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

Home sick, analyzing Uncharted 3 Puzzles

Today I’m home with the flu, plugging away at E3 prep so I’m not totally unprepared and resting so I’m not totally diseased next week (lord knows it will happen after). As it’s important not to actually stress too much on sick days (video game industry, work life balance, etc.), I’m busy working through an item on the backlog: Uncharted 3. The game hasn’t exactly blown my mind so far, but I came across this little puzzle and had to share it for today’s blog. Drake calls it the “Game Show,” so I will too.

I’ve started to sit down and do actual puzzle design for a few prototypes I’m working on, and I’m starting to learn at least one way to go about it. This puzzle revolves around setup, affordances, and removal of information to make it both challenging and rewarding to figure out.

This video shows the solution to this fun little puzzle. So if you want to figure it out yourself, please do. It’s really, really rewarding. The puzzle starts at around 22:05. Watch how it works, where he moves the phoenix, where he moves the horse. The first wall totem he goes to here is the lion, which isn’t shown with the camera.

The Setup

You walk into a room with a grid of Sabaean script on the wall and four symbols on the edges. There are four totems at four corners of the room, (one eagle, one lion, one blank, and one totem is totally broken) and on the floor in front of each totem is a black square that lights up with a different symbol depending on where you stand. Drake’s journal has two pieces of information in it. The first is a diagram of an eagle and three Sabaen symbols. The second is the bottom right corner of a grid and the position of two of the symbols within the grid. In the center is a mechanism that lets you move the symbols on the grid. That’s all you’re given. There are three elements: The wall totems, the grid, and the symbols on the floor.

The Affordance

The puzzle needs to be solved. By this point you’ve solved a few and you know that you’re not just going to sit here until something magical happens. These puzzles require action. An affordance is something we attribute to an object given its design or context. By placing a mechanism in the middle of the room, the game relies on the affordance of an interactable object in a blocked puzzle room. So you know how to solve it.

The game also uses identical symbols on the wall totems and the grid, so you know that there will be some sort of informational connection between them. The script on the floor is identical to the script on the grid, so you know that there is going to be an informational connection between them. Drake even says for the third time in this sequence of puzzles “It’s Sabaean script again,” (which is also written in his journal), which is a signal to the player that there is a solution in these symbols. Knowing where the action takes place to solve a puzzle and how information is connected between elements is a crucial part of this puzzle design.

The Information They’ve Removed

The interesting thing about this puzzle is how information is presented to you. In Drake’s journal, the “large grid” actually only shows four squares along the left and right side. The first leap you have to make to solving this is that the only “grid like” feature is the wall grid, which is actually 5×5. It’s not a big leap, because the paper in the journal actually cuts off where the rest of the grid would be. You’re filling in the information they’ve removed to start solving the puzzle. In this case, they have physically removed it with a tear. So you head over to the mechanism and move the horse and phoenix to the corresponding places. Nothing happens.

When looking at the grid on the wall, with the phoenix in place, you see that the symbols on all sides of it line up with the symbols in the picture on the left. The wall totem of the phoenix has a box that lights up with those exact symbols when you’re standing in those spaces (square thing when you’re left of it, weird N when you’re right of it, etc.). The information removed from this part of the puzzle is that the wall totems match the grid symbols. There is no direct connection there, and without being too cheap, they’ve chosen to let you figure it out yourself by removing MORE information.

The wall totem of the Lion has four symbols at its base and a light box. The wall totem that is blank has four symbols at its base and a light box. Then there is a fallen wall totem. The information removed from here is what wall totem this was. The phoenix and the lion are represented on the other wall totems… so is it the horse or the goat? The moment you look at this, you cannot help but think that it is irrelevant to the puzzle. Removing this piece of information meant its solution didn’t matter. If it was important for you to figure it out, they would have given it to you. Since the horse is already solved on the grid (in the journal) it is unnecessary to figure out what this totem was. It has to be the horse. It’s already solved, so the game has removed the need to concern yourself with it. Add on to that that the horse would have 3 symbols around it and the remaining two totems have four symbols at their base. (This sounds complicated as fuck, but trust me, it all makes sense when you watch the video). Move the lion, then process of elimination to use the symbols at the base of the goat to figure out where the goat goes on the grid. Blammo

What I Learned About Puzzle Design

I can’t help but feel I was in the room when this puzzle was designed. A total room, with all the connecting information, had to have been built first. Four animal totems on the wall with symbols on the floor corresponding to symbols on a grid where animal tiles go, and a page in a journal that showed the solution on the grid. The puzzle was built solved, then the solution was buried. From there it is a matter of hiding the information to make it more challenging for the player. 1) rip the page in the journal. 2) knock over one of the totems. 3) hide one of the other totems. It’s just one of many ways to create a puzzle, and unlocking it places you not only in Drake’s shoes but in the thousand-year-old-riddlemaster’s, which is an interesting bit of transference. Pure joy.

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Plague of Shadows: You are still allowed to innovate

The day I bought my Wii U I made it very clear to everyone what purchase I was going to make first. I was going to drop 350 bucks on a current-gen console in 2014, so that I could spend a mere 15 bucks on a title that looked like it was made in 1987. Shovel Knight was the first, and in a lot of ways is still the best, thing I have on my Wii U.

I’ve been watching development of the game for a long time, from the early days of seeing the trailer (“I can’t believe someone’s doing this!”) to now watching GIFs of the upcoming King Knight campaign (“I can’t believe they’re still doing this!”) and I am still in awe with what Yacht Club Games is working with. We’ve partnered with them at the studio to bring Shovel Knight into Runbow, but they still remain a source of inspiration (and guidance) and I can’t be anything but grateful for that.

