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10:30 PM on 02.02.2015

Ammo Boxes and Ink Pots: Okami vs. Videogame Violence

BF3 Dino header

I want to stop shooting people.

When that came out, it may have been one of the strangest things I'd ever written, but it's true.  Not every videogame is violent, but it's something that permeates our hobby.  Games with guns and shooting and killing sell really well, are rated highly, and are generally a ton of fun.  Violence, in its many forms, is part of a formula that has worked for videogames almost since their inception.

I've been working on my Master's Thesis, which centers on the war poetry of Brian Turner.  Turner is an American Veteran who's spent several years in Iraq following 9/11.  As you might imagine, spending that much time overseas doing something as dangerous as serving in the armed forces can leave scars on one's soul.  And as one of Turner's critics says, "It might be blasphemous to assume that I could write with any authenticity about the war having not served myself," here I find myself trying to conceptualize what this man went through, and what his fellow soldiers went through, where two collections of poetry and a memoir don't feel like anywhere near enough to catalogue the immense heartbreak of war.

Turner, however, doesn't want his readers to focus exclusively on him, or on the American soldiers.  He breaks away from the norm by trying as hard as he can to write about the Iraqis, civilians and soldiers alike, and all victims of war, regardless of nationality.  Being an American myself, I often get the impression that I'm supposed to believe that the Middle East is the heart of darkness, and it is populated by the most evil people in the world.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Turner wants us to remember that there are people, not monsters, on the other end of our metaphorical gun barrels.  There are people who struggle just as much with the presence of American soldiers as the soldiers struggle with being in what is considered a threatening global hot-spot.

As I spent this weekend finishing a chapter and writing about one of Turner's major poems, "Al-A'imma Bridge," I took a break and snuck away to play something and relax.  I'm not going to tell you that it's impossible to separate work and play, but I have a particularly bad habit of letting my reading follow me when I don't want it to.  So I didn't feel like playing anything with shooting- no COD, GTA, Uncharted, etc.  I didn't want to play anything that would take me back to the Middle East or anything related, so that ruled out Assassin's Creed and various strategy games.  In our collective fever for Metal Gear Rising 2, I tried playing that for a bit, but the overt themes of 21st-Century warfare and child trafficking pushed me away, regardless of how over-the-top and ridiculous they are.

And somehow I found myself turning on Okami.  I'd never actually completed it, and I bought the HD version not too far back, so what the hell.  Somewhere during the next 4 hours, I realized how much time I spent doing conceptually nothing in the game world.  I plodded slowly.  Dug holes.  Drew circles around animals.  Covered people in ink before cleaning them off with a spray of water.  I was just there enjoying the moments the game had to offer.  Sure, I could do "nothing" in other games as well- it's not uncommon for my friends and I to cruise around Los Santos, but the problem with something like GTA is that the structure of the game is always primed with violent potential.  If I play golf, the game is reminding me that the golf club can be used as a weapon, and golf carts can be stolen and taken on joyrides.  If we try to ignore the game proper, we'll get reminders that we can join a race or start a gang war.

Okami was content to let me interact with the world without destroying it.  Of course, the game features an excellent combat system and plenty of destructive brush powers, but in the same breath it lets you create just as easily.  You can complete the games in the Metal Gear Solid series without killing anyone, and that's a ridiculously impressive achievement, but here's a game that reduces vanquishing evil to its purest form: these are evil spirits and you are sealing them away.  When you move beyond combat, you find that the game actively encourages you to be good.  You can be mischievous, but ultimately your actions benefit others.  As much as I enjoyed watching the landscape, I was tempted not to leap into combat and blow things up, but to feed animals and help the villagers.

