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Column: Design Diversions

COLUMN: Design Diversions: The Video Game as a Picture Book

December 2, 2009 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 Mirror's Edge and what makes a memorable game character.]

Mirror’s Edge should have been a picture book. It was the game that should have been seen, not heard, the game that could have been art if it didn’t have a plot. Mirror’s Edge shows what happens with games tell a story like a movie instead of a game.

There is more emotion in a half second of Mirror’s Edge gameplay than in its entire script. While it's disappointing that the dialogue couldn’t live up to the standards of the art direction and gameplay, this is DICE’s success, not their failure. Faith’s movements are highly detailed, from the impact of landing to blur of acceleration, and it is these little details that bring the exhilaration, panic, tension, and joy of flying from rooftop to rooftop to life. This wordless story was the real Mirror’s Edge.

Unfortunately, this story was buried underneath an assumption that stories need words, and a lack of commitment to the same level of quality in the game’s art direction as its writing. While it is tempting to say that biggest problem with the videogame narratives is the writing (and it is a big one), in the case of Mirror’s Edge the words aren’t just poorly chosen, but unnecessary.

Video games are mixed media. Taking advantage of all the different options is one thing, but there are no bonus points awarded for using all of them. Passage, for example, made players contemplate death with pixels alone, and the experience would not have been greatly enhanced with words (HOW ABOUT THINKING ABOUT SOME DEATH). Thankfully, Passage is more subtle than that. Mirror’s Edge achieved something very close to that level of depth with its gameplay until it was promptly smothered with a cliched plot and undeveloped characters.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Anatomy of a Gun

November 20, 2009 12:00 AM |

[‘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 dissection of the way Borderlands teaches players about guns.]

Gearbox and 2K Games' Borderlands exudes style, character, and charm for a good half hour before dropping it. It’s regrettable since the game has so much going for it in this department: colorful characters, a vibrant but derelict landscape, and an alien society of corporations and vagrants. Unfortunately, it’s the first that drops off most completely and without characters the story is like a bus without a driver; it’s not going anywhere no matter how pretty it is.

While Borderlands' plot drop may be unfortunate, it can be ignored. As a game of cash and guns the setting does everything it needs to teach players what kind of world they’ve been thrust into. The wild west aesthetic fits perfectly with the themes of big guns, piles of cash, and fast death.

After all, the most important characters in Borderlands are the ones players can never look away from: the guns. Like in the Diablo clones that influenced it, the loot of Borderlands is the real star. What drives players beyond the last boss, beyond the end of the game, is the quest for the perfect loot.

Perfect is subjective, and finding the equipment that fits that personal definition is part of the reason why players enjoy this kind of game. Because Borderlands has a ridiculous amount of equipment, players need to be able to pick out what they want and what’s good at a glance. This is where the world design of Borderlands does its job in teaching the players what’s what. The color and flavor of the world gives players the tools to be able to immediately dissect the loot they find and use that information to decide whether to keep or toss it.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Road Signs

November 2, 2009 12:00 PM |

SleepNoMore-DD.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 time -- an interactive theater production and how it might inform games.]

When I finally got to live in a video game, I found it wasn’t that much different from playing one.

On Wednesday, October the 14th, I played (which I think is a more appropriate verb than saw) Sleep No More in high-resolution reality. Sleep No More was created by British theater company Punchdrunk, which aims to create “a theatrical environment in which the audience are free to choose what they watch and where they go,” according to their website.

The experience is a videogame stripped down to atmosphere and exploration, like a Silent Hill without monsters where the puzzles have no solution and no purpose.

The set of Sleep No More is a four story high school in Boston transformed beyond recognition. There’s a schoolroom full of cut hair, a ballroom filled with pine trees, rooms with bathtubs, rooms with hospital beds, trophy rooms, darkrooms, and rooms wallpapered in playing cards. Through theses rooms stumbles a cast of actors who wordlessly act out an Alfred Hitchcock-themed production of Macbeth.

To experience the show patrons wander through these rooms, following and observing actors or exploring the rooms on their own. Interaction with the actors is forbidden but exploration and nosing through the shelves and drawers of the building is encouraged. The themes of problem solving and exploration are very reminiscent of certain genres of games.

