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Column: Design Diversions

COLUMN: Design Diversions - Fate/Stay Night: Choices Beyond Good and Evil

July 6, 2010 12:00 PM |

[‘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. How do we get over our fixation on good and evil as a gameplay element? Fate/Stay Night, a Japanese visual novel, may have the answer.]

A game doesn't need to have moral choices to be a game about moral choices.

Literature has done quite a fine job of it long before we had video games. Macbeth certainly didn't need a message telling him he lost karma after committing regicide. As players, we're stuck between our need for feedback and exhaustion at the lack of subtlety offered us.

Speaking of Fallout 3, the Tenpenny tower and the way the game rated actions as good or evil did not sit at all well with a great deal of players, who were very frustrated when acts they perceived as good were marked by the game as evil. The flip side of this sort of angry reaction to the game is that Fallout 3 succeeded in captivating players through its narrative. But it did this by offering players choices, not by judging them.

Getting away from the stark good and evil we see in so many videogames is harder than it sounds. It is etched into western culture in everything from religion to film, literature and comics. From Dante (the Italian one) to Star Wars, this binary is subject everyone recognizes. It is just so easy to recognize, so ingrained in our culture, that when a videogame throws throws it in a players face they know that they have a choice, and they know that their choice matters.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Out Of My Hands

June 24, 2010 12:00 PM |

eleanor-lamb-bioshock-2-screenshot.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. Today, examining how the decisions of another made all the difference in 2K Marin's Bioshock 2.]

What I liked best about Bioshock 2 was that it ended before it ended.

In Mario, for instance, your Princess is in another castle until finally she isn't, and then you win. Rescuing the princess is the flag that lets players know they've won. Mario gets a smooch on the cheek and then the credits roll. It ends when it ends.

But in Bioshock 2, the game doesn't end when the player rescues Eleanor, the princess equivalent. Instead she decides to put on a diving suit and stomp monsters with the player for the last act of the game. During this short time, the player really gets to know Eleanor as a person, more than just a damsel in distress or a plot device.

Eleanor's daughterly affection and admiration of the protagonist is a rare thing when all other supporting cast members exist to nag the player. No matter how powerful the protagonist of Bioshock 2 gets, he's treated like a tool for Rapture's salvation or destruction by most of the cast, while Eleanor thinks of him as so important and good that she lives her life based on what he does. In doing so, she actually brings Delta--a faceless, voiceless, protagonist--to life.

Eleanor is the living embodiment of the player's choices. Despite the fact that Eleanor basically takes over the player's choices at this point in the game, I've never before felt like I had more control over a game than I did in this one, and it was because the choices I made came to define a person. That sort of power is almost frightening, and few games give it to you. I didn't find the choices in Bioshock 2 especially compelling on their own, but watching Eleanor come into her own was an incredible experience.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Memento Mori

May 19, 2010 12:00 AM |

hl2epp2.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. Today, a look how little moments of death can move us even when death seems commonplace.]

When I'm looking at the world down the barrel of a gun, I'm not sure I feel like Gordon Freeman, whoever he's supposed to be.

But right now I feel as close to at ease as the game gets. I'm in Valve's Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and I'm nosing around the hills on the way to White Forest because the goody detector in my car went off. It feels safe enough here: Empty, peaceful. The wild monsters seem to only dwell in caves, anyway. The cool green forest path looks so much like the real earth that I can't imagine something as unreal as enemy soldiers or alien fauna lurking within.

The cave here's probably the least interesting goody drop off. It's hidden away and there are no clever tricks involved in getting it. The need for collectibles is an obsession though, so here I am. The crates have medicine and a little bit of ammo, but there's a skeleton here as well, and when I see him and his friend I stop for a moment.

How the hell did he get here, anyway? Moreover, how did he die surrounded by all these health packs? If the combine killed him, why didn't they follow them? Did he starve to death? Right now I should probably be thinking TRAP but, no pun intended, it's just too dead in here. This body isn't the answer to a monster around the corner, it's a lingering question with no answer in sight.

I wasn't asking this back in City 17 where there were corpses around every turn and I was making most of them. When it came to civilian casualties I didn't have a lot of questions there about why Mr. and Mrs. generic were lying decapitated in the sewers since flying buzzsaws were chasing me through the city piping.

Thousands of things will be dead by the time I'm done with this game, so why does only this guy make me wonder?

Opinion: Design Diversions - Final Fantasy XIII And The Cutscene's End Game

April 25, 2010 12:00 PM |

[‘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, he discusses Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII and how he believes its odd evolution actually occurred.]

When fans and media alike began to complain about how linear Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII was, I began to wonder if we talking about the same series. The shock horror with which the gaming public greeted the first revealed maps of the games made me wonder if it's been so long since the last Final Fantasy that we forgot how long it took to get off the training wheels (or out of Midgar).

