As the new year rolls around people start making the same declaration. “Next year will be better.” No matter how good or bad 2012 was, people will tell themselves that 2013 will be better. The thing is that if you want to see change you have to work for it. If you want to see a better game industry in the future you've got to be the change you want to see in the world. Here's some stuff we all need to work on. Some resolutions for the new year.
1. Be Nice Online
“Well duh,” You tell me, “obviously I’m going to be nice.”
Well… no, no you’re not. Online we’ve forgotten what it is to be nice. A lot of people don’t say anything mean and think that makes them kind. Kindness is complimenting your teammates, telling everyone when they did a good job. We’ve started punishing online bullies and jerks and that’s a step in the right direction but I think we should be rewarding those who are fun to play with.
There’s that bit in the movie Office Space where Ron Livingston is telling his bosses that since he doesn’t get rewarded for doing well, he’d only do enough work to not get fired. You can argue that virtue is its own reward and all that but in reality people will be only be as nice as they have to be to not get banned.
There are a few games that reward you for being a good person. League of Legends has honor points that are given when people vote you’re a good teammate, honorable in defeat or things like that. Until every game rewards you for being nice however you’ll have to do it out of the kindness in that twisted black hole that used to be a heart. Step by step we’ll slowly make online play into an actually pleasant environment.
2. Buy a game outside your comfort zone
We all have our niches, our genres. Some gamers refuse to buy anything that will never be played in a tournament. Some only play Japanese RPGs and consider anything from the west to be a ridiculous facsimile. Go out and buy a game you normally wouldn’t buy! I’m not saying that you should go out and grab Barbie’s Unicorn Dancing Sim but maybe play something from a genre you wouldn’t normally look twice at. If you play nothing but JRPGs maybe you should go grab Persona 4: Arena. You’ll get to play a hardcore fighter but with a lot of those JRPG aesthetics. If you’re more of the Call of Duty type, maybe go grab Fallout 3. It’s a lot different and I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun.
You don’t need to go out and grab a sixty dollar game that you’ll probably hate, but maybe go check out the games on sale on Steam and pick up something for cheap that you wouldn’t normally. Grab Civ 5 or Saints Row 3. It’s good to expand your horizons and even if you hate it you’ll be able to say with certainty why you hate it. Your gaming vocabulary will expand and you’ll be better off for it.
3. Watch the Credits
When they beat a game, many gamers will start pressing all the buttons to figure out which one skips the credits. In 2013, watch the credits when you beat a game! These people worked hard on the game, at least watch the credits.
You should learn the names of those who had a big impact on the games you love. Think of your favorite three games. Do you know the directors of those games? Did you love the graphics? The design? Learn who was the art director, the lead designer, or the sound designer. You don’t have to learn the name of every programmer obviously but you should be able to know who makes your favorite games. Some people will go see a movie simply because they love the lead actor or the director. We should be able to say the same thing about games.
We’re slowly building up to that too! If somebody hears that like Schafer or Jaffe was the lead director on a game they’ll definitely give it a closer look. This is great and we need to work on this more. Find out who your favorite directors and designers are, learn what they’re working on. It’ll only enrich your experience.
4. Buy Games that got Average Review Scores
A lot of people don’t like the numerical review system. At best it’s a simple representation of a complex opinion, at worst it’s an arbitrary meaningless number. You should read game reviews, they’re very useful! They can give you an idea of what a game does well, where it falls flat, things like that. But you should take the score with a grain of salt.
More importantly however, you should go out and try games that got scores under a nine! There’s a definite mentality that anything under an 8.5 is a complete failure. Just look at Obsidian’s New Vegas infamous 84 score on Metacritic. Bethesda, the publisher promised bonuses at 85 so Obsidian got nothing. There’s a larger issue here about tying bonuses to review scores but that’s an issue for developers and journalists. As a gamer you just need to show your support by buying games that got mediocre scores.
These games that got 6 or 7 or even 5 are still good games and you’ll still have fun with them. By only playing those big budget games that consistently score high; you’re crippling the industry by discouraging experimentation. So read those reviews. Read the ones that love the game and read the ones that hate the game. Learn about what they thought of the game, but don’t base your decision entirely on the number beside the words.
