Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

27Jan/100

Final Thoughts: Mass Effect

I had Mass Effect 2 all day yesterday, and I did not play it. I deprived myself, though I wanted nothing more than to bathe in its sweet nectar. Instead, I beat the original Mass Effect, something that I hadn't done before, what with my rage and hatred for the game.

I wanted to beat Mass Effect before playing the sequel for two reasons.
Reason the First: To see how it ends, so I know what is going on in the sequel without resorting to cheap summaries.
Reason the Second: To import my Lady Shepard into the second game, something that supposedly leads to an unprecedented level of plot customization.

All the reviews say that importing your character leads all sorts of things to change in the game based on your decisions. Characters whom you chose to keep alive will show up, your prior adventures will be discussed, that sort of thing. The idea appeals to me greatly, so I couldn't bring myself to start the sequel without first beating the original, and overall, I am very glad I did.

So, now that the game, in its entirety, is fresh in my mind, here are some final thoughts, and how they compare to my original rant a few days ago. Note that these will contain massive spoilers, because otherwise I find the writing ends up sounding too vague.

The Story

I need to bring this up first. The story of Mass Effect is absolutely amazing. I hadn't a clue just how wonderfully epic it gets towards the end, and although I usually see plot twists coming from a mile away, there were a few things here that I did not see coming. While I expected to learn that the Citadel and Relays were not built by the Protheans, it was too convenient for them to have done it when we learned that the cycle of extermination had been going on for many millions of years, I did not expect them to be the Reapers' work. In fact, just about everything we find out about the Reapers late in the game was exciting, from chatting with one in Saren's office to learning why they built the Citadel.

The finale alone is worth the entry price of mediocre combat and terrible space-buggy sections. It is incredibly well done, paced perfectly, and suitably epic. Even with my ambivalence towards the combat, I found the last push towards the Sovereign, running along the tower gunning down Geth, to be exhilirating, and the interludes showing massive space fleet combat going on around me helped keep me engaged.

I was also going to give the game bonus points for letting me talk the villain into blowing his own brains out, something I find much more satisfying than a boss fight, and done to perfection in my favorite game of all time... but then they went and made me fight a robot version of him right after, so boo BioWare, no bonus points for you!

And the characters! Oh the characters, they were a joy to get to know. There were also some tough decisions to be made, including a moment where you have to choose whether Ashley or Kaidan must be sacrificed for the cause. Even though I had no great attachment to Kaidan beforehand, I still felt genuine sorrow once he was gone, and I love how BioWare set the mood, changing the music aboard Normandy, and having to deal with Ashley's guilt.

Overall, I have to say that this is one of BioWare's best stories, and I've already gone into how well fleshed out the world is in a previous post, which is another huge strength of the game, and helps make the story as tight and cohesive as it is.

The Combat

I still didn't like the combat much, I'm just not much of a fan of shooters unless they're exceptional, and this is not an exceptional shooter.

However, once you get used to it, there is some tactical depth to the game, and the biotic powers get to be a lot of fun once you level them up sufficiently. The biggest problems with the game here probably lie in the cover system, which is very finnicky, and poor AI both for your companions and the enemies.

I longed for the kind of prolonged shootouts you get in Gears of War, popping out from behind cover and sniping enemies similarly hidden.

Instead, the enemies tend to rush and swarm you, and since you get a game over if your main character dies, you get some frustrating deaths this way, especially since snipers and rockets can one-shot you easily early on. Your allies aren't much better in the brains department, milling around, getting in the way of your gunfire (especially a certain Krogan), and dying for no good reason.

The balance is all over the place too, I did a lot of sidequests early on and they were incredibly hard (on Normal difficulty), but afterwards, going back to the main quest, I was sufficiently leveled up that most of the story missions ended up being very easy. I guess that's better than a constantly punishing difficulty, but it would be nice if the game could keep some consistency in how hard it wanted to be.

The Interface

The interface is terrible. Seriously, they should be ashamed for releasing this sort of garbage UI in this day and age. Even ignoring my personal pet issue: the X button both skipping dialogue and selecting dialogue options, the entire thing is a mess.

The inventory takes up too much space, without telling you enough. Your items get put into enormous lists, which are at least sorted by category in the Inventory screen. Not so when selling though, there you get one giant list of all your items, and good luck finding the one you want to sell.

There's an arbitrary 150 item limit, and once you get close, the game prompts you to disassemble items into "omni-gel," but the interface for this is once again a giant list, where you can only salvage one item at a time, and each time you do, you get sent back to the top of the list.

Want to disassemble three items that happen to be at the bottom of the list? Good luck, you'll be there a while.

I could go on and on about this, but you get the point, suffice to say, I don't believe they had a real UI designer, programmer, or artist working on this. If they did, those people should be ashamed.

The Mako

Ah the Mako, the single worst thing about the game, even considering the barely-usable interface.

Even though I was committed to beating this game last night, even though I knew that I would not give up, and that I would finish the game before starting the sequel, I still wanted to quit the game in disgust and never play it again every time a Mako sequence would start.

I find it hard to articulate just what it is about these sequences that fill me with such intense rage. Maybe it's the fact that trying to maneuver around the terrains in this thing would often make me grit my teeth in rage, as it failed to turn the way I wanted, or would bounce from hill to hill getting turned around.