The series, not to mention genre, is notorious for its ceaseless hand-holding, so if anything this design decision should be as unobtrusive as the removal of a vestigial limb.

So then why does the game stumble like it had one of its feet cut off?

It's easy to see why, in a series that has always valued the cinematic above everything else (including gameplay), how a linear design is a move that has been a long time coming. And frankly, that's Square Enix's choice to make, even if it's an unconventional one. Producer Yoshinori Kitase even went as far as to say in an interview with 1UP that Final Fantasy XIII would be an RPG only by coincidence, if at all, even going as far to say that it would be more like an FPS than an RPG. Criticism should focus on what the game is, not what we think it should or shouldn't be.

However, FFXIII should have taken a few more notes from the FPS book if they wanted a linear game. If it was an FPS, it would be is 60 hours of single player horde mode. That Final Fantasy XIII has one of the most strategic and involved combat systems in the history of the series is a testiment to how vital pacing is for a long-term single player game. Even the best combat becomes tedious if there isn't action and variety to break it up, and there is no replacement for the pacing lost in the switch to linear design. Where Final Fantasy used to have sidequests and exploration, it now has nothing.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: 'What We Get Out of Choice'

April 6, 2010 12:00 AM |

infamous407_screen.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, inFamous and how choices can be used to divide gameplay and narrative.]

While we struggle to figure out what choice is and what it's doing in our videogames, we continue to demand it. It's clear that choice offers interesting options for game design gameplay that are interesting, stimulating, and fun. So what does choice provide to players? Is the appeal of choice the ability to craft the game's narrative, or is it the experience of watching a narrative unfold in different ways?

Choice can be used for a lot of things, and fewer games are more confused about what they're doing with it than InFamous. There's a lot of problems with the way the choice is handled in this game, but the main one is that there are about 40-odd big choices in the game, not to mention the countless ones reflected in the moment to moment actions of the player, and each and every one(except the first) is a lie.

In reality, there is one choice. When nearly all of the powers in the game require the protagonist to be either wholly good or wholly evil, choosing anything but the same way is foolish. What follows then are not a series of choices but a incessant harassment of the player, and any attempt at seriously considering any choices beyond the first will be thoroughly punished.

In fact, Sucker Punch didn't create a system of choice at all. They created a game with two parallel narratives using a unessesary and ultimately irrelevant gameplay system. In practice, the system of choice in inFamous is a way of separating narrative, gameplay, and play style into two distinct sections, and that's in no way a bad thing even if it's bizarrely implemented. Choice has a lot to offer to game design without offering choice.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: 'A Modern Murder Simulator'

March 19, 2010 12:00 PM |

vice-city-boxshot.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 -- how emotional design can make us think about not thinking about violence.]

Senseless violence in videogames is fun, but more importantly, it can also be intellectually stimulating and thought provoking. While designers and critics alike cry out for more depth in games, pathos is not the only path to artistic merit. For a medium that's constantly patronized, misunderstood, and derided even by its supporters, sometimes satire and irony is the best way to get a point across.

This is the philosophy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, as the most unapologetic of that series so lambasted by those who were the target of the game’s satire. The ultraviolent and candy colored Vice City is an excessively pink world in which violence is comical and cartoonish. Violence in this game is already highly desensitized. Pedestrians die, but after their bodies despawn the world will be back to normal as if nothing happened, maintaining the status quo like a TV serial.

It's the worst possible environment for a serious engagement with issues of violence, but it's a great environment to engage with how we depict violence. Most games take the opposite position of Haunting Ground, and are designed to soften, justify, or excuse violent actions so that players feel like heroes instead of murderers.

It's the same treatment summer blockbusters get. But unlike most of these media, Vice City goes a step further. This is a game that mercilessly skewers the groups most opposed to its existence, freely leaps into self parody, and satirizes the cultural attitudes towards violence that ultimately gave it form. By the end of Vice City it's clear that everyone from the mob to the talking heads on the radio are guilty of the same violence as the protagonist. No one in Vice City is innocent, and neither is anyone in the world.

COLUMN: Design Diversions - 'Haunting Ground And The Art Of Empathy'

February 20, 2010 12:00 PM |

[‘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--Capcom's Haunting Ground and the design of empathy.]

In order to explain why Capcom's Haunting Ground is an important game, I need to relate a discomforting story.

My college was surrounded by corn for miles and miles so when there was nothing else to do on a Friday night, we would wander around town. On one particular night, we went to the cemetery. It is eerily close to a golf course, which I imagine makes from some awkward moments when golfers hit balls in the wrong direction.

