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. 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

20130412-180450.jpg

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.

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 2

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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This essay is part of a series, you can read the previous part here.

Please bear in mind that this is not a review and is criticism based on only having played the first 6 hours of the game. Things may change as I continue though the game, in which case I may write more. But I do feel these are valid points regardless.

Bioshock Infinite is a deeply conflicted game. If you listen, you can hear the reverberations of earthquakes rumbling deep below it’s lush exterior. The different composite parts of Infinite, as we rarely think of them inside the gaming bubble, are rubbing together awkwardly and generating friction like a poorly engineered machine.

Individually, these parts are all quite beautiful and well crafted. The gameplay is unique and groundbreaking for the shooter genre. Skylines are a joy to interact with and feel exhilarating. There is a ton of shit to collect that feels valuable, plenty of skills to discover, and lots of unique ways to engage in combat; more or less effectively. The story is very impressive for the genre, but also for games in general: it actually draws on interests and ideas which stretch outside of the mainstream science fantasy and fantasy fantasy wells that give life to most other games. It delves into issues of racism, and explores “what if” questions that have circled inside my brain for years. The game is a picturesque place, every inch of Columbia is screenshot-perfect. Every scene looks like a postcard painted by Norman fucking Rockwell. It is gorgeous and lush, an undeniable aesthetic experience.

(As an aside, I’m sure the audio is actually good if I have one of those fancy surround sound systems, but it seems increasingly as though developers are just dumping decent stereo mixing by the wayside as “old-fashioned.” That’s probably our industry’s undeniable tech lust speaking.)

But all these beautifully polished parts don’t fit together quite as well as the mainstream games press would have you believe. Or rather, most critics seem happy to ignore how these parts of the game feel completely separate and hot-glued together. They feel like different games.

Bioshock Infinite represents a turning point, definitely for the first-person shooter genre, but possibly for games in the large. It is the first shooter I have played that ACTUALLY has me spending more time walking around than shooting at anything. The reason that you do this is because every time you get into combat it completely undermines the story that Ken Levine wants you to hear. So what are we doing instead of fighting? Looting the shit out of everything. Walking around and staring at people. Hoping Liz has something to say about anything. Anything. Is this much better than shooting?

I’ll would like to leave that as a rhetorical question, but I will say that I personally believe it does much less to damage a story than randomly having action scenes spewed about because “we were afraid that players might get bored,” or for no reason whatsoever. But I am not certain that the actions that we are doing in Infinite are serving an ideal of actually helping tell the story. They seem mostly unrelated.

Bioshock Infinite is the first shooter that I have seen to actually have another character react to your prescribed psychopathy. Elizabeth is just too naive, too innocent to not call you out for the monster you are. “I might as well get used to it, I guess,” the invisible hand of the writer waves away all emotion and empathy from Liz in less than 2 minutes, because “Sorry, you might’ve gotten bored there.” At least Lara Croft fucking cried when she murdered somebody for the first time in the new “gritty” Tomb Raider, even if it is ultimately just as hand wavy about getting on to “the fun stuff.”

Bioshock Infinite is so great in all of it’s disparate parts. Elizabeth is probably as great as she can be in a game that is trying to let you shoot lots of different kinds of things in different kinds of ways with different amounts of auto-aim. The story is about as good as it could be in a game which is arbitrarily having you shoot at people every 15 minutes because, “well, that’s just what games do.” The shooting is about as good as it could be in a game that is trying to tell a story all the time, and that takes away your guns or locks you in a room to convince you to pay attention to the story, or is just generally spending an exorbitant amount of time not giving you things to shoot at. The setting and art about as great as they can be in a game that cannot define interactivity with the world or characters in it unless it nicely ties into the loot grind or “core gameplay” somehow. “Look, but don’t touch the specimen.” “Don’t talk to the specimen.”

