Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Cake is a Lie

Food and videogames have a lot in common. As consumers we purchase them with a pre-conceived notion of how they’ll satisfy our tastes based on their combination of ingredients. And in both cases, while we can speculate how satisfied we’ll be based on our past experiences with similar combinations, or based on their appearance; we can’t make a judgement until after we’ve consumed them for ourselves.

Continuing this odd train of thought, I’d like to refer to the Gears of War franchise. The first game established a core philosophy that won over its consumers and offered an alternative to the established status quo of the time, in food terms it was a delicious Sponge Cake in the year 1615. Nothing fancy or complicated, but thoroughly delicious, and a culinary revelation. As developers, or in this strange analogy a baker, Epic needed only to expand on the set formula to improve the dish and therefore satisfy the consumers.

Prior to release they pulled back their golden curtain to show theses consumers the ingredients added for this second iteration, and what they showed was the videogame equivalent to icing, butter cream and jam. All looked well.

As fans ordered this new improved dish, feverish for what they believed to be an improved recipe, they didn’t know what they were about to receive. Upon that first mouthful, they didn’t recognise the texture and taste of this new Sponge Cake. It didn’t sensate the taste buds in a similar fashion, and so the new ingredients didn’t improve the dish, but offered an unfamiliar distraction to what was an already inferior meal.

In simple terms the new game was slow, whereas the old one was quick. The new game too tried to hamstring the player’s ability to use their favourite weapons, rather than offer them viable and equally efficient alternatives, and finally, amidst all this disappointment, for the first six months at least, the game simply didn’t work. Shotgun shells fired vertically downwards and lag crippled the player’s movements and therefore ability to succeed.

Epic tried too hard to add to the ingredient list that they lost sight of what people enjoyed in the first place.
And so it was with this memory I entered the Gears of War 3 Beta for the first time, wary yet excited for what I was about to experience. Would my first bite be met with such similar sensations of disgust and disappointment? No.

If I was to summarise my opening thoughts on this metaphorical first bite, despite an abundance of icing, butter cream and jam as promised and expected, my overriding reaction was that this was the best fucking Sponge Cake I’d ever tasted.
This was the same core game I’d experienced on that wonderful day back in 2006, and the same core experience I expected on that woeful day in 2008.

So what defines this core experience? In raw terms I would say speed. Epic’s intention with the second game in the series was to slow players down in order to curb a reckless tendency to engage in close quarters combat and stretch the encounters further apart across the map. They did this not only by improving the effectiveness of long range weapons, but by decreasing the effectiveness of the short range ones and the players ability to navigate into a position in which they could use them.
Gears 3 reverses this, allowing players to move at the same speed as the original, a speed that allows players to engage opponents at any distance they choose. If anything, Gears 3 feels faster than the original because of the improved cover mechanics and “omnidirectional” rolling, a system that allows players to roll in eight directions rather than four. All this does is allow you to get where you want, faster, and it’s a wonderful addition. There is an option to disable this and return to the traditional four directions but to do so would be foolish, as there’s no harm in having more abilities in combat.

Alongside the speed, Epic have removed the delays between moving and firing your shotgun altogether, meaning you always feel in control of whether you come out of combat standing or in little pieces. Combine the rejuvenated shotgun and a smorgasbord of speed and you get a game that returns to the precise, skilful nature of the original. Kills at close quarters are defined by how well players utilise the cover, strafe and roll mechanics in conjunction with their shotgun, and the increased speed elevates the skill gap back to Gears 1 levels. If there is one way to describe the Gnasher to players of the original game, it’d be the equivalent sensation of playing as the host. It’s precise, powerful and consistent. Because of the increased agility close quarters duels can return to the epic nature of the original game, as players dart and dodge between blasts trying simultaneously to manoeuvre into an advantageous position for their own, all the time their ammo counters tick perilously close to zero.