As a guy who plays games however, and loved the original Shovel Knight so much, I was a bit distressed when I first tried Plague of Shadows and didn’t immediately like it. The free, Kickstarter-reward-tier campaign that Yacht Club released late last year promised an entirely new way to play. When I first got my hands on the title, maybe that was the problem.

Shovel Knight is about retro aesthetics. I say aesthetics as it incorporates all outward facing feeling, including touch. The game feels like an old game. Pixel-perfect inputs, audio from 30 years ago, even an NES colour palette to match. Shovel Knight is meant to evoke a certain era and experience and, above all, to do it well.

My initial problem with Plague of Shadows, and (spoilers) what I came to love about it, was that it did not rely on any classic gameplay tropes that I knew of. Whereas the first Shovel Knight combined the combat mechanics of Castlevania and the tight, unwavering platforming of Mega Man, Plague Knight controls entirely different than anything I have experienced before. It is important to note that this is a good thing.

Plague Knight can double jump, which at first doesn’t seem like much of an innovation, but after a while you realize it is there to take the place of Shovel Knight’s pogo move, a combat/traversal hybrid lifted right from classics like Duck Tales. Without the pogo as a traversal crutch, Yacht Club is able to do new things with combat that are super interesting.

First, he uses projectiles. These can be customizable as you unlock more behaviours for them, but it lets you actually sit back and think about how you’d like your weapon to work before going in to an encounter. It encourages mechanical exploration. Do I want my bomb to bounce when I throw it? Or float? What about lobbing in an arc? What kind of powder do I want in there? A simple explosion and the ability to throw three bombs? Or a big firey one and the ability to only throw one? What about the fuse? Something short? Long? Or one that seeks out the enemy if it comes close? All of these little customizable components in three categories lead to over 200 potential weapon combinations, and more importantly force you to think how you’d like to approach a given enemy or encounter. Propeller Knight needs use to use the lob casing, but someone that stays grounded, like Polar Knight, reacts really well to the Tracer Powder (that shoots off two little fireballs that crawl the ground). It is one of the most interesting weapon systems I’ve ever seen, and reminded me a lot of Xeodrifter, which I loved.

First-and-a-half, these projectiles have very well thought out behaviours. The bounce casing, when thrown from the ground just bounces, but from the air fires down in a straight line. The float casing casts out in a shallow parabola from the ground (almost flat) but when you jump up and fire it moves in a deep, distended U shape (very different from the flat arc), almost like they wanted your choices to have context and purpose, and further encourage you to try the right weapon for the job. You can also fire off projectiles to keep yourself in the air, which just feels natural in this context. You can tell that the character is about something.

Second, these projectiles can be charged to burst you into the air. Without the pogo, you gotta climb somehow. I will confess, there is a part of me that feels like I never got the hang of bursting forward entirely, but I still enjoyed the sensation of rocketing myself forward from an explosion to land on a platform a million miles away. Though it can feel a little haphazard at times, you can unlock a burst that lets you float gently and undo any terrible errors in platforming judgment.

I have never seen a character that controls like this. Maybe there’s something waiting in the backlog for me, but I haven’t experienced it yet. These patterns of bullet, these complicated, exhilarating traversals. This is not something that belongs on the shelves in a retro cartridge store. Plague Knight feels like he looks, a sprightly little imp that wears a cloak and dashes around the screen, but he also feels like he belongs in the hands of well-intentioned game designers operating now, in 2016. This could still be considered a love letter to the classics, not necessarily in feel but in how they approached a problem and chose to solve it. They wanted to navigate all the same levels with the same intensity, the same true joy of accomplishment, but to do so in such a way that wouldn’t pigeon hole them, and may just move the genre of platformer forward into trying new things. That’s about as retro punk rock as it gets, right there.

Overwatch, and questions about making characters from stereotypes

First, I love Overwatch. It is a game I was not anticipating even getting excited over, and after the open beta I was genuinely hooked. The colours, the characters, and the easy to use but fun to master gameplay were everything I was looking for in a game. For this to be presented in a team shooter? It found a spot in my heart I hadn’t filled. I have needed to express restraint to not buy it yet, as I’m still pushing through the backlog, but make no mistake I am going to buy it. Imagine, a colourful, character-based game where I actually like the characters. Imagine that.

Plus, I like the characters. They’re largely well thought out, and they play great. “Something for everyone,” which I think is printed on the doorframe above Blizz’ office. When I say that they’re derived from stereotypes though, I need to be clear: I don’t find these characters racist. Full disclosure, I’m a white dude living in Canada so your mileage may vary, but I don’t see racist stereotypes presented, I see stereotypes. There is an important difference. While I do not find them racist, I know some people who do, so it begs the question about designing characters with stereotypes in mind:

Couldn’t they have tried a little harder?

I’m talking of the butch Russian defender, Zarya, the Brazilian Raver DJ, Lucio, the Swiss Medic Support, Mercy (whose wings look like Swiss Army Knives), the stoic Japanese archer, Hanzo, the Egyptian artillary woman, Pharah (whose eye is adorned with the eye makeup that lets you know she’s Egyptian. You know. You know the eye makeup. I’ll give you a hint, it’s not modern Egyptian), the Australian criminals, Junkrat and Roadhog, and the Korean Starcraft player, D-Va. None of these are necessarily damaging stereotypes (well, the Junkers maybe), but they create questions. Questions that are more relevant alongside positive stereotypes like the British pilot, Tracer, or the American Soldier, Soldier: 76, or the hulking Teutonic knight, Reinhardt.

