleeding users in the past several years, particularly young ones. They’re moving on to Twitter or whatever the Next Big Thing is. So this puts Facebook, a company in the business of owning your online identity, in a bit of a bind.

The natural thing for a large company to do at this point is to start “diversifying their portfolio.” Or buying up smaller companies in order to broaden their income base. Thus far, Facebook has primarily been buying up other social media platforms. More or less trying to just own the Next Big Thing before it becomes even bigger than Facebook. It’s like MySpace buying Facebook while it still required a .edu email address.

So far that seems to have worked out fairly well for them. After two years, you still wouldn’t know Instagram was a part of Facebook unless someone told you. (I didn’t) And the strategy of not micromanaging has allowed it to continue to grow slowly. But the management style may change with time. In fact, they announced recently that they will be replacing foursquare integration in Instagram with Facebook Places, their in-house solution. So perhaps it has already changed.

All this has somehow lead up to a $2bn acquisition of Oculus. That’s right, Facebook, a company which makes a product which your Mom probably uses every day, is acquiring a hardware company. Not only that, but one that is currently targeting hardcore gamers who want to feel completely immersed in a video game. Don’t see the pattern here? Most people don’t, and Facebook’s stock dipped accordingly.

As with Instagram, Facebook has made the bargain with fans of Oculus that “they won’t change a thing.” And that’s great for VR, but probably not so great for Oculus. Because although I believe them, it’s only to a point. They won’t change anything as long as they believe that they can’t improve their profits by doing so.

Oculus is going to be huge. VR is going to be huge. There’s no avoiding it. It’s a revolution in the way that we consume media, and it has the potential to change the way we think of “reality.” And Facebook is ready to ride this wave to the top. They will be building their version of the Metaverse, the virtual world inside the real one, where we keep in touch with our old friends and loved ones.

But even though VR will stick around forever, Oculus will not continue growing forever. They will slow down. It is the nature of business to grow until the market is filled. But Facebook is a publicly traded company which answers to many disinterested investors. These people want a return on their investment, they want year-over-year growth. If the percentage growth goes down from last year, they want to know why.

Of course this is preposterous, as maintaining a solid percentage growth every year is an exponential curve, and nothing can grow exponentially forever. This is why markets bust and bubbles form. People are terrible at estimating complex non-linear equations. It’s just not something we’ve had to be good at, evolutionarily speaking. So they make bets on the future of businesses expecting the trend of the moment to continue longer than it will.

So once Oculus plateaus, or begins to plateau, or looks like it might possibly maybe be thinking about plateauing, the squeeze is on from the investors. This is the point at which Facebook gets involved in Oculus. This is when we get blue Facebook branded headsets with the “thumbs up” on it. This is when you have to implicitly sign an invasive EULA just to open the box.

This seems to be the major concern of many of Oculus’s fans, that Facebook is going to ruin Oculus. That they will need a Facebook account in order log into Oculus Share. That games will require advertisements overlaid on top of them.

This is not my concern however. That will all be happening a while after VR is officially “a thing.” So if you’re worried about that, please stop.

My concern is for my own self. My own moral integrity. It shows a lot about who you are as a person or a company by who you choose to partner with. And Facebook, regardless of how they are “planning on ruining Oculus” or not, is a company that has shown a willingness to be deceitful towards it’s users if it’s in Facebook’s best interest. They are not, in my opinion, a company that has shown moral fiber. And now Oculus is associated with them.

So what does that look like? A company with moral fiber? Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of big ones. It seems that when companies reach a certain size, they are seduced by the Dark Side, so to speak. But a few that come to mind from the gaming space are RAD Game Tools, Mojang, and until now, Oculus.

So what has changed at Oculus when they insist so deeply that “nothing has changed?” They have chosen to associate themselves with what I would consider an immoral company. And not just in a superficial way, they are literally part of that company now. Facebook and Oculus will forever be synonymous. So if I don’t trust Facebook, I don’t trust Oculus.

