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11:53 AM on 04.14.2012

Looking Elsewhere

Today's Let's Take a Look and future week's Let's Take a Look articles will no longer be posted on the Dtoid community blogs, my tumblr, or Moderately Oversized Hats. Worry not though, (or don't celebrate yet), because I will continue writing them, they've just moved! I've been lucky enough to recieve a job writing for the new gaming website, Awesome Out of Ten! Awesome/10's current writers are made up of interns and community members from Destructoid, and aims to deliver reviews that ditch numbers, and features that aren't glorified advertisements! If you enjoyed my weekly series of observations, then you'll be able to find them on Awesome/10 before you know it! Due to publishing times, I don't know if I'll be staying on my Saturday schedule, or maybe moving it to another day, so if you don't see my newest one on there this week, keep your eyes open for it next week!

While it is a great opportunity to work with some of Destructoid's great writers on this promising new venture, I just wanted to thank the wonderful and supportive community of Destructoid! Your guys' wonderful comments and words of encouragement have given me the drive needed to continue posting week after week, and to work on improving both my writing and game design skills. Despite my moving my articles, you'll all still be able to find me hanging around Destructoid, normally in the Outer Heaven chat, but I will do my best to continue reading and commenting on all of the fine articles present in the community blogs! I've also applied to a Destructoid internship, so with any luck, you may even see me writing another series or feature for Destructoid!

Once again, thank you guys for your continous support and uplifting comments, don't be afraid to be a visit me over on A/10, I'd love to see you guys over there too! Always remember, everything can be made better by simply taking, a closer look.

Special Thanks:
Arttemis, for his constant lengthy and intelligent discussions tangental to my articles.
Elsa, for her continued support and cheery comments.
Knutaf, for helping me realise I was in dire need of an editor.
The C-Blogs Recap Team: For the honor of having Let's Take a Look promoted to topsauce for six weeks in a row! Seriously, thanks guys!
The Destructoid Interns-A/10 Writers: For having me on your site and support!
Everyone Else- For reading!   read

1:33 PM on 04.07.2012

Let's Take a Look: Visual Novel Narrative

I've played a lot of Japanese games, I won't lie. I've noticed something very peculiar about them though because of this, there's a mechanic that is seemingly ubiquitous in them. The ever-present mechanic I've noticed, is Visual Novel dialogue and storytelling. It's used in games such as Valkyria Chronicles, Disgaea, Advanced Wars, Metal Gear Solid, Ar Tonelico, the list just goes on and on. I'm so used to Visual Novels that I've almost taken it for granted in Japanese games, but since it's so prevalent, it should be observed for its form and purpose even more. This raises some interesting questions: What is the history behind it, why is it used, and how can we possibly benefit from its use? Well, let's take a look.

If we want to understand why Visual Novels are so prevalent now, we'll first need to look back all the way to the beginnings of the Japanese games industry. Back, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and Videogames still came on floppies, we find our scene. In the darkness of his room, a lonely Japanese man sits by himself, inserting one of many floppy discs into an antiquated fossil of a computer. That game was the pre-cursor to the Japanese gaming industry, and the Mother of the visual novel, that game was an eroge. Or, put in more blunt terms, it was a porn game.

(While this is obviously a newer example, eroge has had a massive influence on the Visual Novel)

No, don't alt-tab yet, I promise this is a Safe For Work article! While it may seem confusing and odd that the Visual novel dates back to Eroge, just follow me here for a bit. The Eroge eventually evolved into the Dating Sim, which would eventually evolve into the Visual Novel. While a Japanese Mystery game for the NES actually laid the ground-work for the Visual Novel format we know today, it was the Eroge industry who took that template and ran with it. The Visual Novel format allowed Eroge and normal VN makers to be able to add un-before reached levels of story and immersion, by adding literature and writing into the core of a game.

From here, many Eroge makers started to add more "gameplay" like elements into their Visual Novels, and thus from the Visual Novel sprung the JRPG. Companies like Falcom, who practically invented the JRPG, actually got their first start in the Eroge business. By using the strong story-telling capabilities of the visual novel format, game studios were able to create games with un-precedented depth, such as Final Fantasy IV and Tactics Ogre. These new JRPGs, and even SRPGs, utilized the Visual Novel format to handle diologue between characters and describe details, while still allowing interactivity and strategy by using tile and menu based combat. While Final Fantasy IV has aged quite badly (in my opinion), Tactics Ogre's story still stands out as a shining example of writing and narrative in Videogames. While Tactics Ogre's graphics and mechanics may have aged, it's story has not, thanks to the power of writing that the Visual Novel style of story-telling added to it.

(Tactics Ogre has been recently updated in a PSP remake, it's worth a look)

It's here that we see the effect that the Visual Novel has had on the begginnings of the Japanese games industry, but can this show us why it's used today? Its use in early JRPG stems from the fact that gameplay alone could not tell a whole story. Whereas in Mario, or Kirby, the gameplay was both the game and the story, JRPGs could not do that. If we look at today's Japanese games, we see the same motivation behind Visual Novel mechanics. While heavily-funded games like Final Fantasy XIII are able tell their story solely through cutscenes, other smarter and poorer studios instead use Visual Novel based story and dialogue to capture what they just can't through gameplay. While it isn't limited to funding, as even a lot of expensive Triple-A Japanese games still utilize these elements, it's still an easy and effective way of being able to tell a story and navigate dialogue.

