Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009
The growing trend of short games, both serious and satirical.

One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 13, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-04-13...

It seems every major game release of late comes in at least two forms: the plain, vanilla version of the game that looks like every other game on the shelf, and the big, fancy, pack-in laced, appropriately expensive “Collector’s Edition”.  Resident Evil 5 had one, Gears of War 2 had one, Halo 3 had one, Metal Gear Solid 4 had one, and so on.  If there’s a major game release to be exploited, you’d better believe it will be, sometimes in three or four unique editions for the sake of capitalizing on the various levels of anticipation that the given game’s fanbase will be experiencing in the days leading up to release.


As such, it’s possible that I shouldn’t be surprised at the presence of a “Collector’s Edition” game being released this week, but I kind of am.  Here’s why: I’ve never heard of this game.  It’s called Demigod.  It’s a PC exclusive.  And right up until about five minutes ago, that’s all I knew of it.  Since then, I’ve called up a bunch of web pages on the thing, one of which called it a “strategy fighting game”, which seems pretty accurate as far as I can tell.  It’s a strategy game that pits a demigod against a titan in a number of battles, and in some cases there will be minions to call to do the demigod/titan’s bidding.  It sounds fun, especially for those looking to get into strategy who aren’t convinced that they actually have the time for it.


But yeah, there’s a collector’s edition for this.  Really?  A new, PC-only IP?  Apparently so - the collector’s edition comes with a soundtrack, a poster, and a pewter figurine that you’ll be able to eBay for beaucoup bucks if this thing takes off.  Besides, can you really have too many pewter figurines in your house?


Dokapon Journey

Dokapon Journey


The Wii is seeing the release of Samurai Shodown Anthology, which looks good for the nostalgia of revisiting one of the best fighting games in the post-Street Fighter II landscape.  Atlus’ DS dominance continues with Dokapon Journey, which they’re hilariously advertising as the best way to make enemies since spitting on somebody’s food—it’s a competitive RPG, which means you go on an adventure but you can also take on your buds in the process.  And…oh yes, PS2 owners finally get their chance at Guitar Hero: Metallica, which is confirmed awesome for pretty much every other system at this point.  No, the game didn’t change, but the challenge is there, and the tracklist is absolutely worth playing.  PS2 owners, get to it.


Enjoy the holiday week, whether you’re off or not.  Play some games, sure, but then go out and enjoy the sun.  It’s out there.  It’d be a shame to waste it.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 7, 2009
The mechanics of variety instead of skill in Beyond Good & Evil. Spoilers abound.

Since video games must often devote a lot of time to teaching the player how to play, it is rare to see a game that relies on variety to engage the player. Beyond Good & Evil does not just teach the player one specific skill set and then have them apply it in new ways. Each level is a stream of new activities and skills, combined with a world map that we are continually finding new ways to explore. Combined with this game design is a narrative composed of layers. Our impressions of these characters and factions is continually refuted as we uncover more of the conspiracy, until even the protagonist herself is ambiguous. As the game’s title implies, it is borrowing form Nietzsche’s notion that the true scholars are ever-questioning of morality and society. Inspiration to work on this game came from Michael Abbott’s Vintage Game Club or VGC, whose discussion I did not participate in often but I drew on heavily for this essay. Their forums are a great resource for any careful analysis of a video game they’ve discussed.


The game begins with a news broadcast explaining a classic video game story: alien invaders are besieging the planet of Hillys and only the army can stop them. Our view is of the planet itself during this exposition, before the camera zooms down to the surface and we see the protagonist, Jade, practicing Yoga over a glowing sunrise. Right on cue the aliens attack and yet the army is nowhere to be found. The player takes control as the aliens abduct several of the orphans and our friend Pey’j. The tutorial defines what will be the teaching motif for the rest of the game: you learn a skill as soon as you need it. Jade is surrounded by aliens, you learn to fight by pressing A and swinging at them. You need to use your super move to beat one of the monsters, so you then learn to charge the attack. Narratively we are taking on the role of savior to these characters which will be played with later by our failure to fulfill this task. The army arrives once the crisis is over and the reporter we saw in the opening credits has no interest once Pey’j is frank about how useless the soldiers are. The tutorial continues by providing another need for the player: we’re broke and we need to restore power to our home. To do this we must take pictures of various wildlife, being paid per photo. The photo design is the game’s strongest feature, they introduce it early and provide incentives to keep taking pictures to the player. Doing this means that every animal, friend or foe, has a name to the player. Every tiny detail in the world that would’ve gone unnoticed or unappreciated will instead be photographed. Contrast this to Bioshock’s camera, which lacked both non-hostile creatures to appreciate and offered a weak reward for taking the picture. The design was introduced so late in the game and gave such a minor edge in combat that it mostly goes forgotten by players.