What Okami does to distinguish itself from the other games on my shelf is that the premise of the game is not necessarily "kill everything bad," but to "help everyone."  Amaterasu is already a god.  For purposes of gameplay you're underpowered at the beginning, but you're not without the ability to help people, and that's what you spend the game doing.  For the majority of my game session (which is in the earlier hours of the game just beyond Shinsu Field), I restored a forest to its splendid natural beauty, helped a mailman get back on track, set off dazzling fireworks, and helped a boy fish, find his dog, and boost his self-confidence.  I certainly fought random encounters along the way, including a boss battle, but these things always felt secondary to the big picture.  Where the Legend of Zelda series tasks you with conquering dungeons with the promise of sweet loot and saving an eventual princess/kingdom/world, Okami asks that you do these things for their own merit, and the player is rewarded with a kind of satisfaction illustrated by the waters changing from contaminated green to healthy blue, the trees showering leaves, and flowers blooming across the countryside.  For this and other actions the player is rewarded with treasure, experience, points, etc.  I can't deny that at its heart, Okami is a first-class action RPG, but few games compel me by reaction.  The experience points you get from feeding the animals is negligible at best.  But I will feed every animal I come across because that's what Amaterasu would do, and by extension, that's what I would do.  I'm helping the people by dealing with the game's dungeons, but also by giving them gifts, helping them pick vegetabls and plant seeds, giving them cool breezes on a hot day and making the sun shine when it's dark.  As a player, I don't need or even want the tangible rewards of food in the Astral Pouch or money or items I never use.  More than taking part in an adventure or "hero's journey," I was helping to realize the legend of the helpful Sun God.

Tons of games let me save the world.  Tons of cities, countries, and realms let me fight for them, to save the good people of wherever-the-hell.  Places like Hyrule, where I'm to assume everyone is good when all I know about them is the same 4 lines of dialogue they spout through the entire game, or Thedas, Skyrim, and so on, where I know for a fact that there are just as many rotten people rooting for me as just people.  Some heroes, like Snake, do it because they know how much worse things could get.  Some heroes, like Mega Man X, do it because they're the only ones powerful enough to defend the weak.  And some heroes fight for themselves, as Bayonetta and Dante do.

And there's nothing wrong with violent games, either.  I love Metal Gear Rising.  I'm working on collecting 30 Left Hands.  In Ninja Gaiden 2, an average playthrough on Warrior difficulty has you kill an estimated 2,000 enemies, assuming some retries and all Tests of Valor.  I've played that game so much that my total killcount is probably close to 50,000 or higher.  I've gotten the Zombie Genocider achievement in Dead Rising.  But in a game where all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.  I don't think that Super Mario 3D Land is a violent game in the traditional sense, but what else do you use the fire flower for besides roasting Goombas?

Okami help

I'm a teacher by trade, and following my work on my thesis and my attempts to do something beyond myself, I find more and more that the games I want to play are games about helping people, and Okami has been the purest form of that for me.  I never had the mindset for Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon, and I certainly don't believe that by playing violent games you are a wicked or unhelpful person.  But there's clearly a difference between swooping down on the inmates of Arkham Asylum, putting a bullet in the heads (and groins) on São Paulo's corrupt politicians, and planting trees in the ground and stars in the sky.

Other games come close.  The Last of Us comes up often in this line of thought, but its serious premise relies very heavily on treating violence as a necessity.  Titles by thatgamecompany do a good job of providing beauty, but Flower has no concrete "help" to offer besides being a pretty electronic therapy, and the concept behind Journey is perfect except for the fact that it is very possible to play the game entirely by yourself, and by extension, for yourself (i.e. you want to see what's at the top of the mountain just as much as you might want to help someone else along, not to mention the rewards you're seeking out).

I know that during my time with Okami, I'll fight Orochi more than once and vanquish great evil from the land, etc. etc.  My goal as a player is to see everyone in the game happy, and to hell with the rest of it.  Helping others feels good, and though a single-player game from 2006 (ported in 2008 & 2012) doesn't change the external world, a game that lets me be what I perceive to be an ideal being is cathartic.  I think many of us want to be heroes, and those of us who do know that it's not always about strength or force, but about who you are and who you try to be.  Another gem from before Clover became Platinum told us something very important a long time ago:

VJ love

And sometimes we just need to hear that.




I haven't played everything, and my views and opinions are only informed by my own experiences.  Do you have a favorite nonviolent game, or a game about helping people?  Do you have anything to add to what I've said, or take issue with?  Share it!



9:43 PM on 07.13.2014

Community Assignment: I love QTEs!

Yeah, I said it.  I love Quick Time Events.  Playable cutscenes.  Poor excuses for interactivity in an already interactive medium.  There's something to be said for a game that tries to give you control over something that would normally be either unplayable or a nightmare to program.  We're all so used to cutscenes in our games (predominately action games), and when I was younger, I thought the idea of a little sequence of "smash the button in time to punch the guy in the face" was brilliant.  It took off in gaming and eventually became one of those infectious trends that people just got sick of.