This miraculously cheap and effective system is not without it's drawbacks however. Just as with the over-use and mis-use of custscenes, if not used right, Visual Novel storytelling can be immersion shattering, slow-paced, and restrictive. If you go from having someone beat down a giant boss, only to then give them a Visual Novel scene in which the boss doesn't actually die, and ends up setting the player back, you will only frustrate the player and destroy whatever semblance of choice you just worked to build. While cutscenes have also been guilty of this, and must also exercise caution- the damage done is far worse with Visual Novel segments due to their roots in literature. While watching an immersion shattering custscene may be bad, reading an immersion shattering scene is even worse as it relies on an entirely different form of information processing and distances the player even further from the game.

(Persona 4's daily life segments can be just as interesting as its combat segments)

Now that we understand why Visual Novels mechanics are used, and what drawbacks they can have, how do we effectively use Visual Novel segments in order to maximize game efficiency while minimizing damage done to immersion? One way to do it is to design around the disparity between actual gameplay and Visual Novel storytelling. An excellent example of this exists within the Persona games. In Persona 3 and 4, gameplay is segmented into two parts. Most of your average activities and social interactions are handled like an interactive Visual Novel, while actual combat and exploration is handled within dungeons by gameplay. This method clearly separates the game into two distinct parts and uses those distinct parts in order to easily set up pacing. Just as soon as the player gets tired of one activity, the player can then choose to switch to the other. It's through this that Persona 3 and 4 manage to balance narrative and battle mechanics.

As genius as Persona's system for handling pacing and narrative is, one can also effectively use Visual Novel mechanics by changing their form and use. The example for this would be any of the Metal Gear Solid games. In-game codec calls are handled in a modified form of Visual Novel segments. The brilliance of it though, is the fact that these segments only display dialogue, and act as a sort of phone call between the characters. That coupled with the fact that the player does not need to rely on only reading, makes the mechanic almost invisible. While I love Metal Gear Solid, I do have some scruples about the writing. While the idea of the codec call is genius, and fits within the context of the game, the length and redundancy of writing in the Metal Gear Solid games sometimes may get in the way of immersion. This warns us that whatever system we use, even a system that fits within the context of the game, narrative must always be handled responsibly, and not bog down the player too much.

(Metal Gear Solid is one of my favorite series, but is not without it's flaws)

In the long run, what have Visual Novels really shown us this week? What did we gain out of observing Visual Novel segments that we couldn't have possibly learned from just looking at cutscenes instead? We may have learned about their history, and their use, but we've also learned about in-game context and using narrative as pacing. While having Visual Novel segments that read like a book, or cutscenes that operate like a movie, may be the easy and simple way to deliver narrative, it's important to consider the rules of the game world and the context in which it operates in. Would Metal Gear Solid have been made better if every codec-call read like a book, describing the emotions and details of the people in the dialogue? No. By restricting our narrative to the game world we also are given a viable and immersive pacing option. While you can cut out all of the cutscenes of any recent Final Fantasy game, splice them into a movie and ship them off, you cannot take out the Visual Novel elements of a Persona game and have it remain a full experience. This way we're given a deep and immersive way to interact with our games worlds while being able to enhance narrative and save on production costs that could be placed elsewhere.

Visual Novels if used wrong, can make a game feel like a broken, mashed together experience, but if used right, can provide great story-telling that exists within the context of the game. The key to Visual Novels, like much of game design, lies in the fact that observation is required to use them properly and effectively. Through observation and innovation we can find other ways that the Visual Novel can be used. Perhaps even American made games can learn to utilize to adapt the useful-ness of the Visual Novel, perhaps we can evolve it into something else entirely. The Visual Novel represents something that can always be made better by simply, taking a closer look.

Addendum- Once again, Destructoid's very own Liam Fisher has helped me edit my article! Thanks Liam! Also, feel like I've missed something? Don't quite agree with me? Feel free to write a comment! Learning is best done in groups!   read

2:19 PM on 04.05.2012

10 Things you didn't know about Thomas Williams

I know I'm a little late to the ten things party, but I'm still fairly new here. I didn't quite think that I should make a ten things blog because of that, but oh well, might as well share more about myself I guess! My introduction blog is only about a month or so old by now, and that details the basics of who I am already, so I thought I'd share more obscure and embarrassing facts about me that you may hopfully find entertaining. Hopefully.

Although it's hard to tell, yes that's a beret I'm wearing.

0. My ex was a mafia princess-
I know this doesn't say much about me per-se, but my ex's father was totally in the mafia. I've always heavily dug the mafia in just about any videogame, movie, or book, so knowing an actual mobster in real life was beyond amazing. Until, y'know, my ex dumped me. After that her father invited me to go out "hunting" with him. I declined, and luckily, I actually haven't had any problems since. Go figure.

1. I had a mohawk once-
My hair is normally rather quite wavy and long, but my mom actually persuaded me to get a mohawk once. Yes, my mom made me get a mohawk. This mohawk lasted about four hours, while I was crying non-stop, and eventually got my mom to just shave it off. I'm neither a mohawk or a shaved/short hair person. Full hair FTW.

2. I enjoy really bad games-
I don't enjoy them per se, but I love to play horrible games as a lesson in game design. Neopets: The Darkest Fairy, any sims Spin-off, Hyperdimension Neptunia, the Saboteur, if it was awful or, even worse, mediocre, there's a good chance I've played it. You can always learn more about making videogames from observing completely and totally wrecked ones as compared to perfect ones.

3. I used to be a part-time Japanese game localizer-
I actually only know rudimentary Japanese, so I was the slowest of the bunch. While it'd take longer for me to translate, I'd try to make up for it by adding personality and originality into the text. The website I used to translate for was HongFire, and we all worked off of donations. HongFire only did unlocalized VNs and Eroge, but we almost did Recettear! That is until it got picked up by a real localization studio. *shrug*

4. I used to be in a band-
Unlike most people in a band however, I did not play drums, or guitar, or anything cool like that. I played my great-grandfather's WW1 German Harmonica. I love the Harmonica, Piano, and Accordian, and while serving as the manager for this small garage rockband, they let me join as a Harmonica player. Coincidentally it's also where I met my ex- protip: never date female rockers unless you're sure they're mentally stable and don't have mafioso fathers.

