Friday, July 31, 2009

Against Realism

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

It seems fairly evident that one day the uncanny valley will be left behind, and technology will be able to provide visuals to rival or even surpass reality. This may even be possible in the very near future. For the moment, however, technology falls just short, stuck deep in the uncanny valley, offering up hollow stares, awkwardly-pointed cheekbones, and oddly off-kilter mouths spouting their ill-fitting dialogue like actors in a badly-dubbed Godzilla movie.

Games that attempt a realistic approach to character design and environments tend to hold up poorly over time. Looking back at older games once revered for their incredible modern graphics and realistic character models is always a strange experience: what looked amazing to us when we were younger looks strange, blocky and off-putting when compared to the most recent games. Games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, games that wowed with their visuals in the original Playstation era, look fairly ridiculous now.

Even more recent games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas look bizarre when compared with last year’s Grand Theft Auto IV. Of course this is true of most games: more recent technology yields better graphics, but this is particularly evident with games that choose a realistic style over a heavily stylized artistic take.

On the other hand, games that embrace the technical limitations of their times and settle on a visual style that makes the best use of what is available tend to look good years and years past their creation. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night uses a pixel-based art style that suits its story and gameplay beautifully. Okami still looks incredible, despite being a last-generation game, because it chose a painterly style reminiscent of Japanese watercolor over a more realistic approach. Nintendo has been using their artistic design and bold color schemes in Wii games like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption to make games with stronger, more appealing visuals than many of the games released on the more-powerful Xbox 360 and PS3. In five or ten years time, those games will still look good, while “realistic” games like Call of Duty 4 will likely seem dated and unattractive.

I’m always glad to see game developers learn from the mistakes of others. I’m not saying that games should avoid realism entirely; I like to see how close we can come from time to time. But when the next, more realistic game comes along those games become instantly outdated. Look at the difference between Fallout 3 and what we’ve seen of Borderlands: two devastated landscapes with two completely different visual styles. Fallout 3 looks fantastic and does a great job of conveying a fairly realistic yet ruined version of the world we know, but the character models still look like strange, near-human automatons.

The people behind Borderlands made the risky choice of changing their art style completely fairly late in the development process, and that decision was the best they could have possibly made. Instead of releasing a fairly generic looking shooter, their game has a beautiful, comic-book-like quality to it which makes it infinitely more appealing. And ten years down the line, Borderlands will still look great, even when Fallout 5 is showing us how much more realistic it is than all that has come before.

So let this be a lesson to you, developers: make something that looks closer to reality than the last game, and you’ll wow the audiences of today. Make something that just looks great, and you’ll impress audiences for years and years to come.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Orwell and the Xbox

By C.T. Hutt

I suppose it was inevitable that my personal politics would eventually dominate one of our discussions here at Press Pause to Reflect. Still, I find descending from the lofty and comfortable towers of intellectual discourse on the arts to the mire of politics to be a sobering decent indeed. A matter has come to my attention that I feel must be addressed. While I take no pleasure in this task, I feel that it would be a greater disservice to the gaming community at large were I to remain silent. Today I would like to reflect on the impact of censorship in video games and its implications.

There is nothing more crippling to art, nor to the community that surrounds it, than censorship. To have the twisted and inconsistent morality of a few people applied to our entire society through sclerotic institutions such as the FCC is surely oppressive enough. But as our technology outpaces itself with each subsequent year a very disturbing trend has emerged which threatens not only the artistic medium that we love but the very root of our cultural heritage. The very same corporations which deliver us our beloved video games have taken it upon themselves to impose a set of moral restrictions on us wholly outside the law. I truly cannot stress enough how dangerous this concept is. A non-government body with a monopoly on a given means of communication is dictating to people what is, and what isn’t acceptable to say or write. That is more than an irritation; it is a recipe for corporate control over our personal lives.

This issue came to my attention after reading an article on Penny-Arcade. Apparently, Microsoft’s Orwellian “decency policy” on language control is not content to simply censor commonly recognized swear words but has also taken it upon itself to dissect the ever expanding lexicon of modern slang and cherry pick words or phrases that it finds to be offensive, or even potentially offensive. This list of banned words or phrases is not available to the general public so we are simply forced to accept the premise that the Microsoft corporation, an organization that has been sued by businesses, NGO’s, and even the United States Government for its multiple violations of privacy laws, fair business laws, and legal misrepresentation, has our best interests at heart.

