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Games PC PS3 Xbox 360

Looking for Burnout

Burnout 3: Takedown cover (PS2, EU)
Burnout 3: Takedown. It’s the first console game I bought on launch day, at full price. (Actually, still the only one.)

The best car/ driving/ racing/ speeding/ adrenaline/ wheels game of all time is Burnout 3: Takedown (2004, PS2, Xbox). Its impeccably crafted highways that demand excessive speed or you feel like you’re doing them a disservice, its kilometer-long drifts, its picture-perfect scenery blazing by, its blink-and-you’re-gone, laughter-inducing crashes with cars flying hundreds of meters into the air – it is the perfection of the arcade racer form. The other contestants (Ridge Racer, OutRun) are good in some things, but they can’t offer the breadth and depth and generosity of Burnout 3. It’s perfect. I’ve completed it three times. My favorite game industry geek-out moments have been those spent working and hanging out with guys who crafted it.

I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since. I even made a game in the same vein (Ridge Racer Unbounded, 2012, PS3, X360, PC). While as I wasn’t in a creative lead position, I put everything I had towards recreating the sensation I had when playing Burnout 3. You could call it my personal tribute. But regardless of how we did, since it’s my own game, it can never be a replacement for the original for me.

What has the studio behind Burnout 3, Criterion, been up to since and how does their later output compare to the classic? With the recent news of Criterion now downsized to just 16 people with the majority of the former team now comprising Ghost UK (working on Need For Speed: Rivals under their Sweden based parent studio), it is a good time to review what became of the ultimate arcade racer.

EXHIBIT A: Burnout: Revenge

A direct sequel to Burnout 3, Burnout: Revenge (2005, PS2, Xbox, X360) just does not scratch the same itch. Revenge is of the louder, faster school of sequel development and in Burnout’s case, they went too far. It was always supposed to be over the top, but it becomes so far removed from the notion of speeding in a car on a highway with its vehicular pinball and dark color palette, you start wondering if they played the same Burnout.

The level design has become muddy and you spend too much time afraid, not looking forward to the next moment. Lots of satisfied grins, yes, and I did complete it, but it never made me smile.

Verdict: THREE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

EXHIBIT B: Burnout Paradise

Burnout Paradise (2008, PS3, X360, PC) is these days widely considered the best entry in the series, even if it never reached accolades quite as high as Burnout 3. The shift to an open world is initially bewildering. They let you free to go anywhere, but it can easily feel like you’re lost and wandering aimlessly. For a long time I couldn’t get on with the design and felt abandoned on its lifeless streets and it’s easy to start stressing about the approaching turns and racing with more attention paid to the map than the utterly lethal traffic. But if you just trust the game to lead you to great fun and experiences you want anyway, it works.

The level design is masterclass, again. While the city is wide open to explore, just about anywhere you might want to head means you’re on an expertly crafted race track that just happens to weave in and out of countless other race tracks. The city isn’t very believable, but then that’s not the point. It’s an oversize motorized playground for having fun with cars. The decision to have all events end at one of the eight corners of Paradise City means that you get a grip on its layout far better than in any other open world racer.

It only stumbles when you find yourself far away on the mountains at the end of a race with no quick way to get back to the more fruitful intersections of downtown, and any time you want to change your car – the trip to the junkyard to pick up a new ride feels just obnoxious.

Out of all the games they’ve done since, Paradise best captures the carefree, feel-good atmosphere and arcade-perfect, fast and delicate handling of Burnout 3.

Verdict: FIVE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

EXHIBIT C: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Criterion was no longer working on Burnout, with EA now focusing on Need For Speed, Criterion appointed to helm the series. They released two NFS games: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) and Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012). Can the Burnout I seek be found here?

It’s interesting that they’ve chosen to go back to old titles and themes with the new games. I’ve been conceptualizing action driving games for the past five years and I know it’s difficult to come up with relatable, understandable themes in that context. Cops and robbers is pretty much the only one with enough built-in drama and wide appeal to make sense, so it’s no wonder EA has doubled down on it. Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted are both cops and robbers speeding on highways, but they’re very different games and that’s not just because the latter is an open-world game and the former isn’t.

Hot Pursuit (2010, PS3, X360, PC) takes one half of the Burnout promise – the endless highways in majestic landscapes – and adds police chases to it. It is an alternative take on Burnout 3. What you do is the same, high-speed racing on closed tracks in larger than life environments, now with added weather and night time, but two major things make this a different experience – plus obviously the whole cops and robbers mechanic, which could work very well with Burnout, too.

One, the introduction of real life cars. You might argue that speeding and crashing real cars is preferable to doing the same in make-believe cars, but I would say you’re wrong. The real life branding makes the whole game taste faintly of marketing and mundane fantasizing about unattainable objects of desire, whereas all I want to do is scream down a highway, head-first, daring myself to not let go of the boost button. That has nothing to do with real life. Assembling a fleet of real life supercars is very appealing, but it takes away from the Burnout dream.

Two, a very different handling model. I really like the handling in Hot Pursuit, but the remarkably heavy steering and drifting makes this something antithetical to the arcade esthetic. There’s heft to it that does feel good, but just doesn’t fit the arcade vision. Taking out other drivers is also a far too rare, not nearly as guilty pleasure as in Burnout, in part thanks to the severely limited damage simulation.

