I am a parrot that sits behind a keyboard, writing baffling tales of cynicism and bigotry. Usually about games. Usually on topic. The reason why I started writing was that I needed a way to document the patchy development, and death throes of our first, and currently only team project, Silhouette. It lays it ruins. RIP audacity and zeal.
Currently, I write here http://themachination.net. A blog of games, introspection and word science. One day that website will be host to our projects. One of these days.
Six months ago I had a plan. I felt confident, and I felt enraptured in the world of indie games, and after many unsuccessful attempts I felt just a little bit pissed off. But it was an idea. At the time, I was pretty well steeped in one conspiracy theory or another, wondering what kind of a place the world would transform into if all of these predictions were correct. Fires would roll down across the landscape, destruction would befall humanity, and there would probably be a hell of a lot of panic-sex going down. However, the thought evolved. The common man, whilst not particularly stupid, or foolish would not be aware of these convoluted plots that the internet takes within its grasp and twists out of conceivable proportion on a daily bases, and would be left utterly dumfounded and possibly unaware of their circumstances. So where does this put this person? How would this person react to the transpiring events, and what would be/ dictate their fate? It doesn't really matter. That's what indie games have at their disposal; knowledge that it is all about the player's reaction, and personal construct of reality that rules their emotional impact instead of developed plots. And although the notion of independence, and the field of art games has heartily embraced the player's (or reader, if that floats your literary boat) reaction to a set of circumstances, I'm starting to think that they're approaching it the wrong way.
This plan was Li'l Horror Game the Game - or The Stroll as I'm now referring to as, in fear that the tautology gods have already got me on their list - a game all about the player's experience - a combination of mounting tension and immediate fear. But it didn't have to be. The Stroll was a game about walking through the night and into the early morning through foreboding forests and desolate towns, concluding at dawn where the character looks out forlornly across the landscape from a tower, as the sun rises. It can be about anything. My original plan was to stage it solely in the shadow of some kind of alien invasion, but "knowing" the evil takes the fear away, so instead I delivered exposition in a way that builds its own tension, and lets the player decide what is going on. In case I ever actually release it , I'll avoid giving everything away, but I feel that the ideological premise was important (if I may toot my own over-tooted horn). The Stroll is a base experience. It plays on the human's sense of inquisition, and most rudimentary fears - darkness, loneliness, abandonment - all senses that the game implies without explicitly stating that "You should feel these things" and this is where I feel I have succeeded in allowing for an experience, instead of crafting one specifically something a lot of games I observe are doing differently.
Ever since there has been indie there has been the notion of the art game; the developer's need, or want to create an abstract, offbeat and challenging message for the player to approach and scratch their collective chins to, but the problem is that it's always going to be just another device for the designer to propagate their view of emotion with. The games, or experiences, usually deal with emotionally centred issues, usually of a darker or more impacting tone in order to create evocative commentaries on humanity, life etc but I'm not convinced it's actually working. Not long ago a read an interesting article on Electron Dance http://www.electrondance.com/?p=102 that discussed how the emotional impact in a game and the actual game activity interacts, and what kind of experiences this interaction creates for the player. Games have always faced this issue and have often drawn the compromise of either extreme, but I don't think this is necessarily the problem as a game can exist solely as story or gameplay. The problem, as I have deduced, comes out of the aforementioned designer attempting to contrive a particular experience for the player. Where it may be something that is truly meaningful to themselves, it is incidentally raising a barrier between emotion and action due to the player's natural resistance to the projected ideology.
Dealing with contrived versus naturally occurring emotional experiences is a somewhat frustrating topic to deal with, so I think I'll take a leaf out of Harbour Master's book and bring out the old Venn diagram. This diagram will be broken into three segments (duh); Intended impact, binary and broad impact. Intended impact deals covers scenarios where the designer has attempted to have the player show a particular emotion; binary is where a situation allows the player to form their own reaction within the context -identified by its apparent limitations; broad is where a situation, location, or visual intentionally or unintentionally causes a player to have a personal, or unexpected reaction. Also, there might be some spoilers. But come on, you should have played these games by now.