The way to the cemetery is surrounded by nice neighborhoods and Victorian homes and is only a few blocks away from the south end of campus. I wandered around in this area with my friends until I remembered I had to meet my girlfriend so they, who had been planning to stay, offered to walk me back.

"I think I'll be fine," I said.

"Oh yeah," my friend said, "I guess boys don't really have to worry about getting raped, do they?"

I didn't know what to think. She hadn't really meant for it to shock me. But it wasn’t something I had ever seriously worried about. The worst thing I could think of happening to me on the walk home was getting mugged and since I was broke that sounded more like an inconvenience. It shocked me that they had to be afraid, that walking around alone at night was a completely different experience.

I hadn't given any thought to the fact that I could walk out without that sort of fear, just for being me. I didn’t think it was fair that she had to be afraid. I also felt a little guilty that I didn’t know, and hadn’t thought of it.

This is why Haunting Ground is, despite its problems, something unique. It is not just a narrative about the fear of assault, something that can be and has been accomplished in literature or film (and also more adeptly). Haunting Ground is the experience of fear itself and its strength is that can place anyone in the role of Fiona.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: The Flip Side

January 28, 2010 12:00 PM |


[‘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 VVVVVV and the ups and downs of environment focused design.]

I've been playing VVVVVV so much I've started fearing my column will flip upside-down ever time I make a carriage return. Even editing this column was a traumatic experience, as rows of spikes greeted me at every turn. The game’s unpronounceable title is evocative of its number one cause of death, but there's more to VVVVVV than spikes, spikes, and more spikes.

Terry Cavanagh's puzzle platformer is a compelling argument for simplicity in games. There are only three gameplay-relevant keys in VVVVVV: left, right, and flip. Cavanagh describes VVVVVV as focusing on "one single gameplay mechanic and exploring it in detail." It's a sly way of stating it, since VVVVVV has much more to it than a single mechanic. There are rooms that loop on themselves, conveyor belts, companions to herd about, and many more complications that result in an experience that is far from simple.

VVVVVV's simplicity is a clever lie. The game delivers with its promise of not gating player progress and stilll providing variety and challenge by powering up the environment instead of the player. In VVVVVV the environment and enemies become increasing complex, taking the role of the player-oriented upgrades. In fact, those power-ups are an even bigger lie. Under the pretense of upgrading, they actually exist to introduce players to newer or more complex puzzles, a premise VVVVVV turns upside-down.

Column:Design Diversions: High Road, Low Road

January 12, 2010 12:00 PM |

[‘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 Sonic the Hedgehog encouraged replay and how it influenced contemporary design.]

In college I had a friend who grew up in the Philippines. Where he lived, piracy was so rampant he could pick up a modded PS2 and as many games as he could carry for a mere fraction of what he would pay for it legally. He told me that because of this, he couldn’t play games with a learning curve, since if the game wasn’t immediately appealing he had a pile of alternatives. He didn't think it was necessarily good to be so swamped in games, legality aside, because he knew he was missing out on games because of the way he was playing them.

I had the opposite experience. So while I didn't play most of the classics of the Genesis and Super Nintendo generation until well after the fact, I definitely spent a lot of time playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, this game (and its genesis sequels) are games that have virtually no learning curve and do not take a long time to beat. In fact, since Sonic’s most defining feature was its speed, it practically encouraged players to rush through it as quickly as possible.

Compared to more widespread design choices which tend to do the opposite, it's a somewhat baffling choice. However, Sonic's level design addressed this contradiction with multi-tiered levels.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Stay Classy

December 19, 2009 12:00 PM |

team-fortress-2-preview1.jpg [‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer 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 - musings on class, from Dungeons & Dragons to Team Fortress 2 and beyond.]

Dungeons and Dragons was the manual video game, with calculations done by hand and images drawn with imagination and graph paper. D&D has been the bible for both game and world design in the RPG and all of its many sub-genres. D&D’s influence is only becoming more widespread, and more games than ever are taking a page from its most defining concepts.

Class, or the ability for players to specialize and customize their characters, has become increasingly popular in genres outside of the RPG. Class is a great tool for allowing players to customize their game experience according to their strengths and expectations, which is big draw in all kinds of games. One genre that has seen a particularly pronounced increase is the FPS, especially since the release of games like Team Fortress 2. This may be because class was integral to the sort of teamwork encouraged by early Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary Gygax’s vision of D&D was very nearly like a team sport. When he and the many others working at TSR created the first character classes, they made them with the intent that they would be used like a team. Players were supposed to work together and compliment each other, and class-based design was meant to encourage this team effort problem solving. A successful group relies on each other, and compensates for the weaknesses in other members. What’s wonderful about class based design is that it creates a feedback loop in which the classes encourage good teamwork, and teamwork encourages exploration and mastery of the classes.