Tuesday, December 8

The Role of Interpretation in Prince of Persia

Today, I've published an article on GameCareerGuide examining the role of interpretation in Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia. This is my first professionally published essay, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I would like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, and the GameCareerGuide editor who took a chance on an unknown kid. Read the essay at GameCareerGuide.

I would love any comments on the essay. Feel free to leave a comment under this post or to email me at finnhaverkamp@gmail.com

Sunday, December 6

Shattered Horizon Review

Entering silent running mode, the world fades away. Silence looms as all space is emptied of sound. The stuttered inhalations and exhalations in my helmet are my only companion and the only confirmation that I still live. I maneuver around an asteroid, praying to not be seen. Radar is dead; all I know is that which I can see. As I round the rock, a yellow-clad astronaut glows before me, his back to my face, the giant sphere of planet Earth blue in the distance. I hear nothing as I unload a burst shot into his tank. White gases whirl from the explosion, and the astronaut's grip on life is lost. He drifts into space, a puppet to fate.

The space-combat sim is the vision of Futuremark's Shattered Horizon, and for this vision, nothing is compromised. Each gameplay aspect is tuned, each element geared, a cog in the vision, each contributing to the play experience. And the experience is wonderful.

Scarce resources necessitate bitter war between the Moon Mining Company (MMC) and the International Space Agency (ISA). A string of disembodied rocks, an asteroid belt, serves as battleground; the International Space Station, as well, a mega-structure of reflective panels and sheet-metal middled in a disarray of rock chunks and cargo boxes; a mining facility, a tunnel gaping, bored through an enormous asteroid, filled with splitting, angular passageways, electronic posts, and a “Zero-G Spot” theatre for off-duty miners. Though levels initially seem nonsensically formed, each is specifically constructed to promote tactical positioning. Multiple entrance paths access each command post, creating dynamic choke-points and allowing for unexpected assaults. Astronauts turned militant (up to thirty-two) strive to control and defend command posts throughout each level, or occasionally, seek only bloodshed.

Zero G is the keystone to all other elements of Shattered Horizon, impacting the emotional experience, the level design, and tactical combat. Zero gravity forces players to think tactics not along a singe plane but to be considerate of multiple axes. Levels are structured as guidelines, not binding rules, allowing for variance in strategy, tactical experimentation, and surprise. Indeed, direct assaults are overtly visible, only marginally effective, and ruthlessly dissuaded, encouraging spontaneous, creative approaches. The strategic topography of any situation is constantly shifting, enemies and allies, like lightning, never occupying the exact places twice. Players must be adaptive in their tactics or else be quickly gunned down.

Shattered Horizon offers one armament: a scope-equipped assault rifle and three grenade types, all of which are available on the fly. The lack of choice feels not limiting, but helps to dampen the gap between newer players and experienced; hard-boiled experience, instead, takes place as the prime player-skill differential. Veteran players are light-years ahead of newer players, dead-eye aim and sharply honed strategy acquired from thousands of kills notched on their rifles. Veteran presence is currently overwhelming, and new players are brutally taught through the time-proven art of failure. The learning curve is harsh and requires that players have significant patience. However, I was rarely frustrated by my failures, recognizing them as necessary steps towards mastery. And being an at least averagely frustrated gamer, I would say that my lack of anger towards the game is due to the sheer joy of each combat experience, success or no.

Combat success, as it were, is shared equally between aiming skill, proper use of grenades, and tactical positioning. Good aiming is vital. Headshots and tank shots, bullets to large oxygen tanks strapped to players' backs, are severely pronounced. Body shots, comparatively, are practically useless. Round after round unloaded into an astronaut's suit will yield nothing but the alerting of the target to your very loud presence. Headshots and tank shots, however, are rewarded with near-instant kills and are absolutely mandatory for survival. Players may also to cling to any surface: walls, crates, and terrain. Walking, naturally, slows movement speed but drastically improves aiming steadiness, a tactical trade-off between being an easy target and a better shot.

Rifles have powerful scopes and make sniping a viable and oft-used technique. A brief animation bridges the entering and exiting of scoped mode and necessarily ensures that players cannot point-blank spam the ten-shot burst. Grenades, also, may not be fired in scoped mode. Additionally, scoped shots fire in bursts of ten bullets, severely damaging targets if hit (even in the body), if not outright killing them.

Often in Shattered Horizon, you will see an enemy player, in the distance, nested from a sniping position. Being suddenly noticed by the enemy, you scope-in for yourself, hoping to headshot him before he does you. Tensity is rarely experienced like those euphoric levels from a sniping standoff, carefully aiming for his tiny pixels, he aiming for yours, while you count the few precious moments remaining before someone makes the fatal shot first. It is these powerful gameplay moments in Shattered Horizon that define the experience and motivate your desire to improve.

Grenades are a beautifully designed element of Shattered Horizon, cooperating perfectly with other gameplay aspects and augmenting the game's tactical combat. Grenades function as tactical support aides rather than damage bombs, each of the three either jettisoning players, disabling their suit's functioning and slowing their movement, or, like smokescreens, obscuring vision. In both critical moments and prepared strikes, knowing which grenade is equally as important as aiming prowess and consistently means the difference between victory and defeat. But bullets and grenades alone do not win battles, tactical positioning is infinitely valuable. Levels are architecturally arranged so as to promote reactive approaches to enemy strongholds. Walking on ceilings, sneaking from behind, and sidling along asteroids are all suggested maneuvers.

“Silent Running Mode” offers additional tactical options. Activating silent running powers down your suit, losing access to radar, computerized sound simulation, primary thrusters, and vitals information. With no assisted programs, both battlefield intelligence and maneuverability are highly restricted, making you a free kill for enemies by whom you are unlucky enough to be seen. But, alternatively, the tactical advantages and emotional experience are so very grand. Silent running turns out the lights on your suit, making you intrinsically difficult to see and negating your presence on enemy radar and HUD highlighting. But successfully breaching enemy lines and, incognito, dispatching of even one bewildered soldier is exhilarating and awe-inspiring. Space becomes very lonely and very frightening without sound as guidance. With your sensors shut off, unexpected attacks upon yourself come suddenly and harshly and cause you to constantly turn your back in fear. It's spectacular.

Enemies have at their disposal the same tools as you, however. Such open level design means you get ganked, often. Most deaths comes unawares, either from back-stab assassinations or from distant and shadowed snipes. The suddenness of death can be disheartening, especially when repeated, but player moral and friendliness is high, compliments like “nice one” usually rewarded for cool kills instead of hurtful slander. The mood is infectious, and mean-spirited attitudes are swiftly reprimanded by the small, dedicated player-base.

Shattered Horizon falters in one pivotal, prominently featured area: teamwork. And teamwork is lackluster for one primary reason: the lack of voice chat. In an age where voice chat is expected, the absence of the feature feels strange and hampers a lot of potential for synchronized tactics. Text chat being the only means of team coordination at this point, the barrier to cooperative efforts is simply too great. The game plays marvelously well regardless, but voice chat and, subsequently, teamwork could propel the game towards an even greater state of excellence. Fortunately, players and developers alike are well aware of the missing voice chat; it is the most highly requested addition to the game. Upon the inevitable patching-in of voice chat, I will give an updated report on the resulting changes. It should prove interesting.