Completing the Venn diagram reveals some interesting results in regard to how well these impacting scenarios worked. The reason why these succeed on such a personal level is because they usually worked on either an emotional or cerebral level; blowing up Megaton: I feel is one massive exception to the overall impact of the examples within "Intended impact", because it is optional, and moralistically grounded; so why put it there? The Megaton sequence is almost a novelty in its operation meaning that people with the slightest intentions of blowing up Megaton, will blow up Megaton for the sheer thrill of it. Then something interesting happens; they lose all of their Karma points, becoming irrevocably "Evil". This is where the intended impact transforms into broad impact as players will act in unpredictable ways to this new reality, knowing that they will spend the duration of the game as an evil character. But there is something else I'd like to draw upon here; this situation is rooted in choice. The player only feels that they should be responsible for their actions, because they were actions that the player partook in. Contrasting this to something like Paul Jackson's death, an event that still has a profoundly nihilistic sense of horror to it, Fallout 3 succeeded in creating an enduring impact as the player was always responsible for causality, as opposed to being a "victim" of the story. Furthermore, comparing Paul Jackson's death to the loss of Hole Station in Metro 2033, it becomes apparent that choice isn't necessarily the operator in creating emotion, however Metro 2033 puts a lot of empirical power into the player's hand, whereas the death was very numeric and calculated in the Call of Duty 4 sequence (although, this carried its own personal weight, identifying soldiers as mere numbers). For me, Metro 2033 felt like a constant, hopeless, losing battle as those around me continued to die regardless of my efforts. Someone else might just see this as life.
So where does this leave indie games? Large scale games have the ability to orchestrate grand stories, impressive visuals and contentious sexual exploits to mask up any holes in their delivery, but indie games have got it all on show. Yesterday I played Passage. I thought I should feel sad, but honestly I felt a little bemused. What was this game trying to tell me? I had the underlying suspicion that there was a message buried within its stomach-churning sea of pixels, but I couldn't find it. Going against my previous assumption, I would class this game as having broad impact. Although it was a little bit sad, it didn't really ring the "futility of life" bells that I believe it was trying to get at. Herein lies a problem. Passage, although a game that will inevitable make everyone just a bit sad, relies too much on the individual to create an effectively broad impact, but it's getting there. Maybe the issue is that broadly impacting scenarios really aren't broad at all; I can't rely on everyone being afraid of the dark in The Stroll, and ultimately, I've created a particular experience for the player. However. The game isn't about a fear of the dark, but the experience I can help unfold as a result of some carefully implemented themes. My generalisation that a game has to be broadly impacting to be effective is fundamentally flawed because that's a poor reflection of life. Life is one big passive emotional experience, sharply punctuated with impacting scenarios. Although one scenario might not impact you, there is guaranteed to be someone out there whom it does, and indie games rely on this in order to create their particular, albeit, narrow experiences.
I may have been unnecessarily overbearing in my accusation that indie games are losing the plot because they're becoming increasingly more about some experience that the developer feels is important. Sure these games exist, don't even get me started on The Path, but there are still a lot of games out there that are worth the experience that the developer has created. I came into this discussion brandishing a torch and pitchfork; ready to storm the indie village and weed out all self importance, but as you can see, the problem isn't with the developer. The developer only wants to share what they feel is important, it's down to the player to interpret this experience in their own way, even if this means not getting it.
So, I shall forge ahead boldly with The Stroll with a refreshed vision. It's not about trying to scrutinise over an audience, or worrying whether or not someone will get it, it's about creating an experience. The Stroll is a simple game of atmosphere but the player's experience is really dictated by themselves. Do they find the dark to be a frightening place? Do they find loneliness uncomfortable? Will they wander into the abandoned hospital and find sadness, horror? Maybe nothing at all, it doesn't really matter. The emotional impact of indie games is reasonably objective, so I'd like to consider this more of a test, or an experiment. I don't really mind what I create, just as long as someone gets something out of it.
Throwing praise at Valve is a bit like pissing in an ocean. You're going to be surrounded by people who can piss much harder than you and who have been doing it for much longer, but ultimately, you're going to wading knee deep in piss. Valve are one of those companies that are universally revered for their friendly disposition, independence, and inability to make a bad game. But I think people are generalising. People understand that Valve make good games but don't really understand why beyond "I play their games and don't feel stupid". Or something. Evidentially their games boast high production value, endearing design and excellent support, but there is one thing residing at the base of their design that even ludocrats, as such as myself, have nigh on taken for granted for all of these years. That shining underappreciated star of game design is how they teach us how to play.
