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Doctor m3ds's blog

1:41 PM on 12.14.2010

Approaching Emergent Gameplay as a Three Act Play

This may be the most convoluted thing I've written on here. Also minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2.

When I was fifteen, I had a concept for video game that I held onto for quite some time. My idea was that you would be a government agent sent into to assassinate an enemy of the state of a foreign country. You'd arrive, have things go terribly wrong, and find yourself left without resources or form of contact. From there you would have to work within your target's city and find recruits, acquire supplies, and conceive a plan as to how, when, and where to take out your target. Perhaps you could execute the mark in a couple days when he went out to make a speech, or maybe you and a militia could drill underneath his complex over the span of a few weeks and emerge like angry ants. The freedom in approach was the basic concept. I also think that a bunch of ninjas and Darth Vader showed up, I don't know I was fifteen, things change. Looking back on it though, I realize that I was wanting a game that managed to capture the best of sandbox emergent titles, and the sense of direction of a linear game. Over the past few years, a couple of games have come close to accomplishing my idea, but I feel that they don't quite make it, and so I'd like to give my take on the conundrum. First though, lets look at two titles that almost obtained my ideal.

The first of these is Red Faction Guerrilla. Those that have played the game know well the extensive tool set one is given to cause utter mayhem, and players are expected too in order to progress in the games story. Players are given a list of potential targets which, when dealt with, lessen the enemy presence in the area, eventually diminishing too a point where the plot progresses. The main draw is that is that players have the liberty to approach these targets with as frenzied a demeanour as they like.

On a small scale, Red Faction Guerilla actually encapsulates all of my ideas. It grants the player the agency to reach the goal at his or her own discretion, and there is an agreeance between the player's actions and the goal. The player is physically removing enemy forces in the immediate game world and it's removing them in terms of story. The problem with this design of “cause havoc until a story mission pops up” is that its very limited in what it allows for plot. It seems that for plot progression to be natural, the main story one can tell is that as a result of poking the bee hive long enough, you've brought all hell upon yourself, but inadvertently opened up a major base to your advances. There are of course other paths the writer can take, but it becomes incredibly easy to create dissonance between the players reckless actions and the story. I realize that since the advent of cutscenes we've had dissonance in our stories and our gameplay, but I like to think we're getting better at narrowing that gap. The next game takes a more linear approach.

I adore Mass Effect 2, and one of the things that I cherished about the game was the format of the story. You're provided the option to pursue a variety of tools, allies, and improvements to greater increase your chance of success in your final mission. Mass Effect 2 is probably the closest I've seen a released title come to achieving my dream games framework. Giving the player choice in what measures they want to approach the supreme goal. Even more praise worthy, the game does it without sacrificing any of the story. The game engages the player whether they've chosen to gather a full team or not, and maybe even more so depending on how close one is with certain characters. But, I didn't say that it did achieve that peanut-butter and jam perfection of blending player agency with a linear overarching direction.

That last sentence should make pretty obvious what I'm about to say. Mass Effect does provide the player the option to seek after such aiding advancements, but ignoring them will leave the player with an ending that feels wanting. It often feels like there is only one option to get the effect you really want. The loyalty missions are perhaps the best example of this. In almost all of those missions, there is only one way to ensure that the trust of the crew member is maintained. Sure, there can be deviation as often a choice is presented to the player that maintains loyalty, but alters something else. However, this still can feel like an undesirable option. For example, in Tali's loyalty mission, you can maintain her loyalty by either pronouncing her guilty, resulting in her banishment from the Migrant Fleet, or, with high enough bonuses, surmount an admirable defence by her association to Shepard. Now, I realize that Mass Effect 3 isn't out and all is speculation, but I'm willing to bet that gaining the aid of the Quarians will be far easier if the player chose the second option in Mass Effect 2. The problem is that when the options are to either aid yourself in the struggle or shoot yourself in the foot, the choices in Mass Effect don't feel like choices at all. What I'm after, is a game that compliments the player no matter their choice.

I feel like these two games reflect the most common ways that blending player freedom and concrete story, but they don't quite live up to this standard I have in my head. One provides the player with a lot of options, but can create dissonance within the story, the other feels like a choose your own adventure book with only one right option. So is it even possible? In some ways no. A linear story requires some sort of authorial control, and emergent gameplay puts authorship in the players hands. I do think any practical combination will require some flipping between the two, but I think it's the placement of narrative that can achieve this. For example, placing the linear narrative as end caps and leaving the middle a gooey center of player driven action holds a lot of promise. Essentially what I'm asking for is the three-act play to be adapted to gameplay mechanics.

Act one in any good story fulfils the role of exposition. In it, a story should introduce the characters, the overall goal of the hero, and in a game, explain the rules. Many video games with a story follows this. Act two is the time where the protagonist is faced with opposition to achieving the goal, and it's here that I'd love to see authorship change hands. This middle section often features a variety of roadblocks, side stories, and development of the character, and why not simply have those fabricated by the mechanics of the game. Allow the player to become exuberantly wealthy in this time instead of having a bunch of scripted events increase their funds, encourage them to go recruit followers from the towns of their choosing in place of giving them an army of npcs because of some plot device, or let the player fall because of his or her own ineptitude rather than overwhelming the player through a linear sequence, let the player right this portion of the story. However, opening this act creates a lot of problems for Act three. As I see it, either many endings are required, or the ending has to be broad enough in scope that all roads lead too it. I can only imagine the former requires ample amounts of time, money, and work, and the later requiring something simple, such as the killing of a character.