5. Stop Justifying Piracy to Yourself
Obviously this one should read “Stop Pirating Games you Jerk” but let’s be honest, the pirates wouldn’t listen. Instead, here’s what you should do. Stop justifying piracy to yourself. Whenever there’s a talk of piracy there’s always a bunch of people who say things like “I’m just pirating the game because I disagree with their DLC policy” or “I’m pirating the game because I hate their DRM” and so on and so on.
Stop it. You’re not a crusader; you’re not a freedom fighter. You’re just some kid with utorrent. If you’re going to steal games, then steal games but stop saying that you’re sticking it to the man by doing so. You’re the reason DRM is crippling and invasive. You’re not fighting DRM by pirating, you’re encouraging it.
There’s another excuse I hear for pirating all the time. “If I like it, I’ll buy it.” The idea is that you’ll pirate it, enjoy it, and then go purchase it. If you love the game, you’re probably not going to buy it. You already have it. If you want to try it out, most computer games have demos on Steam. There are Redboxes everywhere in America and they usually have the big names that come out. Rent it for a day then buy it if you like it. Go get a Gamefly account, it’s cheap and it’ll let you keep the games you really like.
The fact that piracy is such a problem is abhorrent. Stop pirating games, and if you can’t do that, stop lying to yourself.
Well that's the list! What about you? I'm sure you're already trying to be the best gamer you can be, is there anything else you're working on? Anything you would add to the list?
Good pacing doesn’t necessarily make a story good, but bad pacing can ruin a story on its own. Games have a tense relationship with pacing. The player should have freedom to play how they want, but generally that freedom comes at a cost of pacing. In Grand Theft Auto they’d tell me that they’ve got a friend of mine hostage and they will kill her if I don’t come running. So obviously I drive around aimlessly for a few hours, go through a dozen cars, try to steal a helicopter, start driving toward the mission, get distracted by the cops when I accidentally run over a pedestrian or twelve. Eventually I’d get to the mission and everyone would act like I drove there immediately.
Pacing is something that’s really hard to get right. Most time limits in games are pretty arbitrary. But apparently the world is going to end in a day and mankind’s time limit has run out so let’s look at two great examples of pacing in games.
Unlike the game mentioned below, Journey has no time limit. You’re dropped into a desert and shown a mountain in the distance. You then meander in that direction. Or not, you could wander around for a little bit, take in the sights, get blown around by wind, whatever. That mountain’s going to be waiting for you. Heading off for your goal is really the only thing to do but you can decide to take it as slowly as you want.
Giving the player the right to take as long as they want isn’t a new idea at all. Really anytime you don’t have a time limit you could take ages to walk across a hallway. The difference between other games and Journey is that it fits the story and theme. Journey has great arcs of pacing throughout the whole game, alternating in slow/fast/slow/fast and so on. Like there’s a scene of building a bridge that takes a while but once the bridge is built you quickly speed across it. There’s crawling through the desert and then sliding down the building through sandy corridors at breakneck speed. The ending takes this to it’s logical conclusion where everything slows down more and more until finally everything stops. Then you fly outward, faster than you ever had before in an exhilarating explosion of music and light.
Even within individual areas there is the rise and fall of speed. In the beginning you’re just wandering through the desert and the entire area is pretty slow. But as you trudge up hills slowly, you get a little rush of speed as you slide down them on the other side. The entire game is a magnificent set of arcs that tie together with coherence that isn’t often seen in games.
You knew this one was coming. Easily the best use of a time limit from the golden age of gaming. These days there’s a lot of games that get creative with time (Half-Minute Hero comes to mind) but The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask did it first. You have a journey that will take weeks but you only have 3 days to save the world. Only through liberal use of rewinding time can you survive.
In the game time is always moving. You can slow it down and rewind it, but you can’t stop it. There’s always a clock running and unless you’re in a dungeon, the game will let you know in those tense, now infamous words.
It gives a whole new feeling to the usual Zelda formula. Majora’s Mask has more sidequests than Ocarina of Time but you never feel like you’re wandering aimlessly because there’s always that moon in the sky, glaring down on you and growing ever closer. The entire game consists of learning the steps you need to do in order to complete each quest. You slowly learn more and more about the world, you learn what events happen and when, you learn what you need to do at certain points to change time, you learn what happens when you change time. Slowly you, the player, become a master of time, stepping in at the right moment to change the future for your benefit. In Ocarina of Time you traveled through time, in Majora’s Mask you own time.
