Monday, July 26, 2010

Why Are So Many Indie Darlings 2D Platformers?

Earlier today (at the time of writing), an interesting Twitter exchange took place between Trent Polack and Manveer Heir regarding Limbo. With an intro like that, I realize this could easily veer into navel-gazing Twitter wankery. But trust me, this is going somewhere. (And hopefully their Twitter conversation can be understood, if you go looking. Twitter is sort of weird in that it's really difficult to reproduce any significant exchange. In that way, I guess it's kind of like chatting in a pub or at a meetup.)

I'm also probably going to be putting words in both their mouths, so don't take what's below as a real representation of what these guys actually think. I've heard both perspectives more or less echoed elsewhere, they just conveniently brought it up today. Okay, enough prelude.

Trent raises the titular question, "Limbo's presentation and atmosphere and visual style are all remarkable, but haven't I played this game like a dozen times in recent years?" Continuing, "2d platformers are like the lowest common denominator of video game upon which indie devs seem to project their neat artistic ideas & vision."

Manveer responded with, "Design and ideas go through phases and right now this is our "platformer" phase. Like there was a punk rock phase for music." And, "Distilling a well crafted experience that trumps most other AAA games as 'another indie platformer' is a hugely reductive argument."

They're both valid perspectives. But what really interested me was that fundamental question, "Why are so many indie darlings 2D platformers?" I'm not using 'indie darling' pejoratively, and I'm going to sidestep splitting hairs about what is and isn't "indie." Suffice to say, edge cases aside, I think there's a common set of games we can agree on. As for why there are so many 2D platformers, there are at least two significant reasons. One is purely pragmatic, the other more related to the medium itself.

On the pragmatic side, 2D platformers are relatively easy to develop. A great deal of the indie game community is made up of individual creators or very small teams. Shipping any game with a chance of financial viability (whether or not it's a primary objective, bills still have to be paid) is a significant undertaking, let alone doing it by yourself or with a 3 or 4 other people. Opting to creating a 2D platformer removes a significant amount of risk for what almost certainly begins as a very risky proposition.

To do otherwise requires resources that many indies don't have access to. Simply, Narbacular Drop wasn't Portal or to be more timely, Tag: The Power of Paint wasn't Portal 2. Transforming those experiences from things that were merely fun to something more substantive requires the resources and experience of Valve. Shadow of the Colossus takes a single aspect of games, the boss battle, as uses that to create a beautiful, haunting experience. But that required Sony's financial backing and one of the most visionary creators in the entire industry. That Game Company has been achieving similar successes, but they've also got Sony bankrolling their operation.

This is a solvable problem though and it has, and will continue, to get better with time. The larger challenge, I think, is that of game literacy. Few people can "read" games as well as they can film or books. Being literate in different media isn't just a matter of being able to comprehend a simple description/depiction of events, it's being able understand symbolism, metaphor, what a piece is "really about." Tom Armitage talks about this a bit; read/listen to what he says because it's smart.

A big challenge here for games is so many games are merely defined in terms of success or failure that seeing any greater message beyond that is difficult for many players. So many games are built to be "fun" and nothing but, and creating something that's more (and communicating this) is similarly difficult for creators. And of all the types of games out there, 2D platformers may be the type that both players and creators are most literate in.

2D platformers are well understood mechanically. We've had a chance to internalize their structure since Super Mario Bros. There is a formula and a set of rules, and with that, comes the ability to either leverage or disrupt those rules for the purpose of saying something. Many other types of games are still so amorphous that an aesthetic, meaningful rule decision is indistinguishable from just another feature to make the game better/more fun.

In some ways, 2D platformers are as close to a tabula rasa for games (no pun intended) as we can get. As long as a few simple things are in place to make something appear as a platformer, almost anything else can be included without the thing feeling alienating or confusing. Other styles of game have more strict sets of expectations (e.g. think about what makes an arcade fighter or an RTS). If too many of those expected elements are absent, the message becomes harder to read.

2D platformers are also very playable, largely due to the above. This means players of many stripes can play these games and engage with these experiences without requiring specific skills or genre familiarity. Making a game a first-person shooter immediately puts it out of the hands of many. At least for now, the number of people that want more than just fun from their games isn't colossal. It's probably in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Now if someone made a deeply aesthetic flight simulator, the number of people actually interested and able to play that game would be tiny. Almost anyone can play a 2D platformer and we want as many people as we can get thinking about games as more than just "fun."