The Xbox Live Code of conduct appears to be designed with the noble intention of providing a safe and fair gaming environment to gamers. I can hardly fault them for this goal, but the fact remains that it is simply not their place to legislate morality to the world. Who is to say where that type of censorship ends? Microsoft just recently announced its intention to merge with web-searcher Yahoo. How long before we are punished for what we type in the search bar in the privacy of our homes? How long before our real names, rather than just our game handles, start appearing on banned lists?

No one elected the people who are making these decisions and there is no functional oversight to moderate their behavior. Make no mistake, if we, the community that made gaming what it is today, make no move to resist these policies they will continue to grow. I urge you as a writer, a gamer, and an ardent believer in a free and democratic society to take action. Write your congressional representatives in the House and Senate (they really do read what you send in), send a letter to Microsoft, and light up the blogs and forums and chat rooms with your dissent. Do your part for the gaming medium and the community we’ve built around it.
Thank you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Monthly Game Club: Gravitation Discussion

This week in the Monthly Game Club, we're discussing Gravitation, a very short game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process, made by Jason Rohrer. If you haven't already played it, you can get it here. The game takes eight minutes to play through once and it's a small file that is completely free to download, so give it a couple playthroughs and come on back for the discussion.

Here are some questions to get us started:

1. What were your first thoughts about what to do when you started the game? How quickly did you learn the mechanics and figure out what to do in the game?

2. How did you balance playing ball with the child and exploring the space? What were the results?

3. Did your actions result in any unexpected or compelling results? Tell the story of your playthrough of the game.

4. How accurately do you feel the mechanics represent the creative process, and the balance between work and spending time with friends/family? How accurately did it represent mania and melancholia?

5. Would you pay for independent games like these? What do Gravitation and Passage do well that other game developers should study?
As always, feel free to discuss anything, and don't limit yourself to the questions presented here. Comment away!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Follow Our Every Move

Dear Readers,

You may not be aware:

1) You can join our Facebook group!

2) You can follow Daniel, C.T. and Marcello on Twitter!

That is all.


The Press Pause to Reflect Team

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Denouement

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Over at Kotaku, Stephen Totilo recently posted about the common occurrence whereby the climax of a video game takes place at the very end of the experience, in a boss battle or similarly epic event. Very few games follow the pattern present in most books and movies, which allows for a time of resolution and denouement after the climactic moments. Even those games that do have a satisfying resolution often achieve that resolution through cut scenes, movies and credit sequences, instead of in an interactive manner. Since interactivity is what makes video games a unique storytelling device, why do gamers so rarely get to interact with the denouement of the games they play?

A few games prove to be exceptions to the rule. Totilo mentions Ico as one game that has a playable denouement, as well as the trend in open world games to allow the player to continue after the climactic moments of the main plotline. In Grand Theft Auto 4 the option to continue is present, but besides a few players being dead there is very little resolution to be found after the conclusion of the main plot. Fable 2 does a slightly better job of showing the player what their actions meant: depending on player choices, the world of Albion will respond to the things that you’ve done over the course of the game’s climax, and new options open up to give a hint at what the main character might go on to do with his or her life. This is a much more satisfying experience than watching a pre-rendered movie and turning off the console. It allows the player a time to reflect on what they’ve done, and consider what the future holds.

A few other recent games have done a reasonably good job of providing a sense of well-paced resolution after the climax of the game. (Since I intend to discuss the endings of games, there may be some slight spoilers ahead, though I intend to keep it to a minimum.) In Braid, the level directly after the climax provided a sense of calm, comforting denouement. Moving through those final screens, exploring and reading the last passages of text allowed the player to take their time to think about what they’d seen and done.

The new Prince of Persia has a very compelling ending sequence as well. After battling the final boss in a dramatic and epic sequence of events, the game begins to roll the credits, but the player remains in control. What follows is a series of fairly simple tasks, slowly and carefully paced, and a few simple platforming challenges in the beautifully restored world. While the events that take place are emotionally compelling, the sequence is in no way as intense or difficult as almost any other part of the game. It feels like a relaxing, natural continuation to the game and overall arc of the story.