5. My real name is Tomas Anthony Espinoza the Third-
While in the real world I prefer to go by the name Thomas Williams, my name is indeed Tomas Anthony Espinoza the Third. Some people I know really well don't know it, and it's kind of hard for me to share. Parts of my famliy have rather strong Spanish ties, after which I was named, but the side of the family I come from is the Irish/German side, so I try to ignore my Spanish heritage. I don't have anything against my Spanish heritage, I'm quite proud of it, but it just sucks having a Spanish name in California when you're white as snow and not fully spanish.

6. I only started gaming four years ago-
I had a really sheltered childhood, so the extent of the videogames I was allowed to play were pretty much, Mario, Zelda, and anything else Nintendo. I was really always into gaming, but for the longest time it was confined into the family friendly territory of Nintendo. That changed when I turned eleven and found a little title by the name of Oblivion. It was my first M-rated game, and relived my mother of all of the ill pre-concieved notions she had about video-games. Oblivion also is the reason why I want to be a game designer, to see a game that offered that much choice, freedom, and exploration amazed me, and inspired me to want to make my own. Four years and a lot of catching up later, I'm fifteen, I've now played about every single classic game I've missed, I'm currently studying to apply to a game design school.

7. I originally wanted to be a novelist-
Yeah. Once again, Oblivion changed that. Now I seek to enhance my writing skills for the sake of being a better game designer, and in order to design clear, concise, and correct design documents. I also put my writing skills to use when writing the story and dialogue for my games, of which I have currently two in the making, a personal project and a team project.

8. I will not go anywhere without some sort of portable game device-
This habit started from as early as I remember, when I used to carry around my GameBoy Advanced everywhere. While I may not have gotten into gaming proper until four years ago, I've always been a real portable fiend. Now I normally carry with me an Alienware Laptop, an Android phone, a PlayStation Vita, and a Nintendo 3DS. I still own my horribly banged up, taped together, and falling apart Gameboy Advanced.

9. I actually kind of hate Survival Horror.
This may come as a surprise as I've normally celebrated the Survival Horror genre in my blogs, and have spoken many great words of encouragement about Amnesia and Silent Hill in the Outer Heaven chat, but I personally dislike them. From a game design standpoint, I love the idea of a Videogame attempting to explore more emotions than paper-thin ones such as "fun" or "sad". Survival Horror games are also the easiest to learn from, as all of their mechanics are influenced to either create stress or fear, which is a lot less vague and a lot more quantifiable than "fun". Personally though, they scare the hell out of me, as, well I guess is the point. If anything it's more of a love hate relationship, as while I dread playing them and progressing through the games, I really do quite love the feeling of completing a puzzle or finishing a game.

-Sidenote: I'm kind of a programmer. I know the basics, and I can write up rudimentary script, but I'm no code ninja. I've counted up from zero due to the fact that arrays in most coding languages start at zero instead of one, due to it being a location closest to the computer. Gee, this probably could've been it's own number couldn it?   read

11:15 AM on 03.31.2012

Let's Take a Look: Strategy and Roleplaying

What defines a Roleplaying Game? This is actually a rather common, and quite interesting question that serves as an easy starting point to the discussion of what exactly defines a genre. Yet, it's a question that has been discussed many times, and one that I find is rather all too easy. Instead the question that's been bopping around in my head for a while has been about what defines the Strategy Roleplaying Game. In a genre that seems adverse to any sort of roleplaying and immersion, the genre that gave us turn based games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Fire Emblem, what exactly gives us the right to consider these games RPGs? What can we do in order to enhance SRPGs, and perhaps make them live up a bit more to their name? Well, let's take a look.

First, let's look at what makesthe SRPG different from other strategy genres. SRPGs normally differ from RTSs from the fact that besides they are turn-based, they are normally also more squad oriented than "basecamp" oriented. If there are eny economic systems in SRPGs such as the building of units or enhancing of abilities, they are normally done before battles begin, unlike having to build and enhance units during a battle as with RTSs. This brings us to the more pressing comparison, what exactly is so special about SRPGs that classifies them separately from standard Turn-Based Strategies? While if we're to look at the actual mechanic differences, we see the same differences that exist between SRPGs and RTSs, except on a turn based format. However, if we turn not to mechanics, but areas of origin, we find that most RTSs such as Starcraft and standard TBSs such as Civilization are Western and that almost all SRPGs happen to be Eastern.

(Starcraft's still no stranger to Eastern audiences)

I believe that this is the most important thing we can take out of this comparison, as if SRPGs are mostly Eastern, then that means Eastern RPGs are what we should look at as a basis of how RPG elements are handled in SRPGs. This explains why Western roleplaying is normally absent from these games, as Eastern RPGs normally focus on story and progression mechanics. Fire Emblem is a brilliant example of this, as it applies all of the basics of a JRPG, but in a more tactical and strategic battle system. While this makes sense knowing how the Japanese view RPGs, a few questions still remain. What would happen if we applied Western Roleplaying elements and decision making in SRPGS?

While many JRPGs already don't contain much roleplaying, Strategy RPGs hold even less roleplaying potential. Look at Disgaea, sure it may have a great story, sure there may be many different options and strategies, but how do you possibly roleplay as a group of ten plus unique and generic characters? The avatar based escapism and immersion that comes from roleplaying is absent among the hordes of characters and units you can control in Strategy RPGs.

