Monday, March 30, 2009

GDAotM Part Deux Posted

Part 2 of my thoughts on horror games and player death has been posted. This will probably be the shortest post I ever write. Savour it.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

GDAotM Article Posted

My weekly-ish posting rate has been saved by Sande Chen posting my submission at Game Design Aspects of the Month. It's my take on how death and repetition as a failure condition is fundamentally at odds with horror aesthetics. (As an aside, I asked the art director of Dead Space about this at GDC and he more or less agreed) The project itself is an extension of the IGDA's new Game Design SIG where a host of design-inclined folks discuss a particular topic. Feel free to comment here or at the source, but I imagine Sande would prefer the latter.

Apologies for no natively new content here, but I returned from GDC on Friday evening and am still catching up on a host of things. For everyone I met at GDC, my sincerest appreciation for being so kind, welcoming and unabashedly awesome. Can't wait to see you all again!

One of many awesome results of GDC was providing a smorgasboard of ideas for me to innaccurate and insufficiently reposit here (well, hopefully not). Next post is already planned and based largely on one of my personal favourite talks from GDC. I'll stay mum to the exact contents for now, but I'll hint by saying my fiancée is wonderfully tolerant. More soon!

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Starting Down The Path

Tale of Tales' The Path was released this week. I didn't particularly care for their first offering, The Graveyard. For me, The Graveyard was all art and no game. That's perfectly fine, but not something I care for personally. Plus, I find "It means whatever you want it to mean" to be a pretty lame artistic statement to make. I'm not going to open that can of worms, but suffice to say, I wasn't overly fond of The Graveyard.

I am enjoying The Path substantially more. The bar is a bit low, since I am going to favour anything that approaches horror in a new way, but it's still a solid game. I've played through one chapter of the game as Ginger. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as The Path is, usability problems (and easily fixable ones at that) kept pulling me out of the experience.

The controls for interacting with the environment are deplorable. In an attempt to be minimal, you interact with the environment by getting close and then simply not pressing any button. But there is absolutely no indication of how close is close enough, or even which objects can be interacted with. Certain objects (I encountered an old clawfoot bathtub and a rusted out car) cause certain semi-transparent images to appear on the screen, but you cannot (apparently) otherwise interact with these objects. The are other objects that cause a very similar change on the interface, except they can be interacted with.

There is a girl in white that will lead your character back to the path if you interact with her. But triggering this interaction is very flakey. I had to dance around her for a good minute or so, moving closer and farther, until their interaction finally occured. This frustration could easily be corrected by attaching the interaction action to a button. Targeting could be as simple as having the avatar look toward objects that can be interacted with and/or changing her stance. It might be a tiny bit less elegant, but it's certainly preferrable to having me constantly frustrated with the controls and not be immersed in the experience.

After interacting with certain areas or objects in the woods, text will appear on the screen. It's the current girl's thoughts on whatever you just interacted with. Unfortunately, the font used is a yellow-ish hue with no outline. That means that if the camera is focused on something yellow when the text appears, it's impossible to read. Instead of reading the message and getting some insight into the girl's character, I'm forced to spin the camera frantically, attempting to find a texture that's dark enough to read on. Given how simple and numerous the solutions to this problem are, it's simply embarassing seeing an issue like this.

My last grievance is that the save game files do not appear to be portable. I started playing this on my PC, but moved it to my laptop since I'll likely play it a bit while travelling to the GDC (or early in the AM before things get started). I copied all the user files to the laptop, but The Path ignored them completely. This is one of those features that doesn't seem like a big deal until you actually need it, at which point its absence it quite annoying. Or, more simply, Steam Cloud sure does make sense.

There's depth to The Path, and having recently maligned the lack of symbolism in games, it is most pleasant to see such a riposte. I'll need more time to think about what is going on, and not be busy getting ready for GDC, so I hope you'll forgive the laundry list of complaints. I do like the game a lot, don't get me wrong. It's just unfortunate to see that, once again, being usable is a precondition to being great and no amout of artistry can change this.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Width and Depth

I finished The Design of Everyday Things recently, and while it does not deal directly with games, I'd still consider it a must-read for anyone interested in game design. Norman has some great insight into what makes an artifact usable and one area where games often suffer is usability, both in the gameplay itself and in the game's support systems. The downside of reading DOET is you'll start seeing bad design everywhere and those around you will likely tire of, "Gah, look how poorly designed that door is! If a door needs a 'pull' sign, it's not well designed!"