Maybe it's because unlike everything else in the game, there was no RPG aspect at work, as terrible as the Mako was at the start of the game, it never got any better.

Maybe it was because I got the distinct feeling that this was one of the "pet features" that some clueless person with too much power insisted got tacked onto a game that didn't need it.

Maybe it was because every planet I "explored" using the Mako had the exact same mine shaft or underground complex on it, just with slightly different enemies.

I don't know, I don't want to think about it anymore. All I can say for sure is that this stupid buggy made me quit the game without beating it once, and I missed out on an awesome story as a result. It adds nothing worthwhile to the game, and I'm glad as hell that it's gone in Mass Effect 2.

Overall

Mass Effect is a game with a fantastic story, memorable characters, and passable third-person combat. It's definitely worth playing, and if you like science fiction, RPGs, or even just a great narrative, you owe it to yourself to complete it.

Unfortunately it's also a game that tries it's damnedest to make you stop playing it in disgust, whether via its terrible UI, or rage-inducing space buggy sequences.

Do not let it break your will, gentle reader! Persevere! If you do, you will find plenty to like in BioWare's sci-fi epic.

Filed under: Games No Comments
25Jan/100

Mass Effect 2 Fever

While I stand by my criticisms of the original Mass Effect, I have also said that I have high hopes for the sequel.

In the last day or two, those hopes have transformed into a feverish desire, last matched prior to the release of Dragon Age, and before that... well, I can't recall. A long time ago, if at all.

Part of what precipitated this was the launch trailer:

 Do yourself a favor and watch the HD version in a seperate window.

This is one of the best video game trailers I've ever seen. It's tightly paced, shows everything that Mass Effect has to offer: action, adventure, romance. It feels like a movie trailer, or a teaser for a new season of Battlestar Galactica. It's epic and enthralling, and the music, perfectly timed, sends chills up my spine.

I've had this trailer running all day at work, in the background, for the awesome orchestral score alone.

I can't wait to meet these characters and take part in this story. Tomorrow can't come soon enough.

Filed under: Games No Comments
24Jan/103

Dwarf Fortress Survival Gear

Ah Dwarf Fortress, full title: Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, a ludicrously wordy title for a ludicrously (and infamously) complex little game.

I was catching up on the archives of Shamus Young's blog, and I saw him talking about someone else's Let's Play of Dwarf Fortress, which in turn referenced the most famous Let's Play involving this game, the Saga of Boatmurdered, wherein an intrepid group of SA forum goons switched off playing a fortress called Boatmurdered, dealing with bloodthirsty pachyderms and attempting to flood the world with magma. Seeing these posts made me want to play the game myself, something I'd attempted and failed at in the past.

But maybe I get ahead of myself, maybe you don't know anything about Dwarf Fortress. If that's the case, I recommend the Wikipedia article I link above. Basically, though, Dwarf Fortress is an extremely detailed game in an extremely rudimentary (or downright ugly) package. It simulates the trials and tribulations of founding and running a Dwarven colony, from digging tunnels and defenses to building canals full of molten magma and cunning traps to vex invaders.

The game is played from a top-down perspective, and it uses archaic ASCII art, not unlike classic games like Nethack or Rogue. By default, it looks very, very dated. Here's a sample screenshot of the core game in action:

Despite the way it looks, however, this is an incredibly deep game. Each time you play, you can generate an entire procedural world, complete with 200 years of history generated on the fly. Heroes, deities, cults, and civilizations rise and fall as a map is generated, and then you are tasked to choose a place for your team of seven initial dwarves to settle.

And it doesn't stop there, the game models every individual creature down to organs, limbs, and bones. If a dwarf gets stabbed, an organ might be damaged, or a limb, and these things may stay with that dwarf and hinder its ability. You can dig into the earth and construct insanely complex structures, and set up intricate mechanisms, complete with your own triggers from levers or pressure plates.

This is a game where you can divert a river to flood a part of your fortress, then use pumps to create an artificial waterfall or fountain, complete with a realistic fluid pressure simulation. You can find sources of magma underground, and channel it to set traps or power your dwarven forges. The amount of freedom in the game is astounding, and the price you pay is ancient graphics and abysmal accessibility.

The hardest part of Dwarf Fortress is starting to play Dwarf Fortress. The first time you try to play, you will probably not even be able to figure out how to choose a decent place for your dwarves to embark to, let alone how to outfit them so they don't get murdered right away. On top of that, you may be discouraged to discover that failure is part of the point of the game. It reminds you right off the bat: Losing Is Fun!

The point of Dwarf Fortress, apart from trying to make awesome forts and generate hilarious stories, is to see how long your fortress can last before it fails miserably and all your dwarves die an ignominious death. But it's hard to get to this lofty goal of epic failure, when you can't even get past the utterly mundane failure inherent to playing for the first time.

Therefore, I present to you, the tools that I found invaluable in surviving Dwarf Fortress. Surviving it long enough to fail spectacularly, at least.

Mayday DFG

You can get Dwarf Fortress from the creator's website at www.bay12games.com, but I don't recommend it. Instead, I recommend you get Mike Mayday's graphics addition, a compilation version with a very nice tile set and custom dwarf and creature graphics that make the game look quite nice, all things considered.

