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Column: The Interactive Palette

Incidental Character Choices in "Balloon Diaspora"

April 28, 2011 12:00 AM |

A screenshot from Balloon Diaspora['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at incidental character choices in "Balloon Diaspora."]

Sid Meier, designer of Civilization, described games as "a series of interesting choices." Janet Murray, new media researcher, defines player agency as "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions." Emily Short, IF author, refines this further by claiming true agency requires the player to care about and be able to guess at the consequences of his actions.

In tabletop roleplaying games, players often construct elaborate backstories and personalities for their characters. In the best campaigns, these character details affect future stories and events. But in less integrated games, the choices made at character creation feel important to the player even if they don’t change anything about the rest of the game.

There is a conflict in the heart of any video game design between agency and authored story. The simplest game narrative is one which is linear: once which does not change in response to player action. However, this sort of narrative fails to take advantage of the most special aspect of games: their interactivity. On the other hand, accounting for every possible way a player could affect a story requires either an impossibly detailed simulation or a creative mind serving as Game Master in the style of a tabletop RPG.

How, then, can we resolve the conflict between the player’s desire to express himself and affect the game world in a meaningful way and the practical restrictions on the scope and complexity of the game’s story? How do we provide interesting choices that don’t require extraordinary design feats?

"Balloon Diaspora," a short game by Cardboard Computer, takes a clever approach. It presents the player with questions that carry emotional weight and visible consequences that paradoxically have little to no effect on the events of the game. This is emotional agency, not narrative agency, and it provides a startlingly effective way of making the player feel empowered while not requiring a complex story design.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Character Progression in F.E.A.R.

April 8, 2011 12:00 PM |

Sniping in F.E.A.R.['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at strategic character progression in F.E.A.R.]

In most video games, the strength of the player character follows a well-established arc. At first, the PC has limited abilities. She only has one or two weapons, the most basic of skills, or the lowest of statistics. Over the course of the game, the PC accrues experience points, training, and equipment that makes her more powerful and versatile. This pattern appears in all kinds of games, from Borderlands to the God of War series.

In this typical progression, the late-game abilities and equipment are clearly superior to the early-game options. Weapons shoot more projectiles, and those projectiles are more damaging. If weapons are upgraded, the upgrades should always be taken. If not, the player need only use his starting weapon if he runs out of ammunition for the better ones, and the high-level ammunition is plentiful enough to make that rare.

With this structure, advancement can be more about the game than the player. Better weapons are met with stronger opposition, and the final experience ends up flat and simplistic.

Monolith Productions's 2005 game F.E.A.R. avoids this problem. While the PC's health and slow-motion energy gradually, this advancement is minimal (and, indeed, optional). The player can only carry three weapons, the weapons available to the player change little, and the few weapons that are exclusive to later parts are only better than others in certain situations.

This approach means that the player's skill is the primary tool for dealing with the increased challenge over the course of the game. The player can only depend on better weapons and abilities to a limited extent, and must instead rely on his own experience with the game. This produces a difficult but rewarding difficulty escalation that provides a more varied feel.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - The Video Game Album

July 1, 2009 8:00 AM |

Odin Sphere cover art['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at video game albums, with a album of three examples.]

Video games are most often compared to movies. They are usually long, monolithic works that tell a single cohesive story. Sometimes, however, a video game release will break this mold and present an experience that is not quite so unified. These games are less like movies and more like music albums, where a group of thematically related pieces are collected in one release.

Some video game albums are more like rock operas, where the pieces connect to form one story. Others are concept albums, where the games share a theme or mechanic but are separate entities. Still others have little connection beyond being released at the same time by the same group. In the spirit of the video game album, this column will discuss three different releases, one of each type: Odin Sphere, Kirby Super Star, and The Orange Box.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Interplay in Left 4 Dead

June 4, 2009 4:00 PM |

Common Infected['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at enemy interplay in Left 4 Dead.]

The role of enemies in video games tends to be as obstacles. The player character must get from point A to point B, and an army of goons stands in her way, forcing her to take time to thin the mob before continuing on. In most games, these enemies do not cooperate in any meaningful way.

Yes, they are all pursuing the same goal — kill the player character — but they do it in a simple way, without taking advantage of each other's abilities. The power of a group of enemies is equal to the total power of its members.

Sometimes, enemies are more complex. Half-Life is one of the first games to use squad-based artificial intelligence, where human grunts share information and coordinate their attacks to better inconvenience the player. Occasionally, a particular pair of enemy types are designed as partners to work together. It's especially common in strategy-focused games to find a rock-paper-scissors pattern of enemy strengths, but on a small scale this is more about the units' individual weaknesses than any sort of interaction of abilities.