So many games end with non-interactive sequences when the story could just as easily be resolved using the same gameplay present in the rest of the game. In games with large casts, like Lost Odyssey, the final movie(s) or cut scene(s) will often have each character reacting to the events of the climax and deciding what to do next, but why not let the player wander around and speak to the characters whose opinions matter to him or her the most? If there are characters I didn’t much care for throughout the game, I care much less about what they have to say than the others.

Allowing even the most minor interactions and player control beyond the ending continues the sense of connection between player and game. Instead of taking the reins away entirely, little moments like the dialogue choices presented at the end of Mass Effect make the ending of a game feel like the satisfying conclusion a personal experience, instead of the end of a journey that we took with a stranger who is now beyond our reach and interest. After spending so much time making a story our own, inhabiting a new and exciting world, and watching our characters develop, why should we have that personal experience wrenched from us in the final moments? Why not extend that into another short section of the game, and let the player control their own proper resolution? There should be more to triumph than a video and a credits sequence. We have movies for that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monthly Game Club #2: The Short Works of Jason Rohrer, Continued

For our second Monthly Game Club, we're playing a couple of short games by Jason Rohrer, an independent developer who makes all of his games by himself and releases them all for free on the internet. This week, we'll be playing Gravitation.

What it is: An eight minute indie game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process.

Price: Free

Where to get it: Here

The Assignment: Play the game a few times. Try different things.

We'll discuss the game next Tuesday, July 28th.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Dearly Bereaved

By C.T. Hutt

We are gathered here today to pay our respects to the dearly departed American arcade. In a generation defined by its lightning adaptation to new and wonderful technologies, let us take a moment to remember and mourn the passing of an era, and the demise of one more nostalgic piece of our collective childhoods. Fare thee well, American arcade, you will be missed.

Let’s reflect on some of the good times we shared. Why, when I was but a lad I distinctly remember the food court in my local mall. There, nestled between the Arby’s and the Orange Julius, a neon passage opened into a world where, for a brief few moments, young gamers could immerse themselves in any number of fantastic realms. After hastily scarfing down my fast food lunch I would beg my parents for quarters so that I might enter that wonderful door and join my peers in gaming bliss. I remember the resigned look on my mother’s face as she fished out coins from her purse and put them into my eager hands. It was a look of bemused confusion; she was happy to see me eager and excited about my hobby, but bewildered as to why I sought so desperately to spend time in the digital cacophony of those electronic coliseums.

My fare in hand, I would dash away, through the gate and into the heart of what was then the pinnacle of gamerdom. Flush with cash, my choices were varied: I could be a knight in King Arthur’s court, a combatant in an inter-dimensional fighting tournament, a star ship pilot, anything. The siren call of the toys behind the glass of the ticket exchange counter often tempted me toward less traditional gaming fare such as ski-ball or whack-a-gator, but my true calling was the shooters. Lethal Enforcer, Jurassic Park, Time Crisis, Area 51, Revolution X, and of course House of the Dead, I ruled them all. No matter what the scenario the game presented I always pretended I was a steely eyed Clint Eastwood.

In addition to the games, the arcade was home to some interesting characters: the surly ex-con janitor, Mr. Untouchable at the Mortal Kombat controls, the hyper kid who gave lots of uninvited advice, and so many more. The person that really stands out in my memory is the manager/childbouncer. This curmudgeonly individual had actually found himself a career where he could boss kids around for most of the day. When your supply of quarters was exhausted it didn’t take long before his gaze started to follow you around the room. This was especially true if you did what I used to do and went searching through the coin return slots in the various machines in hopes of finding one more quarter.

What was it about the arcade experience that dragged me in there time and time again? Was it the access to better graphics and game play? Was it simply the over-stimulation of neon signs, Technicolor carpeting, and blaring sound effects? It’s probably some combination of all of those things, but as I look back on those experiences I like to think that it all meant something more. While video games were created in the early 70’s it wasn’t until we, the children of the eighties, began to take an interest that they really took off. The arcades were the birthplace of video gaming; without the profits generated by those brick and mortar coin receptacles modern gaming would not exist in the form we know it today. I like to think that even though I was too young to understand why, I went to the arcades because they represented something that belonged to me, to us, to our generation.