Remember that screenshot up above? No? Scroll up and have another look, I'll wait.

Okay, now look at this one, this is how the Mayday version looks, I think you'll agree that it's a whole hell of a lot more pleasing to look at:

Not only are there no more pure ASCII characters, you can actually tell what everything is just by looking at it! Here you can see a dwarf dining room, with a bunch of dwarves inside, and a stockpile of barrels on the right.

You can get Mike Mayday's DFG version of the game at this link, and the download is a nice, all-inclusive package that contains the executable along with all the improved graphics files, as well as some good starting init file settings. It also includes a nice feature where it will auto-configure your group of dwarves for you, if you want, giving them good skills and items for a starting player.

Video Tutorials

In this thread, you can find links to captain_duck's excellent video tutorials on YouTube.

This fantastic human being has gone through the trouble of providing 40 tutorial videos covering every aspect of the game for the complete novice. It starts by explaining how to generate a world and choose a decent starting location, procedes to teach you how to build your team of dwarves (though you needn't do it yourself if you have the Mayday DFG), and then goes on to explain every major aspect of the game, showing you how to succeed... or how to fail amusingly.

You don't have to watch them all, there are over 6 hours of instruction here, but these tutorials are the absolute best place to start learning this game.

Dwarf Fortress Wiki

The Dwarf Fortress Wiki is an excellent and exhaustive source of information about everything in the game, from simple concepts to complicated mechanisms and effective strategies.

It's not the best source for a complete novice, as it can be overwhelming if you've never played before. Use the tutorials above to get started instead, and refer to this site as you play to learn about more advanced concepts.

Dwarf Manager

Dwarf Manager is a standalone program that you can run alongside Dwarf Fortress to help you manage your dwarves' professions.

As your fortress fills up with dwarves, it becomes harder and harder to manage which dwarf should perform what task, and it can be very tedious to manually change multiple dwarves from chopping wood to carving stone, for instance. Dwarf Manager, and similar programs, let you assign special profiles to your dwarves, and then switch a dwarf between profiles easily. While it's not strictly necessary early on, it becomes very handy once you have a significant number of dwarves running about.

Note: Dwarf Manager has not been updated in a while, and newer versions of the game (like the current v21 of Mayday's DFG) will not work with it without letting the program know how the memory layout of Dwarf Fortress has changed. Luckily, I have done the footwork for this on the internets, and you can get the program to work by downloading version 0.7 linked above and replacing the MemoryLayouts.xml in its directory with this one.

If you don't like Dwarf Manager (or can't get it to work by using the file above), there are other similar programs out there that you can use instead, and you can probably find them by looking around the Bay12 forums.

A Visualizer

This last bit of gear is hardly necessary, but for me, it was a big deal.

Several fans have now created programs that will let you see what your fortress looks like using actual, honest-to-goodness graphics. While you don't need this to play, it can help you get a handle for how the game represents 3D space, and in my opinion at least, it can help build an attachment to your creation when you can actually see it without trying to strain your brain.

I want to stress that these are not the same as adding modern graphics to the game, you cannot play the game using these programs, but you can see how your fortress looks while Dwarf Fortress runs in the background.

I have found two different visualizers that I really like. The first, Stonesense, will visualize your fortress using colorful isometric sprite graphics, and it can even update in real time to show you dwarves and other creatures moving around your land, and even modifying the landscape, which can be really cool. To use it, just run it at the same time as Dwarf Fortress. I will switch to it every once in a while when playing, to see how my fortress is looking from another perspective.

Here is an example of how the game looks via Stonesense:

The only down side to Stonesense is that it only shows you your fortress one horizontal slice at a time, meaning if you build some crazy tall structure, you can still only see one floor at a time, like the in the game itself.

If you want to see your entire fortress in full 3D, I recommend Visual Fortress. This program is a little rougher than Stonesense, it won't automatically connect to your game, and it won't update in real time. It also doesn't show a lot of costructed objects like workshops. To use it, you just run it at the same time as the game, and choose Dump From Dwarf Fortress from the File menu. You can click okay on the next screen, and the program will construct a 3D representation of your fortress, frozen in time, which you can then navigate using the mouse and keyboard.

Here is an example of what a fortress looks like in Visual Fortress:

Keep in mind that this is just one of my little fortresses, if you want to see some impressive ones, look at the link to Visual Fortress above, the creator provides some screenshots of his own and others' mega-projects.

Remember: Losing is Fun!

Well, that's it then, with these resources, even a complete novice can start to get a handle on playing Dwarf Fortress: just look at me. A week ago I had no idea how to do anything more complex than dig a tunnel, while my newest fortress, shown in the Visual Fortress screenshot above, is not only largely self-sufficient, but it also has an awesome flooding death chamber at the entrance.

I can pull some levers to snap the doors on either end of that passageway shut, and then pull another to flood the room completely by pumping water from the nearby brook. It even has hatches on the floor to then dump the water into a large chamber where it can seep in and evaporate away!

Of course, I wouldn't recommend the game to everyone, but if you like games that let you build crazy things, or management simulations where you have to keep a society running by providing for its citizens, you really can't go more epic than Dwarf Fortress.

It helps to have a bit of a masochistic streak, too.

