A really fantastic writing instructor back in college once said that ‘Narrators never are as objective as they appear to be. Every narrator has a personality.’
As I play a lot of games, and I seem to have game-ADD, constantly bouncing from one title to the next, I find that it really means something when I stick to a single title for an extended period of time. This doesn’t bode well with the completionist side of my personality, always craving to finish titles (without walkthroughs) but not always willing to take the plunge and fight my way through the lulls of a game.
Time and time again I’ve noticed that the games that keep me involved and have me always coming back for replays are the games that are exciting, and when I say exciting I don’t mean silly, uninvolved frills or effects, but how much a player feels immersed in their role or world.
In film, there is the ‘theory of suspending disbelief’. This same theory permeates almost every medium bent on representing ‘real life’. I can best sum this up with lighting. When a cinematographer sets out to light a scene, he is working against the limitations of the camera and final medium. It seems at every stage the range of values and colors able to be re-exposed to an audience gets cut down further and further. This means that the cinematographer has to be resourceful and ingenious in recreating a ‘real’ scene. Let’s take an example of a kitchen scene. If you actually filmed a scene in a kitchen with the light that was there (cinematographers call these ‘pracs’ for ‘practical lights’ or non-film lights), some may not find it all too pleasing, and furthermore, some may even find it ‘fake’ due to how it looks on the final screen! But a trained cinematographer knows how to light a scene so that although it may not be a factual representation of what it actually looked like with real light sources, it may still ‘feel’ like a real kitchen scene when finally projected / broadcast.
This theory doesn’t extend solely to film, though. From screenwriting to UX design, the theory of disbelief taps into people’s desire to feel like they are in the world we create. So often I play stale titles who have wrapped themselves up and around the notion of a mechanic as the sole driving force for why people will come and play.
In my thinking, immersion is probably tantamount to all other needs and desires. There is the basic shape of a game; something with rules and a condition for ‘victory’ or ‘winning’. Beyond this basic blueprint, designing a game could be seen as a triad of three forces:
In that descending order.
I remember the times of getting really excited for upcoming titles, not because I had sat around and contemplated how fun it will be to play the way I thought the game would play (employing it’s mechanics, I mean), but because I thought I’d be entering into this giant, beautiful world, even if by today’s standards maybe not-so-beautiful. I often would get sucked into these detailed worlds, if the mechanic was alluring and treated me well enough, I would stay, and if I felt myself getting bored in this universe of theirs, there was always just enough challenge to keep me going.
This isn’t to say that the ‘high-score’ game is a bad idea. If it was, tetris would have been a flop. The concept, though, is that there is a mistake in thinking that a game consisting solely of difficult challenges will draw in enough followers, even if the mechanic is somewhat flawed. But mechanic and challenge are welded together. Although I think mechanic comes first in priority of examination from a design point of view, challenge is the yang to mechanic’s ying.
No one wants to read a book they ‘can’t get into’ or watch a film that feels ‘totally plastic’. What makes the entertainment industry so powerful is that they can weave fascinating fantasies for people to fall into, that aren’t too complex or obtuse (again, imagine mechanic and challenge here), but the even more exemplary titles in entertainment’s bumpy past are the ones that manage to totally engross people in an environment, keep them fixated, and challenge their way of thinking a bit.
Games are inherently titles that focus on limitations. The pseudo-utopian ideal of games being a ‘do whatever you can dream’ universe goes in stark contrast to the fundamental blueprint of what a game is: rules with a condition for ‘winning’. Winning is really just a fancy way of saying ‘finishing with a sense of accomplishment / reward’. A game that gives someone free-reign is probably quick to bore because it feels as though all actions in the game world won’t lead to somewhere with that same sense of accomplishment or reward, if anywhere at all! People get drawn into free-to-play games like the crew of the enterprise during the episode of The Next Generations “The Game’ for the simple satisfaction that comes with completing goals and getting someplace.
Immersion is such a vital component to any game’s structure, especially on platforms people would normally think titles could be devoid of such a thing, e.g. on mobile devices, but if titles like Monument Valley and Sorcery 1 and Sorcery 2 can teach us anything, it’s that immersion is far from being a null point even on miniature stages. Players are like narrators, often assumed to be nameless and personality-stricken, but I think games that fail to put a personality and name along with a ‘believable’ world fail in captivating an audience. Everyone wants to enter the universe you create, but if you make it unapproachable, closed-off, and worse yet, shoddy, no one will stay for long.
If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of isometric RPGs.
Although Obsidian Entertainment is a development company more known for their sequels (Dungeon Siege III, Fallout New Vegas, Star Wars KOTOR II, Neverwinter Nights 2) I am excited for their upcoming project Pillars Of Eternity.