So why do I care? Why do I feel betrayed? Because I believed in Oculus. I thought of it like a group of friends, not just another company, even though that’s really all it was. I should’ve known better really. After they accepted Venture Capitalist money, the writing was really already on the wall. VCs are always looking for a quick buck, a ROI, a buyout.

I ordered a Developer Kit with big plans on making content and helping Oculus “change the world.” Now, I don’t want to help Facebook change anything, certainly not the world. I’d rather they just rot into the dust and go away than reshape the world in their image.

The thought of a company with shaky morals putting it’s weight behind the most significant technological and social revolution since the internet kinda turns my stomach. So it’s scary.

It was nice rooting for the little guy for a while. It was nice feeling able to trust a company like Oculus who was changing the world. Now they are part of something bigger, something scarier, and I don’t trust it one bit.

So the question is, what am I supposed to do about it? I still have my DK2 on order, but I am not sure why. I don’t know that I feel comfortable actually developing anything with it. That makes me just a consumer buying a product, and as Palmer and Nate so earnestly pleaded, “Consumers shouldn’t buy DK2, we don’t want consumers to buy DK2.”

Muck-rakers

Posted in Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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When I wrote my original thoughts about Bioshock Infinite, I was worried that I would be the only dissenting opinion among a sea of praise. A couple of weeks later, turns out my fears were pretty unfounded, and many others have joined in creating a real dialogue about the game. I’m glad to see this happening, with lots of diverse opinions and thoughts being shared. This has honestly been the best thing about Bioshock Infinite’s release; it seems to have been very thought-provoking to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion seems to have be boiled down to a question of if the game is too violent. Although the level of violence in the game is certainly a cause for concern, and arguably limits the audience of potential players. I feel as though there is a certain amount of nuance that has been lost. The game is a hodgepodge of things that just don’t fit well together, namely ultraviolent power fantasy and a strong but naive heroine with whom we empathize. There is nothing wrong with the violence, but because it is nothing new for a game to be ultra violent, and it is very new for a game to have anyone with whom we empathize, the empathy element is what most gamers will find most striking. Still, for the sake of engaging the current discussion, I will try to address the violence argument.

Jim Sterling wrote an excellent rebuttal of the desire of a player to “turn off” the combat or have alternate methods for getting through confrontations. He is absolutely right about this not really being what should be reasonably expected from a sequel to the previous Bioshocks. He is also very right about the game being “about violence,” which is a fact that anyone who is unapologetic about game storytelling can plainly see. It is impossible to tell a story about anything but violence when 90% of the story consists of blowing people’s heads off.

However, I feel like his assessment suggests that the game actually has anything interesting to say about the violence. Which, apart from some scripted violent cutscenes, it doesn’t. Nearly all of the violence in the game has absolutely nothing to do with storytelling, and is simply feedback for the mechanics. The combat sequences aren’t “about” anything. They are simply there to give the player something to do.

Is Bioshock Infinite a game in a series of shooters? Yes, it is. Did I suddenly expect that Infinite would stop being excessively violent to the detriment of effective pacing or character development? Not really.

But I hoped.

For me, the promise of the Bioshock series has absolutely nothing to do with Carbines or Vigors or Motorized Patriots. The thing that reached me about the first Bioshock was the setting and the themes. Rapture was just a great place to be in, it felt like there was so much atmosphere to soak up. It was very compelling, in a Dear Esther sort of way, to just explore that world. Using my Plasmids on Splicers only occasionally fit into this experience, but was mostly a diversion from my grand archaeology dig through failed utopia.

I think a lot of people who played Bioshock feel pretty similar about it. The little sister choice, the drama of failed dreams, and the beautiful disaster of Rapture were what was interesting, not shocking and wrenching splicers until the genetically-modified cows come home.

