Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tearing Down Walls

Last Christmas I bought I bought my mom Kirby's Epic Yarn. All the reviews I read praised its overall quality and nearly all commented on how relatively easy the game is. She got frustrated fairly early on with New Super Mario Bros on the DS and even sooner with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, so it seemed like a good fit. And yet, when we started playing together, she had the hardest time figuring out the controls. How to hold the controller, which buttons to push and when, and remembering the various moves available to her led to frustration. It seemed I had yet again failed to find a game that really resonated with her. I had hoped that the arts and crafts aesthetic of the game would draw her in, and she loved Kirby's yarn inspired animations, but the play's the thing, really, and the playing was difficult.

I visited again for Easter and fired up the game to start my own save file. My mom and sister sat watching the game as I played. At one point, a large bunch of beads was behind an indestructible wall. I immediately continued to the right, knowing there was no way for me to break it myself. Soon after, a large spiked ball starting rolling towards me. I ran back to the left, jumped on top of the wall, and the ball destroyed it, allowing me to grab the beads inside. My mom looked at me and asked, incredulously, "How did you know that?" I didn't really have a coherent answer and my sister piped up with, "Video game logic." Really, I just knew from so many games played that SOME method of breaking the wall would present itself eventually.

So, I thought I would write a post on gaming literacy and what effect playing a bunch of games in the past has on playing them now, but while looking for past articles and blog posts on the subject, I found a post by Chris Bateman written in 2008 that pretty much said everything I wanted to. You can read it here, as it's pretty excellent.

Yesterday, Kirk Hamilton wrote an article on how Portal 2 is an excellent introduction to gaming for someone who's unfamiliar with games. He also wrote a companion piece on his blog ruminating on the sometimes towering walls between those who play video games and are steeped in gaming culture and those who are not. The issues with the culture of gaming aren't as interesting to me as the experience of play, but Garrett Martin wrote an interesting article about his misgivings during PAX East, and Alex Raymond wrote a rebuttal that's also worth checking out.

The phenomenon of the Wii is fascinating. Remember the initial promise of motion controls? The controller would simply be an extension of your will, and the actions you perform in real life would be immediately shown on screen. Why was Wii Sports so successful? Because the traditional abstraction of a controller was almost completely removed. To play tennis you just swing the Wii remote like you would a tennis racket. To play boxing, you punch. The bowling game is probably the most popular game in the set among people I know, but it also causes the most frustration because it requires far more button presses to play. Moving the Mii around and changing its angle is something I rarely see people do, and learning when to release the B button to release the ball takes practice. Not a lot, but enough that it's a stumbling block for new players. Otherwise, though, there were no more walls separating those who play from those who don't. No learning where the left bumper is and is that different from the trigger and oh god how do I look while moving in 3D??

Nintendo has been experimenting with controllers and how people interact with games for a while. The Gamecube controller's massive A button was one attempt. The touch screen DS is another. The Wii was the boldest experiment yet. A gesture is far more intuitive than a button press. But because the Wii remote kept all the complexity of a traditional controller, we ended up with a lot of games with typical controls and a bit of motion waggle thrown in. Developers tried to fit existing ideas onto the Wii without going far enough with the motion controls to make games that truly felt at home there.

(This isn't just a problem with the Wii. The DS, iPhone/iPod Touch, and iPad all have first person shooters on them. Why??)

Perhaps Nintendo should have removed the Wii Nunchuk entirely. Perhaps the Remote should have only had a D-pad and two buttons. Maybe that would have provided the necessary constraints to inspire true creativity on the Wii. Nintendo's baffling indifference to the quality of third party developed games means that no critical mass of high quality motion controlled games ever materialized. In terms of living up to its potential, I'd argue the Wii is a complete failure. Perhaps Microsoft was right when they said that the controller is the biggest impediment to getting more people to play games. We may roll our eyes at the "You are the controller" tagline, but they may realize that the way to force true inspiration and innovation on their platform is impose the strictest set of constraints. I don't know if Microsoft allows Kinect developers to implement hybrid controller/Kinect controls in their games. The upcoming Child of Eden will allow the player to use either method, but that seems more acceptable to me than trying to force a hybrid of both on a game. iOS devices took the same leap over the Nintendo DS and its combination of buttons and touchscreen. Some amazingly compelling games have appeared on that platform to take advantage of the touch-only interface of an iPad. Again, gesturing on a screen to control an avatar is more intuitive than pressing a button.

Portal 2 is an amazing game, and I agree with Kirk that it's a great place to start when learning how to play a first person game. But learning how to use dual analog sticks to navigate a 3D space takes a significant amount of time. Nintendo's habit of only using one analog stick on their controllers makes it simpler to move around, but it also shifts the complexity of creating a good camera system to the developer. You only have to compare Epic Mickey to Super Mario Galaxy 2 to see how this can go badly. I played shooters for years on the PC, and it still took quite a while to adjust to playing with a controller. I've seen a few people on Twitter post on how their co-op partners have struggled with using dual analog sticks to move about the world.

Video games take skill to play, and gaining those skills is a large part of why we play. Learning the basics of control is usually separate from learning to play the game though, and I believe this is the single biggest reason why so many people are reluctant to even try console video games.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Like, I suspect, most players, when I play a game that offers two moral paths to follow, I inevitably follow the "good" path by default. While I may try the evil path in a subsequent playthrough, I've traditionally kept my characters on the straight and narrow for my first and "true" path through the game. Though some mistakes were made, my first time through Mass Effect 1 and 2 was with a full Paragon female Shepard. The mistakes I made such as accidentally missing a side quest or fumbling some dialogue and causing a less than optimal outcome in a conversation made for a richer role playing experience. My Shepard was good, but she wasn't perfect. We didn't always know the consequences of our actions, and sometimes those consequences were sobering.