Writing this, I feel like its a very simple approach, and so it surprises me greatly that I can't think of anything that has tried it on a large scale. One game that I've always wanted to see attempt this (the one that inspired a lot of these thoughts) is Mount & Blade. Mount & Blade throws the player in a world and allows them to amass an army, siege castles, meet defined characters who react depending on how they've been treated, and be captured and lose it all. However, Mount & Blade requires the player to define their own goals, and I thought it would be incredibly beneficial to provide the player some guidance through a story structured in the manner described. But I believe the lack of such narrative is simply based on what the intention of the developers is. They are wanting to create a world where stories are completely fabricated by the player. And the reason Mass Effect 2 doesn't feature the maelstrom of player choice I'm after is because they are looking to communicate a very specific emotion too their players. And so. I wait until a developer comes along that desires to turn their mechanics into a three act play.   read

6:23 PM on 12.12.2010

Die2Nite: A Free Game You Should Check Out

The cries of the undead horde are a common sight in video games today. We've faced them alone in close quarters in small towns, we've practised genocide against them in malls, and most recently for me, I've worked together with friends to massacre them and preserve the life of a garden gnome. Recently though I found a game that takes a different approach than any other zombie game I've played. Die2Nite is a co-op game that enforces cooperation like nothing else, provides a great sense of impending doom, and you should really play it.

The outline of the game is that you and a few dozen others are stuck in a town and every night at midnight, a horde of zombies will bombard your town, with each subsequent night having more of the stiff seditionists at your door step. Your one and only goal of the game is to survive. Naturally, survival won't come by you sitting around. This means that the residents of your town have to erect various defences. Of course, such constructs don't make themselves. The majority of your day will be spent collecting resources in the wastes, then using those resources to fashion these cadaver killing mechanisms (I'm partial to the rustic devices of “The Great Pit”).

Now, before I go on to discuss the wondrous things that can happen in the game, I have to confess that I've been hiding something from you. The reason I haven't posted any screenshots is because Die2Nite is a game played through menus, forums, and a real time clock. This may turn some people off instantly, and yes, I would love to see the mechanics of the game implemented into something a little more interactive, but the game still manages to create some unique experiences.

Yes, this is how the majority of the game will be spent, but believe me, it's worth it.

The biggest draw of Die2Nite for me has been the interaction it creates between people. To survive past the first day it is a must for players to work together by discussing things in the forums. If buildings projects aren't agreed upon, a town will suddenly have several enterprises underway, and none of them being the crucial workshop the town so desperately needs to survive. If a town doesn't come to a consensus in the forums on what to upgrade, a community may end up with better knowledge of the zombies that will be out in the wastes tomorrow, but find themselves overwhelmed that night. And maybe most common of all, the forums provide a place to cry for help. Until certain improvements are put in place, wandering the wastes is an uncharted affair. You'll venture from location to location, completely blind as to what may walk into next. This leads to many encounters involving you and a hoard of zombies. The members of your dilapidated town then become your only means of escape as having more humans in a location sways the balance of power, allowing you to leave such horrific circumstances. Now these instances of cooperation are all exciting, and what one we'll see most in the game, but Die2Nite also provides players the opportunity to be an absolute ass, and it is this that creates some of the most unique moments I've seen in the game.

See, in Die2Nite each town has a bank. This is the place where the items for construction projects, extra rations, and your arsenal of weapons are stored. Because these are all community projects, the bank is open to all. You can put anything you want in, and also take anything out. Want to explore the world for decoration items for your house? Take all the food and the best weapons. Want to turn your house into a castle? Steal all the building materials for yourself. And hey, if the bank doesn't have what you're looking for, maybe your neighbour does. You have a 50% chance of getting caught, but that also means you have a 50% chance of not getting caught. Now, normally this would be a shameful thing for a developer to add as it just empowers griefers. However, the community isn't without it's own armaments against such delinquents.

The first step the town can take against them is shunning them. This means that the citizen no longer has access to the bank, can't participate in the town projects, and can't open or close the gate. They do get a few new abilities, but they really don't outweigh the sense of detachment from the group. But, lets say they persist. They keep stealing stuff, they spam the message boards, and prove to be a general nuisance. Well, then the town can just simply construct a set of gallows and kill that player, removing them from the town forever. And even crazier, if enough shunned citizens gather together, they can perform an insurrection and reverse the political state of the town, making the rebels in the right, and shunning the rest of the town. Okay, but enough about cooperation and disputes.

This means you all worked well together.

As I said earlier, each day will bring more and more zombies into the realm. Between twenty and thirty seems to be the norm for the first day, but such innocuous numbers don't last long. The increase is there to keep players working together and maintain challenge. Now every game features challenge, but the sometimes rapid increase can fabricate some fervent moments in the game. A good example of this happened to me early on. We had gotten to day four and over the last three days, attacks had grown by around thirty each day. We expected the same, so focused on more domestic issues. However, two hours before the attack, we realized that tonight’s hoard was three times larger than we expected. The majority of us had done other tasks during the day and were incapable of preparing for the attack. Still, for the next couple hours the forums were ablaze as we tried to figure out a way for even a few of us to survive. The group was frantic, and to see us all rattling our brains for a solution was great. Normally I expect such emotions to only occur in an intense shooter or maybe a close game of Starcraft, but there it was, flourishing in plain old text. Of course nothing came, and in the morning, we all received the achievement “Grandma, what big teeth you have.”