WYSIWYG-Not Just For Text Editing
I am not new to Vim, the ultra-swiss army knife of a text editor for developers, per se, but I am certainly new to using it on a day-to-day basis. Vim has given me a greater sense of productivity, and it all comes from the idea that your hands should never leave the keyboard from which you are typing and never leave a comfortable position from said keyboard.
'Vanilla' flavored Vim is very handy, and with added functionality and changes to a configuration file, Vim becomes more tailored and functional than one would ever hope. I find myself often going back to WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors and find myself slowing down to use arrow key and mouse alike.
But this same concept of focused productivity comes down to simplicity. Multitasking is often debunked by productivity experts as ‘switch tasking’, meaning it’s best to stick to a single task at a time rather than bounce back between several. The idea is that you lose time between switching, re-engaging, and re-orienting yourself with each task.
In Vim, I don’t have to worry about switching between peripherals or positions. The beauty is that I can navigate, edit, and input all from one place.
In video games, this same concept of ‘multitasking’ is oft used to challenge the player, forcing them to consider several oncoming complications at once (I like to call it the ‘bop-it' effect). Imagine a real time strategy title involving several layers of complicated choices; your people are running out of their main food staple and starving, so your army is starving, too. You've won several battles but you've been at war for a long time and this is having an effect on your troops morale. Your in a massive drought and besides forcing people into mass thirst, it's also causing wild fires and you'll have to focus on micromanaging each firefighter to quell each fire…
I find this in bad taste. This lacks all sense of simplicity and ease and drives the player crazy rather than really taxing one’s skills. It’s no surprise that bop-it annoyed me as well.
I recently played Banished and was blown away at the user interface and ease of play. It is definitely a hard game, but it is not from the ‘bop-it’ effect. When I bought the complete collection of The Sims (first edition) years ago on sale at Fry’s my brother, tried his hand at getting things to manage themselves in the world of The Sims; let alone was there a ‘free-will’ setting, why couldn’t they just live their own lives? He made his character, got him a simple microwave and refrigerator, a computer he could work on as a programmer from home, a TV for some R&R, a bed and a shower (who has time for baths?) and a bookshelf so he could keep studying (you couldn’t study on the computer yet). Within a week his character was going crazy…why? Because he wanted friends. My brother obliged and let him chat but he couldn’t really chat on his own. He had to provoke interest in his character to keep talking to these faux-friends. What existential drama! This character knew he needed social interaction but couldn’t bring himself to care enough when the time was ripe…
My brother eventually gave up, citing the games inability to manage itself as his reasoning. I thought about this a lot over the years.
In Banished you control, rather omniscient, but I guess like an elder (albeit you aren’t one of the townsfolk), a collection of people who have come to this unsettled land to make a new beginning and a new township. From your humble beginnings, you give the people what they need: homes, food, supplementation to health. You provide them with variety and keep them alive. There are a lot of games like this, but Banished is different because Banished doesn’t expect you to micromanage lives. By allocating your resources (labor, supply limits, trade negotiations) you can watch your little ant-colony of townsfolk strive to keep afloat during harsher times.
We could pen this as macromanagement and call it a day but in reality this isn’t like management at all. Leadership is a better term. A manager is busy with specific details, worried that X and Y get their jobs done, either on a macro or micro scale. Leadership says ‘You and you; do this here, this is what we need’ and they go about and get it done.
If we’re to look at gaming as escapism into roles we’d like to fill, either because of deeper psychological holes or for the pleasure in imitation, then I would venture to feel that most would rather be leaders than managers. This isn’t limited to the economic or RTS title. Allowing a user to play by leading is a far greater experience than the freneticism of constant management. I know some will backlash that comment with games like Super Hexagon which are totally fun and horribly frenetic, but I believe it is frenetic in a different, intentional manner; Super Hexagon is still focusing on one task at a time: you stare at shrinking layers of hexagons and plot the course of your centered ‘player’ through their geometrical openings to keep alive. Collision means you’re dead. There is little rule for management or leadership here. You are purely choosing to avoid the lines for as long as possible. In games where the role you put the player is important, let the people lead…and don’t hand them bop-its.
There Is No Such Thing As A Free Game…
Over the last few years, I have watched my wife and countless others obsess over free-to-play titles. Whether it be the tile matching Candy Crush or the pattern-finding Disco Zoo, perhaps the Sim Tower clone Tiny Tower or the travesty that was the remake of Dungeon Keeper, free to play games have garnered both the interest and the pitchforks from the masses.