It’s a beautiful game, often breathtaking, bravely stylized lighting and visual cues making for impeccably readable tracks. While lacking much of the Burnout playfulness, the tracks are still great fun to blast through.

Verdict: FOUR OF FIVE BURNOUTS

EXHIBIT D: Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

The thing that most baffles me about Most Wanted (2012, PS3, X360, PS Vita) is the presentation. There’s that Mirror’s Edge -esque title and then you’re hit with a parade of James Bond summoning gratuitous event intro movies. They are supremely moody and stylish and entirely pointless. I can’t quite tell what they’re trying to go for, but I’d like much more of that in the game all the same. There’s a moment when it threatens to completely win you over, with a mass of police cars inexplicably assembling a gigantic wheel that chases you as you’re transported as by expensive music video logic on top of shipyard containers and given the wheel. I was really disappointed that wheel didn’t continue chasing me once out of the cutscene.

An open world racer, Most Wanted’s structure is neat. You can change into any car you’ve discovered in the game world instantly, and each car is its own career with events tailored to it, wins netting you upgrades and options for that car. No longer wondering if you’ve got the right car for the event. This basically fixes all that was wrong with Burnout Paradise – no more taxing trips to the junkyard to change your wheels.

But being an open world racer that has level design not on par with Burnout Paradise, the racing part of it… kind of sucks. The world is indeed much more realistic, but that does not make it any more fun. Nobody asked for this map-reading bullshit. It is completely against the notion of a need for speed. One late turn and your race is screwed. Everything that they got right in this respect in Paradise is just missing from here. At least you do get a GPS route drawn on your map, but you’re not warned of approaching exits, nor the routes ever start to make sense to you. There is inconsistent use of big HUD arrows to signal turns – for a long time I thought they didn’t use them at all, until they were suddenly there in one event. Using these in every unclear turn would help the game a lot.

The game world is so beautiful you do forgive a lot. They’ve done a very good job of including pretty much everything that’s neat and enjoyable in urban driving in the US, at least from my experience all over the West Coast. There’s the Seattle tunnels, the Golden Gate, that other bridge in SF… The rural parts aren’t quite as successful, probably because they’ve had to loop everything back into the city within reasonable driving times. But let go of that and man, it can be awfully pretty. Criterion has some of the best and boldest color palettes, effects and lighting around.

As is a big part of a Need For Speed title, the cars are all real, with all the benefits and flaws that implies. Discovering cars that are only available through purchase of DLC is so disappointing that you start to let yourself down before driving up to them. Presumably because of the real world basis, in addition to the sometimes frustrating racing, what really pushes this away from a true Burnout experience is the sad lack of car damage. You’re just not allowed to have fun crashing cars, and that’s at least half of the Burnout fun.

The handling, on the other hand, is a step back towards Burnout. There’s still heft to it, but it is an arcade heft, not without lightness to it. It’s immediately responsive. When you’re retrying speed challenges you’ve just missed, over and over again, you do get back into that good old Burnout 3 hunger, especially since now you can just retry events at any time, regardless of where you are on the map – again, fixed what was wrong in Paradise.

Driving through the gas stations at ridiculous speeds to have your car repaired, nitro refilled and paintjob changed without slowing down feels like Burnout. The problem is that at race event speeds, it is way too hard to read which way you’re supposed to enter, too likely resulting in a crash and a restart.

The roads are sensibly empty during events, with just enough civilian traffic to keep those blind corners tense. Then again, telling the prey-like hostile racers apart from the backlights of utterly lethal civilian vehicles is too hard, and crashing becomes just a sad fail state.

And so it goes – everything that Most Wanted gets right, sometimes enthusiastically so, it fumbles something else, and the end product feels like something that wants to be Burnout Paradise, but isn’t allowed to.

Verdict: THREE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

Categories
Games roleplaying tabletop games

RPG mechanics on table and screen

Running my current D&D campaign, I’ve been thinking about mechanics a lot. I want to make the game mechanically interesting: it should be a good game, any other qualities notwithstanding. As the play has become more regimented, I don’t feel that we’ve lost any of the freeform creative air of a tabletop RPG, paradoxic as that may sound. But that leads to another question: could a digital game ever recreate both the situations and their solutions that come up in playing with humans, in a human designed and run game?

There are seven levels of mechanical interaction in-game as far as I can tell: personal/emotional, tactical, resource, extended tactical, abstract, micro and arbitrary systems.

Personal/emotional

The “personal/emotional” level is unsurprisingly what human-run roleplaying games do the best. As you’re interacting with other people and adapting to their play on the fly, even somewhat lacking roleplaying and acting is in practice pretty good. You get insights and experiences in-character that would be very hard to achieve in a digital fashion. But this only happens because the digital games tend to make one big mistake.

In digital games “emotional” tends to mean literal and canned. Someone has written a story you’re supposed to care about, happening to characters they’ve written. For emotion to happen in an interactive experience, that should all be flipped around: characters you’ve envisioned, with their personal motivations, are doing interesting things. This is not the same as having a blank canvas of a character (which, naturally, nobody cares about), but rather giving the player enough room to project their own ideas into. As a crude example, a player being forced to kill someone in-game is only marginally better (in terms of impact) than having that happen in a non-interactive cutscene. That could be elevated very simply by giving the player actual choice.