Filed under: Games 3 Comments
18Jan/102

I Hated Mass Effect… And I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Okay, so I didn't hate Mass Effect, but I did have a lot of problems with it; enough problems, in fact, that I never finished it, and it left a rather foul taste in my mouth (I like sour things too much to use the usual expression).

At the time, I was worried that Bioware had completely lost their touch, and one of the last great cRPG makers would now fade into obscurity, leaving nothing but a wasteland of dumbed-down, twitchy action RPGs where once there was a rich bounty of sprawlingintelligent, tactically satisfying games for me to gorge myself on.

Thankfully, my worries were alleviated when Bioware went on to release my favorite game of 2009, which is actually one of the best RPGs I'd played in a decade, let alone just last year.

Now, Mass Effect 2 looms just over the horizon, and to celebrate this fact, I present to you: what I hated about Mass Effect, and why I will buy the sequel anyway.

Things I Hated About Mass Effect

The Combat

In battle, Mass Effect was a third-person shooter built on the Unreal Engine. That means that its closest analog would be Gears of War, and therefore it makes sense that it felt like a really crappy version of Gears of War, with a terrible cover system, impotent weapons, and boring levels. I'm not very good at shooters on a console, I much prefer mouse and keyboard, but I always enjoyed Gears of War because it did just about everything right: an awesome, tactile cover system, big, easy to hit enemies, and a very enjoyable cooperative experience.

Mass Effect had none of these things, and the RPG trappings applied on top of a weak Gears of War clone only hurt the experience more, by making you very ineffective at shooting until you leveled up a skill, and giving you a bunch of magic (I mean... biotic) powers that were a pain to use and left you exposed out of cover while you cast them.

This is a game where even though you could go into "combat mode" by simply aiming or shooting your weapon with either trigger, they still wasted a face button (X, to be exact) on "entering combat mode" and another (B) on "exiting combat mode." In the meantime, you could only bind one spell or ability for quick use, and had to use a radial menu to use any others. Idiocy.

The "Exploration"

Most RPGs feature a point where the world "opens up" and you are free to explore, and do the rest of story in a semi-arbitrary order. Certainly, all recent Bioware titles follow this model by at one point opening up a handful of story locations which you can visit in any order, but must clear if you want to beat the game.

Mass Effect also has this point, and on top of the couple of planets you have to visit to finish the main quest, they give you a Galactic Map with a whole ton of planets you can choose to visit and explore, or skip entirely.

I am a completionist (meaning I want to do everything in a game, never mind that I barely ever keep it up long enough to beat the game itself), and if you read my post titled Why We Play, you'll note that one of my main motivators in playing a game is seeing new content, so there was never any doubt that I would visit all of these optional planets and see what they have to offer. That is exactly what I did, and having visited every single side-planet in the game, I can tell you that these planets have less than nothing to offer.

These are empty, lifeless stretches of terrain, with slightly different textures and environmental effects, and you drive your bouncy, stupid space-car around a square mile or so before finding some scrap metal or killing a few generic enemies, and then returning to your spaceship disappointed. I tried to explore each of these planets fully, which took a lot of time, and gave me neither tangible nor emotional rewards.

By the time I was done with this exercise in self-loathing, I was so sick of the game that I put it down and never picked it back up again.

The Dialogue System

Mass Effect introduced an "innovative" dialogue system where your fully-voiced character would act out lines that you chose based on a short blurb. For instance, your choice as the player might say simply: "Geth?" while your character's dialogue would be a line about how "the Geth haven't been seen outside of the Veil in 200 years!" This is kind of cool, in that it establishes that your character isn't an idiot, and actually knows about what's going on in the world, but it's also not all that innovative, as it's merely a way to obfuscate your choices in the more traditional dialogue system where you would choose the exact sentence your character would be saying.

Furthermore, this system was undermined by the simplistic Paragon/Renegade mechanic in the game, which was just another way of dressing up the usual boring morality systems in these games which largely consist of choices like "Pay for the child's college education" or "Murder his parents, burn down his house, and sell him into slavery."

Okay, I exaggerate, no games these days have the balls to let you sell anyone into slavery. Sorry about that.

So the dialogue choices weren't any more compelling than previous games, and since you chose them by moving your analog stick to one of 6 positions on a circle, they even made your choices more obvious and straightforward by always putting the Paragon choices on the top half of the circle, and the Renegade choices on the bottom.

Now granted, it annoys me that anyone called Mass Effect's dialogue system revolutionary (and boy did they), but although it's not innovative at all, it wouldn't bother me enough to list here if not for one glaring fatal flaw that turned it from boring to infuriating. Your choices in conversation would show up before a person finished speaking, but it would often still be pretty late into their voice-over. By then, I had already finished reading what they were saying, and since I didn't care to keep listening to them talk, I wanted to make my choice and move the conversation along. Sometimes, the choices would come up just in time, but other times it wasn't soon enough for me, or there was another "page" of dialogue they had to go through before the choices came up.

Naturally, like all RPGs with a lot of dialogue, there was an option to skip ahead. Hitting the X button made the next "page" of dialogue begin, and if it was the last one the character had to say before choices came up, pressing X would make them come up immediately. Unfortunately, hitting X inexplicably also selected a choice if the list of choices was already up, and since they showed up on their own sometime near the end of the character's speech, there were a ton of times when I would hit X to skip to the choices just as they were coming up, and accidentally choose something I didn't want to, usually the choice to end the conversation. This was a big deal because a number of NPCs wouldn't talk to you again, or at least not about the same subjects, and I would be missing out on something deeply important to me: story, lore, and dialogue.

