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.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Emotional Mirror

When designing a game intended to evoke particular emotions channeled through an avatar, I focus on something I like to call the emotional mirror. I want the player and the avatar to feel the same feelings at the same time towards the same things, at any given time, using every dirty trick I can.

An Ico panel at GDC first introduced me to this idea, and I was struck by how much they focused on one particular emotional experience, stripping away anything that interfered with that emotion. Filmmakers are very used to doing the same for a symphony of emotions, using costumes, weather, furniture, camera angles, scoring, and much, much more to evoke very specific emotions from very specific scenes. Having such a choreographed scene offers a significant advantage when trying to manipulate emotions, but gameplay is an advantage filmmakers don't have available to them. Designers sometimes miss making use of this advantage because games are too-often built around mechanics instead of an experience. If the intended experience is emotional then the game should be built around that emotion first, with gameplay a tool to meet this goal.

Gameplay can be chosen to enhance the overall mood of a story -- e.g., holding the hand of a girl through puzzles might be more effective at sharing the emotion of "protectiveness" than a first-person shooter. It can also be chosen to enhance particular scenes -- e.g., a character you have been giving resources to for an upgrade stops accepting resources and refuses the upgrade at a moment in the story when the avatar is betrayed by him. It can even be used to control an overall pace -- e.g., puzzles become unnecessarily difficult or easy-but-long-to-complete at the same time the player in the narrative is "wandering" unsure of what next-choice to make before the road to a climax begins. The emotional mirror can lead to interesting design, and interesting observations about some of your favorite games.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Play Bonding

I play in a regular D&D session and a few years ago, I was thinking about the various characters that our group of players cared about the most. As a rule, it was always the ones that were willing to go out adventuring with us, duking it out, or interacting with our adventure in some direct way. We develop a bond with these playmates.

This seems true of video games, the classic example of which is probably Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. She isn't just eye candy that pops up between cinematics, but is someone that you rely on in combat for a large portion of the game. I think we build a much deeper bond with gameplay participants. If you have a relationship players are supposed to care about in a game, giving the corresponding character a role in gameplay is more valuable than any number of cinematics he or she participates in, if you can find a way to say what you want you need in those gameplay moments.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Feeling Enslaved

Enslaved was an interesting example of how overlooking sympathetic characters can disrupt emotional investment with them. You play Monkey, a guy that escapes from a robotic human-harvesting ship with a mechanically inclined woman named Trip. Trip is distrustful but needs your help so while you are unconscious, she slips a device on you that will kill you if she is killed, forcing you to stay with and protect her -- a device that later begins messing with your mind.

Monkey is pretty sympathetic in this situation. He barely escaped alive and seems to be a pretty free-roaming character trying to make his way through life, and with pretty good skills. Trip pulls a pretty dick move with the "enslaving" device, but they play it pretty cautiously and she remains just sympathetic enough because she's clearly afraid and less experienced, and it's enough that the writers have room to build a real relationship with them. In fact, I found their rebound from this action believable enough, and I liked seeing the two characters draw closer.

[Spoilers follow]
Unfortunately, throughout the game, Trip never sees a reason to actually remove the collar, and this fact not only gets in the way of the building relationship, but Trip decides at one point, about halfway through the game -- after Monkey has given her more than enough reason to trust her -- she effectively says, "Sorry: I know I said I would remove the device after x happens and that you would help me even without the collar; buuut I'm going to keep it on effectively force you to do something else, and void any premise of a relationship we've built between us." I had to mentally block this moment from the story to even enjoy anything that had to do with her from that point forward.

This is a serious breach by Trip, but another character -- Pigsy -- appears that could give emotional attachment a chance to rebound. First impressions are a bit shaky: Pigsy is a fat, dirty, competitive hermit that is reluctant to help, and that wants to sleep with Trip doesn't really help. At this point, you might be able to call him so pathetic that he's sympathetic, but then they have him basically attempt to murder you to get you out of the picture, and suddenly I'm traveling with two horrible companions that have no qualms with murdering me at the drop of a hat.