For me, it all started on a high note with this:

(Skip to 3:21)

This is from Die Hard Arcade, which swallowed many a quarter in my youth.  It was a beat-em-up like every game back then, but this was different.  After a few rooms, you'd get to watch Not John McClane sprint down the hallway as the game told you to hit Punch.  And what a punch!  That guy spirals through the air, twice, in slow motion!  But what I appreciate about this ancient QTE is how it was tied to the gameplay.  If you fail, you instead have to fight the guy like any other encounter, so the event was set up to give you a chance to move on without risking your health.

This same system made its way to Shenmue later on, which became synonymous with loathsome QTEs.  I played Shenmue and enjoyed it, but I agree that there were a hell of a lot of the damn things.  Why did they suck?
Mostly it was because you had to pass them to succeed.

This is a game that already has combat in it, and that's what most of these QTEs are.

These events became overbearing to the point of replacing actual gameplay.  Why make a game where Ryo's primary interaction with the world (walking/running and talking to people) don't seamlessly blend with the combat and the exciting chase sequences?  I recall reading an article about Enter the Matrix around this same time where the writer criticized the game for letting you run up to the window but not allowing you to actually jump through it, which the cutscene would do for you.
Some years later I played Devil May Cry 3 and thought the same thing.  Granted, the gameplay itself is satisfying in its own right, but why did Dante do all the really cool shit in the cutscenes and leave the seemingly less-engaging combat to me?  The game was a lot better after I started skipping everything but the fighting.  There were no QTEs and the story wasn't worth mentioning, so I wasn't missing out- I stripped the game down to what it was: raw gameplay.

But still, I had a soft spot in my heart for the games that tried to capture what it was that made these little sequences so special.  People lamented 2009's Ninja Blade because it advertised Quick Time Events on the back of the damn box!

Keep in mind that in the PC version, you can customize your color scheme so that you can be Rainbow Ninja.

See this?  This, to me, was excellent- nobody had to feel betrayed that they were playing some incredible title that was then ruined by poorly-made QTEs.  You knew what you were getting into.  Sadly, the gameplay of Ninja Blade was pretty crappy, but when you consider that most of your time in the game is spent playing cutscenes where you surf on missiles and throw motorcycles into giant monsters, the combat's low quality doesn't matter.
What Ninja Blade also accomplished that some games do well with their QTEs is that it tied certain actions and moves to buttons that remained consistent with the gameplay.  That is, when the protagonist has to jump or do something acrobatic in the QTE, the action is always tied to the jump button, and the same thing goes for attacking and throwing and dodging and so on.  Heavenly Sword did this, as did Asura's Wrath, and while these games share the same disappointing pattern of arguably lackluster combat, their QTEs were satisfying.  I felt like my actions had weight, and the button consistency allowed me to think I was still playing the game rather than just letting something happen.  Hell, I'll even give props to the abysmal Ninja Gaiden 3 for this: the actions Ryu performs as he sails off rooftops or stealth-kills enemies are not only consistent with the buttons pressed during normal gameplay, but it also takes a page from Die Hard Arcade: if you fail these QTEs, you simply fight the enemies normally versus insta-killing them.

Don't lie.  This fight gave you a boner.

Most games seem to forget what QTEs were supposed to be, or rather what I feel like they were trying to be: extensions of the game you were playing.  It was completely natural to deck a guy in the halls while playing Die Hard Arcade.  Mashing buttons in Bayonetta kept me in it, moment to moment.  But why do I need a QTE in Max Payne 3?

Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

I get it, Max can't really fight a guy with melee in the game (since all the melee attacks are just cleverly-disguised insta-kills), but throughout the entire rest of the game Max pulls out a gun when he needs one.  What's especially tricky about this QTE is that it's not just precise, but it's picky.  Not only do you have to press the right button at exactly the right time, but if you press the wrong button at any time, you fail the next action which results in failure.  You can tell this sequence wasn't fully thought-through as you can actually get the achievement for melee attacks simply by repeating it, which happens above.
I didn't care for the "timed decisions" in Mass Effect, though they were at least contextualized more smoothly (come on- the game puts the gun in your hands, the Geth in your scope, and you get renegade points when you pull the trigger?  Really?).  God of War has plenty of gruesome and truly inventive QTEs (bashing the horse keeper in the door in God of War 2 is a favorite, but the gold medal goes to the first-person slaying of Poseidon in God of War 3), but I don't care for them in the long run.  The very end of Metal Gear Solid 3 gets an automatic pass for being important to the story and consistent with player interaction.
Poorly-implemented QTEs don't keep me grounded in the game, their inclusion feels arbitrary, and ultimately many of them beg that big question: why couldn't the game have been designed in a way to incorporate these actions into gameplay?  We're moving in the right direction with some recent titles.  I don't think the sequence in Call of Duty 4 where you crawl out of the helicopter and look up at the mushroom cloud counts as a QTE, but it certainly feels like a playable cutscene and it keeps the player in the game.  The Assassin's Creed series started out with no "true" cutscenes in the sense that you retain control over Altair/Desmond while other characters talked, albeit with limited actions.  This changed as the series advanced, but the early entries had some good ideas (especially those in the Ezio trilogy, beginning with his birth).
And how about those free-running sections in the excellent Sleeping Dogs?  That's the kind of thing Shenmue could only dream of!

Take note.

The prompts pop up as Wei Shen moves through the environment.  It's just a display of context-sensitive actions timed with his approach to an object, but it kills two birds with one stone: the player feels like they're doing more than just pushing a button to traverse the environment (even though this is the same button used to sprint), and they don't feel like they're being taken out of the game to watch the character do something cooler than the player is allowed to do.

Their definition still seems somewhat fluid, and I get the variety of reasons that many players have for not liking QTEs.  The bad ones suck.  The good ones might not be fun for everyone.  Some games are too much like movies with too many QTEs and not enough gameplay, and some games aren't enough like movies for the same reasons.  For me, I try to measure those I come across against the models that I think do the form well, and it would be a shame if we don't see systems like those used in Sleeping Dogs in future titles.  On the whole, people wouldn't miss them if they went away for good, but I think we'll get just enough of the shining examples to keep the mechanic around for a while.

And let's be honest: if the next Pokémon game told you to hit Down+B when the Pokéball closed, you'd do it.   read

11:49 AM on 05.30.2013

Itagaki: "[Devil's Third] is going along really well."

Confirming that I still care about things, Tomonobu Itagaki, former Master Ninja at Team Ninja and current head of Valhalla Game Studios said that Devil's Third is still on track.  Due to timing issues, the game won't be at E3, but he is still in talks with undisclosed publishers.

Following the THQ debacle, the rights for Devil's Third reverted back to Valhalla, so thankfully the game managed to avoid getting stuck in some publisher's back-catalog limbo.  The game was revealed in 2010 for PS3 and 360, but who knows where the hell it will wind up now.

Source: Polygon   read

10:41 PM on 04.19.2013

Rude Mechanicals- Introduction, Portal, and Ninja Gaiden

As part of what I hope will be a repeated, if sporadic, blog series, I'm looking at interesting game mechanics that I find worth discussing. My friend and I are in the design process of making a small game, and following advice from Yacht Club Games regarding how they began work on Shovel Knight, we're beginning by considering interesting moves, features, effects, and dynamics in our favorite games that make them unique, engaging, and fun. We both do a lot of writing and creative-type work, and we agree we'd be better off looking for a concept that would be simple and fun, and that designing a game around this concept would be preferable to launching into some indie opus (rest assured—this game, whatever the hell it is, is a long way off).

When discussing game mechanics, we're not as selective as an entry of Concelmo's "The Memory Card;" our options for worthwhile game mechanics are innumerable. Every single game has *something* worth taking a look at, but alas, I'm only one dude. I use the term very loosely. For the purposes of my project (which is predominately a journal effort, but I hope someone else finds an interesting read here), I'm defining a game mechanic as a passive or active component of a game that affects player experience. By that I mean something that you, the player, either control or are required to react to in playing the game, so usually not something narrative. Max Payne being bald is not a game mechanic, but his movement, aiming, health regeneration, diving, and reloading are. By "active" and "passive," I'm referring to whether or not players control the mechanic. An "active" game mechanic would be Bayonetta's dodge. You hang the right trigger, she dodges. Every time. That's what the button is for. "Passive" would be something that operates independent of the player, such as Max's aforementioned regenerating health, the speed of the in-game bullets, or his tumbling animation when you accidentally dive over a chest-high barrier and miss the goddamn ground and I have to restart the checkpoint. Another slightly-common reference for what I'd call a "passive" mechanic would be what Tim Rogers called "Sticky Friction."

