Ohhhh I am so proud of myself for that title. It just sounds so damn smart and academic doesn't it?
Anyway, I motherfucking loved The Walking Dead. And it wasn't just because of the amazing writing or voice acting or overall story, but it was because of the GAMEPLAY. Hear me out here. I'm not talking about the terrible shooting sequences, or the mediocre-at-best puzzles, or even the extremely forgettable QTEs. I'm talking about the most important interactive part of the game: the choices. The way The Walking Dead handles choices is a prime example of exploiting the medium's strengths to produce an experience that works beautifully.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
The fact of the matter is, video games aren't very good at making your choices matter in a big way. It's very difficult to do well (see Mass Effect 3), as it requires tons of content production and writing and testing. Sure, there are many games that do it well (Fallouts, the Witchers), but we can all agree, those games are rare and difficult to pull off. There are those that have tried to make procedural stories, and maybe one day they'll crack that nut, but so far we don't know of any good algorithms or development approaches that does it reliably.
So what did Telltale do? They made a game where your choices don't matter all that much in the end. Sure, they matter in a localized manner, but at the end of the season, everyone's story converges to the same end result. For a game that's all about making choices, one might think, "holy crap they really fucked that up!"
(Major spoilers ahead)
And yet, why is the Walking Dead one of the best gaming experiences of 2012? Because it had very little ludo-narrative dissonance. It had....LUDO-NARRATIVE HARMONY. The game play was in perfect harmony with the story. Your choices in the game don't matter all that much in the end, and guess what: if the zombie-apocalypse were to actually happen, your choices won't matter all that much either. When the world goes to shit and you're just barely surviving, it doesn't really matter who you saved or how moral you were with your actions. When things are that fucked, you are probably just fucked, and anything you do only delays your inevitable death. You're going to arrive at your destination and find that the boats are all gone, and even if you did take off on a boat, are you even sure there's anything left in Atlanta? You're going to make friends only to later lose them to a bite, or you'll find out they're not your friends after all. Life is not fun in the zombie-apocalypse, and there's nothing you can do about it. Just like The Walking Dead.
And yet, you keep on. You can't lose hope no matter what. You have to show Clementine that even when things look terrible, you must keep pushing on as long as you have a breath left. And that's the one choice you can make in such a situation: You can persist. You can survive. You can continue to play, because you can't lose hope. You can't lose Clemetine.
This is going to sound a bit cheesy, but TWD really made me appreciate the life that I do have. In the modern United States, my choices actually do matter in a lot of ways. I can affect my own career. I can choose what to eat and what to do for fun. I can choose to be a good citizen and enjoy the benefits of security (most of the time). I can choose to appreciate my family and friends, and reasonably assume that tomorrow, they will still be around. This is not true in many other countries out there. The Walking Dead could as well have been a game about refugees in the Congo, but that probably would not have sold as well as setting it in the zombie apocalypse.
Your choices don't matter that much, and that's what makes The Walking Dead a brilliant game.
Braid. The human condition. Citizen Kane. Is it art, or is it Art? Or is it ART? What does it all mean? Will it cure cancer?
Yeah, fuck all that high-brow crap. Today, I wanted to share what Braid's ending meant to me in simple and honest terms. I know this sounds cliche, but playing Braid was a pretty affecting experience for me in many ways. Not only did I find the game design to be refreshingly clean, but the whole experience, especially the ending and the "books", got me to think about how I perceive the world WAIT PLEASE DON'T STOP READING I WILL EXPLAIN!
** SPOILERS BELOW **
In summary: Braid made me think about the pros and cons of viewing the world in a rational, mathematical way. The puzzle mechanics behave consistently, and if you think long and hard enough, you can solve them and it is satisfying. However, through the text and through the ending, it becomes clear that Tim's life story is not so clean and consistent as these puzzles. His relationships and pursuits have not turned out so well. The puzzles of Braid are an escapist fantasy for him from the complications of real life, where clever math doesn't get you much. It certainly doesn't get you the girl.