I've been playing for a while and so far have really enjoyed myself. The only major complaint I can raise against the game is the reincarnation system. Every time you die, you reincarnate into a random town. The lack of penalty that the system provides to get back into the action is nice, but it means that you are forced to set up some sort of coherence among everyone all over again, you have to repost a new player guide, and learn who you can trust out of these mysterious strangers. Sure, the more you play the easier it is to know what to do, but with it, it becomes far more common to distance yourself from the group, only communicating pivotal information. Long gone will be your “What are you listening too?” thread and your inside jokes, instead replaced by the refined cold thinking of experience...

But hey, don't let that dissuade you, give Die2Nite a chance.   read

4:26 PM on 12.01.2010

7 Trends I'd Give A High Five

Over the last couple years I've been in school and have unfortunately missed out on a few great titles that have come out. However, over the last few months I've had a great deal more time and have found myself catching up with some of the fantastic games that were absent from my library. Having such a leave of absence and then immersing myself in so many fantastic worlds and challenges has illuminated some particularly dazzling trends. As a result comes the following blog about some of my favourite developments in no hierarchical order. (Note: some of the following may not be super recent, think over the last year)

Choice Rather Than Morality

There have been many articles written on the subject of morality in games, and how it's frustrating to have things so black and white. Why is killing 30 people considered honourable, but stealing their pack of smokes a deed only dared by the devil. Thankfully such stark decisions are in decline, and in some games, being taken over by simple choice.

I'm a person that loves having the ability to influence the story. Bioware games have always been among my favourite, so I was thrilled to see Dragon Age: Origins completely ditch a morality system, but still keep the numerous opportunities to engage with the world. Sure, there are some choices which are blatantly good and bad, but many choices provide some ambiguity. I found it far more engaging to be in the world and decide for myself what was right wrong. The best example in the game is the decision of how you will approach the end. I found myself torn over how my choice would effect the world. And by keeping the game from telling which way was chivalrous and which corrupt, I felt all the more bewildered.


This is something that will get me to play a game far after I've grown weary of the main mechanics. Investing is when a game provides you with the ability to invest in a town or personal upgrades. Assassin's Creed 2 is a fantastic example of this. Early on in the game Ezio acquires a town, and as the warden of this villa, he can put his money into various financial endeavours. These mainly seem to provide him with more money, but the feeling of aiding the town into a thriving community is wonderful. I'd also like to say that this is greatly enforced by visual results. It's one thing to have a game tell you that they now live in houses made of gold, but it's another to see it.

Small Arcade Title from Big Studios

Double Fines release of Costume Quest and announcement of Stacking is mainly what spawned this point, though they certainly aren't the first to do this. Regardless, I'm glad to see this becoming an acceptable thing for two reasons.

First, it provides a place for studios who struggle at retail to be a little more efficient financially. With huge investments of time and money to make a blockbuster game, it can be astonishingly hard on a company who releases a poor selling game. It's nice to see XBLA and PSN provide a place that these developers can get back on their feet.

Secondly, smaller titles can sometimes be better than a full length game. Brutal Legend's quality seemed to subside as the game went on. However, with a smaller title, like Costume Quest, the serving size seems to be just right for slighter ideas. These titles can be like the short story in literature, sometimes you have an idea that can only be stretched out for a dozen or so pages.

Genre Blending That Doesn't Blend Something with an RPG

Genre Blending has been around for quite some time, and its a great way to provide variety to a game that may otherwise feel it repeating itself. A typical answer to alleviating such staleness has been throwing in a mini-game here and there. However, by adding a completely different style of gameplay, a new set of rules and mechanics are dolled out to the player, providing the fun of learning the systems of a new game. Even if such additions aren't the same level of quality offered by the rest of the game, they can provide a much needed break. Though some Mako drivers may disagree with me.

The most popular concoction seems to be RPG and X genre. Although I don't mind seeing the RPG attachment in games, I'm glad to see other genres getting a chance. Especially when it's a game type that is rarely seen today. One of the more recent examples of using a different genre is Halo Reach. The flight levels have seemed to garner a mixed response, but I was happy to play something so different and especially something I so infrequently play.

Jet packs

Okay so in no way a new thing, but after a long hiatus the jet pack is back in style. I wasn't a PC gamer during the Tribes era, so Halo Reach is really the first game I've played where I've seen it's effect in competitive play. I love to see how it opens up a map and provide a quick way of getting back in the action. Major battle happening on a floor above you? Fly up and greet the party by landing on someone and assassinating them. Killzone 3 is also bolstering the armoury with the propelling partner, and with two titles making use of them, it should provide studios a solid idea of how to make jet packs work well in a game.

Game of the Year Editions

I debated whether I should add this or not, because at the end of the day, they exist solely to make companies more money, but that is why I like them. Developers often complain how in Hollywood you get two big money making periods, the theatrical release and the DVD release, but in the games industry, a company only has one solid release window. GOTY editions look to provide that second chance which can be good for struggling developers. The problem is that a lot of games that get these re-releases, have already done exceptionally well financially. Still, there are some studios that I'm all right seeing get a little more money for their hard work.