However, in Strategy RPGs such as Disgaea, or Fire Emblem, or Final Fantasy Tactics, some or all of the units you control are unique, fully fledged characters with their own motivations and stories. Roleplaying can technically come from roleplaying as each character individually, and selecting each strategy according to a character's personality. This character is wild and crazy, so he's going to attack head on! This character is silent and sneaky, she'll slip in undetected. Perfect right? Yet, while some players may indeed take that behaviour, unless there is any incentive to this, strategy will always be king. The strategy in a strategy RPG will always outweigh the roleplaying elements, and when fighting against a tough enemy, what will you choose, the strategy that stays true to each character's personality, or the strategy that will win?

("Snake, do you think... love can bloom on the battlefield?")

In order to solve this delimma, such roleplaying elements must be weaved into the strategy of the game itself. Small things such as making each character's personality reflective of it's class will lead players to automatically choose methods of fighting best suited to each character. While that may seem obvious, and is already employed by numerous games, systems such as Fire Emblem's "support conversations" can add an extra dimension of roleplaying into strategy, but making social interaction and relationships factor into turning the tide of battle.

Still, no matter how much we attempt to tack on gimicky roleplaying elements, trying to force the same framework of choice and social interaction normally found in Western RPGs, they will continue to be overshadowed by cold, logical, strategy. In order to make a truly satisfying SRPG we must take the basics and re-form them in a way that works given our format. The rawest elements of the RPG I would argue, are choice and immersion. Applying choice is simultaniously easy and hard. It's easy to figure out that having an endless permutation of personal choices and strategies makes for an awesome SRPG, but it's hard to actually design it. Should it be done right, then no strategy will ever be the "best", and strategies become a personal and unique thing to each player. Should it be done wrong, you have everyone following one strategy that works the best in every situation imaginable.

(Disgaea relies on crazy damage and crazy moves)

With our ideal system of choice and strategy, which should already be implemented in any strategy game, we now turn to immersion. While immersion should be a given in any Videogame, in Strategy Games immersion is normally replaced by obssession. Instead of staying up til' 2 o clock in the morning caught up in your character's actions, you're up til' 2 o clock in the morning grinding for maximum levels and perfecting your personal strategy. Disgaea in general tends to take this route, touting a levelling system that goes all the way up to level 9999, and stats that go even higher. While this methodology of making Strategy games also manages to be quite engaging and gripping, it still loses what it means to be a SRPG.

How exactly do we apply immersion then, how can we pull the player further into the game? If immersion is impossible to achieve through roleplaying as individual units, what about roleplaying a commander? Advanced Wars: Dual Strike for the most part, could be considered a standard TBS, with unit creation and resource collection being core parts of the game, yet I'd consider it to be one of the best examples of a true SRPG currently available. Why is this? You roleplay as your commander. Commanding officers in Advanced Wars: Dual Strike all have their own ways of issuing orders and formulating strategies and as such, get different stat bonuses and penalties apllied to different units. New commanding officers are unlocked as you play through the campaign mode, and depending on how well you play, normally by masterfully utilizing your CO's specialties, you gain varying amounts of experience points to go into levelling your CO. The sheer genius of this system is that it not only caters to various different playstyles, but it also rewards the player for thinking about decisions in a certain mindset, or in other words, roleplaying. Levelling and progression systems normally used in JRPGs are tweaked and utilized in just the right way in order to make Advanced Wars not only an obssessive game, but an immersive and fun game as well.

(Each of Dual Strike's COs have their own distinct visual design and abilities)

In the end, have we actually learned anything new about how to make a good videogame? I believe we have. Instead of simply taking the basics of two genres and melding them together in a contrived way, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike has taught us that the best way to mesh genres is to take elements from both that compliment eachother as much as possible. But I believe the more important lesson in this comes from the fact that by looking at the basic types of engagement offered by different genres, we can design our mechanics around them and be innovative while catering to specific niches. This very same principle is what saved the dying genre of the SRPG, and remain at the core of game design. The SRPG genre is definitely full of innovation just as much as stagnation, but there's always room for improvement if you just, take a closer look.

Addendum: Observation is never definite, nor is game design. Have different examples or arguments? Go ahead, comment and share it! This week's post has also been edited by one of Destructoid's very own writers, Liam Fisher! Thanks for the help Liam!   read

11:28 AM on 03.24.2012

Let's Take a Look: Wilderness Survival

From Castaway, to Lost, to Lord of the Flies, Wilderness Survival has remained a popular and ever present theme in films, television, and literature. The scenario in which one must survive in some sort of foreign jungle environment has almost become a genre in itself, just as much as the Western or War Film. Yet, there's something that has puzzled me about this type of survival, why don't we see it much in videogames? Come to think of it, outside maybe one or two examples, why do we have no survival games? Besides that, what exactly is it about Survival that makes it so great and how can we utilize it in games? Well, let's take a look.

Let's Take a Look: Wilderness Survival

If we want to look at how games can attempt to contribute to Survival genre and find out what makes the genre so great, let's first dissect Survival in other mediums. The cornerstone of Survival normally involves being stranded either alone, or with others, in some variation of wilderness or island. The main character/s must learn to adapt to their environment in order to gather food, create shelter, and in most cases create some sort of method of escape. Great! In order to be considered a "Wilderness Survival" game you must have each and every one of those elements!

In this case, The Sims: Castaway Stories, is the perfect example of a survival game! Look, you're stuck on an island, you need to survive, and you create stuff! Oh yeah, and the game is utterly mediocre and nothing special. While The Sims: Castaway Stories attempts to take the fun of the normal Sims 2 format, and mix it with the "key elements" of the Wilderness Survival genre, it only succeeds in varying degrees. The end result is a mediocre spin-off game that amounts to nothing more than useless shovelware. Enjoyable shovelware, novel shovelware, but shovelware none-the-less. Why?