How does this relate to me personally? When I was a kid, I was pretty damn shy and got picked on a lot for various reasons. This naturally led me to avoid social contact, and I spent a good amount of my free time just entertaining myself at home. When I got a computer and the internet, I became pretty entranced by video games and programming. I enjoyed them (and still do) because they were predictable and consistent, and it was fun to figure them out. If I didn't get something, it was probably my fault and I just needed to learn more - which was fun as well. Or the software was buggy and badly designed.
As I grew older and started coming out of my shell, I often tried to apply this type of thinking to social interactions. I thought that there were rules to social interaction that I could figure out, and I thought people could be put in neat categories ("nerds", "jocks"). As long as I could figure all this out and apply my clever thinking skills, things would be great! However, after many years of floundering about, it became pretty clear to me that people and life are too complex for this approach to get you anywhere. I also completely underestimated the importance of emotions, appearance, subtlety, and (ugh) hygiene - I just figured that people's rationality would overcome these barriers (and it often does, but not in all aspects of life).
So the whole of Braid is like an analogy for this narrative of my life. You first solve puzzles in the game's escapist fantasy dream-world. Things are nice, clean, and "ah ha!" moments are everywhere. You hit a switch, something happens. And that same thing will happen each time you do it, and every other switch in the world behaves similarly. You just need to figure out how to put these elements together to accomplish your goal.
And when you're going through the last level, you're thinking, "OK I just need to rescue her by applying all these skills and concepts I've learned thus far! Then I'll rescue her and get an awesome ending!" But then the thing happens, and you realize that despite how awesomely clever you are, that doesn't matter. Tim's still a creepy fuck that needs to stop looking at women through their bed room windows.
The ability to reason rationally and mathematically is a very valuable skill to have, no doubt about that. It will help you professionally and in many other aspects of life. But human relationships are governed by rules far too complex for such thinking. Each individual is unique and has their own wants and needs, and rationality must take a backseat to emotions.
And that, folks, is what Braid and its ending meant to me. Hope you've enjoyed it and didn't roll your eyes too much.
If I were to list my two biggest passions in life, it would probably be music and video games. When I was wee lad in my teens, my tastes in video games were developing along side my tastes in music, and looking back it's pretty clear that there was plenty of back and forth influence between the two. I'm pretty sure I found out about Nine Inch Nails, one of my favorite artists of all time, due to the work Reznor did for Quake. And then Quake 2 came along, and while I had no idea who "Sonic Mayhem" was, its soundtrack pretty much floored me and got me to learn guitar (I think..memory is getting fuzzy as to which came first).
If you're a fan at all of guitar-driven metal, you owe it to yourself to listen to the whole soundtrack. It is chock full of some killer riffage that, in my humble opinion, is right up there with the best of them. Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Guns n' Roses...and Sonic Mayhem. I mean just listen to this:
So, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit (that's what blogs are for right?), but the Quake 2 soundtrack is gonna go down in my personal history as a master piece of raw, unfiltered instrumental metal that will stand the test of time. A good riff never dies.
I'm happy to say that Sonic Mayhem went on to have quite a prolific career in video game soundtracks, having done recent work in games like Mass Effect 3 and Borderlands. Keep up the good work, sir! His style has changed from the guitar-heavy stuff of Quake 2 into more symphonic/techno sounds, which is a bit sad to me, but whatever keep kicking ass!
PS: Does any one know of any "real bands" that sound like this? People usually tell me to listen to KMFDM and other industrial bands, but they just don't scratch that same riff-heavy itch Q2 does...
Forgive me internet, for I have sinned. I used to pirate almost all my games. There isn't much in this post but an honest confession, an expression of guilt, and a sincere apology to an industry that I love.
What are my excuses? Well, before I had my own income, my parents were very stingy and rarely bought me things for fun (stereotypically Asian I suppose). It wasn't until my junior year of college that I realized I had enough disposable income from internships to buy my games. From that point on, my piracy habits went way down, and now I never pirate games anymore. I still pirate movies on occasion though, since it's still the most convenient way - or the only way at all - to watch some obscure and foreign movies that aren't on iTunes or NetFlix. I've stopped pirating music completely, probably thanks to iTunes, which I've spent hundreds of dollars on.