Save Importing

The first time I remember this happening was with the second Ratchet and Clank. The game let you import credits from the first game to give you some bonus funds. It really didn't matter that much, but did make you keep your save game. More recently it's been done in a much more elaborate fashion with Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect imports many of the decisions made in the first game and then organizes the world accordingly. Nothing was ever too explicitly different, the story had the same milestones regardless. However, it creates an association unlike anything I've seen before, and it's something that only video games are capable of.

By importing a Shepard from the previous game, it creates a much stronger tie between the character on screen and the player. Suddenly that Shepard is yours and to play anything else will feel foreign. If your a fan of the Mass Effect games and for some reason avoiding doing so, I'd by all means recommend playing through the two games. And don't just import a save you found because you miss the whole point of forming your own unique Shepard.

Bioware hopes to try it again with Dragon Age 2, though with a slightly different approach. Instead of having the character transferred, the world is reformed according to the player's decisions. This does seem to negate my praise for save game importing, but I still find myself look forward to seeing what resonance it will create. It would also be nice see it attempted by other developers, though understandably difficult.

All of these are fine mechanics and systems that I'd love to see refined and attempted by other studios. Or they could just go create more exciting ideas so I can write another list.   read

11:45 PM on 11.27.2010

Illusions in Games

Sometimes video games try to create the illusion of danger: crumbling ledges, being held up by mercenaries, or an overwhelming assortment of opponents are all used to make the player think that death has just passed over them. Recently a video of Call of Duty: Black Ops has appeared showing that it's possible to beat the entire first level without firing. The video crushes much of the illusion in the game, and even though later levels require more action on the players part, it still makes the player feel detached from the situation. The video made me think quite a lot about scripting in games, and the deceit they try to impress upon the player, and I've pondered some ways that games in the past have hoped to avoid such scandalous revelations.

Well first off, lots of games just make everything a threat. This can be an extremely successful outlook and can result in thoroughly unique, exhilarating moments. There are myriads of tales of Minecraft where a person will be venturing in blocky bliss only to discover a creeper suddenly hiss upon their precious life. Moments like these can certainly capture the sense of peril that I felt missing in scripted games, but they either miss the choreographic moments that one finds in such games or they create aggravating situations where the player has to react in a very specific way. So what's the answer? There are two things that I've come across that seem to help maintain the delicate balance of risk and awesome.

Real danger is simply put to a minimum. One example of this working can be found in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. In the the fifth level there is a moment where Sam Fisher is sent to extract some data from a heavily guarded server. You slide down a rope into the server room. Darkness surrounds Sam, save the flickering computer screen. You achieve your objective, but the game's scripting forces the room to light up and have a guard enter. The guard can kill you, but one would have to be fairly incompetent to find themselves dead in the situation. A quick witted person may climb back up the rope before being noticed, or they may simply force a bullet into the guards head. The imminent danger forces the player to act out of instinct, creating tension rarely seen. Providing that real risk is an important part in creating a believable cinematic experience, but it can be enough to overwhelm the player.

Maintaining player involvement is also a key factor. Call of Duty: Black Ops seems to expect the player to perform a genocidal level of killing throughout each level. If a player begins to hesitate in Black Ops, one may suddenly find that the game is progressing without them. Kept to a minimum, the game can feel to enforce the idea of being a part of something bigger like a squad or army; multiple times will quickly reveal just how innocuous the player is. Metal Gear Solid 4 also contains a moment where player agency is minimal, but instead enforces the feeling that the world lays in the player's hands. (SPOILERS) The player is tasked to keep Snake alive by mashing the X button. This is a moment that's heavily scripted and doesn't require the effort that many invest into it. However the illusion is maintained as the game expects the player to fall short at some point. Unless you've somehow acquired a turbo for the PS3, your thumb will likely get tired at some point and you'll ease up on mashing that button. The game then scripts certain moments where Snake begins to fall, these moments can seem like the players as fault as they've let off a bit. It increases the player to invest more and try even harder, thus avoiding the possibility that they'll realize that their effort isn't all that necessary, at least not to that extent. By linking likely player reactions, Metal Gear is able to implement believable scripted danger.

After seeing the reaction to the infamous Black Ops video, we will hopefully see developers better position players within their worlds. Implementing these two ideas would go quite a ways for me, but I'm excited to see anyways that studios look to keep players involved. May we avoid, games that play themselves.   read

1:31 PM on 11.16.2010

Fresh Eyes on Another World

Another World is a game that for years, I had known about, understood it was supposed to be good, that it was almost as old as me, and had the above image in my mind associated with it. Otherwise, my comprehension of the title was rather lacking. I didn't take notice until reading an article on Action Button that claimed it was “the best video game of all time,” pretty high praise I thought, especially since it isn't a game I frequently hear about. However, with such acclaim I decided to check it out, and no, I didn't find the best game of all time. However, I did discover a world that feels totally foreign and some of the best player integration I've ever seen. However, I have one thing I greatly despise about the game that I would like to quickly rant on.

Another World is unfairly punishing, and it's not the sort of punishing that's found in most older games. A game like Contra or Mega Man is punishing in that it forces the player to learn patterns and have quick reactions. Another World is punishing in that it forces the player to perform a myriad of actions in a perfect order so that he or she may progress. You will be forced to explore every pixel of the game, experiment with blowing up select walls, back track, learn where it's right to fall and where it's wrong to fall, disturb bats at opportune intervals, and die, die, die. I find that it's not so much trial and error, but things that I simply cannot predict.