Games are made up of tons of elements, but game mechanics here are simplified to the gameplay itself. The simplest games offer only a few mechanics (Canabalt, Super Meat Boy, ZiGGURAT), while more complex games (Max Payne, Bayonetta above) juggle plenty at a time. As this is exploratory for me, I recognize that this definition is fluid, and not only is it debatable, but it will likely change over time. If there is a textbook definition of "game mechanics" that I could have found via Google, so be it (yeah, I'll read the rest of the wiki article later). Ultimately, if I'm using the term incorrectly, that doesn't affect my ultimate goal of exploring the things that make great games great.

Some disclosure: I'm an action game fan first and foremost, so those tend to be the titles I focus on. Listing all the games I like would take longer than my intro's already gone on, so I'll keep this simple: Itagaki-era Team Ninja titles (I'm "that guy"- I will no doubt go in-depth into Ninja Gaiden 2 later), Platinum Games/Clover, Kojima's work, Epic Games, Rockstar, Remedy, any Mega Man game, fighting games, platformers, stealth, shooters, some racing (Burnout/F-Zero), and the occasional SRPG. I'm a student, I'm on a budget—I can't afford to play everything in terms of both time and money, but like the best writers that read voraciously, I hope to study what I can.
And an apology: I don't know of a good way to take screenshots off my consoles. I tend to write without any mind toward a visual element, but I'll do my best to accommodate some visuals whenever possible. If you’re aware of any simple software or methods short of taking a photo of my TV, I’m all ears.

Some planned topics for future entries:
--Environment and control (AC/3, MGS, MGR, Skyrim)
--Stealth Kills (Tenchu, MGS, Mark of the Ninja, Assassin's Creed, Halo Reach/Halo 4 Executions)
-Bullet-Time/Slow-Mo (Max Payne, Bayonetta/Vanquish, COD)
-Real-World physics
--Driving and objects
-Double-Jumping (Castlevania, Bayonetta, SSB, UT)
-2D/3D Fighting game movement
-Grid systems (Fire Emblem's "chess" to Disgaea's Warhammer)
-Charge-Up moves
--The Mega Buster (also Metroid, MVC2, ZOE lasers, Cave Story)
--The Iado (NG, MGR/Bayonetta/DMC, ZOE Burst)
--Timed Charges (Halo’s Spartan Laser/Railgun, ZiGGURAT, UT Rocket Launcher)
-The "Alternator" button
--Lock-on and aiming (COD, MP3, Gears, Bulletstorm, Halo 4)
---Body shots (Max Payne, Bulletstorm, GTA/RDR, MGS)
--Stance changing (Way of the Samurai, AC, RDR (1/2), SR3)
-Reactionary moves
--Dodging, counters, ukemi (NG, SSB, GodHand, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta/DMC, God of War)
--Finishing moves (NG2, God of War, Bayonetta/MGR)
--Special Moves in Shooters (Gears of War, PD0, Max Payne, Halo Reach/4, UT)
--Reloading and QTE/bonus shots (Gears of War, Killer7, FFVIII, Legend of Dragoon)
-NPC's (Mario Sunshine, Mega Man Legends, GTA, Deus Ex/Skyrim, Zelda’s Cuccoos)
-Camera systems (MGS, Dead Rising, Halo’s theater mode)
-Free weapon control (Zelda: SS, Castlevania’s whip, MGR)
-Rule Breaking (Alan Wake: staying out of the light, MGS: Wearing a disguise, ZOE: Following Ken, GTA: Driving within limits, NG: Enemies countering/copying attacks)
-The Hunter (Mario 3D’s Shadow Mario, Super Meat Boy’s mutants, chase scenes in Uncharted, God of War, Alert mode in MGS, Wanted level in GTA, Bounty Hunters in Fallout)
-EX Mode (God of War, MGR/many Platinum games, new Castlevania, MVC3, NOT NG)
-Cover-based shooting (Halo, COD, Max Payne, Gears, RDR/GTA, Killzone, MGS)
-Taunts and Flourishes (Bayonetta, DMC, Zelda: TP, NG2, MGS3)
-HUDs (AC, Fallout, MGS)

Clearly, each one of these is its own miniature dissertation. I won't get to all of these, and I may discuss whatever happens to be sticking with me at the time. I'll focus on a few games that highlight the given mechanic, and I'll try to not only explore its functionality and effects on the player, but also look at unconventional ways a given mechanic is used, perhaps outside of its genre or typical field.


