Tag Archives: Game Design

Boss Talk!


Been a while. This is just a short informal entry, anyway, getting back into the swing of things.

Went to a talk yesterday at my new haunt in the Toronto indie/art gaming scene: Electric Perfume. (Yes, the proprietress Daniele Hopkins is a friend of mine that I’ve promoted in this space before…but nobody’s getting paid for this.) I’d been there on Saturday for the annual general meeting of the Hand-Eye Society . That got slightly dry, but I got the reminder for last night’s boss event, so it was worth it.

What was it about? Well, it was Kyle Duffield (Hopkin’s longtime artistic partner and EP Technical Director) and Ryerson’s Walter Lai talking about video game bosses: what they’re for, what characterizes them, the role of the boss within the game experience, how they reinforce a game’s aesthetic, how they’re often used to break the fourth wall, that kind of thing.

They pulled out loads of examples of bosses for this, everyone from Psycho Mantis to a few Colossii to good ol’ Bowser. Duffield and Lai included a few that I’d never heard of, like the first “boss” character: the Gold Dragon from an ancient 80’s Dungeons and Dragons game, or this big ol’ UFO from an old Galaga-alike that looked like an early Atari version of the Tron fight against the MCP.

Weirdest part? Most of the fights were demonstrated using YouTube clips. It was effective, but maybe a bit too effective. For a lot of them, I found myself thinking “just let it play!” when they were skipping forward and back in the clip. It reminded me how invested we become in these conflicts. Players often tune out the regular mooks, but boss fights? Fully in the moment, especially if it’s a good one.

I did provide a bit of a contribution myself. They’d asked about favorite boss fights. My answer? The Lich King. Definitely The Lich King. Blizzard has always been good at building shockingly elaborate bosses in their games, and the entire endgame of World of Warcraft basically serves as elaborate lobby for their baroque boss fights. But thanks to the combination of a near-decade of character history and Blizzard spending the entire game building him up as an omnipotent force, it was a big deal to finally take him on in a fight that was both mechanically complex and thematically appropriate. Even broke the fourth wall a bit with the resurrection gimmick.

(Plus, like all raids, it was massively co-op. Co-op makes any boss fight infinitely better. I think that’s a law or something.)

Sadly couldn’t stick around for their followup event where you recorded “boss taunts” for Hopkins and Duffields’ own “Laser Equipped Annihilation Protocol”—an honest-to-goodness real-world security laser-dodging game—but I was glad to come out.

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Stick of Truth: Matt ‘n Trey make a Paper Mario of their very own

SouthParkTheStickOfTruthI just played and finished South Park: The Stick of Truth. Been a while; finally got around to it.

Reaction? Pleasantly surprised!

I knew the game was an RPG, and I knew that Obsidian were damned good at making RPGs. There’d been good buzz, and anybody could tell that the graphics were dead-on from videos and screenshots.What I wasn’t expecting was that Stick of Truth played like an old-school JRPG. And what I really wasn’t expecting was that it was going to be a Mario RPG!

Yep. That’s what it is: a JRPG. Stick of Truth doesn’t play like either your Skyrim or your Final Fantasy. It doesn’t have the wandering aimlessness of the former, nor the complex, baroque combat favoured by the latter. What it’s got is exactly what Nintendo’s been providing in their RPGs going all the way back to SuperStar Saga: two-person combat teams, a choice of two distinct direct attacks that use timed presses of action buttons, upgradable “magic” attacks that focus on QTE-style button prompts, and time defences that you must use if you want to survive.

Heck, it’s even got the swappable companions that you’d see in Paper Mario, and the companion abilities that you use for both out-of-combat puzzle and in-combat ass-whuppins!

See, what separates good JRPGs from bad ones, more than anything else, is that the bad ones make you slog through fights you don’t enjoy and wish you could skip in order to get dribs and drabs of storytelling, while the good ones make a point of having encounters be something you want to do and enjoy doing. There are lots of different ways to do that–Suikoden 2 and Panzer Dragoon Saga both pull it off, but in completely opposite ways–but that’s the core of it. So, yes:

Stick of Truth is a damned good JRPG.