One reason which contributed to Epic attempting to avert away from the close quarters nature of the original with Gears 2 was that players became very adept at utilising the Gnasher in conjunction with the cover, meaning new players, or players without the time to dedicate to learning the system were at a crippling disadvantage in close quarters. In Gears 3 Epic have given less able players a viable chance at competing in close quarters without gimping the abilities of the top players. This comes in the form of a Sawn of Shotgun. Selectable in place of the Gnasher at spawn, the Sawn Off(SO) offers an extremely generous spread, compensating for the players lack of aiming ability. While this may sound overpowered it simply isn’t. The player must perform a three second reload animation between each shot and the distance needed for the SO to effectively kill a player is only marginally greater of that required to perform a melee attack. You have to get cosy. Not only that but the large reload time usually means that while you can kill your opponent, if there were another player in the vicinity you’d be largely defenceless, preventing it’s adoption by the better players who aim for more than one kill per every death.

While that’s the core explained, I’ll also talk about the added ingredients. Whilst many elements of Gears 2 felt contrary to the philosophy of the original, much of that feeling it seems was largely produced because of the distorted core base, and in fact many additions I rued over the last two years have seemed ingenious when applied to the classic Gears formula.

Stopping power for example. I was one of the people who abhorred this mechanic in Gears 2. It made the slow, slower, and so I despised its existence. In Gears 3 with my lighting movements it seems a perfect fit. I’m not going to declare Gears 1 perfect; a criticism can be the lack of a threat at medium distances, and for that stopping power helps out. If a player wants to blindly run at an opponent head on without using cover then they deserve to be killed. Stopping power doesn’t mean you can’t attack a rifle wielding player directly, it just means you can’t do it like a brainless bellend. If you use cover and the walls around you it’s still possible to engage enemies at a close distance if you so choose, and believe me once you get into those positions there’s no amount of stopping power capable of beating a gnasher.

One thing to note, and this is definitely a positive is that stopping power is all but nonexistent when firing your shotgun. This means players with a proclivity for longer ranged weapons can close the gap on foes wielding those close quarters weapons, and the new Retro Lancer is particularly useful for this with its bayonet charge. This roadie run-esque charge often forces them to mistime their shots as the pressure of being impaled clouds their judgement. Not only that but once the chainsaw is revved on the traditional Lancer, bullets don’t cause it to jam, so should an opponent not have a weapon equipped that possesses serious stopping power then they’re at mercy to the chainsaw. Although a skilled Shotgunner should rarely feel pressured as long as they keep a cool head, easier said that done.

All this doesn’t feel overpowering though contrary to what it might seem. Epic have taken the stance of making each option completely viable and effective within reason, meaning it’s the players choice which one they adopt. This is the opposite to Gears 2s preferred method of gimping one style and thus forcing another. It’s a balancing masterstroke and contributes greatly to why Gears 3 is gaining such favourable reactions, including my own.

Furthermore, elements like the Mortar and Grenade tagging are much less effective when your character can move without resembling a deep sea diver. The time between a character tripping the proximity of a tagged grenade and it exploding has been increased to the point whereby nobody really uses it unless incredibly well concealed, and the mortar is easily escapable as long as you get your ass moving when you hear its loud, audible cues.

Lastly, map design makes a triumphant return to that of the original Gears, leaving little space on the map that doesn’t offer adequate cover to escape the fire of opponents or use as a tool to gain the upper hand in a shotgun battle. Thrashball in particular reminds me massively of Raven Down from the original, dropping symmetrically placed pieces of cover to dance your way around in a small pit of shotgunning bliss. There are spaces either side of the map to flank your opponents which also offered the tantalising prospect of exposed, unaware flesh should you execute your movements covertly.

A quick note about lag. It’s plagued the series since its inception and finally Epic have caved in to the realisation that dedicated servers are a necessary expense to pay. Now despite them not being activated at this current time, my experience has been smooth, very smooth. Buttery almost. No lag, no having to compensate for my shots and no bullshit. The thought that this can only get better is almost incomprehensible, because if someone were to tell me I was already playing on dedicated servers I’d be close to believing them.

Not all the changes to Gears 2 were bad. It’s just the changes to the core gameplay were, and weren’t conducive to the gameplay style the original had propagated, leaving a horrible taste in many consumer’s mouths. Epic have fixed this. First and foremost that Gears Sponge Cake has been perfected, reverted back to the quick, heart pumping pace of the original.

It feels wrong to say Gears of War 3 is excellent.