I've chosen to begin with Portal not because I think it has great mechanics or is a great game (though for the record, it's very fun and Portal is worth the time, but you know that by now), but because of the way the portal gun, as well as other game mechanics, are introduced to the player.
In short, you are given the clues and signals that tell you what's coming up next before you have to engage with them directly, then you are required to manipulate them in new ways without instruction. I want this entry to be something of an introduction to the use and function of a game mechanic as core to the game it's a part of, using Portal as the exemplar of this. I probably won’t look at puzzle game mechanics very often for two reasons: first, because I think every good puzzle game will invent some new mechanic (as Portal, Rochard, Braid, Fez, Quantum Conundrum, and lots of others have done), and second, because I’m not planning on making a puzzle game (side note: stealth games, by their function, are often a type of puzzle game, but that’s for later).
(For notable examples of games that introduce a new mechanic to the player in steps and implement it into the gameplay seamlessly, see Braid, just about any Mario game, and Egoraptor's excellent breakdown of Mega Man X.)

By now, just about anyone with a passing interest in puzzle games has given Portal a shot, and if you haven’t, you should. Its design has been commended 1,001 times, but I want to take a closer look at the opening of the game.
You (Chell) begin in a tube and the basic instructions on movement, typical first-person navigation, appear. Beyond the small cell you’re in, you see through the glass an unconnected Portal and a countdown timer. The cell is important, because as with the range of options granted to the player, the game is gradually opening up and expanding. Glados says some stuff and eventually counts down in sync with the timer to the opening of the other end of the portal on the wall next to you.
The player observes this happening: here’s the wispy orange portal on the wall, and suddenly the blue portal opens at your side. You can see the two portals together, and they’re arranged in such a way that you can see yourself at a 90-degree angle.
This is the game’s way of saying, “This is how the portals work.” One is blue, one is orange, and they connect to one-another. You step through and walk around to the door. In the next room is a giant button on the floor and a box. It’s also worth mentioning that the game, in keeping with its science experiment-motif, announces what’s up ahead with its giant light-up wall signs. The game broadcasts everything it's doing and everything it expects (until the end).
Here in this room, the game prompts you to lift the box with a button, and you place it on the switch. The lights from the switch to the door light up, the door has a check mark next to it, and it opens. It could hardly be more transparent. As you approach the elevator, Glados mentions the vaporization field in front of it that nullifies anything that passes through it, specifically the boxes—okay, noted.
In the first 3 minutes of the game, Portal has demonstrated several functions: movement and interaction mechanics, the usage of the portals themselves, and the general flow of the game (i.e. complete task and proceed). The following rooms test the basic abilities by combining everything you’ve learned up to that point. It builds upon this by slowly introducing, explaining, and modifying new rules. When you first approach the devices that shoot orbs of light, Glados mentions their dangerous properties. When you encounter water, same thing. When you first see the Portal gun itself, it’s placed on a pedestal of sorts and you are forced to remain in the observation room to see how it functions (so Glados can say something about the next test not being observed). You, as the player, clearly see how this element works. You solve the puzzle, you pick it up, and voila—phase two begins, with the player in charge. Now that you know how this mechanic works, you’re tasked with using it in a new, less formulaic way.