Eurogamer did a decent retrospective on the game where they aptly summarize the game’s variety of activities, “The secret to the success of the game’s differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade’s capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb.” In the vehicle sections you can explore the map, go racing, blast through obstacle courses, and eventually fly. Most of the driving sections all rely on the basic skill of driving but the third-person portions of the game vary things up much more extensively. In terms of playing as Jade you’ll do platforming puzzles, stealth, close combat, sniping, dialogue options, and even a few mini-games. What binds all of these activities is that they are typically easy to handle and require only a single button. The game’s missions can be boiled down to 4 levels mixed with exploration in the larger world map. Each mission is to take certain incriminating pictures of the Domz to reveal the greater conspiracy to the public. After Jade proves herself capable at taking photographs and dealing with the Domz she is recruited by the IRIS network to investigate the corrupt military.


User baf from the VGC points out that Jade handles a great deal like the princess from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, pointing out that both games were made at the same time by the same studio. Jade can slide through cracks and access portions of the map the brawler partner can’t. Adding to her range of skills is an engaging NPC who adds more abilities. What this NPC does is enable an additional layer of puzzles and interaction that don’t actually involve the player. Just as the game is filled with numerous activities that can be directly solved, it adds variety by having the NPC be a necessary component as well. You need Pey’j to open certain doors or Double H’s slam ability to knock enemies off the ground. Part of how the game avoids needing the player to learn a dozen commands is by having other characters be the source of them. This relationship with the NPC is built up in a variety of other ways. The narrative creates a constant banter between the two parties. The game design requires us to give our heart containers and health to them, connecting the player in a literal way by actively caring for them. When Jade leaves Pey’j behind temporarily, he reminds us to not forget him. The level design mirrors this by having a puzzle where we need Pey’j appear almost immediately. After Pey’j’s abduction, Jade rescues her new partner Double H from the Domz just as she did Pey’j at the game’s start. The game design has us rely on them in combat and puzzles, connect by giving them health & items, and the narrative matches this by having them take on roles where they depend on you.


This is a game that brings its premise alive with details. The Alpha sections scream propaganda whenever we enter the city about how Hillys needs the army. With each mission, these propaganda statements become more intense all while protests form thanks to your photographs. By the time you’ve fully documented the corruption, you will even begin to recognize the people in the crowds. Like any hub game, there are countless items to collect or animals to photograph. Equally refreshing is the fact that the game brings out these moments without the use of quick time events. Smaller levels such as catching raiders or breaking into the Alpha sections warehouse in the city are both easy and fun break-aways from the main plot. When Jade is fleeing the Alpha sections the outcome is pre-defined but the player is put in a miniature race course. As lasers and soldiers race after her, the player feels a real sense of chase before she crosses the invisible line and the cutscene kicks in. The game’s flaws are usually when these invisible hands don’t quite work. Stealth sections often have linear solutions which are enforced through insta-kill turrets, leading to constant trial and error while you figure out what the game wants. The level design occasionally spoils the story itself, as Kimari points out at the VGC. If you’re going to have a character supposedly die yet I’ve seen a puzzle that requires them to solve it, the player is going to know that they will be back eventually. A tricky fight that should occur just before you discover the orphans have been kidnapped can potentially be missed if you run into the house directly. Having the combat before Jade’s dramatic speech about failure is essential, otherwise the feeling of hopelessness falls flat from facing against the tricky flying enemies.