I’m not going to get into this debate for the third time in a week, because I don’t have the answers. But as a creator of characters for over a decade, and someone who writes and designs characters in and out of my working life, these questions arise:

Is it alright to design a character based on a stereotype?

If it is, who agrees to that? Which stereotypes are okay?

Are there good and bad stereotypes?

If there are, how do we determine a good from a bad stereotype?

Why might people find Lucio a negative stereotype?

Is it because his character is (default) decked out in the Brazilian flag colours when other characters aren’t immediately defined by their country’s national colours?

Is it because he is a dance music DJ? How to Brazilians feel about their musical cultural exports?

Why couldn’t the black DJ be from France? Would that detract from the sexy femme fatale stereotype, Widowmaker?

Why might people not feel the same way about Tracer, the pilot, or McCree, the gunslinger?

Is it possible that these stereotypes, stereotypes of British airmanship and American Outlaw Justice, are positive?

What makes a stereotype a positive one?

Is it possible that they are designed after aspects of a culture those people want to be remembered for?

If I wanted to see a Canadian character, how would I want it to look?

Would I be hurt if it was a hyper-polite medic? Probably not.

How would I feel if it was a beer-drinking hockey enforcer?

Do Egyptians want to be remembered only for their exploits 5000 years ago?

If not, isn’t the use of Pharah as a military powerhouse more innovative than say, the American Cowboy type?

Do Australians want to be remembered as escaped prisoners?

In a game with 2 Australians that are both criminals, doesn’t that put out a message? 100% of the Australians in a game are gross garbage divers, doesn’t that not leave a lot of room for induction about other Australians?

If Overwatch is a group of the best of the best, aren’t we saying something about what kind of people rise to the top in a given culture? Aren’t we saying what elements of a given nationality stand out enough to be recognized as a great fighter to join this elite society?

As such, it makes sense that the best British Pilot, or the best American Soldier, or the best German Knight might be saying something alongside the best Australian criminal, right?

Who did they ask about these portrayals? Brits? Or Australians? Can you feel the answer in your gut?

Also, in this future, isn’t the bombed out Australian junker territory just a modified version of Mad Max?

Isn’t that also an overused stereotype?

and would anything have been hurt if they tried to come up with something new?

Is that too much to ask?

Goodbye, Super Meat Boy

This video has inspired me to do a little housekeeping.

In my “Working Through” posts, I talk about playing games to a level I call “Complete,” and then moving that game out of the backlog. I feel like it might be relevant to reflect on what that means to me, especially in light of this week’s games. I started with Mortal Kombat, which I almost gave up on in it’s final moments, and then moved on to super Meat Boy. In honour of the game finally being released on Wii U, I thought it would be a nice moment to put a nail in a 5 year backlog item.

Yet here I am, moving on without 100%ing it. Not even finishing the campaign.

I don’t play most games to 100% completion. Severed is the title in most recent memory that I even felt like completing all the way, but for the most part, I aim to get a “whole experience” out of a title. I don’t just play for an hour and give up, as Extra Credits would recommend in their Playing Like a Designer videos, because part of me needs to see where it goes, and part of me needs to give the developers my attention at least through a story, and part of me uses games to relax. Having something on the go is relaxing, helps me zone out, and keeps me energized.

There comes a point however, where a developers efforts to get my attention for another 5 or 6 or 30 hours starts to hit a point of diminishing returns. Extra content can still be well designed (Red Dead Redemption comes to mind), but after a certain point I have to question why the extra content is there. I can’t stop thinking that I am a battleground, some turf a developer is trying to win from some other studio. A challenge to see who can get more of my time. I admire all of the effort, but I feel like it’s not entirely necessary.

Sometimes, maybe a shorter story will do.

Case and point, the final boss fight of Mortal Kombat. An impossible battle that required me to bend the game’s own teachings and cheap out to win. Sure, it keeps me playing, but at what cost?

Another: Super Meat Boy’s final level, 4 Letter Word. I know how to beat each of its individual saw placements, but its the combination, and the length, that make the repetition almost too much to bear. Some 30+ seconds into a level to hit a point that I can’t surpass makes me beg for a break in the mechanics, like a checkpoint, so that this level’s difficulty doesn’t become the smudge on an otherwise perfect experience. Each and every single level throughout the game is a rewarding burst of creative thinking. Even the Omega, something I had returned to as a beautiful bastion of thumb-blistering platforming, was a long series of well paced challenges that were fun to repeat and never too hard on their own. 4-Letter word is just a stack of repetitive hardness. It stopped being fun, and I didn’t want to push myself through it anymore. (I played it for 90 minutes straight without stopping yesterday).

And that, it seems, was it for me.

I also haven’t tried to gold time and dark world perfect every level. The sheer amount of content in this game is absolutely mind-boggling, and I have the utmost respect for Team Meat and anyone that has made it through it all. But I had my fun. Each individual level is a blast and the mechanics and feel are unparalleled, but after a while I start to wonder how I’d feel if the game told me I’d beaten everything. I’d reached my 100%, and that was all there was. I would have been fine with it. The developer will get me to experience everything they think I should, and if I feel like I’m missing something, I’ll poke around for more (like MK and the Challenge Tower).

I think a shorter title is a positive chance to experience something new, quick, and open your mind up to an entirely new game afterwards. Buying in to hours of extra content doesn’t make my experience any richer. If someone points me to a minigame or sidequest that I absolutely must play, I of course will. But I have to wonder, why weren’t these things part of the main game? Plus, if you’re just adding content for some dollar-per-hour value proposition, isn’t that a bit disingenuous?