Shattered Horizon is a unique experience among shooters, but I feel that it has much potential to even further differentiate itself by more specifically emphasizing its tactical, zero gravity gameplay. The drastic difference between headshots/tank shots and body shots, I believe, could be dampened. As the game stands, spatial positioning is important, but rushing headlong into enemies can still be plenty effective, especially when the charging player is experienced and lands headshots easily. Advanced players and beginners are vastly opposed in skill; most teams feed off the success of one-man, herculean professionals for victory, pro players easily quadrupling the kill/death ratio of noobs.

By improving damage dealt to the body, I hypothesize that players would be motivated to assault more tactically more frequently, as even professionals are susceptible to blatant gunfire. This simple change would lessen the valley between pros and noobs and would be less punishing to new players who haven't yet grasped the acuteness of aiming. Tactics and understanding of three-dimensional space would take the primary spots as necessary skills for success and would positively separate Shattered Horizon from other shooters, most of which prioritize headshots over other skill-sets. Tactics is where Shattered Horizon is most interesting, most fun, and most fitting to the space simulation combat, and I feel the game could only benefit from empowering the use tactics even more greatly.

Every aspect of Shattered Horizon is tuned to augment the unique feeling and experience of combat in space. It is the developer's devotion to the experience, palpable when playing, that allows Shattered Horizon to excel as an engaging, fun, and awesome game.

Monday, November 30

Left 4 Dead 2 Scavenge Strategy Guide

If you were to look at my Steam profile, you might notice that I've been playing a whole lot of Left 4 Dead 2 lately. 90% of that time has gone towards a very special mode called Scavenge. Eventually, I figured that I should put my knowledge to use and share my strategic knowledge of Scavenge with the masses. So, I wrote a strategy guide. GameFaqs has been a very helpful site to me over the years, and I really appreciate the selfless work of the community strategy writers. I decided to give back a little and submitted my strategy guide to GameFaqs. Miraculously, the guide was accepted, ten pages of strategic dribble discussing such nonsense such as Steam etiquette and teamwork.

If you, too, fancy some Left 4 Dead 2 Scavenge, then feel free to check out the strategy guide. I would love some comments and suggestions about the guide as well, so feel free to leave a comment and let me know. If you have any questions about Scavenge, please send me an email (finnhaverkamp@gmail.com), and I'll get back to you promptly. Thanks, Valve, for such an amazing mode.

Saturday, November 21

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity Review

Caution? I scoff at the notion. My desires can be obtained only with a lust for self-destruction. Only greed. Only a misplaced conception of self-preservation can earn what I seek. Only, a reckless disregard for gravity.

For never has there been a more apt title for a game than AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Plummeting through the air, disembodied buildings hurtling by, I lurch forward in my chair, lift my feet, and smash the W key as hard as I am able. There is a gut-centric thrill derived from success, sometimes obtained perfectly, as planned, and other times because, upon you this day, some goddess of luck smiles warmly. Aaaaa!'s BASE jumping experience is an acute balance between those actions which have been precisely-memorized, gracefully-performed, and those substantially less coordinated reactions, twitch-perfect. 

By Dejobaan games, Aaaaa! harkens back to the glory days of the arcade genre. High-scores are the substance and succor of the lucrative gameplay, the puppet-master that dictates all emotion. The gameplay structure of Aaaaa! is ridiculously simple, and therefore utterly genius. Tossing yourself (recklessly, always recklessly) from platforms thousands of stories above sea-level, you must maneuver amongst abstractly floating buildings, beams, and turbine fans. Near-misses earns a “kiss” per structure; maintained near-contact earns “hugs.” But whereas hugs will earn only one-hundred points (or “teeth”) each, kisses warrant ten-times that value, incentivizing active, constant movement over sedentary lounging.

Glass scoring plates advance scoring options further, as do groups of fans and protesters, at whom flipping the proper finger gesture, with the correct mouse-click, earns a mouth full of three-thousand teeth. Bird-strikes, tagging government buildings, and stunts, like passing through small openings, reward additional teeth.

And so players swoop about, aiming for kisses, hugs, flip-its, bird-strikes, to obtain the highest score that their piddly wrist can provide. Upon completion of each level, teeth accumulate into an overall star ranking, of five. It is that coveted fifth star that drives replay, that drives all players to a reckless disregard of. . . I keep saying it because it's true.

But it is the level design, the levels in their immaculately specific construction that allow the scoring system to shine. Alas, the level design is the keystone to the arch of gameplay systems. And what a fine, marble keystone it is. Maybe the keystone has a nice engraving, too.

Much like reading poetry, playing each level is a problem-solving effort. Each level begins with a sense of curiosity at the new form, and oftentimes, wonderment. Though the levels may look random, I can assure you, they are quite specific. Levels are comprised of multiple paths, different combinations and arrangements of the various scoring elements. These paths are usually quite subtle and are discerned not immediately, but through multiple replays.

But finding what you believe to be the correct path does not guarantee success. Improvisation, swift reactions, and multi-tasking play a huge part in Aaaaa!. “Pansies!” you'll decry. “That way's for pansies!” It's everything gained or nothing at all. You'll align yourself the superior way, dive faster, swoop a perfect arc on the path of domination. But when you're in the zone, I say with my utmost sincerity, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve. Tag a building. Flip a crowd. Dodge Left. Tag a building. Decisions made in moments of moments, fraught with abandon. Passing within inches above a looming ceiling, a kiss hard-fought, rewards a feeling of euphoria and relief. But, surprisingly, failure yields not the opposite emotion, frustration, but a desire to try again, to complete the path least traveled, hardest won, and best rewarded.

A balance of risk versus reward is a core emotion of Aaaaa!. You see a high-scoring path, and though you aren't entirely sure you can make the swoop in time, you swoop regardless. You need to. Risk is not simply a negative but a conduit of reward. It is the risky stunt that garners the sense of accomplishment, as well as the biggest points. And the risk is worth it, every time.

High-scores often count to tens of thousands, and being so broad, leave level scores wide open for improvement. Aaaaa! supports global leaderboards on Steam and are an enjoyable opportunity for comparison against the masses (I place within the top thirty on several levels. Not bad.). 

Aaaaa! is about harnessing whatever control can be found in a reckless free-fall towards certain doom. Sometimes, you will silence the world around you, not even focusing on the screen, but you will become the free-fall. And from much memorization and well-practiced finger twitching, you will dodge nearly, hug long, kiss every obstacle perfectly, thread the needle, and hit a bird; it is in these moments that the game reveals it's beauty.

Images from IGN. (I couldn't get my image-capturing software to work properly).

Monday, November 16

Borderlands Review

Of the many features Gearbox attempted with Borderlands, shooting takes prize for prettiest lass of the ball. Shooting guns is fun. And though the gun count may impress, it is the range of guns that leaves an impact. Tuned not on a single spectrum but to a menagerie of wavelengths, each gun feels and plays differently. And though not always effective, each gun feels correct in its emotional construction, as if it could feasibly exist. A certain heft in your hands; the muzzle flash properly intense or muted; the boom pitched just so; the recoil sometimes like the kick of a mule, sometimes weak or, by your shoulder, absorbed; and like a conductor orchestrating all other of the gun's events, the tempo of the bullet-stream keeping pace.

Fortunately, much of the player's time will be spent performing the task of shooting. And for many people, this simple pleasure will be enough to fuel and sustain their enjoyment of the game. However, the basic shooting mechanic fails to flourish throughout the game, the game's other features not nourishing but stunting its potential.

Oddly, most of the game's guns have no projectiles, no visible bullets flying through air. But this proves to be a forgettable concern, because visible or no, bullets in Borderlands do in fact travel through the air. There is nothing quite like that finite pause between the leading of one's shot before a dashing enemy – the squeeze of the trigger precisely timed – and the stack of criticals mounted above the splattering enemy's head.