Because this is Gears of War 2.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Far From a Rythm Paradise

It was a bitterly cold evening at Anfield when the announcer rang through the news that Fernando Torres wouldn’t play a part in the evening’s game; for his wife had gone into labour with his second child. When my immediate disappointment had faded and morphed into a congratulatory one, I realised ‘El Nino’ (The kid) was no longer an appropriate nickname for my Spanish hero. Although once applicable to the young, blonde striker captaining his home club Atletico Madrid at the age of 19, at 26, as one of the biggest names in world football, Fernando Torres was now quite definitely not a kid anymore.

It was 2005 when Activision and Harmonix combined to produce Guitar Hero, a new entry into the Rhythm genre that would capture a generation by storm. Since then however, following almost unimaginable growth, the franchise and its twin sibling Rock Band have fizzled into obscurity, plummeting down the sales charts which they had not long ago ascended. This shift in consumer trends has critics and publishers confused. Perhaps it shouldn’t do.

According to an Amazon survey, the 8-12 year old American child’s most wanted Christmas present last year was an iPad. Besides showing that the majority of children these days are greedy, self entitled bellends(not Fernando’s obviously), this study reaffirms the notion that consumer trends, especially within youth culture are completely context driven.

Would these children get much use out of an iPad? Probably not. It doesn’t offer them the functionality and flexibility to perform tasks any better than devices they more than likely already have access to, however for these children that fact is irrelevant, they just want the most popular item of the current cultural context, in 2010, this is the iPad.

As an expensive product, Guitar Hero’s sales largely relied on this hive mind philosophy, whereby everyone must have the latest version of the game to stay within a particular social relevance. Kids were aware of the little coloured buttons on the crude plastic guitar that would enable them to enjoy gaming experiences they could not have anywhere else. A guitar revolution formed, sales spiked, Activision smiled.
Alongside Activision’s yearly reproduction of the game’s winning formula, the consumers who were buying these products were also introduced to real guitars. Of course, this took away from the magical empowerment Guitar Hero produced, and to these consumers some of the air guitar innocence had been lost. They were no longer playing along to iconic rock songs, they were pressing plastic buttons in time with tunes they could actually learn to play themselves without the help of a television screen and an £80 boxed product.

It’s also worth noting that six years on from the launch of the very first Guitar Hero, the initial audience that sustained the franchise growth have themselves grown rather significantly. That puts me at 13 years old when the original released, a young schoolboy, impressionable, fantastical. Now I’m 18 years old and a University student, cynical and stubborn. I can also play an actual guitar with a modicum of success, and am certainly able to string together most songs with enough practise, a feat that would give me more gratification than I could receive from any plastic imitation.

Guitar Hero was a cultural phenomenon. It blossomed within a cultural context that provided the perfect conditions for maximum success. An audience embraced it, an audience which, like the cultural context of today, is much different to that of 2005. They have grown older, the context has shifted and it seems a long time since the idea of a plastic instrument sparked much excitement within the masses who are needed to maintain a degree of financial success the series is used to.

I began writing this article on a train in December of 2010, and since then (It is now February of 2011) a couple of key things have happened. Firstly, Fernando Torres has left Liverpool to join Chelsea, and Activision has discontinued the Guitar Hero franchise. In both cases, a bout of realisation has been made. Fernando accepted that he may not be able to win the trophies he craves at Liverpool Football Club, whilst Activision accepts that Guitar Hero isn’t the franchise it once was on a cultural level. Whilst the logistics behind Fernando’s decision could be called into question (For Liverpool beat Chelsea on Torres’s debut for the Blues), that of Activision’s is without a doubt a smart one. Like Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero is an image of the past, and one which hasn’t translated into the present.

In both Fernando and Guitar Hero’s cases, the phrase “hero to zero” is romantically applicable.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Instant Feedback: How to utilise the sandbox without breaking it

Note: I wrote this design piece around 7 months prior to publishing it here after a particularly frustrating string of experiences playing the utterly disappointing Gears of War 2.

To preface this piece I must declare that the original Gears of War was perhaps the most influential videogame for me personally in the last 5 years. It singlehandedly pulled me into the online console shooter market. Countless hours were spent rolling about with my shotgun, or pulling instinctive headshots with my sniper, to the point where I managed to max out all the achievement points on offer, a simple feat for most games but a “serious” medal of dedication in Gears’ case.