This is terrible, idiotic UI design, and the single thing in the game that made me burst into rage while playing it. I love RPGs with deep dialogue trees, and I enjoy picking exactly what my character has to say, and how she acts. Mass Effect already denied me the latter, by obfuscating my choices, and then proceeded to make it hard for me to choose which choice I wanted just because I have a decent reading level and don't want to listen to voice acting for something I read 5 seconds ago.

In what world does making the button for "skip dialogue" also choose dialogue choices seem like a good idea? This is basic stuff, people.

Why I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Tom Chick has an interview with Casey Hudson of Bioware over at Fidgit, and they talk about some of the changes that the team have made in Mass Effect 2 to deal with criticisms over the first game. I had already hoped that my complaints above would be addressed, and this interview gives me hope that my hopes will not be shattered next week. Give the article a read, it's good stuff.

So, why will I buy Mass Effect 2?

The Lore

The one aspect of Mass Effect that I though was superlative was the world created by the writers at Bioware. Mass Effect was the first Bioware game to include a Codex, an in-game encyclopedia of game lore, which detailed even the tiniest and most mundane of details about the Galaxy depicted. Being an original IP, I was incredibly impressed with Bioware's world-building, and there were times when I kept playing just to find out a little bit more about this alien race, or that speculative technology, or some facet of future-Earth's history.

This universe created by Bioware kept me going even when the rest of their game did its best to make me stop, and I can't wait to see what they do with it in a good game. Hopefully Mass Effect 2 will be a good game.

No More Empty Planets

I had already assumed that Bioware would not make this horrible mistake again, but the interview above pretty much confirms that. Whereas the first game had a bouncy space-buggy and empty planets, it looks like Bioware took this criticism to heart and identified that people wanted to explore cool unique planets, not generic wastelands. And to this end, Casey says:

We wanted to make sure to better fulfill that fantasy, so we took the opposite approach on this game. Instead of building those expanded universe pieces out of lighter content, we took the opposite approach. Everything you discover up there really needs to be a unique stretch of gameplay, or a unique storyline. Something different. Something exotic that you couldn't otherwise do in the main game.

Bingo! That's exactly what exploring a planet should be like. Let's hope that they delivered on this aspect, and I for one will be a happy camper.

Improved Combat

If Mass Effect is going to remain a shooter, it should at least be a competent one. From the interview and other sources I've seen, it sounds like they've done a lot of work on that aspect, which makes me pleased. While I'd still prefer a more traditional RPG combat system (and in my dreams, a turn-based one), I can hopefully at least take some joy out of the combat sections in the new game, if they are more competently executed.

One other thing to point out here is this line from the interview:

But not only that, the power screen allows you to map the powers to the controller.

Hey look! Another of my complaints above addressed. Good work Bioware! I guess there are some sane people working on this franchise after all.

Let's hope that at least one of them noticed how stupid it is to let you skip dialogue and select dialogue choices with the same button.

In Preparation

I'll be getting Mass Effect 2 next week, and I'll be able to report if I hate it any less than the original. In the meantime, I've decided to replay Mass Effect, and maybe beat it this time, so that I know where the story's picking up, and so that I can compare them more closely.

So far, my new playthrough is going pretty well. I still hate the stupid way you can skip out of conversations, and I still hate the combat system, though I've decided to take it easy and set the game to the casual difficulty, so while the combat is still clunky, at least it's not frustrating.

Filed under: Gameplay, Games 2 Comments
15Jan/100

But You Must!

The title of this post is a quote from a very famous and very popular game. It's also somewhat of an inside joke between myself and a friend of mine, and the why of it will become clear in a moment.

There are plenty of linear games out there, where you are shepherded from point A to point B without any choice of where to go next. I'm not going to say that this is unacceptable, something that should never be done, because there's room for all sorts of games out there, and sometimes keeping a game linear serves the maker's vision well. If you have an exciting, interesting game, and you want me to see it in a specific way, I won't begrudge you that opportunity, and hopefully it will turn out to have been the correct choice.

However, there is always danger in removing or constraining a player's agency; a game is meant to be played after all, and not all people will go along with you willingly. Whether its superfluous or excruciatingly long cutscenes, linear levels, or open areas that are too small and with too little to interact with, many people will not be pleased with arbitrary limits on their freedom to play their way.

But, as I say, I can accept that sometime a game must send you along a particular path. What I can't understand, is why some games insist on pointing out that you have no choice, by giving you a choice without any meaning.

The Zelda games are pretty bad at this, or maybe it's Nintendo games in general. This brings us back to this post's titular quote, which comes from Ocarina of Time, a game considered by many to be the best Zelda game, or even the best game of all time.

In the interest of full disclosure I'll note that I don't agree with either of those sentiments.

In Ocarina of Time, there is a point where you, as Link, the Hero of Time, speak to Princess Zelda, and she gives you what is essentially a quest. I believe it is a quest to retrieve the Spiritual Stones and unlock the Temple of Time, but I could be wrong, it's been a while. In any case, she tells you the task she want you to do, and then asks if you will do it. You are given two clear choices, one to accept, and one to decline.

