destroy object

game design and fiction. new stuff on tuesdays and thursdays.

Category: game

Twine Game: Runthrough

I wanted to explore that feeling of trying to win a conversation to make someone less mad at you. Check out “Runthrough”at the link below and let me know what you think.

https://itch.io/embed/118282

How I’m Using Animal Crossing to deal with Anxiety

It’s been a while. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you have a happy 2017.

For the people I’ve talked to about this, I get a lot of laughs.

“My sweet summer child,” they say as I express my occasional frustration that the rest of the town hasn’t contributed to one of my many public works projects. “They only contribute 1-3 bells at most. It’s hopeless.”

For those that don’t know, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is some sort of surrealist life simulator. You are the mayor of a small, grossly underdeveloped town, and you are in charge of building it up, maintaining relationships with its many townspeople, and occasionally buying some nice things for your house. You walk around collecting random objects strewn about the world and selling them for Bells, the currency of the world. If you’ve collected all the shells and pears and butterflies that have spawned in at any given time (or if you’ve played for more than an hour) the game will encourage you to take a  break, and come back and get more things. In this way the GameCube predecessor of ACNL is a harbinger of most modern free-to-play models. The game would rather you play for 3 hours spread out than 6 hours at a time.

This does not, yet, sound like it would provide atypical amounts of stress, but coming up is where people start to get wound.

As it simulates life it also simulates many different aspects of life, including debt. Players will rack up mortgages for home and home improvements to the tyrannically cute Tom Nook, a raccoon that runs the home renovations centre in every town. Once the mortgage is paid off your character celebrates with an adorable fist in the air (that my wife and I will not likely replicate for 30+ years) and you are encouraged to expand, get a new home loan, and start the whole thing again.

There is also (with the latest update) an initiative system that encourages you to do some odd tasks around town, randomly updated each day, in exchange for another form of currency (Mutual Exchange of Wealth, or, MEOW coupons). These initiatives require you to collect bugs or fossils and donate them to the museum, grab rare fish, talk to 5 people in the town, anything that may seem “questy,” for lack of a better word. There is, I have noticed, at least one per day that relies heavily on chance. Catch a coelacanth or wear today’s “lucky item,” (which can only be declared to you by a travelling fortune teller or a special phone you can call, both of which appear on very specific days of the year). For my experience, I haven’t yet finished all four initiatives in one day.

So the game presents you with things that it wants you to do, and a limited capacity and resource to feasibly accomplish them. You can only get so many Bells in a given hour and the game doesn’t want you to hang around the ocean for hours at a time looking for a coelacanth–members of the town will actually speak to you and tell you to take a break. This should, by all accounts, trigger most of my anxieties.

As a guy who has been working with anxiety for about 6 years, money and disappointing people are two of my biggest stressors. Not being able to adequately managae my financial situation and also worrying that I’ve let down someone in my life would traditionally cause me to freak out. Why doesn’t Animal Crossing do this?

ACNL is designed in such a way that it allows for new approaches to established patterns and problems. Debt is presented, because it’s real, but repayment is at the whim of the player. Do it as you can, don’t worry about regular or late payments. No one is going to take your house. Initiatives as well–maybe today’s not the day but you can catch a rare tuna another time. The game even has a mechanic where you can schedule specific dates and appointments with town members. You set the time–“Come to my house at 7pm”–and if you don’t show up, they do not mention it. There’s no guilt, no followup. The mechanics are there for you to engage with if you want, but if you don’t want to that is up to you.

This shouldn’t be surprising that a video game allows for escape from the real consequences of things in life, but I ask instead that we frame it a slightly different way. Animal Crossing allows you to enter and create new relationships with life’s problems by removing the real stress. You don’t have to treat these things as you do in real life and, perhaps most importantly, Animal Crossing acknowledges that there are different ways to approach a pattern. By designing the way they handle debt, work, and personal relationships differently than they behave in real life, Animal Crossing opens up the possibilities to handling these things in different ways.

Think about it; if you were forced to make mortgage payments and ended up disappointing your friends when you missed a hang, it wouldn’t allow you to think about them differently than you do in your everyday existence. It wouldn’t encourage you to form new ways of negotiating life, and as such, play, with these responsibilities.

