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Column: Defying Design

Defying Design: The Buddy System

December 2, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column explores the evolution of cooperative play in 2D platformers.]

Over 20 years ago when Mario first changed his career from carpenter to plumber, he starred in a two player cooperative arcade game with his brother, Luigi. Curiously, all of Mario's adventures since then were solitary affairs.

It wasn't until recently with New Super Mario Bros Wii (NSMBWii) in 2009 that co-op was reintroduced and its endemic of a larger trend in the industry. Co-op is all the rage these days and as much as I'd like to examine how its evolved across all genres, for the purposes of this piece I'll narrow it down to 2D platformers.

Butting Heads

One of the greatest challenge in crafting a co-op experience on a 2D plane is ensuring the players don't get bogged down with too much moving on screen at once. While most 2D platformers have allowed players to pass through each other like ghosts, NSMBWii has instead chosen for players to occupy the same space.

This can lead to lots of frustration as two or more players attempt to land on a tiny platform. I can't count the number of times I bopped into my partner mid jump, resulting in us both falling to our doom. Instead of trying to make co-op easier, Nintendo knew that co-op was inherently more unpredictable and decided to make it easier for players to inadvertently sabotage each other.

The scrambling mayhem of playing NSMBWii co-op is what I always imagined being on a the sinking Titanic would be like. Destined to ruin friendships, relationships and lives, I can't say I liked it, but it succeeds at creating a unique experience that harmoniously blends cooperation with competition.

Defying Design: You Bet Your Life

November 25, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column explores the role of luck in action games.]

What do Clint Hocking and Shinji Mikami have in common? They both left companies they've long been associated with recently, and have both made shooters, but that's not the answer I was looking for. The common thread I see is that they both make heavily randomized action games encouraging improvisation rather than repetition.

In Clint Hocking's Far Cry 2 the player's weapon can jam, cars break down, and the player character has a case of malaria which can act up at the most inopportune moments. Furthermore, the game has a buggy AI, so enemies have a sixth sense for pinpointing your location. While this hinders the game's stealth elements it allows for a sense of anarchic randomness you rarely get in shooters.

Comparing it to his previous game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Hocking said at a GDC talk on Improvisational Success Through Design Failure:

"...The consequences for getting kicked out of the execution phase in Chaos Theory has a huge impact -- the game is so reliant on the player executing his careful plan, and the game is so slow-paced, that it makes more sense simply to reload a saved game. But in Far Cry 2, that disruption ends up being part of the game, and there is such a level of chaos to begin with that players did not end up feeling the need to reload every time something went wrong; rather, they would adapt to the new factors."

Conversely, Shinji Mikami's latest couple outings God Hand and Vanquish are far more linear affairs, yet they also contain a crucial random component.

Defying Design: Gaming up the Wrong Tree

November 4, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column explores games that misdirect players from their goal.]

A vast majority of games are very straight-forward: you're given a goal (save the princess, save the world, kill the bad guy) and a step-by-step guide how to achieve said goal. Usually this involves going through a series of levels until you beat a boss. Sometimes you make choices that effect the story, but your overall goal and how you get there typically remains very predictable.

For example, there's a scene in Deadly Premonition where the player character briefs the town on their serial killer situation. Before attempting to unravel the mystery on your own, you're unable to progress until interrogating every main cast member.

Afterwards people will go about their daily routines and you can intercept them at any time to discover new information. Unfortunately, doing so won't help you solve the case any faster.

If anything it'll slow you down, since if you want to discover the mystery behind the killings you'll have to go down a clearly prescribed set of missions. By knowing how to go about achieving our goal, we're not really solving anything but rather going through the motions.

Recently I've played a couple free browser based games that defy this, by using our knowledge of handholding game design against us. Both Gregory Weir's The Day and Jorgnsn's Get Home seem very straight-forward initially, yet use clever misdirection to hide their true nature.

Both games are less than 10 minutes long, so I'd recommended playing them before reading on as this will be very spoiler heavy.

