Game design

Build me a world

A stage setting is not a background; it is an environment. Players act in a setting, not against it. We say, in the audience, when we look at what the designer has made, before anyone on the stage has time to move or speak, "Aha, I see! It's going to be like that!" 
--Robert Edmond Jones, "The Dramatic Imagination"

Robert_Edmond_JonesBuilding a world isn't easy. The novelist, the playwright, the filmmaker - all face the same daunting task. Establish a place; communicate a style; commence your story; hook your audience. 

And the clock is ticking. You have roughly 10 minutes. If you haven't conveyed a world that intrigues us by then, you've probably lost your chance.

Narrative video games present no less a challenge. In some ways, the stakes there are even higher. Not only must the world intrigue me, but I must also feel compelled to occupy and explore it...and I've plunked down $60 for the privilege. 

Bioshock succeeds in this regard better than any game I can think of. Revisiting Rapture with the Vintage Game Club has brought into focus how effectively this game establishes a world chock-full of detail, expressiveness, and storytelling punch. As virtual world-building, Bioshock offers some valuable lessons on how to do it right.

Spoilers ahead.

The first hour of Bioshock is essentially a layered set of introductions to the world of Rapture and the game itself. Every narrative game must manage this balancing act of storytelling and teaching, but Bioshock excels by thrusting the player into a series of events and locales loaded with ambience and backstory, trusting the player to learn by exploring. 

The banners, the plaques, the discarded artifacts, the architecture that surrounds me - all converge as individual pieces of a great story puzzle you will piece together. As my friend Roger Travis has suggested, the player behaves similarly to Oedipus in this regard: a well-meaning detective who ultimately tracks down himself.

When I emerge from the water gasping for air, the game offers no HUD and no instructions. I'm on my own. When I reach land and look over my shoulder, I watch the plane slowly disappear into the sea. The prediction delivered to me before the crash, "Son, you're special. You were born to do great things" will be tested now.

I notice an open door, and I enter. As Justin Keverne noted on the VGC forum, "You are alone, and ominously, you are expected." The first thing to grab my attention is a giant red banner that reads: "No gods or kings, only man." Bioshock's stark declaration of principles, accompanied by the jaunty strains of "Beyond the Sea." A tonal collision that will be repeated many times in a variety of contexts. 

Proceeding on, visual artifacts fill my head with impressions of this place. Plaques with quotes from Ryan; gold seals commemorating Art, Industry, and Science. I enter into darkness, but doing so triggers lights that flash on as if to welcome me. The place is begging me to explore it, and so I do. It feels worth doing.

A slide show narrated by Ryan continues the ideological indoctrination, but the scratchy audiovisuals and the deserted environment make everything feel disjointed. Something is terribly wrong here. I can see it and feel it, even though the game has yet to offer much beyond clues.

My capsule rises, and Ryan proclaims "I chose Rapture!" followed by the big reveal: a spectacular view of an underwater city surrounded by glowing neon. This is surely one of the greatest opening sequences in all of video games. As my capsule docks (accompanied by more visual propaganda ""All good things of this earth flow to the city"), I'm reminded of my arrival on the train at the beginning of Half-Life 2.

Helplessly watching a man being killed through a glass and hoping this creature won't notice me, the dark suspicions planted in my mind are confirmed. Now Bioshock's world-building turns to aftermath, and everything around me tells a story. 

Discarded protest signs: "Ryan doesn't own us!" and "Rapture is Dead" suggest I'm entering the ruins of a place gone horribly wrong. Abandoned drinks, cigarettes, purses. People left here in a hurry, or were killed in a hurry. More tonal collisions: a huge colorful painting hangs on the wall - a Diego Rivera-esque mural depicting happy smiling mother, worker, and child. It's a failed utopia. Not exactly virgin territory for sci-fi horror, but fertile storytelling territory nonetheless.

The eerie sounds of the place convey even more dreadful impressions. Sloshing water, odd singing in the distance, groaning metal - all terribly ominous and persistent. This place is about to blow, and I need to get out of here.

My first view of a Big Daddy and Little Sister comes in a half-conscious state lying on the floor, my blurred POV view cockeyed. It's like I'm not sure I'm seeing what I'm seeing. Atlas is talking to me, but I'm only half-hearing him. Sensory overload. Keep moving. 

I get up and move forward, and I'm met with a splicer screaming "I'm not a bad person! I'm not a bad person!" The next one screams "I can control myself! I can!" I realize the game is sending me a variety of messages that all suggest one thing: control is the issue here. It's underneath everything. Gaining control, maintaining control, losing control. I've felt it from the moment I walked in.

The shadow of a woman comforting her baby. A married couple's quarrel. The audio diary of a lonely woman named Diane McClintock. All of it lures me in and compels me to act, piecing together what happened here and sometimes killing to survive. 

