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.



Blogger Michel said...

I agree, the game demonstrates a complete lack of skill and knowledge of the craft of game creation on the part of Tale of Tales.

The best art is made by people with a technical mastery of the medium, even if the end result is abstract. Playing with punctuation in poetry works because the author understands the rules they are breaking. There is no intent behind the clipping issues and other things you've mentioned, just poor craftsmanship.

March 22, 2009 at 9:30 AM  
Blogger Kirk Battle said...

Graphically I understand but the controls don't really bother me. Part of why the game is so disturbing for me is how little control you have over the character. It's enough to move around, otherwise everything is outside of your control and impossible to predict.

It's a contentious issue, I readily defend Silent Hill 2's crappy controls for the same reason but not everyone agrees. I just think that one of the best ways a game can make a player scared is to take their ability to interact with the environment away.

The game is, on many levels, about helplessness after all.

March 22, 2009 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Michel I get that Tale of Tales aren't experienced gamemakers. I can kind of forgive the clipping issue were because solid collision detection and good pathfinding aren't trivial. But things like the font colour thing are really just unforgivable. I know Tale of Tales is trying to make art, but damn guys, don't forget you're making something that people have to use.

@L.B. Jeffries I'd say this is fundamentally different than the controls in Silent Hill or the crazy camera in the earlier Resident Evil entries. Whether the controls in Silent Hill were intention or a happy accident, it worked well either way. It created tension and did so elegant, especially given the technological limits.

The Path is a very different game though. It's not tense; it works though atmosphere and immersion. Having to dance around the girl in white doesn't unsettle me, it reminds me that I'm playing a game with crappy object picking. Minotaur China Shop worked brilliantly in having a character that's intentionally difficult to control. But, and this is only me experience, my experience with The Path a bit diminished by this. I still like the game a lot, don't get me wrong, but dealing with these issues would have made it even more enjoyable.

March 22, 2009 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

I'm with LB on this one. Not pushing a button, considering its only one interaction between pauses, seems just as feasible of an interaction method. More importantly, I mostly consider the "non-input interaction" as maintaining the inevitability of death motif. Though I agree with most everything else. particularly the girl in white. I've only played through the little girl and I never found my way back to the path, opting instead to hop on the back of the wolf.

March 22, 2009 at 8:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Regarding the interface issues, there is indeed a "force interaction" button, which I was shown in-game as well as on the help screen. It's enter/mousewheel up/some gamepad button.

The translucent overlay that shows on some non-interactive objects is an image of a girl that can interact with that object.

Your other points are entirely valid, though. Interaction is often clumsy in The Path, and there's no excuse for the bugs I've found during play. However, I disagree with Michel's statement that the game demonstrates a complete lack of skill. It's a well-crafted game with several flaws, but it took a lot of effort and knowledge to put together. Are there flaws? Sure. Does it mean ToT is totally incompetent? No.

March 24, 2009 at 8:34 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Greg Yeah, after having played it more, I saw that control to force interaction. But from looking at the way its presented, there's nothing to explain what "interact" versus "action" means.

I think these issues just emphasize how hard usability is to get right. A lot of people, including the very talented and experienced, still often forget that after about a week, they are too close to the project to offer meaning insight into how new players will experience it. It's absolutely vital to test and retest with people completely fresh to the game. I get the impression that didn't happen as much as it should have.

I know ToT is a very small shop, and since at least some of their funding comes from the Belgian government, maybe there were some budgetary constraints about that kind of testing.

March 25, 2009 at 6:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Jorge Albor. While the "no input" control scheme is a bit of a roadblock for some gamers, it's very important to the themes of the game. In fact, if they released a new, easier control scheme tomorrow I would probably still use the current one.

I'm usually a stickler for transparent UI and controls, too, but in this case just seems like it was done for a reason rather than because of a lack of skill on the developer's part.

March 25, 2009 at 7:27 AM  
Blogger Michael Samyn said...

The Path saves its games in your Application Data folder. If you copy the files there, you can re-use them on another computer.

March 31, 2009 at 2:11 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Michael Samyn Coincidentally, I figured that out just yesterday morning. It was in the ReadMe file, which I didn't do, so this is definitely a mea culpa. To be fair, in the app path (\Steam\steamapps\common\the path\userdata) there's a SavedGame.cgr file, which is what I initially tried to move.

But yes, I don't have any excuse for not RTFM.

Shame we didn't run into each other at GDC. Despite my grumping, I think you guys really did pull of something excellent with The Path and I would have like to told you so in person.

March 31, 2009 at 7:19 AM  

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