(Yeah. I've totally played this game. Don't judge me.)

Any game that attempts to work off of the shallow surface of the Wilderness Survival genre will end up missing the point in many places, for to truly understand what makes that genre so great, we'll have to go past the obvious.

While the way we're going to look past the obvious may seem a bit simple, it does a better job than looking at the surface elements. Remember in elementary school when conflict was taught in terms of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself? Well, we're going to use that as a starting point. I'm serious.

Most would argue that the Wilderness Survival genre is Man vs. Nature, and would be right, but as movies like Castaway have taught us, the psychological elements of being stranded also weigh in, adding bits of Man vs. Himself. Now, from this starting point let's take it a bit deeper. In most stories where the major conflict is against nature, whatever aspect of nature that is being fought is normally personified in some way. If we think about this in context of the Survival genre, this normally means that in most cases, the island or forest itself becomes a major character, just like in Lost. Now, Man vs. Himself is often seen in many psychological horror stories, which normally has it's place in Survival, such as the completely made up "monster" in Lord of the Flies, or the constant threat of various wild animals. Survival stories normally also incorporate a great deal of stress, and even fear into their theme as survivors are vulnerable to their surroundings and are unable to escape.

Wait. Psychological horror? The setting is it's own character? The stories are stressfull and make you feel vulnerable? Doesn't this sound a little familiar...?

(Silent Hill 2 has so much to teach aspiring designers.)

Yes, Japanese Survival Horror games are Western Wilderness Survival stories. Even though it's in the name of the genre, "Survival Horror", the way that survival is approached is normally far different. Silent Hill 2 provides many great examples. Instead of scouring a jungle looking for food and hoping you don't run into a bear, you're rummaging around a deserted foggy small town hoping not to run into Pyramid Head. While cultural differences do drastically change the feel behind the two, and while they do shift their focus on the survival and horror aspects respectively, they both contain all of the similar thematic elements.

However, we can actually compare these differences by comparing Japanese Survival Horror games to Western Post-Apocalyptic games. Whereas psychological horror is the focus of Silent Hill 2, with scrounging around for supplies only serving to enhance this purpose, in Fallout 3 it is resource gathering that takes prominence, with horror elements only existing to enhance the former. This technically makes games like Fallout and STALKER more similar to Survival stories than Silent Hill and Resident Evil, yet even in Western Survival games, there's just some aspect that's still missing... We have all of the psychological horror, situational stress, and resource gathering elements, so what are we missing?

(Yes, we're missing Time and Patience in our Survival! Wait, no, that's not right.)

Creation. Creation is the cornerstone of "Wilderness Survival" that holds everything else together. This is one of the things that The Sims: Castaway Stories did right, it utilized the innovative Sims 2 building system to allow players to craft their own shelters, tools, and transportation. While this made the game enjoyable, the Sims 2 framework clashed with the horror elements and made the stress far beyond enjoyable. Yet, for all it's faults, this overlooked spin-off game has showed us the missing ingredient of the Island Survival genre, but are there any games that actually manage to combine all of them in a satisfactory way?

The answer to that question, is yes. What we have, is Minecraft. While Minecraft is a sandbox, it is also the best example of an Island Survival Video game. Minecraft manages to mix not only resource gathering elements of Western Survival with the horror of Eastern Survival, but also adds in our missing element, creation. Minecraft is currently one of the most popular and played indie games on the market, and has blown open the door on procedually generated sandbox games, making room for games such as Terraria and Castle Story. When you think about it though, Minecraft has not introduced to us the Sandbox genre, but rather a true Wilderness Survival genre. Minecraft has taken an age old story trope, and introduced it in an interactive way, making full use of Video games as a medium.

(This Minecraft logo is actually a helicopter which flies back to civilization.)

After a long blustering attempt to understand Island Survival, what exactly have we learned this week? We've learned to not only look past the obvious to find underlying themes, but to also not entirely ignore surface elements. We've discovered that Eastern and Western Survival games come close to emulating Wilderness Survival stories in form, but differ in their end goals. Perhaps most importantly, we've figured out that creation and freedom gives Wilderness Survival it's unique charm and explains popular culture's fascination with it. What we can take away from this week's exploration is that few genres can explore the power of creation, the power of individualism, and the power of freedom better than raw Survival. Survival, just like everything else, can always be made better by just taking, a closer look.

Addendum- Don't agree with me? Did I miss something? Have more examples? Feel free to share! Growth can only be obtained through criticism and scrutiny! You can also find my weekly blog at My Website and the Moderately Oversized Hats tumblr.   read

12:12 PM on 03.17.2012

Let's Take a Look: Choices and Introspection

Choices are common in life, and in Videogames. The power of choice in life is what truly defines each of us as individuals, with the choices that we make reflecting our own selves. Why is it so then, that Videogames often neglect this facet of choice? Choice in Videogames often whittles down to shallow attempts to provide false agency or padded replay value. What can we do in order to provide stimulating, stirring choice? What is it that makes choice so important to Videogames? Well, let's take a look.

Let's Take a Look: Choices and Introspection

In life there are big decisions that guide how we live; what we will major in, what career we pursue, what we study, etc. If we look to roleplaying games, we see rising similarities. What race, class, and skills you choose will affect how you play the game, in turn defining either you or your character's play style. Team Fortress 2 and even the dreaded Call of Duty games exercise this kind of choice by allowing players to not only select a class, but also specific weapon loadouts that change how each class is played. This allows players to have a sense of agency within the game and lead to further enjoyment. Players are allowed to craft their own unique way of playing, and in turn are allowed to craft their own fun. This is why many different people can enjoy Teamfortress 2 in many different ways, and why Call of Duty has such a large demographic as it does.