I’m encouraged to experiment with new ways to pay down debt (currently I’m putting half of whatever I sell that day to my home loan, and whatever remains gets divided to a given public works project). I am encouraged to think about meetings with my friends not as responsibilities, but as chance encounters, things that are a benefit if I can make them. I am encouraged to look at work in terms of what I can do and what I can’t, instead of a mountain of things that must get done.

These are foundational principles to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, recognizing the reasons we feel certain things, and being able to identify what is in our control. By employing a “play space” to interact with real problems in different ways, Animal Crossing lets you (without punishing you) try new ways to negotiate this thing called life.

Thanks for reading. There’s another article here I didn’t want to read before I got this out, but it’s nice to see that other people feel the same way. I’m going to go read it now and then probably pick up a few seashells before I get back to work.

 

If you haven’t played Horse Master, you have to.

http://noncanon.com/HorseMaster.html

Just… do it. For the love of narrative games, and narrative, and a well-written story that just delivers, read and play Horse Master.

Where would you be without language? (Belated Gamescom Followup)

Hello again! It’s been a while, mostly because of three weeks of work catchup after Gamescom that just exhausted me, but I’ve been dying to get back to Destroy Object since my trip to Cologne, for the least of reasons to let you know how great the event was.

500,000 people in attendance over the course of 5 days. It is a staggering, rambling mess of people, and the biggest consumer-facing game event in the world. Given that North America has, like, 12 PAXs and 5 Comic Cons and a hundred Fan Expos, it’s amazing that one of Europe’s few consumer events to actually showcase new games is so well attended. It proves the vitality of the industry and the power of the medium. It is great, and I had fun.

But that’s not what I came here to talk about, game designers. I came to think about what I noticed the moment I landed in Frankfurt, on the one end of a train that would take me into Koln. What I noticed is that I’m a pretty smooth and charming guy… in English.

A bulk of my ability to feel comfortable, capable, and relatively “normal” by my own standards is my ability to speak, (quickly, earnestly, and in a way that demonstrates my emotion to another party), in the language of my surroundings. I can get through any situation where I am lost, confused, or possibly may have offended someone, just by using the codifications and tonalities of the English language. “I can talk my way out of anything,” the old axiom would simplify, but it is more than that. I understand how to accurately explain myself in a variety of situations so I don’t have to “talk my way out” of anything… what I do is venture to better clarify any situation I’m in. I’m good with words. It’s what I do.

What does this mean? This means if I’m at PanExpo in Toronto and I’m demoing a game, I can get people’s attention based on their shirt, or reference something that happened nearby to strike up common ground, and then hopefully get them to demo a game once they know I’m someone who can say something that makes them laugh, or can speak to some common ground between us. It is more than a salesman’s technique. It is an ability to bridge a gap between people that let’s you just have a normal conversation. OR it means that in a restaurant I can quickly establish a relationship between myself and a server, I can understand if they’re in the mood to joke around or not, and I can position myself in such a way that I treat them well, and be either as fun or as boring as the social situation may require. It’s not being untrue to myself… I like making situations easier for everyone around me. It’s kind of my thing. When I design narrative games, I’m trying to read people’s expectations and understanding, and deliver them a story based on that. When I’m out in life I’m also trying to read expectations and understanding. It’s a quality of a good conversationalist.

What I noticed in Cologne is that, robbed of the language, I was complete disarmed.

I had nothing, no chances to ease any tensions for myself or for people around me, I had no ability to help shape a conversational space, and I had a total lack of confidence that I only just this month realized existed entirely in my ability to “talk good.”

This

was

fascinating. 

I do know a bit of German. My family is half Austrian and I am learning the language on a daily basis, but my skill only extends through my ability to order food, and maybe convince people only looking for single lines of dialogue that I live just up the street.

But I realized that for those people looking for more lines of dialogue, THEY, like me in Canada, are trying to establish a conversational space. To establish a good rapport is quite accurately this. It is to establish a harmonious relationship with other people, a situation of understanding. People that share a language and seek to converse with people of that language are seeking to do this. Everyone wants to shorten the distance between each other with language. Without the language, I feel isolated and distant.

So now, I ask you to think about the last time you were in this space. When was the last time you didn’t have language? When was the last time that you didn’t have the means to express yourself in a manner that you deemed necessary to survive in the world you were in?

Are you thinking about it? Good.

Challenge #1: Put yourself in a place where you can feel that again. It is incredible to understand what traits and tics you use the most, how it is you make yourself comfortable.