What makes the experience of Sleep No More so much like a video game, and also a very relevant example for the issues of game design, is the production’s symbolism. The whole production is drenched in symbols, some obvious, some obscure, but Sleep No More uses these symbols as a way to define the rules of the production for the patrons in exactly the same way that symbols are used in video games to teach players about the game world and their relationship with it.

Column: Design Diversions: Regeneration Nation

October 18, 2009 12:00 AM |

[‘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 discussion of careful health management in two recent high-profile games.]

Live forever or die until you do. Nobody wants to die, but death is inevitable.

Death is when you drop the controller and sigh—or fling it across the room. Frustration is the consequence of loss. It means starting over, acknowledging failure, and trying to learn from your mistakes.

Most games that have you take on someone's life also have a way to measure it, a short space between life and death often called a health bar. In whatever form it takes, it is a measure of how many mistakes the player can make before having to start over. It’s a simple concept, but it can lead to some rather complex player choices and is often fundamental to the pacing of an entire game.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and Half Life 2 are different games in many respects but one thing they have in common is tightly controlled pacing centered around the loss and recovery of health. While Ninja Gaiden uses a regenerative health system and Half Life 2 uses a more traditional system of scattered health items, the different systems create a surprisingly similar feeling of tension and require similar feats of endurance from the player. Both use health to determine how skillful a player has to be at staying alive and both force split-second critical thinking.

Column: Design Diversions: 'It’s A Secret To Everyone'

October 3, 2009 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.]

Video game secrets were the schoolyard legends of our gamer youth. They thrived in the early nineties, due in large part to two key factors:

1. Actual secrets hidden within video games.
2. Lying children.

From this was born a beautiful cycle. Young gamers would, through luck or skill (mostly luck), find their way to some amazing unexplored aspect of the game and then gleefully share it with their friends. Those that weren't so lucky made them up, and so found their revenge. The only thing we were sure of was that anything could be true, so we were ready to believe anything.

Never before had lies been so believable. The rumors of the hidden Pokemon Mew lurking underneath a van, the dozens of ways you could supposedly resurrect Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris; all these and more generated days of frustration out of the fuel of raw hope.

A burgeoning internet, gullible userbase, dumb luck, and unscrupulous lying came together to make the mid-nineties the golden age of lying to (and by) children. But now there’s Gamefaqs, better search engines, and more widespread internet access. It’s hard to tell if secrets still have a place in an age where you can’t keep them anymore. That is, if keeping them was ever the point in the first place.

Column: Design Diversions: (Press Any Key to Skip This Article)

September 23, 2009 12:00 AM |

[‘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.]

About thirty levels into World of Warcraft, I realized that I did not need to read two paragraphs of text to justify killing twenty specific woodland creatures. It was at this point that I realized something crucial: in these two paragraphs, the only words that held any interest for me were “kill” and “woodland creatures.” It was very liberating to know that aside from the very few quests that tied into a larger narrative, I wasn’t missing anything at all.

Video games have a complicated relationship with narratives. Some games do just fine without any story at all. Other games make story their main focus, while others use it as convenient way to glue together the disparate elements of a game into a cohesive whole.

Meanwhile, the video game community is caught between the two extremes. On the one hand, we ask for video games to be have more sophisticated narratives, but on the other hand, we’re frustrated stories that drag us along and break up the game’s rhythm. Getting the story across without killing the mood is the greatest challenge to narrative gameplay, so it’s no wonder that there are plenty of games that drop the whole thing altogether.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Giving Me a Hard Time

September 3, 2009 12:00 PM |

BlazBlue.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 - getting into Arc System Works' BlazBlue and learning curves for games.]

Have you ever tried to get your mother to play a videogame? I attempted this many times in my youth. For her, it was like one of those nightmares where you're driving a car and the breaks don't work. For me, it was a unsuccessful fight to suppress my instincts as a backseat gamer (Shoot the monster! Shoot him! Now jump. JUMP!). I am very thankful for her patience.

Learning how to play a videogame for the first time can be like learning how to walk on the moon. Experienced players know generally how their actions will be interpreted by a new game, since most games are built up out of commonly accepted conventions which makes it easy to try something new. It takes minutes to adapt to a new game if you know what to expect. As a result, it’s easy to forget how hard games are to learn in the first place.