Although Bioshock Infinite is impressive relative to it’s peers, it’s easy to imagine the possibilies if the design limitations of making what is currently seen as a “commercially viable” game were lifted. Elizabeth could be much more interactive. I could talk with her. We could have meaningful conversations. I could show her all the amazing things she’s been missing by being trapped in a cage. I could maybe hug her after a short firefight instead of having to convince her that it’s okay because she’ll be forced to watch me murder 15 more people in the next room. I could really try to not be a monster. We could be friends. Or whatever. The story could be well paced with great twists and turns, an interactive drama where every step in the story has a dramatic point and is not just a gameplay maguffin. (See Telltale’s The Walking Dead) The skylines could be running all over the city. I could always have interesting things to fight. The loot grind could be just incredible. I could really enjoy a challenging action experience. (Dark Souls) The world could be rich and beautiful but also interactive. I could pick up all the individual items for sale at a vendors stand. I could talk with the people around Colombia and get to know them a little or a lot. I could watch kinetoscopes just for enjoyments sake, without feeling like they are cut short so that too much time won’t be spent on exposition. (See Skyrim, almost.)

That’s the dream right? Well, I’m glad to say that I believe we can have all these things in our medium and more. You don’t have to lose the things that you love about games, but I am certain that we cannot effectively have all of them in the same game.

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 1

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Matthew VanDevander

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There is a great division in games, well several actually. There is a division between the press and gamers, between gamers and developers, and between the press and developers. There is a division between how we, as gamers writers and developers, think about games and how we *think* we think about games.

We make and play games and imagine we are evaluating them as objectively as possible. But instead are almost always looking at them with a radically warped perception compared to “more developed mediums.” We celebrate minor differences and upgrades. A touching scene where there previosly was none. We don’t see the forest for the pixels.

Games exist in a bubble culture. An environment in which fans of games often find themselves apologizing for the mediums obvious shortcomings and peculiar stubbornness about growing up and actually having something important to say. We are so keen to praise the things that we know make games good, that it seems like we are often forgetting to actually think about the experience of playing games at all.

Can you really blame us? Games have been training us for the past 15 years to not think. To disconnect the gameplay experience from the story one. “Never the two shall mix.” We very rarely think about how a total stranger to games would view the activity in which we are engaging. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter if they don’t see how great games are, because they will keep on being great even if nobody likes them. But that’s just not true, the way that a “non-gamer” experiences a game is the reality of that experience. If you truly care about games and games criticism, then you must stop treating games as some sort of deformed and mentally handicapped younger sibling to the other storytelling mediums that needs you to stick up for it and coddle it and love it despite how ugly and dumb it really is.

The sad thing is that game designers often don’t think of games very differently. And even worse, they share the same coddling and protective attitude towards the players of their games. We, as gamers, are routinely treated as complete idiots. “Oh no,” says the strawman game designer, “you won’t be able to handle this game unless you have some serious hints, or a giant arrow constantly pointing you to your next objective.” Designers are so scared that you will hate their game that they come up with virtual doppelgängers to follow you into your home and nervously watch you play. “Don’t forget to use your Vigors!”, Bioshock Infinite’s doppelgänger reminds you, like an overprotective parent trying to coerce a child to eat more veggies. “It’s good for you!” But is it really? Bioshock Infinite is a game for adults, not for children. If children could make it through the crushingly difficult The Legend of Zelda 25 years ago, and our modern gaming collective recently tackled the similarly difficult and very adult Dark Souls, cursing and loving every minute of it, then surely you can trust the players of your game to figure it out eventually, right?

Oh, wait. I forgot. We’re trying to tell stories here. “Eventually” just isn’t good enough. It’s impossible to pace out a story effectively if we only know that the player will “eventually” make it to this point in the game. This is precisely why both the original Zelda and Dark Souls are so light on their story, having what essentially amounts to a maguffin or two. But now we are telling these grand and epic and dare-I-say “cinematic” stories. We don’t want players to get stuck before they get to “the good part.”

So what do we do? How can we tell effective stories and also be respectful of players and games as a medium which can stand proudly beside the others.

