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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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Monday, Mar 23, 2009
A closer look at a solid take on a Michael Mann video game. Spoilers abound.

Kane & Lynch is an attempt to recreate the epic bank robbery from Heat while borrowing a few of the typical plot points from Michael Mann’s films. As in Heat and Collateral, this is a game about two dissimilar people at odds finding commonality. More specifically, it explodes the relationship between Robert DeNiro’s character and Kevin Gage (Waingro, the bearded guy DeNiro kills in the hotel). While the film is content to define the difference between these two men under codes of professionalism and brutality, the game confronts how flimsy a difference this actually is. Waingro may murder prostitutes and hostages, but how is that different from the people DeNiro shoots or the woman he abandons? Kane, depicted as the consummate professional, continues to stand by a code that has slowly destroyed his family and his own life. Lynch, relying on medication and prone to violent delusions, has no code at all. The way that their relationship develops throughout the game leads to their supposed differences slowly dissolving. I’m going to ignore the Gerstmann Gate fiasco for this breakdown of Kane & Lynch. Although the scandal may have made for good headlines, I don’t really see what it has to do with the actual game.


 


The game opens with Kane reciting a letter to his daughter on his way to Death Row. He writes, “As you know if you’ve read the papers, my life as a mercenary and all the pain I’ve caused, most of it is true. I should regret it all, I should be scared of dying, but I’m not. I can’t anymore. The only feeling I have left is regret that I’ll never get to know you.” This refusal to feel any guilt creates a kind of moral blindness in Kane. He wants his daughter to love him but is unwilling to acknowledge his own personal flaws that make him so unbearable. The game is literal about this: Kane is blind in his left eye just as he is blind to his own personal failings. This repressed guilt also comes up whenever you are wounded, the screen goes white and repressed memories will play until a squadmate rescues you. Kane’s wife screaming at him for keeping a gun in the house, children playing in a park, or Kane trying to stop himself from murdering people.


Lynch interrupts Kane’s letter monologue when a prison break occurs and Kane is freed. In terms of game design, the levels work like an organized Grand Theft Auto encounter with the police. Rather than have the game generate a steady stream of police assaulting you, it is a roller coaster of running from building to building while fending off the cops. One of the refreshing things about this being the premise of a “duck and cover” game is that the plot actually matches what you’re doing in the game. As Mitch Krpata points out about Gears of War 2, when your game design consists of ducking and crawling through a war zone it creates a dissonance with a story about being the ultimate badass. Kane & Lynch’s game design matches its plot because these are both scarred and tormented individuals. Kane has a broken nose, a blind eye, and scars that mark a person who has seen too much combat. Lynch is equally unimpressive as he is bald, overweight, and wears glasses. These are the kinds of people you’d expect to be ducking under cover just as much as you’d expect them to be up to no good.


The two chief complaints about the controls are that the camera is sluggish and the cover system is terrible. On the issue of the camera, what this complaint refers to is that the reticule moves slowly when you aim from the shoulder. It helps to consider the timing of the game’s release in regards to this design choice. Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War were the current smash hits, and they also relied heavily on aiming from the shoulder. The difference is that there was no slow down when you move to shoulder aiming in those games. Although technically the game was just relying on the exact same setup as the developer’s previous game Freedom Fighter, a lot of people try to play the game like they’re playing Call of Duty 4 or Gears of War, and it feels sluggish when you do so. You often don’t need to aim from the shoulder and these variables can be tweaked from the menu anyway.


The other complaint is about the cover system, which will automatically cause your character to drop down when you hit cover and also turns the camera around corners for you. Again, the source of the complaint mostly seems to be that it doesn’t working like Gears of War. All of these arguments boil down to a preferred method of control but blaming a game for not being like a different game seems a bit backwards. Once I broke myself of old habits while playing Kane & Lynch, the game worked fine for me.


The combat scenarios after the escape from Death Row continue to explore and test the relationship between the game’s two title figures. After the 7, a criminal organization Kane abandoned, kidnaps Kane’s family, they stick him with Lynch and a plot to steal a briefcase. The game’s tutorial then teaches the player by having them teach Lynch how to fight. The game tells you how to throw grenades, then you throw one, then Lynch mimics it until he understands this himself. It establishes an authoritative relationship for the player, making Lynch both distant and inferior to Kane and the player. The subsequent bank robbery and theft of the briefcase goes wrong when Lynch, while left in charge of the hostages, hallucinates and starts shooting them. In Co-Op mode the person playing Lynch will find their perspective distorted and all the hostages will literally look like cops to that player during these moments. Kane curses and swears at Lynch for being unprofessional once they escape, but, in the next level, the player has to kidnap a woman from a packed Tokyo nightclub. Once the bullets start flying, the player is stuck in a situation where they have almost no choice but to shoot a hostage themselves. The very moral stance that you criticize Lynch for in one level must be violated by the player in the next.