Criticals, oh criticals: flashes of achievement wrought from a multitude of complimentary details: the red “critical” above the enemy's head, the excessive swathes of life slashed from its health. But most impactful of all is the gulf of disparity between body shots and critical shots, a disparity of ridiculous proportions. This damage gap highlights Borderlands' premiere flaw: overcompensation.

Not as positive as an effect as one might think, the polar separation in damage proves to be a double-edged sword. Criticals aren't just uber, they're insanely, astronomically, challenge-diminishingly effective, allowing for enemies to be capped with a single burst. Conversely, the sheer, overt visibility of criticals cause body shots to feel slightly weak by contrast, a mere flash in the pan.

Working with randomly generated weapons cannot be easy, as testament to the evident design of Borderlands. Rather than working in concert, synergistically, with the randomized weapons, every facet of the game suffers from the feature's fallout.

To offset the potential for offensive domination, character defense is perilously low. Enemies die in a shot or two, but so do players. The skills, likewise, are by and large stat boosts, methods of re-balancing the game's mis-scaled variables: pluses to fire rate, pluses to health, pluses to crit damage. Though I bemoan the absence of tactically-creative skills, the statistic system is fun in its own right. My preferred soldier spec favors weapon damage and shield regeneration rate. The shield regeneration is a fun skill to have because it promotes an aggressive style of assault, your shield regeneration kicking in early only after you've downed an enemy.

Though criticals serve as the primary means of fun in Borderlands, they also serve as the only means of not only fun but also success. Left unspayed, criticals run amok throughout the play experience, hindering any allowance for diversity, change, or tactical thought. The enemies in Borderlands come in one variety: those who die via criticals. And of enemy types, by and large, there exist only three: humans, dogs, and spiders. At level twenty-eight, the thousandth Spiderant the player has encountered (this one huge and blue) will die easily, a one-trick pony, the same as the rest of its breed had died: with a shot to the head, and a shot to the abdomen. Every time. For the thousandth time.

Over spans of time, the slightest dash of variety will spice the events: “midget” bandits with shotguns, “brute” bandits that exist solely to soak damage, shielded guards literally requiring criticals. But each will fall the same way, and before too long, each repeated, repeated, repeated foe will rob your spirit of any anticipation for variety in future encounters.

The enemies are not alone in Pandora, as the environments fall fate to the same feeling of bland repetition. Environments have a unique and powerful potential for emotional affectation. I understand how a desert wasteland can evoke feelings of desolation, how god-forsaken trash heaps incite thoughts of desperation. And I did feel these things. At first, I did. But there is a balance to be had.

Considered in isolation, the modular construction of the environments is quite remarkable, I find. Seamlessly integrated and conceptually grandiose, the wastelands, salt flats, and canyons are beautiful to walk through. As well, the game offers a decent amount of environment types. But you can enter only so many wasteland inspired environments before you realize that, yes, you are still in a wasteland, and yes, this particular wasteland looks more or less the same as previous areas. If Gearbox were aiming for a provocative effect with their wasteland motif, I believe they've partially succeeded. But ultimately, the gameplay fails to match the environment's emotional philosophy. Silhouetted against the action – fun, simple, and mindless – the environments in no way endorse or enliven the experience but, being dreary and brown, dull the gunplay, muddy backgrounds through which to traipse.

As a multiplayer game, Borderlands is an interesting study. Multiplayer is an opportunity to hang with friends ad hoc, and in this way, chilling and chatting is about as fun as in any other shared, distanced setting. But as far as it delivers effective, fun gameplay, multiplayer is lacking. Though the game makes attempts at creating truly co-operative gameplay, “co-op” rarely excels past shooting the same enemies at the same time. The exception to simplistic co-op is the soldier's healing skill and turret support, gameplay akin to the medic in Team Fortress 2 and a spec I found to be very enjoyable when playing with friends.

Yet more debilitating to the multiplayer experience is pacing. While sorting through loot is a welcome option while gunning solo, online, friends grow restless and charge ahead (especially when lacking voice chat). The scaled enemies pose no difficulty to fewer players, those who do engage likely plenty savvy to sweep each enemy cluster. Even amidst the battle, three friends in tow, one's own potency is brought to question, ill-compared to the power of allies: “How much of this damage is my own doing? How many of these kills are mine?” Personal contributions feel diminished. The sense of achievement is lost to the masses.

With more difficult enemies, the quality of loot is scaled as well. In multiplayer, finding better guns is likely, and enjoyable when it occurs. But disembark from the online world, and again venture solo through Pandora, you will quickly realize that your equipped guns are far and away superior to any threat you are liable to face. The math is simple: uber guns plus weaker enemies equals pwn. Like a domino chain, however, the effects worsen. Now wielding superior weaponry, newly dropped loot from inferior enemies is comparatively weak, useless, and utterly insignificant. The entire loot reward system collapses. All excitement for finding better loot dissipates as you trudge through pointless gun after pointless gun. Eventually, you stop looking altogether. I used no more than five combat rifles during my entire play-through of Borderlands, each gun lasting me six or so levels. If I have one suggestion for players who venture into Pandora, choose either single or multiplayer for a character, but never both.

“The devil is in the details,” my mother always said. It's amazing how greatly the user interface can impact a play experience. And Borderlands for PC has interface issues in spades.

Let there be no question that Borderlands was designed for consoles primarily, and then ported to PC. I take no issue with developing for consoles first; I feel that games should be designed for whichever platform fits that game best. I also have no problem with ports that should seemingly fit, especially ports to the platform that founded the entire first-person-shooter genre. What does bother me are ports that are done just plain wrong.

Where to start? How about this: the use key reloads your gun. Every time your gun is missing a bullet, and you want to pick up some loot, you'll manually reload your gun. Never mind that the manual reload is separately mapped to another key altogether; no, Borderlands apparently needs double-mapping of its reload command. Other issues: the game offers no anti-aliasing, meaning shadows and angles look jagged, not sharp. Much like Bioshock for PC, the mouse wheel scrolls through guns backwards, a decision I abhor. The options menu, for me, chose not to scroll at all, but required I push a little arrow at the bottom. When scrolling through any menu, if you move your mouse, the scroll will reset to where you've hovered. Voice chat cannot be turned off anywhere; you have to unplug your microphone if you want not to talk. One of the worst, most annoying glitches of all, every time you open a menu, your loaded bullet count will revert back to the gun's native clip-size (plus class mod bonuses), subtracting the bullets gained from skills that improve magazine size. Every time you check your inventory, oh, what's this, my gun isn't fully loaded any more. It sounds trivial; trust me, its not.

Note to developers: next time you announce DLC before your game has even been released, perhaps you should spend that time fixing all of the terrible porting errors and glitches present in the original.

Lots of people like Borderlands. Maybe you could be one of these people. The fun of shooting things is really where Borderlands excels, and I congratulate the game for this achievement. Because of repetitive enemies, the shooting design never expands beyond aiming for criticals, and the other game's calling card, procedurally generated loot, fails to perform as you rarely find loot better than what you're already hauling. Borderlands stumbles throughout because it is constantly overcompensating for imbalanced features.