For example, in a game like Super Meat Boy, one will likely have to play through a level several times to learn all the tricks of the level. You quickly realize that you shouldn't jump there because the drop contains a comfy mattress of syringes. In Another World this is not the case. For example at one point you have the option to blow up a wall which unleashes a great deal of water. You are then forced into an exhilarating escape as you try to avoid an aquatic demise. You can then continue on for some time to only realize that you were supposed to travel deeper down into the cave and destroy another wall which would allow you to enter the cave from another entrance and access it's now flooded compartments. It is this single point that frustrates me most about the game. With that out of the way, we can talk about the good stuff.

Hope you flipped the switch, unlocked the door, and started this escapade at exactly 3:17 PM.

So pretty much everything I'm going to praise the game on from here on out is related to making the player feel a part of the world. Another World does a great job of making the world feel alien. Many games try to provide a player with a fear of the unknown through their art direction. Prey comes to mind when thinking of examples of this. 3D Realms created a world with architecture vastly different than our own, with gravity that switched at various points, and a variety of unusual creatures. However, almost immediately you adapt to such things and forget that this is a place completely foreign. Another World instead uses it's gameplay to enforce this feeling, and does so with much more success.

Way less threatening and unusual than a day in Another World.

Upon gaining control in Another World the player is free to walk around, ignorant of any dangers. Entering the next cell, the player will see some slugs crawling towards them. They look pretty harmless, and even if they are aggressive, what's the worst that will happen? The slugs crawl over and a short cutscene plays where one of these slimy creatures punctures the characters leg with a stinger and death instantly befalls the protagonist.

By utilizing a one hit death system you feel far more afraid of anything and everything on the planet, and transforms your optimism into a strict paranoia. Instead of just having the normal enemies hostile, the world no longer feels safe, and it is this element of gameplay that greatly contributes to the overall alien atmosphere.

Another World also has a fairly unique control scheme in the idea of contextualized controls. Playing on PC, the game uses the arrow keys and the control button. The arrow keys are always used for movement, but the control button varies depending on what one is doing. It will start as a kick, progress to an activate button, change to a “roll for the pistol that is lying on the floor” button, and it all feels completely natural. The most impressive aspect of this style of control is that it keeps the feeling of agency in the players hand.

Quick Time Events are often slammed because of the way they steal the players abilities. No longer is it you orchestrating the events on screen, but you pressing a few buttons and watching your avatar do some cool attacks. With the contextualized controls of Another World, control never feels lost because that one button is constantly morphing. I would love to see more integration like this into games. For example, many first person shooters have moments where the character is grabbed and beaten in a cutscene, but then breaks free and the player is then given back control. Why not simply keep control in the players hand and turn what was once movement into “struggle” and melee into a “kick in groin” button. I think it goes a long way to keep up the pacing of the game and yet provide cinematic moments.

Well, maybe this principle would be useless here.

Lastly I would like to ask a rhetorical question, why wasn't this the future of adventure games? Point and click adventure games thrived in the late eighties to mid-nineties, but petered off after that. Despite a fair amount of gun play, Another World feels far more similar to classic titles like Sam and Max and Monkey Island than Contra. Great lengths of the game involve exploring the environment, flipping switches, and figuring ways to avoid mass conflict. However, instead of using a plethora of random objects to solve problems, Another World uses common sense or the contents of the room directly around you. Guard that destroys you upon entering a room? Head to the floor above and shoot a chandelier to drop on his head (just make sure his reflection is directly below). I realize it is far too late to go back and re-write history, but if I could I would definitely have pointed to Another World as an example in how to progress the adventure genre.

All in all, after playing through another world, I want to say that it displays steps that I would love to see future games to make. An odd statement considering the age of the game. Despite that though, there are many things to learn from Another World and recommend you check it out. It's $9 for the updated version which just came out a few years ago. I also might recommend this handy guide if you get stuck. And finally I leave you with this amazing cosplay which no words can describe.


5:13 PM on 06.18.2010

Building a Better Boss: What Unforgiven Can Teach Us About Bosses

Spoiler note:Though nothing overly specific is mentioned; Unforgiven, Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3 are all discussed.

Lately I've been thinking through of a few of my favourite bosses and thinking about what makes them tick. Then I watched the film Unforgiven and was astounded by the climax of the film. It got me thinking about how the film lead up to that end tension, and how games can learn from that build up (and some that already have).

For those of you who haven't seen Unforgiven, it's a western about a man who's had to put his rough lifestyle behind him, only to relive it after falling into some tough times. As I watching the movie I was completely enamoured by the protagonist and the antagonist, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman respectively, and more specifically, their climactic duel.

This final face-off proved to be one of the best I've seen in any movie, but why did I enjoy it so much? Thinking it through I believe it is largely in part by how the two characters are portrayed throughout the movie, or rather how my mind portrayed them. Both of these characters interactions create an image in the viewers mind that these are two absolutely unstoppable forces.

William Munny's (Eastwood) past life is constantly referred back too, but never outright explained. The viewer only receives glimpses of the former man he was. This creates a sense of mystery about Munny's origins and just how dangerous he was. A good comparison to this would be the Joker in The Dark Knight. By not being specifically told, are imagination is left to fabricate far more terrible things than the writer could provide.