There's a reason why World of Warcraft is played by millions of people across the globe.

However when this kind of choice is done wrong, it is usually when available bonuses and skills only affect gameplay in such a marginal amount as to not change it at all. This is one of the reasons why "roleplaying elements" are frowned upon in shooters, as a 5% bonus to reload time vs a 2% ammo storage rate does not actually give you much choice in a game. While percentage tweaks in variables may be an easy way for designers to fundamentally change gameplay, percentages are only effective past a certain point. Should gameplay effects not be noticeable, all you do is create an illusion of choice, frustrating your players by making their decisions lack weight. Nobody likes to finally reach the carrot dangling in front of them only to find out it's actually made out of cardboard.

Besides selecting classes, Team Fortress 2 also lets you customize weapon load outs.

Of course, there are other choices in life besides how we live it. You found your girl/boyfriend cheating on you, how do you handle it? Your child was suspended from school for fighting, what do you say? You see someone being mugged, what do you do? These questions do not have clear answers. Every single person will behave to each one in an endless variety of ways. These choices are also a part of what defines a person, which makes it no surprise that RPGs use choices to help you define your own character.

Yet, unlike real choices, videogame choices tend to be very binary. Picture this: You find a basket of puppies; you can either, A: Save the puppies, B: Sell the puppies, or C: Eat the puppies. While choice can define characters, giving a good, neutral, or bad option does not make for deep character building. In these cases, designers most likely either didn't put much thought into the philosophy of choices, or simply put shallow choice in to increase replay value of a game. When choice is done right in RPGs, it serves to help provide a personality to a character. Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas did choice wonderfully, as while there were good, neutral, and evil options, over-all alignment was weighed more heavily with individual settlements than on a scale of good/bad. A player's alignment with each of the individual factions gives a much deeper character personality than simply having a character be "good" or "bad", resulting in characters with their own afinities, personalities, and even prejudices.

One of the worst offenders of binary choice used as replay padding.

This leads us to observe even deeper and more complex choice. The further downthis rabbit hole we go, the more our choices can teach us about ourselves. What's the most complex series of choices we experience on a daily basis? Social interaction. Social interaction is a series of simple and complex choices that define us to ourselves and to other people. Thus, surely, social interaction is the best way to make commentary in a video game, right? Well, one might not think that after looking at a Halo or Call of Duty lobby, BUT, if one looks instead to the game Journey, one will find that this may indeed be true.

In Journey you, well, journey across a desert all by your lonesome. Eventually, you run into a player-controlled partner with whom you spend the rest of the game exploring and solving puzzles. The catch? You can only speak through a variety of chirps, or calls, or whatever you would call it. By holding down a button for various amounts of time, you can adjust the length and power of your "call". This simplifies social interaction to it's very basic format, leaving players to have to interpret eachothers messages. He chirped really loudly three times in a row, is he mad at me, or just happy? I just chirped randomly in a sing song pattern, will he get that I'm singing, or does he think I'm bugging him? By analyzing your reactions to situations and how you interpret your own partner's messages, you will walk away from the game knowing a little bit more about your own personality. I personally learned that I'm observant to a fault, I worried about how every gesture was taken, I always assumed the most negative connotation with my partner's chirps. I endlessly worried and felt that could not trust my own partner, reflecting personal issues I had until then ignored.

Journey is a beautiful, engaging, and well designed game. It's only 15$ on PSN, go buy it now!

The kind of subtle choice that is required of Journey's social interaction provides a great template for games of all types. Elegant and deep choice can make it possible for art games to better explore the human condition, or for RPGs to craft more vivid fantasies, or for shooters to cater to even more types of players. While choice may be hard to implement, and requires many more resources than linear decisions and stories, allowing players to put part of their own tastes and personalities in a game is priceless. The interactivity of videogames is what makes our medium unique, and is why players should be allowed more freedom with their own personal narratives, with their own choices.

What exactly have we learned about choice now? Choice not only affects story, but gameplay, with RPGs and class based shooters presenting prime examples of genres that use choice to affect individual enjoyment of a game. Agency stems from the power of choice, from both gameplay choice and story choice, with false choice only serving to frustrate and discouraging the player. Morality cannot be measured using a dualistic approach, but rather on a situational basis. Social interaction is the deepest form of choice and shows us more about ourselves than it does other people. Most of all, we've learned that choice is what makes our medium special. Videogames thrive off of choice, and if Videogames wish to be further respected as a mature art form, deeper and more complex choice must be made. Just remember, it's always an acceptable choice, to simply take, a closer look.

Addendum: I am not a professional designer, just a struggling indie sharing his thoughts on games, so why don't you share your thoughts too? Regardless of your experience or background, feel free to add any points of contention I may have missed! Argue with me, correct me, provide examples of what I've missed. Remember, observation is better in groups!   read

12:04 PM on 03.10.2012

Let's Take a Look: Pixels as Impressionism

Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso; these old dead guys have lead me to a better understanding of Videogames. These famous artists have reached me from beyond the grave, and taught me their secrets, in only the way an artist can- through their works. While painters have studied these great men for ages in order to grasp the nature of the canvas ever firmer, what can we, game enthusiasts and designers, learn from them? Videogames didnít even exist when they were around, what could those dusty fossils possibly have to teach us? Through keen observation, extrapolation, and simple guestimation, what can we learn? Well, letís take a look.