Valve Software's Left 4 Dead, however, has a very complex example of cooperation and interaction between enemies, compressed into just six types of Infected units. These units, through the interplay between their unique abilities, have more than additive group strength. The power of a group of these enemies is greater than the sum of its members, because of this interaction.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Layered Gameplay in Disgaea

May 4, 2009 12:00 AM |

Etna from Disgaea['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at customization in Disgaea.]

One of the primary appeals of roleplaying games is their customization. A player can shape her characters and the party as a whole to her specifications, which can support a wide range of gameplay styles. One player might want a hack-and-slash, action-filled game, and so build characters that are best at dealing and absorbing damage.

Another player might prefer a more slow-paced, bag-of-tricks approach, and focus on special abilities like status ailments or techniques that control the flow of battle. By incorporating this customizability, roleplaying games broaden their appeal. The more variable a play experience is possible in a game, the wider its possible audience.

However, customizability introduces a paradox. More customization provides a more varied experience, but it also introduces complexity. The old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons computer games have a complex character creation process that must be completed for each character in the party (as many as six). They offer pre-built characters, but in order to customize the party at all, a player must roll random stats, choose a name, gender, race, alignment, and class, create an icon, and possibly customize spells.

This has to be done for each character before play even begins. Purchasing equipment is also a virtual necessity before the adventuring can really start. Each of these steps requires the player to consult the manual for things like the function of spells or the power of weapons. To enable customization, a game must become more complex, which will scare away many of the players that the customizability would attract in the first place.

The trick to resolving this paradox lies in layering gameplay. A game can allow customization while keeping it entirely optional by separating the customization from the primary gameplay flow. That way, a player who wishes to customize can do so as much as she wants, while one who is uninterested can skip it entirely. One game which excellently demonstrates this technique is Nippon Ichi Software's Disgaea.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - The Interface of Hotel Dusk

April 20, 2009 8:00 AM |

Hotel Dusk['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at adventure game interfaces in Hotel Dusk: Room 215.]

The graphical adventure game has fallen from its former prominence among video games. In the 1980s and early 90s, Infocom, Sierra, and LucasArts produced best-selling games that are still referred to today. However, with the rise of high-budget, technologically advanced games and the accompanying increase in the complexity of the average game's storyline, traditional adventure games have lost their prominence. While point-and-click adventure games are still produced (with TellTale Games's Sam & Max episodic series as a prominent example), they have mostly been reduced to a niche product.

One of the reasons for the fall of the adventure game is the detached nature of the gameplay. As interesting as the story and puzzles in a game may be, the player is still just pointing and clicking to control an avatar or disembodied first-person protagonist.

There's not much gameplay there, when compared to a Mario Kart or Grand Theft Auto game. The experience is very cerebral, and a player used to more action-packed games will tend to become bored with a game where she doesn't do anything. It's a shame, because there's no other kind of game that offers generally non-violent, mind-focused gameplay.

One way to make an adventure game more accessible and interesting to the modern player is to involve her more directly in the game's events. Cing's Hotel Dusk: Room 215 does this in an interesting way: thanks in part to the Nintendo DS's unique hardware, players are provided with a hands-on approach to puzzle solving that feels much more involved than other adventure games.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Personality in Team Fortress 2

March 16, 2009 4:00 PM |

The cast of TF2['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at character roles in Team Fortress 2.]

The concept of character roles in video games is a common one. It's most common in traditional RPGs, where the player chooses a certain character class with unique skills and abilities. In the mid-to-late-nineties, the concept of class or character role spread to other kinds of games, with one of the first examples being the original Team Fortress mod for Quake.

The Team Fortress series features first-person, multiplayer, team-based gameplay where each player selects a class and the classes compliment each other. Each class has an important role, and the strength of the team as a whole depends on each player properly fulfilling their role. The series came into its own with the release of Team Fortress Classic, an official mod for Half-Life. TFC refined the classes and reinforced team-based goals like capturing the flag or protecting territory.

Multiplayer class-based games like Team Fortress can be quite entertaining. The separate character roles make it necessary to work together, which promotes socialization among teammates and increases the feeling of accomplishment when the team succeeds.

The multiple classes also broaden the appeal of the game; a player who doesn't feel comfortable dodging and weaving can choose a slow-but-strong class like TF's Heavy Weapon Guy, and there are even roles for players who like to avoid combat, like the Medic class.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Puzzle Design in the Myst Series

February 20, 2009 8:00 AM |

Riven's golden dome['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at puzzle design in the Myst series.]

Puzzle. The word has many different meanings in the context of video games. The term "puzzle game" can refer to a game in the mold of Tetris; there are many shaped or colored blocks or jewels or bubbles that must be cleared by manipulating them within a time limit. In this context, the "puzzle" tests the player's coordination and reaction time.