Challenge #2: Think about people that deal with this on a daily basis. You know where to find them. It is a real concern in a world constantly changing. This is one of those opportunities for empathy that designers get so rarely. Put yourself in that uncomfortable place.

Challenge #3: Can we do this in a video game? What are games but a chance to use a certain set of mechanics and abilities to navigate a world and make ourselves feel in control of it. How can you make a player feel like they have skills that mean nothing? Like they have to learn new things to survive? How can you make a player feel like a tourist lost in the world? Or an immigrant desperate to make connections? How can you make it hit home that we are all reconciled to each other through language.

Just a thought. Missed you all.

Production Admiration: Cube Escape Theatre

It’s been a while since I pulled something off of the Extra Credits’ “Games You Might Not Have Tried” videos. If you haven’t watched them, they are little treasure troves of games that promise interesting, if not necessarily good, mechanical choices. As I’ve been plugging away at a small title on Unity, I find myself looking closer and closer at how outlier games like these ones accomplish a great deal in very little space. As a producer myself, I can’t help but appreciate it.

Cube Escape Theatre is the first game on this particular video’s list. It is free, it is short, and it is absolutely worth playing, for the very least because you get to see how much of an experience can be packed in for a small scope and (probably) small budget.

Recommendation: Play this game, then come back and read this. It’s free, it’s on iOS and Android, and It’ll take you a couple of hours, tops. I will try to avoid spoilers, but I just wanted to err on the side of caution. Continuing!

The first thing that jumps out here is that it is a room escape game. The Cube Escape series has been swinging for most of last year and into this one and “Theatre” is the eighth instalment in the series. This idea is instantly innovative on a landscape of mobile games, while also promising an experience that feels “complete” in a simple setting.

It is hard to make a AAA-style control scheme or experience feel whole on a phone. There’s a lack of controller support, a weaker graphics processor, and the things that you feel like you SHOULD be able to do when interacting with and experiencing a AAA game are not possible on an iOS device. A room escape game is different. Your only expected interactions with a room escape game are maybe tactile, and at most internal. All the gameplay happens in your own head in a real room escape, so all Rusty Lake had to do with Theatre is give the player things to interact with and let them think about it. The difference between actions in real world and actions in game world are a lot less in a room escape game. This makes this setting and platform a great choice from the get go.

Second, is the depth of the actual narrative of this game. This is a room escape in someone’s mind, sometimes quite literally. The things that happen are surreal, and bizarre, but evocative of greater happenstance and more real circumstances that aren’t shown in the game world. A picture of a woman in a man’s pocket. The man drinking in the bar, looking dishevelled. A fetus under a sink. A cocktail made of blood. A locked room inside someone’s mind, the combination to which comes from analyzing closely the elements of a photograph of the woman above. All of this makes for a story, without ever having to clearly state what happened. “It’s all my fault” the guy says., as he’s spewing out the screwdrivers and roses you need to solve other problems, each time from giving him the right alcoholic beverage. This game goes a long way in showing and not telling, and leaves things up to you, narratively. Not only is this the right choice for surrealism, but it’s a good choice for the platform. Less dialogue, more images, and more strange juxtaposition almost has a Kuleshov effect on what you think the story is.

Finally, it is truly disturbing. I found myself questioning why they chose to go as dark as they did, but it fits the mobile platform really well. Sparse audio tones as soundtrack, and sometimes no soundtrack at all is a nice choice for atmosphere and it’s not processor-intensive. It almost begs to be played with headphones on and there is a lot to be frightened of once you do (I had to turn it down a couple of times…).

If you’re not an audio-nerd like I am, you may not know the amount that the handheld device actually compresses audio. It is impossible to have something perfectly lossless that still runs on mobile, and yet so many companies try to make high-fidelity or cute-sounding experiences. To my ears at least, this isn’t perfectly possible. Cube Escape Theatre doesn’t even bother. The sound is grittier, and compressed even more than you’d expect, and lends an air to the general discomfort of the entire experience. It makes it feel more surreal, more on edge, and while this is also a great decision in terms of optimization, sometimes those decisions actually benefit the game.

I’d love to hear more examples where you can notice choices to make a game easier to make that also made it work better as a whole. In the industry you are always coming up with new ways to solve problems, from every department. Sometimes those are design problem, sometimes they are art, sometimes they’re production. Watch out for the shortcuts you find that make you happy, use them when you know they’ll make your game better.

