Monday, November 22, 2010

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I discussed Bloody Good Time having some interesting ideas but ultimately being a bit rough around the edges? Then I pined for more interesting competitive multiplayer design in general? I guess I didn't have to wait long. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is the cure to exactly what was ailing me.

I'd heard about the multiplayer in AC:B and while I wanted to remain optimistic, there wasn't a exactly heap of evidence for a positive outlook. Ubisoft Montréal hit their multiplayer high water mark (design-wise, anyway) with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The two vs. two asymmetric multiplayer was brilliant, featuring a pair of stealthy, gadget-carrying spies facing off against well-armed mercenaries. The spies were tasked with theft/sabotage and the mercenaries had to thwart them. While the spy gameplay build upon the single player campaign's mechanics, the mercenaries were a completely unique playstyle. In fact, Ubi Montréal went so far as to implement first-person controls just for the mercenaries, while the spies remained in third person.

It was a great design and created some truly fantastic moments. It was expanded upon a bit in the next Splinter Cell game, Chaos Theory, but the introduction of a strict deathmatch mode was as much as drawback as the other additions were improvements. Some do prefer Chaos Theory, and that's fair. But either way, it's no far cry (alright, pun intended) from its predecessor. And from here, Ubi Montréal cooled off on pushing the multiplayer design envelope any further. Rainbow Six: Vegas and its sequel were certainly very polished and tight, but largely a refinement on a relatively well-known formula. The multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Double Agent was largely acknowledged as inferior to prior entries. Splinter Cell: Conviction had a compelling co-op mode, but its multiplayer was also quite lackluster. I don't even remember if the first Far Cry had multiplayer and while the second did, it was absolutely forgettable.

It's a bit surprising, but very pleasantly so, that Ubi Montréal has seemingly created a multiplayer game as interesting as Pandora Tomorrow with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. In a lot of ways, AC:B is similar to The Ship/Bloody Good Time- each player is assigned one other player as a target and must hunt them down. Where it differs significantly is the environments are filled with NPCs, all of which are identical to the dozen or so multiplayer characters available. The challenge is to determine which of these characters is actually your human target and take them out. It's actually quite similar to Chris Hecker's Spy Party in this respect. A good player in AC: B will hide amongst identical NPCs, doing their best to impersonate an AI, waiting for their moment to strike. Penalties are doled out for killing NPCs, so guessing at your target is a risky proposition at best. And more points are awarded for a stealth kill than one delivered after a large, obvious foot chase.

If you do manage to spot your pursuer before they can get their knife into you, a chase sequence begins. Similar in form the chases in AC's single player gameplay, if you can evade and hide from your pursuer for long enough, their contract on you is nullified. And the leading players in the match get multiple contracts on them, only magnifying the tension and their paranoia.

The only bit that's disappointing is an XP/level system that grants new abilities, as is all the rage these days. I don't like this becoming a mandatory multiplayer feature, and I think the gameplay would be more interesting if players always had the same abilities. But it's a relatively minor quibble and it's entirely possible I'm wrong about its long term value.

Ultimately, the gameplay is about lying to other players with your behaviour. So far, it's fantastic. Unlike Bloody Good Time, where being sure of your target meant comparing the crosshair's name label with the one on your HUD, in AC: B only obvious behavioural tells will distinguish player from AI. This and the focus on melee kills makes all the difference. It's the gameplay I desperately wanted Bloody Good Time to be. There are still plenty of interesting ideas in BGT that aren't present here, of course. But the core loop I wanted it to have has been made manifest in AC: B.

I've only put in an hour or so thus far, but I'm really enjoy it. Little can get me to brave the cesspool of Xbox Live these days, but AC: B certainly has. And fortunately, voice chat is only allowed during the brief lobby loading session. A great mercy that, as even in just that small window, earlier tonight I heard what sounded like a dog chewing on someone's mic, interspersed with (doubtlessly) racist/sexist/homophobic slurs.