The last level does away with most of the stealth and combat sections in favor of a different experience. Complimenting the sense of smallness and inferiority that Jade has struggled with, the final level has huge spaces and sections of running across long distances. We are made to feel what Jade is feeling as she tries to rescue Pey’j. Our own photos are used in the final cutscene as the populace finally sees all of the Domz corruption, leading to an uprising. The ending’s final plot revelation is that Jade herself is the source of the Domz. She is the reason they have been attacking Hillys and her humanity is only a sham to cover up her true nature. This ambiguity and role-reversal is shown in the game design by having the controls suddenly invert. Just as Jade is now suddenly the source of the conflict, up is down and left is right. Freezair noted that she potentially even infects Pey’j later on with the Domz, using her powers to heal him and subsequently corrupt him. When she defeats the final boss and uses her powers to heal the abducted orphans, Jade demonstrates the core idea of the game’s title. Just as Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good & Evil that the true hero can see beyond morality or social conventions, Jade can see past the revelation about her own origins. She does not blindly accept the Domz’s desire for power or that she is a part of it. What has been true throughout the game has been her friends, so that is what she sticks with despite her origin.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 6, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-04-05...

Yes, it’s been out for a while on other platforms, and yes, it’s a sequel, but I have to admit that the one thing I am most looking forward to this week is Puzzle Quest: Galactrix‘s bow on the Xbox Live Arcade.


The first Puzzle Quest is one of the games I spent the most time admiring over the last year, for the ways in which it bucks traditional RPG and puzzle game design principles, combining them to create an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable experience.  What looks interesting about Galactrix is that it’s changed the game that its puzzling is modeled after; where Challenge of the Warlords was all about putting Bejeweled in a big, fancy frame, Galactrix is more like Xbox Live Arcade’s own Hexic.


This is a scary thought.


While Hexic is certainly an excellent game, it’s a very difficult one as well, the sort of puzzle game that will chase away outsiders due to the high learning curve it presents when one pursues mastery of it.  The question is whether having to think so hard about the puzzles during battles will take away from the enjoyment of the overall game.  The question is also whether developer Vicious Cycle has addressed the long load times that have reportedly plagued the DS(!) version of the game.  Regardless, giving it a spin is high on the priority list this week.


Elsewhere, Capcom is doing something different this week with its own downloadable offering, a little something called Flock.  You’re a little spaceship flying around a beautifully-rendered isometric world trying to herd animals into a big spaceship.  It sounds easy, but the obstacles that have shown up in even the short little trailers for the game look absolutely infuriating…which is perfect for this sort of “puzzle-action” (read: it’s sort of like Lemmings) game.


Ninja Blade, for the Xbox 360

Ninja Blade, for the Xbox 360


The big consoles have The Godfather II showing up alongside Riddick, the nintendo consoles have a possible sleeper in the form of Professor Heinz Wolff’s Gravity, and the PC is finally getting its version of Xbox Live Arcade discussion piece Braid.  The oft-delayed Ninja Blade is finally seeing release on the Xbox 360 as well.  For such a slow week, there’s a lot to look at - what will you be playing?


The full release list and a trailer for Puzzle Quest: Galactrix are after the break.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 31, 2009
The ways that a tutorial will set the tone for the rest of the game by the behavior it teaches.

One of the most underappreciated and yet intrinsic parts of a video game is the tutorial. It’s our introduction to the game design, our means of learning to recognize the game’s obstacles, and frames how we’ll relate to the rest of the experience. An article at Openskies goes into the various tutorial techniques of games, which can range from just reading the manual to creating a full blown cinematic experience. When discussing the ultimate range of the tutorial it comments, “In order for learning to be effective, the lessons must move from the student’s short-term memory to long-term memory. The keys to this process are repetition, and practice that takes place at least 30 seconds after a technique has been demonstrated.” The article is concerned with applying game techniques to training simulations, but one of the issues their criterion raises is what exactly the game is teaching to the player. You aren’t just learning how to operate a system in a game, you’re assuming a role and engaging in conduct that represents it. The tutorial of a video game isn’t just explaining how to play, it’s showing us how we’re supposed to behave. How have games approached this?