Letís Take a Look: Pixels as Impressionism

Vincent Van Gogh's famous Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh was known as a Post-Impressionist painter. His most famous painting, Starry Night, (pictured above) contains all of the key elements to the impressionist style. The goal of Impressionism was to create paintings that were focused on the image, and not the details, similar to a memory or an impression of an event. In order to accomplish this, combinations of fractured brushstrokes are utilized to create one complete image. Colors arenít mixed in each stroke, but are arranged so that the varying shades naturally blend themselves to the eye when viewed. The realism of the picture normally varies on the distance it is looked from, from a few feet away it may look like a perfect picture, from a foot a away it may look like a modern piece of abstract art.

The arcade classic- Metal Slug

Now letís look at Metal Slug! The above picture has a rough and tumble guy shooting things in the face! Yet, doesnít it look familiar? The above screen shot actually closely resembles Van Goghís Starry Night. No, no, wait, Iím not crazy. Letís take a look at the impressionistic elements that make the above pixels similar. Tiny brushstrokes: Individual pixels- check. No mixing of colors: Differing shades of pixels making color blend- check. Chaotic up close: Blocky up close- check! Thus, all early video game artists have obviously been emulating the impressionistic style right? Well, actually, no. While the styles and concepts may be similar, we must think about the beginnings of both, and what purpose they serve.

Valkyria Chronicles, a beautiful, innovative, an amazing TBS-RPG-TPS.

The Impressionistic art style came from the need for stylization. Up until that point, most paintings sought to emulate reality, focusing on ever increasing realism and detail, thus when the first camera was released, paintings were seen as a dying art. Impressionism arose shortly before this, and was highly criticized for its style. However when realistic paintings started to fall from grace, many painters looked to Impressionism in order to express their art in a distinct way separate from reality. This is where delineation between the two must be made. Pixel art on the other hand came out of technical limitations, pixels in gamingís early days were used in order to try and make game visuals as realistic as possible. These days pixels, and their 3D brethren voxels, are used primarily in order to remind us of the earlier days of gaming instead of trying to replicate a technological version of impressionism. Better examples of modern Impressionistic games lie in Valkyria Chronicles and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, both utilizing the standard brush stroke rules in order to recreate memories in the former and give a feeling of lighthearted fantasy in the latter.

Team Fortress 2's wonderful aesthetic brings personality to each of the brilliantly designed characters.

The switch from realism to more stylized art like Impressionism, surrealism, and cubism after the invention of the camera does remain important to games though. Weíre rapidly approaching the graphics plateau in gaming, the point in which any extra addition of realism into graphics starts to provide little to no actual improvement. This closely parallels the dilemma of realistic art becoming obsolete with the invention of the camera. If games are to take a cue from history, then pure realism will start to cease being an interesting or novel visual style. If Videogames wish to adapt as a proper art, they will have to start to adapt to this new dilemma, a dilemma solved over one-hundred years ago by a bunch of painters. While the approach of the graphics plateau is not as potentially medium killing as the invention of the camera, designers must still be willing to face this puzzle with bold, daring, and innovative ideas. The adoption of new artistic styles can have a profound effect on how we interact with Videogames. Both Borderlands and Team Fortress 2 started out with a realistic design at first, before adopting their trademark visual styles, visual styles that convey massive amounts of identity and personality to each game. A potential ďaesthetic revolutionĒ within the industry would only accomplish to further diversify our games, and enrich our experiences.

Borderlands manages to be gritty, yet playful due to it's visual aesthetic.

In the end, what have the Impressionists, painters in a many centuries old medium, have taught Videogames, a barely thirty year old medium? While the beginning of our medium mimicked the tropes of Impressionism, have we actually learned anything from them? Yes, I believe we have. Weíve learned how sets of criteria and rules applied to any art can create a distinct style, such as how limiting blending and brushstrokes gave Impressionism its signature look. Weíve learned that depending on your medium and the use of the style, aesthetics can alter the how audiences view our work, as Valkyria Chronicles emulates dreamy memories just as Impressionism did. Weíve learned that games, just as any art, should explore new ways to engage players from an artistic standpoint, explaining the great personality and humor that is evoked by Team Fortressís visual style. These are just a few ways in which Videogames can look to older mediums to grow. The power of observation can give us endless examples of older art forms that could be re-purposed to better engage our players, and this observation in its self teaches us one of the most important things; itís always possible, to take a closer look.

If you have anything you wish to contribute, personal observations, arguments, or other examples, feel free to contribute in the comments! Observation is always better in groups.   read

3:48 PM on 03.09.2012

A Belated Introduction-

Hello Dtoid C-blogs! While Iíve already posted a blog here, and hope to post one tomorrow, Iíve been informed that making an introduction post would be wise. Curious as to the contents of an introduction blog, I was told that it should contain, an introduction; preferably an awkward one, so letís try this again!

UmmÖ Hi Dtoid C-blogÖ I guessÖ Ellipses make me sound awkwardÖ

Anyways, my nameís Thomas Williams and Iím an aspiring game producer/designer. My studies lead me to interesting points ofÖ well, interest, within game design that will drive each of my ďLetís Take a LookĒ blogs. I donít have much formal education in game design, so most of my discussion will come from personal experiences, observations, and struggle that comes from building small games firsthand. I find deconstruction much more fun than standard Industry talk (DLC, Publisher problems, whining), but should my observations take me there, I may engage in some more off the beaten path writings about the Industry. I donít know how consistently Iíll be able to keep my blog up, as school and whatnot keeps me busy, but Iíll try my best to serve the Dtoid c-blogs community!