It’s one of the rare RPGs where I actively sought out combat simply because the combat loops were intrinsically engaging, instead of extrinsically rewarding with levels and loot and such. Every attack cycle featured meaningful choices, tests of player’s system knowledge and hand-eye skill, and gave both kinaesthic and visual rewards for success. It’s a joy to play, just as Nintendo’s JRPGs have been.  It’s proof that the “JRPG” vs. “western RPG” concepts aren’t really about Japan at all.

(It’s really about the way that the game abstracts skill and handles the division between “exploration” vs. “encounter” mode of play.)

Most people probably don’t buy it because they’re JRPG fans, though. Who’d even know? Obsidian hasn’t made one before now. Obsidian’s proven that they know exactly how it works, and even provided some great nods to previous RPGs, but players won’t know that. No, they probably buy it because it’s a South Park game. How’s it stand on that? Here’s the answer:

Stick of Truth is also a damned good South Park game.

You probably already knew that the visuals are dead-on. It’s almost eerie. Excepting the camera-angle and camera-distance concessions made for ease of player movement, it could easily be an episode of the series. The voice work is just straight-up South Park, too. All the available voice actors return, and the character voices are handled with the same level of care that the series has. It’s South Park.

The plot is a continuation and resolution of the whole Game of Thrones-related plotline from a while back, so it fits into the series’ continuity, and the way that the player’s integrated into the whole thing as the “new kid” is seamless. It even has the standard South Park plot structure, where a relatively simple conflict between the kids in the first act escalates into absolute madness by the end. It doesn’t quite feature the social insight that makes the best episodes so good…but it also doesn’t have the complete lack of political insight that makes the worst episodes so painful.

Is it funny? That’s too subjective to say. laughed. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes out of shock–at times Stick of Truth was the most vulgar game I’ve ever played. If you’re easily offended, stay away. It is unapologetically offensive.  It pushed a lot of buttons, including buttons I didn’t even know I had. Be aware.

(Since I’m Canadian, but also spoiler-averse, all I’ll say is that, yes, the game’s moment of crowning glory involved the True North Strong and Free.)

I’m not sure how relevant all of that is, though. The strange thing–the funny(?) thing–is that I never really played Stick of Truth for the jokes, or the art, or the voice work, or the story, engaging as they all were. I played because I enjoyed it as a game. I enjoyed exploring and finding stuff. I enjoyed upgrading and customizing my gear. I enjoyed using my out-of-combat abilities to gain an advantage in combat, and in both taking down tough bosses and absolutely crushing the “trash mobs” in a few turns.

It also shows what was so wrong with Fez. Like Fez, it has winning, clever core interactions that are intrinsically fun to do. Unlike Polytron, though, Obsidian and South Park Studios took that core and placed it inside a framework of meaningful choice and engaging narrative-building.

I also feel that shows that the whole narrative vs. ludology thing may be a bit of a misdirect; that truly solid games do both. You can focus on one or the other, but even the most narrative-driven storyteller should maybe break out the ol’ deck of cards and test out some gameplay loops.

In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on all those old SP episodes I missed. Also going to need to start digging through Obsidian’s back catalog. I’ve been sitting on New Vegas for ages. Think it’s time to rectify that. And since Trey Parker gave EarthBound a specific shoutout as a design inspiration, it’s time to rectify that little gap in my knowledge, too. Wish me luck.

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So what’s the issue with Fez?

Yep, I finally got a chance to try Phil Fish’s Fez. Well, to be honest, it’d been on my steam list for a long time; I’d just never installed it, since it’s so obviously a controller-focused game. I got access to a controller, so I gave it a try.

This isn’t a “review”, though. I haven’t finished the game yet. Not sure if I’m even going to. See, there’s two things that jump out at me with Fez: it’s a great mechanic…in search of a game.

Yeah, Fez is kinda twee

Doesn’t look like much…until you see it rotate.

Fez is a mostly 2D retro-platformer. There’s lots of them out there. Tons. The indie scene is absolutely littered with them. It’s practically the go-to format, since it not only appeals to nostalgia and a hipsterish yearning for the authentic, but it’s damned cheap to make a retro-platformer compared to almost every other modern genre.