The audio diaries are exceptionally well-delivered. These would be lazy narrative shortcuts if they were the primary means of delivering story, but they're only one channel. They add texture and detail. Most of what I've learned so far was conveyed through my own exploration and by paying attention to my surroundings.

One hour into the game, I spot a little girl stabbing a corpse with a syringe like it's a toy. The game makes me feel like I'm spying on her. I'm tempted to intervene, but I know the game isn't ready for me to do that yet. This creates an interesting tension between what I want to do and what the game wants me to do. And it's at this moment that I realize I've awakened from the game's narrative spell. I've bumped into a limit, as it were, and I'm briefly derailed. 

Soon enough, I'll be back on board, eager for what's to come. But I know that nothing I'll see or do is likely to surpass that first mesmerizing, world-building hour. It's the game's most notable accomplishment, in my view, and it's why Rapture itself remains Bioshock's greatest achievement.


A good place to die

Assassins-creed-2-4 

I'm delighted to report that I'm writing a new monthly column for GameSetWatch called "Abbott's Habit," and I hope you'll check it out. My first piece contrasts the game worlds of Demon's Souls and Assassin's Creed II. Sometimes artist-conceived environments can be more effective than those drawn from real life, and I try to explain why these two games illustrate that point.

Here's a snippet:

Imaginative artist-conceived game worlds can draw players in and entice them to explore the unknown, accentuating discovery of a landscape unbound by the limits of verisimilitude. Demon's Souls' crumbling derelict world visually reinforces the sense of despair and moral decay that defines the player's experience in Boletaria. The world itself feels alive and unfixed, a hostile force to overcome. 

Assassin's Creed II seems to want to deliver an open-world experience to the player, but for the most part that world is look, but don't touch. The game offers two awkwardly implemented city tours (the first carrying a box through Florence for Leonardo Da Vinci; the second a walking tour of Venice courtesy of Alvise da Vilandino), but these introductions serve little meaningful purpose since the only real rewards for exploring are locating hidden chests, feathers, glyphs, and other collection-oriented gameplay add-ons. Despite their extraordinary visual presentation, these great Italian cities usually function as little more than labyrinths for acrobatic chase sequences.

You can read the entire article here. Many thanks to editor Simon Carless for the opportunity to write for a site I've long admired.


The wrong game

Somewhere between its preview at E3 last June and its release last month, a subtle change was made to the warning screen that appears at the beginning of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

Here's the original, from a developer walkthrough shown at Konami's E3 press conference:

Warning1

And here's the screen that appears in the released version of the game:

Warning2

As writing goes, the original works better than the revision. It's punchier, and it grabs the reader more boldly than the grammatically improved version. If I had my way, I'd keep the red background and fonts from the revision and replace its text with the original.

Why the sudden obsession with an opening screen? Because it's a metaphor for something more pervasive about this game and its curious construction. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories aspires to immerse its player in a nightmarish experience. It means to do so by leveraging the interactive mechanics of the hardware it relies on to deliver that experience. And it very nearly succeeds. 

But clinging to genre tropes and gameplay formulas - in other words, making the game less messy, more structured and familiar - separates the game from its defining vision and diminishes what could have been a deeply evocative first-person experience. 

Shattered Memories is a game with too much "game." Just when it begins to gather momentum, plunging the player into an eerily deserted environment full of shadows and ghostly residue from painful events, suddenly you find yourself stuck in a room forced to solve a gumball machine puzzle. Or you enter an abandoned card shop, piecing together clues that suggest your lost daughter may have been here, when you realize the door has locked, and you must decipher clues inside greeting cards to extract a key code to get out.

The jarring incongruity between the disturbing experience Shattered Memories can be, and the puzzle-solving Silent Hill game its developer insists it must be, repeatedly destoys a state of mind that few games induce. When you shine your flashlight on a child's swing and catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure there seeming to beckon you forward; when you slowly approach and are abruptly accosted by a sharp noise and flash of light, followed by a child's voice emanating from the cellphone in your hand, you may forget you're playing a video game. Soon enough, unfortunately, the game will remind you.

And that's a real shame, because this is the first game I've played which fully exploits that white thing with the strap we normally call a Wiimote. In Shattered Memories it functions as a flashlight (your primary means of navigating most of the game's envronments), cellphone, camera, notebook, and GPS. Each of these tools are smartly integrated into the game as helpful and necessary devices, rather than gimmicky tricks for the Wiimote.

I'm not suggesting Shattered Memories shouldn't function as a game. The nightmare sequences, which essentially work like survival missions requiring you to flee an assortment of demons until Harry Mason wakes up, integrate a form of gameplay that deepen and reinforce the narrative. Unlike hunting down yet another key (usually "hidden" in plain sight), these ludic sequences plug directly into Harry's desperate need to escape a nightmare of his own making. 

