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GameSetWatch.com is the alt.video game weblog and sister site of Gamasutra.com. It is dedicated to collecting curious links and media for offbeat and oft-ignored games from consoles old and new, as well as from the digital download, iOS, and indie spaces.

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Column: Design Diversions

Design Diversions: 'Chain World and Clashing Values'

April 18, 2011 12:00 AM |

chainworld3.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

The controversy over Jason Rohrer’s Chain World has been great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we finally have a controversy about the value of games from people who believe passionately in their value and have also played a video game before.

This debate has raised the notion that we not only have differing ideas on the ways in which games are valuable, but we have games that are themselves valuable in different ways. Jane McGonigal sees video games as a tool for self-improvement, training us to excel in real life. Jason Rohrer, however, seems to see games as valuable in the experience themselves. Simplistically, you might say that Jane McGonigal looks at games like self-help books while Rohrer looks at them like novels.

While we have a variety of categories to describe the various inherently different ways we use the written word, we don't have many categories to break up the inherently different ways we use game mechanics. Are educational games, entertainment games, competitive games, art games, and advertisement games really all reducible to the word "video game" ?

Maybe in the same way we can call words printed on paper "books" but, just to beat the art horse a bit more, Farmville for Dummies has some key differences from Grapes of Wrath. So perhaps we should also make sure we appreciate the differences between Farmville and SimSteinbeck.

Design Diversions: Dialogue - Recipe for Sociopathy

March 9, 2011 10:27 AM |

 dung5.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer has some of the most compassionate dialogue options of any game I’ve played, perversely appropriate for the psychopathic protagonist. This is a game in which you lure innocent strangers to your basement to be tortured to death, but it's also a damning critique of how video games use dialogue to represent relationships.

It begs the questions of whether or not games like Dragon Age Origins or Persona 3 just as preverse as Beautiful Escape. Do these games actually force players to act like sociopaths, even if it's clear that neither the players nor designers want that?

Kieron Gillen described the conversations systems best in Beautiful Escape and dating sims in general as “about hiding the self to gain what you want, and that’s all these games boil down to,” which is a literal symptom of sociopathy. Beautiful Escape treats conversations like an interpersonal quiz show, asking players to guess what strangers are most likely get them to come home and die for him. The name of the game is exploiting people until they give themselves to you.

Column: Design Diversions: Demon’s Souls and the Poetry of Greed

March 7, 2011 10:52 AM |

500x_demons_souls_2.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a new, biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

In arguing for the beauty and artistry of games, Area/Code's Frank Lantz, looking for power in the simpliest and non-digital of games, spoke of the power of poker in articulating human greed.

“We live our lives subject to greed,” he said, “and poker is a strange ritual where we amplify these things and also dissolve them. Greed becomes present to us in very large way [in Poker].”

Greed comes to us so vividly through poker because it is a game with no alternatives. You must be greedy to play it well, and if you try to buck the rules you'll find yourself not only bored, but parted from all your money. This is a game that forces greed, and all experiences with poker will be variations of it.

If poker is a poem about greed, that would make Demon's Souls something like an opera. Demon’s Souls is rare in that its mechanics are both a feature of its fictional world as well as a feature that insidiously offers a Faustian bargain to players without even asking their consent. It take an inverted narrative approach to the techniques commonly used in story-centric games that try to give players the strongest illusion of freedom possible.

Demon's Souls, like poker, is full of millions of choices that all lead down the same path. This narrow focus allows Demon's Souls to speak clearly and distinctly to the human condition.

Analysis: High Aspirations for High Scores - Bulletstorm and How Points Change Play

February 14, 2011 12:00 AM |

 Bulletstorm_boxart.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This week - on high scores and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm.]

Mind you, it's only a demo, but People Can Fly and Epic's first-person action title Bulletstorm has already shown just how a rusty old design element can be a life raft for a genre drowning in its own cliches.

Internet-standard consoles have created a retro revolution, and many features that depended on the sort of social gaming that floundered with the arcades have made new comebacks, just as the arcade games themselves have come back through PSN and Xbox Live. A perpetually online playerbase has made many new features possible, but also brought old features back from the past, including good old high scores.