(The gameplay loops are well understood and intuitive, the art’s cheap, the music can be done on a Casio, nobody expects realistic physics, etc. )

The gimmick is that it’s only mostly 2D. It starts out 2D, but after some arcade-referencing shenanigans straight out of ROM CHECK FAIL, you gain the game’s signature ability: rotating these two-dimensional playfields along the Y-axis. 2D becomes 3D. Your little avatar also get a sweet hat.

This mechanic works. Wonderfully. You still move in two dimensions, but you think in three. Since you move the character in two dimensions but rotate the playfield in a third, players start feeling like they’re controlling two simultaneous avatars: the little be-hatted character, and the playfield itself. It’s almost a dance between the two: the character moves, and the playfield rotates, both moving back and forth, up and down, ’round and ’round, to accommodate the other. There’s a reason the demos of the game were lionized so much.

But what you’re doing with that mechanic…

The point of the game is to find cubes. That’s it. That’s all. You have to find two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and (optionally) 64 cubes. Some are whole, some are broken into little “bits” scattered around the playfields. Some are normal yellow cubes, comparatively easy to get; others are “anti-cubes” that are harder to find, requiring players to solve obscure (and, frankly, often obtuse) puzzles.

There are things dressing all this up, like an annoying, time-consuming cypher substitution language and some odd retro-referencey nonsense involving tetris pieces and a possibly-duplicitous hypercube that’s this game’s Navi. None of it matters.  It’s just cubes, upon cubes, upon cubes.

Why on EARTH was this seen as a good idea? If your game is a big ol’ retro reference, I can see drawing on Super Mario 64….but why take away the absolute worst thing about Super Mario 64? It’s astonishingly boring. It sounded boring when I figured out what I’d need to do, Getting dozens of McGuffins was boring to think about, and even more boring to do. Hence why I haven’t finished the game yet. I just can’t see the point of it.

Sure, the mechanic saves the experience. Navigating the environment and solving its puzzles, character and playfield locked in their endless dance? That never stopped being fun. It never got old. Fez is like a dumb shooter with a great “feel”; what you’re doing is pointless, but it feels great. It’s got the “micro” down cold, but is flubbing the “macro”. Maybe that changes…but I honestly can’t see how.

It’s too bad. Fish clearly put a lot of thought and work into the game. There’s a lot of immensely obscure stuff going on; quick Google searches bring up stuff about cryptography and steganography and whatnot right out of an ARG. But I don’t see how it’s become this universally lauded classic, and I do wish that he’d spared some of that thought to ask whether or not a bit more variety in goals might have helped the experience. Even a more traditional structure of forward progress would have helped.

Guess I’ll scoop up some more cubes…ugh…and finish it. Maybe I’ll find out then.

(Image is from Wikipedia.)

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Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

So after about a year of waiting, I finally, finally got to try Bioshock Infinite! Joyous day! How I’d waited! How I’d anticipated! I’d even avoided (most) spoilers!

With no small amount of glee, the game got started, and things began in earnest. Great start, too: ominous lighthouse, neat ascension, and those early moments with the baptism and the fair were straight-up magical.  

Then the shooting started.  I started strafing and aiming and firing and whatnot. I hucked a few fireballs at people, and hid from automatic turret robotish things. I swapped out guns and bought ammo. And as I did all of that, the magic just sort of…leaked out. 

Don’t get me wrong. Not being any sort of Internet hermit, I’d heard this opinion before. It was a whole big thing in the reactions to Infinite from people whose opinions I trusted. What shocked me is that all of those people were people who were clearly sick of FPSes and that sort of gameplay. I’m not. I still like FPSes quite a bit. So what happened here? Wasn’t sure.

Sure, I was playing on a console, and I’ve never been a gigantic fan of console shooters, especially shooters that have aim-down-sight (ADS) mapped to R3. (WHY?) Once I remapped the controls so that ADS was sensibly mapped, though, I was able to play it like any other console FPS. It wasn’t really a problem. It even fixed Bioshock’s dodgy console aim correction. 