As a "re-imagined Silent HIll," I wish Shattered Memories had further departed from the Silent Hill formula by channeling its gameplay into the activities this version enables so remarkably well. It should have trusted the player to explore its loaded environments and piece together what happened unimpeded by arbitrary puzzles that feel forced and uninspired.

Clearly, many Silent Hill fans enjoy puzzles, and one can argue they're a signature part of the Silent Hill franchise. But this game repositions Harry as a man with no weapons or ability to fight, and it redefines the player's relationship to the game's environments. We often toss around the word "immersive" when we discuss video games, but few games are built to go there as well as this one. It's too bad the re-imagining left some things off the table.

Shattered Memories could have been a game that charged the player to find his own way, grappling with the puzzling problems of life, instead of arranging gumballs by their colors. Given the aspirations of its creators and the great possibilities it conveys, Shattered Memories sadly feels like the wrong game.


Fetch

Assassins-Creed-2-Screenshot

The first 15 minutes of Assassin's Creed II are spent hastily tracking Lucy through several locations and carefully following her instructions. Throughout this sequence the player alternates between full control of Desmond and passive reception of backstory shards and expositional cutscenes.

Sadly, this opening sequence foreshadows what's to come: 3+ hours of hand-holding and game-issued directives the player must endure to progress through the game. If you can persevere, AC2 has some very interesting tricks up its puffy sleeves. But are they worth waiting for?

AC2 is a terrific game in many respects. Its Prince of Persia-esque platforming can be exhilarating - vertically navigating Santa Maria del Fiore makes my stomach queasy (in a good way), and the Leap of Faith takes my breath away every time I execute it. Mushy facial animations aside, it's a gorgeous, deeply atmospheric game that draws you into its story by making you care about its primary thematic concern: family.

But we often measure narrative games by their ability to successfully disguise their mechanics, and this is where AC2 stumbles badly, particularly through its first 4 chapters. NPC-led tutorials arrive hours after the player has already learned to master what's being taught, and fetch quests lead to other fetch quests, which open opportunities for more fetch quests. It's difficult to reconcile the inspired design one finds elsewhere in this game with the muddled mess of its first few hours.

Narrative games rely on assigned quests for 'gameplay,' and we accept this often ridiculous convention because we enjoy completing fun-to-do tasks with useful rewards attached to them. But, decades in, narrative game designers find themselves charged with a nearly impossible task: find new ways to make these hunter-gatherer missions feel like they're vitally integrated into the story. AC2 fails miserably on this score until it finally drops the effort altogether and blossoms into the game it seems to want to be. But, oh those first few hours.

Spoilers ahead.

Consider the game's first memory sequence. Ezio's father Giovanni gives him a letter to deliver. Once delivered, Ezio returns home, unlocking several more Courier fetch/deliver missions. Ezio's sister tells him to beat up her no-good boyfriend, so Ezio locates him, beats him up, and returns home (all missions indicated on the map with markers).

Next, Ezio accompanies his mother to meet Leonardo Da Vinci, who needs Ezio to carry his stuff from point A to point B. Then Ezio's brother wants some feathers; three appear on the map, and Ezio retrieves them and returns home. Next, it's time to deliver some more letters and retrieve one from a chicken coop. Once complete, Ezio returns home. Giovanni has been taken prisoner, so another marker appears and Ezio must go to the prison and speak to his father. Giovanni tells Ezio to return home and fetch secret items from a secret chest behind a secret passage. Then he instructs Ezio to deliver another letter.

This sort of thing continues for the next three chapters.

These missions have an in-game narrative purpose and often serve a tutorial function, but they mostly feel like painting by numbers: go here, do this, talk to this person, find the bad guy, kill him. Mission complete. We've come to expect side missions to function as hunt/collect quests, and AC2 has its share of these in the form of glyphs, codex pages, etc. It's a shame that the game's primary storyline is delivered for so long in just the same way.

The game tells us these early missions matter because they're in service of plot advancement, but that's a tough sell in this case because the designers have done so little to elevate them above a strung-together series of game-directed tasks. They feel like 'gameplay,' and AC2's insistence that they're actually 'story' becomes increasingly absurd as the opening chapters unfold.

Happily, by chapter 5 the game shifts into a different and altogether more inspired and cohesive mode. I'm still playing, and I'm glad I am. But I gotta tell ya, it's hard to overlook those first few hours.