Enslaved felt like a pretty rushed game so my inclination was to forgive the developers of mechanical problems, but the story seemed very much under their control, and worth critiquing. I never could build an emotional attachment with these characters. Or rather, when I did, it was always betrayed by them, to the point where it was hard to care what might happen to them. I realize some of it might be related to the Chinese legend the game is based on -- I don't know. I also wonder how much of it was built around wanting to limit exploration with an AI character (since all the device did was kill you if Trip died or you wandered too far), which would be a shame since limiting movement and making Trip's death a fail condition would have been fine without giving me a story reason to dislike her. Interesting stuff.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sympathetic Characters

One of the revelations to me as a designer that's obvious to writers in other crafts is that when you are trying to get the audience to invest in a character, it's important for them to be sympathetic. If you want audience members to invest in a protagonist, have them start out helping an old man, rescuing kittens, or being picked on -- whatever "dirty trick" you can employ to help the audience go along for a ride with someone, especially in a character arc where we want to show that character overcoming an emotional shortcoming.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Again? Really?

A couple weeks ago I received Little Big Planet 2 in the mail and got about halfway through the game when Dead Space 2 arrived, which I've been quite excited to play. But I never quite got around to that one, either. I'll explain by way of this picture game: there are two subjects in the image for this post. Guess which is Alan, and which is Super Street Fighter IV?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Assessment Loops

When building games with large teams, the perceived function of most production roles is contributing work that benefits the overall experience, and you are valued for it even if your personal source of pride is purely in the overall experience. Each 3D model, audio snippet, or section of code is evidence of this value, and the completion of each asset is an opportunity to review your work and improve on it, becoming a "better" modeler, audio engineer, or programmer.

The perceived function of a dedicated design lead, however, is the sum experience (even if other abilities provide more frequent or important opportunities for improvement). In my past life as a one, I sometimes miss the rapid assessment loop of an artist, where in a matter of minutes or days I could produce, analyze, and determine methods to improve my output, rather than wait for the completed game, which sometimes took years.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Visible Work

Last summer, I the nuts and bolts of control interface and random level construction and had basic support for starting and ending a game -- a "first-playable" in the loosest sense of the word. Before moving on to the next step, I wanted to focus on getting everything that worked in single-player working over the network for multiplayer. It was surprising how excruciating this task was, not for its complexity (though networking does seem make things more difficult), but rather because it's so invisible.

I eventually came to realize that it had something to do with a change in job feedback. Whether as an artist or designer, my job had previously been to communicate something each and every day, for 16 years or so. A year ago, it was to communicate big ideas to big teams for a big company. Now I faced months of code that would have little more impact on one's impression of the game than me saying "imagine that with another guy." The work was critical, and set the stage for things that have me loving life again -- and now I ensure that everything is network-friendly as I build it. The transition from short to long-term on-the-job rewards has been an interesting, unexpected, and rewarding journey of coding.

Loud and Clear

Sometimes I like to say things just to provoke thought. An example is saying to artists, "sound is more important than art" -- in context, saying that audio is more important than visuals. After they recover from the glove-slap, I like to share a story I recall hearing somewhere about the movie industry being resilient to adding audio to the films that were playing because the equipment upgraded was too expensive for theater owners. What actually prompted the change was radio serials, because everyone started staying at home, riveted by the nightly programs available on the radio, and theaters were taking a hit. According to the story, it wasn't until this happened that theaters were willing to add the audio capabilities theaters needed to support sound in film.

Even if the story were wildly inaccurate, it paints a realistic picture that helps me scratch an itch: that on the projects I've been a part of, art gets wildly more attention and resources than sound, despite the latter having a critical -- perhaps as much or moreso -- impact on your sense of immersion. Go back and play some of your recent favorite games and pay a bit more attention to the quality of its audio. It makes massive difference. I wish audio got way more development love than I ever saw it did.