Tweet me @blankdave or leave comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Why people crapping on Pokemon Go drives me nuts

To my friends and readers,

If you haven’t tried Pokemon Go yet, you should. This isn’t a PSA about how much fun I had with the game. Frankly, I don’t care if you have fun with it. There’s a bigger thing at risk if you don’t try it.

Chances are pretty good that you’re one of the 76 billion people already playing Pokemon Go. I’m not here to sway you, or congratulate you. Go count your pigeons and rats and do your thang. You do you. The people I’m more interested in are the large portion of my News Feed who get excited about blocking content and comments about the growing phenomenon.

Apart from the occasionally funny AR picture of a Rattata in a bowl of soup or a 300 foot Jynx at a baseball game, the most common thing I see relating to Pokemon Go is “I don’t care about Pokemon Go,” or “I’m a man, so I sleep with women instead of catching Pokemon,” or “God it’s so stupid. Get a life.” To those people I just have one major question.

Who are you to question the leisure activities of other people?

I want to take this a step further than the insightful Facebook status above. I don’t want you to just silently admit “Yeah, you’re right, it’s okay.” I want you to question when we became a society of people that freely crap on what someone else does that brings them joy. I want you to ask yourself this question and then see it in other parts of our life. Like Ghostbusters, or Sports.

I don’t think it’s okay when people on my side of the geek culture spectrum write off any major athletic event as “just sports,” or “sportsball,” as if they’re better than a section of the population for not liking it. I hated seeing people that hadn’t even picked up a Pokeball start shaking their head at PoGo when I brought it up because the massive swath of people in their news feeds made them form an opinion before they even tried it. I called him on it and he admitted ignorance.

But try it! Why are we so afraid to try things that we may not like? Or may love? I am on a mission to play as many games as possible, watch as many movies as I have time for, and listen to as much music as I can handle in the spaces in between. Who are any of us to give someone a hard time for something they enjoy? Something that brings them peace, or happiness? Why do we need to then say “Well I don’t need that to make me happy, so I’ve got to be a better person. I’m stronger. I don’t need things.”

If you don’t try Pokemon Go, or ride the next incarnation of a Segway, or pass on the next teen fiction post apocalyptic melodrama, ask yourself why. Why are you doing it? Is it because you want to define yourself as someone different? Or is it because you don’t have time? If you don’t have time, that’s fine. But when someone comes to you and starts talking about how one of those things made their life better, are you going to listen? Or are you going to shut them down.

I say listen, and learn. Find out what makes people happy and make an informed opinion. Try things. Let your opinions be shaped by your own experience, and if you don’t have time to experience everything, let them be based on other people’s direct accounts.

The same for sports. The same for bustin’ ghosts. Don’t be afraid of dying having tried things that make you uncomfortable. No one is living wrong.

Pigeons and rats,

Dave

 

How expressive gameplay makes you feel in Skate 3, or, why Game Designers Should Take Up A Sport

I didn’t value the Skate series as much as I should have when it came out. I grew up on late night Tony Hawk parties–we would stay up until 5 in the morning mastering the halls of the School, the Warehouse, the Airport. I knew how to play Tony Hawk, and I was damned good at it. It was a video game, and I liked video games. Seems like a natural fit.

That last sentence seems odd, but let me be clear: Tony Hawk is not a skateboarding game.

I grew up snowboarding. It’s been years since I’ve been out now, but I went as far as instructor level at our small private club. I had friends that were exclusively snowboarding friends. I said things that were exclusively snowboarding things. I was a different person on the hill than I was at home. I loved it. I was never as great at skateboarding, probably because unlike others I got into it after snowboarding, so the lack of bindings and much smaller board never filled me with stability… but I was good enough at snowboarding to know why Skate 3 is great.

(For the remainder of this piece I’ll talk about skateboarding culture, because while I wasn’t ingrained enough in it I was a passive observer and qualified enough to recognize the similarities. If you doubt my qualifications, picture me talking about this stuff on a snowboard. If it’s written below, I’ve lived it).

