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I write about video games and video game accessories. More specifically, I write about video game mechanics.

Lots of gamers want to start blogs about their opinions on video games and how they would review game X, Y and Z because "Yahtzee, Jim Sterling, IGN, Destructoid, etc. are wrong and my opinion is better, so I must write about it!" No one usually cares and I want to talk about different things.

Game mechanics aren't discussed enough in comparison to reviews and industry practices. Let's try to change that.
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Gameplay vs. Story. Is it more important to have a game that plays great, or is it more important to have a great plot? This debate will likely never end, but I wanted to at least add my own personal opinion to the debate by examining the purpose of both a game and a story.

A story is made to convey a message to people for a specific purpose, be it entertainment or informative. There are many different methods to tell a story, be it written, oral or through pictures. Among these different mediums are various techniques an author can employ to create a good story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, all stories rely on the same thing to create their appeal:

Emotion.

Whether a story is a high flying action adventure or a tender romance, the key method to getting a viewer to enjoy the authorís story is to appeal to the emotions that the viewer wants to feel. Every medium appeals to emotion by creating a mood that fosters the emotions the author is trying to evoke. For example, an adventurous film like Indiana Jones needs to focus on action scenes with fighting, danger and suspense to create the emotion of excitement. A horror movie like Scream needs to take place primarily at night to maintain the emotion of fear.

Because creating the proper mood is the best way to appeal to the viewerís emotions, creating and maintaining a mood is the most important factor for a story. A proper mood can help the viewer get into the story so much that they ignore all logical flaws, plot holes, contradictions and other elements indicative of a poorly written or shallow plot. To prove this point, check out CinemaSins on Youtube and find some of your favorite films. Watch the video on it, and ask yourself how many of these flaws you completely missed because you were so in to the movie that you didnít notice or didnít care. For an even simpler example, letís examine Superman and Sailor Moon. Both characters have identities that are clearly visible and by all logic people should be able to figure out. Everyone who enjoys those series know this, but they donít care. The mood is good enough to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief and enjoy Superman and Sailor Moon for what it is.

Unlike stories, games do not need to focus on appeals to emotion in order to be enjoyable. A gameís most important role is to create a set of rules and establish a goal for the player to accomplish that is entertaining. The games that stand the test of time for the longest have always had game mechanics as their primary strength. Chess and Poker are the two best examples of this due to how long humans have continued to play these games throughout our history. Chess and Poker also have zero emotional appeal. Both Chess and Poker are not played for characters, setting and narrative. They represent a game in the purest and simplest form. Despite calling them video games, video games are still a game (Hell, they even have game in the word). The design principles and philosophy behind what makes Chess and Poker good games applies to video games as well. Itís a great error to think that video games must be treated as something completely separate from all other non-digital games. Stripped of all art, audio and writing, a video game is the same as Chess or Poker. Please keep the distinction of me talking about a video game and a game in mind. This is important to understanding the point, and I donít intend for them to represent each other interchangeably when I bring either term up.

Knowing now that gameplay creates a good game and mood creates a good story, the answer to the gameplay vs. story dilemma can start to unfold. Remember, a video game is a game. If we were to strip a video game of all story, a game would still exist. However, a video game stripped of gameplay is technically no longer a game. Without gameplay, a video game becomes a digital museum tour, and the original purpose of creating a video game is lost. A story that is stripped of a mood fails to evoke emotions and becomes a random photo gallery or a jumble of words. A game with bad gameplay is still a game and a story with bad mood is still a story, but both are less effective overall at what the intended purpose of being a game or story is.

A video game that has a bad story, but good gameplay can still succeed at being a good game. It fails at being a good story, but being a good story is not important for creating a good game and is ultimately not needed to make a good game. A video game that is well written, but has bad gameplay fails at being a good game. Now, even though the video game failed to be a good game, can it still succeed at being a good story? By the definition of being a good story, no, a video game with bad gameplay also fails to be a good story. How is this the case?