Now, Bulletstorm may be a game in which players are rewarded for shooting enemies in the butt, but the actual flow of gameplay, (at least in the demo’s Echoes mode) is a FPS with arcade style scoring of the kind most commonly seen in shoot 'em ups.

Much has been made of the power score has to motive players, but Bulletstorm pushes the other side of positive feedback: delivering information to the player. Not all players are driven by leaderboards; some just want to know what's going on. This game shows that the actual system of points can be less important than the way it lets players know what's going on.

COLUMN: Design Diversions - Killing for its Own Sake

January 19, 2011 6:00 AM |

red-dead-redemption-01.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us -- in this case, how accomplishments and rewards differentiate Red Dead Redemption from earlier titles like Grand Theft Auto and World Of Warcraft.]

I thought a lot about Duck Hunt while playing Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption. The game is the same, but Rockstar's animation of the act of hunting is as visceral as it is breathtaking. I raised my carbine repeater and fired; when my bullet hit the bird, I watched a fine mist of blood burst in the air at the point of impact as the dead animal plummeted. Hunting was so captivating, in fact, that it overwhelmed my ability to remember what I was actually supposed to be doing.

While I was killing birds, I was supposed to be doing something else. On my way to one mission or another, I’d decide to take a shortcut and the sound of my horse would disturb some lurking vultures. In any other game they would just be an atmospheric doodad, and I’d continue riding right past them.

In Red Dead Redemption, I can not only shoot them, but skin and harvest them, and it’s that last point that gives hunting so much in-game meaning that it eclipses the rest of the game. The trophies I got from hunting were not significant in themselves, but they gave the hunting significance as a symbol of what I accomplished as a hunter.

For real life evidence, I present my high school biology teacher, who brought us a fresh deer heart when we were studying the circulatory system. I can’t say the heart was especially useful for teaching science, but it did a great job of conveying the reality of the giant muscle that pumped blood in the center of our bodies.

He held the deer heart with reverence, as if it was still alive. He was hold all those hours he spent waiting in the cold for that deer, up to the moment he shot it. The digital pelts and antlers in Red Dead Redemption don’t require that sort of tenacity, but they too have a palpable weight.

COLUMN: Design Diversions - Friendly Competition

December 22, 2010 12:00 AM |

[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time, a discussion of 'trying to play game designer' while teaching a significant other how to play games.]

Do you go easy on your friends? How about your partner? Or your kids?

Or do you instead compete with the fullest of your abilities?

My friends have never gone easy on me. I have friends that like to play cheap and friends that like to play fair, but I don’t have friends that play with mercy. After an afternoon of death, I will come to hate them, but they’re playing the right way. Mercy is dishonesty, a sycophantic plays tyle, and gamers only get better at games with practice. Still, I gave up on more than one game because my friends were too good at it for me to have fun.

When I started playing Arc System Works' fighting game BlazBlue with my girlfriend, I didn't want to brutalize her for her inexperience; I wanted to build her up into a competitor. But in trying to balance competition and love, I accidentally traumatized my girlfriend with an electrified frog.

Opinion: Design Diversions - The Games as Art Debate is Dead, Long Live the Games as Art Debate

October 25, 2010 12:00 AM |

Video-Games-Posters.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

I opened up a book on arts criticism the other day, "The New York Times Reader: Arts & Culture", and there I saw the end of the games as art debate. The first review in that book: Grand Theft Auto IV, preceded by a paragraph on the significance of video games in recent years.

I think that means we win.

I know this isn’t the ending we envisioned. I too hoped to be among those cheering while Mario and Master Chief led Roger Ebert up to the guillotine. But this might actually be more satisfying.

Video games were recognized so seamlessly as art that the video games press and community were the last to know. We’re still stuck thinking that video games won’t be art until all the nonbelievers recognize it as such. But we don’t need all of them, just The New York Times.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Gamer Cancels Video Game; Interrupted By Story

September 26, 2010 12:00 PM |

[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - a look at how words and narrative work in games, with particular reference to cutscene skippability.]