COLUMN: Defying Design: New Moon

October 26, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column explores reboots, focusing on Silent Hill and Castlevania's most recent outings.]

Whenever a series tries to reinvent itself by handing the reigns to a new developer it's met with trepidation. Long time fans would complain that it looks too different, the story's not the same, or the design's been changed too drastically. While it's easy to understand such criticisms, I've found that the best reboots emulate the feeling of their predecessors, but achieve it through radically different means.

Last year we saw avante garde horror cult sensation Silent Hill reinvented by Western studio, Climax. While this wasn't their first foray in the beloved series (they worked on Silent Hill: Origins), it was the first time they changed the formula up dramatically.

More controversially, this was a “reimagining” of the first Silent Hill. Many oldschool Silent Hill fans were outraged, lamenting the loss of the series' occult lore, industrial otherworldy settings, and combat. Some argued Shattered Memories should be a new IP unto itself because the story veers off in a wildly different direction than previous installments in the series.

Richard Mitchell wrote in his review at Joystiq, “What really bothers me, though, is the Silent Hill name attached to the project... Apart from characters with the same names, the game has next to nothing to do with the first Silent Hill.”

Defying Design: Cloak and Dagger

October 19, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column explores the emergence of stealth based competitive multiplayer.]

I've always found one of the greatest appeals of video games is their sense of mystery and discovery. That I'm using my wits to delve deeper into a world's secret. As such, I've never taken to most competitive multiplayer games. Simply getting to the end of a round and seeing my stats never felt very fulfilling to me.

At the most recent PAX I played a couple of titles that may still make a believer out of me yet. One was Chris Hecker's Spy Party, a two player game where one player is a spy tasked with carrying out a series of objectives at a party, while the other is a sniper seeking to assassinate them. The other game was Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, where each player is assigned to assassinate another while attempting to blend in with the crowd.

What really appeals to me about both of these games is that there's a layer of ambiguity involved that's generally absent from most multiplayer games where other player's are marked by gamertags floating over their heads. While this transparency is certainly sensible for a team-based shooter or strategy game, it heavily limits the possibilities inherent in the medium.

COLUMN: Defying Design: Altered States

September 22, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column is about moral choices altering character design.]

When Warren Spector discussed his upcoming game, Disney Epic Mickey, he mentioned how there were three variations of Mickey based on player choices : the hero, standing triumphantly with his chest out and chin up. The wastelander, with a bright-eyed smile and cautious pose.

And finally the scrapper, with a sinister grin and hunched over back. In a controversial move the scrapper was, well, scrapped. Rumors were this was due to focus testing, that the scrapper model didn't test well and a more foreboding Mickey offended certain sensibilities. But I've learned better than to trust rumors.

When Epic Mickey was shown in its most current iteration at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle last weekend it turned out that the hero model was tossed aside as well. This is in stark contrast not only to what we were told Epic Mickey would be, but to other games with moral choice like Fable and inFamous where your appearance changes based on these choices. "Play style matters", Spector promised back at E3, so why did he go this route?

Fortunately I had the opportunity to ask him why he changed the adaptable character model system to which he replied: “In any game about choice and consequence, you have to have some way of communicating to the player that their choices are making a difference. And there are a couple ways you can do that traditionally. You can have a meter that says 'I am good/ I am evil'."

Defying Design: Alternate Perspectives

August 20, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column is about games that only fully reveal their stories upon multiple playthroughs.]

When it comes to strange and  underappreciated games from recent years, few could top Japanese developer Cavia's swan song, Nier -- specifically the Xbox 360 version, in this case.

Notable for a variety of reasons involving various shifts in perspectives, a memorable cast of characters, and a wonderful foray into surreal text adventure territory, the aspect of design I find most perplexing is how it only fully reveals its story through subsequent playthroughs.

The first time you complete the game you'll have a somewhat murky grasp on Nier's narrative. However, much more of the story is revealed on its new game+ mode. For example, upon beating the game, several wonderfully written short stories are unlocked, revealing the rich backstory of one of the main character, Kaine.