The most impressive thing about the game is just how much changes in those three short days. The townsfolk start off cheerful and everyone is either ignorant of their approaching doom or downright defiant of it (there’s a swordsman who threatens to cut down the moon if it gets uppity). The music is cheerful and up-tempo, happily playing in the background as you do your shopping. As the third day rolls around however, the moon takes up half the sky and nobody is cheerful anymore. The music has the same tune but there’s a sinister melody running through it that seems to overpower the original, making it into a mockery of its former cheeriness. The proud swordsman is hiding in the corner of his house begging and praying to be saved. You learn so much about these characters in such a short time.
The hardest sidequest in the game takes a ton of preparation. You need a near encyclopedic knowledge of what happens when in order to get the pieces together to reunite two lovers separated by a curse that turns one of them into a child. Even once you’re prepared it takes all three days in order to get the two of them to see each other again and it’s only at midnight of the last day, less than a minute until the end of the world that they are reunited. They tell you that they will greet the dawn together.
The first time you head up the tower to stop the moon from destroying the world you’re weak, your toughest weapon is a bubble, and you’ve been transformed into something unfamiliar. At the end of the day, you’re overflowing with weapons, you’ve got a new sword, and you know exactly how to save everyone. The game gave you the freedom to complete all this but kept you within its own time limit.
Majora’s Mask makes such a great use of a time limit due to all these things. The game gives you tons of freedom to do what you want but manages to fit a great story of pacing in it too. Compare this to Journey which is the exact opposite but makes it work very well. Can you think of more games that don’t sacrifice pacing for freedom? Do you love Majora’s Mask as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!
Why are so many protagonists in games these days silent? Back in the old days of videogames nobody talked. They didn’t have the technology to fit in any voices outside of the occasional villain screaming. But as the technology grew, space on disks and such grew and voice acting was added gradually. Games would have more spoken words. Characters started grunting when they jumped, calling out their attacks and eventually full on acting in cutscenes. These days most games have a ton of spoken dialogue. Games have scripts! Something unheard of in the old days.
Now that voice acting in games is a near must for nearly any AAA title the choice to make a protagonist silent is a conscious and deliberate one. Out of literature and film and games, only games commonly have a silent hero. Think of your favorite silent main characters in movies and books. Take out the ones that are animals and you’ll likely have a pretty small list. So why all the silent game heroes?
I’ve never been particularly bothered by a silent protagonist but I’ve been playing Dishonored lately and the main character in that game is completely silent. While everyone in the game is so well defined and the setting has so much character, Corvo is the odd man out. So why doesn’t he speak? Does he fall into the classic excuses for a silent protagonist?
I want them to be relatable.
This is one of the excuses I find the most suspect. The creator is afraid that if the player character speaks, they’ll say things the player wouldn’t and it would break their immersion. This can be done well and it can be done extremely poorly. The audience surrogate heroic mime act works if the player has ways to express themselves through gameplay and in other ways.
Examples would be Dragon Age: Origins or Persona 4 along with plenty other RPGs. The hero is silent in both games outside of grunts and odd quips during combat. These games worked because the player is given choices of dialogue and while the dialogue isn’t spoken aloud, the player has enough options to make them feel like they are speaking through the character.
Persona 4 doesn’t have you giving any soliloquies like you might in Dragon Age but you are always given a chance to react to whatever is going on. You can comfort friends, tell people off and diffuse situations. You have more choices on how to play your character. (Although I’m pretty sure everyone plays him like a ladies’ man.)
The games where this idea of a silent audience proxy doesn’t work are the games where the player isn’t given a chance to express themselves in any way. In that case, the character is completely silent and we’re just supposed to project our feelings onto them. But nobody finds that relatable, because nobody is a mute blank slate all the time. Even if you physically cannot talk, you still communicate in some way. We can’t get attached to a completely silent character because we can’t see ourselves in them.