Most people who played the game, probably just hit Yes and moved on with their lives, but what happens if you hit No?

But you must!

So, will you do it?
- Yes
- No

If you keep saying no, she will keep telling you that you must, until you give in and accept your wretched fate. At that point, it just feels like the game is toying with you, or possibly trying to break your will: "You will accept my quest, dammit, struggle all you want."

Since this is obviously a key point in the game, and it wouldn't make sense for Link to turn around and become a pig farmer or something, why in the world do they pretend to offer you a choice? It would be easier to just walk you through that part of the game, make it a plot point like any of the others. I may not feel like I have a choice if you do that, but I don't have a choice now either, and at least that way you can move on with the game without this weird little intrusion into your epic adventure:

And so it was, that the Princess told the Hero of his task, and lo she did plead with him to take the world's fate upon his shoulders. But the Hero, fickle and cowardly as he was, refused the Princess her request.

And so it was that the Princess plead again: "But you must!" She told him. And again did the Hero deny her.

86 times she asked, and 85 times he refused, until at last, tired, hungry, and annoyed, he relented, and so the adventure began...

So yes, I think it silly to give the player a choice only to then refuse to accept that choice. The moral of the story is that if you're going to take the player's agency away, do it quickly and seamlessly, and don't taunt or confuse him with it.

On the other hand, if the designers of Ocarina of Time had done that, then my friend and I would be denied a hilarious line to overuse in everyday situations.

So I guess there's that.

Filed under: Game Design, Games No Comments
14Jan/102

First Impressions: Darksiders

Darksiders is a new game that's been getting some buzz lately, as the kids say. It's been compared favorably with the Zelda series, which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that barely anyone imitates the Zelda formula successfully.

There's been some drama about the art style, which I won't go into, but I will say that I personally quite like it. It's stylized, and kind of cartoony, which I appreciate because I think graphics with style and a distinct character are better than attempts at photorealism, which often end up feeling sterile and wrong. However, I feel it's pretty safe to say that if you don't like the graphics in WoW, you won't like them here either, and should consider steering away if that's the sort of thing that can ruin your experience.

The gameplay in Darksiders is indeed reminiscent of Zelda, and the game doesn't try to mask its heritage. I haven't gotten very far yet and I've already found a "shard of lifestone" which is functionally very similar to pieces of heart in Zelda. I've also noticed that the equivalent of health potions require the equivalent of bottles to hold them, another clear Zelda reference. Just like Zelda, Darksiders is a 3rd-person action adventure game with some RPG flavor: an inventory of tools and weapons unlocked over time, an upgradable sword, and other such things.

Unlike Zelda, the game is considerably more combat-oriented, with combo moves for your sword and other weapons, not unlike a 3D action game like God of War. You also fight a lot more enemies, and bigger groups than the typical Zelda game, while your health is a traditional health bar, albeit using Zelda's heart system to represent additional health bars you have to go through before you die. Initially, I didn't like the combat very much. I wasn't very good at it, and it didn't feel very exciting or innovative, and fighting swarms of enemies was not as satisfying as the smaller groups in Zelda, where rolling around and getting good strikes on enemies let you stay unharmed and feel like a skilled swordsman.

I also miss Link's shield, something I'd never much thought about before, but Link's shield in the 3D Zelda games is incredibly well implemented, and very helpful. Not having one here was something I immediately noticed, and missed. War (your character, one of the Four Horsemen) does have the ability to block, but he still takes damage when he does it, and it feels weak compared to Link's defensive ability.

Despite my initial apathy towards the combat, something happened after I played the game for a while. Not only did I get a lot better at fighting enemies, but I also came to really appreciate a cool mechanic that makes the game somewhat unique. Any time an enemy gets below a certain amount of health, a big B button prompt shows up over its head. If the enemy is far away, it is grayed out, but if it's fairly close, you can hit B to instantly finish off the enemy with a cool custom animation. The benefit of this is that when you're fighting a big group of guys, you can't really afford to focus on one at a time, or the others will get behind you and hit you. Instead, I found that I had to keep the locations of enemies in mind and chain my attacks in different directions to keep people at bay. If you play this way, you will whiddle down many enemies' health, and soon you may see two or three with the prompts over their heads. You can then chain your finishers, moving from one enemy to another, cleaning them up, which is not only very satisfying, but also tactically useful.

The other benefit of this system, is that chains of attacks often knock enemies back and take them out of the fight for a little bit. Without this finisher mechanic, it would be prudent to follow them and finish them off, since they can come back and be a nuisance if you focus on something else. However, with the finisher mechanic, I can safely devote my attention to the rest of the group, and when the enemy I knocked away comes back, I can instantly dispatch it with a single tap of the B button, without it diverting my attention from whatever I'm doing.

So, it's a pretty cool mechanic, and once you learn how to use it effectively, it can be immensely satisfying.

I'm not that far into the game yet, so as of right now it's one of the more interesting aspects I've found. I'm hoping the game continues to hold up, though I'm a little worried if the setting can keep my interest. It's a post-apocalyptic world, which I'm usually very fond of, but in this case it's a bit too literal for my taste, and I worry that the areas I have to visit will all be too similar to keep me going. Part of Zelda's appeal are the colorful, scenic locales you visit over the course of your adventure, from forests to towns to deserts. Darksiders seems to be set entirely in a post-apocalyptic city, although I can already tell that they're making an effort to make unique locales within that city.