But all things must pass. The screen doors have rolled down for the last time at many arcades in the United States. The pin ball machines are in disrepair, the whack-a-gators gather dust, and the screens are silent. Gaming has moved on, out of the food courts and strip malls and into our homes. As each new generation of console brings a greater palate of sights and sounds to our living rooms, names like Neo-Geo and Midway fade from memory. It was a natural progression, but it still feels strangely sad to see arcades slip away. While they may have been designed to overwhelm our senses and drain us of our hard-won pocket change, I for one will always think back on them fondly, as shining doors to an exciting new world.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Portrait of [a gamer's] Ruin

I read a pretty positive review today of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night written by commenter CaryKid28 on his blog Collegiate Perspective, and while I haven’t actually played that game – I got through two other DS iterations, Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin – I’d like to write a little bit about how the series manipulates my fragile mind. Dawn of Sorrow came first and ate about two months of my life, but I don’t consider it time poorly spent: it’s a quality game as far as 2D side-scrollers go, and I’d recommend it to other gamers. It also prepared me for the endurance test that was Portrait of Ruin.

Seriously, Portrait of Ruin took me through hell. It was a trip upriver, at the end of which I expected to kill Colonel Kurtz.

I wouldn’t consider myself an obsessive collector of anything in real life, but something about RPGs triggers my acquisitive instinct; I want to feel like I’ve explored a game’s most hidden depths and brought back the treasures concealed therein. I want to achieve every ending. I want to obtain every weapon. Final Fantasy VII tapped into this desire in a powerful way, with its ultimate weapons and limit breaks and chocobo racing. God damn did I ever get good at racing crazy bird horses. Chrono Trigger did an even better job: the game can end in one of thirteen ways depending on a player’s choices, leading to a half dozen trips through its story and a love affair that now spans nearly a decade.

This gets to be a real problem in games that demand choices, though. When a game’s got me by the obsessive compulsive bone and won’t let go, I expect to be rewarded for my sacrifices – after I’ve given up my time, my dignity, and my basic commitment to hygienic living – with the satisfaction that I’ve accrued the most terrifying mass of artifacts and abilities the game can possibly offer. I want to be dead certain that when those aliens land and explain that the game was nothing but a recruitment vehicle for their galactic army, they’ll know I’m the one they want heading their battleship.

Dawn of Sorrow took this urge and twisted it into something ugly. At some point in my playing experience, the game recognized my completionist leanings and decided to have fun with me. The first offense was its predilection for one-in-a-million drop rates: I must have killed over two hundred valkyries before claiming one precious, precious valkyrie soul. Then – this must’ve been a real riot in design meetings – the game left some important items with nonsensical enemies who I’d never normally meet. I was, at one point, hunting a Waiter Skeleton so I could steal his Beef Curry which would – if placed in the right location, at the right time – lure out a Yeti. So that I could take its soul. These were things I did.

The coup de grĂ¢ce, though, came in the form of mutually exclusive items: items that I could only get once, and could be traded – or not – for equally powerful, equally unique items. My mind can’t handle this: I want to get every single thing. Items that are only available through the sacrifice of other items paralyze me.

(This is actually an interesting logical problem, called the Dining Philosophers’ dilemma in computer programming and Buridan’s Ass in philosophy. Both examine the decision-making process when a thinking creature – or computer – is offered two equally attractive but mutually exclusive options. And for those of you keeping track, this means my mind works in a way best described as “jackass”.)

All these obstacles, however, paled in comparison to the blocks placed in my way in Portrait of Ruin. Want to boost your strength? Go collect five cakes. Because that’s how strength works. God forbid you ate them. Want to learn healing spells? Equip all of the nun-related items – you know, those items you sold earlier, because they were awful. Want the good ending, and not that insulting, spit-in-your-face-and-leave-cash-on-the-bedside-table ending? Cast a spell at the right time during the right boss fight. A healing spell. On the monster. Because that’s something I’d think to do.

Dawn of Sorrow required a few tricky leaps of reasoning, but it was difficult to make a mistake so massive that you couldn't undo the damage. Portrait of Ruin, though, offers the player literally dozens of chances to irreparably screw himself. I must have restarted that game a dozen times after reading about all the “mistakes” I’d made in a trusty walkthrough.

