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1:45 PM on 12.02.2012

XCOM Enemy Unknown: Searching for a Story

I love stories in games. A well-crafted plot can transport the player to a world never before experienced. It can create emotional moments that linger in a gamer's mind long after the controller is put down. It can involve a player in no-win scenarios that test his or her strength and resolve. That's what makes gaming special to me. The interactivity unique to gaming allows a connection to tales unavailable in books or movies. Story is the most exciting feature in high-budget games today, and it's a big part of what motivates me as a gamer.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn't have that. Or if it does, the intricacies of the plot were lost on me during my initial playthrough. XCOM is a tale of humanity fighting off an alien invasion, and that's basically it. There's no moral choices, no emotional soliloquies, and no overarching message. Well, no message besides alien invasions are scary as hell and we need to take care of them.

Yet despite it's basic storyline, I can't help but love it.

Maybe my desire for narrative is satiated by imagining backstories for my squad. I took the advice of gaming personalities around the web and decided to name my teammates after my closest friends. This personal touch allowed me to build storyline reasons to explain why each member of my squad was the class he or she was, and justify what lead them to the war in the first place. I'm not talking about paragraphs upon paragraphs of history, but simply a light justification for how this situation came about. As I lost squad mates, it made sense to me when other members became frantic. They just lost their childhood buddy, of course they would! Still, imagined backstories seems like a thin patch over what I would normally consider a significant omission in a high-profile release.

Maybe picturing the state of Earth deteriorating as council members abandon the XCOM initiative satisfied me. With many countries and continents devoted to this program, it's difficult to keep every nation happy. After a period of neglect, South Africa was so frustrated with my leadership they pulled my funding. Don't they understand that I'm trying to save the world here?

But then I imagined their perspective and understood. As XCOM leader, I see the bigger picture. Almost literally, since the situation room contains a giant map of our planet. For a nation struggling to keep everyone alive, safety from invaders is top priority. I can understand pulling my XCOM dollars to re-budget that cash for the South African populace.

Even if I don't see the day-to-day struggle each nation puts up with, I can imagine it. Perhaps that's enough, though I will admit it feels a bit hollow as well.

Maybe the mission-to-mission gameplay is so rich I simply don't care. Once you're sucked into a battle, it's hard to remember the circumstances that brought you there. All you're concerned about is survival, finishing the mission, and getting everyone home safe. Accomplishing those tasks can be tough, though. One wrong move or missed sniper shot and a mission that started out as a breeze can turn into a hurricane.

I like the tension, though. It means every enemy killed feels like a tiny accomplishment, and surviving a 10-enemy wave means something. You have to take risks to accomplish your task, and playing it safe often leads to losses in the squad. When those risks pay off, it's one of the best feelings a game can offer through gameplay, story, or otherwise.

Whatever the reason, XCOM: Enemy Unknown impresses, even without a deep storyline. There's plenty of smaller games that forgo storytelling for perfecting the gameplay, but a game the size and price of XCOM typically aims for the full package. Would XCOM be a better game if the story held more meaning? I'm not sure. It might only distract the player from how refined the gameplay is. Even as a gamer who obsesses over story in games, I have to admit. XCOM didn't need a memorable story to be great.   read

8:34 PM on 11.14.2012

They Bleed Pixels teaches without a classroom

They Bleed Pixels has a fine tutorial.

The core mechanics are taught to the player through video demonstrations and guided trials. Moves are performed by the AI, and the player must repeat the AI's performance to prove they understand the lecture. For those unsure of the controls, button prompts guide their input. The tutorial teaches gameplay basics and does so in a short, inoffensive period of time.

But It's also completely superfluous.

Nowadays, tutorials are an expected aspect of a game's introduction. Modern shooters send players through training courses, Assassin's Creed spends hours developing its setting, and other games dedicate entire levels to gameplay education. Some people, including myself, feel these tutorials are simply walls between them and the experience they're after. It's like being stuck in a classroom when we want to be exploring the world around us.

But games still have to teach the player how to play their game, somehow. Thatís where They Bleed Pixels comes in. In addition to it's tutorial, the design adheres to a somewhat forgotten gaming standard: Teaching the player through their own actions. Don't tell someone the effects of a skill; show them. Make them the professor of their own lesson when introducing a new mechanic.