Only recently have I began exploring the developer commentary offered in Half-Life 2 episode 2 and Portal, and I was amazed at just how much insight they've been willing to impart upon the eager listener, and a little disgusted that I'd previously ignored it. See, the developer commentary has that similar magical effect in its power that is decadently wielded by adventure games; the power to make everything fall into place in your mind as you link the discussion to the situation, and sit, mouth agape whilst one of the designers divulges the trials and tribulations in getting one small component to work. Throughout the commentary I was frequently dumbstruck as just how they engineered solutions to the smallest problems, but by far, the greatest impositions they faced involved teaching players just how to understand the systems of the games - intelligently and naturally.
When you play a broad variety of games, you gain an unprecedented understanding for small systems that make the experience a pleasure or a chore, depending on the context. Choosing an appropriate way to introduce the player to a game's systems is probably one of the most difficult and underappreciated components of a game, as a better system will be less obtrusive than a poor system and less likely to be recognised (ironic, huh?). Valve appear to have adopted an ethic that applies a sort of "dynamic" teaching system; the clever arrangement of set pieces, situations and imagery designed to expose exactly what the player needs to see, whilst leaving plenty of room for experimentation. Interestingly, the point at which explicit information becomes implicit is quite a distinct line, and one that can either lead the player into knowing how a situation can be approached, yet not telling them how to use their tools, or completely leaving them in the dark.
An example that you will all be aware of if you have played Half-Life 2 involves Valve's unbridled enthusiasm for seesaw puzzles; a little obvious, but it makes a good starting point. Early on, a seesaw was explicitly placed within the centre of the player's view with a clear objective and an evident means of achieving it. From this situation, the player can deduce that A) walking on the seesaw makes it tip, but on its own it tips too quickly, B) a chest high wall presents an unambiguous goal and C) The player's physical properties alone cannot solve the puzzle. With the solution "algorithm" firmly implanted in the player's mind, the game proceeds to introduce similar style puzzles of a higher difficulty and the player solves them accordingly, now familiar with the game's physical properties, minus the need for onscreen prompts.
Although Valve have often favoured the subtle procedural method of exposing gameplay technique to the player, they have not neglected to ease them into the games systems before challenging them within their environments. The opening to Half-Life 2 still gets me. You roll into a train station, oblivious of the reasons behind the morose expressions worn by those around you as the ominous tones of Wallace Breen leak from the speakers. Everything is an assault on the senses, yet it never becomes too tied up in its delivery to acquaint the player with just what everything does.
Bioshock probably has one of my favourite opening sequences in a game because 2K realised the importance of letting the player teach themself how the game works, whilst steadily raising the difficulty imposed by the addition of features. You start off with nothing but a cheery Irishman yammering at you down a radio, and this in itself provides a good basis for instructing the player in character. As you progress, important features are slowly introduced to you until a stage where you are completely competent in your own actions and the game's systems. Giving the players a melee weapon and letting them break some scenery before encountering an enemy; forcing them to use a Plasmid to open a door before putting them in any imminent danger. Above the importance of feature exposition, the importance of letting the player perform the actions, quickly acquaints them with the control scheme and their abilities without the frustration of trial and error or having the break out of character to show you something.
Now I'm hoping your beginning to see the importance of this in regard to immersion.
Immersion, or suspension of disbelief is that moment in which you're drawn out of your chair and into the world of the game; better allowing you to feel part of the environment and part of the story. What developers may not have realised is that teaching players how to play their games may just be impinging on this immersion with the inclusion of jarring tutorials and blatant reference to things outside of the game *COUGH* Metal Gear Solid *COUGH*. So I think a contrasting example is in order.
Metal Gear Solid wears its disregard for immersion like a badge of honour. "Snake, this is a sneaking mission", "Snake, use X to aim" "At this point you would change the disk over, but through the magic of Blu-Ray...". Yep, regardless of how inaccurately I quoted that, Otacon said that. These issues really make you notice this problem in a lot of games. Whilst MGS manages to disguise stalling the action through its infamous cutscenes, there are a lot of other games I have played that will not only freeze the player's controls to show them something, but spread animated tutorials all over the screen in order to demonstrate how something should be done.
So what have we observed?
- Good exposition involves showing the player only what is important to a situation, yet keeping hidden how it is utilised so that they may learn the method, yet not become obsessed in the detail.
- Good introduction involves letting the player directly control the newly acquired elements in non-threatening, yet tangible situations so that they feel, not only a heightened sense of immersion, but a closer connection with the actions that they are performing.