But all throughout high school, I pirated tons of games. My list of shame: Deus Ex. Half-Life. Thief. System Shock 1 and 2. Quake 3. Tons of older "abandonware" games, like Ultima Underworld, tons of Lucas Arts and Sierra adventure games, countless SNES roms (Chrono trigger, Final Fantasies, etc.).
So, I want to apologize to all those developers I might have harmed - if even just a little bit - due to my pirating. I'm an aspiring game developer myself, so I understand how tough it is. I've recently started buying games I've already played in an effort to atone for my sins. Services like GOG.com and Steam are great for this, and I've spent a good amount on both.
At the same time, I do think that as developers we need to acknowledge that piracy is here to stay, and that the best way to adapt is to offer better service and alternative pricing schemes. Sure, piracy is wrong, but it's not that wrong, so people will do it. In the grand scheme of things, we're making games for a living. There are real moral issues to worry about in life, like war and free trade, and I really don't think the plight of game developers is one of them. The fact that we can do this at all for a living is pretty damn amazing, and we should be thankful for that.
But I still feel bad about pirating games, and I hope you will all tell me "it's OK - we forgive you." And I really hope no one sues me.
I just wanted to share a few observations about the design of Demon's Souls. It's not a game for everyone for sure. Some people just like brutal challenge more than others - nothing right or wrong or better or worse, it's just entertainment, folks. But, if you loved it like I did, here are some characteristics of its design that I think made it successful.
NUMERO UNO: Consistency. There was very little about Demon's Souls that was random. After going through an area dozens of times, I became very well attuned to where enemies would walk, when they would attack, how they would attack, and exactly how many stabs of my spear it would take to defeat them. And almost every single time, with few exceptions, it was all extremely predictable as long as I played my part the same way as well. In computer science terms, this makes it "deterministic" as opposed to "randomized." Most games introduce randomness in their combat systems and AI code in order to make things less predictable. But, keeping things predictable can be good because it makes it something that you can learn. If things behaved differently each time, the learning process would become more frustrating and lengthy. To put it more plainly, it's a tough target to hit, but at least it's not a moving target. I think this is what a lot of people are getting at when they say that Souls is "fair."
NUMERO TWO: Variety. Very rarely did I find myself going "ugh not this again" in Demon's Souls. I was usually going, "WTF IS THIS?" or "Hmm..interesting...how am I gonna tackle this?" This is in stark contrast with many modern games that basically recycle the same combat scenarios over and over one after another (Mass Effect 2, lookin' at you..). This took away a lot of the pain in backtracking, because I was at least backtracking through interesting and diverse sections of the levels. Sure, after a while, they no longer become challenging (and that progression is rewarding in itself), but you still had to employ different tactics through each section which meant that you could never just switch your brain off. At a higher level, each of the five worlds had their own mix of enemies and dangers and their own unique moods. Very rarely did they just recycle the same model with a different skin. Thematically and mechanically, Souls excelled in spicing up your experience and keeping things interesting.
NUMERO TRES: Skill-based Progression. Yes, there were RPG elements and I did do some grinding for Souls in order to upgrade my weapons and stuff, but the vast majority of the progression in the game came from the improvement of my own skills and understanding of the game. Most obviously, you learn the traps in the levels and how to avoid them. You learn how to deal with the various enemies and what attack patterns they use. You learn the optimal way to go through levels so backtracking is less tedious. You learn new ways of using your weapons and items. The fantastic combat mechanics are obviously far more skill-based than what you'd find in most RPGs. Sure, there were times when grinding for souls allowed me to make some upgrades that allowed me to get past certain bosses, but compared to most RPGs, the ratio of skill to time-based progression is much larger. Again, I rarely felt like I was mindlessly grinding. Even when I was "grinding" I was able to find particularly efficient ways of getting souls.