The first level of the game is a light example of this idea. Even after going through the tutorial, the prologue still displays common commands on the level's walls. Nearly everything in the tutorial -- from basic attacks to wall-jumping -- is re-taught to the player through gameplay and scenery. This seems unnecessary, especially when the latter technique is seemingly more affective. The on-screen prompts allow experimentation without wrestling away control. Even if the level is linear, it's similar enough to real levels that it feels like less of a chore. Players have not exited the game to enter the classroom, so to speak.

But that's only the beginning.

Let's take a look at a piece of the prologue. For this scenario, we have a switch, an enemy on a platform, and a saw blade. Earlier in the level, we learned that the best way to dispatch enemies is through use of the environment. We also have experience with these switches and know they control platforms much like the ones the bomb-enemy is standing on. The resulting conclusion, then, is to drop the enemy into the saw blade for the most points and bragging rights. No hard feelings, bomb-guy.

When we do that, the bomb doesn't explode immediately, as we might expect. It falls through the saw blade and lands at our feet, in-tact but flashing. We've toyed with enough Bob-ombs in our day to know where this is going. Run away!

Once the blast occurs, the switch deactivates. Bombs can affect switches. Now we know that, and we know it because we experienced it. The platform our bomb friend was standing on now blocks our path, so we have to hit the switch again to proceed. The extra step of hitting the switch a second time helps us remember what caused it to flip in the first place.

Bomb explosions affecting switches is a concept used later in the game, such as the two puzzles pictured above. The left puzzle re-teaches the mechanic in case we missed it earlier. A little redundancy doesn't hurt as long as the game's pace doesn't suffer as a result.

Let's walk through another scenario: Learning the slide technique. We arrive at an overpass too low to walk under. The walls prompt us to run and duck to pass this obstacle. Simple enough. On the other side waits two low-level enemies that, unlikely other enemies of this type, won't react until we pass the obstacle. Maybe they're lost and confused; we're not really sure. Whatever the explanation, they're in our way.

When we run and duck as the wall instructs, we head into a slide that let's us squeak under the overpass and bump the two enemies into the air before stopping. Not only is the slide useful for passing through tight corridors, it can be used as an attack. Again, this lesson was taught without stopping the gameplay and through the use of simple environment text. We don't need a line of dialog explaining the slides offensive capabilities, we witnessed it first-hand.

As games become more complex and further break into the mainstream, the current ideas of a 'tutorial' should be rethought. The days of pausing gameplay to learn new skills and dedicated tutorial zones may be behind us. They Bleed Pixels is just one of many games that dabbles in teaching the player in ways that don't use these stale tropes. The inclusion of a full-blown tutorial, though, implies a lack of faith in its own design. I think that's a shame. The gaming world would be better off treating games more like games, and less like classrooms.   read

1:34 AM on 07.13.2012

Next-Gen: I want the impossible.

There's a lot of ideas that come to mind when someone asks what you want out of next-gen games: more realistic graphics, games at a locked 60fps, better online networking, maybe even solid state drives for faster loading. All these are fine and good, but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for something a bit deeper, something a bit harder to quantify. What do I want out of next-gen games? I want the impossible.

The impossible, or maybe the unexpected is more apt. Whatever the case, that's what would push my buttons going into a new generation of consoles. I want experiences that obviously couldn't be done on old-gen hardware. Not just from a graphical perspective, that's a bit like putting fancy icing on the same chocolate birthday cake you have every year. I want something new, something exciting, something that I can look at and say "Wow, I could never play a game like this on my 360." Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I want out of the next console cycle is by going over my favorite breakthroughs of the current one.

Assassin's Creed floored me with its gorgeous landscapes and realistic crowd animations when it released. It's hard to forget the first time you climbed to the top of the tallest building in a city and marveled at the view of the entire town before you. We've come a long way from the green clouds of the N64. The fluid movement in and around crowds is an equally impressive feat Assassin's Creed has built up as a staple of the series. It was the realization of a technology I'd heard about when the PS3 was released but never believed could be real. That's the key element to a next-gen game, I believe. New consoles should be crafting experiences that sound like tech demo unrealities all the way until you have the game home in your living room.