Wednesday, November 4

The Nail in the Coffin

Earlier today, NGai Croal wrote an article on Edge Online about the recent controversy over Kurt Cobain's appearance in Guitar Hero 5 and the lack of The Beatles' support anywhere but in The Beatles: Rock Band. He made an interesting argument, cautioning developers and publishers on future troubled-waters of licensing. A quotation, if you would:
 If it makes no difference that a fictional female avatar is singing male vocals and vice versa, why should it matter that a Kurt Cobain avatar sings Ring Of Fire or a Johnny Cash avatar sings Smells Like Teen Spirit?  [. . .] The only thing developers and publishers can do is recognize that as their products become more popular and their visuals more true to life, these and other thorny issues will only become more prevalent
Fascinatingly, just a minute ago, GameSpy posted the news that the band No Doubt is suing Activision over the band's appearance in Band Hero.
[No Doubt] took specific offense against the use of female singer Gwen Stefani's likeness to sing the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," which references sex with prostitutes while Gwen's avatar sings and acts like a male.
Wow. Talk about irony. Does Croal have premonitory visions? Did he have insider knowledge? Both irrelevant. Because he sure as heck hit the nail on the head this time, and not a minute too soon. Pretty darn interesting, if I do say so.

Wednesday, October 14

Spore Metamorphosis Challenge

Today I was ecstatic to discover an official Spore challenge tasking creators with generating an entire developmental lineage of creature. We all know how awesome Poke'mon are, and this challenge gives players the opportunity to express how their own creatures might evolve. The finalist results feature some amazing work. Choosing amongst them was extremely difficult, though I eventually settled on the kmart666's Goae Fish because of its creativity. The thing is half-fish, half-plant. Come on. All of the creations are spectacular, though, many of them involving not only highly intricate aesthetic work, but also wonderfully imaginative stories.

These are just a few of the creations, but encourage you to check out all of them at the official site, as  the entire metamorphosis is really what makes the fondu.

It would be very interesting to see this idea carried over to Spore itself. Since the creatures are code-driven, it could be feasible to create offspring mixtures of any two creatures, much like the offspring in the Sims series works (not to mention real life).

Tuesday, October 13

Thomas Mahler's Sein

Assuming you haven't already, you'll probably be hearing a lot about this soon,. Thomas Mahler is a freelance character artist and cinematic artist for Blizzard, currently working on Starcraft II. In the meantime, he has also been developing his own independent title called Sein. Sein, Mahler says, is inspired "heavily" by the works of Team ICO and Eric Chahi (1991's Another World). The above image is a screenshot of Sein, which is pretty darn incredible I must say. You can view all of the screenshots of Sein as well as other work of Thomas Mahler at his official site. Mahler also writes a game design blog called The Banana Place.

Last but not least, Mahler has modeled a gritty version of the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, a game of which lately I am quite obsessed. If you want to play with me on Steam sometime, my username is Gryffin.

Source: Split-Screen

Thursday, October 8


This just in: Single-player adventure already declared Game of the Year. Also, single-player is dead.

Wednesday, October 7

Optional Obligations

 A few days ago, my friend was kind enough to show me iD Software's new Wolfenstein on his PC, I not having seen it yet.The game is a throwback first-person-shooter, favoring linear gameplay and intricate, gorgeous level design over the now-standard cover system or necessity for tactical forethought. Honestly, its great to see this type of shooter still in existence; Wolfenstein satisfied my Perfect Dark roots. Wolfenstein, however, does have its gameplay hook, veil powers, four abilities that allow players to enter the occult realm while granting them various boosts. Using veil powers drains an energy meter, though, so the spamming of or prolonged use of them is restricted. Or, at least, one would think.

Quite the contrary, spamming veil powers is not only easy but, potentially, inadvertently encouraged. Veil powers, you see, have absolutely no casting time and no cool-down time. That is, the veil powers require zero time to activate and zero time before they may be used again. This allows players to freely ignore "use sparingly," instead permitting "spam-at-will."

One of the veil powers is called "empower" (activated by "2" on the keyboard) You may watch a video of empower in action at this conveniently hyper-linked text. When activated, empower causes shots to do critical damage, often boosting damage to an extent that enemies fall with a single bullet. It may or may not be safe to assume that empower is meant to be used by players as a last resort, as it is particularly powerful and causes the energy meter to quickly dry up. But in reality, the functioning of the veil powers allows for a considerably more frequent use of empower, a use that could easily be considered cheap or cheating.

Players will take advantage of every gameplay possibility or quirk to be as effective and efficient as possible. My friend demonstrated to me how he played through Wolfenstein, by using empower every shot he took. 2 Click 2. 2 Click 2. Because before each shot he activated the ability and after each, deactivated, every shot he fired was charged with empower, . He also never drained his energy, as a fraction of a second is no where near long enough to affect the meter. Yet more efficient, he used minimal ammo. One shot, one kill.

"It's annoying," he said, "because I have to play as best as possible. I don't know. It's hard to explain." Wolfenstein allows players the option to spam its powers for maximum efficiency. Is it cheap to take advantage of this fact? Maybe, but it's also human. It's like the board game Clue. If you happen to glance Professor Plum in your opponents hand, it is very difficult to consider him a potential suspect. Once players realize that they can spam empower, is it really that easy to go back to pretending their supposed to use it sparingly? How optional is efficiency?

On one hand, constantly rapid-activating empower could quickly become tiresome and annoying. Aligning yourself with your interpretation of the game's intentions (use sparingly) could make for a considerably more enjoyable play-through; after all, the rules are there to maintain fun. However, as a person, who is both innately precise and also trained throughout one's life to be efficient, ignoring perfect execution is difficult.

I can speak for my friend, at least (and would be very interested in hearing your own opinion), that he felt obligated as a person of efficiency to take advantage of the rapid-use allowance of the veil powers. His rapid-use of empower completely side-stepped that whole "energy meter" thingy, which is obviously there to specifically limit use. It also breaks the difficulty system, which also is tuned to the limited use. Is the game better with the rapid-allowance? Is it more fun? This is something each player must answer for his or her self, but, unquestionably, its power to affect a player's experience, either by adhering to efficiency or forcefully ignoring it, is definitely something of which the developers should be aware.

Options aren't always so optional, I've found recently. The mere option itself may, to some players, feel mandatory. I think people assume too much with the "optional" angle. "Hey, why not throw in some side-quests?" or "Players can choose to help this NPC for extra benefits if they want." I'm sure the decisions aren't that trivial, but how many players really choose not to help that NPC? How many don't feel like side-quests are obligatory to maximize their character or see more story?

More specifically, an optional game feature which has particularly affected my play experience of late is the presence of collectibles. Who doesn't love collectibles? You get to search for hidden Easter-eggs, explore the crevices the game world, and unlock extra content or features in doing so. Additionally, collectibles expand not only gameplay objectives but invested time as well. But I believe that collectibles have an additional affect of hogging focus.

Several weeks ago, I played the then-new PS3 demo for Mini Ninjas by IO Interactive. I really enjoyed the game and would love to someday play through the whole thing. In fact, I came back to the demo several times, spending probably three hours or so memorizing the level and mastering the gameplay. The real reason I came back, though, was to find every flower, jizo statue, and trapped animal there was. I was obsessed with catching 'em all, with hunting down every collectible.