Whenever I read about someone who says that they always skip cutscenes, I feel a little depressed. I understand why so many gamers are irritated by them; I feel the same way. I sit through them and even enjoy them, but there's no way to ignore that you're playing a video game and just want to keep playing it.

There's a sentiment going around that gamers are some of the people most intent on keeping story out of games. We have bloggers and commenters calling for games to gut out stories their own audience just isn't interested in hearing.

But even when I hear someone say flat out that they don't want stories in their games, I wonder if that's how they actually feel. What, do gamers just hate stories? Of course not, they don't even hate stories in all of their games. Clearly games like Mass Effect and Final Fantasy are followed by people who care about story. So when gamers say they don't want it, what do they really mean?

I think the real problem is more fundamental. Gamers hate stories for the same reason they hate commercials: they're an interruption. No matter how well written or acted a story is, if it's design is off, gamers are going to feel annoyed If this issue isn’t addressed, then it doesn’t even matter how good a game’s writing might be. If you're watching a cutscene, you're not playing a game--and when you sit down to play a video game, which one of those did you want to do? So it’s no wonder that players feel like story and gameplay are in opposition.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Real Life Experience Points

August 17, 2010 12:00 AM |

Grinding_the_sparks.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - video game progression systems that might not be so different from each other.]

I really adore gamer lingo. Especially the term grinding, because no other gamer jargon inspires as much innuendo. But the only other function of the term, besides inappropriate puns, is to disguise one of the oldest and most prevalent concepts in gaming as some new ugliness rearing its head.

A lot of common video game tropes go into constructing the grind and the concept manifests in many different ways, but the simplest definition of it is the process of unlocking content through repetitive behavior. In most modern games, levels and experience create this system of gated content. Grinding essentially boils down to one thing: players have to do things they've already done to unlock things they haven't.

The main complaint against grinding is that it has the potential to force players to do something boring in the promise of doing something fun later. What's worse, these systems generally measure progress through time invested and not skills learned. Essentially, leveling has the potential to replace thinking, since players can potentially grind until difficult tasks become trivial. The fear is that this system rewards players only for their time and not their skill, resulting in gameplay that is possibly addictive at the expense of challenge.

But before we start worrying about whether or not this will destroy gaming as we know it, maybe we should ask whether this problem is actually a new one. The grind in its most fundamental sense isn’t exactly new. What older video games had instead was memorization--experience points for the player, not the game. Nearly all arcade games were exactly this, partially by necessity, since they weren't capable of saving anything except for the high scores.

In the strictest sense memorization is just another form of grinding: repeating content over and over with the hope of eventually unlocking something new. The clever thing about arcade games is that they save the game’s progress on the player. Memorization is a skill to be sure, but it is also a somewhat tedious one. It is the rote memorization of problems that players have already solved. So is it really any different than the grind?

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Everything is Rock, Paper, Scissors

August 7, 2010 12:00 AM |

[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - a look at how rock, paper scissors-style mechanics rule in games from Final Fantasy through Doom to Persona.]

The game of chance is so deeply embedded in game design, it might be easier to think of video games that aren’t rock, paper, scissors. It's a classic building block of the wheel of luck and/or skill that makes up nearly every video game, from its transparent use in RPG element wheels to FPS games like Doom where weapons are based on properties like burst damage and hitstun.

Rock, paper, scissors finds its RPG incarnation in the wheel of elemental strengths and weaknesses that compose the flashy magic so common to the genre. Final Fantasy in particular consistently makes all the spells look very beautiful and very distinctive, disguising the fact that they are all essentially exactly the same.

Despite the different graphics, the nine classic spells of Final Fantasy (ranks 1-3 of the three elements of ice, fire and lightning) are really the same spell repeated over and over again. This redundancy is frequently coupled with arbitrarily assigned weakness and resistances make little logical sense, turning the RPG into a guessing game.

It’s not an easy conundrum. If elements are essential to winning, players need to have access to the correct elements and know which are effect on which enemies. But if they do, they can just spam their strongest spells on enemies weak against them without thinking. This is a lose/lose situation: either way there’s no challenge for the player, and it either results in a frustrating loss or a boring win.