The story also makes a point to show his unwillingness to revisit those former ways, this is portrayed by his unwillingness to drink. He goes through several points where he should by all means take the medicating effects of alcohol, but he refuses. This makes the moment before the climax all the more formidable, as he hears that his old partner has been killed, he takes the whiskey and alerts the viewer that this is the old man of legend.

We also see Gene Hackman's character raised up, especially through his interactions with English Bob. We see Bob to be a fairly competent foe, he's a man to be feared and one you don't want to mess with. However, Gene Hackman's character demolishes him in a matter of seconds and leads him in a bloody crumpled mess. We therefore see Gene Hackman as greater than English Bob, a man who the viewer previously thought was one of the top gunslingers.

Essentially what has happened is that, with both of these characters, the viewer has used their imagination to form both characters into individuals of immense power. The power is by no means measured, for that would ruin the effect. No, the viewer is left to think of all the things they are capable of. That is why the climatic duel at the end is so invigorating. Two unstoppable forces collide and the viewer has no real way of telling which will be the victor.

So, this idea that we as viewers essentially use our imagination to create how powerful these characters are is what I'm after here. Got it, good. Now, how do we apply this to boss battles?

Well, at first it's rather difficult. Because of the nature of video games, bosses have to die after a specific number of hits. This idea of our imagination defining the tenacity of an enemy seems to contradict the rule based design of video games. So what do we do to make bosses more challenging, more difficult, or more terrifying. Why we give them a bunch of health, make them look terribly ferocious, or just make them big. A good example of this is Fontaine at the end of Bioshock. A foe who was literally just a big, intimidating blue guy, who took a lot of shots. He even had the health bar to boot. It results in the game measuring out the strength of our villains, not our minds. So can this form of build up found in Unforgiven be applied to video games?

As you've been reading this I'm sure you've thought of bosses that do, at least to some degree, apply this idea. However, if you haven't been able too I'd like to point out a few examples and highlight some of the things done right and ways that this lesson of imagination was applied.

Design choice also may have helped here

I'd like to look at Sepheroph from Final Fantasy VII. This may seem like an odd choice, especially when I just stated that JRPGs often need to have boss's with set hitpoints, but FF VII did something rather cool to make Sepheroph menacing in my mind. Fairly early on in the game the player is given a flashback of (who we think is) a young Cloud fighting with Sepheroph in his hometown. As I recall Cloud is a little weaker than what you currently have him levelled at, but Sepheroph is loads more powerful than you are at this point in the game. His health is in the thousands, his attacks kill things in one hit, and his abilities have far longer cut scenes making them seem far more powerful.

With this, the player has a precise image of how powerful Sepheroph was at that point, but that was in the past, he's had all kinds of time to become stronger. For me it created such a caution when I went to approach Sepheroph in the final fight. He had been so much more powerful in the past, and even though I had far surpassed that past Sepheroph, I knew that he too would have bulked up. My imagination had essentially run wild with what abilities he could have amassed in that time. Of course it didn't end up being what my mind had fabricated, but it still created that anxiety leading up too it.

Next up is Dr. Breen from Half-Life 2 (though it could easily be Andrew Ryan or Glados). Throughout the game, Breen teases us, pleading the player to stop, but at the same throwing out aggravating quips. However, we're never able to interact with Breen, and rather just have to accept that he's up in his mighty tower, and we're having the time of our lives killing zombies and combine. The point is that it allows the player to develop a level of animosity towards Breen. It creates a very unique connection between you and that foe, something that an ordinary boss wouldn't have. Okay, so not playing as much on the imaginative thing, but it's sort of a psychological thing that makes boss battles more rewarding.

Not even a cardboard box can save you from this.

Finally, I want to look at The Sorrow from MGS3. The thing I'm after here is the idea of learning a specific rule set, and then completely abandoning it when it comes to the boss. This contradictory to most games as the typical format is for us to enter a level, learn a specific skill set, and the put that skill set to the test with a boss. However, The Sorrow took all the stealth, gun play, and clever survival tactics from the previous several hours and threw them out the window. A boss that does this can be absolutely terrifying, especially if a game could some how build this up.

What feelings of dread would loom over a player who knew that the final boss was somehow impervious to all of your attacks. That every way you had fought so far was going to be of no use. And then in contrast to that, how rewarding would it be to discover the way to defeat that boss who had feared so much just before. I'm not entirely sure what this looks like. I mean it could be something completely lame such as a player receiving a weapon at the end that suddenly makes their attacks super effective, but I'm more after something that throws out the previous mechanics (like healing your enemy instead of attacking it). Of course there would need to be some sort of hint.

This all said, traditional boss fights can be absolutely stunning if done right. I still consider the Hydra from God of War to be unlike anything else, and I'm sure all of you can think of great classic bosses. Still, it's wonderful to see fresh bosses as well, and I can only hope to see more and more in future generations.   read

6:35 PM on 06.16.2010

On Motion Controls

As gamers we tend crap on things quite quickly, and motion controls has been one of our favourite outhouses as of late. However, I'd like to (try to) defend motion controls. Also, click here if you don't get what the first picture is from.

When motion controls for the Wii were first announced, I was excited for two reasons. The first was the enhancement of current genres. This has happened somewhat. Games like No More Heroes and the new Zelda are good examples of this. Adding motion controls to make the games more involving, not trying to just map buttons to various kinetic movement. The second reason I got excited, was the possibility of new genres and forms of gameplay we haven't seen. This one hasn't happened so much. Now, from my completely uneducated stance, I see a number of reasons for this.