Eventually, I realized that my entire play experience had been acutely focused on finding things, a tunnel-visioned experience, rather avoiding of the peripheral elements of combat and progression. Every step I took, I made sure to back-track three and to rotate my camera 540 degrees, just to be sure I hadn't missed a single hidden item. Every time I fought, my eyes would be glancing to the corners of the screen, hoping to catch the glint of a coveted collectible. It didn't help that the game tracked how many you had found, either. For me, the collectibles were the primary focus of the game, obligatory, not optional. However, I read Edge Online's review of Mini Ninjas, and the reviewer had quite a differing opinion of the collectibles:
It’s a peculiar miscellany of diversions that, along with the game’s uniquely soothing cartoon-fauvist style, sets a meditative pace. In between skirmishes with samurai, you find yourself wandering amiably through quiet twilight woodlands to search for ingredients or bobbing on a river with a fishing rod while peach blossom descends.
For some people, optional means optional, maybe more of a little surprise to happen upon a collectible than a die-hard manhunt. But that is not to say I did not enjoy myself. Rather, I loved searching for the collectibles. I didn't come back to the demo because I felt like I had to. I came back because I wanted to. However, it is important to note that the optional existence of collectibles greatly affected my play experience, diverting attention from other potential foci of the game such as combat. I do not believe this to be a good nor bad thing, just an affect of which, again, I believe people should be aware.

Similarly, playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum has shown me how collectibles can affect gameplay. "Detective Vision" in Arkham Asylum is an alternate vision mode, allowing players to see through walls, see structural deficiencies, highlights intractable objects (like grates and gargoyles), and, to get to the point, shows collectibles. Hidden question marks are painted around Arkham island that can only be seen in detective mode. There aren't even many question marks, to tell the truth, but the few that their are have contributed to me switching on my detective vision innumerable times through the game. Detective vision aside, I am constantly looking for hidden question mark statues, riddles, joker's teeth, interview tapes, and Spirit of Arkham stones. I have a mostly good time looking for them (although also annoying being so constantly present), and I enjoy when I succeed, but I can't ignore the nagging feeling that searching for collectibles occupies a significant amount of my gameplay focus. Now, there is no doubt that I am an OCD gamer, so I speak with significant bias, but I also know that the presence of collectibles impacts the play experience of many more besides me.

Collectibles, like other optional inclusions, come with a price: your players will want to find them. Collectibles may potentially detract from other spheres of gameplay, or at the very least, they should never be written off as "only optional."


For several days now, I have been trying to think of an eloquent analogy for Zach Gage's genius Lose/Lose. But I have failed, largely thanks to the blatant artist's statement that accompanies the game. I really can't describe it better than the author himself. So here you have it.
Lose/Lose is a video-game with real life consequences. Each alien in the game is created based on a random file on the players computer. If the player kills the alien, the file it is based on is deleted. If the players ship is destroyed, the application itself is deleted.

Although touching aliens will cause the player to lose the game, and killing aliens awards points, the aliens will never actually fire at the player. This calls into question the player's mission, which is never explicitly stated, only hinted at through classic game mechanics. Is the player supposed to be an aggressor? Or merely an observer, traversing through a dangerous land?

Why do we assume that because we are given a weapon an awarded for using it, that doing so is right? By way of exploring what it means to kill in a video-game, Lose/Lose broaches bigger questions. As technology grows, our understanding of it diminishes, yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly important in our lives. At what point does our virtual data become as important to us as physical possessions? If we have reached that point already, what real objects do we value less than our data? What implications does trusting something so important to something we understand so poorly have?
Just wanted to bring that to your attention.

Source: I Heart Chaos via Geekologie via Zach Gage
Image: BlitBlit

Also: Mr. Gage wrote an awesomely enjoyable book called "The Most Self-Involved Book That I Have Ever Written." I would highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 6

Nation Red

Today, I played the Steam demo for Nation Red, by DiezelPower. Like several other titles released recently, including Burn Zombie Burn! and Zombie Apocalypse, Nation Red is an isometric zombie shooter. I enjoyed the demo, the frantic struggle to stay away from rushing zombies while simultaneously being forced to run amongst them, dropped weapons, health, and power-ups essential for continued success. The constantly-available option to adjust the difficulty is also much appreciated.

But, without a doubt, the coolest part was the freaking dive-roll. When I pushed the E key for the first time and shot across the screen, I audibly yelped. Aside from the dive animation looking spotless, the feel is extraordinary. The seemingly-insignificant addition of the dive-roll shifts the game's focus, adding spice to the ever-more-standard strafing still pulled from Smash TV. It's interesting how the dive-roll, extracted from the action game (where it is standard), serves to excite the arena-shooter. Honestly, I'm not yet sure if the dive roll is entirely practical in-game, nor if it only muddles the crisp simplicity of the arena-shooter, but it is dane cool.

Sunday, September 27

Heavenly Sword and Skill Bias

Heavenly Sword has proven to me that bias can exist in a game's review. I had previously been conscious of review bias and subjectivity, but I also believe that reviews should seek to present as much of an objective view as possible. And to their credit, I believe that most professional reviewers do aim to discuss games objectively. But through my experiences with Heavenly Sword, I have learned that, sometimes, objectivity just isn't possible.

Towards the end of Heavenly Sword, I was discussing the game's combat system with my brother. "Man, I can't stand this combat, it's awful," I said. "No, its not," he said. He had completed the game long ago, not to mention achieved gold medallions on ever chapter. He said, "I played that game a lot, and I was never annoyed by the combat. You just fail at it."

Well, it turns out that this was half-way true. By the time I'd beaten Heavenly Sword, I still was pretty terrible at the game, or at least, I did not enjoy it that much. I was all ready to rant about the game and its frustrating combat, but I realized that perhaps I should spend some more time with it. Maybe, with more experience with the combat, I would be able to understand its intricacies and would better appreciate the game. Was my frustration with the combat due to my misunderstanding of it, or was the combat just plain bad? Did I have a skill bias?

Having re-played a few chapters, I've become better at the combat and do, in fact, appreciate it more, but many of my original misgivings, reasons for disliking the combat still stand.

Combat in Heavenly Sword revolves around the balancing of three fighting stances: speed, range, and power. Each stance has an associated color: blue for speed, orange for power, and red for unblockable attacks. Range stance, meanwhile, allows Nariko to sweep through arrow barrages. Enemies' attacks are always highlighted with one of these colors, telling players how to defend them. When in the matching stance (e.g. power for an orange attack), Nariko will automatically block incoming attacks, provided that she is standing still and not in the middle of a combo of her own. The game has no dedicated block button. Players must be not-attacking and in the correct stance to block a given attack. One more very important feature of the combat system is the counter button, which, for some reason, every developer of an action game feels absolutely compelled to include. Just following or directly when blocking an attacking, pushing the triangle button will cause Nariko to counter that enemy.

In theory, this sounds great. But in practice it works considerably less well. There are several flaws in the combat system that serve to break the fluidity and fun. AI is one issue. Though Nariko will often be surrounded by ten enemies or more, rarely will any of them have the guts to attack until the moment the player chooses to. Apparently, the attack command orders the enemies in addition to Nariko. And since not-attacking equals blocking, Nariko will get hit the instant players decide to stop waiting around for enemies to be aggressive.

This AI deficit is compounded by the severe numbers of enemies who block (particularly towards the end of the game) and the means by which you break through enemy blocks. By the time you have the full list of combos available, many, many combos are able to break through blocking enemies, opening them up to further attacks. But most of these block-breaking combos don't even injure enemies, as it is the final hit of the combo that eventually breaks their block. Meaning you need to newly attack that same enemy again within the two-second window that he or she is vulnerable. Otherwise, you have to wait for enemies to attack so that you can counter with triangle. And in no galaxy I've ever visited is waiting even remotely fun.

In the meantime, the other dozen or so enemies finally decide to attack Nariko in the middle of her combo. Unfortunately, Nariko's attack animations are fairly sustained and switching stances isn't exactly responsive. Without a direct way to  interrupt combos, I would frequently get attacked mid-combo because there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I do not mind the lack of a block button, but extended combo animations and a delay in switching stances cause the combat system to buckle under its own weight.