I don’t put dollar values on my time. Or, rather, I don’t demand return of dollars for my time. Instead, I view something I am willing to spend an hour on as valuable. There is a difference.

I’m going to play Firewatch and pay full price for it, knowing it’s length, and I don’t need to play the other 490 hours of Skyrim, knowing that the GameStop employee that sold it to me offered that as a selling feature. Do what you will, but trust me, there’s a liberty in moving something off the backlog that you’ve revisited for years, even if you love it.

Goodnight, Bandage Girl. I hope your journey comes to an end some day. Maybe we’ll meet again.

Working Through: Mortal Kombat

Working Through is a short breakdown of a game in my backlog. I try to play everything to a point that I would call “Komplete” and then figure out what worked from the design or execution, what didn’t, and what lessons I can learn from this. These aren’t reviews, they are things that worked and didn’t work for me as a designer. Both should be cause to play the game yourselves.

I have been playing Mortal Kombat games now for 22 years. The franchise lines up so much with my life that I can’t tell if Deception or Deadly Alliance were actually bad, or if I was just going through an MK-fatigued downswing brought on by the boredom and poor execution of MK4. After years of watching the franchise circle around the idea of 3D arenas, when I first heard about MK9 I was thrilled to see Netherrealm taking the game back to it’s planar roots. But I’ve never finished it… until today.

What Worked? A lot of people refer to this as the first game to use a story mode to teach players how to play each character. I am proud to admit that I know that to be false, and ashamed to admit it is because I love Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, the game Midway and Warner Bros. used to test this out for the first time. But it works even better here (as a lot of things do). You have to play through 16 characters, and take on 4 fights as each. By the end of each chapter you really get a good feel for how they play, their combos, and most reliable moves in different situations. Whether your opponents be closeup fighters or zoners, each character gets to test their might against a variety of fighting styles. As a designer, it’s something I really appreciate in a multi-character game, and something a lot of hero-selecting titles could learn from.

And hell, as a longtime fan of the series, I have to admit that the narrative is pretty damned good. They bridged arcs from 1, 2, and 3 in a way that people should look closely at. A seamless interpolation of characters who didn’t exist side by side previously, the natural integration of Shang Tsung and Quan Chi, I was thoroughly impressed as a narrative designer. It’s not easy to make a bridge like that. This part will require some back knowledge to really appreciate, but let me remind you this: as game writers and narrative designers, there is nothing that can’t be explained with narrative. Put characters together that don’t belong, change the parts of the narrative that are weak, make something that flows. It is always possible. Let game design put the encounters together, you get to have the fun afterwards.

The Challenge Tower is another massive win. From a production standpoint the low overhead of actually adding hundreds of new challenges for content impressed me. These can vary from tag matches where your partner heals while they’re not fighting, or a challenge where you can only do damage in a certain area, and even a couple levels that play as tower defence games, where you have to perform projectile moves to keep zombies at bay. It’s fun and innovative, and it’s even more engaging than the full narrative. You should watch clips of it just to see how playful the challenges are, and in a game that is way-too-serious to the point of laughing, seeing the developers actually laugh at themselves is beautiful.

Also also? Everything just fits the theme. The Krypt, the decapitated heads in the 3-cup-game Test Your Sight. These guys and gals lean fully into what they’re making, at least visually. Which brings me to my second half.

What Didn’t Work? There’s a lot of things that aren’t great with the narrative, the wooden dialogue and acting, but from a design perspective, especially a narrative design, one question stands out: Why only let the player play as good guys? You work through 16 chapters but never touch Noob, Ermac, Baraka, or Sheeva, characters that spend their whole story on the dark side. There are more opportunities for story building and player development if you don’t arbitrarily limit your players. Plus, now that I’m done, I have little experience with these characters outside of my own attempts.

On that note, if you’re going to show how to play as most of the characters, why is the final fight one that has to happen between Shao Kahn and Raiden? It seems to me that it would make more sense to give you the option to play as your best fighter, and not give the fourth challenge to an essentially new character that you’re still learning.

Unlocking Kontent is the same as it’s always been, but the Krypt is nigh unnavigable. The little tombs and puss-filled bodies exploding add a nice level of artistic juice (and juices) to the experience, but the grid system is all wonked up and hard to move around. Plus, I would want players to feel like they are enjoying concept art (it’s a core conceit of Runbow), but the concept art and costumes (the real reason to visit the krypt) cost practically the same… which makes the concept art feel like a disappointment. Players come to the krypt for costumes and fatalities. If concept art were cheaper it might change their value. “I only have a few Koins, so I’ll just get this one thing,” instead of “I only have 900 Koins, god I hope this isn’t another napkin sketch.” Design your economy around what you know your players want, because anything else feels like a misdirect.

But the most upsetting thing about this entire game, a game that I largely enjoyed, a game that I thought was so good I was mad it wasn’t great, was the final boss fight. Check out the video above to see how much it destroys your confidence in the game’s mechanics. Shao Kahn’s moves have zero startup or cooldown frames, and he will sometimes spontaneously flash and be unphazed (though damaged) by an attack. There is no communication for this, or explanation, and it is completely unpredictable. You can find yourself prone to a punish in a situation you never would have in any other fight. It required me to cheese the whole fight with a teleport-uppercut combo, which I learned from the video above. At the end of the game this is not how I want to remember the combat. I don’t want to be ushered out into the real world with a cheap single-combo strategy that doesn’t demand anything else of me. It’s unfair to the player and unfair to the game itself. Definitely unfair to serious Raiden players. It really tainted my entire experience of the game and warrants its own blog post.