We'll see how that goes, if I keep playing, I'll keep posting about it, particularly if I find any other unique mechanics that catch my interest. As of right now, I can recommend it as a competent Zelda clone with an interesting aesthetic, which may not appeal to you, so you should check out some screens or videos ahead of time.

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13Jan/100

You’re Thinking It Wrong

Well, maybe not wrong, but too much. That was my problem, overthinking. I'm sure it's not a novel lesson to be learned, but it's worth repeating that sometimes, keeping things simple is the only way to go, and trying to make things more complex than they need to be is not only a waste of time, but ultimately doesn't give you the result you want.

Unfortunately, programmers tend to be wired to overthink things, or at least to try to model reality where reality has no business.

I'm working on a game in my spare time, and it's a game that involves physics. Or rather, it involves the perception of physics-like interactions. We're talking bouncing, and more specifically: levers. When one object lands on one end of a first-class lever (aka. a see-saw), the object on the other end should experience forces proportional to the normal component of the force of the landing object, and the distance of both objects from the fulcrum of the lever.

In other words, if an object lands near the end of the lever, it should launch the object on the other end of the lever further than if it landed near the fulcrum.

So I got it into my head that I would be calculating the torque of the landing object, or maybe taking the forces on one side and the other, but force (and therefore, acceleration) is useless unless you know how long it acted for (acceleration is change in velocity over time, after all) so how long should I apply the force to the object I'm launching? And what about angular momentum, linear momentum's bastard cousin? Shouldn't momentum be conserved... or something? So does that mean that I need to apply not only an acceleration but also a starting launch velocity based on the angular momentum applied to the lever?

As you might be able to tell, it's been years since I took a physics class, and my understanding of this particular aspect was fuzzy at best even then.

My friend, who is also working on this game, pointed out that all of this was a waste of time, because it likely wouldn't be fun anyway, and what we really needed was a set of rules that was fun to play, not necessarily "physically accurate." I knew he was right, of course, but I wanted to do both, I wanted the simple tweakable system, and the realistic physical simulation, the latter probably more as a challenge to try to figure this stuff out again.

Ultimately, I realized that even if I did get a realistic physics simulation working, both of my objects would have about the same mass, and therefore, either one landing on the lever wouldn't do much at all to the other. It certainly wouldn't result in the kind of wacky catapultation that we were aiming for.

So instead of mucking with the math any longer, I sat down and wrote a reasonable approximation of what I wanted to happen, not what would happen in real life. I simply launched the object on the end of the lever at a constant velocity scaled by each object's distance from the fulcrum. Not only did this give a pretty satisfying feeling to the way objects are launched, but it also immediately exposed a bunch of fun values to tweak. Now we could tweak the constant launch velocity, what weight either object's distance played in the final velocity, as well as the simple fact that there was now a working function where any sort of formula could be devised if we found that this one didn't work for us.

In other words, when I stopped overthinking it, I was able to quickly and easily cook up a system that was a lot more customizable than boring old reality, and allowed us to focus on fun gameplay, rather than my pedantic obsession with simulating reality.

A simple but valuable lesson then: don't spend even a minute worrying about how to implement a gameplay system if that system's goal is not fun gameplay. If you're thinking about how to implement a gameplay system, think about how to implement it so that it feels fun, and is easy to tweak for yourself and other designers.

9Jan/105

Why We Play

Why do we play games?

Okay, a stupid question, and a potentially inauspicious start for a new blog, I know.

But bear with me here, because I'm not asking why games in general are played. I think we can all agree that people play games to be entertained, and to pass time enjoyably. My question though, is what is it specifically about the games that you play, that makes them enjoyable to you.

This is a relevant question because different people have wildly different tastes in games, and they seek out the games they do because those games provide the specific stimuli that they want.

So I've been thinking about why I play, and I've come up with different reasons for different sorts of games. I've also realized that an equally or more interesting question is the opposite: "What is not a reason that you play games?" I'm going to start with the latter question, because I think it more clearly contrasts what different people want from games when you consider what they don't care about.

So, what are not reasons why I play games?

Challenge

With few exceptions, I don't play games to be challenged. I don't care if a game is easy, or even trivial, so long as it is a lot of fun to interact with. That's not to say that I can't enjoy a challenge, or that I don't enjoy overcoming obstacles. One of my favorite things in a game is a strong tactical component, where your decisions matter, and efficient use of the resources at your disposal is crucial to victory.

My point is simply that while some people dislike games when they are "too easy," I do not. I can enjoy a game even if it does not pose a challenge to me, though the opposite is not always true, and a game that is very difficult is not a game I am likely to play for very long unless it's truly exceptional, because I do not play games to be frustrated.

Competition

I don't like to play against other people. I don't like beating others, because I actually tend to feel bad for them, like I'm "ruining" their game; and I don't like being beaten by others, because I tend to get annoyed with myself. I do play against people sometimes, of course, in certain first person shooters and strategy games, but if I do, it's almost always in a team-based scenario. The cooperative aspect of working together with my teammates counteracts the fact that I'm playing against someone else, but it is still something I do rarely.