My play-through of Heavenly Sword was frustrating, especially during the boss fights and any sequence involving quick-time events, both of which utterly fail. I very much appreciate the linearity of the game and constant switching between combat with Nariko and shooting scenes with Kai or with a cannon. I really like how the game was so concise in its offering, unwilling to offer any fluff just for play-length. It was cool going scene to scene, advancing closer and closer to the castle. However, the combat system for my original play-through was stressful and annoying. And though this may have been due to my failing at combat, ultimately, my enjoyment of the game suffered. For me, the  learning curve of the combat system was too great, causing me to dread playing the game rather than anticipate it. Even after playing the game post-completion and improving my skills, my complaints of the system still remain, in my opinion, something no amount of skill can conquer.

If I had been on a time schedule, had been forced to write this review immediately following my completion of the game, then my criticism would fair considerably less forgiving. A reviewer's opinion of a game is certainly influenced by his or her skill at the gameplay systems, as the reviewer may misplace his or her own failing on part of the game.

Tuesday, September 22

Fat Princess Class Guide

The other day, I was watching my brother play Titan's PSN title, Fat Princess, and I became curious about the class and weapon balancing, the strategy and tactics. Most specifically, I wondered if, statistically, it was more beneficial to attack rapidly with a weapon or to continually unleash charged attacks (the answer is to arrive to a battle with a pre-charged attack and then rapid fire like there's no tomorrow). Is it better to take pot shots at enemies as a Archer, or is it better to keep one's distance and snipe them with charged arrows? Which is better: the Archer or the Rifleman?

With these questions in mind, I decided to conduct a study to determine these differences. But I needed some help. So I asked some people to lend me a hand at Playfire. Playfire is an excellent social networking site focused specifically on video games and the people who play them. With the help of LegionofPheonix (my twin), Bobbypick, and LeoDaLyon, we were able to discover the intricacies inherent to Fat Princess. And let me tell you, we learned some pretty useful stuff. For example, did you know that the Dark Priest AOE attack deals zero damage? Or, that a tossed bomb and a fully charged bomb deal an equal amount of damage? Or, did you know that frozen players cannot be harmed? All that said, the most important thing to realize is that these details cannot compensate for poor teamwork. Cooperation is the true strategy. Get that part down first and you'll start racking up the wins in no time.

We were going to type up the information, but my brother and I decided it would be over nine-thousand cooler if we made a nice, streamlined, visual guide for people to reference when needed. So that's what we did. Ergo, I present to you the Fat Princess Class Guide.


*Note: Several of the damage amounts are a minimal level and will sometimes fluxuate upward .25 hearts. The bomb, for example, will occasionally deal 1.5 damage, presumably due to distance from explosion.

Friday, September 4

Or, How My BFF Backstabbed Me

Remember when Tetris Friends and I used to be best buddies? Well, now there's a sequel, and things just got S-blocky.

Wednesday, August 26

Enacting Experience on Gamasutra

I recently compiled the three Enacting Experience articles into one long article, with editing of course, and posted it on Gamasutra Member blogs. Someone at Gamasutra has decided to consider it a "Feature Post" which is pretty cool. Check it out.

Sunday, August 23

Greatest Thing Ever?

Source: Diablo3x

Tetris: Your New BFF

Bitmob is a website started by that 1up guy, Dan Hsu, which promotes community blogging about video games. The other day, I posted my Don't Look Back article, which was one of six featured in their weekly spotlight. Today, however, I've posted an article exclusive to Bitmob, because I simply don't like double posting. So, if you're interested in reading about my opinion on the fantastic Tetris Friends, then check it out, called Tetris: Your new BFF.

Wednesday, August 19

Enacting Experience Part 3: Don't Look Back

People debate whether or not video games are art. Honestly, it's a ridiculous question. I define art as anything that evokes emotion or provokes thought from the audience. Whether or not the creation of video games is an art form is equally debated. I believe that an art form is any medium in which artists, through inspiration, subconscious feeling, and a series of decisions, create works which can offer the evoking of emotion or provoking of thought from an audience.

As an aside, I will note that art is definitely not always intended to affect others; many people create things for themselves or at least lack any intent to evoke emotion/provoke thought. Art is also highly subjective. What may not affect one person may, to another, present a paradigm shift in life values. Who's to say? Artists can control the effect of their works only so much. Because of the inherent subjectivity of art, an artists intention with his or her work is difficult to define, excepting specific statement from the him or her. Art will be perceived as it will.

I think I've finally discovered the reason for all of the questioning behind the "are video games art" debate. There is an important distinction between what a medium does achieve and what it can achieve. Just because video games as they are commonly offered often do not evoke emotion does not mean the medium cannot evoke emotion.

The established ultimatum that games need to be fun has blinded us to the other emotions that games can evoke and the other qualities they can possess. So we look at games and ask, "on a scale of 1 to 10, how fun is this here video game?" And this question almost always comes first, before we ever ask "how is this game affecting me emotionally?" or "what is this game teaching me?"

It's a matter of status-quo. Publishers are trying to please the media and to make money, the media is trying to please the gamers, and the gamers are trying to please. . .themselves? What is for sure is that professional developers have a budget and have to please everyone, and if everyone thinks that fun and graphics are what makes a game "good" and what makes a game sell, then really, what choice do they have? With every layer of the video game strata preoccupied with pleasing the norms, not many have the luxury nor time to worry about the other potential emotional qualities of games, that is, save for the independent developers.

Terry Cavanagh of Distractionware brings us a beautiful game called Don't Look Back, a game that I feel is an ideal exemplifier of gameplay as a means of evoking emotion and, for that matter, provoking thought.
Before you read on, I highly recommended you play through the game, which can be played online or downloaded.

Like the brilliant You Have to Burn the Rope before it, or more similarly, Don't Shoot the Puppy!, Don't Look Back gives instruction in its title. If Metal Gear Solid is considered to be the cinema of video games, Don't Look Back must be its poetry. Titles in poetry are often pivotal to the understanding of a poem, even at the most basic level explaining the subject of the poem or cuing in readers on the setting or location. Neversoft's Gun is one example of an effective video game title that comes to mind . The title says it all, giving players a hint of not only the game's subject-matter but also what the gameplay might involve. Gun as a title may additionally imply the player-character's situation in the game world and the necessity of resorting to lethal action.

The title Don't Look Back has multiple meanings, explaining not only the game's rules but also, metaphorically, its messages. In an interview with GameCritics, Cavanagh explains that partial inspiration for Don't Look Back came from the greek mythological story of Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld to rescue and revive his deceased wife, Eurydice, but broke the rule of doing so and caused her to disappear forever by turning to look back at her before he was allowed. Similarly, once players retreive their wife in Don't Look Back, turning back will cause her to disappear. When players return to the grave, they find themselves already standing there, and both the player-character (who we'll call Orpheus for simplicity) and his wife disappear together.

To enact experience is to meld the content of something with the experiencing of it. The concept of "not looking back" functions in two ways: one, as a rule of the game, and two, metaphorically, a message about moving on. To me, the game symbolizes moving forward. Orpheus's descent into the abyss is a journey of mourning. As Cavanagh explains, Orpheus never physically leaves the grave, but has taken a fantastical journey, mentally and emotionally. His return trip to the grave, his wife following along, is a passage of reconcilement, of moving onward. The difficult descent, however, was first necessary to mourn his loss. When the player and the wife return to the grave, Orpheus's journey-self and his wife disappear, leaving the new Orpheus standing, having grieved and moved onward from his wife's passing. In this way, the game is a mourning process for Orpheus, allowing Orpheus to free his wife and to free himself.