This is probably the best excuse for Corvo’s silence. The player doesn’t get any dialogue options with him outside of “Yes I want to buy stuff” or “Please take me to the next area”. The player certainly doesn’t have freedom with dialogue choices but instead gets their characterization through how they play. The game gives you so many choices on how to deal with problems that Corvo is supposed to become an extension of your personality. This idea is perfect for the gameplay aspect in that it lets the mechanics serve as their own narrative. The problem comes later, in the form of a little girl.
I don’t want a voice to screw up the player’s interpretation.
Aka “The Nintendo Excuse”. This is the reason Link and Mario don’t talk. For these two I’m not really referring to spoken voice acting but just general dialogue, especially in Link’s case. I’m not too upset about those two actually. Mario gets his classic lines from Mario 64 and he gets enough characterization in Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games that we don’t need to hear him speak. Obviously the players aren’t really going to relate to Mario very much but we don’t really need to.
Link is an odd case. He’s been around long enough and is beloved enough that there’s sure to be a backlash if he says anything outside of his grunts and yells (and that one time he yelled “Come on!”). If he talks it’d have to be extremely well written otherwise everyone will just hate Nintendo for ruining Link. Right now he’s just a dude that rescues princesses and fights evil and we’re all okay with that.
The problem is that recently Nintendo has been giving him more characterization. Skyward Sword had more of a love story in it than any Zelda game before. Zelda was a pretty well defined character who laughed, loved and sacrificed. Link on the other hand had no such characterization and as such we didn’t really believe the romance between the two of them. We could see why Link loved Zelda and why he fought monsters to save her, but there was really no reason for Zelda to love Link, he had no personality. Like I said, Link’s a fine character as a force of nature who fights evil but if Nintendo wants him to be more than that, they’ve got to start giving him a little more.
And that’s the problem with Corvo. While his silence is perfectly fine during missions and assassinations, it starts to fall apart whenever Emily is in the picture. The little girl clearly idolizes him, says he’s a caring fella who’d obviously never let her be hurt. Much like Link and Zelda, the player has a bit of trouble believing that this silent monster of a man is just so likable. The Empress is further indicative of this problem. For the brief time she’s in the game she treats Corvo like an old friend and Corvo cradles her as she dies. He still says nothing to her. Corvo would be a great character if he were silent nearly the whole time except for when he’s with the Empress or Emily. You could learn a lot about a character by paying attention to when they choose to talk but if they never talk at all, you lose a lot of characterization.
Silence fits the character or setting.
The last example, the character isn’t the talking type or it really isn’t the time for talking. Chell from portal is an example of this if you believe the creator’s opinion on her silence. She doesn’t want to give the robots the satisfaction of hearing her speak so she’s stubborn and shuts up. The player doesn’t see if she talks to other humans because there aren’t any. It says a lot about her relationship with the other characters in the game by her silence.
In a lot of horror games, the player character is silent most of the time. Obviously silence builds tension and people want to hear a human voice to reassure them. A fantastic example of this is in Penumbra, the spiritual predecessor to the terrifying Amnesia. You’re alone in a bunker filled with monsters that have better ears than they do eyes. You stay silent, terrified of alerting them. It builds the loneliness in your situation so when you discover there’s someone else alive in the bunker you spend your whole time trying to get to her. When you get a parasitic monster in your head that speaks in a kind sarcastic voice you’re just glad to hear someone talking to you even if it’s a monster. Because you’ve waited so long for another voice you, the player, instinctively trust the monster which makes its betrayal all the more sudden and tragic.
There are non-horror games where silence fits the setting too. Fallout and Skyrim would be a lot different if the dovakiin was constantly making jokes, it’d ruin the desolate atmosphere of being alone in the wilderness.
As said before Corvo’s silence in missions makes perfect sense both from a story and gameplay perspective. He’s silent because he’s being stealthy and the player gets enough characterization in the missions by choosing how to get past obstacles. The atmosphere changes when he’s with Emily or the Empress though. He’s not “murder machine” Corvo, he’s “defender” or “Father-like figure” Corvo. His silence no longer fits the character that’s been established previously and he loses that bit of characterization.