I don't disagree with Trent, I'd love to see other styles of game have the tone of Limbo, the richness of metaphor and mechanics of Braid. But I also realize that while I can get a lot out of Democracy 2 and see some of the interesting things it says, most people see an impossible flurry of graphs and charts. For a lot of people, 2D platformers work. And we can build 2D platformers reliably, leaving more freedom to worry about the mechanics and the message.

I'd be worried if some of the best minds in this scene were getting comfortable, or if new folks were just aping what's already out there, but I don't think it's anywhere close to stagnant yet. Part of the reason why I'm looking forward to Jason Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London is I imagine it will have some interesting things to say about the blood diamond trade, but will do so through a strategy game.

I'm looking forward to seeing how more types of games can present substantive meaning. But we also need as many game literate folks seeking out more than just fun as possible. If the easiest way to get them on side is with a 2D platformer, then I'm more than happy to keep side scrolling. At least for now.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sweat the Details (or Why I Love Scoggins)

The devil is in the details. That's the whole basis of the uncanny valley, after all. The details don't really exist until we reach a certain point of fidelity, at which point those small variations from reality become more and more noticeable. The more there is that's right, the more the wrong stands out. The uncanny valley is normally discussed in terms of representing human beings, but importance of detail is selling a place/conversation/idea as "real" is still tremendously important. We just don't end up with something as creepy as this when we're not talking about simulating people.

This has certainly been discussed elsewhere before, but I recently finished a game thinking about this again. I'll leave you to guess which it could be for a moment, to briefly discuss how not paying attention to the details can do significant harm to a game's ability to immerse.

Scott over at Experience Points does a great job of breaking down the lack of attention to detail in Heavy Rain. Unlike contemporary film and television, games rarely use the modern world as a setting. Even when they do, they're either laden with the supernatural or isolated to areas the vast majority of the audience is unfamiliar with (e.g. Normandy or the nameless battlefields of the Middle East and Central Asia). Becoming even more grounded than their last release, Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream went to great lengths to make it clear Heavy Rain was about making decisions in the real world.

And aside from one of the characters having reality augmentation glasses, at first, Heavy Rain seems to have hit the mark. But, as Scott so well notes, look more closely and things are odd. From the number of characters on the license plates to the dialects used by the ostensibly American characters, there's a number of small things in Heavy Rain that just aren't quite right. Some might say this is splitting hairs, but what matters is as soon as you start to notice these things, it's not possible to stop noticing them. The incongruities can pull the player out of the experience, reminding them they're not seeing a real place, not dealing with real people or real consequences.

So, which recently released game nails the details and creates a real sense of place? Well, while I do have some sense of what Normandy is like, Armadillo and Blackwater seem familiar now. But what I can really tell you is that I've been to Scoggins, Minnesota. In their latest game, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, Telltale has managed to evoke quite precisely what a tiny, snow-bound Minnesota town feels like. And it's not just the stuff you can pick up from listening to a couple episodes of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.

My dad's family are all Minnesota Swedes (hence my ethnic name), so I'm probably more receptive to the Minnesota-ness than most. I never lived there for longer than a summer, so I can still feel nostalgic rather than just embarrassed. But from the innkeeper's offer to prepare the eponymous hero some "hotdish", to the Elks-but-not Lodge, it's all very familiar. Even the Hidden People are reminiscent of the stories my grandmother used to tell and fit well alongside Huygen's Gnomes (I know it's Dutch, but it's close). Apparently Graham Annable's wife is from Minnesota as well, which explains its authenticity.

(As an aside the film Drop Dead Gorgeous not only nails the absurdity of beauty pageants in small towns, but small town Minnesota in general. It's dark, but not as dark as Fargo, and hilarious. I highly recommend it.)

In terms of gameplay, it's easy to contrast Puzzle Agent against the Professor Layton series. And Layton is good, don't get me wrong. On balance, the puzzles are probably a little bit better than Telltale's. But the characters and places in Professor Layton are kind of flat. It's vaguely European by way of Japan, but I didn't find it nearly as evocative as Scoggins. And the Twin Peaks-esque sense of dread is far more interesting than Layton's G-rated mystery solving.

Of course, it can be noted that Puzzle Agent has much lower fidelity than Heavy Rain. The style of Annable's Grickle is much easier for Puzzle Agent to live up than it is for Heavy Rain to live up to reality. But maybe that's just another reason to not chase photo-realism. By choosing the stylized option, Puzzle Agent blurs focus on the details that don't matter and emphasizes those that do. Even those making more realistic games would benefit from looking at how a sleepy Minnesota town was created from extremely simple 2D artwork. Scoggins is a place far more real than the Philadelphia of Heavy Rain. We'd all benefit from thinking about why that is.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Time to Get Spanked!