What is so beautiful about this game is that its title, rules, and meaning all function as a single whole, each point reinforcing the others. Only in a video game does a person or audience have the opportunity to look back, and not only look back, but have that action support a message and theme of moving onward. The game's message is strong and impactful via the very simple gameplay rule mirroring it.

Tuesday, August 18

Enacting Experience Part 2: Don't Shoot the Puppy!

This is the second article in my three part series on Enacting Experience. Read the first article, on It's a Nice Day Today, here.

Don't Shoot the Puppy!, by Aragagg, is an exercise in either frustration or patience, depending upon your temperament. Fifteen levels of puppy-hopping molasses await players in their quest to not shoot the puppy. With its twitch-triggered Anti-Air Cannon and myriad of trickery, Don't Shoot the Puppy! aims to test players' patience and maybe show them something a little different of game design as well.

The gameplay concept of "non-interaction" isn't entirely new; not to mention others, the brilliant Warcraft III mod, Don't Move the Tauren, had previously explored this "do nothing" reversal of gameplay, albeit in a psychologically-driven multiplayer setting. Regardless, Aragagg experiments admirably with non-interactivity. By employing clever (evil) tricks and toying with the patience of players, Aragagg creates an interesting emotional experience.

Players have two options in Don't Shoot the Puppy!:
  1. Shoot the Puppy.
  2. Don't Shoot the Puppy.
Shooting the Puppy is the easier of the two by far. But since the game's title explicitly tells players one rule, and the game is governed by that sole rule, the adherence to which is necessary for completion, players are driven towards not shooting the puppy; it's a challenge. There is also something to be said for the humor of the game; the utter ridiculousness of the situation is an additional force compelling players to endure the puppy's harsh challenges. And endure players must. Assuming they're actually paying attention to the game, which I believe the humor goes a long way towards capturing, players are forced to sit, watch, and wait. The slightest budge of the mouse, the simplest tap of a key, and the puppy is disintegrated. Often, this is a mistake. Therefore, not only must players not shoot the puppy, they must specifically strive to not shoot it.

Caution and patience are the name of the game. Which is interesting when you think about it. Perhaps non-interactivity is a mislabel. Though players do not interact physically using controls (except when they do shoot the puppy), they are required to interact mentally and emotionally. The game responds to their patience via the reward of completion.

Aside from simply waiting, Don't Shoot the Puppy! tries several tricks on players to get them to lose. Each time the puppy is shot, players are returned to the first level. One of my favorite levels is 5, where the normally smiley-face marked signpost now reads "Eternal Suffering," pointing to the left in the direction the puppy is walking. This psychological trick is extremely simple, not to mention hilarious, but it also has great potential for actual emotional impact. What's more important: yhat you win the game, or that you save the puppy from endless turmoil?

 Levels 3 and 12 trick players in another way: logically. In level 3, when players click play, an Ad pops-up, covering the game. Naturally, players move their mouse to the big X button to close the Ad, only to found they've been duped. Or at least I did. It was a good laugh, too. Level 12 is even more devious. After players press play, the level delays starting for a good while. Worst of all, the play button remains, leaving players to believe they either missed the button or something glitched. They thought wrong.

Restarting the game from the beginning can be trying. Don't Shoot the Puppy! is an opportunity for either patience or aggression. In this way, the game emulates life, offering the practice of a real and necessary life skill, waiting, and a real emotion, patience. It is up to players to decide how they're going to react to the game. Like a consequence-less microcosm for life events, players can either become angry or they can remain calm. The game shows how easy it can be to twitch-react according to frustration, like snapping your fingers, revealing to players just how quickly they can become angry. For those of you who own dogs, this may sound familiar.

Oppositely, players may wait. They may wait and watch and be patient with the puppy. It's not the puppy's fault it has narcolepsy. The game does go to lengths to aggravate players, attempting to trick them several times aside from simply waiting for the puppy to leave the screen. But all this does is push the point further; how patient can you be?

This is where enacting experience comes in. The gameplay mechanics, one being shooting the puppy, the other being not, match the emotions derived from the experience. To beat the game, players must wait, act upon nothing. But to lose, players must only tap the mouse. There is an implicit message that Don't Shoot the Puppy! is sending: it is better to be patient, to practice waiting, than it is to act violently.

Wednesday, July 29

Enacting Experience Part 1: It's a Nice Day Today

This is the first part of a three part article series about the use of "enacting experience" as exampled in three Flash games. The concept of enacting experience comes from the world of poetry and describes how the experience of something matches it's content.
This may be the most revelatory game you've ever played. The title is God Damn It's a Nice Fucking Day Today. And let me tell you, it's a tapestry of pure genius.

Indie games, and, in particular, Flash games, are in a very unique position in the game industry. Flash games hold their own little plane of existence in game design. Because Flash is a relatively accessible way to create games, and games that have potential for mass audiences, many independent designers are taking advantage of the software to create some truly incredible games. More so, often unburdened by the weight of publishing financing, Flash developers have a beautiful opportunity to freely explore a game's design. Whereas mass-industry developers are bound by the limitations of delivering mind-blowing graphics, staying under-budget, meeting milestones, and everything else that comes with the fish basket, Flash developers have the freedom to experiment with their design, experiment with those things unsuitable for the finicky market and experiment with what matters most in video games: the experience (thank you Jesse Schell).

I'm not going to enter a long exposition on the game industry right now, but I will say a few words about a game from Scottmale24 and conceived by Prguitarman, It's a Nice Day Today. Naturally, please play the game first, or go outside. It's good for you.

It's a Nice Day Today excels, specifically, as a video game. After playing for 30 seconds, a message comes on screen: "Why aren't you outside? Go outside or the sun will fucking rape your shit." This is paired with a Newgrounds Medal: "Failure to Communicate." This is convention-breaking awesome on so many levels, just like a chocolate layered cake. It's a Nice Day Today straight-up Falcon-knees the idea that Achievements, Trophies, Medals, pick your lingo, have to be used as rewards for good behavior or skill. Quite oppositely, the message overlay and medal blatantly tell players that they fail at life. By continuing to play the game, players are just. not. getting. it.

The gameplay, angrily sun-laser-nuking every house in sight, perfectly matches the agressive message of the game. It's called "enacting experience." A concept I learned from studying the writing of poetry, enacting experience is a technique used to match the content of a poem with its message and/or meaning: you enact the experience. Rhyme, rhythm, sytanx, line breaks, consoance, and more elusively definable aspects of poetry can be used in concordance with the meaning of a poem to emphasize its overall effect, and ultimately, the reader's experience.

It's a Nice Day Today is functioning with the same technique. It's not a very nice day at all, not any more; it's an angry day, an angry, angry day. You play the sun with the sole objective (and capability) to violently burn every house to the ground, exposing stick-figures to the glory of your wrath (or, what could have been your brilliance). Where enacting experience comes in is the style of message. The game's author could have easily left out the message, left out the medal, providing the gameplay alone and not its meta counter-part. However, what players are given is a blatant, threatening message, telling players that their continuing of play is in direct opposition to the game's intentions. This message of pure gundanium not only matches the aggressive gameplay, but rockets the player experience astro-fucking-nomically. It's like "with our forces combined" creating Captain Planet. It's like when two sounds waves of equal frequency meet to form a single wave louder than both simply added. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.

