Archive for the Game Criticism Category

Why not Undertale?

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , on December 29, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

Undertale screenshot
I’m not sure what to do about Undertale. I have gotten multiple requests to write some kind of piece or video about it. I obviously want to do things that my backers want and request sometimes, but I also am a bit torn about doing in-depth work about games that I don’t particularly like. (Way to not bury the lede.)

I suppose I should preface all of this by saying that I have not actually played Undertale and am perhaps still open to the possibility that there is some great aspect of the game that I am just not getting. I did play the demo version of the game that was released way back in 2013 ( a full two years before the final release), which consists of a somewhat less developed version of the start of the final game, and I have watched a decent chunk (the first 4-5 hours) of the release version being played by my brother.

So, I don’t offer my opinion as coming from some place of authority about the game. This is really just more of a rant. I would obviously make a further effort to play the game if I were doing a real in-depth analysis piece.

But…thoughts

I feel like, generally speaking, it isn’t my thing. The core value proposition of the game is its humor. Not really the story per-se, as the plot itself is pretty threadbare, mostly proceeding from one non-sequitur anecdote to another. And although it’s a genuinely funny and charming game, there have been lots of other genuinely funny and charming games over the years, including the game that Undertale so clearly borrows its aesthetics from: Earthbound.

Earthbound is a game I heard people raving about for so long that I decided to check it out a few years back. My conclusion there is much the same as it is with Undertale: It’s a clever game, with some genuinely effective humor and quirky characters. Earthbound in particular had some quite innovative design decisions in the genre for its time, but my overall experience with Earthbound was that once I put it down, I didn’t feel very compelled to pick it back up. The game seemed overly long, as most JRPGs are, and the humor felt stretched a bit thin.

On the plus side, Undertale appears to be a much shorter and digestible game than Earthbound, but mine and my brother’s continued thought when watching him play through it (which he says persisted through the rest of the game that he has played), was “this is fine, but is it ever going to blow my mind?”

And yes, I know about the replayability factor of the game, and how the choices that you make in combat or even by reloading earlier saves affect how characters react to you, but there’s really nothing about what’s already there that’s making me starve for more of it.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to see why anybody is that crazy about the game.

Hype

So, let’s talk about the hype for a second, because I feel like Undertale may be one of the most unfortunately over-hyped games ever. That’s a bold statement, but we’re talking about a game which was literally voted “Best. Game. Ever.” by a community of enthusiasts at GameFAQs, in the year it came out. Perhaps I shouldn’t take that award’s merit too seriously, but it’s fair to say that a lot of people really were crazy about this game.

The other question about hype in general: is hype the fault of the game? I think this question is particularly salient if, as in the case of Undertale, it’s word-of-mouth that lead to such astronomical popularity. It’s not as though Toby Fox was out promoting the game left and right. He certainly wasn’t on stage at Sony press conferences at multiple E3 like some other unfortunately over-hyped game that was released this year. I have never even seen Toby Fox’s face, and the most promotion I saw for the game pre-release was the demo, which I don’t even remember where I found.

So I think in this particular case at least, the answer is no. It’s not Undertale’s fault that it was over-hyped. Perhaps it would be much easier for me to appreciate it for what it is if it weren’t being heralded from the heavens. It is certainly a cute and funny game with clever twists on classic Dragon Quest style combat. It also makes a solid effort to offer the player a sense of freedom about how they approach situations in the story, even if many of your choices are seemingly as binary as “murder” or “not murder.”

Aesthetic

I’d like to go back and talk about the aesthetics of the game. Simply put, I find Undertale to be an ugly looking game. Apart from a few scenes which were not illustrated by the game’s sole author Toby Fox, most of the time the game looks like an early NES game. It’s a similar style to Earthbound, but it honestly looks much worse than that. Thankfully the music is catchy and usually appropriate alongside the story scenes of the game. But overall, the game is not selling itself to me on aesthetic.

Aesthetics perhaps are overvalued by myself and our culture at large, what with plastic surgery and celebrities and all, but it definitely makes an impact on how much I want to play a game.

Conclusions?

I’m not sure that I’ve really done much of use here other than rag on a game that I haven’t even played, but it’s been rolling around in my mind for a bit and there’s certainly a couple thoughts that I think are interesting to think about, in terms of what it is that one person likes about a game versus what another person dislikes. People have wildly differing tastes in the media that they consume, and that’s great. I would never want to tell someone that they are wrong if they really do think that Undertale is the best game ever. It’s just hard for me to see why they feel that way, and I hope that they can appreciate that.

Under the Sea

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

This article can in some sense be considered a continuation of my previously shared thoughts about Alien: Isolation and horror simulators, but also should generally stand alone as a review of SOMA. It is also spoiler free.

I’ve backed myself into a corner, in a room with just too many windows. The monster growls behind me, and I duck behind a support beam in the wall.

“Go away,” I say under my breath, as it paces back and forth in the hall. Instead, it decides to come into the room. My mind races as the creature continues to come closer. “What do I do? What do I do?” Soon it will come around the edge of this beam and surely see me.

Finally, I decide my best chance is to just make a run for it. I step out from behind my hiding spot.

The music crescendos as I am spotted. I sprint as fast as possible out the doorway and down the hall. I hear echoing footsteps behind me of something inhuman. Suddenly all the lights go out.

The terror is palpable as I realize I’m headed right for the only room that still has the lights on.

“Great, I’ll be a sitting duck…”

I rush in anyway and make my way around the desk to the computer. I fumble with the interface a bit, but manage to get the door locked down before the monster arrives.