While counter-intuitive, this level of interaction is often elevated by having fewer words and visible emotions. When you’re free to imagine things, they magically become better, as long as you don’t contradict it elsewhere. For good examples, see Fable II, The Sims and FTL. You can build emotion out of very simple, visible, free to interpret interaction. For extra points, tie it all into game mechanics.

Micro

“Micro” means the stuff that happens between the lines of the written rules. Because the Otyugh is so big and the roof so low, it crushes the roof as it walks underneath it, eating it, denying that top floor to everybody and turning the area around it into difficult terrain due to the rubble. Magic missiles can be used to bring down sections of the roof as well as targeting enemies. This can be reached, to a point, by simulating a hell of a lot more than we’ve used to. Dwarf Fortress does a good job of this. A computer would be in theory good in following up any sort of simulation, but in practice a human editor is vastly superior, as a human is good in judging intent and drama.

Do we need to concern ourselves with the finest detail of physics in this particular chase? Most often the answer is “no”. It’s just that sometimes it becomes crucial to the quality of the game. My belief is that adding as many often-seen, relevant micro-level simulations as possible would add to the likelihood of neat, memorable, emergent things happening during play. You could do a lot just with accurate physics and material properties. It wouldn’t be the same thing, as the computer would be bad at making value calls, but it could very well be good enough. Thus, more physics simulation would be a good step in the right direction.

Arbitrary systems

“Arbitrary systems” means rules that exist to make sense of the game world or to add interesting interaction on top of the basic framework of the game. Think locked doors and lockpick skills and single-use automatic lockpicks, as you might see in a Deus Ex game.

As a tabletop example, Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition, has an oft-derided mechanic that I like a lot: the skill challenges. The basic idea is that the players are presented with an objective and asked to reach it using a combination of their skills, with some limits based on what’s applicable. What makes this interesting is that everybody in the party must take part, even though they often do not have any obviously suitable skills to contribute. This leads to situations where, for example, the fighter is helping out by carrying people around the library on her shoulders, or the druid figures out where the bad guys are hiding from the way insects are behaving. It’s really all up to the players’ imagination – as a game master I typically have no idea how they might reach their objectives, yet they always do.

This is not quite the same as just imagining the world as a sandbox with a “do anything” motto. The game is doing its best to present interesting objectives and giving you enough tools to make it happen. The Deus Ex games are trying to do this, but they stumble in their artificiality. The systems should mix more. We need systems that welcome messing about, producing surprising offspring. The way to make arbitrary systems work is to encourage them breeding.

Tactical

“Tactical” is easy – that’s the basic combat scenarios you’re likely to find in most old-school RPGs and all digital RPGs. Computers are very good in this stuff, eliminating book keeping and providing AI opposition for solo players, and the only worthwhile tabletop advantages are evident in the other categories I outlined above – micro and arbitrary systems. XCOM is a lot of fun, and probably more fun digitally than it would be on tabletop.

Extended tactical

However, the “extended tactical” level is where the tabletop wins out every time. If you would run the XCOM scenarios on tabletop, they would become dull very soon. There’s not enough variety. In our bi-weekly D&D games we fight a lot of tactical battles, but I spend a lot of time making sure there’s some new element in play every single time. It could be an enemy with a unique ability or a feature of the environment the players haven’t met before. There could be timed events. Any of these elements would be easy enough to replicate in a digital game, but the problem is that you need so many of them. I want something new for every single fight.

If you were to analyze these unique elements, you’d find that they do follow patterns. Most of them are variants of the same basic components, just put together or simply presented in new ways. There’s timed events, traps, NPCs that need protection, the elements imposing a negative quality on everyone, parts of the environment being hazardous, moving environments, multiple waves of enemies, template enemy formations, and so forth. If you were to design your attributes carefully enough, there is no reason why you couldn’t put together compelling, interesting and even unique combat scenarios for every single fight. The automatic response in videogames is either “the design will become messy” or “it’s too expensive”, but anybody saying those things needs to play more tabletop games.

Abstract

“Abstract” mechanics sit right at home in digital games and are rarely found in tabletop games. I’ve been introducing them into my pen and paper campaigns a lot lately. As an example, instead of a straight roleplaying scene where the heroes accompany the king on a night ride through a city in civil war, I crafted a simple board game scenario out of it. The players had to choose which of their allies to use against which threat, and then deal with the outcome in person. This elevated something that could’ve been a very brief roleplaying moment into a more tangible situation with interesting decisions and thus more dramatic weight to it.

Digital games are very good in this sort of thing. They almost always have these abstract systems in place on the meta level. As an example take Alpha Protocol’s mission preparation and choosing or XCOM’s base building and planetary surveillance. That gives the games overarching structure and purpose. The same holds true in a tabletop game, and could be more commonly used in long-term games. As a good example, in a game I played our character sheets became this sort of abstract meta system with their own mysteries, only revealed under certain in-game circumstances. We also had a deck of tarot cards shared by all the groups playing the game (there were a lot of players). Over the duration of the very long campaign, some players claimed certain cards of the tarot as their own, and the groups started to affect each other.