What Did I Learn? If you can afford it, don’t half-do anything. Why teach 16 characters when there are 20? Why ask people to unlock content if they aren’t sure they want it? Why offer a boss fight if you don’t want to test real skills? Mortal Kombat learned a lot from MK2, a game I loved so much I wrote a letter to Acclaim about when I was 9. Sadly, only being able to beat Shao Kahn with uppercuts is something it could have left in 1994.

I am a champion for trying to find out the designers intention, and I can see greatness in this game. Every choice and all the new mechanics, I love them all, but there are little things, especially with character teaching, that would have pushed it right over the top. Maybe it’s budget, or maybe they’re thinking about it in a different way than me. How much more can you push your design though? When every screen bleeds, literally bleeds with effort, it seems like a game that is about teaching you characters would really want you to take advantage of that in every possible avenue.

Dice or No Dice. What does Tharsis want from you?

From touch game to dice game, again, you can accidentally rob yourself of really great experiences if you look at different mechanical tendencies with a closed mind. A game focused around rolling dice can seem like it has no place on a digital platform… but who the hell does anyone think they are to say that? Also, that is just flat out wrong. Again, stop asking the question “Why didn’t they do it the way I would have done it,” and start asking yourself “What did they want to accomplish with this?”

As with Severed, it is imperative that you try this game. Climb over your friends to give it a go. It is deep, and deceptively simple. There’s less to spoil here, but if you want to experience it for yourself, trust that impulse. 

Tharsis is a couple of months old, and I am still playing it religiously. Maybe not every day, but at least once a week. Every now and then I will pop in and see if maybe today is the day I make it to Mars. Maybe not. Usually not.

Tharsis is a bleak game. The goal is to survive a number of rounds as a small crew of the space shuttle Iktomi, trying to put out fires and save their own lives before the inevitable destruction of their ship. The game feels like a board game, even just looking at it, and plays out in the multiple rooms of the ship. Another obvious board game comparison? There are dice. Actual dice.

To help save the ship, players have to roll a number of dice and contribute their actual rolls to chipping down the repair cost of a given event. At the beginning of a turn, something like “Life Support System Damaged” will appear in one of the modules, with a dice cost of, say, 10. You have to move a player there, roll over 10, and drag those dice onto the repair cost. It is horrifically simple to play and understand, but there are systems at work here that I still haven’t cracked.

The obvious and boring complaint floating around the internet is the butthurt battle cry of “Ugh, It’s RNG!” as if random number generation was a sin that other games don’t commit literally every day. But if the idea of rolling real dice and thinking about RNG is what’s stopping you, then you’re missing out on the core beauty of Tharsis. It’s not about how you get the numbers, it’s what you do with them. 

Yes, every roll is completely random and, yes, sometimes that has resulted in me straight up dying… but that isn’t what the game is trying to teach you. There are a half-dozen different things you can do with a dice once it’s rolled, whether its spend it on ship repair (as explained above), or drag it into your character’s unique ability (some heal every member in a module, some generate more assist points), or spend it on research projects (six slots that can be banked, one dice of each number, and used to accomplish certain effects, like spend one dice to get one food for the ship), or spend it on the module-specific skill (generate assist, generate food, heal, repair ship damage). There is something to do with each roll that makes you more than once regretful for your choices… because you can’t undo the dice once they’re spent.

And there are elements to further affect the outcome, and force you to try different things. Sometimes damage events will have dice that cause injury to your character, or get locked in stasis when certain numbers are rolled. You can build up assist points in another module to protect against these accidents, but you have to make the conscious decision to spend more points on assist. Food, similarly, can recharge your crew’s constantly depleting dice reserves but you have to make the conscious decision to spend dice on food instead of say health or repair.

This, to me, is a mark of quality game design: to give the player something to do, and then immediately a reason not to do it. THAT is the nature of meaningful choices, and Tharsis is full of them.

At the end of each round you have to decide on a buff to your ship, but there’s always a negative side, and the negative side gets worse the higher the team’s stress is (another variable that can be controlled by spending dice elsewhere). If a crew member dies you can substitute them for food… and this is where the game gets really dark. You were down a crewmate anyways, so you need the dice, but this dramatically increases stress and, as such, changes the nature of the between-round buff events that should help you. Plus, the dice of the cannibal characters become the game’s emblematic blood red for the rest of the mission. A nice touch, even if the colour itself doesn’t itself change your gameplay.

If I play an RPG, and my character swings a sword, the computer goes out of its way to process the chance that I’ll hit. It just uses much smaller numbers and never shows me what they are. What if, instead, every time I swung a sword I could see the numbers the computer chose for me, and I can decide if I want them to make me attack stronger, or give me a better chance of landing, or increase my health? Isn’t that more player agency than just doing all the math for you? This is what Tharsis does. It gives you control over randomness so you can feel the emotional gravity of trying to right a sinking ship.

The video above proves that it can be played, and beaten, so don’t decry it as unfair. Maybe assume that designers know what they’re doing when they release something. What they do with their game is their business. It’s what you do with it that actually matters.

 

Touch Game? Or Touching Game? What does Severed want from you?

I keep circling around this same central thesis with regards to games, or at least playing games like a designer. I think there is something to be learned from all games, and more importantly, as a player, there’s probably fun to be had if you ask yourself the right questions. That’s not stopping people from releasing terrible, misguided junk, but I find that a lot of real gems go missed because people are assuming one thing, and the game is asking something completely different. I’m going to write about two games that have this same shroud of design-vs-desire, both of which thoroughly impressed me after I got over my initial expectations and let them do their thing.

