Monday, February 28, 2011

More Streamlining

While still pondering the meaning and consequences of streamlining adventure games, I got to thinking about other game genres as well. I came to the conclusion that I disagree with Jonathan Blow when he says that adventure games are the only ones which haven't been streamlined. Again, this is assuming I got to the bottom of his tragically obscure opinion.

However, if indeed he meant that in adventure games the problem is that the player has no real direction - he's solving puzzles without knowing why - well, then, the same can be said for shooters. It is true that FPS games are more scripted and their story often intense and gripping, light-years away from Doom's endless corridors of bad guys who basically stand in place and wait to be gibbed. I'd still argue, though, that players often don't know what they're doing.

And, unlike Blow, I'm going to give an example. The game that immediately sprang to mind when I thought of this was Portal. By the way, I'm going to speak a bit of the game in terms of plot so if you haven't played this, consider this your spoiler warning and skip to the next paragraph. The first part of Portal is a self-aware puzzle game. The protagonist is solving puzzles to apparently test the portal gun. This part is 'streamlined' in the sense that the player knows what he needs to do and why, and so is in tune with the plot. Things get complicated once Chell (the protagonist) escapes the death trap prepared by GLaDOS. This is actually a beautiful moment of design when the player is being lowered into the fire and, without instructions or hints, he has to understand for himself that he needs to use the portal gun to escape.
After this moment, however, the design begins to break in terms of said streamlining. The player is still in a puzzle game, but now moving forward has no context. When I played the game I realized that I'd been, for some reason, heading towards GLaDOS herself only when I actually got there. Each puzzle the player solves after the escape leads him to the end, and that's only because it is the only way to move on.

This is a technique used in all shooters. Some don't try to pretend and just give the player a straight path, while others give more breathing space. But in every situation, the player moves forward because that's the only way that isn't backwards. The player is not always thinking in terms of plot or game-space, but rather "Is this where the game wants me to go?" "am I going the right way or will I have to double back?"

This isn't only because a shooter is linear. Deus Ex has moments like these as well. Granted, there is definitely more of a sense of purpose when the player gets an objective and a level of choice in how to perform it, but with all the bonus experience and hidden places this becomes a treasure hunt rather than a streamlined game. On the very first level of the game I spent a good hour trying to get into a place that really wasn't worth the time, all the while thinking it was a hidden way to the objective. These gaps between what the player thinks and what he does in the game world are always there.

The question I'm finally confronted with is; is this really such a bad thing? I think this desire for streamlining comes from a perspective that sees the player and game protagonist as one - the immersion must never break. As a literary critic I don't see why that is necessary. Games don't have to be escapist. Just because they're interactive doesn't mean that every time the player does something it's on behalf of the character on screen and they're minds must be as one. Besides, as a lot of gamers know from experience, games can be very atmospheric and immersive even if while playing them you spend a lot time thinking "how can I pass this level?" rather than "how can I save the princess?"

There are many more games and genres in which the player's actions are out of the plot's context. This is how games work. If there was complete unison between player and character I'm not sure it could be a game. That's not a bad thing either, but there is room for different types of games with different levels of immersion or interactivity.

I do agree that adventure games are perhaps in a most dire need of a re-imagining, though. I hope Blow has an ace in his inventory.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jonathan Blow Interview

Jonathan Blow is the creator of Braid, a time-twisting platformer that combines puzzles, a mesmerizing art style and even a sort of general idea that wraps it all up nicely.

PC Gamer had an interview with him about his next game and his views on game design. The point that roused my interest was the one he made about adventure games.

He says:
"Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.” "

I had to read it twice to grasp what he was saying. I don't think he is being very clear, and his interview is sourly lacking in examples. This is why I wanted to bring the point up, clarify it (assuming that I got it right), and offer my own insight. Because I believe that he’s right in a way.