I kept playing, and kept shooting. I got to the section where you met Elizabeth, and started on my way with her. And, guess what? Elizabeth’s great! Irrational (RIP) did a good job of making her an asset instead of a burden. She’s one of the most visually expressive characters I’ve seen in gaming, rivalling Link in Wind Waker. She’s got personality to spare, and the scenes where she’s introduced and where you see her dancing on the pier were brilliant enough that they almost brought that early magic back. 

But, dammit, I’m still not having any fun.

I’ve just passed the section where you’re (avoiding spoilers here) “interacting with the soldiers and their general”, and it honestly reminded me of the amazing sequence in Bioshock where you’re dealing with that mad artist. And, yet, again, that was engaging, while this isn’t. I’ve just met the Vox Populi and their leader, and I can’t find myself caring. I’m neck-deep in a sequence mocking the hell out of company towns and “captains of industry”, and all I can think of is how much more I enjoyed it in Bioshock.

Maybe it’s the level design? Bioshock Infinite was sold as having expansive levels, and these ain’t that. It’s actually a step back from Bioshock’s intricate levels; these are basically corridors with a few mildly-large combat arenas scattered between them. The game doesn’t even bother providing a map; THAT’S how dull the level design is.

(Let’s not even try to compare it to System Shock 2. That’d just be depressing.)

Maybe it’s the “magic”? The Vigors also seem to be a step back from Bioshock’s plasmids. Bioshock’s very first Plasmid attack, the lightning blast, was not only easy to understand and to use but allowed for fun weapon/magic combos and devastating environmental attacks. It was your first ranged weapon, too, which tremendously encouraged its use. Infinite’s first Vigor is an overly-expensive (and temporary!) turret hack. The second one is a dressed-up grenade.  The third is a dressed-up stun. Woo. 

Maybe it’s the guns? They’re…guns. Aggressively generic guns. Pistol, machine gun, rifle, RPG, grenade launcher, etcetera. Even the upgrades are boring. “25% bonus damage”? “10% larger clip”?  Who cares? And you can only carry two at a time! In a SHOCK game!  Why is Bioshock making you upgrade weapons that you won’t even know you’ll have access to?

But I feel like all of those things are quibbles. I’ve played games that were objectively more annoying, and didn’t give a rat’s ass. Those things aren’t anywhere near enough to explain it. I’m not burned out on FPSes, I like the setting, and I like Elizabeth. I even like Booker, sorta. And this isn’t one of those games where you aren’t supposed to be having fun. I LOVE those. I have this whole huge writeup about Spec Ops: The Line that I still want to post up here. The thing’s clearly supposed to be fun.

So the question remains: Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

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Rock Band creator Harmonix is making a new game…and you won’t believe the genre!

Harmonix is making a new game! Harmonix is making a new game!

And it’s an…FPS? A free-to-play FPS?

Anybody else get Rez flashbacks just now?

The hell?

From Rock Paper Shotgun:

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Put that way, it’s really exciting. One of my absolute favorite types of game is the synaesthetic one, where beat and music are incorporated into more traditional gameplay. It’s what made Rez (and it’s all-but-sequel Child of Eden) so beloved, and what makes games like Everyday Shooter so damned much fun. It’s gaming-as-dancing, true gaming-as-dancing without DDR’s often-hamfisted attempts to shoehorn quasi-dancing into a sort of gameplay.

Thing is, any decent game is already going to have a rhythm. Designing and playing games is all about loops; smaller activity loops, within larger activity loops, within larger activity loops. A well-made game will manage the pacing of those loops…and what is creating a rhythm other than managing complex, interacting sonic loops?

The free-to-play part is a bit concerning. We can only hope that they’ll take their cues from Valve instead of King, Zynga, or EA, and make the in-game transactions cosmetic and convenient instead of gruesome and annoying.  If anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Harmonix. So let’s see what happens.

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Hearthstone Impressions (And a wee bit of personal stuff)

It’s been far too long.