The qualities that make Portal a great game are many, but as a linear set of rules, it’s remarkable for the transparency with which it illustrates these rules to the player. Game mechanics don’t necessarily need to be accessible or easy to manipulate, but they should be consistent. You will never come across something in Portal that wasn’t first demonstrated to you in some way. Everything is there to serve the primary gameplay objective of allowing you to experiment but ultimately restricting you to a single solution.
When I think about “consistency” and certain game mechanics, I tend to think about the infamous “unblockable attacks” of various action games (and almost every action game, from Ninja Gaiden to God of War) has unblockable attacks. To be fair, this isn’t a straight-across comparison (from Portal to action games) but what Portal accomplishes with its mechanics needs to be spread more widely. The reason I bring up unblockable attacks in action games is because they, in my mind, negate consistency.
For example, look at the grab system in the Ninja Gaiden (Xbox) series. Ryu is not capable of grab-type moves. He has some that manipulate the enemy in interesting ways, but for the most part, Ryu’s move set consists of dodging, attacking, and blocking. The enemies, like the infamous Black Spider ninjas in NG1, can initiate a throw from a neutral position. These throws are unblockable and cannot be parried. You can dodge them if you see them coming.
Up to this point (depending on which iteration of NG1 you’re playing, this means anywhere from level 1 to level 4), the game has taught you that attacks can be blocked, and by and large, the enemies have roughly the same skill sets you do. Then you encounter enemies that break these rules. While it’s no problem for the skilled player that eventually learns to deal with this possibility and carries himself differently in gameplay, the fact is that the game established a rule and broke it.
This is not to suddenly cry out madly that all of the rules are in question, but it does de-power the player to a certain degree when the tools they’re given for the game are not always adequate. And we can also say that variety is important, but this is something that the player cannot effectively mitigate except through playing the game differently than the first few levels instructed them to.
The argument can be made that this mechanic, the enemy’s capability to grab Ryu, is being taught to the player via the enemy grabbing him—I agree with that, though I look at differently for this reason: the structure of the gameplay is centered around the player facing enemies, and whichever side does enough damage to the opponent is victorious; repeat this loop for every encounter. The enemy’s objective is to do damage to the player, and keep doing damage at which point the player is defeated. The player’s objective is to do damage to his opponents until they are defeated, at which point the player proceeds to the next encounter. Ignoring the in-game story of why these guys are trying to kill Ryu (like NG has much of a story anyway), once the player falls down dead the 1’s and 0’s that make up his opponents are finished with their objective and they cease to exist until the player restarts and enters combat with them again.
To aid the player, the game presents several rules that are in line with the game’s structure. The enemies will deal damage to the player with attacks, and the player can deflect damage with blocking. The player can move around the environment with dodging. The player may also deal damage to opponents with attacks. In symbolic form:

-Enemies deal damage to player
-Player’s block function stops damage

And this brings us back to the unblockable attacks (note: I’ve centered on NG’s throws in this case for simple examples, but there are other unblockable attacks in the game, mostly dealing with bosses and ranged attacks— I’ll address these in a later breakdown of NG itself). The enemy’s ability to use an unblockable throw takes priority over the player’s ability to block. This means that blocking is not guaranteed to prevent damage 100% of the time, and thus the combat rules becomes slightly more akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors than to an organized tier list.

So here are two game mechanics, from Portal and Ninja Gaiden, that operate differently. I don’t look to these individual mechanics as evidence of the superior game, though I think Portal has better design in this regard. In my opinion, game mechanics should be consistent, or should otherwise be instructed to the player that there are risks involved in a given technique’s use. At a later time when I break down action game mechanics, I’ll talk more about NG and how something like Metal Gear Rising teaches the player about blockable and unblockable attacks by having its enemies flash red and yellow, respectively. I think it’s important to note that, opinions aside, no two games are necessarily alike, and not all of them work perfectly on a set of game mechanics like Portal's. Ninja Gaiden would be a hell of a lot easier and perhaps a little more boring if it weren’t for the unplanned-for, surprise threat of an enemy’s unblockable attack. At the same time I feel it’s just as important to say that we should design the rules of the game and build the game up to something that complements the rules without working against them. A game that breaks the rules as part of its design (let’s not get stated on Disgaea) can be a great thing, but a game that breaks its own rules for the sake of doing so (e.g. harder difficulty modes that offer increased difficulty in place of increased challenge) is a game that seems like it has a shaky foundation, and is more flash than substance. Those tend to be the games we stop playing, because what’s the point?   read

10:59 PM on 04.09.2013

A fan's take on Maverick Hunter


It seems fitting to me that my first blog entry is about Mega Man, who led me into gaming when neither he nor I could yet walk properly. Today (4/9) saw the revelation of the long-cancelled "Maverick Hunter," and the voices of a hundred thousand fans went up in a mix of "What?" and "What the hell is that crap?" A Mega Man X fps developed by the same group responsible for Metroid Prime? On paper, the concept sounds like it has some promise.

Whether you approve of the changes made to the title or not, rest assured that it won't be resurrected. I've been a Mega Man fan longer than I've known how to spell, and I won't deny that I've always wanted a "good" 3D Mega Man game (we'll talk about Legends another time). Mega Man X was my favorite. There was something about the way the game carried itself- both an evolved form of the classic titles and a perfect identity all its own, where elements like the dash, the charge shot, the armor upgrades, and the wall climb were welcome additions integrated perfectly into the gameplay, not useless gimmicks tacked on to the classic formula. If they were to take any of the core series titles and turn it into a first-person shooter, this would be the one.