Resource

Finally, the “resource” level is about giving players the option of using or withholding something they’ve been given. Both tabletop and digital games very typically have the problem that the mere pursuit of more stuff is not very compelling, and players are really bad in actually ever using everything that’s been given to them – case in point, health potions. In most cases this is simply a case of the game’s overall math and power economy needing more attention. In my D&D campaign I’ve slowly turned up the difficulty until the players have started to run out of potions and other assets. This keeps the game tense. Game designers and game masters often miss the fact that the players actually enjoy being in a bind!

Something often found in tabletop games is that players have less obvious resources: influence, contacts, allies, knowledge, history and so forth. Many of these would be tricky to represent properly in a digital game because they’re so open-ended, but a good case could be made for a lot of them. Alpha Protocol tries some of this in an intriguing way – letting you choose your allies and how much you invest in them, being rewarded both on a personal and a tangible level, with also some nasty surprises in wait – and I only wish it did more. The key is tying these resources to some of the other systems in play, for example limited use abilities on the battlefield. Even if you think that the tabletop possibilities are too unlimited for a digital game, a lot of the dramatic possibilities with non-item resources actually fall into just a few categories, which could very well be represented in a digital game, too. In this way David Braben’s Outsider was a very interesting project and I hope we get to hear more of it one day.

Conclusion

In conclusion, game designers should play a lot of games of both the digital and tabletop variety and pay attention to the mechanics, especially when they’re not readily apparent “rules”. A lot of the hard to define stuff in a tabletop game actually does follow rules when you think about it a little harder and most of it would do a world of good to digital games.

Categories
culture Games PS3

Narrative and context: Thomas Was Alone/Catherine double feature (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone

THOMAS WAS ALONE (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone is a simple puzzle platformer in which you switch control between different shapes and sizes of moving rectangles to navigate through a side-scrolling maze. It’s one of the most important narrative achievements in games.

The power of abstraction is not to be dismissed. If you pay attention to it, I guarantee that Thomas Was Alone is going to make you care about a square in under five minutes.

It wouldn’t work without the brilliant narration and the leagues above average writing. It wouldn’t work without the music. But most interestingly, Thomas Was Alone wouldn’t work if those rectangles were anything else, or if they represented something else.

It would be exceedingly difficult and expensive to make this exact same story work with a higher fidelity graphical represenation. You could envision that, because the story of these blocks is indeed so universal and human that it’s easy to imagine it in another setting. But actually making that version would be nigh impossible. Because it’s so simple, nothing is contradicting with the way you interpret it.

A big part of why the story is so effective is that it dares to be about simple emotions. Being alone, coveting the girl, wanting to find your own place, looking good in the eyes of others, being useful. These are the things we reflect ourselves in and through. The stories we tell and consume should be about these things. And videogames so very rarely are.

I am not a fan of the puzzle platformer style of gameplay. I think it’s okay, but I couldn’t really tell, because I just don’t care about it. It’s something I go through because I want to hang out with these rectangles, but I wouldn’t do it for any other reason. That said, for this specific game, for these rectangles and the story we’re telling together, it’s perfect.

Thomas Was Alone is a videogame single that makes you think about a time you’ve lost and the people you’ve grown up with.

Catherine
Catherine

CATHERINE (PS3)

Where Thomas Was Alone is about real people, represented by rectangles, Catherine is about a movie rendition of real people, represented by you.

It places a lot of trust in counting on you being able to relate to its protagonist, a software developer in his early 30s, scared to death of having to grow up and take responsibility of his life, and the life of his long-time girlfriend. These are the stories of real people, told through the medium of videogames. You may not have had Vincent’s exact dilemma, but surely if you’re beyond your early 30s, you’ve gone through something like it.

Catherine is brave for making a videogame out of the anxiety to grow up in today’s society. It dresses it in just enough make-up and costumes to not make it too banal, presenting itself as a cheap late-night TV show, something along the lines of Twilight Zone or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark.

After my first session with the game, I was frustrated by the actual gameplay of surviving Vincent’s nightly nightmares by climbing a crumbling tower made of blocks you move around to scale. It’s surprisingly difficult for me. I grew so frustrated I had to give up, never making it past the second night and thus barely out of the story’s introduction. While thematically there’s some point to what the nightmares are about – Vincent’s anxiety – in purely mechanical terms they have absolutely nothing to do with the narrative’s pull and tension. It feels needless and in the way.

At the same time, the other interaction on offer is replying – or not – to text messages you’re getting while sitting in the bar at night. Writing the text messages line by line from multiple options perfectly captures the feeling of replying to sensitive communiques. This part of the gameplay is utterly captivating.

Categories
culture Games PC

Goodbye, Lucasarts: The things you gave me

I want to say that Lucasarts made me love videogames, but that’s not true. I do think I learned to love them more deeply thanks to Lucasarts. Here’s my most cherished memories with their games.

Maniac Mansion cover art
Maniac Mansion’s awesome cover art

MANIAC MANSION

The Finnish review in MikroBitti was great, recalling slasher flicks and painting it quite a bit more macabre than it really was. Maniac Mansion still feels progressive with its choose your own cast mechanics and dynamic NPCs. Rarely has so much been attained with such a limited playspace.