NUMERO QUATTRO: This Wiki. This is not exactly a part of the game's design, but it was absolutely vital to my enjoyment of the game. Demon's Souls is not a game that tells you much about itself, and discovering all that stuff on my own would've probably turned me off to the game. But, as with any good challenging game, a helpful community quickly grew around it, providing me with a means to short-cut all that trial and error. There was tons of information and loads of advice that got me through the experience. It really gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling and kind of restores your faith in humanity. Now, is it poor game design by From Software that I had to resort to the wiki? A year ago, I might have said "yes", but hey, most people have internet connections these days and know how to use the googles, so why not rely on it as designers? The guys who made Terraria sure as heck do, and they're doing great. Encouraging your players to do this is probably a good idea, and Demon's Souls did that with the message system (which in itself wasn't very helpful).
So, as an aspiring game designer, if I were to ever design a game like Demon's Souls, those are probably the things I would keep in mind the most as lessons learned. Anything that I missed?
Not necessarily all games that came out in 2011, just the ones that I played the past year and would like to share with ya'll fine folks!
To the Moon - This game turned me into a pathetic, weeping little baby. It's a completely story-driven game, and the gameplay is minimal at best (don't let the first "battle" fool you - this is NOT a JRPG or much of anything really). And you know what? That's OK, because the story is touching and thoroughly enjoyable and quite unique among video games. It's a very human story told in the style of JRPGs, so if you enjoyed the cutscenes in games like Final Fantasy on the SNES, with pixelated sprites demonstrating a surprising amount of emotional dexterity, you'll feel right at home here. Again, this is no JRPG and it's barely an adventure game. What it is, however, is damn good.
Sequence (Google for "sequence iridium") - This indie gem takes rhythm game mechanics and mixes them with the RPG tropes of battles, character stat building, and loot. And yes, it's a genre-soup that is quite delectable to even the most jaded of gamers. The battle gameplay is frenetic, satisfying, and totally groovy. With a soundtrack that includes tracks from Ron Jenkees (of Youtube fame) and a well-written, off-beat story, Iridium games has put together one of the most unique and enjoyable games this year. It's probably dirt cheap on Steam right now, so do yourself a favor and just check it out.
VVVVVV - I don't typically enjoy skill-based platformers, and I never beat any of the Super Mario Bros games. So when I first saw VVVVVV about a year ago, I resisted. But finally, I decided to give it a shot again. After some initial frustration, it soon had me well hooked. Sure, there are screens where you'll die dozens of times to get your timing right, but the checkpoints are generous, those screens are usually quite clever and interesting, and it's not that brutal as far as platformers go. It ain't no Super Meat Boy, for sure. The most brutal parts ("Doing things the hard way" comes to mind) are optional. The soundtrack is also, for lack of better words, FUCKING AWESOME. The story is minimal but quite lovable, and I never got sick of the characters smiling and frowning. And man - just flipping through huge spaces and exploring the map never got old. Tons of fun!
Crysis 2 - This game probably isn't getting much GOTY love, and that's a shame because it's great shooter. Unlike MW3/BF3, its levels are pretty open-ended. You're basically thrown into some large arena and are given complete freedom as to how to approach it. The nanosuit stuff also allows you to jump higher and scale the levels vertically, which is pretty unique for FPS games (as far as I know). It's quite satisfying to climb on top of a ledge and take down enemies from above! I hope more FPS games follow suit and offer more dynamic experiences like Crysis 2.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - In some ways it did surpass the original, and in other ways it regressed. But hey, I still had a blast taking down fools in its Bladerunner-esque world, and I am absolutely looking forward to the next one. Let's hope they fix some of the gameplay issues, add in more variety to the world, and continue to champion the immersive shooter. Keep up the good work, Eidos Montreal!
Portal 2 - I don't think I need to say much about this masterpiece. The puzzles are great, the writing is fantastic (the lemon's rant...instant classic), the voice acting is probably the best the medium has ever seen, and the whole experience is expertly crafted all the way through.
And that's about all the games that come to mind. I hope you all have a great holidays, and happy new year! Next year's is looking great for games as usual - it's a good time to be alive, folks.