Monday 21 February 2011

The Dragon Speech

This weekend I discovered the "Dragon Speech" by Chris Crawford and found it really great. He brings up a lot of good stuff, and touches on many subjects that I have ranted about. You can watch it here:

Part 1 "The Dream Well"

Part 2 "Interactivity"
Part 3 "Genesis of Art"
Part 4 "Characters"
Part 5 "Charge!"

I am actually a bit embarrassed that I never seen this talk before. I have heard about it, but never thought much about it and thinking it was not worth any attention. Now that I have seen it, I can say that is definitely not the case and it is one of the best things I've heard/seen on games.

Which brings me to another point: This talk is almost twenty years old and yet not much have changed. The points he bring up on focus on "fun" and serving a hardcore market are all still very valid. Also, characters in games have evolved very little, in fact, apart from a few IF games like Galatea, not much has happened since Monkey Island days. It feels like his views were ignored by most people in the industry. (If anybody has sources on what kind of impact it had on other people at the time, I would be really happy to hear about it!)

I like to think that things are shaping up a bit though. For instance, players and media have started to accept that games does not have to just about "fun", but can be about other type of emotions as well. (Something I like to think the horror games of the last ten years or so as had a part in). We are also starting to see the first step at a merge between the "casual" and "hardcore" market*, with games such as Drawn, which I see as the beginning of a less specialized market. The situation is far from good, but at least there are some sources of light.

Another thing of interest is that Chris Crawford has never made a conventional games since he held this speech. Right now he seems to be involved in something called Storytron, which I have to admit I do not know much about and have never tried. Now I feel I really must give it a go though! If anyone has tried it, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about it.

Finally, I also recently heard that Chris will be giving a speech at GDC this year. So will definitely try to attend that (me and Jens will be going there because of IGF and all).

*I do not like the names casual and hardcore. because they compartmentalize the audience far too much and I also think it is a bad way at looking at things (either you like to shoot stuff or play simple puzzles!!!). But since I refer to a trend in the industry I thought it was kinda okay to to use them.

Friday 18 February 2011

The Dead Island Trailer and the Future of Games

By now most of you have probably seen the teaser trailer for Dead Island. If not, you can check it out here:

This trailer has been getting tons of attention over the Internet and many seem to think that it is one of the best game trailers ever. I find that this is quite interesting, since just about everything that makes the trailer good are things that modern video games lack. I would even go as far as to say that a video game made using modern gameplay-centric design could never create something that gives the same experience.

This is why I think so:

Non-coherent narrative
The video does not have follow the normal rules of making a narrative (where time flows coherently through plot events), but instead provide a disjointed one. Past and present are not explicitly stated, but is something that the viewers must figure out themselves. Game with a focus on story just do not work like this and instead go through plot points in a predetermined (although sometimes branched) fashion.

In order to get the same kind of feeling you get from the trailer in a game, stories needs to be looked upon in a different way. A story should not be seen as a string of plot points, but as a certain essence that is meant to be communicated. (See this post for further discussion on the subject).

Violence is not the focus nor the fun part.
This is something that I have talked about lots before, most recently in a discussion on Dead Space 2. When you start to focus on making sure that all gameplay is fun, then that trumps any other emotions that could have been evoking. The violence in the Dead Island trailer is not fun. It is desperate, repulsive and tragic. How can you possibly hope to evoke the feelings of a man forced to "kill" his own daughter if your aim is for it to be fun?

Hard-to-repeat moments
An important part of video games today is that they stop you from making progress unless you meet specific requirements. This is mostly in the form of some skill-based challenge (succeed or restart), but can also be in the form of navigational or puzzle-like obstacles. While of course imperative in some games, this sort of design can greatly decrease the emotional impact of events. Mainly because forcing a player to relive an event dilutes its impact and sets focus on mechanical aspects. Secondly because blocking the player from progress can make certain situations unbearable.

The trailer has both versions of this problem. For instance, the chase sequence where the child runs to the door is not something that works when repeated. Also, the event when the child falls through the window is an example of something that you do not want to replay or get stuck at. (A more in-depth discussion can be found here.)

Just so I am clear here: I do not mean that a game should try and replicate the events exactly like in the trailer. Video games are a different medium from film and needs things to be done differently. Instead what I do mean is the recreation of the essences of these events and situations; to provoke the same kind of emotions and thoughts. Not to make a direct copy.