It dawns on me now that I am writing this down to not forget. I cannot stress how much I liked this game, and want to remember each of its nooks and crannies. If you want to experience it yourself and not read ahead, please do. I highly recommend playing the game.

Severed was released on PS Vita almost two weeks ago. I had been looking forward to this one for years, having been one of the game’s earliest playtesters and a massive fan of Guacamelee. As the time dragged on and I watched Sony’s support of the Vita start to flag, I worried for the game. Not just because the developers are friends, but because I wondered what this meant for the future of touch screen gaming on the whole.

And I started to get curious about how much I would enjoy the game itself. My excitement aside, I started to wonder what the long-term engagement of a touch screen game actually would be. How much could I actually enjoy from a touch screen game? Isn’t this just Infinity Blade or Fruit Ninja? Who cares, it’s just a touch-screen game, right? Yeah not exactly.

The big thing about Severed is not what you have to do, but how you have to do it. Reviews seem to get this, noting largely positive responses so far. Touch combat has never been more completely delved into, and every single element of the game demands that you think about how you use your touch screen in different ways.

You start off with a slash. Left and right. Then you have to slash many times back and forth. So far, just touching and swiping. Then you get introduced to parries, charging you to swipe opposite the direction of attack. Then parries followed by slashing. This is all in the tutorial, too.

The next step up is an enemy that blocks you from slashing continuously back and forth, immediately teaching you that just dragging your finger across the screen will never be enough. In case you don’t get this, the game incentivizes calculated slashing with a focus meter. Combo slashes that aren’t blocked or stopped by you getting hit will build up a charge bar, which you need to get better at the game:

If you kill an enemy with a fully charged focus bar, you can sever their limbs in a short time-window for loot. Again: The loot system requires skill, or you get no loot. This severing has to be done while balancing the position and attack timers of different enemies, and is incredibly rewarding to master (pictured above). Every enemy is meant to bend your head around this uninterrupted slashing. Weak points that rotate 90 degrees, or require you to essentially parry an enemy open. Enemies that grow fungus that needs to be cut back before they can be attacked.

Then the game introduces charged slashes, enemies whose bodies or attacks can only be countered with charged slashes, enemy stat buffs, a powerup system that drains enemy stat buffs, and a hyper-damage mode that overheats if you rely on it too much. It comes at a perfect pace and it is a well designed rollout of skill and challenge. It is, from beginning to end, a joy to play.

Not to mention the non-touch elements, like the rambling room design filled with environmental puzzles that are never explained, but are incredibly well taught. Each world has its own version of this, and while at first it felt a little dungeon-crawlery, the better I got at the combat the more I wanted to explore the map. It is the first game in a long time I have felt the desire to 100%. Also the narrative, which is so sparsely delivered but does more with <100 words than most games do with 1000.

By the end, I was so good at combat I could dispatch fast-moving enemies rather quickly. The game’s loot can be spent on RPG-style upgrades to speed and strength, but the amazing thing is how this feels. In most RPG-style game, a stronger character means you have to spend less time in a fight, or the fights have to get tougher. In a menu-based RPG, these fights being shorter make them relatively boring, but in a game where you’re actually getting friction burns on your finger, the stat boost feels like an earned strength. I am stronger because I slashed all of those enemies to death. I am stronger because I could time my sever attacks and collect all these hands and eyeballs. I am stronger because my finger is burning.

This is the most amazing part of Severed. The encounters, the growth mechanics, all of it revolves around the idea of strengthening yourself back up to save your family. Everything is there to make you feel like more of a warrior. If everything was just done with button combinations, I don’t know that that would have landed. Because I have to physically interact with this game and sweat to survive, it is an unparalleled experience.

That is not to say the touch screen is a gimmick. It is a part of the design and feel of the game. Severed knew where it was going to be released and took full advantage of that. They knew not only what they were doing it, but how they were going to do it. We could all learn a bit from this.

I Just Played Hearthstone for the First Time in Months

I just played Hearthstone for the first time in months

I know now what is happening. Hearthstone wants more of me.

Like I said on Tuesday, I’ve been questioning what the point of returning is. As with most things in game development, I find it’s better to try haphazardly than to sit around wondering.

So I booted up the game, downloaded a lengthy update, and got ready to get my free packs. I tried not to approach from the headspace I wrote the last blog post, and sat down to enjoy a friendly game of cards by the hearth.

First, the game is quite eloquent in explaining the changes. A very strongly highlighted description of which cards have changed, with new mana costs or attack strengths or battlecries outlined in red. I appreciated this. Not a lot of developers even release patch notes, let alone front load them to the player. Then the game started talking.

“There is a new way to play,” it says. “Standard mode can only use the newest cards.” They even hired new voice acting. “You have a few wild decks but you can convert them to standard.”

“Try switching to standard mode,” it asked. So I did. “You cab upgrade your wild decks to standard decks,” so I did. I appreciated this feature. It lessened the blow of having to upgrade and walked me through the experience, outdated card by outdated card. It’s recommendation of what to replace was a little incorrect, but I switched the cards after getting the guide off my back.

Then it showed me my last outdated card: Maexxna. My first legendary, the harbinger of Doom in my beast deck. Responsible for more wins than any other card in my collection. I knew I could play her any time I wanted in wild, but something didn’t feel the same.

Begrudgingly, I replaced her with a Fen Creeper and went to try to find a fight.

I played against another Hunter, and we traded card for card straight through most of the first 6 crystals. It was how I was used to playing. My beasts were buffing beasts, I was keeping the board clear and a card in the deck to stay on top. This might not have been so bad.