Laying it on thick

I don't typically critique games I haven't finished, but I'm making an exception this time because I want to focus on my first few hours with Assassin's Creed II. A couple of issues are keeping me at arm's length from this game, and I thought it might be useful to explore them. Many of my online friends have encouraged me to persevere, ensuring me that the game comes into its own after 4 hours or so. So I'm not giving up. I've found much to enjoy about the game too, and I hope to explore that in another post.

Edward-robinson2 Playing Assassin's Creed II makes me wincingly recall Edward G. Robinson's infamous "Where's your Messiah neoow?" from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Grossly miscast as a corrupt overseer of the enslaved Hebrews, Robinson brings a discordant 30s-era gangster movie gravitas to the period Biblical epic. I adore Robinson's work in many other films, but his death in The Ten Commandments - swallowed up in a gaping crevice that opens when Moses smashes the commandment tablets in a rage - arrives like an unintentional gift from Mr. DeMille. Finally, mercifully, Robinson stops talking.

The voice acting in AC2 doesn't approach such calamity, but it draws attention to itself in similar dissonant ways. The problem with many of the vocal performances in AC2 is that they come off sounding exactly like what they are: actors doing dialects. Taking nothing away from the talents of the Canadian actors who comprise nearly all the roles, the characters in the game sound like an assemblage of native-English actors practicing a variety of thick, inconsistent Italian accents. As a result, the dialogue feels "performed," as if constructed to reinforce for an English-speaking audience how authentically Italian these characters are.

Sadly, Roger Craig Smith (Ezio, the game's protagonist) has a particular penchant for laying it on thick, and his performance often seems more driven by inflection and dialect delivery than character motivation. When a game asks us to accept familial relationships - a driving force in AC2's story - the actors must make good on those definitions. Smith, Elias Toufexis (Frederico Auditore), Ellen David (Maria Auditore), and Romano Orzari (Giovanni Auditore) play brothers, mother and father, but they sound more like actors who studied with different dialect coaches. I say this not to degrade these actors or their work. I believe they're doing the best they can.

EzioEnglish-speaking writers who set their work in non-English-speaking locales always present a challenge to actors and directors. When Shakespeare says we're in Milan, what does that mean? Are we all, audience included, now Milanese too? In which case we can speak Elizabethan English, but assume it's all really Milanese? Or are we looking in on Milan from our local perspective, magically granted the ability to understand these characters who clearly do not speak English? And if so, should they have dialects?

Actors and directors have faced these questions for many years (although it's worth noting that 'realistic acting' didn't really exist before the 20th century), and now game designers must grapple with them too. From my experience, having seen and practiced a variety of approaches and solutions, the key to success is consistency. Whatever you do must be done well and carefully implemented across the board.

So if the bad guys in Star Wars speak with English accents (except James Earl Jones, who overdubbed an English actor's performance...but that's another story), and the good guys don't (except Alec Guinness), then establish that convention and hire the best actors you can find to bring those characters to life. None of it makes any sense, of course, but no one questions the man with the confident gait who knows where he's going. If the conceit we're asked to accept is a cast of native-Italian characters speaking English with Italian accents, those actors must deliver the goods.

I admire Ubisoft for its obvious commitment to getting AC2's Italian cities right. Florence, a city I know well, is a magnificent achievement in rendering a real-world location as an explorable game environment. Stunning in fact. I'm told Venice is even more impressive. The amount of research and devotion AC2's dev team lavished on this aspect of the design is clearly seen in the final product.

I wish they had devoted even a fraction as much attention to the performances. Ubisoft sent a team of designer/devs to Italy in order to research its environs and develop a genuine feel for the place. I wish they had reached outside the city of Montreal to cast AC2's gallery of Italian characters. If studying photos of Florence wasn't good enough for a Montreal team of designers - if actually being there made such a difference to the visuals - why not make the same commitment to the characters?

I've got another issue with Assassin's Creed II, and it has to do with gameplay. I'll save that one for my next post. And, like I said, I'll keep playing.


Float

Jordanfloats2     Mariopropeller2

I'll tell you a little secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not about the jumping. They're about the floating. It's no great trick to make Mario jump. Just press a button, and he jumps. The trick is managing the float, the drift, the momentum - whatever you like to call it. If you own the space between the jump and the landing, you own the Mario universe.

We love the float. It's the brief sensation of flight. It's the burst of drama after the leap.

Beneath all the genius environments, daft enemies, and secret passages lies an exceedingly simple challenge. Manage the drift and stick the landing. Players who master this skill amidst all the chomping chains, falling thwamps, and whirring levels will find their way to the top of the flagpole.

But along the way they will discover that the float itself...well, it floats too. In other words, the game's primary means of altering your relationship to each level is playing with the float; manipulating it environmentally (e.g. wind, water levels) and offering the player power-ups that subtly or dramatically impact what happens after Mario's feet leave the ground.