However, the word "puzzle" is also commonly used in a broader and more conventional context to describe an intellectual obstacle in any video game. When the developers of Half-Life 2 break up the shooting-and-driving gameplay to have the player assemble a makeshift ladder, that's a puzzle. So are the ubiquitous sliding-block puzzles of Zelda infamy. In these cases, puzzles are intended to serve as pacing devices, allowing a moment to relax and think in the middle of all the killing.

However, there are categories of video games where the game is entirely composed of puzzles. One group is games like Chip's Challenge, 3D Logic, or Portal, which all present a sequence of similar puzzles differing only in complexity and scale. However, to the true puzzle connoisseur, the height of the art is to be found in the adventure game.

The Monkey Island series, the Infocom interactive fiction games, and escape-the-room games portray worlds in which puzzles are a fact of life. The developers try, with various degrees of success, to incorporate puzzles seamlessly into the game world, so that players can inhabit a character who thinks her way around difficulties rather than shooting her way through them.

In the adventure game category, few games are more maligned than Cyan Worlds' Myst series. Spanning five single-player games and one repeatedly-resurrected online game, Uru, the Myst series is often blamed for bringing about the death of the adventure game. It popularized the concept of a silent, faceless protagonist exploring an uninhabited game world, and led to a myriad of copycat games where the atmosphere was spooky but the puzzles were arbitrary and banal. These concepts were anathema to fans of the character depth and humor of the Sierra and LucasArts adventures.

However, it really is the puzzle-solving where the Myst series shines. By looking at the best (and worst!) puzzles of the series, we can gain an understanding of how to construct truly compelling intellectual challenges. For a puzzle to be effective, it must be three things: fair, novel, and integrated.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Failure-Friendly Gameplay in Crayon Physics Deluxe

February 9, 2009 8:00 AM |

A crayon apple tree['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at failure-friendly gameplay in Crayon Physics Deluxe.]

One of the basic issues of video game design is that of the skill challenge. Early arcade games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders are gauntlets to be run, where a high score is the goal and failure is all-but-guaranteed. Indeed, the developers didn't even expect players to be able to succeed as well as they have.

Pac-Man crashes on the "kill screen" at level 255, and Space Invaders's score counter rolls over to zero after 9,990. These early games were descendents of carnival amusements and pinball; they provided ways for players to test their skill against the machine and against each other.

Games are no longer simply about skill, but the idea of the skill challenge remains. Many games, such as Super Mario Galaxy, still record "lives," even though the player is able to save and continue indefinitely. This apparent need to challenge the player often leads to what Shamus Young calls "do it again, stupid." The player will be assigned a particularly difficult task, where failure simply means that she must keep trying, over and over, until the task is accomplished. It's as if the punishment for failure is lost time and frustration.

Difficulty has an important role in video game design. It allows the player to empathize with the efforts of the player character, it helps to pace the game, and it provides the player with a feeling of accomplishment (provided the player doesn't just give up in frustration).

However, there is a difference between challenge and punishment for failure. The 2008 Prince of Persia was widely criticized for being too easy, in part because it doesn't punish the player enough for failing at a jump or a boss fight. However, this has little effect on how difficult the game is; it just means that the cost of failure is reduced.

Petri Purho's recent game Crayon Physics Deluxe presents an almost frustration-free experience by being failure-friendly. It presents true challenges, but does not severely punish the player for failing at them. Indeed, the failure experience not only teaches the player how to do better, but it is fun in its own right.

Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Scale in Katamari Damacy

January 22, 2009 4:00 PM |

The King declares a fiesta['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at the use of scale in Katamari Damacy.]

The narrative of most video games is one of increasing power. The player begins the game weak and unskilled, and gradually gains experience and abilities over the course of gameplay.

Typically, games start off relatively easy and become more difficult, with the hardest part of the game being the end. In some games, like roleplaying games, this character growth is explicit, represented by increasing statistics. In others, such as many arcade games, there is only the player's growing skill and experience.

Nowhere is the process of increasing character power made more concrete than in Namco's Katamari Damacy. The game begins with the player character smaller than an apple, rolling up tiny object into his ball, or katamari. By the end of the game, the player character is pushing a ball bigger than a city and tearing up continents.

Shot of a mouse-sized katamariPac-Man

Katamari Damacy has essentially the same gameplay as Namco's most famous product, Pac-Man. The player overcomes navigational difficulties to collect a large number of mostly identical objects.

When a certain number of objects has been collected, play progresses to a different arena. Their settings and aesthetics are different, but the feeling of collecting "stuff" and the flow of an efficient path is shared between both games.