And oh, the glitches. Curious what a grown man looks like when reduced to a broken shell? Try freezing his game after he’s killed the same monster an even hundred times and finally – finally! – claimed the wretched thing’s goodies.

Daniel wrote recently about successful and less successful ways to extend the playtime of games. Dawn of Sorrow tried my patience, but ultimately did a pretty great job. Portrait of Ruin drove me crazy. Generally speaking, games that make your path to victory run in counterintuitive directions – by relying on your retention of arbitrary items, or on your completion of tasks seemingly unrelated to your goals – leave me more angry than satisfied. In your opinion, which games do this well? Which do it poorly?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Game Pitch: Meaningful Death Game

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

After reading Josh’s recent post on death and failure in video games, I found myself thinking that a game that treats any character’s death with a sense of permanence and resolution could be pretty incredible. My next thought was that this would probably also make the game incredibly difficult and barely any fun at all, as I would have to play from the beginning of the entire game each time my character died. So how could a game deal with death as a serious consequence without ruining the enjoyment of playing the game?

To answer that question, I’d like to pitch a concept for a game at you. If you’re someone who plays games, I’d like you to think about whether you’d enjoy this one. If you’re someone who designs games, I’d like you to make this one. If you’re a company that develops games, I’d like you to hire me to be the creative designer on this one. Let’s a-go!

The Opening Scene:

You’re sitting in the back of a bus traveling through the Rocky Mountains, looking out the window. The girl to your left is listening to her headphones, but smiles sweetly when you look at her. The bus stops in a small town to refuel, and the driver and a few passengers get out to stretch their legs and grab some snacks. After a few moments, sounds of a struggle and a scream are heard from the inside of the gas station. The window of the gas station breaks as the driver goes through it, and a strange, near-human creature leaps through and lands on all fours, with several others following it out of the building. Someone in the bus manages to close the doors and lock them as the creatures pound on the windows and panic breaks out.

The girl next to you throws her headphones down. She looks panicked, but she takes your hand and reminds you that you know how to drive a bus, and you have to get out of here. You work your way to the front of the bus, sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key and hit the gas. The creatures hang onto the side, keening and crying as you pick up speed. Suddenly, you see a woman in the middle of the road ahead of you, and you swerve to avoid her. You slam into a rock and go flying through the front windshield. As you lie on the pavement, the girl from the seat next to you runs up to you, crying, as a few others mill around outside the bus. They're talking, but they sound very far away. The girl holds your hand and caresses your face as everything fades to black.

Now you’re looking down at the body of a young man on the pavement. Your eyes are blurry with tears, and the people around you are trying to figure out what to do next. Not too far away, strange and hideous calls sound out in the night.

The Concept:

A survival-horror game with a large cast of characters, where each chapter of the game has the player taking the role of a different character. Each chapter would end when the character currently being controlled either reaches a specific goal or dies. Later chapters would have more or less of the cast remaining based on the survival rate throughout the game. Multiple endings would be possible: one where everyone dies, another where one or more people manage to escape to safety, a third where the story of the town and the monsters is revealed and the threat is wiped out forever. At points in the story it would present the option to give items or weapons to other characters who might have more of a use for them, and the player would have to balance their desire to have the items now against their desire for the other character to have them later in the game.

The Payoff:

Using a satellite phone given to you by a character now long dead, you manage to use your knowledge of electronics to fix it, hook it up to a larger antenna and get reception, contacting help and the outside world. It's a good thing he gave the phone to you to fix, instead of using up the batteries trying to find a signal on a broken phone.

In a later part of the game, another character has a brief, emotional moment where he recollects the death of a character you played earlier in the game. Or, if the character lived, he tells her how much she means to him before they leave the relative safety of the house the survivors have holed up in.

A writhing horde of monsters teems down a hallway towards the few remaining characters. You hand off the keys and items you’ve found to the people you’ve grown so close to in the last few hours, and tell them to run. You stand your ground, shooting the beasts down as your friends escape. The first one reaches you and knocks you to the ground, but as they surround you, you see that your allies have gotten far enough away to make it. You know that they have everything they need to end this.