Then the other Hunter player a card that buffed his C’thun, “wherever it is.” C’thun is the deadly new Lovecraftian legendary card that spurned this whole “Whispers of the Old Gods” expansion, a Blizzardified approximation of a beast that means unknowability and despair.

And that, I think, was it for me.

In a sudden flash I saw the whole future of my time with the game, and I realized that unless I spent days with it, invested time in new cards and new packs, understanding them and rebuilding my favourite decks for maximum efficiency, I would never have the same experience as I did building my decks on my own the first time.

Sure, I could play Wild, where all cards are welcome, but I could see that it was not what the game wanted. Perhaps this is why the expansion featured the largest ad campaign in the game’s history. To separate the truly invested from the brand new, the ones who can play standard right away because they always get the newest cards.

I looked forward in time and asked myself how to get the most out of the game and saw a commitment so gargantuan, any attempts to comprehend it were madness inducing.

Fitting for the Lovecraft expansion. But do not call up that which you can not put down.

I Haven’t Played Hearthstone in Months

(Sorry for the lack of post last week. I was getting ready for EGLX, which was a massive success. I highly recommend you guys checkout the followup from that event. Especially here in Canada, it’s going to be something big.)

I believe firmly that a designer should play everything, and I do my best to try to see what it is a team is trying to accomplish with their given game. That’s why my little “Working Through” articles are sure to deal with something that worked, or was interesting in every game.

Hearthstone’s new expansion has been released (and teased for months) and at first I was pretty excited to see what Blizzard’s take on Lovecraft would be. Cthulhu mythos is awesome mythos, after all. But I don’t think I’ll be heading back any time soon, and I think it’s important to look closer at myself and figure out why. I also believe a designer should be aware of the things that give them a certain experience, like imagine how you feel when you open a party cracker or jump into a cold lake… thinking about how to translate those experiences is what makes game design awesome. So I should look a little closer at why Hearthstone gave me an icky feeling.

I never played a lot of card games growing up. Some Pokemon, for a bit, and a few single-box card related games, things that didn’t require collection or expansion (Bang! as an example), but TCGs were not often important to me.

In our office we occasionally do Magic Card Drafts, where we buy a number of packs and rotate around a circle and pick the best cards we can, build a deck on the fly. We’ll sit down for a few hours after and labour over each others’ decks, see which cards people saw value in that we didn’t even think of. It’s a blast.

Trying first Hearthstone and then Magic were the things that got me into the beauty of a TCG. I like the simplicity of their design and the infinite potentials for depth. I like that it’s easy to pick them up but they’re built with the utmost mastery in mind. The problem is I’m just not that good at them.

I feel like there is a secret group of people that see beyond the matrix, the ones who can imagine the infinite possibilities of every card and know the cards enough to make things happen with perfect combinations of cards. I am definitely not one of those people. I can’t pick up a new card and decide, “Yeah, that’s going to be able to do this in late game.” This isn’t where I give up though.

I went through a three month period of playing Hearthstone dailies. I saved up enough to buy entry into a couple wings of Naxxramus, and I built a couple of decks that had solid win rates. I looked closely at the abilities of my face characters and a couple key legendaries and I started learning what it was that made a good deck. The all-beast Hunter deck, for example, or a totem-buffing Shaman deck. I would play them at least once a day and start to notice the holes. If I wasn’t the kind of guy that could decide which cards would automatically work for me, I would play my deck and take note of times that I was upset that something came up, or times that I wish something else came up. Hearthstone’s deck builder let me explore the meta of my own cards and do it on a rapid iteration cycle, faster than any MTG deck build. I could pull out the offending cards and usually I would feel happier with the outcome. I was at the top of my game.

Then I found out that my Hunter beast deck, the deck that I sat down and felt pretty astute for figuring out myself, was one of many recipes that were already used worldwide. Let me clarify: it doesn’t bother me that other people built the same decks. The problem is that people post exact builds of theory-crafted decks online, use them and compare win rates. People will refer to specific decks (“Miracle Rogue,” “Aggro Shaman”) and build those decks and enter to win. They’ll climb the rankings each season and then reset and build a new deck for new rankings. It turned me off of the whole game.

I understand that this is a tenet of competitive games, to do what it takes to win, but it really sucked the wind out of my sails. The idea that no matter how competitive or creative I was there was someone copying the exact same deck felt like it placed a bulk of my victories either in the realm of RNG or in some prescribed mandate of how to play. Since there are no additional actions besides playing cards, a recipe is enough to make someone a better Hearthstone player so long as they know how to use the 30 cards in their deck. They’ll lose a few, but they can rise the ranks with little effort. On the whole, this felt strange for me. In Street Fighter there are prescribed ways to play certain characters, but it is up to the player to manage those inputs and develop their own strategies. If you can win with Dhalsim close-combat, more power to you. In a game where your only actions are to play out turns, I feel like some of that fun is taken away. Add on top of that that my decks are now totally outclassed by the new meta and I feel a little cheapened.

In China there are many pay-to-win games. It’s part of their culture that they actually pay to win rather than complain, like we do, about imbalance. If you want to win, you pay. It makes sense.

I feel like Hearthstone isn’t pay to win, but the idea that there are recipe-to-win strategies makes the whole thing seem less fun to me. This is of course what it boils down to. I could get back in there and keep playing with my own strategies, trying new cards, trying new decks, failing, improving, all that. But if I were a chef slaving over a perfect chicken dinner and found out that about 50% of the time people are as likely to enjoy a hungry man microwavable meal, I’d have difficulties really devoting my time to cooking that dinner.