It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is about Infinite that makes it more egregious than both the prior games in the series. My first guess is that it’s the presence of Elizabeth. The team at Irrational actually succeeded at making a companion that “you care about.” So when she reacts so negatively to the violent outbursts that the game forces you into, it is a really uncomfortable place for the player to be seated. Most gamers, believe it or not, are not sociopaths, and would much rather not kill people if they are being called “a monster,” for doing so. This immediately puts the player at odds with the game design, which is obviously built around a power fantasy of zapping dudes with force lightning and then blasting them with a shotgun until their heads explode.

Half of the game wants me to feel like a monster, and the other wants me to feel powerful and awesome while mowing down waves of nameless people. The thing is, the half that wants me to feel like a monster is Elizabeth, a character who is purposely designed to be easy to empathize with. She is cartoonishly adorable, which has led many people to call her “a Disney princess.” However, no matter how hurt I am that this princess is cowering from me, I have no choice but to tell her to suck it up because “what did you think was going to happen, it’s a shooter!”

I have to kill hundreds of people in order to finish the game. I want to enjoy killing those people, or else this is going to be really tedious. But Elizabeth wants me to stop killing. Even if the story is somehow about the inevitability of violence in this situation, that still doesn’t explain why the violence is so excessive. I don’t just shoot one guy in the face when Elizabeth first calls me a monster. (Though that would be quite enough for most people to see me that way.) Instead, I mercilessly clear a whole room full of people.

If this were an isolated incident of mass murder, it might not be a problem. But it is not only repeated many times throughout the game; the encounters actually increase in the number of enemies and decrease in their narrative reason to exist.

A good example of a completely unnecessary combat sequence is in the boardwalk area, right before you get to the entrance to the Hall of Heroes. Booker and Elizabeth are walking towards the entrance and the story is moving at a slow but deliberate pace. Tension is being built because we can only imagine what will happen in this new location. However, the tension is broken prematurely by a fight with a dozen or so people who come out of nowhere and start shooting at Booker. Booker dispatches them with some gusto, while Elizabeth cowers behind a statue. Once the last skull has been exploded, Booker and Liz walk in silence into the Hall of Heroes.

If you don’t see how this is pointless in regards to storytelling, and simply tedious as a gameplay segment, then you must be blind. Who were those people Booker killed? As far as I can tell, the game never explains who the people you are fighting are. Maybe they are militant citizens, maybe police of some kind. Either way, the violence at this moment served no storytelling purpose whatsoever. If the goal was to remind us that we are not safe just standing around the boardwalk, why did we just have a sequence in which the player can do just that? It’s not only a useless moment, but in context it actually undermines the pacing of the story.

As the game goes on, the combat sequences increase in frequency, and the length of time you can wander without running into trouble from nameless people with weapons consequently decreases. Although this shift in pacing actually helps the game to feel less tedious, because a player can start to feel comfortable with the incessant onslaught of murder. It is actually a move in a direction that is, I believe, less interesting. The emotional core of the game resides with Elizabeth. The player wants to get to know her better and relishes quiet moments where some real character development happens, like the infamous musical scene in the basement of a bar.

However, quiet moments with Elizabeth are few and far between, and become increasingly more so as the game goes on. We get separated from Elizabeth, so that we can find our way back again. The designers know that the desire to see Elizabeth is the best motivator for the player, so they use her as the carrot on the stick multiple times. She is part character, part damsel-in-distress. Part a real breathing human with wants and desires, part an object which exists as a maguffin for gameplay.

There is clearly a lot going on Infinite, and I feel like many of my criticisms are less about this game, and more about games in general. Is Bioshock Infinite unusually violent for a videogame? No. Does it have a well-paced story with good character development compared to most contemporary videogames? Yes. Is it pretty intellectual and heady with its themes when most games struggle with even having themes? Certainly. The problem is that Infinite is surrounded with a sea of games which are too dumb and too violent for any normal (read: non-gamer) person to have an inkling of interest in playing them. It only stands out because it is surrounded by dog-food.

It’s pretty delicious, for dog-food.

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