One area of Norman's discussion that I found particularly applicable to games was the notion of width and depth within interactions. A wide but shallow interaction affords a small number decisions that have a lot of possibilities, but are not sequential or meaningfully connected. A narrow but deep interaction has a large number of decisions, but the possibilities for each decision are relatively constrained. The culinary analogy he provides is that buying ice cream is wide but shallow- there are a lot of options, but once you've decided on the flavour, there are only a few simpe decisions (cone, toppings) to be made. A nine course dinner is narrow but deep; at each course, there are only two or three possibilities, but there are a many sequential decisions to be made.

Most of our daily decisions are either shallow or narrow, which is why most of our reactional activities are both wide and deep. Amongst games, width and depth can, and should, also be varied to affect the game's interaction. "Shallow" is often used pejoratively as a gameplay descriptor, but here, I'm using it as Norman does, to refer to the size and sequentiality of the decision space.

The width and depth of an interaction are not binary states, but rather a continuum. It's important to consider both aspects of interaction, and deliberately design toward certain levels of width/depth that best support the intended experience.

A game like Animal Crossing is wide but shallow. There is a lot to do in one's town, but the actions themselves are nonsequential. This allows for very freeform play that's quite accessible. Left 4 Dead is narrow but deep. At any moment there are relatively few decisions (auto shotgun or assault rifle? Heal myself or an ally?), but each decision sequentially affects future decisions. Sins of a Solar Empire is both wide and deep, with a myriad of decisions that will directly affect the next decisions made.

It's possible to look at the local gameplay and global gameplay separately. Far Cry 2 offers relatively narrow gameplay decisions at any given moment, but at a higher level the global decisions are wide and nonsequential. Most MMOs a la World of Warcraft start with a narrow and shallow local and global decision space that becomes wider and deeper.

Width and depth are descriptors, not advantages. Trying to make a game seem artificially deep will often obfuscate the things about it that are most interesting and engaging. Adding unnecessary decisions to a narrow game unnecessarily will often dilute the meaning of those decisions and create a paradox of choice, where the player is more worried about the things they won't experience than the things they will as a consequence of their decision.

The Design of Everyday Things stresses being deliberate and conscientious about design. The width and depth of gameplay decisions should be considered carefully, their ramifications understood. Doing so can help keep the design focused and prevent wasting time on features that will only add needless complexity.

Do you prefer a game to be narrow or wide? Shallow or deep? Are there other ways these characteristics can inform the way we look at games? I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

The Cost of Realism

Yep, we're talking about Far Cry 2 again. But don't flee just yet, this is both brief and mostly meta-discussion. This is in response to a couple of things (insightful, as always) Michael Abbott wrote recently, and it's just a little too long to be a comment there. Michael noted that he just couldn't bring himself to care about the characters in Far Cry 2. Several of us said, well yeah, that's sort of the point. I specifically posited that the NPCs are not supposed to be characterized or behave as real, believable people. Their shallowness is symbolic, intended to convey how anonymous and replaceable those grasping for power truly are.

It's entirely possible I'm reading too much into it, but on the other hand, is it possible that we've just been conditioned to expect as much realism as possible in AAA titles? Realistic simulations of physics, environments, facial animations, interactions; these are the things frequently held highest when discussing new, big-budget titles. When we're told to anticipate and expect these things, do we accidentally filter out things more subtle?

It seems our (and by "our," I mean the audience at large) expectations have become binary- either games must strive for complete realism and any shortfall is an error, or it's an utterly ridiculous/purely ludic (a la Mario Kart or Katamari Damacy) without thought to realism. I've been pleasantly surprised by symbolism in games, but I don't think I could name one where my excitement and anticipation came from looking forward to interesting symbolism. I was excited about Far Cry 2 because it looked like a dynamic shooter with an interesting setting; I wasn't looking forward to a meditation on violence and nihilism.

Only a handful of popular titles can really be seen as explicitly symbolic, and most of them have to truly bellow to have their symbolism noticed. Braid might be the best recent example. While the interpretation thereof is a bit ... contentious, I think everyone can agree that the game is meant to be heavily symbolic. Flower is similar. Perhaps this represents a growing trend. I'd like to think so.

I think part of the contribution we brainy/serious/intelligent game bloggers make is digging into symbolism in games. I've become a lot more aware of it since becoming active in this community; prior to a year ago, the only games I could probably discuss the symbolism of were Planescape: Torment and Psychonauts. We've still got a ways to go though. Audiences need to ask for and reward meaningful symbolism, and developers need to refine their language to make things less obtuse.

Of course, if that did happen, we might just run out of things to blog about ... or we'll just get to argue with more people about interpretations. Probably the latter. Excellent.

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