On the topic of competition, and to help illustrate how differently we view what's important in a game, a friend of mine recently became obsessed with Trials HD on the Xbox 360. The thing is, he doesn't actually like the gameplay all that much, but because the game compares his scores to the people on his friends list, and shows him how far ahead they are in any challenge, he's decided that he has to outdo all of them. And so, he replays the same levels over and over, until he has bested every single person on his friends list.

Now, I'm not saying that his approach is wrong, just that it would never occur to me to set a goal like that for myself, because competition is not something I look for in a game, while to him it's literally the only reason to play this game.

And what are some reasons I do play games?

Fun Gameplay

This one is a no-brainer. A game with fun mechanics is simply a joy to play, and gets to the core of why we play games, as I said at the start of this post.

Fun gameplay on its own is a huge draw for me, even if that play doesn't have much of a point or goal. At that point a game becomes a toy of sorts, and I think there is a lot of value in being able to just have fun using systems given you. A good example in my case is a game like the first Assassin's Creed. A game with too little content (see below) where the tasks given to you become stale very quickly, and after a point, never really give you very good incentive to keep doing them.

However, I found climbing around in that game exhilarating. The most fun I had in the whole game was just running across rooftops, scaling buildings with ease, and finding great views to enjoy. The game became a climbing toy for me, which makes sense because I have a bit of an obsession with open world games with full freedom of movement and exploration. In fact this very obsession made me ultimately disenchanted with GTA IV (which is a far better game overall than the first Assassin's Creed) simply because I couldn't easily explore the vertical heights of the city; and if I did somehow get on top of a building, I had no way to safely get down because the game didn't have parachutes, unlike its predecessor: San Andreas.

Content

One of the biggest reasons I play games, and the only reason why I would finish a game, is to see what content it has to offer. By content, I mean anything that is not immediately available to you at the start of the game. This can include a large open world to explore, new art to see, cool level designs or enemies, even fresh game mechanics, and above all story.

A good story has the greatest potential to keep me going after the gameplay of a game has become familiar or even stale, and the reason why is fairly obvious: because I want to see what happens. Maybe I have come to care about the characters or the world, and I want to see and influence their fate. If I feel like I have actual choices with consequences, and can actually influence what content it is I see, then that's even better.

In this way, story and other gradually revealed content (and this can include more advanced game mechanics that become available later in the game) serve as the carrot that pulls me along and makes me stay with the game. Without this carrot, I tend to lose interest even in good games after a while, partly because there are always more games to try, and I feel intensely curious (and almost dutibound) to play every game I can.

To Create

I love games that let me build things. The biggest strength of video games is that they let you do things you can't do in real life, and this includes the ability to create on a scale you never could otherwise.

Whether it's building an ideal city in the Sim City series, or a sprawling empire in the Civilization games, I am drawn to games that let me play architect to some physical or societal system that I can't affect in real life. There is a great sense of accomplishment to building up your creation, and it goes hand in hand with the next reason why I play games...

To See Numbers Go Up

It may sound silly, but I love to see numbers go up. Just like the feeling of accomplishment you feel when your city becomes a sprawling, self-sufficient metropolis, or your empire spans an entire continent, seeing a character you created advance and become more and more badass is a great feeling, and one I seek out all the time.

Playing an RPG, I love optimizing my characters to be as powerful as they can be. I love seeing their levels go up, their attributes increase, new skills get unlocked.

The RPG is probably my favorite broad genre of game, and if you consider the previous things I listed as being important to me in a game, it makes perfect sense why, and why seeing numbers go up is so pleasing to me:

  • When an RPG character's numbers go up, that character unlocks new potential and new abilities, in other words, fresh content.
  • New abilities and a stronger character helps create and maintain fun gameplay, as I can now use new strategies, and overcome new obstacles.
  • The character is growing, being built up and shaped by me into something unique and powerful
To Work Together Towards a Common Goal

The last thing on my list is a little different from the rest, because it has to do specifically with multiplayer games. As I said earlier, I have no desire to play multiplayer games competitively, but I absolutely love working together with a friend in an online game. It's something I've been trying for years, with mixed success, since robust cooperative experiences have only recently become common, with things like the excellent team play of Civilization 4, Left4Dead, or Horde mode in Gears of War 2.

I also used to play WoW. In fact, I used to play it a lot.

I was in a raiding guild for over a year, and I was the raid leader for most of that. At the time, working together with a group of people that I had come to know and regard as friends was an amazing feeling. A huge group of us would come together, and in between the witty banter and hilarious inside jokes, we would fight against incredibly powerful foes, and come out on top. There is a reason why WoW is such a hugely addictive game for some people, and it's because the chance to accomplish something epic with a tightly knit group of friends does not often present itself in real life.

In smaller scale games, cooperative play is still a great deal of fun, because there is a satisfaction in being able to help your friends, and have them help you, and it's also a great way to keep in touch with people you can no longer see regularly in real life.

Wow, this turned out long

Sorry about that, but I hope you found my reasons for playing games interesting, if only for the ways in which they differ from your own.

How about you, then?

What is it in a game that makes you play it, and what sort of things do you not care about at all?

Filed under: Gameplay, Games 5 Comments