If youíre masochistic and want to know a bit about me besides my writing, I also run Itís where Iíll be hosting my finished Unity game projects, and where Iíll also be posting my future writings, as well as non-game related essays I may get done. Well, I guess that wasnít really about me. Anyways, Iím currently 15, but Iím a senior in highschool and also have gone to a community college since I was 12. I enjoy jazz, indie music, and ofcourse, videogames.

But yeah, thatís enough about me. I hope that was awkward enough! Hmm. Maybe I couldíve spared a few more ummís and ellipsesÖ Oh well! Thanks for having me guys, I hope I can provide some great articles to the Dtoid c-blogs!   read

10:23 AM on 03.03.2012

Let's Take a Look: Camera Perspective

The camera remains one of the most integral parts of game infrastructure. We all know how bad camera controls can interfere with the enjoyment of even the funnest game. Yet, one of the most important aspects of the camera is one that we hardly think about, the camera perspective. The camera perspective can directly have an effect on how you perceive a game and it's world, with first person, third person, and even second person cameras providing alternate viewpoints on the same world. Still, why does the purpose and power of perspective get looked over so often? Skill-based multiplayer shooters are normally first person, RPG's are normally third person, and pretentious arthouse games attempt experimental second person camera projects, this is the way the world works, but... why? Why do we use certain camera perspectives for certain types of games? Through a combined effort of research, observation, and scientific wild ass guesses, I will attempt to answer this question, as we take a closer look at camera perspective in games.

Let's Take a Look: Camera Perspective-

The Marc Owen's Avatar Machine

To start this observatory adventure, let us first delve into the third person and it's effects. The avatar machine, shown in the above video, allows ordinary people to see themselves in third person, very similarly to certain Videogames. As we spend all of our lives in a first person perspective, viewing oneself in third person causes a slight disconnect in identity. Marc Owens, the creator of the avatar machine, has observed the behavior of people using the avatar machine compared to their normal behavior and discovered this disconnect. What Marc found was that people in the avatar machine tended to have exaggerated movements and behavior, people would act sillier, braver, or meaner in the avatar machine and felt more like they were in a Videogame than them self. The third person view allowed them a greater sense of freedom in their actions then they were used to.

Saints Row 3 uses third person to it's advantage by being over the top in every way.

While subjects weren't exactly holding up taxi's and then going on joyrides to mow down civilians, the Videogame-like behavior exhibited by subjects gives us insight into the effects of the third person camera and it's use in games. While we don't exactly see games as reality, the third person camera can help further separate our in-game actions from our own. This is why most sandboxes are better enjoyed from a third person perspective, as it allows total freedom. While third person can be used in a game like Saint's Row in order to encourage random acts of unrealistic stupidity, or to give you the feeling of power in Starcraft, it could be used for other more subtle reasons.

In RPGs like Mass Effect or Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, the disconnect given by third person is used not for silly hijinks, but to increase roleplaying. Just as with tabletop roleplay, the player's job in regards to their character is more similar to a puppet master rather than an actor. Good roleplaying games must allow the player freedom of their actions and what type of character they wish to create. This theory raises an interesting question though, what about first person RPGs? Yes, I'm looking at you Elderscrolls and Fallout 3.

Skyrim as played in first person mode, one of the few examples of a first person RPG.

The Elderscrolls series and the newer games in the Fallout series both allow you to switch between first and third person perspectives. Both series maintain the same theme as in any other third person RPG, but in first person the experience changes. To those not necessarily roleplaying inclined, or those that would rather play as their character as opposed to controlling one, the first person perspective allows that option. While the content might be the same, the theme and design of the game changes with each option. Armor becomes only useful for it's stats in first person, whereas it becomes character defining in third person. Battles are more direct and tense in first person then they are in the hack-n-slash-fest of third person. Why do these changes occur? Well let's look at the first person.

As we live our entire lives in first person, this is the perspective that we should understand the most. In order to emulate the feeling of personal weight, of being in another character's shoes, or us being in the game, the first person is the go to option. The sense of in-the moment intimacy it provides makes it a great choice for skill based games such as Counter-strike or Team Fortress, and provides a great way for us to explore wonderful lands such as Skyrim. This same sense of personal investment also serves as a great way to induce vulnerability, which makes it a great choice for survival horror games, such as Amnesia: the Dark Descent.

Amnesia provides one of the best examples of survival horror done right.

This sense of vulnerability that makes Amnesia so bloody scary is what makes survival horror the genre it is. But if first person provides great vulnerability, then why is it not the only perspective used in survival horror? Well, let's take a look at Silent Hill. In Silent Hill, most of the town is covered by a deep fog, only allowing you to see so far ahead of you. The story behind this was that the PS1's graphics could not take the level of detail in the game, and they moved down the render area to make it technically possible, and give it atmosphere. However, what this fog does is provide a sense of limited visibility, and the magical survival horror keyword- vulnerability. This gives us all of the horror of first person, without having us identify with the main character too much, which I cannot go into detail about without spoiling Silent Hill 2.

Example of the second person in a Psychonauts boss fight- Skip to 8:15, possible spoilers.

Last but not least, is the curious second person perspective. If that would even be the proper term of it. To be true, the only example of a second person perspective would come from a certain boss battle in Psychonauts, in which you see out of the eyes of the boss you're fighting. It makes for an interesting way of navigating the map, and the sense of being in a horror film in which the creature is rapidly approaching. New camera perspectives of these types could provide entirely new ways in which we see and interact with games. By learning about the properties of existing cameras, we can better construct game experiences and deeper interaction. Regardless whether designing games is your forte or not, I would love to hear about other ways cameras can be used in games. Feel free to comment with ideas, examples, arguments, agreements, or disagreements. No matter how much you know, it's always possible to simply take, a closer look.   read

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