It's entirely possible the luster will wear off, but thus far, this is exactly the kind of multiplayer experience I was looking for. It rewards patience, subtlety and planning, not twitch reflexes. Deceiving pursuers into killing an identical NPC a few steps away makes you feel damn clever. The risk/reward of taking even the smallest of actions makes the game feel quite tense. I'm really looking forward to putting some more hours into this.

And if you're not a frothing angry Internetman, I'd be more than happy to play with you. I'm Nelsormensch, and I look forward to stabbing you in the back.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Restraint? Constraint?

I'm ashamed because I haven't written about Amnesia: The Dark Descent yet. Simply, it's god damn fantastic. You should go buy it. Right now. I'll unreservedly say it's the most terrifying game I've ever played. Yes, even more than System Shock 2 or Silent Hill 2. There may be sections of other games that are more intense (i.e. Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle level), but as a whole experience, nothing has distressed me like Amnesia. We're talking literally heart pounding, ragged breathing, sweating emotional response. It's astonishing.

And what's even more astonishing is that Frictional pulls this off by doing almost nothing at all. Amnesia demonstrates a masterful amount of restraint. Or perhaps the constraints of their very small team of five forced this minimalism. The thing is, it doesn't matter. Intentionally or not, Frictional turned a potential weakness into a tremendous strength.

Case in point, Amnesia only has three animated characters in the entire game. And believe me, it's more than enough. At first, you're just hearing noises in nearby rooms that send you scurrying back down dark hallways. Maybe you'll catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye. You think, "Dear god, what was that?!" but honestly, you really want to find out. It's hours before you're in the same room as one of these things and even then, you're immediately sprinting the other way, desperately tipping tables and slamming doors behind you. In nearly any other game, this limited palette of enemies would seem anemic. In Amnesia, it's more than sufficient.

Minor spoilers ahead. It's for a section relatively early that's also in the demo, but just in case, you've been warned.

Frictional takes this even one step further and has two sections where the enemies are fully invisible. You're in a flooded tunnel and all you can see are splashing footfalls in the water charging toward you. As a developer, I'm somewhat shocked at the audacity! No model, no texture, no rig, no animations. It's just an invisible physics object, dead-simple AI and some sound. That's it! But again, it works so, so well, you can't help but admire it. It's absolutely terrifying and was probably really cheap to make.

Again, I can't say if it was intentional or not, but clearly Frictional is embracing their constraints here. Rather than expending the resources getting the full asset treatment for another creature, they just made one invisible in an environment that not only supports, but wholly augments the experience. And this kind of beautiful (and horrifying!) minimalism runs throughout the game. Amnesia has some of the best sound design I've heard (apparently so too does Dead Space, maybe it's a horror game thing?), creating an atmosphere that seeps tension without ever needing to show a single thing. The levels might be a little small if you were blasting through them full-tilt in a shooter, but Amnesia's slow, deliberate gameplay makes them seem far too large for comfort.

This kind of restraint is essential for good horror. [REC] might be the best horror movie I've seen and it demonstrates very similar minimalism. It's presented in first person (the story is told through a late night news program) and features a lot more scared people talking than traditional "scary" moments. But those moments are brutal, fast and intense. And the movie is only 78 minutes long! But honestly, it doesn't need to be a second longer. And if Amnesia has any shortcomings it's that a few bits could probably have been trimmed down without harming the game at all. If anything, it might have made it even more tense.

Minor quibbles, however. Not only is Amnesia a fantastic game, but it shows exactly how successful a team can be if they embrace their constraints and find ways to turn those into tremendously powerful tools. Go get Amnesia, kill your lights and turn up your speakers. There's a lot to learn, if you can see through the fog of terror the game produces.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bloody Good (Pun)

"Sometimes we get stuck on success/failure when those are the least useful criteria for judgment."

Michael said that on Twitter over the weekend about Fable 3, but for whatever reason, I've never really connected with that series. I certainly get what people think is interesting about it. I just was never able to get into the series. But that does mean I've been spared the pangs of broken Molyneux promises.