It’s simple. If you want to tell stories in games, just tell stories. Don’t worry about trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what constitutes a “game.” It doesn’t have to have any more shooting than necessary to tell the story effectively. Don’t feel like you have to have “core gameplay” just because “that’s what games do.” Don’t be so afraid of players disliking your game that you compromise your vision to try to please everybody. You don’t have to be conflicted if you just believe in what YOU find interesting about your project and have faith that your players will find that interesting too. If you want to have a scene of dialogue that is relatively non-interactive (or completely non-interactive), feel free to do that. Just don’t try to tell a story with “believable characters”, and when partway through writing it you get scared that some players are not actually interested in paying attention to all that cool stuff you wrote, you panic and take out most of the dialogue and all of the believability. Those players are not worth catering to, they don’t actually care about experiencing what you find meaningful. They are not your real fans, and trying to please them will destroy you and your game.

We need to start thinking about games as cohesive experiences. As designers, what is the experience that we want to give our players? Do we even need to tell a story? Do we even need to have traditional gameplay? How is the gameplay helping or harming the story? How is a pile of rotten fruit on the floor informing the gameplay. Is it?

Both gameplay and story must form a cohesive whole if a game is to remain intact as a creative and meaningful work. To artfully make games and master this medium (and to have our “Citizen Kane” moment which everyone won’t shut up about) we have to start thinking about how all the different parts of the game affect the whole. This means if you want to give the player freedom, you probably can’t tell stories that are not about psychopaths. So the reality is that Saint’s Row is probably a more cohesive work of art than GTA IV. If you want desperately to tell the story of redemption, or love, or anything even slightly specific, you are going to have to limit the player drastically. But we don’t want to do this haphazardly, we want to make intelligent choices about where we allow the player to interact with the story.

I’m not advocating for removing player freedom from games entirely. Interactivity is the only useful component to differentiate games from other mediums. But giving the player freedom has a direct and very negative impact on the ability to tell an effective story.

“What? Gameplay and story don’t mix? Ludonarrative Dissonance? You pretentious asshat!”

Gameplay and story can conflict with one another, but I’m not advocating removing story from games either. I love stories just as much as the next person. Story is important tool we use to understand the world and communicate experiences. I might however suggest exploring a different approach to storytelling than the commonly used three act structure which does not fit well in games that have much longer running times.

People tend to believe these are just difficult and intractable problems in games. Someday we will just magically realize a way to fix them. It’s just gonna be a slow and grueling path uphill towards cultural relevance. Games will find a way to make a good and well paced story that still has plenty of fun RPG loot grinding in it. We just need to stuff enough technology in there and it will happen. Better AI will solve the problem. More polygons. The Playstation 4.

The hard truth is that we will never solve these problems if we keep making the same kinds of games we are making today. It is impossible to integrate a story which values human life with a story where the protagonist shoots 960 dudes in the face. (And that’s just with the shotgun!) Think about what this means. If we can’t value human life effectively, then we cannot even tell good dramatic stories. Drama is practically the holy grail of artistic storytelling, amirite amirite? And even if we try to do comedy, we will be limited to black humor. Jokes about how gross the violence is. How crazy the protagonist is for going on such murderous rampages.

I am not here to ruin the fun. I am not here to kill the stories. But please, if you are going to make or review or criticize a game, stop treating games as a substandard storytelling medium with it’s own arcane rules that are just impossible for us to fully understand yet. Start treating it as though it’s already grown up. It is not condescending to think of how your grandma or your non-gamer friends would react to the way the game presents itself. Stop apologizing for games and start demanding they be coherent.

Look, I understand the fear and conservatism that comes with making investments that fly high of the 100 million dollar mark, and I also realize there isn’t a lot of hard data showing that players are happy with games that try to maintain artistic integrity at the expense of challenge or storytelling. But I don’t think the combined critical and commercial success of Dark Souls or Telltale’s The Walking Dead are completely accidental. And I hope they become part of a trend towards diversification in the types of games available, rather than an anomaly on the bumpy road towards complete cultural abandonment.

The large commercial “Triple-A” games space is a difficult place to be creative in. But it is just ridiculous to think that games need to stay exactly the way they have been since 2001 to keep being popular. They need to change, or else they will fade into obscurity.

This essay is part of a series, you can read the next part here.

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