We hear of her origins and struggles she endured as a child as well as tragedies that befell her prior to her entrance in the game. This focus on Kaine permeates the second playthrough. Throughout the story her character was partially possessed by a demonic scrawl in her arm. On new game+ mode we hear it taunt her. i.e. we hear the voices in her head. It's unsettling and allows the player to gain far more attachment to her without abandoning the linear structure of the game. 

Initially I felt like saving this for a second playthrough seemed like a lazy way to pad out the experience by insincerely dangling a carrot in front of the player and enticing them to play through it multiple times (the back of the box even promises four endings, meaning you have to play through it as many times to achieve them).

But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be done this way to tell a complex story without compromising the limited third-person perspective. The first time you play through the story it's told through Nier's point of view. Thus we shouldn't know any more about Kaine than what Nier is able to glean from his time spent with her. The second time, however, it's told via her perspective.

COLUMN: Defying Design: 'Smooth Talk'

August 1, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Defying Design' is a new bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's initial column is about how dialogue trees have evolved over the past two decades (and not necessarily for the better).]

In many ways point-and-click adventure games haven't evolved very much. Playing Tales of Monkey Island this summer on PSN felt very much how I remembered the playing the first Monkey Island 20 years ago. Given that Guybrush's maiden voyage was my first graphic adventure experience, the pangs of nostalgia were strong enough for me to overlook all those supposed flaws that maturity, college and the internet have made it so hip to point out.

So smitten was I with Tales of Monkey Island that I'd decided to go back and revisit Guybrush's earlier adventures starting with his mighty pirate debut, The Secret of Monkey Island. A classic game in its own right, there was one element that it handled particularly well that's all but disappeared from modern gaming and that's how it approached dialogue.

Tales of Monkey Island handled dialogue trees in much the same way as Mass Effect (or most games of the last decade for that matter). You'd choose from a list of dialogue options, each one branching off into a handful of further options.

Once all those were exhausted it'd boot back to the previous menu. Rinse, lather, repeat until everything that could be said would be. This enabled the player to see all the conversational content without having to reload a previous save or replay the game. While I can appreciate the worry free nature of this approach, it hurts the proceedings in a variety of ways.

Column: Defying Design: The Thing That Wouldn't Die

July 18, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Defying Design' is a new bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's initial column is themed around horror games switching their focus from avoidance to dominance.]

"What are you suggesting, passive resistance?
"No, I'm suggesting active fleeing." -Woody Allen from "Love and Death."

While Woody was referring to the Napoleonic Wars, I find it's more applicable to survival-horror games. Any two-bit protagonist with a shotgun and hunting knife can go around slaughtering creatures, but it takes real courage to be a pacifist in the face of danger.

Early survival-horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were scary for a slew of reasons such as unwieldy controls, dim lighting, terrifying noises and disturbing subject matter, but the thing that got to me the most was that you never had the means to keep the opposition down for long.

Perpetually low on ammo, you often had no choice but to run from whichever ghastly beast wanted to feast on your innards. These games were notorious (if frustrating) for their "find the key" puzzles, forcing the player to constantly run to-and-fro as they scoured the dreary environments hoping to stumble upon the key to their escape. It may not have been "fun" in the traditional sense of the word, but I'll be damned if it didn't make me panic on multiple occasions.

That all changed around the time of Resident Evil 4, when the focus went from fleeing to destroying. While ammo was still something to keep tabs on, you generally had enough to lay every foe to rest. It was still somewhat scary, what with the blood-curdling groans of possessed villagers stalking your every move, but you knew once you heard a villain's death rattle that you'd need never worry about them bothering you again.

This sense of dominance lead its way into later horror titles like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space. Even Silent Hill: Homecoming strongly encouraged the player to kill anything that moved by placing fewer enemies along a narrow, more linear path. Once dead, these enemies would stay dead, making these games more exhilarating than tense or scary.