It’s safe to say however that the success of Gears multiplayer component was in fact an accidental one. The intention was to create a team based third person shooter that relied heavily on the franchise’s signature cover mechanic, and although that remained, certain emergent trends were brushing against the gameplay tide Epic intended to instil: the Gnasher shotgun being the primary offender.

Epic’s design and marketing centred on the Lancer assault rife, with its instantly recognisable chainsaw bayonet. Players spawned into the multiplayer fray with this weapon in hand, a decision which caused the amusing scenario of every player switching weapons immediately upon the beginning of a round, a trend as predictable as black clouds foreshadowing rain. The shotgun was the player’s choice, and the most effective weapon for medium to short range combat.

Not only this, but players would rush towards the specified weapon spawns on the map with the intention of picking up a “power weapon” most popularly the sniper rifle or the Boomshot, with the torque bow also proving a devastating tool in the right hands. And what would be lying on the ground in the wake of acquiring this power weapon? The Lancer.

Clearly Epic were perturbed by this weapon discrimination, the audience were neglecting their design decisions with no respect for the way they wanted their game to be played, and with Gears of War 2 they had their opportunity for retribution.
Amongst an influx of gameplay changes, one most affecting for hardcore Gears fans was the “nerfing” of the shotguns effectiveness. The shotgun was the fan’s baby, a tool that by now many players had grown so accustomed to after hours upon hours of play. Unfortunately Epic wanted to elevate the Lancers effectiveness in medium range combat situations, and in conjunction with the inclusion of stopping power, decided removing what made the shotgun such a popular weapon to use was the best way to do this.

Gears 2 presented a completely new shotgun. The spread was random, meaning the weapon couldn’t be relied upon in any situation, creating a scenario that left the player feeling cheated, with them performing the required moves in a combat situation to prevail, only to have the weapon act in opposition to the engrained experience they have been used to for hundreds of hours previously. What this also means is a distillation of skill, as a players skills cannot be relied on for victory, with this random spread preventing an accurate representation of their abilities. One feature of scientific experiments is “a fair test”, and if Gears 2’s multiplayer was such an experiment in player skill, as all successful competitive activites must be, it wouldn’t be considered a fair test.

Not only this but Epic diluted the shotguns co-operation with the roll mechanic. One popular aspect of Gears multiplayer for fans was the trend of shotgun rolling. This was once again a way to increase the gap between the skilled players and the less skilled ones. Skilled players were able to manoeuvre themselves into an advantage in a combat situation with a precise roll, as they were coming out of this roll they were then granted instant access to the shotguns devastating close quarters power, gibbing their opponent into bloodied pieces.

In Gears 2 however the decision was made to impose a handicap for these skilled players to stop them shotgun rolling. As players tried to fire coming out of their roll, nothing happened. An artificial time delay was put in place that made the player once again feel cheated, with on screen events contradicting the past experiences that have provided such gratifications over the past few years. The shotgun was gone. Its randomness and sluggishness slowed the pace down to a point that Gears 2 didn’t feel like Gears.

All in the name of the Lancer.

So why do players prefer to use the Shotgun, Sniper rifle, Boomshot and Torque Bow over the Lancer, or indeed the Hamerburst?

Instant Feedback: The visual and audible reward for a feat of immense skill and accomplishment in an online shooter.

In the original Gears, when a player hit the enemy flush with a blast from the Shotgun they would proceed to split open, becoming a series of meaty chunks. This provides immense pleasure to the player, an empowerment above and beyond anything offered by the Lancer with its lethargic spray of ineffective bullets. This reaction I will refer to as Instant Feedback. My most memorable experience of this came in a match on the map Rooftops. Whilst in cover against the rim of the maps central section, I noticed an enemy jogging towards my position, unaware of my lurking presence. I sent a Shotgun round blindly over my position aimed loosely at his waist. The shells from my Shotgun tore through his knees, ripping them from his waist and sending his torso flying opposite to the rest of his body. This is Instant Gratification at its most defined, and it makes the player feel good in a way not many games can.