A holistic experience
What I mean by this is that you need to see the whole thing to get the full experience. Unless you see the trailer until its end, you will not the get full meaning of the work. Mainstream games almost never work in this way, but rather focus on maximizing the entertainment value moment-to-moment. This is partly because of the goal to make games "fun" above all else. Other causes are the focus put on length of the experience as a large part of the value, and a general attitude of games as products rather than works of art (explained nicely here and here).

With the above in mind, it should come as little as a surprise that I find it highly unlikely that Dead Island will be anything near what the trailer is like (although I hope the reactions to this trailer inspire them to give it a shot and perhaps succeed!). I think there really is a desire for games that offer a different and more emotional experience, the attention this trailer got being a clear sign of that. But if we stick to the tried formula of making video games, these kind of experiences will remain beyond our reach.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Thoughts on Dead Space 2

So I just finished Dead Space 2 and wanted to discuss it a bit. Mainly because it is a perfect example of some trends in game design that I find are really harmful. I also find that it has some moments that could have been brilliant if just slightly changed, making it extra interesting to discuss.

Before going into the actual critique I want to say that the game did have some enjoyable parts, especially the at times absolutely amazing scenery. Dead Space 2 just radiates production value and it is a very well-put together game. I quite liked a lot of it and it is one of the few games in recent memory that I played until the end. The game has very nice atmosphere in places and even attempts at a sort of meaningful theme(more on that later).

At the same time, it is very clear that Dead Space does not aim for any real sophistication. For instance, you need to stomp on dead mutant children to get hold of goodies and gore is quite excessive. In many ways, the game is much closer to Dead Alive (Braindead) than to something like Alien, and should probably be judged that way. However, in the following discussion I will approach the game as if the goal was to create a tense sci-fi horror game.

With that out of the way, let's get down to business.

Cheap deaths
When I started the game, I was not in the best of moods (being a bit agitated), but I did what I could, darkened the room and so on. Everything to heighten immersion. As the game started out, it began with a non-playable sequence, something which made me relax and slowly immerse myself. Once the game actually began and I gained control, my mood had changed quite a bit and I felt I was ready to be immersed and role-play. Then after just playing for 30 seconds or so, I took a wrong turn and died.

This broke all the immersion I had built up over 10 minutes or so, and I had to start all over. The intent was probably to communicate the danger to the player, but this could have been made a lot better. Why not simply hurt the protagonist, or something similar, giving in-game feedback that the player should be very careful. After I had died and gotten a loading screen, I had to build up my mood again almost from scratch.

The same thing happened at the end of game, where you need complete a sort of chase-sequence before the final cinematic. I was unsure of the controls in this sequence and died just before it was over. Just like with the death at the start, this completely spoiled my mood and removed any emotional impact the ending might have had. Instead of becoming an exciting sequence, it became an obstacle and I concentrated on the pure mechanics instead of role-playing.

Having cheap deaths during immersive/emotional events like this is just lazy design. The sequences are meant to be completed in a specific fashion anyway, so I cannot understand what can be gained by having players restart over and over until they "get it". Sure it adds some kind of excitement, but this is greatly removed on subsequent attempts anyway, not speaking of how bad this is for immersion and role-playing. And considering there are other ways to add consequences to actions, I do not think it is a valid reason. It is just falling back to old and uninspired design.

Saving Progress
Scattered across the game are save stations, all using an interface similar to 20 year old games. I do not understand why these are in, as it is the most immersion-breaking device one can think of. Having to enter a menu, and choose a slot in which to save, has no connection to the game world at all. Consoles nowadays have large hard drives (and save games can be made very small) so it cannot be a technical limitation like in older games. I am guessing it is just another case of falling back to old design patterns, and again I think it is totally unnecessary.

The way I save games in systems like this is to loop through the visible slots (usually four), always picking the oldest save game to overwrite. That way I have three older save games to go back to in case something screws up. As this is basically the system we emulate in Penumbra and Amnesia, and nobody has raised any complaints on that, I guess I am not alone in saving like this. So, if one still wants to use the save stations, my first suggestion would be to simply skip the interface and just save upon interaction. If players want to go back to certain places have a "Save Game" option in the menu or simply a chapter selection.

But why stop at that? I would have liked the game to skip saving altogether and do it automatically for me. Dead Space 2 implements resource streaming extremely well and you never feel like you travel between different maps, but roam a continuous environment. Not having any kind of visible save system would fit this design perfectly and most likely increase atmosphere.

It seems quite clear to me that Dead Space 2 tries very hard to provide a lengthy adventure (took me 10 hours or so go through) and to do so it repeats many elements over and over. This is something that exists in just about any game, where the goal of having filling a certain length quota trumps pacing, story development and the like.