This I why I'm glad I picked up Blazblue. It reminded me, for the first time in a long time, that videogames are hard. Knowing nothing but the basics can get a player through the game’s lethargic AI, but the computer can’t compare to a human opponent. There are a huge number of concepts and gameplay mechanics that aren’t even relevant until you get really competitive.

This isn’t limited to just Blazblue. Nearly all fighters have a high level of play that, as it were, forces you to learn to walk all over again. It’s such a leap to competitive play that the game even includes a DVD of combos and strategies to help players along. What I found particularly interesting is that nearly all of the deeper strategies came from fansites and players rather than official sources. Designers tend to leave the community to their own devices, but there’s more to this than just letting the fans do the work.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Would You Kindly?

August 13, 2009 8:00 AM |

Bioshock.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 time, a spoiler-including (warning!) discussion of BioShock and free will.]

In linear games, there’s always the lurking danger that players will think they’ve got a shred of influence on how the game unfolds. In an effort to resolve this, many games employ a narrative voice to let players know what exactly what they’re supposed to do and give them at least a bit of motivation for doing. Despite how commonly it’s used, this device has a tendency to backfire when the commanding officer/mysterious stranger/computer geek is annoying or patronizing.

So it’s nice to see BioShock not only manage to make this narrator and guide an interesting character, but also critique the entire relationship between this figure and the protagonist and player.

BioShock isn’t the only game to play around with this relationship. In Portal, the increasingly malicious AI begins asking your character to politely die, and the original Zone of the Enders withheld the tutorial until after your first fight in order to simulate the feelings of a panicked child forced into combat for the first time. But BioShock not only involves the betrayal, but really makes players conscious of how much the game controls their actions, rather than the other way around.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Blame The Game, Not The Player

July 29, 2009 4:00 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, he references Metal Gear Solid 4 to discover how difficulty changes can warp gameplay]

When we think about choice in video games, we tend to think in terms of narrative choice. Discussions surrounding the subject often revolve around the impact (or lack thereof) that the player has on the game world. This isn’t surprising; choices with an emotional component have a tendency to provoke strong reactions and when the subject is brought up they’re typically the first things we think of.

Most of the choices in video games, however, aren’t narrative at all. They are moment to moment choices, when players decide to block instead of dodge, jump far instead of short, or turn left instead of right. There’s not a lot of intellectual debate to be had in discussing whether you should jump across a bottomless pit or into it, but the real meat of a video game lies in these choices.

Now, once players figure out that the key is to jump over the bottomless pit, that obstacle loses a lot of its appeal as an interesting challenge. So rather than ask the player to discover a previously defined solution (such as in Space Station Pheta), games are more frequently asking players to construct their own solution from a variety of possibilities (Bioshock). From a narrative perspective there certainly isn’t much difference between flying over a pit or building a bridge over it, but having these different options allows players to exercise different skills and ways of thinking.

With this approach to design comes the challenge of balancing these options against each other. When games provide some choices that aren’t as effective as others, they discourage players from being creative. Worse, if there’s an option so much more rewarding than the others there may be no point in doing anything else. Sometimes the wrong choice leads to a fate far worse than defeat: boredom.

COLUMN: Design Diversions : ‘Death of a Spaceman’

July 10, 2009 4:00 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.]

The (new) New Super Mario Bros. game’s proposed new self solving features is already raising a lot of eyebrows. At the time of writing, its not even clear how it will be implemented, but the very idea of a feature that would essentially take the controller out of the player’s hands is more than enough to raise questions about how good of an idea this really is.

To a lot of people, there’s just something that feels wrong about a game that plays itself. After all, a game can only do so much to aid the player before it stops being a game at all.

But does letting the game take over when they player has had enough really go too far? Fortunately, we don’t have to wait to see the implications of a feature like this. In fact, Nintendo's patent of this feature is somewhat amusing considering T&T Software’s humble Spacestation Pheta, a late eighties platformer reminiscent of Lode Runner, beat Nintendo to it by nearly two decades.

Thanks to them, there exists an excellent case study for how a feature like this could potentially affect gameplay: