Friday, February 18, 2011

Incoming

I'm still sitting on Dead Space 2 while Street Fighter has my attention. Looking forward at big releases to come, it seems like a mixed bag. Maybe there are items missing from my radar.

Bulletstorm might be more than I expect, but everything I've seen makes it feel more like marketing ploy than something really loved by the developers. I probably need to play Dragon Age to get more amped about Dragon Age 2, but the more information I gathered about the original, the more it came across as too old school and fiddly to get me excited about it -- I think some of my enjoyment of Mass Effect 2 came from the fact that Jenny enjoyed it, too. And Knight's Contract? Maybe -- I like brawlers so I'm mildly curious.

I'm probably most excited about other shooters: Killzone 3 has me curious because I remember Killzone 2 as enjoyable and underrated. Crysis 2 interests me because Crysis had a few levels that I consider some of the most memorable in gaming, ever. And Portal 2 has me curious, since I have theories about what made Portal so engaging, and I want to see how a different (?) structure affects my engagement. I was curious about BioShock 2 for similar reasons.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

100%...ish

I finished 100-percenting the Story Mode of LittleBigPlanet 2 and was quick to throw it back in the GameFly envelope when I remembered from the first game that you also unlock items for completing the Editor tutorials. Nooooo! It's must be karma, because who plays LBP2 without digging into its editor (isn't that the point)? I deserve it.

P.S. I had fun.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Re: Portal and BioShock

Ethan posted some reactions to my post about Portal and BioShock in which he brainstorms narrative archetypes that lend well to game structures. It sparked some interesting thoughts and I wanted to share them here:

The way Ethan breaks down a narrative-friendly game structure to "establish rules, establish new tools, establish final tool" was thought provoking because prior to reading this comment, I hadn't thought that much about matching "establish gameplay rules" with "establish narrative conflict." In film, I've heard it said that the introduction -- establishing conflict -- should be as swift as possible. Because this can literally be done in seconds with a familiar conflict (some films that do this in the span of the opening credits), it leaves interesting considerations for gameplay in the introduction phase of a narrative.

For example, if you care about how well the structures mirror, you might consider matching the time needed for a narrative introduction (short vs. long) with complexity / familiarity of gameplay (simple / familiar vs. complex / novel). Absorbing gameplay in addition to story may also make it important that narrative requirements can be met in a "training" setting (which are often too "step-by-step" to begin with).

A more intriguing though comes in considering that in narratives, characters usually begin in a familiar place and have their world turned upside-down by an inciting incident. I loved how Mario Galaxy 2 began with 2D gameplay and slowly pushed you into 3D during its intro. What if we likewise began with familiar gameplay and mirror the introduction of a rather-different core mechanic with the inciting incident?

What if Bionic Commando started with Nathan able to shoot and platform with a jump, doing familiar activities, when the antagonist does something that makes Nathan lose an arm? The player, like Nathan, starts with a familiar home base with run-and-gun (and jump) gameplay, and the swift time it takes to master means the narrative conflict can be established quickly too. Now Nathan has his world turned upside-down, and in a way that gave the antagonist a gameplay role with much more emotional connection. The player's first set of rising / falling action mastering his new situation. This might also tie in at game end if -- as in the Hero's Journey -- the hero gets offered his old life back but denies it, showing his growth. Perhaps Nathan was a popular soldier but his old comrades but he feels his new disability has destroyed that life, forcing him to adopt the "lone hero" approach taken by most game heroes. In the end, he has the option to restore his normal arm, but he has mastered his new path by then, and accepts it instead.

[Update] This particular example, however may be problematic because it breaks the golden rule of not taking anything (jump) from the player. I wonder if it happening early -- or being attached to a narrative -- helps? I know I hate when a game gives me all my abilities then yanks them for me to recover, but is it better if it's never recovered? Worse?

Fun stuff. Thanks Ethan!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

HL2 Pacing

My favorite example of reducing gameplay challenge to speed up narrative pacing for a climax is Half-Life 2. Effectively, the game turns on cheat mode and asks you to complete basic gameplay challenges with this new wrapper until the game ends. What I found so interesting about this is the sense of "speed" and "fun" I had at game end as opposed to the "grind" and "frustration" via the small platforms and death pits of a typical end-level in Mario.