For example, I really liked the first time the protagonist is forced to crawl through a ventilation shaft, but the tenth time this was repeated it just felt old and uninspired. Instead of trying to come up with new ways to create similar moments, the first one used is just recycled. Another example is the hacking mechanic that was served as an interesting diversion the first time, but ended up being an unwanted frustration.

You rarely see this sort behavior in other media (at least the good works). It is only in games where an, at first intriguing and noteworthy, event/idea is repeated until tedium. I would much rather have a shorter game that constantly bombards me with unique and inspiring sequences.

Dead Space 2 does do this right at a few times though. For instance, one section has the protagonist hanging upside while enemies swarm from all directions. This sequence is never repeated and not even dragged out. I would have liked to see that for all parts of the game.

Looting and Shooting
I might be that I am slightly disturbed, but I find shooting limbs of monsters a great pastime. Especially with the fun and greatly varied arsenal that Dead Space 2 provides. So much did I enjoy it in fact that it is hard to focus on much else. Sure, some of the fighting can be pretty intense with enemies swarming you, but not that much different from how a game like Tetris can be. Added to this is the focus on upgrading the weapons and finding ammo/money, which further brings your mindset toward the shooting part of the game.

I have talked about how focusing on fun can be bad before, and Dead Space 2 is such a perfect example. Your main motivation to explore the environment is not to get deeper into the story or to enjoy the art, instead it is to search for goodies. Because the game constantly bombards you with items popping up and force you to pay attention to them (you will run out of ammo otherwise), this becomes the main thing occupying your mind. Everything else is simply pushed into the background, which is really a shame consider the epic set pieces and sometimes interesting background facts. In their effort to comply with "fun" gaming standards, the creators have actually let much of their hard work go to waste.

I must add that the combat was not completely un-scary though. I started out playing on normal, and at one point, my resources had almost run out, which made me much more careful and tense when I thought monsters might be near. As I was put in this state, it completely transformed how I approached the game, and I started to pay more attention to background sounds and the like. Unfortunately, as I died the combat sequences stopped being scary and instead became tedious challenges in resource management. This together with the increased urge to find hidden items, killed most of the atmosphere to me. I then change to easy difficulty and could enjoy the game more as I did not have to worry about looting or combat strategies as much.

Dead Space 2 does have a story, but you will have to make an effort to find and experience it. As if the focus on combat was not enough, the actual story seems to be consciously pushed into the background. I can actually only recall one time when you had to actively confront the story (reading a note gives a clue on solving a puzzle). The rest of the story just plays out in the background and as a player you are pushed on by the urge of upgrading weapons and dismember mutants.

The game does have some interesting aspects though, for example trying to tie the entire game up with the protagonist's grief, but since it is so drawn out and overwhelmed by other elements, it does not really work. Another intriguing part of the game are some earlier sequences where you encounter people fleeing from monsters and people locked up in cells. Hearing the hammering of somebody wanting your help was quite disturbing and had they just added some kind of interaction related to this (like try to open the door) it could have been extremely effective. Instead it was just pushed into the background.

One of the story things that I did really enjoy was how a recording spoke of the material of a ceiling in an upcoming room. When entering the room your attention is directly drawn up and you could relate the recording, graphics and background story to each other in a nice way. I really wished the game had a lot more of this.

In the first Dead Space you played the part of a silent errand boy, something that the creators tried to change in the sequel. The way they try to do this is to make the protagonist an active character and make his own decisions. However, I think this sort of backfired and in Dead Space 2 I had even less of an idea on what is going on. Several times I had to check the "mission log" in order to find out what I was up to, and to find out the reasons for this. Since the protagonist was already talking, I wished he could have done this just a little more, explaining his action and reminding me, the player, of what I was supposed to do.

This also connects to the way the story is told, and further distances the player from the events in the game. Instead of deciding for yourself what the right course of action is, you just follow the game's instructions in hope that will allow you to progress. So while in the previous game you followed the commands of in-game characters you now follow the commands game's interface. This is of course much less immersive.

End notes
Playing Dead Space 2 made me both sad and hopeful.

Sad because I feel there is so much excellent work that has gone to waste and that I keep wondering if there will ever be any change to this. For every game i play I feel that there is so much potential lost due to following old and dull game conventions.

Hopeful because while there is much I do not like, it feels that there is not that much needed to totally transform the experience. Simply removing all combat focus and making the game half as long would probably have created a much more interesting experience. The question is if that will ever happen, but now I am at least confident that it is possible.