But what Michael said equally applies to another recent game, Outerlight's Bloody Good Time. The spiritual sequel to Outerlight's previous project, The Ship, originally a Half-Life mod that grew into a full Source release. And BGT bears a lot of similarities to The Ship. It's a purely multiplayer FPS where rather than being a free-for-all or team vs. team, you're assigned one specific other player as a target. Similarly, another player (but not your target) is assigned to hunt you.

There's a whole raft of weapons and they offer different points each round. One round, a kill with the remote rat bomb might be worth only two points, but when it's "hot" the next round, each kill is worth five. Additionally, there are environmental traps that always offer the most amount of points possible.

The catch is, you're not actually allowed to kill any of the other players. You'll be penalized if any of the guards or security cameras see you even carrying a weapon. So you have to find out of the way areas (or use the traps) to dispatch your prey. It certainly doesn't have the stealth dynamics of, say, Hitman but still means you have to be more deliberate and calculating than just wasting your target as soon as they come into view. But from what I remember, The Ship actually did a better job of creating the "safe areas" where you'd be mostly safe, but also unable to act on your own.

And that, unfortunately, sums up a lot of Bloody Good Time. The Ship was still rough in patches and there are definitely ways its dynamics could have been refined, which is really what I had hoped BGT would do. But it seems in the attempt to simplify for BGT, some of the design problems with The Ship have been exposed even more. Guns are the least interesting weapons in these games and encourage rote FPS behaviours that really don't capitalize on the game's strengths, but they seem even more prominent in BGT. I think Outerlight would have been better served losing the guns completely and creating more bizarre weapons that really emphasize the cat-and-mouse gameplay where BGT really shines.

The Ship also featured NPCs thatlooked similar to the players, meaning you had to be very sure the character you were aiming at was truly your target. They're gone in BGT which seems like a good refinement, except it's possible for players to choose identical characters that differ only in name. This means you still have the same challenge of ensuring you've got the right target, except both of the actors you're looking at could be looking to kill you, unlike the NPCs in The Ship that weren't threatening. This means you're usually best served taking the kill even if you aren't sure and just suffering the penalty if you're wrong, again undermining the playstyle where the game works best.

To be fair, there are improvements in BGT. Both games feature Sims-like needs (e.g. hunger, sleep) that must be periodically dealt with, lest they start to impair your character. The Ship had eight of these, which was way too many. BGT reduces this to three. This still provides the tense decision to either take a chance now when it's seemingly safe or holding out a little bit longer, possibly to be disabled at the worst moment without being overwhelming.

It's pretty clear to me this wasn't the game Outerlight wanted to release. There's a rather melancholy interview with Outerlight co-fonder Chris Peck saying the company has more or less been dissolved. Reading between the lines, it's easy to infer they didn't get along well with Ubisoft. One can't help but wonder if some of the shortcomings in BGT were compromises to make it "more appealing" but really just diminished the game as a whole.

It's sorta tragic that might be Outerlight's last entry, since Bloody Good Time is practically soaked with good ideas that just needed a bit more time in the oven. Although that they "spent two years and 600,000 pounds on pitch materials and demos chasing publishing deals" is a bit worrying too.

Mainly it's disappointing that there isn't more experimentation with multiplayer FPS design. Aside from all the crazy things Valve is doing with Team Fortress 2, the most significant advances in mainstream multiplayer FPSs is adding RPG-light leveling and a positive feedback loop for kills. And that's not a slight to Bungie/IW/et al. They're taking existing conventions and polishing them to a mirror's sheer. That's fine, but advances are increasingly fractional. I want more weird stuff like Bloody Good Time. I'm looking forward to Brink and what it looks to be trying to do with fluid movement, but I wish that wasn't the most (and seemingly only) ambitious project on the horizon.

But with all that being said, Bloody Good Time is only $5 on both Steam and XBLA. Even a bit unrefined, there's no question all their crazy ideas are worth that. Just make sure you're playing with six people at the most. Any more than that and it gets too frantic and doesn't serve the game that well.

And I made it through this whole post without making a nautical or "bloody good" pun. Gotta say, I'm proud of my restraint.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Many decisions made in the process of creating a game will be between two equally valid, but irreconcilable, viewpoints. It's interesting watching ebb and flow of those types of opinions in the industry at large. Or quite simply, a whole lot has changed since 1992 and 2010.