Games are a very unique medium, the only medium where a silent protagonist can work on a regular basis. In order to utilize the concept, however, there has to be a specific reason for the hero’s silence whether it’s to give the player complete freedom over their character, to invoke a feeling of loneliness or unease, or to demonstrate how the character reacts to other characters. It’s the failure to identify the reason for silence that so often causes it to fail.
So what do you think? Are you glad Corvo doesn't talk? Do you relate to Corvo? I want to hear your comments!
Very rarely am I worried about the consequences of any of my actions in a game. Which is fine sometimes! Sometimes the player just want to indiscriminately punch random criminals on the street like in Sleeping Dogs.
But a lot of games boast about how the choices you make affect gameplay. Yet from what I can tell, the more important the player’s actions are during a game, the less important any action is. The developers are forced to make sure that every option has an equal gameplay experience so your choices rarely have any consequence rather than the color of ninja you fight.
That’s why I’m so rarely worried about anything I do during a game. If I lose and get a game over, I’m back to five minutes earlier and suddenly everything’s fine. The best tension in games comes from threats other than losing the game.
That’s why Telltale’s The Walking Dead is such a wonderful game. Because everything you say and do has real consequences. If the player does or says the wrong thing, people turn against each other or against the player or they die. In the first and second chapter I was constantly trying to take the middle road so I didn’t anger the group. But my wishy-washyness just upset everyone anyway so in the third game I took a more direct approach to choices and I got someone killed because of it. My head immediately went over all the things I could’ve done differently to save them but it was too late.
That’s how you give players consequences to things they do.
“Game Over” as a mechanic has been on it’s way out for a long time now. Most games allow the player to immediately start over at whatever fight they lost. These days the only fear players feel about losing is that they’ll have to watch five minutes of cutscenes to get back to the boss. I’m not saying players should be punished for losing, that’s just a bad idea, but at the same time, players should feel that there are consequences for what they do.
The Game of Thrones videogame fails because it lacks the shifting levels of power that are in the series and books. The player knows that they’re always going to be the ones to win the fight. The player has to be the one to win because if they don’t the game stops. Why not phase out game overs entirely? If the game doesn’t stop when the player loses, there can be real consequences.
The player stops thinking “If I lose, I’ll have to try again.” and starts thinking “If I lose they’ll burn down the orphanage.”
Heavy Rain didn’t have a game over system either. If your character died, the story would continue on without them or their help. If players screwed up enough, the killer would just get away or the little boy would die. The player had the implication that everything they did mattered and because of that, they constantly felt that they had to do their best. The tensest moment I had in the game was when I was performing CPR on the drowned Shaun and I was terrified I didn’t make it in time.
The player shouldn’t feel tense all the time when you’re playing games. Like all good stories there should be an arc of rising and falling tension, the player shouldn’t feel constantly stressed. The Walking Dead succeeds so well because of the quiet moments where the players learn more about their companions and chat with them about their homes and what they want. The player should feel that their decisions are important and in the Walking Dead they do feel important, life and death have the proper weight. That’s quality storytelling.
But what about the game part?
A lot of this has been focusing on the interactive story aspect of games rather than the gameplay. The idea is that the game doesn’t stop on a loss but instead takes the story in a different direction. The concept can be applied to a variety of genres and there are a variety of games that do this very well already!
Look at the Total War series as opposed to Starcraft. In Total War you don’t have to win every single battle to win the game. You lose troops and territory and the game continues. You may lose your general during a battle and if you like him enough or put enough training into him this may be a major loss! If the player wants to keep the general they’d play differently, more defensively. Whereas in Starcraft, if the important units die, the level starts over. When games have different conditions than just win or lose, the game changes dramatically.
The middle ground of this would be Fire Emblem. In each level, characters that die stay dead but there are still lose conditions that would cause the level to have to be restarted. And of course many players simply restart when any ally dies. In that case it simply becomes another loss condition. Otherwise, the player is forced to make dynamic choices in battle. ”I could finish this battle easily but I’d have to sacrifice one of my characters, and I really like that guy.”
Obviously not every game could handle the freedom this presents. There are only so many ways you can justify having a main character lose a life or death fight and still survive after all. But by incorporating a bit of freedom into the system, the player can feel much more involved in the game, and isn’t that what so many games are striving for these days?