What happens is Gordon Freeman has all his equipment stripped away and replaces your most interesting item -- the gravity gun -- with a much more powerful version of the same item. Where before you could grab planks of wood and relatively minor items to complete gameplay challenges, now you could rip large panels out of walls and grab enemies, energizing them with a supercharged field of energy that destroyed everything that entered its throw-trajectory. It made dealing with enemies very easy, and puzzles were either new-but-easy or just super-sized versions of puzzles you had already mastered. But the novelty and sense of power kept me hooked gave me a thrilling antithesis to the usual end-game grind.

Some knock Half-Life 2 for a muddied and unsatisfactory ending -- I won't defend the quality of its climax -- but among its more-than-fair-share of amazing moments, it demonstrated that game design could make the final moments leading to climax thrilling rather than painful, and better mirror the pace of a dramatic arc.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gameplay Pacing

Doing story research for my last big unannounced project at Disney, one of the things I had the pleasure of learning about was some good rules of thumb when crafting an entertaining climax. One of those rules was to increase the speed at which events unfold as tension increases before the climax. This rule is particularly interesting, I think, when factoring in game design and the emotional mirror.

Gameplay usually gets more challenging over time, offering more and more twists that often slow down pace as you progress. More tiny platforms to land on, more death falls, and more ways to potentially redo content and really "prove" your skill. But there's a sense of slowness accompanies gameplay challenge that correlates with falling action. The opposite is also true; that there is a sense of speed that accompanies gameplay confidence that correlates with rising action.

When attempting to recreate a classic dramatic arc in games, I think it's a good idea to trade challenge for a faster pace in the final gameplay moments before the climax. Let tension arise from story as the antagonist gets equally close to achieving his or her goal. Meanwhile, a novel twist to familiar gameplay -- such as heightened power and new visual effects, presumably for story reasons -- gives the player just enough "new" to stimulate interest, but against simple or familiar gameplay and challenges that prioritize speed and mirror an exciting story pace.

A real-world example, tomorrow.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Stubborn

I can be a stubborn gamer. When researching God of War 2 once, I remember fighting Zeus in Titan mode, where I felt required to parry him perfectly about 50 or so times perfectly during the fight in order to claim victory, and it may have taken more than 50 boss fight attempts to pull it off.

A similar experience occurred last night playing Street Fighter. I sunk a few nights in since picking it up again and I'm definitely behind the skill curve but the only way to get better is to keep getting beat until I fix my ways (right?). Things got a bit nuts last night, though, in an endless battle, where some player won literally 60-70 games in a row before I finally managed to take him down. Being humbled isn't bad, but I'm just surprised at my tolerance to keep pounding away at it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Portal and BioShock

I love to talk about Portal and BioShock together because I think they are great for the same reason. It's not the dry humor of GladOS, the moral quandary of harvesting ADAM from little sisters, the novelty of creating portals, wielding a swarm of bees, or having tape recorders sharing history. Each of these elements was amazing and should not be underestimated, but what made each games so much more was the power of the emotional mirror between the experience of the player and their avatar.

[Spoilers follow]
Both games embrace -- or at least stumbled upon -- what I believe is a particularly potent narrative arc when told through the gaming medium: that of escaping enslavement and seeking revenge against the enslaver. In Portal, that moment coalesces when you are descending into the fire pit and GladOS is saying farewell and you use your portal gun to make it out of the situation. In BioShock, it the moment when you discovered and escaped your enslavement, with the phrase, "Would you kindly..."

The reason this narrative arc is so well-suited to games is because it so mirrors the emotional setting of every gamer, wherein a player (avatar) attempts to survive the machinations of the game designer (GladOS, Andrew Ryan). The reason why escaping the fire pit in Portal and the beating of Andrew Ryan in BioShock carry so much emotional release is because the player gets to turn the tables on the game designer, becoming free to do as he or she pleases.

This freedom might be an illusion -- you may remember BioShock becoming a bit of a slog after Ryan's death (the extra work following erodes the idea of having defeated the designer, no?) -- but I believe the power of both games is due to this particularly formidable gaming narrative archetype. It might be fun to attempt one day.