Part of the experience, the culture, of skateboarding, is focusing on features and pushing your limits on them. This is written in the very DNA, the language of the sport.You’ll isolate individual features in a park and make them your goal. You’ll talk about things in knowing terms, naming things by their features and stuff you can do to them. “I’m gonna hit that kink box today,” or “I’m trying to 270 on to that down-flat-down rail,” or, once, from an instructor of mine, “and if we hit this drop really high up, you might be able to pull off a quick 180.”

Setting up around a specific rail and re-hitting it until you land the trick that you think will be cool, push your limitations, and look cool is the core of skateboarding. It is about challenging only yourself for the benefit of spectators. Tony Hawk forces weird gravitational rules on you and allows for physical impossibilities, and is not as much a game about skateboarding as it could be about trampolining. In Tony Hawk, you are challenging yourself for the benefit of a score counter. In Skate 3, I couldn’t tell you, not once, what point value my tricks were worth.

This is not even to go in to how Skate 3 plays. The Flick-it system of using your analog sticks as legs feels more natural and difficultthan the old “left+square” logic of Tony Hawk (which by the way is even worse in Shaun White and Amped, because the idea that you should have a button mapped to complete inverted rotations is insulting to the skill that requires).

The thing that Skate 3 really impresses on me is that it incentivies playing like a skateboarder. Watch the guys in the video above. They’re not doing mind-numbing, off-the-wall, 300-foot drops. They’re focusing on lines. Flow. Continuation of trick to trick. The way your legs move one way up on to a rail and down off of it. It is a ballet, and they are screaming excitedly at each other to pull it off.

Skate 3 takes how skateboarders actually live and figures out how to do that in the game. Remember how I said picking your line and focusing on it is a core point of the sport? Skate 3 lets you set up a spot in front of something and immediately teleport back to your starting point, so you can repeat and master tricks of your own choosing. Some of the most fun I’d ever had in this game was focusing on a single rail or ledge, and challenging myself to kickflip on to it and kickflip off, manual in the middle, or something that wasn’t high flying Tony Hawk acrobatics, but would prove that I had enough of a grasp on the controls to execute something that I thought would look cool. If you had ever done this in Skate 3, you can understand what it’s like to be someone trying to free skate on their own rules.

The videos that skateboarding culture are based around? Hundreds of attempts to land single tricks, all shot at the same low angle, the same camera perspective Skate 3 works on in default, all meant to give you focus on the fluidity of the legs and make you feel like you’re front row center for the ballet.

But if you tried to make this game without being a part of the culture, without looking at how people that love it truly love it, you’d end up with only the ideas of tricks and ramps and rails, the parts that don’t really comprise the whole. Tony Hawk is all the component parts of skateboarding thrown into a different game. Skate 3 is how people skateboard, for skill, for style, and for themselves. So get out there and rip it up, if you’re trying to make a game about rippin’ it up.

Character and Comedy in Citizens of Earth

I got Citizens of Earth on a Humble Bundle, the recent collab between Nintendo and a bunch of great Indies, and I had been looking forward to the game for a long time. I didn’t know what to expect, but the quirky idea of a large-party RPG where everyone is a standard job that you might teach a child in a nursery rhyme (Baker, Gardener, Homeless Guy, etc.) really made me giggle. That was as far as I thought about it until I sat down to play it. I was not ready to sink 30 hours into the game, but it wouldn’t let me stop. It kept making me laugh.

For the uninitiated, a quick breakdown of combat: You can see a screenshot at 34 seconds in the video above, or I included an LP of one of the boss fights below. Your party each have different abilities depending on their job. Some tasks recharge your energy balls (below health) and some cost energy balls. You can see in the menus attacks that will charge up (they have a blue up arrow) and those that will cost (red down arrow). So, for example, as the baker, you need to do an attack with the rolling pin (charge) to be able to do his Torch  attack (cost). This makes the game an interesting balance of risks and reward, and thinking whole-fight in terms of how you approach a situation.

The one thing that really resonated with me about COE is the way these mechanics evolve with new characters. Your opening party, your brother and your mother, have a pretty standard RPG style set. Your brother has physical attacks that charge up to let you spend on costlier “Muscle” attacks. Your Mother is a weak healer, who can use Verbal attacks like “Scold” to build up meter for simple healing attacks like “Hug,” or the much more costly “Sacrificial Love,” which sees you expending your whole energy and health reserve to resurrect someone to full health. They work as you’d expect, but one of the main goals of Citizens of Earth is collecting the 42 characters scattered around the map. This is where things start to get funny. There’s a Barista who can recharge your energy with coffee beverages or a cop who uses a pistol, but where COE excels is how it delivers on standard comedy payoffs through its mechanics.