Further examples are the visual and audible cues provided upon achieving a headshot. The visceral sound of imploding skull, combined with the fountain of blood and bone exploding from where the players head used to be provides this sense of Instant Feedback that the Lancer and Hammerburst just can’t, and that is the reason they are not a preferred weapon to use for the player, because frankly they are boring. The sense of empowerment as the player hits an opponent with a cleverly arced Boomshot, once again requiring skilful aiming over arbitrary spraying, as your adversary is split into numerous chunks and propelled 50 feet into the air, is massive. Instant Feedback at its finest, in the finest game to employ it ever created, the original Gears of War.

Now how can you go about incentivising the Lancer with Instant Feedback without treading into the realms of ridiculousness, obviously you cannot have the player exploding in a fit of gore when shot by a few rifle rounds.

Interestingly, my theory of Instant Feedback can be noticed in shooters of a less visceral nature in other forms. For example, in the game Halo 3, the Battle Rifle is the preferred weapon of choice for skilled players as it rewards a good aim. The gun fires in a concentrated trajectory, travelling exactly where the player is aiming. Not only this but its semi automatic nature means it requires a physical pull of the trigger on each burst, transmitting the players inputs into specific, instant effects on screen. Furthermore when the visual cue appears that the enemy shield has dropped, the player knows he is one calculated headshot away from that always-gratifying ragdoll effect.

To relate this back to the Lancer, a system could be implemented whereby the Lancer and Hammerburst were combined to create a semi automatic mid ranged rifle that uses Instant Feedback to empower the player and choose it over the shotgun and the sniper rifle. The weapon should require a specific number of shots to get the enemy to a point where he is one shot away from an instant headshot., similar to that of a sniper rifle or a Boltok. For example, in Halo 3 the term “4-shot” relates to the amount of shots it takes to drop a fully shielded opponent, this could translate into the newly balanced incarnation of the Lancer. Furthermore the visual effect of the bullet penetrating the opponents armour and flesh must be visually appealing, spraying smoke and blood from the front and the rear, painting objects behind the enemy in a moist crimson. Not only this but the sound effect of the rifle must be chunky and meaty. It must crack and echo upon the surroundings, an audible cue to opponents that danger is close. Not to mention the audio effect as the bullet penetrates the opponent must sound like high velocity meeting flesh.

These audio effects are massively important to this overall pleasure of Instant Feedback. Imagine them combo-ing so to speak, whereby you are greeted to the sound of bullet hitting flesh once, twice then a third time, finally to hear the sound of the headshot, as bone cracks and explodes in a visceral fashion, feedback to the player that he has just accomplished something of serious skill, equal to a shotgun roll or a long ranged sniper headshot.
In its current form the Lancer is dull. It sprays puny bullets at a chunk of meat with little Instant Feedback. Even once the player has fired a significant amount of bullets at the enemy, they simply fall to their hands and knees, denying the player of any Instant Feedback in a visual sense, unlike the other weapons.

If you want to elevate specific sections of the sandbox, you must make them equally appealing, and with Instant Feedback you can do this. It is not a case of removing features to make other weapons bad qualities seem acceptable, it is about raising the Instant Feedback of the underwhelming weapons to a point that matches the rest of the games arsenal in its own specified role on the battlefield, in the Lancers case, mid ranged combat.

Monday, 12 July 2010


Hardcore - The most active, committed or doctrinaire members of a group or movement

There are hardcore music enthusiasts, bird watchers, book collectors and historians. For the majority of my conscious life I have strongly considered myself a "hardcore" gamer. "Hardcore" is a word that when combined with "gamer" is likely to produce involuntary sniggering and ignorance from a group of hardcore cunts. As the definition implies, I like to think myself commited and passionate enough to enjoy any videogame in some way. Just as a music enthusiast can appreciate the artistic endeavour of one man creating percussion on a block of cheese, I consider myself able to appreciate almost any form of videogame. Or at least that's what I thought, it turns out some are simply too hardcore for me.

From Software is an interesting development studio. They have developed a wealth of different IPs on a breadth of platforms, although they are most recognised for their work on two in particular, Kings Field and Armoured Core. Their latest IP however, the one that forced me to reconsider my place in the universe, is called Demon Souls. Just as hardcore Film enthusiasts would watch French New Wave films to prove their specialist knowledge, hardcore gamers have adopted Demon Souls as their poster child. And by all accounts Demon Souls too, like other adverts for hardcore movements is completely foreign. Drenched in Japanese design, Demon Souls is a linear action RPG like no other.

Most videogames treat death with a slap on the wrist. If you die in a conventional videogame, you witness a brief "You are dead" screen whilst the game reloads 5 minutes before you met your untimely end. The developer is basically chuckling like a patronising mother whilst proclaiming "Oooo aren't you clumsy". Demon Souls however is the pushy father who trains his son to play the piano 12 hours a day until he has mastered a particular song. He will not get it wrong, and if he does he will be punished. Every enemy in Demon Souls has the ability to kill you within single digits of seconds. If you do not have your shield at the ready and facing the direction your enemy is attacking from, you will die. And if you have spent the last hour trekking through the games depressing, melancholy dungeons only to be killed, you must start back from the levels beginning with all of the enemies you have defeated now out for revenge. And it gets worse. Each enemy you kill drops his soul for you to collect. These souls act as a necessary currency in order for you to buy, repair and upgrade your gear and stats. If you wish to collect all the souls you were holding once you died you must fight your way back to your body, where you must once again face the thing that killed you the first time. Should you die again your souls will be lost forever.

I mentioned earlier that Demon Souls is a game littered with Japanese design. This is true, however part of the reason for Demon Souls cult success is its amalgamation of other design cultures into the game. Most Japanese developers shudder at the words "online connectivity". From Software however simply grin. Demon Souls features online capabilities completely unique to the game, ones that consequently fit perfectly into the games ethos. Should you die, you may leave messages to other players about the events that caused your death in a bid to help other players survive. Alternatively you may gain a sadistic pleasure from providing false information that in the context of Demon Souls unforgiving design will no doubt kill whoever follows it. Not only that but Demon Souls will often throw an opposing player into your game world who is intent on killing you. These opposing players are players who have died and are looking to regain all their souls, interestingly should they kill you they will gain all their souls back instantly, causing a tense stand off in which one player desperately wants to avoid death whilst the other goes on the attack.

Demon Souls is unique. It is a game that challenges the player and doesn't accommodate for the lowest common denominator. It is a test of a gamer's skill, dexterity and patience. It pushes the player to get it right in a bid to hone their abilities, relying on muscle memory as much as quick thinking. Unfortunately Demon Souls isn't fun. It is tense, scary and more frustrating than a Manchester United replica shirt. For that reason I couldn't appreciate it like others could, perhaps I wasn't hardcore enough.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

I'm Not a Puppet, I'm a Real Boy

One contradiction present within videogames is that of providing the player with more "freedom" in their actions yet limiting their inputs to a pre-determined set of functions. For example, in my previous blog entry I focused on Red Dead Redemption, a game that offers undeniable scope in its vast Western environment yet constrains the player to a handful of ways in which they can interact with it. Red Dead Redemption is a game that took a team of hundreds, five years to produce yet the game repeats a limited set of mechanics to push the player through the narrative. Riding horses, shooting guns and lassoing criminals are all accepted forms of interaction in Red Dead, programmed onto the game controller for the players disposal. Other, more abstract forms of interacting with the game world however are not performable as the development team could not afford to devote a specific button on the controller to the sole action of "laughing" for example. When I saw a drunk redneck stumble off a balcony due to his intoxicated state I wished to laugh at him in the game in order to highlight his stupidity, perhaps provoking a fight, however I didn't have the option to laugh, so I shot him instead. This is a quick and dirty example of my limited ability to interact with the game world in Red Dead Redemption.

Some games try to offer these abstract interactions, albeit with limited success. Fable for example, a game stuffed with British humour, allows the player to perform a number of contextual actions with the use of the D-Pad. Laughing, shouting, kissing and farting are all options available to the player when interacting with the games NPC (non playable character) population. Unfortunately it's not just the ability to perform such an immature function that allows the player to be immersed into the games simulacra, it is the way the simulation responds. Yet again a quick and dirty example: I am talking to a key character who is giving me a quest, she is relying on my courage and skill to save the entire world that she holds so dear to her heart, yet for the past 3 minutes I have been releasing a continuous burst of audibly horrific farts. Why is she still giving me such responsibility? Surely she would have turned and walked away, identifying me as the socially inept retard that I am. But no, the games inability to respond correctly to such non linear interactions highlights the games simulation. I realise I have spent the last 3 minutes virtually farting, thus causing me to turn off my Xbox in self disgust.