DeathSpank has been released!

You can get the XBLA version here and the PSN game page is here (unfortunately, you can only get the PSN version directly on your PS3, boo!). It's 1200 points and $14.99 USD respectively. In terms of PPUH (price per unit of hilarity), you won't find a cheaper source of mirth, I guarantee it. After spending over a year and a half on this project, it's fantastic for folks to finally get a chance to play it.

Additionally, this is my 100th blog post! An auspicious anniversary indeed. Thank you to anyone that has read, commented and otherwise inspired me to keep writing along the way. Participating in this community has enabled me to meet some fantastic people who continually engage me with their writing. I could not be more appreciative.

And of course, thanks to my wonderful wife who so kindly edits every damn one of these things. They would be far less coherent without her efforts. Thanks everyone!

Now that's enough of my blabbing, go play the game I made!


Monday, July 5, 2010

Watch Me Play

When considering how a game is perceived by its player(s), it is also interesting to consider how a game is perceived by pure observers. How engaging is it for those merely watching? There is probably little financial incentive to explore this aspect of a game, but it's a curious design experiment if nothing else.

Thinking about this, it seems there are a few qualities that significantly affect how watchable a game is.

1) Nature of Challenge

Platformers have obvious challenges that are usually approached at the player's pace. Shooters are largely reflex challenges with a high degree of surprise. Puzzle-based games rarely require manual dexterity of any sort. How readable the goals are to an observer affects how enjoyable it is to watch. Having little understanding of what's going on, or being unable to follow the player's rapidly changing focus, makes for poor watching. But being able to gasp at whether the player will make that jump, or better yet being able to actively assist the player ("What if you put the red block there instead?") hold the attention far better.

2) Camera Perspective

Something of a corollary to the above, first-person games are probably less watchable than third-person ones. First-person allows, and often necessitates, changing the orientation of the viewport rapidly and dramatically. If you're not the one doing that adjustment, it's easier to become disoriented. Third-person tends to change camera alignment less often and more slowly, with all movement being respective to a fixed object (the player's avatar). Without the ability to mentally map controller input with the camera's output, having a representation that can be understood purely visually is much easier to watch.

3) Limited Systemic Information

Games that take place largely in the player's head, e.g. strategy games, are likely difficult to enjoy watching. When a great deal of gameplay takes place in the player's mind, there is little to watch. For the player, the game is really about internalizing and reacting to the game's state. Learning to parse that state from the game's visual representation takes time. If an observer doesn't have this systemic knowledge, there is little to observe.

Now there are some games that could be very engaging to watch for those familiar with it. Arcade fighting games, e.g. the Street Fighter series, represent this distinction well. As the crowds at Evo will attest, watching two masterful players going head-to-head can hold attention rapt ... if you're familiar with the game. If you aren't, well, it's a lot of confusing sound and fury that ends in 90 seconds or less. Starcraft is nationally televised in South Korea, but it's also so ubiquitous that just about any viewer is at least passingly familiar with the gameplay. I'm not sure I'd ever find watching someone play Team Fortress 2 or Civilization to be especially engaging, but seeing someone pull off a near-impossible stunt in Burnout is only enhanced by knowing just how hard that stunt was to accomplish.

There are other obvious things too, e.g. single player or local multiplayer is more watchable than online multiplayer, just due to physicality, console is better than PC or handheld, etc. Ultimately, it's about being able to understand the game's drama. Action tends to be better at this, since character-based drama obviously requires familiarity with said characters. Without that familiarity, character-based drama has to hang on the quality of writing and acting ... yeah. That one probably isn't to be relied up.

If there's any functional design goal here, it would be encouraging observers to become players. As you may have been thinking already, Rock Band does this better than almost any other game. It has a simple, understandable goal, creates a context where play feeds directly into the experience and it has an intuitive interface. Plus, given that you'll likely be playing with others, all someone has to do is push that plastic guitar in your hand and say, "Take a turn." No single player is put on the spot either. Many of Rock Band's lessons are design specific, but it's still interesting to see how they make their game so damn inviting.

As an aside, the co-op portion of DeathSpank was designed with these principles in mind as well. It's too long to get into here, but I believe I'll be writing something for about it next week. Look for it and I'll try to remember to put up a link too.

Are there games you found fascinating just to watch? Have others watched you play games? I'm curious as to what qualities other folks find engaging when someone else has the reins.

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