All good comedy follows a pretty simple rule of pacing. I’ll use a pretty cheesy example here to help you out. There’s the Premise, which sets up the scenario of a joke:

My wife and I just had a kid.

Followed by the Setup, which sets up the specific example of your joke.

We spent three days baby-proofing the house.

And then there is the Punch Line, which is the surprise, the thing that exaggerates or inverts your expectations and makes the joke something funny.

He still got back in.

Follow this logic and then you get to the Tag, something that shows, in brief, an example of what you just told, or elaborates on the surprise.

He found the dog door in the garage.

A lot of games believe it is enough in comedy to just use puns to make the player laugh. I know, I’m guilty of it in Runbow. Where COE really blows my mind is that I was genuinely laughing with how characters are treated because they are given scenarios where they are funny in this way, and funny because of the game they are in. Naturally funny, instead of funny with non-sequiturs or puns.

An example:

Premise: You play in an RPG where you are the Vice President of the World.
Setup: You’re going to get in combat like every other RPG you’ve ever played.
Punchline: When you start the fight, you notice your character is sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the Citizens to do the fighting.
Tag: When your party faints, it cuts to a scene in his bed where they are waking him up and he shouts “You’re right, the world needs me!”

This is funny because it lets my brain do the work. I get to process my own thoughts about politics and RPGs and have a good laugh that the main character, the hero, is a little too scared to do any of the fighting. That is genuinely, impressively funny. But it extends to the characters, once you accept the premise that you are in an RPG, which you have certain expectations about.

Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Bodybuilder”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will be a strength character.
Punchline: You need to do a move called “Flex” to charge energy before you can attack.
Tag: Your best moves cost two energy, so you’re immediately drained after attacking.

The Bodybuilder example sets up its joke based on how much you know about Bodybuilding and how much you know about RPG combat, and pays off in a way that is actually humourous, once you think about it. Another:

Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Homeless Guy”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will be weaker, because of his build and social standing.
Punchline: He has a move called “Hang On,” which lets him survive any attack with at least one health.
Tag: He needs to do this move to charge energy.

This one’s a little more of a risky joke, but the payoff is the same. The Homeless Guy’s other moves are called “Desperation,” “Resilience,” and a number of bio attacks based on his smell. A final.

Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Bartender”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will dispense sodas (as the game is pretty kid friendly), which you imagine will buff you because they are items in the game.
Punchline: Each of his sodas gives a buff that later crashes you, like “Gives you attack up, but attack down later.”
… you get the idea.

That’s not to say the COE isn’t without puns. Every enemy is a hybrid of two major jokes, it seems. There are some massive groaners in every fight, from the “Bubble Bee,” to the “Tele-fawn” in the forest to the absolutely dad-worthy “Card Shark”in the casino level and the “Catcus.” Which is a cat and a cactus.

But these are the enemies, and there is genuine humour found throughout the game, not just in it’s characters, but in how they approach their surroundings or react to these enemies. The clueless VP is a wonderfully dumb protagonist that keeps giving, even 30 hours in.

Characters are so charming to me in this game because the merging of the mechanics and their personalities, the merging of who they were and how they played, paid off in ways that made sense that weren’t immediately obvious. Citizens of Earth taps into your expectations and uses clever “Ah-ha” moments to keep things if not laugh-out-loud, then genuinely engaging through and through. Comedy is about conversation, between what players expect and what you show them, and there are much worse examples of how to use this thousand-year-old writing skill than this great little game.

 

Fun Imbalance in Uncharted 3

So I’ve finally worked through the last of the last-gen Uncharted titles in my very long road to finishing the backlog. Like most, I think 2 was my favourite, but there was something about the pacing of Uncharted 3 that really charmed me. Everything had a flow, a rhythm, and I think the entire experience finally felt like an action movie the way that I think Naughty Dog thought it has for 10 years.

One of the most cinematic experiences is also one of the sources of gameplay imbalance that made the game so fun and so frustrating simultaneously, which introduced me to a very real problem in game design I hadn’t thought of before. If all of the elements of your game are different levels of fun, you might lead the player into situations they don’t want to be in. 