Serious game development going on here

It takes time...
The majority of us are too young to remember the beginning days of video games (myself included), but as far as I can tell, we didn't start out with games with rich narrative, game perfectly precise controls, or even responsive jump buttons. We started out with really basic games like pong and games on the Odyssey (none of which I recognize). It took game developers a number of years before they learned to fully utilize a controller and I don't see how motion controls are different.

We're asking for a completely different way of approaching games and that's not something easy to think of, especially when most game developers have grown up with the notion that a controller is how you play games. However, it has been nearly five years since the release of the Wii. Plenty of time to think of new ways of interacting with games right? Well I want to bring up two counter-points to that argument.

In this day and age of 100+ person development teams and budgets in the millions, it's no wonder people don't want to risk trying something new, something overly experimental. Yes, this is the exact same argument as why we have so many sequels but I do believe it applies here as well. Even developing on the Wii (which I assume has lower development costs) removes precious developers from working on tried and true methods which are less risky. In fact, the Wii being a far less powerful console may even be a bigger hindrance to this.

It certainly prevents some developers from releasing multi-platform games on all three systems because of the varied demands of visuals. Perhaps if the Wii had similar hardware, developers wouldn't need to spend time building a console specific version, but instead just port over the same levels, textures, etc. and just concentrate on how the controls will be different. Note, that this wouldn't outright encourage new experimental gameplay, but it may get people thinking.

Motion Plus, Kinect, Move? Too many choices!
Now, this is a problem that is just starting, and I'm not entirely sure if it's a problem or not, but whatever, here we go. By having three separate motion controllers, we don't allow developers to work with one specific paradigm and figure out how things work. Maybe something will work better on Kinect, but fail when it comes to actually holding a controller. Maybe will start seeing multi-platform games for Wii and Move, or maybe the graphical difference will just cause such dreams to crash. I'm not sure how releasing games on the three of these distinct control schemes will work.

However, the reason I do state that maybe this isn't such a bad thing is that, much like consoles of the seventies, having multiple control types will reveal which one is superior, or at least, reveal what doesn't work. But maybe I'm being too sceptical about the differences of the three. Maybe they do have enough similarities that it will give developers a window to operate in that the lessons learned with one can be applied to others.

All in all, motion controls are a scary thing, and one I'm still incredibly sceptical about. I don't see anything in the near future that brings me vast amounts of hope, but their is still hope none the less. I still get excited at the thought of immersing me into a game more by using motion controls. Whether it be keeping a remote at my hip to represent a sheathed sword or the experience of having a proper western duel, I still think there are lots of things to explore with this weird and wacky control scheme.   read

9:15 PM on 05.25.2010

Runs in the Family: Pixel Perfect Family

Gaming has always been a part of my family, though in varying degrees for each family member. From my mom’s casual playing of Guitar Hero to my near obsession with the entirety of gaming, we’ve all seemed to find something to enjoy with video games. However, I want to talk about how video games have affected my relationship with my Dad and my sister.

To put it simply, I probably wouldn’t be playing games today if it weren’t for my Father. Dad started playing games shortly after getting married to my mom. Enjoying such titles as X-com and Syndicate, Dad quickly found himself spending more and more time with them, so he was fairly well established with them by the time I came around.

Dad took no time to waste to introduce me to games. I have warm memories of sitting on his lap and watch him beat people with chains in Road Rash. However, I remember him always being a good dad and sending me out of the room when he felt things weren’t overly appropriate. Now this is all well and good, but the reason I want to highlight this relationship is because this became one of the biggest ways I connected to my Dad.

Dad showing me the finer points of road etiquette.

See my Dad’s a really big motorbike guy and I’m definitely not. Don’t get me wrong motorbikes are wicked cool, but I just had no interest in getting on one. I even remember my Dad going to great lengths to try and get me to ride: often looking up great deals on bikes and getting me to throw a leg over as soon as I was tall enough, but hard as he may have tried, I never took interest.

As I went through some rebellious teenage years, I began to resent this difference, among others, and separation quickly crept up. However, the relationship was never fully sundered thanks to a few key common denominators, one of the main ones being video games.

Despite some of the differences I had with my Dad, video games always proved a common ground for us. We could always go back to them and discuss things like how cool the twist in Knight’s of the Old Republic was, how video games could be a great social avenue, and coming up with arguments on how video games weren’t of “the devil.”

As the years have gone on, my Dad and me have recovered that closeness we had years ago and I do believe that video games are definitely one of the strings that kept us close when things were shaky through high school. Speaking of teenage angst lets move on to my sister.

Growing up, my sister and I often played games together. Sometimes it was because she was interested in them, and other times it was just because she wanted to hang out with me. However, once my rocky teenage years came around, the relationship began to separate and those fun times spent around the 64 began to slide away.

Then, just as I was leaving behind my teenage angst days, my sister entered into them. This resulted in several years of a very cold, unsure relationship between my sister and I. Neither of us knew how to approach each other, we were constantly afraid of setting each other off. But then, about two years ago, my sister started getting into games of her own accord.

It started with more casual titles on the Wii, but quickly moved to western rpgs (she played Mass Effect 2 before me), and this really opened up a common ground where we could begin to repair our relationship. Talks that began with how awesome Bioshock is quickly progressed to how life was going and how she was enjoying school. The relationship still has lots of room to progress, but it’s crazy to think how far it’s come.