In adventure games, even the best ones, we often go around solving puzzles for no real reason. I can bring many examples from my own experience - from The Secret of Monkey Island to the recent Back to the Future: The Game. You usually know what you need to do to advance but the playing field is large (such as Mêlée Island) and so the way isn't clear. For example, in The Secret of Monkey Island's first act, you know you need to pass the three trials to become a pirate but there's no real notion of how to do that - you just go around finding puzzles and then solving them, often doing something for no real reason (like following the shopkeeper to get to the Swordmaster) and then you 'solve' the game.

I think this is what Blow means when he says adventure games aren't streamlined, because this central mechanic is still here. In Back to the Future, I know that I need to somehow switch the keg of soup with the keg of liquor, but I randomly try things until something works. Of course, the game does give clues how to get that done (I’m not referring to the hint system), but ultimately – if you didn't notice the hint – your puzzle solving consists of mainly trying to click everything that is clickable and combining it with everything else.

However, even though Blow says that adventure games have stayed this way since their heyday in the early 90s, I do believe that recent adventure games have been heading in a direction of streamlining the experience. There are rarely cases where you wander aimlessly in TellTale's adventure games. There is a much stronger sense of knowing specifically where you need to be and what to do, just not how to go about doing it.

But that's also the problem. One of the greatest issues which plague modern adventure titles is that they are reduced in detail and scope, and I believe this is the result of what Blow refers to as streamlining. This has been the major critique of Telltale's Back to the Future game and I think it's a flaw with many of their titles.

Maybe my opinion simply comes from me being an avid adventure game fan myself, but I don't think they're only about solving the puzzle: they are about exploration, character; they're about doing things at a slower pace, soaking in the atmosphere. The obscure puzzles actually enable us to enjoy everything else in a much more profound way.

You can check it out for yourselves: the first playthrough of an adventure game, without a walkthrough, can take weeks. Once you've finished it, however, the game can be completed again in under an hour. It's those nonsensical puzzles that make the player walk back and forth, talk to people, look for clues, and so on. These puzzles help flesh out the world and enrich the player's exposure to it.

If Blow can make his new adventure game streamlined (in the sense that as players we’re not going around solving random puzzles but actually thinking about how to advance in relation to the story), and at the same time manage to keep the feeling of exploration and atmosphere… well then, I daresay his game will be amazing. But we just have to wait and see.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crysis 2 Has a Story!

I'm not sure if I've made this clear yet, but one of my greatest passions about games is their story. What interests me most in the gaming world is how interactive narratives have evolved over the years, and how they continue to develop. So this interview with Crysis 2's story writer over at IGN was a very interesting read. It's good to see writing in games getting more and more focus by the gaming crowd. This article doesn't spoil anything in the game and the writer has a lot of insights about writing for video games.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Suck at Starcraft II

Do you find it hard to admit you're awful at a game you like?

That's what I had to come to terms with this weekend as I played SCII online and yet again won one game out of like five.

It's not even an issue of mastering build orders or knowing unit counters. I'm no master of course but I do know enough to be competetive in the lowly Bronze league. I basically know what to do in the beginning of a match and what to do to win.

I just never do.

If I have to try and define my condition, it's like a total inability to think tactically and execute a coherent plan. I can have a plan in my head and build units and even have the advantage in a match (indeed, often when I study the graphs at the end of matches I lose I see that at a certain point I had the advantage in terms of units), but I never try and attack. But It's not like I'm defensive, either. I'll build forces to attack but never use them properly.
It's the same reason I'm terrible at chess. I have a problem thinking ahead and executing plans.

Why's this depressing? Well, because I love RTS games. In singleplayer tey're a blast; every level is like a puzzle. In multiplayer, however, it's about thinking faster than your opposition and achieveing some manuervers with such mechanical percision that a computer can't do it better.

I think an important part of being a gamer is to acknowledge what you suck at. This doesn't mean I'll stop playing SCII online,but perhaps the goal wouldn't be to win as much as it is to try and enjoy the ride. And I am proud of the fact that I never rage-quit and through each and every loss I endure (even when it's to a no-good rush) I say 'GG' with a smile and, if I'm not too annoyed, go on t another match.