We like to say games are about rule systems, and that's certainly true; but much of the joy to be found in Mario games comes from bending the rules or overcoming them with a just-when-I-needed-it power-up. It's like sanctioned cheating. 'I beat a level that killed me 5 times, thanks to this nifty Penguin Suit!' I picture Miyamoto winking at me with a little thumbs-up. I owe you one, Shiggy. ;-)

Here's another secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not intuitive. Hand a controller to someone who's never played a Mario game, if you can find one, and observe what happens. D-pad moves Mario: easy. Button press makes Mario jump: easy. Jump and land on row of bricks above: hard. Why? The float. The newcomer must learn to account for it, and until she does the game feels hard to control, and she will die many times.

Confession time: even after 25 years of side-scrolling with Mario, I usually miss my first jump. Returning to an SMB game after time away requires me to re-master the system. And I contend that is a very good thing.

The precision of movement players ascribe to SMB games, the responsiveness of the controls, are big factors in the long-term success of the series, but they require conditioning. Mastering Mario's peculiar physics feels like an earned achievement because, not in spite of, their peculiarity. That's a big reason why these games deliver such deep satisfaction. Once you've grokked the float, Mario moves like Baryshnikov. You own the joint. You tease the goombas. You grab the big coins. And that's when the Hammer Bros. arrive. And the Lakitus. And the Propeller Suit.

At some point in the development of the new Super Mario Bros. Wii game, somebody probably suggested tying Mario's jump/float to a waggle. Then, some wiser soul stepped in and vetoed that idea. Then some fully enlightened being said, "Let's split the difference. Launch Mario in the Propeller Suit with a gesture, then let the special physics of the suit control his descent. But be sure to let him float for a long time. The player will love that."

Isn't enlightenment a marvelous thing?


It's an RPG thing

Dragon-age

So here I am, an elf mage in another high fantasy RPG. This time it's Bioware's Dragon Age, filling me with  Baldur's Gate déjà vu and reminding me yet again of the coalescent predictability of the genre. I say that like it's a bad thing.

It is and it isn't. Criticizing Dragon Age's formulaic plot, malleable though it may be, is like shooting fish in a barrel. The demons from the spirit realm, the shadow lord arch-villain, the descent to the netherworld, the errands, the team gathering, the mages, rogues, and warriors - it's all well-worn territory. Dragon Age elevates it with richer characters, more interesting sidequests, and a dialogue system that can lead to genuinely surprising outcomes; but a revolutionary RPG this is not.

Dragon Age explores well-defined mythic territory, so complaining about its formulaic nature is like whining about all the singing in opera. No, my problem with Dragon Age isn't about archetypes or storytelling tropes. It's about the all-too familiar mechanical constraints that have worn out their welcome. As games like Dragon Age grow more ambitious, offering role-playing that feels increasingly flexible and responsive, the rigid niggly stuff seems more out of place than ever.

Example: I enter a refugee village full of lost orphans and hungry, displaced men and women. They desperately need food, shelter, and supplies. Meanwhile, all around the village I see glowing crates full of goodies that apparently none of these refugees can see. Why? Because those crates are how game enables me to replenish my implausibly large backpack with items I need. A homeless refugee may be paces away from an unlocked stash of valuable stuff, but that stuff is for me and only me. And once I've taken it, I can't give it to anybody except my party pals. It's an RPG thing.

Show me a villager deadset on an idea, and I'll show you a villager who's mind can be changed in a moment. A simple "Don't you think you should reconsider this?" from me is enough to provoke a full 180. Why? Because I've been grinding my way through Persuasion boosts for hours. My ability to persuade has almost nothing to do with the power of my ideas or convincing counter-arguments. Who needs 'em? I'm persuasive because I've got mad stats. It's an RPG thing.

Let's say I do something awful in the game. Chances are I'll lose status points with one of my party members, but not to worry. I can always boost my status by gifting an item I find in a crate or on the body of one of my victims. No matter how objectionable my actions or how vociferously my companions object, redemption is just around the corner with a little trinket largesse. Scruples? Who needs 'em? Why? Because the game needs a mechanism for allowing me to boost my status and hold onto my party members. Mechanics trump character integrity. It's an RPG thing.

Applying a plausibility standard to games is a ridiculous idea, of course. Games require big imaginative leaps from us, and that's half the fun. One reason the spattered blood effects in Dragon Age often seem laughably absurd is that the game seems to inexplicably strive for a burst of 'realism' amidst a sea of outrageously unrealistic action and characters. I'm not hoping for a more realistic Dragon Age; I'm wishing for a less incongruous one.

As RPGs evolve - particularly western RPGs - the problem is less about plausibility and more about leftover mechanical constraints from older games. Repeatedly bumping into the incongruities I've mentioned (and these are merely a sampling) feels less necessary than it once did. We're supposed to overlook them, but I'm beginning to wonder why we should.