- Metal Gear Solid should not be taken seriously
Of course, any single method is not going to suit every game, as every game attempts to achieve a different rapport with the player. But regardless of the particular context, these certain principles should be observed so that they player knows how the world works without being explicitly shown, or hidden from a puzzles solution; the player knows how to use the tools at their disposal; the player knows the game's parameters and limitations.
There have been so many good games that have suffered the fate of poor teaching systems, yet it is still something that is largely ignored. I think that the issue is that good game system tutorials are only generally seen as "ways of teaching the player how to play the game", and the impact of these tutorials is never even identified. In games that strive for mind-blistering realism through visuals, faithful reproduction of real life objects, grippingly cinematic stylings, buzzword buzzword etc; something as simple as educating the player in the games systems is shamelessly pushed aside and ignored. The realisation that this component of game design is just as important as the level design and gameplay itself will inevitably brush away that feeling of "There's just something missing" and make for more immersive games and gratifying player experiences.
I'm a horrible, horrible person. Almost five months ago I completed that dashing little indie adventure game Machinarium by Czech wizard and sometimes game designer Jakub Dvorsky and I, in my audacity, promised some kind of transcendental writeup about the game, and how it proves that not all adventure games post circa 1990 are terrible. That didn't quite happen.
Maybe it's because I felt inclined to be an advocate for indie games, AND adventure games in one self indulgent fell swoop, or maybe it's because I feel like taking an unfair advantage of how many hits I get on this blog due to people spelling "machinarium" as "machination", but regardless, I feel some moral obligation to follow through on my promise. The problem is that the premise is hackneyed and short lived; no, people, I feel as if this game deserves more attention that just my unwavering adoration and some vague musing on the signs of the times. I'm going to write about why adventure games are fundamentally flawed.
I love adventure games (almost as much as I love juxtapositions). As a dedicated gamer, and some kind of vague proto-journalist I find myself dealing in the extremes posed by such a wide variety of titles over a large period of time, and out of this extensive play-log comes the inevitable favouritism and criticism and lots of other hard hitting isms. It's not that we, as gamers, are unwilling to accept when a developer has made a mistake, it's that we as people, form critical opinions of what's "normal and what's other" (as my English extension teacher would chime from her ivory tower at the front of the classroom). Games go much the same way, and it's no mistake that we have come to cringe at the mention of certain ideas, and sadly, adventure games have fallen into that cynical maw.
"Adventure games weren't always bad". You've got that right, little Jimmy Internet.
It may be a strange twist of fate, but I've almost had the good fortune to be born at a time in which I got into adventure games at their downturn. The 80's and 90's left me a veritable buffet of brilliant titles to explore at my leisure, but I had this feeling chipping away at the back of my mind the whole time. These games are OLD, why haven't I seen anything more recent? In retrospect I wish I hadn't answered this question, but I'd hardly be the person I am today if I didn't play a few horrible games.
The very year that it ticked over to the noughties (god I hate the noughties), Escape from Monkey island came out, but it wasn't until 2006 that I got my greasy mitts on it and cancelled my marriage proposal with Curse of Monkey Island; It cleft my heart in twain. Escape from Monkey Island was one of those games I wanted to love, just because I loved its predecessors so crippling dearly; when it showed me that only an empty husk of the fiction remained, I almost broke down in tears. To this day I can't quite pinpoint why Escape from Monkey Island had such a profoundly negative impact upon me; maybe it was the sterile textures and primitive 3D, or maybe it had just lost the love. In fact, Escape from Monkey Island left such a poor taste in my proverbial mouth that I almost lost my passion for arbitrarily rubbing random items together in hope of advancing absurd stories.
Years went on and adventure games came and went in a long depressing haze, their charm spoilt by the grasp of more face-shooty games in which I just had to use gun A with man B. Yes dear readers, I got stupid. Maybe this is some kind of analogy for the general decay of adventure games, as the likes of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein transformed old adventure gamers into button mashing machines, detached from their original love by a chasm made of pure poor design choice. But I was wrong. What I'd failed to realise is that adventure games had simply metamorphosised into something more palatable.
In 2000 Deux Ex was released.