I love the “Bruiser” fights in Uncharted 3. Just when combat hits its repetitive point, a big, heavy, awkward enemy runs in and forces you into a one-on-one semi-scripted combat sequence with quicktime elements. I’m sure most purists would hate that this is something that relies on QTEs and isn’t that “Gamey,” but I think for Uncharted 3 and the pacing design to feel like a film these moments add a much-appreciated Hollywood quality that I can’t get enough of.

These fights are memorable and interesting. I can remember the big British guy I beat up in the bathroom, or the dude on the truck, or the pirate in the shipping container. I loved the way the camera was controlled and the effort put into scripting the new and interesting actions in each experience. It’s a part of the game design to feel like a film, and these sequences WORK. The same can be said for hand-to-hand combat throughout the game, adding some quicktime responses that end with a flourish or a weapon-steal animation. Everything felt alive.

The same can NOT be said for the gunplay. Cover-based shooting has long been my least favourite part of the franchise and it stands out the most in this instalment. These fights aren’t memorable, or interesting, or rarely take the shape of anything other than “initial wall, two enemies on a higher plateau, some tucked around the corner.” The gunplay is kinda rote and repetitive, but the worst part about it is that at any time I can interrupt it by running up to a guy and getting into one of these awesome hand-to-hand fights.

The problem here is that these fights take control of the camera and leave you prone to distant shots and ruin your chance at real threat detection in each combat encounter. Because one of these things is more fun than the other, more engaging, I’m more likely to pick one over the other, which ruins specific elements of the game that the designers want me to engage with, like shooting people that are shooting me back.

There are a couple of things that could be done here.

1) Don’t let me get in fights during gunplay. Save the scripted fights for the special bruisers in between story sequences, but whenever someone has a gun have them kick me away (which they have for special enemy types).

2) (And this is the more drastic one) Lean into this whole “Movie” thing. Finding enemies with my ironsights using a DualShock 3 and slowly getting pegged from off camera doesn’t make me feel like an action movie hero. The quicktime events are actually designed to make it seem like you (as Drake) know exactly what to do at what time. The gunplay in these games leaves you feeling lost and distracted, so there is no surprise that I often chose to run in and take on a guy face to face. These are the sequences where the gameplay matched the theming of the game. Add these events to shooting! Press Circle to notice the guy in the corner, and Triangle to do a really cool spin-and-reload. You can still have shooting with real aiming and trigger pulling, but spice it up with that QTE design that make you feel like a reactive, adventuring badass. Same as in the fights: you can still punch and move, but every now and then the game makes you do what Drake would do.

I know it’s blasphemous to advocate for more QTEs in games, but in my case these moments were more genuinely engaging as per the theming of the game. They are presented in such a way that make the thematic and narrative tone fit the gameplay. Shooting with an analog stick can never do this. I’m not saying that every part of every game has to appeal to everyone, but in this particular title you have to wonder if there were others like me, people who felt less engaged when they were doing the heavier-lifting combat encounters. It begs the question: what do you want your players to feel, and does every part of the game make them feel that?

I think the term “Fun Imbalance” fits here. Different types of engagement take me out of the story and essentially make me feel less Drakely… and who wants that?

Post-E3 Reflections

Hello, it’s been a while. As the last week was spent in E3 recovery mode (and the week before E3 spent prepping), I decided to take a moment to reflect on a few key thoughts that emerged from E3 and purge them from my system before some upcoming much needed vacation. It should be noted that E3 was largely a positive experience for me. I played some really innovative games, and I felt energized about my work, but these stories are still sticking in my brain two weeks later.

I was up late packing for a red eye the night the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened in Orlando. 

By the time I got to the airport at 5am I was too bagged to notice anything on the TV screens so I didn’t really hear anything about it until EA’s E3 press conference was under way. I was circling into news of the shooting and then seeing news on my twitter feed about EA’s announcements, and suddenly a little tweet from Ron Gilbert caught my eye.

I have not been able to shake this thought. So much of our industry is steeped in violence that I hardly would have noticed this year were it not for this tragedy. The excitement for Battlefield 1 very high, and we took the chance to hit up EA Play, all the while catching up on news about Orlando. We sat down in a room with 62 other people ready to play a massive 64 player world war 1 simulation, and we watched Battlefield 1’s promotional material ourselves. I could not shake this feeling that this should not be happening. Definitely not in the wake of another mass shooting. Maybe not at all.