Remember, a good story is all about creating the right mood to appeal to emotions. The problem with bad gameplay in a video game is that the ability to create a mood is highly hindered or outright prevented. If the intended mood of a story is to be tragic and heartfelt, how can this be effectively maintained if the viewer must spend long periods of time being bored? If the intended mood of the story is love, how much love will the player be feeling if theyíre angry from dying for the 30[sup]th[/sup] time on the same part due to poor controls? Any mood and emotions invoked by a 10-20 minute cutscene are quickly snuffed out when the next 2-3 hours of play must be spent in a foul mood due to poor gameplay. It becomes incredibly difficult for the storyís viewer to grow attached to the characters and maintain an intended mood when the protagonist spends the majority of the experience pissing off the viewer.

For those who donít think a characterís experience in gameplay doesnít affect the playerís attachment to the character or the storyís mood, ask yourself this: Why is Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite and Ellie in The Last of Us both invincible and ignored by enemies? Answering this question from a story perspective instead of a gameplay perspective, itís because the writers want the player to like Elizabeth and Ellie. As the player, how much would you have still enjoyed Elizabeth and Ellie if they could both die and were actively targeted by enemies? Would you still like Elizabeth if she was killable during the ghost battle? Would you still like Ellie if the Infected could hear her move and pulled their one hit kill shenanigans on her? How about I just say Ashley Graham and leave it at that


In the worst possible scenario, the story will fail because the player never finishes it. A story that no one ever experiences isnít really a story anymore. For a simple experiment, grab your favorite movie off your shelf and rent, borrow or purchase a video game you hate playing. Turn the movie on and start watching 15 minutes of it. Now pause the movie and start playing the video game you hate for 2 hours. After 2 hours of playing the video game, pause it and return to your favorite movie. Watch another 15 minutes of the movie, then return to playing the video game after that for another 2 hours. Repeat this process until you finally finish the movie. I hope to Yevon your favorite movie isnít Titanic, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia. This experiment is essentially what playing a game with bad gameplay but a good story is like. Now, try the reverse. Take a movie you hate the most, and a video game you love playing and repeat this experiment with the same time frames, 15 minutes of the movie and 2 hours of gameplay. By the way, this second experiment has an extra perk to it. At any point during those 15 minutes of watching the bad movie, you can stop watching at any time and play the game for another 2 hours. In fact, you can just not put the movie in at all and just keep playing. This is to simulate the ability to skip cutscenes. This scenario exemplifies why good gameplay but bad story can work, but bad gameplay with a well written story canít.

The gameplay segments in a video game with bad gameplay can be designed to be skipped or be short, but in that case, why not just make a film or book instead? The purpose of including interactivity to a story is to add an element to the mood that is not possible with only viewing. Viewing only allows a person to SEE what itís like to be a different person in a different setting, but interactivity allows the viewer to BE either themselves or a different person and experience what they or the person theyíre being would do. To ďbeĒ in a story is the ultimate way to create mood, and only an interactive medium like video games can use this powerful tool. If interactivity will only hinder the intended mood of the story, why bother including it?

I donít intend for this to be used as a valid excuse that video games can all be poorly written if itís fun, but rather that having good gameplay is an important cornerstone to having a good story in an interactive medium, and if something MUST be sacrificed, it should be story every time. A well written plot that fails to maintain its mood will fail to invoke emotion and will become a bad story by default. I have other things to say about games that have good gameplay and are well written, but the gameplay contradicts the mood that the story is trying to set, but that will be a topic for another time.








I donít like turned based games because theyíre slow and boring. You have to spend all that time waiting to do anything.

Iím sure every gamer at one point has heard someone say this. I specifically remember this being a constant criticism against turn based RPGs back in the PS1 and PS2 era. Iíve thought about why a player feels this way playing a turn based game for a while now, and the answer has finally come to me. The answer came while playing one of the oldest turn based games in history: chess.

While there are plenty of people who say they donít like chess due to the skill barrier for new players vs. the experienced and itís rather bland presentation in our day and age where games are flashy, technical eye candy, one criticism I donít hear is that chess requires too much sitting around and waiting. How does chess manage to avoid this accusation? It accomplishes this because chess has a high thought to action ratio, a term which I made up just now but will be useful in talking about turn based games. The thought to action ratio describes how long it takes for the player to think of their course of action, and how long it takes for the game to let them engage in that course of action. For a chess player, the amount of thought that must go in to every move is high, and only continues to increase as the game goes further. A chess player does not notice the amount of time they spend waiting for their move because theyíre too busy when itís not their turn thinking up what to do next and how to respond to the opponent.


Sometimes they think so hard they forget the rules.