If you don’t count your personal information or exposure to advertising as a means of currency (which you should), then playing free-to-play means you can probably get away with a rather addictive, relatively simple, time inducing title without ever having to purchase anything. But the mark of a good free to play game, in terms of profit for the creator(s), is the designation that the game treat your interest in it like a heroine addict; the pusher doles out his crop, but he never gives you too much and never the best. As a F2P (I’ll call it, as typing free-to-play is going to get old fast) gamer, you are constantly chucked into situations where purchasing more time, more energy, more something is just there, that little edge to let you get your fix. And, if you are so financially inclined, you can even purchase power-ups and packs that will make the game that much easier to play.
Most F2P gamers are casual players. The more ‘dedicated’ gamers look at games akin to how someone might perceive books; you choose a book as a finite, sequential adventure, either fictional or non-fictional, following it’s narrative till you reach the end. Interactivity changes the chronology and content, but games certainly have a lot to say about being finite (more on this in a later discussion of 0E tabletop gaming). Casual gamers who don’t normally play many titles, or regular gamers who don’t hold this view for that matter, will assume that the F2P games are infinite, and so it makes sense to make these atrocious purchases. It doesn’t, and it never will.
Some costs are acceptable, one of the things discussed in the maelstrom of mobile Dungeon Keeper remake reviews was how insanely slow and insanely expensive the whole circus was. It is not uncommon to see some packages being touted at prices of $US59.99. That’s how much a ‘dedicated’ gamer is willing to pay for a pre-order of a game coming out in several months, and that’s with a whole 8-10 (on average) promised hours of play, if the game is any good lots of added variety in terms of options and story within the game, and also if the game promises a longer-lasting multiplayer mode where human-to-human competitions will foster another extension of time spent playing the game, but all good games are finite and eventually are put back in their jewel cases (or as the modern example would be: in the cloud servers to sleep).
Perhaps it is a bit insane that Dark Souls Two is being sold for nearly $US71.99 on steam for pre-order, and most pre-orders are a scam (more on this later, too), but customers can at least rest easy knowing that they will be given a full experience and will not have to pay for more content to reach the end of that finite experience. Downloadable content and chapter-oriented games have certainly caused their share of a stir in the gaming world, because people are on guard about the finite-nature of games; people want to pay once for their product and if they are interested enough, pay for more. DLC’s are designed to be additions to games, not continuations of segmented storytelling, chapter-oriented games like The Walking Dead by Telltale maintain a sense of affordability in scope of the final package, and F2P remains a rickety carnival ride being touted by major vendors as free, safe, and fun.
The Value Of A Byte and The Ingratitude Of Programmers
I’m a fan of Stack Overflow. Following the same logic, I am a fan of Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood. Their blogs, Coding Horror and Joel on Software, both are brimming with all sorts of wonderful information from management, communication, and even programming itself.
One of Joel’s initial posts talks about the perils of throwing out old software. I know of this very dearly, and wanted to write about why I think it comes to easy to programmers to toss out the old and hope put their bet on the new.
Joel is right that the primary source comes from the fact that programmers are like architects and constructors, that the desire to design as well as build is strong and generates a lot of fun for the programmer; who isn’t satisfied when they have a working piece of code that not only purrs like an old mustang but looks like one, on the inside and out, too?
But I also think the blame lays in how programmers treat the insignificance of data. In the photo industry we used to say that ‘film is cheap’, even though by the time I had started working digital had pretty much taken over, but the idea of the phrase was ‘just keep shooting, we’ll edit it down later.’
This meant more work on the post end but it also meant that you probably had your ass covered in the case the client wasn’t content with any of the results. But in programming, creating a program isn’t that cheap when you sit down to think about it. When you go to school or study yourself, it is quick and easy to just throw out your old code and start from the beginning as soon as the code starts to smell or get ugly or fail to work. There is a thought that starting fresh will somehow lead to a greater sense of cleanliness, and this thing is probably not working because it’s dirty, now (that, and the fact that you can’t read it.)
But this is why refactoring and redesigning the code you already have is vital.
Space Cadet Labs has been working on a 3D survival game set on a foreign planet with tribal roots. A place the character is going to call home, whether they like it or not. I spent about a month scripting the weather and lighting system. We upgraded to a new IDE version, and let the new version do it’s magic on integrating the old code.
It barely worked. Most things were intact but others were almost totally missing. We have old copies of the code, but that wasn’t the point. I was a bit thrown back and determined to start from scratch. But this is a foolish mentality, and I’ve since been working on the code again.
Nothing will teach you more as a programmer than being able to work with code as-is. Starting from scratch is lazy and fails to focus on recovery and especially, in the case of Joel’s article, the gained knowledge for what made the older code worked being integrated. Code isn’t expensive to redo, but people fear that their performance will take a hit if they have to focus on making the old edition now work with new features, spending hours figuring out shoddy code to create new code. If code is so cheap, don’t worry about the cost to fix it.
I wonder if GOG.com will ever spit this out, too…
And for the classical lovers…
Finally back from being in Hong Kong! Essays to come.