The more I look at it, the more I begin to think that Deus Ex was a final, extravagant farewell to adventure games, as well as a warm introduction to its next stage. Deus Ex, as argued by many, is the perfect chimera of elements, both adventure and action; a title that many hoped would pave the way for a future of games and gamers that concerned themselves with strategy, story and systems that would sustain the intellectual air that gaming rose from. But this is when things sort of died. Adventure games tried to continue as always, ultimately trying to advocate their cause whilst never feeling as if they need anything more than the fact that they are adventure games, to maintain their importance, resulting in good puzzles and storytelling taking a back seat.
Last year Rock Paper Shotgun did a post on this little game called Machinarium, and I promptly ignored it because I'm a jerk. I don't know why, it just sort of slipped under the radar. Out of morbid curiosity, I looked back at its quaint artwork, and reading revealed that it was an adventure game; this thought prodded some kind of flaming hate-tiger deep inside my bowels as I actually thought it looked kind of charming. Upon being drawn into the demoís simple charms I immediately let my guard down, and pre-ordered on game on a whim.
Machinarium is what adventure games need to be.
That may sound like a pretty bold statement coming from one opinion laden number on the internet, but bear with me here. Machinarium succeeds where its predecessors have failed because it has both realised the need to retain the story and dignity of adventure classics, whilst making it more accessible to a 21st century hardened audience. Maybe this is the wrong way of putting it. Machinarium isnít any harder or easier than a good, classic adventure, nor is its story any more compelling, itís just been done right. A common complaint among nostalgic adventure gamers is that story these days always surrounds some horribly convoluted plot that would send Metal Gear Solid into a spin. Amanita realised that the best stories are small, touching tales of characters in a large, foreboding world, so they did what they did best. Incidentally, Ro-boy does not talk, meaning that plot exposition had to be handled carefully and subtly. When idle, he will visualise a thought bubble that drips fragments of his past into the playerís pursuing mind. Any other way it just would have been unsavoury. The story is inherently simple, so it was necessary to deliver it in a way that would not be overwhelming; the witty gesturing of the characters, and their thoughts delivering it in a way that voice acting could never do justice to.
Puzzles are a sore point in a lot of adventure games because the designer forgets that the audience does not possess their mind, and thus puzzles arrive at a point at which the ludicrousness reaches a singularity. I can remember reading this writeup on Old Man Murray that detailed a puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 that involved renting a motorcycle. The description ran for eleven paragraphs, describing a sequence of events that even the most obsessive quality assurance tester wouldnít be able to twist their neurotic brain around. The puzzles in Machinarium adhere to a bizarre rollercoaster like formula in which the game is determined to duck between self contained move-the-block type puzzle devices, to long winding rub item X against Z whilst manipulating A and watching for reaction Y. Oh god that could be misconstrued. Regardless, the puzzle flow feels a bit judder-y, often resorting to these puzzle machines when a situation couldnít offer further complexity. However, this wasnít necessarily a bad thing considering that the start of the game is essentially linear, the problem lies more within their flow. I encountered several key moments within the game in which there were several things I thought I could potentially do, however, the game was adamant in pursuing its own logical solution. I guess it's not bad when this happens, it's certainly better than having no idea what to do at all. But this is a minor stumbling block as the puzzles are actually structured in quite a logical order that compliments the player upon their completion, and urges them on in the world.
By now youíre probably saying that ďthis is sounding a lot like a classic adventure game, you promised some kind of revolutionary feature, you traitorous bastard RAH RAH RAHĒ. Maybe my initial cause for celebration was simply because it is good, and that term is not used lightly these days. However, measuring a game on its scale of good-ness doesnít say a lot in contrast to its significance. Maybe it is that Machinarium does not have anything more to offer than proof that passion still exists within adventure games, and the significance we derive is simply a reflection of this.
When entering this train of thoughts, I was determined to prove that adventure games are always going to be bad; ever; simply because I failed to see that, whilst the current trend might suggest that adventure games are a sign of the consumer, they arenít a sign of a developer. Iím under the stubborn impression that there are no bad developers, or bad minds within the industry, only misguided choices and lost intentions. Although there have been plenty of bad adventure games within the 21st century, it does not mean that the developer is incapable; simply lost for whom to target. I guess what Dvorsky wanted to demonstrate was that the fires of adventure that glowed warmly within gamers within the 80ís and 90ís hadnít been extinguished, merely covered up. When Machinarium came around, gamers mapped onto its every edifice and simply revelled in the fact that it made them feel young again.