ZAK MCKRACKEN (AND THE ALIEN MINDBENDERS)

Zak always felt like Lucasarts’ most ambitious game to me. I’m not sure how complicated it actually was, but it felt like a very big game with lots of paths you could go down. Its mix of the mundane with the surreal and the fantastic remains fresh. What a lovely oddball world and cast. From airline pranks to the Sphinx and two-headed squirrels to alien invaders, the cover perfectly covered the atmosphere.

LOOM

I can’t actually recall all that much about LOOM save for realizing that I either have no ear for tone or the friend I was playing with was so much better that it didn’t matter.

INDIANA JONES (AND THE LAST CRUSADE)

For a long time I thought that this is the only way you should do a movie license, honoring the characters and the plot of the original. The accomplishment here is following the original story very closely, yet creating enough new stuff to make the game feel fresh. I still don’t think you could do a straight movie adaptation better than this – generally I’d rather you take the route The Walking Dead did, retelling the same kind of story, but not the same one.

X-WING

TIE Fighter gets all the love, but I was an X-Wing guy. At the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play as the bad guys. With its movie sensibilities and simulation approach, it plunged you deeper into a movie world than any game before or since. (Well, I guess except for TIE Fighter.)

(THE SECRET OF) MONKEY ISLAND (2: LECHUCK’S REVENGE)

I bought so wholesale into the brilliantly realized Monkey Island fantasy, going to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland last year felt like coming home for the very same flavor of Caribbean fantasy world they offer. The games feature some brilliant characters and unforgettable scenes – breaking into the mansion, the coffin ride, the voodoo priestess, the drowning… Monkey Island 2 was a big game for me just for looking so unbelievably good, I had a hard time believing it was real. At least until you got to the disc-swapping.

GRIM FANDANGO

I love Grim Fandango mostly for its esthetic values. Very few early 3D games can stand up to light today, but with its sense of style and adaptation of real-world art, Grim Fandango is a masterclass in art direction. It doesn’t overshadow its qualities in writing and characters at all – this is a dance you should learn, even if the very strange world it depicts may be a little much to get your head around at first brush.

GLADIUS

I don’t actually have that strong memories of this title, but it was one of the best games on the original Xbox and something that’s often overlooked, so I want to bring it up. A turn-based tactical gladiator title, it was never going to be a big seller, no matter how good it was. Without doing the research I can’t be sure, but I believe it was Lucasarts’ last truly good game.

Categories
culture Games PC

Thirty Flights Of Loving (PC)

Thirty Flights Of Loving screenshot
Thirty Flights Of Loving

Small form gaming

In journalism the long-form is making a return. That’s a great development, if somewhat paradoxical with the proliferation of time spent on smartphones and ever smaller chunks at a time on one specific thing. The rise of tablets is certainly a part of it, being more suited to reading than phones or computer screens are. But I attribute a big part of it to people simply wanting content they care about, instead of machinegun news. We used to say that you can’t charge for news or online journalism, but it turns out you can – it’s now just a matter of figuring out how much and for how many consumers. I believe the shift happened once so much of our lives and content was online, the line between a tangible newspaper and an incorporeal news site blurred to something that just doesn’t matter to many people. The tangible isn’t seen as value anymore. On the contrary, young people are proud of how little stuff they have or need.

There is another interesting parallel in TVs and movies. Movies are getting dumber by the year, Hollywood largely settling on the “sure bets” of remakes and reboots and re-imaginings and movies as events (”you gotta see it!” “Why?”), while Youtube and other online video has largely already replaced the TV for younger people. When my ISP asked me if I had used the TV functionality, I had to actually think (I had, once). At the same time the TV show is in full-blown renaissance. We’re getting better TV than ever, and that’s because writers have embraced the form as something that’s very valuable and substantial on its own, not as an offshoot of cinema or something cheap and dumb you do when you don’t have the energy for anything else – be it as a creator or a consumer. The TV show has turned into the long-form moving image. The TV shows of today demand and reward attention and thinking.

Meanwhile, in games

I believe it’s time for games to embrace a shift like this. They need to, to be in line with the changing lives and perspectives of their audience.

The problem is that most modern games are way too long. If you’re a hardcore gamer and especially if you’re in your teens, you’re going to make a face and dismiss this outright. But if you’re not hardcore or in your teens, you’re likely nodding along there.

This is getting better now as production costs are so sky-high that we can’t afford to make more than 6-8 hours of linear content. But that’s not a shift to better get on with the times, that’s something you do because you’re forced to. The audience doesn’t appreciate it, because they feel they’re getting less than they used to for their 50-70 USD/EUR.

What you need to do is accept that your audience wants new experiences. They want games that matter to them and give them things to talk about. They want something they can consume instead of watching some more Youtube – the threshold to jump into a game shouldn’t exist.

Now it does, for a lot of reasons. For one, games are just too big. I haven’t played Skyrim in months and the thought of going back to it is intimidating. It’s like the game is towering before me, and starting again on that path is just too much. This is great is all you do is play one game day-in day-out, but for a lot of gamers it isn’t ideal.

Another problem is that games are so goddamn complex. I’ve started Vanquish and want to go back to it, but the controls are so complex that I have to accept spending at least half an hour of being bad before hopefully, maybe re-acquiring what skills I had. And that’s a very in-your-face action game, supposed to be immediately accessible, jump-in fun.