Hand-drawn nirvana

Machinarium

Funny how the pendulum swings. A couple of years ago many of us were waxing poetic about the lovely hand-drawn visuals of Odin Sphere, describing it as a visual throwback to games like Beneath a Steel Sky (with Dave Gibbons' remarkable backgrounds) and the hand-drawn animations of the original Broken Sword games. Last year, World of Goo and Braid further demonstrated how a carefully crafted art style can convey a signature visual aesthetic.

Now it appears the hand-drawn floodgates have opened, and we're seeing a mini-renaissance of games with a singular, decidedly non-CG look and feel. Aside from demonstrating the continuing viability of 2D games, these titles suggest that hand-crafted visual artistry is alive and thriving in modern video game design.

Here's a list of my favorites. I'm not suggesting these games are perfect (although I am crazy for A Boy and His Blob at the moment). I chose them because I believe their visual designs do an especially effective job of serving and communicating the spirit of these games. I also think they're beautiful, each in its own way, and that's no small thing. Click on each image for a larger view.

Boy-blob

A Boy and His Blob (Wii)
Developer: WayForward
Publisher: Majesco Games
Original designer (NES): David Crane


Mach11

Machinarium (PC, Mac)
Developer/Publisher: Amanita Design
Distributor: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Jakub Dvorsky


Muramasa

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher (NA): Ignition Entertainment
Designers: Yoshifumi Hashimoto (producer), George Kamitani (director)


Trine001

Trine (PC, PS3)
Developer: Frozenbyte
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive
Designer: Lauri Hyvärinen


Blueberry

Blueberry Garden (PC)
Publisher: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Erik Svedäng


Professor-Layton-and-The-Diabolical-Box

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS)
Developer/Publisher: Level-5
Designers: Akihiro Hino (producer), Tatsuya Shinkai (director)


Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts (DS)
Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Designers: Jeremiah Slaczka, Marius Fahlbusch


BIS

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS) **
Developer: AlphaDream
Publisher: Nintendo
Designer: Hiroyuki Kubota (director)


I obviously can't play every game (and I've only just begun Machinarium), so if I've omitted a recent game that deserves to be on this list, please let me know.

**Mario & Luigi: BIS has some of the best-looking 2D sprites and most funkadelic backgrounds I've ever seen, but I can't say for sure if they're hand-drawn or not. I recommend this article by Jeremy Parish for a more educated rumination on the subject.


Hot for teacher

DS

I've long been interested in how games teach us to play. Maybe it's the educator in me, always on the look out for ideas I can steal borrow for the classroom. Teachers and game designers share an abiding appreciation of a simple fact: humans crave learning. Whatever we may say about the ludic/narrative dimension of games, part of the itch that games scratch for us is an urge to understand how things work.

The best games communicate their systems to us in ways that feel satisfying, and the quality of this dialogue between player and game often determines the success or failure of the game. When Alyx introduces Dog to Gordon in Half-Life 2, the player learns how to use the gravity gun, a vital skill required by the game, by playing fetch with Dog.

Embedded in this game-within-a-game tutorial - and without resorting to an expositional cutscene - is an interaction with Alyx's wherein her affectionate personality emerges. We see evidence of her remarkable engineering skills, and we discover the perilous life she's led and the lengths to which her father has gone to protect her and provide her with companionship. And we learn how to use the gravity gun by playing with it.

I mention this because I've been playing Demon's Souls like a man possessed for the last few days, and I'm intrigued by how it functions as a teacher. In this case, the designers have built a pedagogical system into the game that ingeniously melds single-player discovery and multiplayer cooperative problem-solving. As I noted a few days ago, this game was designed to be HARD, so teaching the player how to meet its challenges becomes a design imperative in Demon's Souls.

In this regard, Demon's Souls is like a gifted and promising first-year teacher, full of terrific ideas and big ambitions - but a little rough around the edges. You can't help feeling inspired by such a dazzling upstart, even when she forgets some of the basics.

Demon's Souls manages to strike just the right balance between failure-as-frustration and failure-as-tutelage. Dying results in harsh punishment (though not as harsh as, say, a rogue-like), but the impulse to try just one more time never seems to diminish because failure feels like your fault. You know you can get past that guard. You just haven't found the right strategy yet. When fatigue begins to stand in your way, you're playing a game with a firm grip.

Of course, it's possible you're simply not ready to fight that guard, and here's where Demon's Souls brilliantly identifies a teaching moment. Other players can leave notes in the environment to help you. Advice like "Don't bother until you're level 20" or "Just run and don't stop" can get you past a tough spot - or it can function as another layer of challenge. "Oh, really?" you think to yourself, "Well, we'll see about that." The game also offers more familiar multiplayer co-op in the form of summoning helpers for especially difficult areas.