It’s been hard to write lately. I’d underestimated circumstances’ ability to affect one’s ability to sit down, focus, and communicate. Starting to think I’m a bit like Spider Jerusalem, who “never could write when [he’s] out of the city”. Urban and suburban/exurban life are more strikingly different than I’d ever known–and while I might still take up a standing offer to enjoy true rural existence for a little bit, this exurban exile reminds me of how much I appreciate and depend on the energy and vitality of the city.

I kind of sympathize with Andrew Ryan’s Periclean Bioshock slogan about how “all good things flow into the city”. An odd sentiment in a profoundly physiocratic country like Canada.  It’s still never felt truer.

(Oh, and if anybody from Bento Miso in Toronto reads this: I profoundly miss your space and the company I found within it.)

Anyway, I did get into the beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It’s been a great experience. It’s amazing how such a slight game has revived my bruised faith in Blizzard.

Why “revived”? Several reasons:

  • It shows that Blizzard still understands game design. Hearthstone takes the core of Magic: the Gathering, with its strategic-level deck building and tactical-level in-game card management, and removes a lot of the difficult and idiosyncratic elements that make Magic so hard to learn. Resources are straightforward, interrupts are kept to a minimum, and card effects are easy to understand. I’d never played more than a few hands of Magic, and I was up to speed in Hearthstone after a few games.
  • It shows that Blizzard learns from its mistakes. The Diablo auction house was an absolute disaster, a disaster that I’d identified over a year ago and that Blizzard is only now rectifying. There was real danger that a free-to-play game Hearthstone would be as blatantly “pay to win” as Diablo 3 had been. It was quite plausible that Blizzard would (once again) dangle the prospect of profit in front of their audience, creating yet another ultimately unsatisfying metagame.

That didn’t happen. You can get by quite nicely without paying for cards, and cards aren’t tradeable at all. You won’t make money playing Hearthstone, and you shouldn’t.

  • It reveals that amazing Blizzard polish. The game is beautiful. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Cards have top-notch art and animate beautifully: minions transform into gamepieces and drop onto the board with a satisfying “thunk”, while spells really animate and fly across the gameboard with every bit of the dazzle of the World of Warcraft abilities they were based on.

If anything, spells and abilities are almost better than their WoW counterparts.  Almost all are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t look at the description. That’s a lot more like DOTA2 or League of Legends, boding well for Blizzard’s newly retitled MOBA, Heart of the Storm. That’s probably why Hearthstone is rivalling those games when it comes to streaming popularity right now.

Yes, the game still has balance issues. Rogues were overpowered and Priests useless right before I got in, and from what I’ve seen, the reverse is now the case. (Though I’d hate to see them remove Mind Control, since it’s one of the most interesting effects in the entire game, and used to great effect in a way that it never was in World of Warcraft.) There are still too many classes that are near completely dependent on rare cards to be viable. And I feel that the way the matchmaking rating system works could stand to be a bit more transparent.

Honestly, though…those are minor issues and almost certainly why this beta is happening in the first place. They’ll sort ’em out. I, finally, have faith in them.

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(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 


(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.


Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.


So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5”.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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Falloblivion: The Elder Scrolls Four-and-a-Half

Oh, shit, a supermutant! Forget my minigun, I need something with real power…a hunting rifle!”

You probably know that I’ve been doing a long series on the Elder Scrolls series. I’d had to put that aside for a little bit, since I’d been playing Morrowind on a nice PC that, sadly, I don’t (can’t) use anymore. I have access to a PS3 right now, and I’ve been playing some console stuff…but none of it really fit into that framework.

Then I tried out Fallout 3. Finally. After all these years.

It’s like I never stopped. For better or worse, Fallout 3 really, really feels like an old-style total conversion of the post-Daggerfall Elder Scrolls games.

Sure, there are no knights and demons and whatnot, but that’s not what Elder Scrolls’ gameplay flow, the experience, had ever been about. the Elder Scrolls had always been about other things.

  • It’d been about exploring the countryside, and carefully mapping out the ruins of ancient civilizations contained therein.
  • It’d been about encountering bandits and monsters, and either getting the drop on them or fleeing in terror if they got the drop on you.
  • It’d been about making choices for how you want to handle your problems, being given quests that end up testing your moral outlook, and getting a wee bit frustrated when you ran across a problem that your specific skill choices just wouldn’t allow you to solve.
  • It’s about plumbing the history of a bizarre environment, and peeling back the layers of worldbuilding only to find yet more layers.