Third problem is that games demand constant attention. They’re generally very bad in acknowledging that you might have other things to do and can only give them, say, half an hour this week. This is getting better with examples from mobile games and things like the PlayStation 4’s instant suspend and resume, but there’s still ways to go before we’re at the level of TV shows. Not that this is a unique problem to games – books in general require effort to follow all the way through, if you don’t do it in a small enough span of time.

I’m not saying all of these problems even need to be solved or that solving them would be good for all games, but Thirty Flights Of Loving is an example of solving all these problems at once.

A First-Person Shooter

Thirty Flights Of Loving says it’s an FPS without being one. It tells a story that stays with you with very few words, no dialogue and super low “production values”. Instead, it embraces the videogame form and does things with it that you couldn’t do with any other medium. It does this in around 30 minutes, if that. It’s more focused and confident than anything I can think of.

I had no idea what to expect, going in, and what I left with when I turned off the game was memories of an episode of my life I didn’t know I had. You can’t really say anything about the story without spoiling it and whereas for the most part videogame spoilers are something I could not care less about, in this case they really are. Just play it.

You could spend time arguing if it’s even a game as you can’t lose as far as I know and you’re effectively going through a linear story. I don’t particularly care – it looks and feels like a game.

Thirty Flights Of Loving is a videogame short story, a short movie, a single issue comic book, a single. I would like there to be many more games like it.

Categories
Games

Games of the year 2012

The Walking Dead screenshot
The Walking Dead

This is a list of the games that were most important/time-consuming for me this year. As usual, not all of these were released this year, and this is in no particular order.

The Walking Dead (PC). We’ve made a number of strides in games writing over the recent years (I’m itching to play Spec Ops: The Line), and The Walking Dead is the biggest leap yet. It takes a well-worn genre and simply shows what’s possible through the virtue of world class writing. It’s interesting that this same content would not work in a non-interactive medium – this would make for boring watching or reading – but as a videogame it’s gripping. It’s also the best use of episodic content seen to date.

Hotline Miami (PC). That a game made by two guys on Game Maker can cause this much of a stir, sell this much and be so thought-provoking is a sign to me that the tyranny of the triple-A has come to a close. It’s an ace game on its own, too.

Fiasco. It made me stop being so nervous about improvising with friends.

Flying Lead. In my search for the small units miniature wargaming system that’s right for me, I’ve even written a few. After three games, this is the game I’ve been looking for.

Rocksmith (Xbox 360). It’s made me play the guitar. I can play a couple of songs (with very simple arrangements)! I know a couple of riffs by heart!

Ghost Recon Online (PC). This is the only shooter I’m playing seriously these days. Most of them are too much in your face for my aging sensibilities (yes, including Battlefield). You can do well without a teenager’s reflexes!

Super Hexagon (iOS). I still have twitch gaming skills! There’s no way I could even dream of reaching the actual world top positions, but doing well among friends is enough for me. When you first start playing it, it seems unfathomable to survive beyond five seconds, let alone fifty. But after some practice the first level feels downright relaxing.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC). Even with its constrained design and quality issues, this is an entertaining, engrossing tactical offering we don’t get enough of. Makes me think back to Laser Squad (1988) days. I guess 40 hours played in a week says something of its value.

Legend Of Grimrock (PC). Grimrock is important as a sign that this year it became feasible to release just about anything you love, provided it’s polished enough. No publisher would’ve touched a Dungeon Master remake, no matter how pretty you made it, and here’s this group of former triple-A developers making this wonderful thing, and the world eating it up. It’s inspirational.

Dungeons & Dragons. We haven’t actually played much this year, but I’ve been seriously on my D&D campaign. Planning today’s session, I needed (count em) six spreadsheets. I know it’s ridiculous, but that’s how obsessed I currently am. I’m doing pretty much everything I ever dreamed I could do in a D&D game, including boardgame style mechanical twists (running a shop, setpiece fights, exploration), interludes with a whole another party of heroes (two, actually), setting up a fantasy business, dragon nemesises, multiple story arcs spanning a dozen games and big-ass battles with hundreds of combatants. The only thing I’m worried about is giving my players enough room to roam in this playground of mine. I’m not sure what it is about this game that makes me go all out instead of carefully drip-feeding my indulgences as a gamemaster, but I’m excited to take this newfound eagerness to other games I’m dying to run (Heavy Gear).

Infinity Blade II (iOS). I’ve played a ton of this and rank it alongside Dark Souls as modern fantasy the way it should be. A glorious rethinking of what swords and sorcery could be in today’s gaming habits.

Categories
Games iOS

iPhone 4S as a gaming device

Infinity Blade II screenshot
Infinity Blade II screenshot

I’ve started using an iPhone some months ago. I’m not surprised that there’s twenty-six games on my phone right now, plus a bunch I’ve deleted, but that they hold my attention better than the PlayStation Vita games I got my hands on at the same time is surprising. This is a look at what I consider must-play titles.

Death Rally: Remedy’s remake of their old-school PC original (1996) is mobile action gaming at its finest. The one problem I have is due to constant contact with the screen, your driving finger develops nasty friction within a race or two, necessitating finger switching on the fly. Everything else is completely as it should be. The structure of never knowing exactly which races and tracks are going to be playable on the next round keeps you interested, and grinding to max out all the cars and guns keeps you going. The multiplayer is lots of fun.