The initial reaction of most games in the 80’s and 90’s was to simply give a very thorough manual and throw the player into the mix. Adopting a ‘Learn as you Go’ mentality, they often relied on cutscenes and exposition to explain what the player was supposed to be doing and then let them work out the mechanics as they went. The brick wall learning curve of the old Fallout Games is a prime example of this approach to teaching the player. The latest installment solved this issue by walking the player through each step of the game and having them make choices about themselves. You’re born and you pick what you look like, you wander about your play pen and pick your traits. For an RPG this constant process of making choices is important because this is the central theme of Bethesda’s games: choices. You start off with very minor, insignificant choices that have little consequence. As the tutorial progresses though, you start to pick between being rude or polite, which again have little consequence. But this expands as you grow older and choose between picking a fight and even saving a life all before leaving the tutorial. What’s intrinsic is that the game is focusing on you picking the role you play instead of handing one to you. Many freeform or emergent games suffer because the players are just unaccustomed to making choices. Consider Far Cry 2, whose tutorial involves little choice. The game simply cuts you loose in an enormous open space and reminds you that you can now approach everything however you want despite the very limited approach it just showed you. Bethesda’s approach is superior because they are teaching the player how to deal with freedom whereas Far Cry 2 still trains you by holding your hand the whole time. Getting the player to start thinking for themselves instead of waiting for orders is key in a good tutorial.


Other tutorials maintain dropping the player straight into the game and instead having the tutorial occur much later. In both Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness they rely on the confusion of being dumped into a combat situation with no inkling of what to do at first. A player can eventually put together the controls through trial and error, but the lack of a tutorial can often be an effective tool for creating a rare sense of fear in a game that helps establish the tone. Kane & Lynch and Beyond Good & Evil also opt for this tactic, but instead of fear it’s excitement they’re adding. Jade learns to attack and perform power moves in one huge boss battle right from the start while Kane is broken out of death row and fleeing through the streets. Both games swap out the ‘Explain then wait for player to show’ mentality, opting instead to impose a pressing sense of need for the ability. When Jade’s orphans are captured by the aliens, the narrative is creating a need for freeing them. The game then shows us how to fight in addition to setting the tone for Jade’s role in the game as savior. Kane & Lynch handles its own tutorial with a unique quirk by having the player be the one whose instructing their partner on what to do. The screen flashes how to perform the move and then they do it so Lynch can see. You then have to wait for Lynch to perform the same move. That’s key to getting into character as Kane, whose both the leader of the criminals he leads but also imperfect in his own way.


It’s easy for these narrative tutorials to get carried away as well. Both GTA IV and Persona 4 feature tutorials that well outstay their welcome. Since both games are enormous and feature huge numbers of activities and options, a tutorial that tries to go over every single detail is going to become lengthy. But no matter how much story or motivation you try to provide, the player is eventually just going to want to be cut loose and start playing. The best solution seems to be the one employed by Fallout 3, which would be equally bogged down if it tried to explain everything. You create a sense of curiosity and teach the player to explore their environment. Other tutorials will often abandon narrative and just use achievements to avoid boredom, such as Call of Duty 4’s rapid shooting range and completion times. If the game is simple enough, you can simply do like Mario 64 and have the tutorial be a series of optional signs if the player gets stuck. There isn’t any one particular formula to a good tutorial since game design and role can be communicated in arguably countless ways. Even the cutscene is a viable form of tutorial, as an article at Offworld points out about Valve’s approach in their latest games. The opening movie for Left 4 Dead may be just a grisly shoot-out with zombies, but it also outlines every monster and tactic in the game. The Witch, the blinking grenades, and the Smoker all appear and are defeated by the characters. The ‘Meet the…’ series of videos for Team Fortress 2 uses a similar approach. At the core of all of these tutorials is the foundation for any teaching session: enabling the person to grapple with the subject matter unassisted. The most successful tutorials are the ones that foster a sense of independence in the player that matches what the game design is offering.


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