Kane exacerbates the situation by leaving Lynch alone with yet another kidnapped victim, resulting in Lynch losing control and accidentally killing her. Because we know Lynch is unstable, the repeat accident starts to shift the blame from Lynch to Kane’s irresponsible reliance on him. The downward spiral continues as Kane reports back to the 7 that he wasn’t able to recover the briefcase and the 7 kills his wife as a result. Sending his daughter away to “find someplace safe,” Kane abandons her to get his revenge. Throughout these exchanges, it is Lynch that is constantly seeing the hiccups in Kane’s logic. He points out that he wasn’t entirely at fault for the second hostage incident, and he points out that Kane isn’t going to be able to help his daughter by abandoning her. Kane, still blind to his own flaws, mostly just tells Lynch to shut up.


Facing the constant criticisms from his squad of “Dead Men” and Lynch, the player’s position as the superior authority that began during the tutorial slowly comes into question. Kane’s desire for revenge becomes steadily more murky as he is forced to confront the fact that, like leaving Lynch with the hostages, he shares in the blame for his wife’s death. Were it not for the botched kidnapping and Kane’s constant reliance on violence as a solution, she would still be alive. The last third of the game loses a great deal of its appeal by having the levels involve a Civil War in Havana. For a game that differentiated itself by being a hard boiled crime thriller, these final moments feel like the very games Kane & Lynch stood apart from.


The game eventually forces the player to curb the urge to just shoot their way through every problem by having Kane’s daughter be the one held hostage. If the player moves or tries to shoot the 7 while they have Jenny, they’re both gunned down. If they calm down and think up an alternative solution, they can escape.


The final level of the game echoes the decision made by Robert DeNiro in Heat. In the film, DeNiro chooses to finish off Waingro instead of walking away. In the game, Kane must choose between saving his daughter or saving his stranded men in Havana. To emphasize how trapped Kane is by his own criminal nature, the designers make either choice a hollow one. If you save Jenny, then her hatred for your own hypocrisy and refusal to care means she will despise you. If you save your men, redeeming yourself as a traitor, then Jenny will be shot and killed during the process. While Heat chose to emphasize that DeNiro’s own criminal code ended up robbing him of a decent life, Kane & Lynch forces the player to see the shallow life DeNiro would have had either way. Whether Kane saves his daughter or his men, he must still pay for his past crimes.


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Sunday, Mar 22, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-03-23...

Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t a huge fan of Guitar Hero: World Tour.  Honestly, there’s not much that can make up for when a peripheral breaks as quickly as the World Tour drums did, and the fact that Rock Band 2 had been doing what it does for a full month before World Tour came out worked against it as well.  Despite my misgivings, however, I’ve played the game plenty, and it’s come on a bit as a favorite that I’ve pulled out even more than Rock Band in recent days—granted, that might just be because I’ve played its collection of songs less, but still.  It’s not an awful game; it’s just no Rock Band 2.


That said, any fan of the Guitar Hero or Rock Band series—at least, any of those fans who have managed to graduate to Expert—should be positively stoked for Sunday’s release of Guitar Hero: Metallica.  Having played through the Death Magnetic tracks on the guitar in both Guitar Hero III and World Tour and enjoying them more than pretty much everything else in either game, the prospect of playing 30 more Metallica songs is awfully, awfully appealing.  Of course, when the demo came through, I had more fun playing Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” than either “Sad but True” or “Seek and Destroy”.  I mean, Freddy Mercury was singing along, and it doesn’t get much better than that.  Still…I desperately want to play “Fight Fire With Fire.”  Desperately.


Also on the console front this week is Legends of Wrestlemania, in which we’ll finally be able to answer the age old (?!) question of who would win in a fight between The Rock and The Ultimate Warrior.  Honestly, just seeing the Big Boss Man on the roster brought back memories of playing the old arcade wrestling games that I used to get routinely killed in.  Even if you’ve been out of the whole video game wrestling thing for a while, THQ might be able to rope you back in with this one.


In the “Interesting Ideas” category, we have Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time coming out this week as well, which is notable because it’s the first game that will offer complete interaction between the Nintendo DS and the Wii.  The upside is that it has the potential to bring console and portable players together in a way no game has ever done.  The downside is that it could well be the worst-looking Wii game to be released at least from a purely polygons-per-square-inch viewpoint.  It’ll be fascinating to see what the response to this approach ends up being.  If nothing else, it’s another notch in the wall for innovation on the Nintendo side of the aisle, thanks to the fine minds at Square Enix.