I decided to change up my usual pattern for two RPGs, Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, and the BioWare classic Knights of the Old Republic. Ostensibly a real-time strategy game, Chaos Rising eschews the traditional base-building/management gameplay of most other RTS's for a highly tactical squad-based role-playing game. For those who don't know, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is a Star Wars game using Dungeons and Dragons rules for its combat and leveling. Both games allow you choose a good or evil path based on your actions.

In both cases, choosing the evil path has made for an almost clinical experience while playing. Being evil in these games means killing people who don't deserve it, or simply standing aside and letting innocents die. While Chaos Rising allows you to gain corruption from the gear you equip on your squads, there are still active choices made in missions that make a large impact on your squads' corruption level. From what I've played of KOTOR so far, your dialogue choices determine whether you gain light side or dark side points. In that regard, it's more personal than Chaos Rising. Nonetheless, I have to shut off my empathy towards nearly every character I encounter. It could be allowing allied soldiers to die, or killing a woman who had a bounty on her head because she injured a man making unwanted advances on her. The protests of my squadmates or party members are ignored, along with those of my trembling victims. I have to focus more on the fact that I'm playing a game and that these digital characters aren't real. It kind of makes me feel like a sociopath.

Because of this, the experience for me is much more passive. I'm no longer inhabiting a role where I'm trying to be the hero who saves the day. Instead, I'm choosing the bad dialogue option and watching what unfolds. Since I can't empathize with the character I'm playing, I get the same feeling I would get from watching unlikeable characters in a movie or book do something horrible. I'm not invested in the characters, so I don't really care what happens to them, other than a vague hope that they get what's coming to them.

All BioWare RPGs (ok, most blockbuster video games) are heavy on the combat, so getting up close and personal to cut a guy up with a sword isn't a big deal, whether I'm playing a good guy or bad guy. The dialogue sections and combat are segregated enough that they're two experiences. The story telling and dialog in Dragon Age: Origins were good enough that I effectively connected with my surly, emotionally damaged city elf. In Mass Effect, the dialog wheel and, more importantly, the interrupt ability in Mass Effect 2, added a nice bit of interactivity that made me more invested in the conversations. KOTOR, unfortunately, is old enough that dialog trees feel static and there's not much in the way of nuance or shades of grey between light and dark side conversation choices (at least in the starting area I'm currently still playing). In some ways it's more thematically appropriate for the Star Wars universe, but it still feels limiting.

Chaos Rising integrates the choices you make in a more interesting way. Certain items such as weapons or armor add corruption or redemption levels to your squads. Capturing key structures in some missions will redeem your squads, while some one-time use items will add significant amounts of corruption or redemption to your squads. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the idea of items that are worn as penance to redeem a squad. Completing a mission with that item will reduce your corruption, but the effects in the mission are harsh. Redeeming armor may actually have a negative defense rating, making it likely that the squad wearing it will die frequently. Penance should be painful, after all. As you move down one moral path or the other, new abilities will also unlock. There are constant choices, large and small, with consequences reflected in both the story and the gameplay. Unfortunately, the impact of those choices is undermined by the Warhammer 40k universe the story takes place in. Dawn of War II presents its characters and world as deliberately bombastic, over the top, and campy. It's an extremely fun world to live in for a few days, but there's no nuance or subtlety. Your squadmates aren't people you connect with. They're caricatures of soldiers whose personalities match the types of guns they carry. Having no experience with the table top wargames or the legions of novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe, I can't say whether or not that's always the case.

While it's been interesting being the jerk for these games, I think I've gotten my fill of it for the foreseeable future. I'll of course finish my run through KOTOR firmly on the dark side of the Force, but in the future, games such as Dragon Age II will see me firmly ensconced in the warm embrace of the light. This taste of evil is sour.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A History of Violence

The rise of the achievement during this generation of games is a fascinating thing. Their usage and potential for both good and evil towards games and the people who play them will be debated for a long time to come.

I have no desire to talk about them in that context today, though!

Achievements, especially how they're usually implemented on the Xbox 360, tend to be little more than a meta-game. They're something to keep track of in addition to the things you may naturally do while playing. I was highly amused when achievements themselves started going meta. Well known achievements began to be referenced by other achievements. Without further ado, here are my two favorite family lines of meta-achievements on Xbox Live:


Gears of War
US Release: November 7, 2006
Seriously... 10,000 kills in multiplayer
50 Gamerscore

The Club
US Release: February 7, 2008
No, Seriously 10,001 ranked kills in multiplayer
40 Gamerscore

Battlefield: Bad Company
US Release: June 23, 2008
Beans Bullets Bandages (Online) Get 10002 kills
30 Gamerscore

Gears of War 2
US Release: November 7, 2008
Seriously 2.0 Kill 100,000 enemies (any mode)
50 Gamerscore


Dead Rising
US Release: October 8, 2006
Zombie Genocider TYPE: 1 Play REQ: Defeat at least 53,594 zombies.
20 Gamerscore

Left 4 Dead
US Release: November 20, 2008
Zombie Genocidest Kill 53,595 infected.
30 Gamerscore

Dead Rising 2
US Release: September 28, 2010
Z-Genocider 2: Genocide Harder Kill 53,596 zombies
20 Gamerscore
Zombie Genocide Master Kill 72,000 zombies
20 Gamerscore

Rock Band 3
US Release: October 26, 2010
HOPO-cidal Maniac Kill 53,596 Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
25 Gamerscore

Were you to complete all of these achievements, you would net yourself a paltry 265 points! I hope it was worth it.
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