Yeah, X looks a little weird. I'm not much of a Marvel fan, so telling me the same dude responsible for Iron Man detailed X's new getup does little for me. It could have been changed (though oddly, I like the red "X" face mask, it's very Platinum Games). I miss the giant boots, and the X-Buster shouldn't really be shooting bullets; energy shots allow for the possibility of growth (a prominent theme in the X series), and the charge shot being a giant energy wave helped that. But when you take it all for what it is, it looked like a rather appealing FPS. Granted, strip away "Mega Man" from it and you have a guy who looks like a blue Iron Man/Spartan-IV reject shoulder-tackling giant robots, but as someone who enjoys a good shooter, is there anything wrong with that as a beginning?

A lot of people felt that this was cancelled "for the best." I agree that it didn't- yet- capture the spirit of Mega Man, but what was there looked no less fun to me than Vanquish, Halo 4, or <insert shooter here>. Understandably, a lot of people compared it to those titles. Maybe people didn't like his arm cannon being what was essentially just a machine gun, and his unnecessary grenades (that mimic Gravity Beetle's power) and rocket launcher weren't in keeping with a true Mega Man vibe. I saw a fair few comments that derided the dash-tackle moves and what appeared to be context-sensitive kills. Some commented that the shooting action on offer looked unimpressive and joyless. The idea of Mega Man having a human cop sidekick as he drops into some enemy installation and acknowledges his orders with a too-cool "Got it" just goes too far.

As much as I say, "I'd play it!" I recognize we're talking about a handful of small clips in prototype form. Not much to go on for the interested, and easy to write off for the disinterested. But I can't help wondering if people really legitimately thought it looked like a terrible game, a game that lacked even the potential to be intriguing, or if people were up in arms that our hero had been so transformed? The sad truth is that it's been a long, long time since we saw a Mega Man game that did him justice. We had Mega Man 9 and 10, and before that we had, what- Maverick Hunter X in 2006? The Zero Collection is fairly recent, but as a collection, I'll set it aside. It's no secret that we want a new Mega Man game, but before we're ready to take the wild risks implied by a title like Maverick Hunter, we want to see him as we last saw him, safely back in the 2D style we know and love (or in Legends' lighthearted 3D). Once we're sure he's back for good, then we might be willing to entertain some spin-offs. So rather than looking at Maverick Hunter as a new and possibly reinvigorating sub-series that may or may not have brought in a new audience (notice: "Mega Man" was not part of the title's codename, just "Maverick Hunter." If the main character went by "X" the whole game, this new audience who would necessarily know nothing of previous Mega Man games would come to know him as "X" and the arguably childish/outdated name of "Mega Man" wouldn't factor into it.), we look at Maverick Hunter and, thoughts on the state of the playable build aside, see another game that doesn't star the blue bomber.

Before writing this, I had to do some interior design on this blog and settled on the above image of X, as he appears in Maverick Hunter, as a reminder of a game that could have been, or if you'll permit me, how another culture views our icon, in the same sense that lots of fan art might depict a slightly different X than we're familiar with, but one we recognize all the same. There's no getting around that people were and are resistant to the idea of this kind of Mega Man. There's no sense in arguing it- if you read the article and watched the videos then you are basing your opinion on exactly the same stuff I am; it's not like we'll play the game to compare tastes. I think it wouldn't be out of the question to think that the next time we see him, the next time we get to play his game, he might look a little different than we remember. What's most important to me is that the next Mega Man game we get is a good one. It may be different or "unfaithful" to the series' structure, but a good game is a good game, and so long as he's a part of it, we can welcome him back and go forward from there. Seeing Capcom's business practices of late, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they take some ridiculous risk on a project not unlike this one and cancel future plans of expansion based on fan vitriol.

Perhaps on some level I don't even care what type of game the next Mega Man is, so long as it's fun to play. We've been used to disappointment ever since Universe and Legends 3 were cancelled, and I don't think a little cautious optimism the next time we see him would be such a bad thing. In the mean time, the games we have and cherish haven't gone away. We have 3 collections of the main series, and even if those make us yearn for more, at least they keep us tethered to the reasons we keep waiting.   read

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