The whole release list is after the jump - let me know what I missed and tell me what you’ll be grabbing this week.  Just don’t tell me that the rumored Guitar Hero: Van Halen is going to be better than this week’s Metallica release—I may just have to give you a piece of my mind.  You will also see something that I will never, ever be able to do on drums.


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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Facebook has changed itself once again, this time with more than just a little influence from the upstart social networking site.

The new Facebook bears an eerie resemblance to Twitter in both function and appearance. Instead of asking for our status, we are asked to post what we are thinking. Whereas the old website broke everything into categories, everything is lumped together in a gushing stream of information. Like Twitter, Facebook is now aggregating information without prejudice.


It’s an interesting shift because on the surface Facebook would seem to have every advantage over Twitter. The culture of birthday greetings, posting links, and clever away messages is just as prevalent as ever. Facebook is also currently the number one social networking website, beating out myspace both in terms of active users and monthly visits. The crux for any of these websites is figuring out a way to keep people coming back. How do you make the incessant flow of information more presentable and easy to consume yet still need to be checked constantly? How do you make a website become a necessary part of someone’s life?


It’s tempting to automatically dismiss Twitter as standing no chance in this struggle but its rise in popularity has been incredible. Going from being ranked 22 in social networks to 3 in such a short space of time is no small task. As a user of both websites, I also use them for very different purposes. My Facebook account has always been an elaborate yearbook and text message service. Twitter, on the other hand, is where I talk with people about video games. What’s striking is that I have never met almost all of the people I exchange tweets with. Twitter has a distinct advantage over Facebook in this regard because it encourages meeting and linking with strangers. You don’t disclose personal information in your profile, so you don’t really care who reads it.


There are also several problems that Facebook’s culture is going to have when adopting Twitter’s information distribution method. It would be nice to think people have gained some sense of internet etiquette over the years, but you still encounter folks who seem to think we need to know what they’re having for breakfast. Combine this with people actually posting interesting links or comments and that girl who incessantly needs to tell me she won a free laptop and you start to encounter information overload. There are only so many people you can follow on Twitter before you just start focusing on certain people and ignoring the rest. The issue is that de-friending someone on Facebook is often taken personally, un-following someone on Twitter is just business.


Which brings up the issue of functionality that is going to dominate 2009 for both gaming and the internet as a whole. The website that is going to become a part of a person’s life, as opposed to just an escape from work, is the one that is the most useful. After four years of using Facebook, the majority of people I’m friends with no longer live near me. I don’t really need to know about their day to day lives except for the occasional nostalgia bender. Twitter and the discussion it provides with a group of likeminded people is, by comparison, something I rely on daily for news and insight. Grouping people by common interests, instead of who they know, seems to generate more traffic.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
A look at some of the responses and coverage to the recent school shooting in Germany.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting by Tim Kretschmer in Germany, politicians in both America and Germany are rallying behind the event to once again call for tighter restrictions on video games. Germany already has the strongest censorship laws in the EU, which short of outright banning all or most video games means there is not much left to lock down. Here in America, games are already actively not sold to minors and the video game industry has the highest success rate of any media for keeping mature rated content out of the hands of minors.


Particularly troubling is the continuing coverage of the incident which insists on the connection between playing games and violence. Politicians and ignorant parents are one thing, journalists should be held to a higher standard. The Times’ connection of the incident to Far Cry 2 (their description of the game is factually inaccurate) barely qualifies as tenuous. Kretschmer played Far Cry 2 the night before the event along with several other FPS titles. The expert consulted in the article to establish the link is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, the man who coined the term “murder simulator” for games, and he bases his accusations on a connection between training tactics used by the military and video games. Specifically, the need to simulate the effects of shooting a person more accurately on targeting ranges (such as having targets that go limp or flail) is echoed in games. A game controller is otherwise considered the equivalent of holding a gun and firing it. The article balances out the coverage by consulting other experts on the topic who rely on psychological studies and a growing majority that have found that there is no link between video games and violence. Elements such as the father owning numerous guns, teaching Kretschmer to use guns at a young age, and a troubled childhood are all referenced as contributing factors to the crime.


Both the Telegraph and Escapist have taken the time to report on the event and also question the connection to games.


Mark David Chapman obsessively read Catcher in the Rye before shooting John Lennon. Does reading Salinger make people want to kill celebrities? Timothy McVeigh’s favorite flavor of ice cream was Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Chip. Does eating it make people want to blow up Federal buildings? Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite horror film is Hellraiser III. Does watching it make people want to murder and eat one another? Ted Kaczynski was obsessed with Joseph Conrad and the novel, The Secret Agent, in which a professor abandons his job, lives in seclusion, and decides to bomb a scientific lab. Are other people who read the story going to act it out?


As the growing problem of youth violence and school shooting continues, perhaps the press will eventually want to stop and ask why there are so many people who play these games that don’t exhibit similar behavior.


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