I hide in the corner of the room. The monster thrashes at the door but is unable to open it. I wish I could sink further into the corner.

Suddenly I do.

I look to my right and see the backside of the wall. Turn behind me and there are distant inside out structures.

“Ah fuck,” I say, “the game glitched out,”

I try to step back into the room. There is some sort of threshold I have passed, and I can no longer return. I turn around and look down into the yawning void, make peace, and leap into the abyss.

SOMA is a difficult game for me to write about. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to for a long time. It’s ambitious. It’s certainly worth playing. But somehow, it’s also a disappointment.

SOMA is Frictional Games’ follow-up to their 2010 horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the intervening 5 years since Amnesia’s release, there have been a slew of games to follow in its footsteps, including the notably big budget Alien: Isolation. One could happily call these games “Amnesia clones,” as they borrow so much from that game, but I have preferred to consider it a new genre, called horror simulation.

Most of these games put a small twist on the formula established by Amnesia, without really making any huge strides forward. SOMA is intent on changing that. Whereas most horror sims, including Amnesia, tend to tell the story primarily through audio and text logs, SOMA pairs these with strong environmental storytelling as well as dramatic scripted sequences and dialogue scenes. The game is intent on minimizing the limitation on player agency due to cut-scenes, and allows the player to continue to move freely unless the character is physically restrained.

Opinions on whether or not SOMA is “scarier than Amnesia” seem to vary wildly. Horror, like humor, is quite subjective. As for myself, I found SOMA to be much more intensely terrifying that it’s predecessor, although it’s much more of a slow burn than last year’s Alien: Isolation. Whereas that game felt as though it turned the volume up to full blast and never stopped, SOMA is much more content to explore the dynamics of horror, crescendoing into intensely terrifying set-piece moments, and then gently falling down and giving the player room to catch their breath and relax.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the game. It succeeds in more ways than it stumbles. The story is compelling and left me with a lot of interesting philosophical questions that I’m still pondering weeks later. The art direction and overall polish is super high for a game made by such a small team. And the storytelling is often effective, reminding me at times of Half Life 2 and Gone Home.

So what’s so damn perplexing to me is why I have this overall sense of disappointment about the game.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of how long I have been waiting for its release. It’s not uncommon for lengthy development times of games to grow hype to unmanageable levels (Just imagine what Half Life 3 would have to be at this point to not be a disappointment).

Thomas Grip, the designer of both SOMA and Amnesia, has written and spoken extensively about his “Four Layers” approach to narrative design for games. It’s some heady and ambitious stuff for narrative-focused games that don’t want to leave the player feeling like a bystander. In a sense, the idea is to keep the player constantly engaged in the storytelling even down to the moment-to-moment gameplay, a point at which most games struggle to maintain that connection.

SOMA can be seen as a field test of those ideas. And for the most part it’s successful; resulting in what is one of the most ludonarratively consonant (there’s that word again) games that I have ever played.

But even though SOMA effectively executes on its storytelling approach, there have been plenty of other games which have focused on storytelling in the past several years. Many telling stories that lie well outside the established sci-fi/fantasy safe-zone which games have typically stayed in. This often leaves SOMA feeling like it is playing catch-up more-so than innovating. Credit should be given where due, as much of the game’s storytelling is strong, but it is perhaps impossible to not draw comparisons and find the emotional core of the game to be lacking in honesty or vulnerability. When it comes down to it, it’s a sci-fi horror story set in an laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which can only be so relatable.

Because SOMA considers the moment-to-moment experience to be the core of the story, at any given moment, the game is typically very compelling. However, this focuses the player’s attention so narrowly that the game struggles to effectively integrate its big ideas. It can be a thrilling roller coaster ride, but when the game tries to probe at deeper questions it often feels like it’s just paying lip-service; draping philosophical window-dressing on what is essentially a haunted house.

I hate to bring up the issue of length in video games, as it’s so often a major sticking point for people in a way that I usually find unsavory. Many players will look at SOMA’s roughly 13 hour playtime and see it as being woefully short. However, as I get older, I find that my time is increasingly valuable to me, and I tend to not like it wasted. At a certain point, I knew there were going to be two possibilities with the game. Either I was going to put it down and never finish it, or I was just going to have to steel myself and marathon through until the end. I chose the latter.

In that sense, I found SOMA to be significantly longer than necessary. This is not to say that I found any of the moments in the game to stand out as particularly low quality, or that I would find it easy to say where cutbacks should be made. It’s simply a personal observation that the depth of the story felt as though it was not requiring of a 12 hour game to communicate effectively. It feels as though a third of the game could be hacked off and the story would come across just as well. Again, this is somewhat of a vague criticism, but is reflective of my feelings as I pushed myself to finish the game, expecting to be very close to the end, but rather being many hours away from it.

It’s hard for me to be comprehensive about SOMA, and in many regards, I still feel as unresolved in my thoughts about the game as I was before writing this article. It’s a good game, almost a great one even. You should probably play it. I wish I could point to one thing and say what’s holding it back, but it’s not that easy. Somehow though, SOMA never quite lives up to its potential. Even though all of the parts of it are high quality, the whole is not the sum of its pieces. It’s like a bicycle made of high quality aluminum, with new tires, but with wheels that are just a bit too square.

Lost Potential, Talos Principle

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, 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/

Alien Isolation, Ludonarrative Consonance, and Soft Rules

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, 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.

Bioshock Infinite and the Great Divide, part 2

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, 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, Game Design Essays, 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.