Unless the act of cooking was the fun.

So imagine I never go back. Without the thrill of a self-earned victory (which, I must stress, is important to me more than a universal requirement, it is not something that lessens the game and I’m happy that it works for people without it), all that’s left is the moment-to-moment action of the game.

If that’s enjoyable, like a Street Fighter where I don’t understand how to play Dhalsim, then that’s enough. If we’re just putting down cards, agnostic of victory, dropping cards for the sake of cards, is that fun enough to bring me back? Hearthstone does a lot for polish and juice to really sell that action, but if you look at it by itself it might not be enough to interrupt the backlog again. I might need more than winning.

Working Through: Halo: Combat Evolved

Working Through is a short breakdown of a game in my backlog. I try to play everything to a point that I would call “Complete” and then figure out what worked from the design or execution, what didn’t, and what lessons I can learn from this. These aren’t reviews, they are things that worked and didn’t work for me as a designer. Both should be cause to play the game yourselves.

I’m not the biggest first-person shooter fan. Part of my cataloging efforts made me realize the sheer dearth of them that I had collected over the years and never finished, or even started. It’s not the first person perspective either, as I’m a fan of Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite, but I can’t play an FPS without feeling how obvious everything is. I haven’t seen an FPS with subtlety, and FPS that didn’t want you to feel like an infinite badass. Games like Halo are part of the reason why it’s such a stayed part of the genre.

I thought it would be important to take a look at the original Halo (confession: played the anniversary edition because let’s face it, we should take liberties where they are available) and see where a lot of these tropes got their start.

What Doesn’t Work? It’s unfair to talk about this kind of stuff, as no one knew how to do a lot of what we call pretty standard level design tropes in 2001, but it is still worth playing the game and seeing what I mean. The wayfinding is terrible. That’s being generous. This would be a criticism that I would be wary of mentioning given the time the game was made and everything we’ve learned since, but Halo 2 and Halo 3 don’t offer a big improvement on this front, so the criticism remains valid. Little tricks, like lights, or vocal cues, or geometry ushering you towards an exit are often completely absent and the game is absolutely in love with bringing you into a room and asking you to find out where to go.
Also, the game’s driving physics are hard to talk about when I’ve been spoiled with at least a decade and a half of GTA after them, but the difficulty here again is wayfinding. So many times did I get into that first warthog mission, flip my hog after I activated the bridge and just run the rest of the way. It took me an hour to complete! By the time I realized that I should have still been on my warthog, I had to wonder why the designers didn’t have this experience with other people. Couldn’t you drop another warthog at key points? A reminder, perhaps, to usher me toward the enjoyable experience you want me to have?
There’s a continued feeling with Halo that I’m just supposed to be enjoying myself with what they’ve given me. “You like shooting,” they’ll say, “So here’s more of it,” without ever asking if I enjoy shooting. It can be exhausting. The levels are very reused and while I applaud their economy, at times it makes me wonder if I haven’t done a certain sequence once or twice before.
What Works? Halo is still worth playing. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of hyper-masculine tropes and run and gun sequences, Halo does some things very very right.
Firstly, there are times where I genuinely do enjoy shooting. The feel of the gun and its cool down, the speed with which you have to ditch enemies and hide behind things, it makes me feel like a badass on human terms. This is not Doom. While the encounters were occasionally too much or just not well thought out, the act of firing and hiding was an incredibly satisfying one, moreso than later games that used a truer regen system.
In one iteration they invented and perfected the 2 weapon system that is so commonly used now, along with its realism-antithesis, the proto-regenerating health bar (which would be fully regenerative in Halo 2). Both do a lot to force you into interesting situations and play differently than you do other shooters.
But that’s almost not worth pointing out either. It’s not the number one reason you need to play this game.
What is relevant is how they reveal their story. The action and narrative of the game go hand in hand in a way I wasn’t expecting, and every level is broken up into well-paced, well-executed 3-act chunks. Vocal cues and design shifts (not even the Anniversary edition’s cutscenes) tell a story and pace it out with action in a way that makes each level feel like a movie. These “cutscenes” keep you energized just when you’re feeling buried by Covenant Hordes.
Another really fun fact that revealed itself while I was trying to explore the story (after getting killed on the Library 100 times), the game’s difficulty also doesn’t change enemy numbers just enemy health. This goes a long way to padding out the experience while not making you feel like the game is taking it easy on you. I fought the same number of enemies on easy as I did on hard, the only difference was the strength of enemies. If you want your player to feel like a badass that has actual choices to make, you could do a lot worse than giving them the same number of enemies to kill.
What did I Learn? An anecdote about my most revealing moment with this game: Make your player feel capable of anything. The final chapter of the final fight begins with heavily banging drums and 2 hunters, the hardest enemies heretofore to kill, and a nice little blast shield for you to fight them from. They shoot the shield and almost always miss you. The explosions weaken them and make them easier to kill than they ever have been… leaving you rushing into the final fight having trounced your hardest enemies in a few quick shots.
 This last-second confidence boost is a fun little piece of design that I’ve seen done in Guacamelee (and am going to be on the lookout for some more). It’s entirely fake, but it does for your sense of self what the narrative does for the occasionally stodgy level design. Breaking levels up into 3 act chunks makes you feel a genuine sense of progression, even if Bungie was smart enough to hold on to and repeat certain assets a little too much.
I also learned that it is possible to understand the genre through its earliest progenitors. I learned that popular games that everyone loves are indeed worth playing, even if they just serve to demonstrate the design principles that we’ve since taken for granted. If the moment to moment feels okay, it’s hard to just give them up.