Nothing brings a brother and sister closer together than rescuing one from suffocation at the hands of a terrorist.

All in all, I wouldn't say that video games are the sole reason that these relationships have progressed the way they have, but it's impossible to deny that they haven't helped to keep us close. As our family begins to enter a new stage with me out of the house and my sister in her last year of high school, I know that video games will always provide a constant tie which we can use to catch up with one another.   read

8:35 PM on 05.09.2010

Splinter Cell Conviction: An Uncalled for Character Change

So this blog post is mainly an attempt at me ranting and trying to think critically about games. However, I'm fairly new at this, so feel free to comment on me falling on my face at this.

With the announcement of Splinter Cell Conviction, I was pretty excited. Sam Fisher could be refreshed from the stale character he had fallen into, and the developers could take the character into new exciting territory. However, instead of seeing a logical course of character progression in this new light, I got a cold, murderous Sam Fisher who didn’t fit my understanding of the character.

Now, it’s been sometime since I last played the previous iterations of Splinter Cell, but I always had the idea that killing for Sam was always a last regrettable option. There seems to be no dialog hints that this is an enjoyable aspect of Sam’s vocation. In fact, Sam always seemed to be silent on the matter. If not seen through the dialog, I think it’s enforced through the gameplay.

Throughout the Splinter Cell series, the focus has been on avoiding detection, and using your gun as a last resort. This type of gameplay implies that killing is a more destructive action, and only necessary in extreme situations. This is further pushed in Chaos Theory when the scores given at the end of the level are higher if death is avoided.

Haha, you can't see me. Now follow your patrol pattern so I can get down from here.

The ambiguous narrative, and the reward for stealth together seem to create a character that avoids death and enforces violence only when necessary. However, Conviction paints a very different picture.

In terms of dialogue to help clarify Sam’s disposition, there are very few differences in previous Splinter Cell iterations and this one. Sam still provides relatively indifferent responses. The most extreme being, “well, that was interesting.” So, no real change there.

However, in terms of gameplay, the game has seemed to shift from avoid detection and kill if necessary, to shoot everyone from the shadows. I can’t stress this shift enough and it turns Sam into a rather cold murderer with little regard for others, and it’s this that is probably the biggest redesign seen in this latest sequel. Where all four previous games had been based on the principle that stealth was for avoidance, Conviction’s philosophy seems to be stealth for more effective combat.

Death for all!

Now, the story would seem to argue that the loss of his daughter has forced Sam to go to the extreme, and no one can get in his way, but this character arc seems hard to believe when Sam is breaking the necks of weekend army reserve members; people who probably have children of their own. There’s been such a drastic character progression; it feels unlikely that Sam would suddenly start killing those hardly responsible for his Daughter’s plight.

So, this is all for me to say that I feel that the direction the developers took Sam didn’t really work for me. But, then again, most people don’t play Splinter Cell for the character of Sam Fisher, that’s Metal Gear Solid’s job.

PS. This all said, it could be that, because of Sam’s relative silence in previous games, I had just forced my own character on him, and that coupled with the evasion style gameplay of the previous games I had created this cautious killer, and I’m now just taken back by how the developers didn’t have the exact same thing in mind.   read

10:20 PM on 05.30.2009

Inklings to play an unwanted genre

Warning! This is the first time I've ever attempted a blog, so sorry if it's fail.

Hey there, my name’s Mark. I suppose this can serve as a first blog, but I don’t want it to be overly “Hey, this is my life story.” So I’ll try to phrase it as a “what I’m playing/question”…thing. Anyways, on to the topic I wanted to discuss.

Normally I play a lot of shooters, fps’s, action games, adventure games, and North American RPG’s. Every once in a while though my staples don’t satisfy my cravings and I venture out into a genre which I normally criticize, the jrpg.

This is my bologna sandwich.

I believe that I can count the number of jrpg’s I’ve played on one hand. Typically I try to play one and get five or so hours in and lose interest. Sometimes the battle mechanics become tiresome, or the characters reveal themselves to be the shallow excuses for the humans they are, or sometimes it’s simply the distractions of life. Despite these difficulties, a time will eventually come where everything about the jrpg fits my gaming appetite. I recently got into one of these moods and to get my fix I chose Persona 3.

I remember when Persona 3 was released and seeing the entire Destructoid community set ablaze by how exceptional it was. Me being apathetic to jrpg’s, really didn’t take that much notice. Still, the game left an impression in my mind.

After getting out of college this past April, I began to look for games that I had missed over the last eight months (poor college student is poor) and was reminded of Persona 3 by some random occurrence. I picked up the game off of Goozex and thankfully received it quickly. I started up the game this past week and have been absolutely lost in it. The game has such a brilliant blend of character development and combat that so many jrpg’s seem to miss the mark on. I even began to wonder whether I would have liked the game outside this bizarre jrpg craving. I’ve been enjoying it so much that I’ve completely forgot the other games I was in the middle of playing. Essentially, I’m completely enthralled by it. Now, back to the aforementioned question I said I would ask at the beginning of this blog.

This still isn't old!

My question is, has this ever happened to you? Is there some genre which you dislike and normally wouldn’t play (even if it was made by Valve), but then mysteriously had an unquenchable desire to play?   read

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