Triple Town: Triple Town is the best new puzzle game in years. It’s not fully developed yet and the iOS version is not quite as far along as the browser version, but this is casual, engaging, deep puzzling at its best. Cutesy graphics meet hardcore challenge as you get a little bit further into the campaign. It’s essentially match three (think Bejeweled), except you’re building a town, and there’s multiple levels of matching that you need to take into account. Add hostile bears to the mix and you’ve got just the right combination of luck and skill.

Drop7: Drop7 is the other big new puzzler. So well tuned it approaches Tetris levels of “casual” addiction, perfect for killing a minute while waiting for something.

Hero Academy: This was the first iOS game that changed the way I play games. The now very much in vogue asynchronous multiplayer (I play, you play – just like play by mail used to be) works very well in this team-based fantasy sports title. It’s kind of like Blood Bowl meets League Of Legends, with teams of fantasy characters trying to destroy each other’s crystals. Played on a single-screen grid, the scope is just right to allow for varied tactics while remaining easy to grasp. The different teams add the right amount of variety.

Ascension: I thought you couldn’t possibly squeeze a card game into the iPhone screen. You can, at least on the 4S screen it works just fine. The same game is available as a physical card game, too, and I’ve had so much fun with the iOS version I wouldn’t object to picking it up for face to face play. This also sports asynchronous multiplayer, but it’s not a great fit here, as Ascension plays very fast. It would be better with same-time lobbies, turns taking a couple of minutes at most.

Infinity Blade II: I started with the sequel and haven’t yet played the original. This is a gorgeous game with super high production values and unusually strong visual design. It’s a bold take on swords and sworcery fantasy fiction, completely embracing the nature of the platform. The heroic journey is condensed to choosing from a couple of possible routes by clicking on a hotspot, checkpointed by glorious duels. The journey is completed in 15-30 minutes. Then you start again, retaining your experience and gear. The twist is, the journey changes a little bit every time you play. New paths open up, new chests appear, the monsters change, the sparse dialogue changes… a little. The grinding of experience is addictive, the amount of gear lures you in, and the timing and direction based dueling is always tense, always rewarding. Different weapon styles make sure there’s always something different you can try. The addition of “Clashmobs” recently is reason enough to log in daily to see what prizes you could get by participating in global challenges where all the players combine their efforts to meet a goal (kill 65 000 demons in 12 hours, that sort of thing). The gameplay and world remind me of the sublime Vagrant Story and the more recent Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. It is a glorious game, every bit the mobile game I would’ve loved to make.

So there’s plenty to play and it costs next to nothing. Controls are the one thing that can be a problem, but with all the games above, they’re not. Many of the games plain wouldn’t work without a touch screen (Infinity Blade, Hero Academy) and cases where you genuinely miss a controller are typically bad fits for the platform anyway. All of the games above work as a couple of minutes of play, or hours spent on the small screen. That a game can be so adaptive to whatever time and space you can give it is revolutionary – not because of the portability as we’ve had portable games for a while now, but because of them feeling like viable alternatives to turning on the Xbox. Mobile gaming has grown up and to me, it’s as proper a gaming platform as anything else.

Categories
culture Games

Girls

Kung Fu Master (C64)
Kung Fu Master (C64) has probably the first videogame woman I ever saw. Couldn't find a picture of her to use here. Just to break the norm on stories about females in games, this is the only image in this story.

I can’t believe I haven’t written about women as characters in games before, certainly I’ve talked about them quite a bit. Inspiration to finally do a piece on this was this article, where the Bitmob community attempted to collectively write about good female characters in games, ones not created just as damsels in distress or there to titillate men. The turnover was really poor. This is what I might have submitted.

I don’t think it’s important to focus on female characters that kick ass. I think it’s important to focus on characters period. As an industry we do horrible things to characters and arguably females get the worst of it. So here as an inspiration is a bunch of characters done correctly.

Uncharted series: Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer

The Uncharted character drama and love interests have been really interesting just because of a couple of basic things they do. For one thing, every character (except for the lame bad guys… doing bad guys right is difficult, granted) feels like they’re standing on their own feet. They are not there just for the protagonist Nathan Drake to reflect off. You can imagine them going about their own business and having their own ambitions. You can’t predict what’s going to come out of their mouths.

But in terms of drama, the one key thing is that there’s tension in Uncharted. The way Nathan and Elena meet is that Nathan leaves her standing on a pier, intentionally screwing her over. Not a typical video game set up for a love story! In the second game, Nathan can’t make up his mind between Elena and Chloe. Much like Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake is not a perfect nice guy hero – he’s flawed, and all the better for it.

In addition to the character drama written correctly, both Elena and Chloe kick all kinds of ass during the games. They’re very much on the same level in terms of script importance and role activity level as Nathan’s mentor Victor Sullivan – except as females, they’re suitable for heterosexual Nathan’s romantic interests. Also, crucially, it feels like the romance flows both ways. Again, there’s tension. Tension’s good.