Keeping the playerís thoughts going when waiting is the key to avoiding a player finding a game slow and boring. To understand this better, letís look at two game series, Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem, and compare doing it right and doing it wrong.

For those of you not familiar with it, Fire Emblem is a turn based tactical RPG. Fire Emblem has a high thought to action ratio. Generally the player will not be able to rush in head first in to a battle without first considering long and hard what to do.† Fire Emblem has a permanent death mechanic built in, so any KOed characters are not coming back to the player. Right here this already enforces the idea to the player ďThink before you act.Ē One wrong move will cost the player a unit for the entire game, so donít start mashing A to win. With the idea in the playerís head that they need to be careful, the game then teaches you how to play carefully. The player learns the weapon and magic triangle as basically being a rock, paper, scissors mechanic, and that this is key to winning without losing a character. The player must consider the triangle before they decide which unit will attack which enemy and where should they move their units.

For example, in Fire Emblem, a sword has an advantage against an ax. It would be a simple thought to think ďHave sword user attack ax userĒ but many situations will present themselves where that ax user has a buddy with a lance nearby. A lance beats a sword. Sure, the player could just have your sword user attack the ax user and call it a day, but now the playerís sword user is put at risk of dying when the enemy retaliates on their turn with the lance user. Because the game throws many different scenarios at you that will make blindly charging in a huge risk, the player must now look at enemy stats, placement and equipment before they even decide to move one unit.

Conveniently enough, the game also lets you view the stats, equipment and movement range of all enemies at all times on the map. And in a stroke of pure genius of design, all damage calculations can be performed by simple math. If an enemy has 10 Attack and the playerís unit has 5 Defense, then the playerís unit will take 5 damage from the attack. Keeping the stat totals only ranging in the tens digits allows for simple calculations that the player can perform on the fly without a calculator. The ability to do this opens the door for more thought to go in to a player planning out their attack strategy. But this still wasnít enough for Fire Emblem. The game also makes the player take into account terrain. Certain tiles can provide Evasion bonuses and extra Defense during combat. There may be two spots where you can attack the enemy from, but one spot is a forest that provides a 20% Evasion bonus and a +1 to Defense while another spot is a plains tile that offers no bonuses at all. Certain areas of the map may also create advantages for the player against superior numbers. For example, finding a choke point on the map that forces the enemy to only be able to attack with one unit at a time out of their ten provides the player a huge advantage. Now with all of this in mind, the player has a multitude of questions to answer every turn:

What is the enemyís equipment?
What is my equipment?
Where should I move this character?
How far can the enemy move?
How far can the enemy hit me from?
What risks are present if I move this character to that location?
How much damage can I deal?
How much damage can my enemy deal?
What will happen if I donít block off this passage from the enemy?



Should I have a seat over there?


For any one action the player chooses to perform, there will always be a high amount of thought that must go in to it every time. The idea that the player is sitting there waiting to do something is gone. Itís now filled with strategic planning. Final Fantasy is the complete opposite of this.

The Final Fantasy series has always been games that typically have a low thought to action ratio. I can boil down the strategy of any one random battle in Final Fantasy to a simple phrase: Attack until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The boss fights are a similar affair, except itís changed to: Use your strongest attacks until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The series has been fundamentally designed to have this problem.†


Hardest boss in the game defeated by 99% hurt and heal.


Final Fantasy presents the player with the illusion of choice in battle, but in reality most choices are not viable. For example, every Final Fantasy game has a plethora of status ailments the player can use, like Blind, Poison, Toad, Stone, Silence and more, but every fan knows that status ailments are useless to the player. Any enemy that is susceptible to an ailment is likely to be easy enough to kill so itís not worth bothering to inflict an ailment and any enemy that would warrant using an ailment against, like a boss, will be immune to ailments. The few Final Fantasy games that have buffs and debuffs also tend to have most of them be worthless. The buffs are never strong enough to justify using and the debuffs usually donít work on the enemies where deuffs are needed. If they do work, the debuffs are also not strong enough to justify using.