Some genres focus solely on the idea of non linear interactions however, the point and click adventure. Take for example a game that I have been playing recently, Machinarium. This is an independent game created by seven Czechoslovakians funded by their own personal savings. When contrasted with the likes of Red Dead Redemption it seems illogical that it should offer a wider array of experiences. But it does. Machinarium follows the exploits of a robot after he is exiled from his home city, it is up to the player to guide the robot (Josef) back into the city and to overthrow a gang of evil robots known as the Brotherhood. The games control scheme lies solely on the mouse. You click on objects to interact with them. You can raise and lower Josef's height if necessary and must solve constant puzzles in order to continue. Here the audience's pleasure doesn't come from the visceral nature of shooting an outlaw off of his horse ala Red Dead, but rather with the cerebral nature of the games structure, forcing you to think logically and carefully about how to navigate through the game. The control schemes ambiguity is what makes it so entertaining. Of course this brief summary is not quick nor dirty enough, so let me fix that:

I am locked in a prison cell with a depressed looking robot. The cell is small, with a toilet, a light, a small hole in the wall and green moss covering the walls. I engage in a conversation with the melancholy robot, emitting a series of beeps and boops, both equally indecipherable. A thought bubble emits from the head of the robot, a spliff contained within. So now I have my task, i must get my friend a spliff, for what purpose I don't really know. I rip off a piece of toilet roll and store it in my chest, this will obviously form the exterior skin of my narcotic creation. I raise Josef up and scoop some green moss from the cell wall, storing it within myself. Now at first I thought this was it, I tried to combine the two items to form the spliff that would allow me to progress, Josef shook his head in a defiant fashion. What had I missed? I then placed the moss on the cell light, frying it into a brownish subtance, this was it. I was able to combine the two items which I selflessly gave to the robot. In his delight at smoking such a beautifully crafted item his arm fell off. I picked it up and stored it in my chest, it's safe to say the arm would come in handy later. I then went on to break out of the cell

This is just one example that highlights how the game allows you to interact so extensively with the game world, more so than most big budget releases. It's alright spending the time and resources building such huge, detailed environments, but if you can't interact with them what's the point.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rockstar Redeemed... Kind Of

When video games were first created, they were structured around the player advancing to higher levels which in turn increased the difficulty, eventually forcing the player to abandon his progress and accept defeat, only to try again another day. This system would keep early gamers coming back time after time to drop more money into a never ending series of challenges. However, upon gaming growing from the leaderboard centric experiences of old to the blockbuster experiences of today something had to be added, a narrative.

One problem with stitching a linear narrative upon a non linear experience is that of contradiction. If I the player wish to progress in this non linear game then I must conform to the linearity imposed by the narrative. Another problem brought about by developers having to provide context for the players actions is that of the actions themselves. Think back to Tetris, a game unarguably entertaining, however a narrative simply could not be attached to the games underlying mechanics, to do so would be dumb.

Long renowned as the kings of the non linear experience, Rockstar (creators of the GTA franchise) have consistently struggled with some of the problems brought about by a Narrative. The experience must include the trite increase in difficulty, an established videogame trope, whilst also telling a balanced narrative. For those unaware of the narrative arc as proposed by Todorov, after the climax there must be a sense of equilibrium, a calm indicating that the problems and complications presented within the narrative have been defeated. Obviously this calm doesn't fit with the ramping difficulty previously mentioned.

One (of many) criticism levelled at Rockstar's latest entry into the Grand Theft Auto franchise (GTA IV) was that the protagonist's motives weren't fitting with the themes the game proposed and the ideologies of the character himself. The main protagonist Niko would claim to search for a better life, promoting peace over violence during the games early hours whilst happily accepting tasks which required him to murder hundreds of people for the promise of money. This contradiction (a recurring theme it seems) alienated players from Niko's narrative struggle which undermined many of the things the game aimed to achieve.

So it was Rockstar San Diego's turn to try and repair some of the bad reputation Rockstar North garnered with GTA IV, and how ironic they would attempt to do so with Red Dead Redemption. One element immediately in RDR's favour was that the theme of redemption was ambiguous enough to allow Rockstar the freedom to create solid game mechanics without impeding on the story they are trying to tell.