Heavenly Sword: Nariko

Nariko’s strength comes from the story – her fate is sealed the moment she decides to pick up the Heavenly Sword, a god-like weapon which sucks the life out of its wielder. Tragedy is something games don’t do enough. She does not have much in the way of character and there is next to no character drama going on, the individuals lost in the grand sweep of epic (literal sense) events. Just being the strong-willed, doomed star of this powerful, simple story is enough. Her visual design is very strong without being hyper-sexual about it.

There’s also a minor character in the game called Kai, who’s just a really cool rogue type girl who could’ve had more screen time in the game.

Portal: Chell and GLaDOS

While being unremarkable is rarely the sign of a strong character, the protagonist of Portal is just that for a long while in the game. Silent like her stablemate Gordon Freeman, her face and body remain unseen, save for fleeting glimpses. You get curious about her. Who are you? Why are you there? Chell’s circumstances and capabilities define her, as they more often should in videogames.

Then there’s the conflict with GladOS. She starts out as another insane rogue AI, but quickly develops more personality. The conflict adds to Chell’s signifigance, too, adding dramatic weight to her plight, and emotional consequences to player agency. At its climax the confrontation brings to mind Ripley vs Alien Queen, a touch of the far too little used motherhood theme creeping in.

Mirror’s Edge: Faith

Faith doesn’t have a lot of personality and her story isn’t very interesting, but the visual design alone is arresting. One of the most striking visual themes of past years is here carried effortlessly over to the protagonist. The other characters have none of the same flair, making Faith stand out even more. Plus she’s just a nice guy, of course you want to hang out with her on the sun-soaked roofs. It bothers me that likely most players made her pick up a gun at some point. I love it that I was given a choice not to.

Categories
Games rant roleplaying Xbox 360

What’s wrong with Bioware? (Mass Effect 2)

Mass Effect 2

I used to think that Bioware was the coolest studio out there. They were putting out games I absolutely loved: mainly Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. I always forget that the AD&D game I liked the best, Icewind Dale, was not a Bioware production despite using their Infinity engine in the Forgotten Realms setting – it was Black Isle’s (of Planescape Torment and Fallout 2 fame).

Up to Knights Of The Old Republic – still the best Star Wars entertainment out there apart from the original trilogy – they could do no wrong. I fell in love with Star Wars all over again because of that game.

I skipped Neverwinter Nights due to not having a gaming PC at the time. From what I hear, it suffered from a lack of focus. MDK2 was alright. I was a big enough man to allow them this sidetrack into action.

Then there was Jade Empire, which was good, but not what I was expecting. The mechanics were weird. The fighting worked, but it never felt good. As ever, the world and the characters were very cool and inspired. I did not mind the smaller scale and overall I really enjoyed my time in the kung fu epic.

I am a big fan of Mass Effect, but that’s the point I realized Bioware is not something I can unconditionally trust anymore. The inventory was broken, most of the mechanics were poorly implemented (poower use, Mako driving), inadequately explained (grenades) or just broken (skills) and the fighting was never fun in and of itself.

What they got right was a super cool science fiction world, characters, and dialogue. My FemShep kicks all kinds of ass and I love her for it and Bioware for letting me do that. The story held me all the way, even though it contained only new space opera cliches. I didn’t care about the problems, because the narrative completely seized me.

Considering that Mass Effect 2 got even higher praise than the original game, I was ready to get it on. About ten hours in, I completely lost my interest.

It’s the same world, much of the same characters, same good dialogue, improved combat and somewhat improved mechanics, but they’ve completely dropped the ball with the story.

I have no idea what I’m doing and why (I guess there’s a gate I should jump in), and I don’t care. I’ve been told to go and collect all of my missing friends, gotta catch ’em all style, and then talk to them and talk to them until they offer me a mission to get them to trust me. This is not what I imagined the second chapter of saving the goddamn universe (again) to be like!

It’s like an endless sequence of those pointless fetch-a-thons that comprise the side quests of most RPGs (Bioware’s included). Even though the missions are generally well put together, well framed and well acted, I just don’t give a shit. Getting my crew together should be a side order, not the main course.

Apparently the game ends in a cliffhanger once you’re finally ready to go to the gate and jump in to tackle the actual threat to everything in existence. Sorry, a game of cloned preludes cannot hold my attention. I don’t think I’m going to complete the game, and probably will just skip to Mass Effect 3.

We’ll see how Mass Effect 3 manages to resolve these issues, if at all. At least my damn group should be together already. And based on how much the fans of the original Dragon Age hated the sequel  – which I haven’t played already, but I very much mean to, precisely because of the internet furore – maybe they’ve learned some lessons.

Less is more: Dragon Age has a lot to learn here with its swathes of uninteresting content. Show, don’t tell: Mass Effect’s best stuff is hidden away in a codex. I need a motivation to do stuff: Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you. These are cliches because they’re true. They’re also simple rules which Bioware used to know. Previously they’ve only struggled with mechanics and game rules – initially helped by using an established ruleset when working on Wizards‘ systems – now they’ve started to stumble on their unique strengths. It worries me.

Categories
Games

Well, I wasn’t expecting this

Would you follow her down a rabbithole?
Would you follow her down a rabbithole?

In a sense I might’ve been, what with the “new EA” and everything, but in the current economic climate? Never. Nevertheless, make it so.