And here's where the first-year teacher shows signs of inexperience. Demon's Souls sometimes fails to properly indicate or explain how its systems work. A visit to the official wiki or a plaintive tweet can get you over the hump, but going outside the game for such assistance contradicts the self-contained in-game co-op (hey, a hyphenated trifecta!) design goal Demon's Souls establishes for itself. The inventory interface is cumbersome and difficult to decipher, and it's often hard to tell which weapons are true upgrades, what potions do and when to use them, etc.

Apparently the designers assumed this course has prerequisites, and prior experience with RPGs will certainly give the player a leg-up. But as a gamer with plenty of RPG miles on my tires, I wish Demon's Souls did a better job explaining its core mechanics and signaling condition changes. As Jesper Juul observed in Half-Real, "To play a game is to interact with its Game State," and Demon's Souls makes this harder than it should be, with no apparent payoff. Most of the time, difficulty in Demon's Souls is meaningful difficulty, but that's fodder for another post. :-)

Don't let my quibbles with this game's pedagogy trouble you too much. Demon's Souls is one of the best - and easily the most addictive - games I've played this year. So, yeah. I'm hot for teacher. If you're thinking of squealing to my wife, don't bother. She already knows about it. ;-)


I'll take refinement

Scribblenauts-ds-game-box-artwork       M&L

Two games released one day apart, and the critical response that greeted them, suggest to me that we sometimes overvalue what we deem innovation and undervalue refinement in game design. Those two games: Scribblenauts and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story paint a telling picture of how the critical discourse surrounding games gravitates to and celebrates the new while overlooking the familiar, even when the familiar excels in every aspect of its design and demonstrably surpasses the new in quality, charm, artistry, and execution.

A couple of clarifying points. I'm not talking about reviews. The new Mario & Luigi game has been warmly received, and its 92 bests Scribblenauts' 85 in the vainglorious blunt-force aggregator Metacritic. Many reviewers have rightly pointed out that Mario & Luigi: BIS is the best in a highly-regarded M&L series, and they have rightly urged you to purchase it with your hard-earned money.

Reviewers have rightly lauded Scribblenauts' "Write Anything, Solve Everything" design as enabling a kind of emergent puzzle action gameplay we haven't seen before, and they've rightly quibbled with the game's wonky controls. I hesitate to say if you've read one review of Scribblenauts you've read them all; but I just typed it, so I guess I did.

Scribblenauts deserves all the praise heaped upon it - I myself pronounced it a "pretty good game, but a magnificent toy" in one of those 140-character empty sound-bytes Twitter seduces us to proclaim for our followers' consumption. I like Scribblenauts; I admire Scribblenauts; and I'm glad we've all paid attention to it. It's not a great game, but in this case that seems almost beside the point. I can summon a T-Rex, a rocket launcher, and God himself to do my bidding...and that's really cool.

I also understand that "new" is a good thing, and we need it, even in flawed first attempts, to advance and evolve. Encountering a game like Scribblenauts feels like a discovery, and much of the writing devoted to it adopts that tone. So I'm not exactly surprised when I search my RSS feeds and turn up well over 200 citations for Scribblenauts and less than 40 for Mario & Luigi. Scribblenauts was, for awhile, the talk of the town in a way that a new M&L game could never be.

But Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (despite its cumbersome title) is a smashingly good game, and it deserves at least as much critical consideration as Scribblenauts - or any other game for that matter. It succeeds on so many levels - including ones like pacing and humor that precious few games get right - and it delivers on its vision so spot-on perfectly that it begs to be scrutinized.

If games this good were easy to make, we'd see more of them. The fact is, they aren't; and developer AlphaDream has essentially worked in the shadows carefully refining an RPG series that dates back to Super Mario RPG. I think it's worth considering how and why they've succeeded, and that's what I'll attempt to do in my next post. If you have thoughts on the game, I hope you'll feel free to share them too.


TCBAGS

Bobbarker Confession time. I suffer from an odd disorder called This Could Be a Game Syndrome. Perhaps you can relate. I navigate through my daily routines - parenting, work, play, eating, sleeping - just like 'normal' people, but several times a day TCBAGS (pronounced 'Tee-See-Bags') strikes, and my consciousness is overtaken by an uncontrollable compulsion to translate whatever I'm doing into a video game. 

TCBAGS can strike anywhere. For example, I'm sitting in the dentist's chair having my teeth cleaned, and I'm suddenly seized by the idea of an anxiety-reducing game that enables a child to play the role of dentist and enact the same cleaning procedure her dentist will perform in advance of her visit. I've had similar TCBAGS attacks in the doctor's and optometrist's office. Just imagine how much more fun a visit to the eye doctor could be if a savvy game designer got his hands on the standard eye exam.