Red Dead Redemption follows protagonist John Marston, a former gang member who has since started a new life with his wife and son. However, the government aren't keen on letting John forget his former life so easily, blackmailing him into hunting down his former gang members to make the wild west a safer place, under threat that if he declines they will murder his family. This narrative naturally allows for the protagonist to kill many people and accept instruction from others due to the lives of his loved ones hanging in the balance. And so RDR immediately does what GTA IV couldn't, creates a narrative that provides context for the players actions without it feeling forced or implausible.

The main body of the game isn't why i came away so impressed with RDR however. Yes there is the fact that you have to hunt down your former gang members to see your family again, which is entertaining, but what follows is why I believe RDR to be a masterpiece. I mentioned earlier that games do not run the full length of the narrative arc, finishing with the climax rather than the new equilibrium, well RDR changes this. Upon hunting down your former gang members you are reunited with your family and left alone to live out your life on a farm. The theme of redemption doesn't just translate to John's struggle to leave his past life, it also relates to John's struggle to be a good father and husband, and the games final act allows you to do just this. Forgetting the need to keep the difficulty at an all time high, the games final chapter for the most part relaxes the pace whilst challenging you to tender the farm, deliver corn, take your son hunting and herd cattle, all for the benefit of your family. I won't spoil the games final moments but I will say that this is one title which leaves the player feeling ultimately satisfied with the characters and narrative throughout the ENTIRE experience. Not a feat many have accomplished.

Whilst videogames and narrative don't exactly go hand in hand, Rockstar San Diego proved it's not impossible to place a satisfying narrative within a non linear experience. RDR presents a narrative that is both consistent with the game mechanics and one allowed to fully flower come the games final moments, leaving the player speechless once the credits role. Rockstar redeemed then.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Put Your Gut To One Side, This Is A Good Thing

Note - This discussion contains American metrics, if your patriotism prevents you from digesting them, leave now.

As audiences we often feel a sense of righteousness. We feel the Institutions creating the products we consume in fact owe us some indescribable debt. This is only half right. As paying consumers, institutions owe us the product we pay for which incidentally has been funded on the good faith of our cash. So what happens when we, the consumers don't pay the institutions the money they require to fund the development of such a product? Debt happens. And in 2010s flakey economic climate this is too much of a risk, thus game conglomerate EA steps in to continue it's long drawn battle against video game piracy and used game sales.

To clarify, the profit from every new video game we purchase from a retailer is divided up and spread between all parties involved in its production and distribution, fairly accounting for the costs associated with its existence. However, for every used game sold the profit is owned by the retailer themselves, cutting the content creators from the economic lifeline they require to remain productive. Ever been in a shop and seen a used game £5 cheaper than its freshly shrink-wrapped counterpart, well in fact by opting for the cheaper version you aren't rewarding the people responsible for its creation.

Luckily for EA there are things they can do to combat this damaging scheme. One such method is their recently devised "Project 10 Dollar", a service offered to new game purchasers in which they can unlock additional content to that on the disk by means of a single use redeemable code. This repositions the value of new games versus used ones in the audiences minds with the aim of incentivising new game sales to those pesky pre-owners. And now, EA has gone one step further with the "EA Sports Online Pass". Beginning soon, new EA Sports titles will come with a redeemable code that offers online features and content to those who use it. Consumers who do not buy a new copy of the game will not in fact receive such a code, thus meaning they will have to pay a $10 fee for the privilege. To clarify, EA are preventing used game purchasers from taking their titles online without an added subscription fee.

For consumers then, EA are seemingly removing features they have always had access to in an attempt to make you pay more money. Yes that is one way of viewing such a situation. Alternatively, EA are ensuring that they receive enough money from their games in order to pay for the cost of upholding the servers which enable your online entertainment. It is economically unfeasible to expect EA to maintain online servers for consumers who have payed them zero money for their product.

This announcement has caused uproar, complaints, petty dummy throwing and squabblery to many internet overlords and armchair analysts across the globe, but in fact seems extremely reasonable. If you put your initial gut reaction to one side and examine the details behind the announcement, EA are doing exactly what they should, making sure that their products remain economically viable in a digital age.