Final Fantasy games also design most dungeons to be an effort in conservation. The player is aware that a boss will be at the end of the dungeon, so they must preserve all Potions, Magic Points and Ethers. Due to the usual rarity of Ethers turning MP into a scarce commodity, the player will likely not use spells and special attacks for most of a dungeon. A save point is few and far between in dungeons, so a Tent isnít usually a viable option to handle having every character use every viable option for every fight. The player spends most of their fights only using Attack and very cheap costing spells. Having such a low amount of options gets boring rather fast. The only Final Fantasy that addresses the conservation issue is Final Fantasy XIII, but that game does so much of the thinking for you that itís rendered irrelevant.

Final Fantasyís low though to action ratio also got worse when the Active Time Battle was introduced to the series. Due to how few viable choices the player has in any one battle, not a lot of time is spent thinking on what to do next. However, the ATB system forces the player to wait even longer despite the fact that the player already has their entire battle strategy thought of for the turn. The game creates an annoying conflict with the player when theyíve figured out what to do in half a second, but the game forces them to wait 2-3 seconds to actually perform said action. This may seem small, but remember that this time adds up with every action of every battle. Itís essentially playing a game that has a built in input delay for no good reason.

Because of Final Fantasyís popularity, its game design choices have become a staple of the JRPG genre, so the problem of low thought to action ratio pops up a lot in the genre as a whole. Iíve seen various attempts to fix this problem, but not a lot of good ones. The solution to fixing the issue isnít to force all turn based games to become real time, nor is it to make a weird hybrid of the two that doesnít share the strengths both systems provide


Not going to point fingers at anybody...


This problem is fixed at the drawing board for the gameís combat system. Developers must design a combat system that forces the player to think long and hard about each action they perform. This is the whole reason why the turn based system exists. If real time gameplay is supposed to be a test of the playerís reflexes, then turn based gameplay is supposed to be a test of critical thinking. With that in mind, developers would do well to make sure their turn based games require a strategy beyond hurt and heal.
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One of the best aspects of video game storytelling is that the player is allowed to interact with the story. This level of interactivity is what separates video games from the movie and literary genre in the narrative department. Despite video games having this powerful tool in its arsenal to engage a user in their story, itís rarely implemented effectively. This problem stems from the fact that too many video games are trying way too much to tell a story like a big budget Hollywood movie instead of like a game. I have many things I want to say about this topic, but for now Iím going to talk about getting the player invested in a gameís characters.



This is a whole other kind of investment.


Unlike Hollywood films, video games have displayed a unique strength in keeping the player immersed that movies canít do. A video game does not need to be the prettiest thing on the market in order to keep the player engaged. Engrossing gameplay allows the player to overlook many aspects that may be lacking in the graphical department. This huge strength is often ignored by developers in favor of the Hollywood approach. The effect of pretty graphics can be just as easily obtained from game mechanics and for a lot less cash to boot. To illustrate this example, letís look at Heavy Rain vs. Fire Emblem 7 (The one with Eliwood for the GBA.) with a little bit of Final Fantasy VII for example purposes.

Heavy Rain tries to take the Hollywood approach to get you to care about its cast of Madison, Norman, Scott and Ethan. The game looks pretty and ultra-realistic, and the player spends time viewing the life of each character while they control them. Itís all very emotional playing with Ethanís sons and dealing with a rapist with Madison. Unfortunately, the time spent controlling these characters amounts to Quick Time Events (QTE), which are very boring. A unique problem video games have is that it can ruin how invested the player is to a character depending on how much fun the player has controlling said character. Yes, there will be players out there who will look at the plot of Heavy Rain more than the gameplay, but the majority of players expect fun gameplay more than anything else. The fact that the best-selling series in video game history is held by Mario, followed by Pokťmon, shows that game players value good gameplay more than a deep story.


So little plot, yet so many feels.


When the player isnít having fun controlling Ethan or Madison, their investment in the character starts to decrease.† The playerís boredom and frustrations will be projected on to that character so now when that character comes to mind in their head, theyíre associated with negative feelings. Getting the player to associate negative feelings to your character is the kiss of death for your plot, and developers really need to take great care in ensuring this doesnít happen.

I know the Heavy Rain example might be hard to grasp for some, so Iím going to use a more well-known example to illustrate this point. Letís examine Final Fantasy VIIís Yuffie and Cait Sith. Both of these characters receive a lot of hate due to negative association the player develops for them that is unrelated to bad writing. Yuffie steals all of the playerís Materia at one point in the game and forces the player to be locked in a single town fighting enemies with no magic or skills. This segment is frustrating and unenjoyable to the player because they must now suffer from disempowerment despite how much fun they have becoming empowered through leveling. Because Yuffie was the character that forced you to play through a disempowerment segment of the game, the negative feelings you get from it are projected on to her when she returns to the team, and the player learns to hate her without any fault of the writer. Cait Sith is worthless in battle.