The idle mind is fertile ground for TCBAGS. The most potent attacks frequently occur in the shower or while lying in bed. Even the most mundane activities, like washing dishes, can spur an episode of TCBAGS. I recently designed an arcade game involving silverware, a sponge, a drain, and bubbles. I'm not suggesting it was a good game by any means. TCBAGS appears to have no impact on cleverness or originality.

I spend a fair amount of time being a dad, and I've often wondered why so few games deal with parenthood. As I've written here before, fathers can be brave. Fathers can be heroic. Fathers can do deeds of daring on behalf of their families. Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have been telling us their stories for as long as those media have existed. Everybody agrees fathers can be engaging and dynamic characters. So where are the video game dads? When TCBAGS hits me, it's often provoked by a feeling that fathers are driven by powerful motivations that, at least in my book, often trump those assigned the typical superhero.

Other activities can also bring on TCBAGS. Lately, without consciously choosing to do so, I find myself watching movies and brainstorming the many ways they could be turned into bad games. For example, I saw The Hurt Locker this weekend, a powerful account of a US Army bomb squad during the Iraq War in 2004. I greatly admired the film and enjoyed a vigorous conversation about it afterward with my son. But then TCBAGS kicked in, and we were soon designing bomb diffusing missions with cludgy Wiimote controls; rail shooting in tanks during sandstorms; and dialogue tree haggling with street vendors. Like I said, it's a sickness.

If anybody else has a self-diagnosed case of TCBAGS, I'd love to hear about it, if only to reassure myself that I'm not crazy. ;-) Maybe we could start a support group. Or, better yet, we could design a game about a support group of TCBAGS victims. Yeah, that's the ticket! I'm thinking a first-person shooter, no?


POV

Deadlycreatures

Lately, I feel very small. If you follow this space, you know I've recently been smitten by two very different games: Little King's Story and Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. On the advice of a friendly reader, I've also been looking at Deadly Creatures, a game in which you're a scorpion and tarantula bent on survival against all sorts of gnarly bugs, rats, and reptiles.

Deadly Creatures suffers from some design issues that weigh it down - heavy reliance on QTEs, overly complex controls - but I'm attracted to each of these games, and when I reflect on my experiences playing them, I realize they share one distinctive feature that sets them apart: POV. Aside from their other virtues, all three games adopt a playful approach to point of view, positioning the player in relationship to his/her avatar in ways that enhance gameplay and encourage a perspective that feels different from most other games.

In Spider and Deadly Creatures, the difference makes all the difference. Both employ mechanics based on the characteristics of being an arachnid, which provides fun movement and skill deployment. Spider uses a 2-D framed portrait perspective, while DC relies on an over the shoulder (if arachnids had shoulders) 3-D perspective. Spider conveys a split sense of inhabiting and tactilely controlling a spider; whereas DC communicates the feeling of being a scorpion on the ground in 3-D space. In this game, climbing a wall can make your head spin.

In Spider, POV provokes you to think strategically and offers the possibility of constructing a narrative from a separate player's-mind POV that's always running parallel to the spider's. DC's POV, more than anything else, delivers a powerful sense of danger and brutal combat. Survival of the fittest takes on a new level of urgency when you experience it eye-to-eye with an angry arthropod. 

POV in Little King's Story is more subtle because it's not so much about shifting the player's visual perspective as about redefining genre expectations and repositioning your avatar's view of the world and people around him. LKS tricks you into thinking it's an isometric RTS dressed up in cuddly clothes. Looking down at the world from this perspective, we're conditioned to assume a cavalier attitude about life and death, tolerance, and morality.

The game even gives voice to this approach in the form of the King's main adviser, Howser. Rule your kingdom from above; expand it, take no prisoners; fill your coffers and dominate the world. The genius of LKS is the way it upends these familiar genre formulas, mainly by altering the player's POV as a child-king who must go to battle literally surrounded by the families he helped bring together.

I wish games played with POV more, well, playfully. Consider some of the most highly-regarded recent games: GTA IV, MGS 4, Bioshock, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3. Mostly guys with guns in that bunch. Don't worry, I'm not about to launch another "give us games without guns" plea, and I'm not suggesting these aren't terrific games in their own rights.

But there's an unmistakable sameness about how they deal with POV. When you consider the power of games to create virtual environments and define unfixed perspectives - 1st-person, 3rd-person; 1st-flower, 3rd-katamari (The Darkness is especially notable in this regard) - it's a shame they so often limit themselves to the standard playbook. Maybe game designers assume we don't want them to stray too far with POV. These three games make me wish they would stray even farther.