Skyrim set what may be the highest bar ever for realizing a complete, functional world on a console. There may be no other game to date that rivals its setting's cohesion. Every home feels lived in, character travels with a purpose, and inch of the landscape has something worth exploring. No matter how much you see of Skyrim, there seems to be more waiting to be discovered. Living in this virtual world is an adventure, one that felt unimaginable just one console cycle ago. We need game worlds so well realized we couldn't imagine them today.

Storytelling reached a media milestone with the development of the Mass Effect series. There may not be a single universe I'm more attached to than this one and it's because the story feels uniquely my own, and my relationship to the characters means something to me. If Liara or Garrus have an opinion on a mission or my actions, I actually want to hear it. In fact, most times I actively pursue it. Future games must push these ideas further and create characters that are real, genuine, and opinionated. We need characters that are reacting and interacting with us throughout the story.

These are just 3 of an innumerable amount of current-gen games bringing us what once felt like the impossible. What do I want out of next-gen games? I want to be taken to worlds I never dreamed existed. I want to face battles I never fathomed could take place. I want to handle relationships I never expected to have. Quite simply, I want the impossible.

Oh, and Pokemon Snap on the WiiU. But that goes without saying.   read

10:45 PM on 06.17.2012

The Internet is Broken: Six Months of Boy's Club

That's right, the Internet is broken. Or perhaps more specifically, the people on the Internet are broken. Recent events have been riddled with negativity, hate speech, and an incredible amount of sexism that I'm just sick of. This post isnít about whether or not you think women in video games are poorly represented, itís about how Internet watchdogs donít like anyone asking questions about the industry they love. The last six months have not only made me ashamed to be a gamer, it's made be ashamed to own an Internet connection. I'm ashamed to know that I love a medium that breeds demons as vile as the ones I've seen over the past few months. It's no wonder news organizations think gaming is rotting our brains.

Let's start with Jennifer Hepler. A writer in the games industry dared to say that she was more interest in video game stories than gameplay, and the Internet threw a hissy fit. A witch hunt ensued as pitchfork wielding trolls targeted her gender, weight, and competency as a writer in an effort to, I'm not sure, make themselves feel better? The story becomes even muddier as many of the quotes attributed to the poor writer were entirely falsified by the mob itself. The wildfire they started grew hotter via the coals mined by their own efforts. This was a horrible moment in gaming, truly, and I'm disgusted to say it preceded a trend.

Then we move into the story of Aris Bakhtanians and Miranda Pakozdi. During Capcom's Street Fighter X Tekken reality show, Cross Assault, we got a glimpse into the mind of a man unable to understand limits. Aris not only manages to harass fellow teammate Miranda so much she seemingly takes a dive in her match to leave the show, he provides us with some amazing soundbites. Claiming that Street Fighter and sexual harassment are one in the same is true food for thought. While not an example of a mob attack, the event still exemplifies the sexism in our industry and how commonplace it feels to some people. Aris, for all his misguided beliefs about harassment, is obviously not alone.

Finally, we have the recent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in video games series. This is, perhaps, the most severe of them all. It combines the worst aspects of the Hepler mob attacks with the normalized sexism in the Street Fighter X Tekken story. A blogger with a successful web series about female stereotypes in media decides she wants to do a series about video games. Why? Not because she believes games are evil, but rather she believes they are the future of entertainment. Gaming has a lot of power, and she knows it. Just the mere thought of a woman asking questions about her gender's representation in games sent the Web into a firestorm. So began a maelstrom of disgraceful youtube comments, Wikipedia vandalism, and absolutely ignorant statements on any article that dared to give Anita an outlet for discussion. The whole event felt like trying to take a ball away from a 3-year old to let other kids play with it. It's as if they lack the empathy to respect other people's perspectives. It's time to grow up, Internet, you're not in pampers anymore.

2012 has been a bad year to be a female gamer. Hell, it's been a bad year to be a morally sound gamer. It's been a bad year to associate yourself with the kind of crowd that plays video games. You donít have to agree with Heplerís opinion on gameplay, think Aris was out of line, or believe Anita is onto something to understand the real problem here. Whether or not female representation in gaming is good or bad is irrelevant. Our gaming peers, however large or small, have decided that harassment and personal attacks are justifiable when someone questions their industry. If we numb ourselves to the outrage, weíre no better than they are.   read

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