THAT is Elder Scrolls. And, yes, THAT is Fallout 3. Same damned thing.

For those about to grab their pitchforks, though…that isn’t a bad thing. I was never really that attached to the old Fallout games, but I knew enough about them to realize that they were themselves a conversion of the sort of gameplay that you’d find in an old top-down RPG in the vein of Planescape:Torment or Baldur’s Gate. You had turns and squares and stats and countryside and towns and encounters and all of that. Sure, it had guns and rads, but it also had everything else that’s defined that genre since the Gold Box games.

Remember, genres in games have absolutely nothing to do with setting. You can have a fantasy shooter like Panzer Dragoon, a steampunk FPS like The Order: 1886, or a historical sandbox like Assassin’s Creed 2. The setting genre and the game genre are only connected if you want them to be connected.

So, before you get all shouty, think about it. So what if Fallout 3 is basically an Elder Scrolls game? It’s still an RPG. It’s just a different kind of RPG.

All that said…there’s still VATS. And, yeah, VATS is the one thing that makes modern Fallout weirdMore in the next post. I guess the series is back on. It’s just taking a bit of a radioactive detour.

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Dan Cook and the value of academics

There’s a good piece in Gamasutra by Dan Cook talking about older game designers and the “rebellion” against them that seems to be going on among younger and/or indie designers. I’d recommend you read it.

That said, I was a bit disappointed by the comments. I feel like some people have missed the point. (Or maybe I have?)

It doesn’t seem like Daniel’s trying to argue that the schools are terrible, though he’s certainly making a backhanded case for certification. It seems to be more that there’s a tendency to treat older designers like Cook and Koster as a sort of Authority handing down Law About Games.

Koster’s “Not-A-Game” tendencies aside, that isn’t really how they see things. They’re a generation of tinkerers and wonderers, trying to feel things out, who made some mistakes, had some triumphs, and developed some ideas. They don’t believe that they have all the answers, nor that they’re Authorities to be obeyed or rebelled against…they just have insights and beliefs that come from a long history of design.

(And, as Cook said, the biggest failing of absolutely everybody involved in gaming is that they’re completely blind to history.)

Where I part ways with Cook is on the question of academics. He came across as dismissive. Yes, academic analysis can be dry and jargon-ish. It’s still valuable. Academics worth the name specialize in turning experience, data, and cases into theory. Sure, they may not be game designers, but that isn’t their job, any more than it’s the job of a military historian to strap on a broadsword and go carve up some knights.

I know I keep on banging on about the guy, but that’s one of the reasons I find Grant Tavinor’s work interesting. Yes, he’s an academic. Very much so. But because he’s an academic, his work does a good and careful job developing theories that seem to elude off-the-cuff designers. The reason why his definition of video games is so good…

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

…is because he employed the theory of disjunctive definitions (where two things can be sufficient yet neither are necessary) in order to solve the knotty problem of whether games need to be systems-focused.

This definition doesn’t come from vacuum. It’s the culmination of a long and fairly dry essay about the nature of video games. It’s an end-point of a lot of careful, slow thought, instead of some sort of blinding insight. That’s why it works so well. Sometimes you have to take it slow and work it out.

Yes, it has jargon. Yes, it’s kinda tough going. Yes, the linked essay and Tavinor’s excellent book Art of Videogames can reveal the sort of reservations and cautions that you see in all good academic analysis. And, yes, reading Tadhg Kelly bang on in bite-sized bloggy chunks about characters-as-dolls and about how the Zinesters don’t get how tabletop proves that players only really care about systems is a lot easier.

But it’s  worth it.

Academics have their place. And, if the job’s done right, they don’t pretend to have all the answers. There’s room for rebels and discontent; in fact, the best academic writers and thinkers practically BEG for rebellion and discontent. They practically feed off it. Something to think about.

(Oh…and they love talking about history.)

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