Don't confuse him with his older brother. He works hard.


His damage is poor and his Limit Breaks are just a huge gamble with little payoff. Once the player realizes how bad Cait Sith is in combat, they want nothing to do with him. His character then becomes associated with making the player weaker, so once again the character is hurt without any real fault of the writing.

Now on the other end of the spectrum, Fire Emblem 7 takes a very video game way of making the player invested in its characters. Almost all aspects of character investment are achieved through game mechanics. For starters, if a character dies, they do not come back. The player must complete the rest of the game without that character. This mechanic alone establishes the first layer of investment that the player has in the characters. Now every member of the playerís team becomes important because no one can replace them. The player does get characters who have the same class as others, but they will not have the same stats growths. Every character the player has also looks unique. They have a name and face associated with them rather than being a generic looking unit, so if they die, not only does the player lose that valuable asset to the combat, they also lose that character they think looks really cool, pretty or is funny. Even with the minimal plot involvement, characters like Guy, Erk and Lucius become important to the player emotionally. Lucius in particular falls into a unique role that enhances his value to the player.


When you see it...


He is the only Monk in the game (One out of two classes that can use Light magic for a majority of the game) and for a large portion of the game, he will be the only character that can use Light magic. The only other characters who can also do this are Serra (in the mid game after a class upgrade) and Athos (only for the last two battles in the game). Because of his role of being the sole Light magic user for a long time and being the easiest of them to level up, the player experiences a huge loss should he die in combat. He receives a large amount of investment due to this alone.

The second layer of investment comes when the player uses these characters in combat. Every time a character scores the player a lucky critical hit, takes down a tough enemy and helps them win a battle, the player associates positive feelings with that character. Now if they die, that joy the player receives from that character is gone, so they must take care of them. Anyone whoís played Fire Emblem can understand the feeling of starting a battle over because your favorite character died. A movie can never accomplish this kind of investment and no one ever rewinds a film in the middle of watching it just to have the joy of having a character stay alive.


Ethan's sons have nothing on this!


The third layer of investment comes in Supports. Supports serve as a way for the player to bond one character with another and learn more about both characters involved in the Support. Not only does the Support give the player more insight on the plot of the character, it also provides a stat boost in combat. This stat boost can often times be the deciding factor in a battle, so taking the time to do them becomes important to the player. The stat boost gained from a Support also serves to create a dual emotional investment for the player. For example, letís say the player likes Guy a lot but isnít as keen on Matthew. If the player decides to do a Support between Guy and Matthew, they will notice that Guy gives Matthew extra points in Strength that he desperately needs and Matthew gives Guy extra points in Critical Hit Chance, which is his bread and butter. The player is now positively reinforced to keep Matthew around Guy so that a character they like a lot becomes even better, and Matthew benefits from this positive reinforcement as well since now the player will want to keep him alive and in use. Itís no guarantee that the player will like Matthew more due to this, but it certainly helps Matthewís chances.


My scenario is silly, though. No one can hate him.


Despite Heavy Rain spending a fortune to create a beautiful environment with realistic looking characters, Fire Emblem 7 manages to trump it in character investment due to using the strengths of video games to its advantage rather than trying to use a movieís advantage. Keep in mind that the plot of a Fire Emblem game never amounts to more than ďEvil kingdom invades good kingdom! Also, kill a dragon or demon along the way.Ē Even with this weak plot, Fire Emblem has much more success with getting the player attached to its characters. Comparing the number of Fire Emblem fanfictions and fan art to the number of Heavy Rain fanfictions and fan art alone should show just how much Fire Emblemís approach works every time. One 32-bit graphical game with cheesy writing manages to accomplish more than a beautiful looking HD title with a serious script. Funny how that works out.


This is probably a fan fiction somewhere.



For any current developers or would-be developers out there, I would recommend taking this important lesson to heart before you think that you need cutting edge, ultra realistic HD graphics to tell your artistic vision. Save thousands or even millions of dollars by letting the game mechanics do the work for you.
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