Quinns over at RPS wrote a pseudo-retrospective on KGB, an adventure game from '92. I haven't played KGB (although after reading this post, I want to track it down), but what stands out most in Quinn's piece is how content the game is to mislead you or at least provide you with very incomplete information. Back in '92, you could still fail at an adventure game and apparently, you can fail quite often in KGB. Except it might be twenty or thirty minutes before you're fully aware you've failed.

This is something that you'd never see in a contemporary game. An unrecoverable fail state that doesn't resolve for twenty to thirty minutes? Most would criticize that as poor design, and there's some truth to that. But at the same time, Quinns describes what has become an utterly alien sensation in games- not knowing the outcome of your decisions.

The reason we moved away from consequences like this is pretty obvious. It's very frustrating to make a decision, damn yourself and not realize it for half an hour. And it can feel very unfair if a game offers you a choice, but something completely unexpected happens that makes the decision feel meaningless. Even though we're making decisions through an avatar, the decisions still feel personal. If a character in a novel or film makes a decision with incomplete information only to realize the full consequences later, it's less likely to feel frustrating. Or even if the audience has information the character doesn't, it still doesn't feel unusual. But if a game does the same, I think many would feel slighted, like the game was withholding information that should have been provided, regardless of fictional context.

Even inside of a single game series we can see this change in thinking. I've been playing quite a bit of Fallout: New Vegas recently and while I'm definitely liking it, I can't help but notice how explicit all of the decisions are. Many of the decisions are still compelling, but you're seemingly always fully informed of the consequences (almost to a fourth wall breaking degree at times). Whatever the NPCs say will play out almost always will. You know if you choose A, you'll receive X and this group will be mad at you, but if you choose B, you'll get Y and a different group will be mad at you. The outcomes of your decisions are all very well telegraphed.

On the one hand, you never feel like you would have made a different decision in hindsight (because since you can reload and make a different choice, this will encourage probing same & reload behaviour which really diminishes the emotional impact of any particular decision). But you're never really surprised either. Now Fallout: NV does a good job of providing surprises in other ways, so it's not exactly a deficit, but it's certainly not how making decisions in real life works. Decisions in real life are agonizing because you rarely have complete information about the possible outcomes.

This stands in stark contrast to the first Fallout game, where it was possible to lose the game completely. Not in the "I ran out of HP, died and had to reload" sense, but in the complete and utter "you can do nothing to change this, this is The End" sense. And there were actually two different ways this could happen. I guess some spoilers follow, but come on, Fallout came out 13 years ago. You should have played it by now.

One you're aware of at the beginning of the game and is totally explicit. Your Vault has 150 days of water left and if that counter goes to 0, you lose the game. But even after you fix the water chip, another invisible counter will begin later. After a certain number of days, Super Mutants will find your Vault and kill everyone inside. I have no idea if the timeline is always fixed or if other things can influence it, but once its course is set, it cannot be altered. And the game does not tell you when this is going to occur or what it will even occur at all.

I actually had one game of Fallout (not my first playthrough, thankfully) become completely unwinnable. I had two save slots that I'd alternate between and had made some expedition to The Glow. One save was made going in, the other was coming out. Maybe one or two days travel out from The Glow, I hit the game-ending date. Even reloading my original save, I couldn't get back to civilization in time to change anything. Without any other save slots, the only thing I could do is start the entire game over again.

Imagine a game shipping with such a feature today. It would be lambasted! The thinking of both creators and player is that players should be provided with nearly or fully complete information and allowed to make a well informed decision. And while I'm amenable to this thinking and believe it's good for players to have more agency, I can't help but read Quinn's piece on KGB and think that "I'd love to make a decision and be surprised by the outcome." I'm not exactly sure how one could adopt that sensibility into a modern game, but I think it could be done. It wouldn't be through failing half an hour after the decision was made, of course. But the feeling of tension and suspense in making those kinds of decisions can be very satisfying. We just need to figure out how to remove some of the frustration without removing the unknown. Do that and I think one would have something very compelling.

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