I am a fan of violent video games. I also don’t believe we need to censor creators who are using violence to express a point. Spec Ops: The Line is one of the greatest games I have ever played because of what it does with shooting, violence, and consequence. But the violence of Battlefield 1’s trailer and promotional material is presented so devoid of point, so aimless in its intention, that I find it harder and harder to tolerate.

I should also note that I don’t think violent video games make violent people, but I do think that overexposure makes it harder to vocally criticize violence in real life. To shoot several people with an AR-14 doesn’t really have the same weight if its your favourite weapon in capture the flag matches. You don’t really understand the gravity of how easy it is to access and how devastating it is to real people if you are bombarded with violence so often.

EA is sitting on top of a massive opportunity with WWI, one of the most horrific wars of the modern era, and could tell a real story about history and challenge. At least on the Canadian side, people were shooting at their own soldiers for lack of clear communication. People were diseased, suffering, and their individual war efforts were so underfunded that they were issued shovels with holes in them and told to dig. There is a game here, an experience that demonstrates the real cost of war and the loss of dignity and humanity that comes with it, but it is not in Battlefield 1.

To further add to this, the promotional video that played before the trailer (which played before we played) talked about “The Glory of War,” and outlined the “Innovative new ways soldiers were using to engage their enemies.” You could “Engage” or “Approach” or “Take on” your enemies with a variety of different guns and vehicles, but nothing the disembodied voice said resembled the word “Kill.”

“Just say it,” I muttered to myself. “Just say kill.”

The idea that using the word “Kill” is gauche in a trailer about murdering other people is fascinating to me. I would be beside myself if I found out they pulled it after the Orlando shooting, but even more likely is that the people producing these games know the damaging vernacular of truth, and they themselves are finding it harder and harder to admit that what they are doing is an increasingly more realistic representation of a very real problem.

Watching these trailers by myself I can distance my brain. I know what’s not real. I know how silly it is, and I can always be critical of media alone. But sitting in a room with 62 other people, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was truly getting off on it. If being told that killing someone with a hatchet in close quarters was a genuine selling feature of the game, how many believed it? How many were sold? 60? 35? 1? It’s hard in a room to know who else is in disbelief like me, and who among us does not see the problem with so wantonly depicting violence when we have a very real violence problem to deal with.

It was hard to imagine in a room of 64. Imagine when the game sells millions. It is a lot to think about.

This went beyond Battlefield though, and seeing games pulsing around me with guns blazing made me hyper aware of how little we challenge the status quo when it comes to our depiction of violence. Jim Sterling said this well without the political overtones, and I think his criticism is hella on point. I just like taking it a step further, because I believe nothing is apolitical. Everything is a choice, and the choices we make as game designers affect our audience in an incredibly impassioned way.

And then we ended up on skid row.

We took a wrong turn and made a trek down one of the most impoverished places in the United States. Los Angeles’ “Skid Row,” 57 blocks from 3rd to 7th and Almeda to Main, is a massive derelict stretch of land in a city that, for all of my experience, is pretty nice. There are hundreds of people sleeping in tents and miles of condemned real estate. Los Angeles, to put it bluntly, has a poverty problem.

But the convention probably pulled in over 40 million dollars. That’s based on 2012’s revenue, as it’s getting harder and harder to find the ESA’s reports from recent years. We spend so much money on in Los Angeles that the local poverty is really a staggering and confusing change of tone from the highly profitable convention.

I also don’t want to become a “well we can’t do anything fun while there’s still poverty” crusader, because I am aware that life must move forward (and I don’t like tonedeaf arguements). But someone, somewhere, could take a look 30 blocks east of the convention centre and say “is there a way we can make this better?” A portion of proceeds or SOMETHING. Video games benefit from people entering the middle class… it is a leisure pursuit that requires disposable income. Couldn’t E3 look at reaching out to its closest, most destitute neighbours as a long term investment? IF you can’t see the human benefit, at least the profitability should be easy to read.

But I guess my feelings about this are summed up with the thoughts about violence as well. How can our industry be so navel-gazing at times that it doesn’t see the bigger picture. Video games aren’t necessarily contributing to poverty, or violence, but we have so much power to affect people and show them real actions, real consequences, and real situations of people all over the world. Why instead do we spend millions of dollars on giant Chocobos and huge foam rubber robots?