As a video game, It's a Nice Day Today uses several techniques to be super-effective. Players are the ones who expose the message in the first place and who personally experience it. Scottmale24 and Prguitarman are the ones who created the game (because they had a point to prove), but players are the ones in control. They are able to exit their browser, stand up from their computers, and walk outdoors. Really, that counts as control. It's a Nice Day Today breaks the fourth wall in the hopes that players might actually listen. What is interesting is that It's a Nice Day Today makes no attempt to positively motivate nor positively inspire players to go outdoors; its means are command and fear. An alternative game could have showed the sun in all its splendor, showed a happy picnic or swim at the ocean. But would that have been as effective? It's impossible to say, but what we can say is that It's a Nice Day Today tries its darndest to inspire people to go outside, using their own lack of concern and lazyness against them, with the message, as a second gut-punch. Rather than show, the game tells players: your current actions are preventing you from enjoying the nice outside.

There's the genius, right there. It's a game. You're the one still playing the game. You're the one not outside. Your specific action of playing the game, so chastised by that very game, is the simultaneous inaction of being outside.

Monday, April 27

Red Faction: Guerrilla Preview

Red Faction: Guerilla has options. In fact, options is the name of the game, or at least of the PS3 demo I've been playing for the last few days.

Guerrilla's calling card is "destructibility." And in this aspect, the game truly does separate itself from the sheaf of other third-person shooters. Pounding a mullet through a wall is quite satisfying. As you blast through a wall, shingles or bricks go flying with the impact, revealing rebar support beneath the surface. Even better, enemy EDF soldiers have no place to hide; burst through their cover, and they'll go flying along with everything else. You feel powerful.

Don't like physical labor? Destructible objects are everywhere: one-shot bio-hazard drums, gas-filled towers that explode into green plumes of flame, propane tanks that can be lifted and tossed, and machinery that electrify and then, what else, explode. Additionally, one of the primary weapons are remote mines. Throw a bunch of these out, hit circle to detonate, and they'll blow-up in succession. It brings back fond memories of GoldenEye. These are no measly explosions, either; they're big, colorful, and feature all sorts of heat distortions. Explosions instantly devour buildings and launch nearby enemies into the air. Developer Volition's clearly devoted much effort to the effects, and it shows.As buildings become damaged, they are shaded red in the mini-map in the lower-left corner and a percentage is displayed over them to signify its degree of durability. The lower the percentage, the closer the building is to being fully destroyed, a feat which nets players resistance-moral points. These percentages, such small things, nag at players like dangling carrots, coaxing them to finish buildings off. The reward is moral points and sweet sweet satisfaction. Notch one more on the belt.

On top of destruction, Guerrilla also offers up a decent third-person shooter is also present, featuring, apparently, a couple dozen weapons. Players can jump, run, crouch, "fine aim," and standard to all of the genre now, cling to walls, peek around walls, and roll away from walls: all useful abilities. In the demo, you have access to an assault rifle, remote mines, mallet, pistol, and shotgun, not to mention heavy gun turrets. The game has no lock-on function, but does have a liberal snap-aim. Something of note, the cross-hairs differ per weapon (and also, oddly, are colored to blend with the background), each type representing that weapon's firing-area. Headshots certainly play their part here, but overall, the game does not require precise aiming, asking that players simply mow enemies down. Running and gunning is entirely dependent on the number of enemies around, not unfeasible, but taking cover is advised. Also, the player-character regenerates health liberally.

Vehicles are also available and, more pointedly, prominent. Using vehicles is almost mandatory, and encouraged, because once enemies start swarming around the player in droves, it becomes more and more difficult to fend them off with the ole' lock, stock, and barrel. Running over them is so much easier, and turrets, with an over-heating based ammo system, are far more effective than your standard guns. Best of all is the walker, a bipedal construction mech. Well, more like destruction. Hold down the R2 button, walk through a warehouse, and watch it come tumbling down on you. If blowing up buildings with planned demolition charges is like popping bubble wrap, one, bubble, at, a, time, then crashing through buildings with the walker is like squeezing the living hell out of the whole sheet.
The latter section of the demo is an on-rails shooter wherein you defend the truck from encroaching tanks. It's a good time, particularly when trying to take out passing buildings on the side while still fending off the AI.

If you achieve three kills in quick succession, regardless of means, a running "killing spree" counter will pop up. Another dangling carrot, and an effective one. Once this is on, there's no going back. My best score so far (on foot) is nine. These points add into some greater points purposes, but I don't fully understand it without playing the entire game. A similar destruction points system exists too that, if I'm guessing correctly, results from quickly knocking down a bunch of buildings. These systems are nice additions. They don't interrupt the gameplay really, except by player free-will, and add an additional, self-assumed challenge.

The combat isn't spectacular; rather, it feels a bit muted, distanced, but it is good fun and has its challenges. The controls are a bit strange, though, all three options. Though, by and large, they all perform competently, some vital function is always relegated to the R3 button: fine aim or melee. Why not set these to circle and set the much less often used detonate to R3? Really, in this day and age, I see absolutely no reason players should not have the option of fully customizing their control scheme. Ultimately, I settled on the Alternate 2 option, which assigns L2 to fine aim and R2 to fire.

Red Faction: Guerrilla offers choices to players, so many choices. Blow up a building or tear it down. Do neither. Kill people. Pass them by. Go for killing sprees. Kill them with vehicles. Kill them with guns. Getting a picture? I will say that in combat, all of these options mesh together fairly well, as I used whatever means most handy to take people or buildings out. But the game's options feel too disparate. As a player, I don't know what the game is asking of me. What does it want me to do? And I think the answer is this: whatever you want.

Well, that's actually a more difficult question than it seems. Because, if I just want to win the mission, I can jack a vehicle, drive right by the AI, jack the walker, and talk it to the truck. Simple, and really not much trouble. But it's too easy. Challenge is fun. And so if I want to have fun, ignoring the mission is the best course of action. I am referring to the demo mission alone, of course; I'm sure the whole game with its hundreds of missions offers many more challenging goals.
But to squeeze the most fun out of the demo that I could, I started making challenges for myself. This, ultimately, is where I feel Guerrilla will offer its choicest meat. I gave myself a sprint challenge: get to the walker and bring it to the truck as fast as you can. It was fun; my record so far is 1:51:39. I also tried taking down every building without the use of the walker; I never beat that one. How about get the highest killing spree you can? The game opened up for me once I gave myself these challenges, and I began to appreciate its potential. But I fear that with its abundance of options, everything comes off as a bit diluted. The key to the game's structure is not only showing players that they can go crazy in whatever ways they want, but also offering them reasons to do all of the things it offers. And I think the game admirably tries to do so with its myriad of points systems and overall story goals. Whether or not it succeeds we'll have to wait for the full game to find out.

The last point I want to mention is the game's being in third-person. Volition argues that the reason for this decision is so players can see more of their surroundings and have a better view of the destruction they cause. I'm not entirely sold on the idea. I think third-person does do both of these things. But I also think the game feels dulled from the perspective, and could have had a considerably more visceral impact from first person. Based my experience with the demo, I also think the game could have benefited from a slower pace and from tighter, more directed gameplay. Everything happens so quickly, and I think the game would be stronger and carry more weight if the pace were more deliberate.

Red Faction: Guerrilla is a fun game. I've played the demo many, many times now, an obvious testament to my enjoyment. I think Guerrilla is one of those games that will become more and more fun the longer you play it and the deeper you delve into its story and scenarios. I look forward to playing through the whole thing.

Images from Gamespy.