Other Applications:

A similar idea of a large cast of characters and meaningful, permanent death could be applied to a number of different game concepts. It could make for a more intense and realistic war game, where the player controls different members of a whole squad of soldiers. Or imagine a Batman game where you play as the rogue’s gallery of villains and try to execute a nefarious plan as Batman works to take you down, one by one. The possibilities are both varied and exciting. So what do you say, gamers? Would you play it? And game companies, am I hired?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Monthly Game Club: Passage Discussion

As you may remember, this week we're discussing Passage, a short game by Jason Rohrer. If you haven't played it yet, no problem! The game is free to download, takes five minutes to play, and you can get it right here. So go ahead and play it, and come on back for the discussion. I'll wait.

Oh, you're done already? Awesome.

Here are some questions to get us started:

1. Do you feel that the visual style helps or hinders your enjoyment of the game? How about the accessibility of the game? How about your ability to think about the themes and ideas present in the game?

2. Why do you think the game world appears so narrow? The first time you played, did you realize that you could go up and down as well as forward and back?

3. What do you think about the way the game represents relationships? How does the game change if you join up with the woman, as opposed to going it alone?

4. Did you find any treasure chests? What do you think they represent?

5. Did this game provoke any emotional responses from you?
As always, feel free to discuss any aspect of the game or the experience. These questions are just to get the ball rolling.

(What's the Monthly Game Club? Click here for details.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How to Make It Last

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Many game designers seek ways of either extending a video game’s play time or encouraging multiple playthroughs of a game. If done well, these strategies can add considerable value to a game. Here are some of the most common ways this is done, and a few pointers on how to make sure it doesn’t damage the game experience:

1. Add collectible items.

How to do it right: All the collectible items should serve some in-game purpose, either helping the player in some substantive way (Heart pieces in most Zelda games) or providing some narrative role (audio diaries in BioShock).
How to mess it up: Make the collectible items almost entirely irrelevant, apart from achievements and self-satisfaction (flags in Assassin’s Creed).
2. Add optional sidequests/alternate goals.
How to do it right: Make the alternate goals and sidequests either challenging (comets in Super Mario Galaxy) or interesting, unique experiences (vaults, areas and sidequests in Fallout 3).
How to mess it up: Make the alternate goals/sidequests dull, simple and repetitive (most of the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect, most of the quests given by random NPCs in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion).
3. Allow New Game + (starting the game over with all characters at the same level and/or with the same equipment and powers as they were after beating the game).
How to do it right: Allow for new possibilities and outcomes with each additional playthrough in the form of secret areas to be accessed, alternate outcomes to encounters, and alternate endings (Chrono Trigger).
How to mess it up: Make it entirely irrelevant, keeping the game entirely the same, only easier as a result of the added levels/equipment/powers (Mass Effect, though playing at a higher difficulty adds some value).
4. Allow new playthroughs with new characters.
How to do it right: Make sure that a playthrough with a new character provides a new experience, either through alternate skills and focuses (Mass Effect, Fallout 3) or different control schemes and gameplay types (playing as Richter Belmont in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night).
How to mess it up: Make the new characters exactly the same as the old ones, just with a different skin or costume (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed).
5. Create complicated skill/power/upgrade trees.
How to do it right: If there are enough different powers to acquire, combos to learn, skills to upgrade and so forth, this can be a compelling reason to play a game again to learn and try them all (Ninja Gaiden, God of War).
How to mess it up: Make some powers clearly superior and others useless past certain points in a game, so that there’s really no need or impetus to upgrade them all (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed).
6. Provide alternate story/moral paths.
How to do it right: Add a major choice that can change the plot of the game or a morality system that can be played two or more ways with different results (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) so that players will want to play again to see the alternative options.
How to mess it up: Have few/no consequences to the choices made and/or make them too black and white (BioShock).
7. Add secret areas/levels.
How to do it right: Make the secret areas/levels interesting, fun, and non-essential (Super Mario World).
How to mess it up: Make a secret level/area required to finish the game (Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia).
8. Add greater challenges and difficulty ratings.
How to do it right: Make each difficulty ramp up naturally from the previous ones, providing a challenging experience (Gears of War).
How to mess it up: Make the normal difficulty setting way too hard for most players, discouraging them from learning the game’s systems (Ninja Gaiden).
9. Make an incredible game.
How to do it right: If you’ve got this one figured out, no tricks or additions will be required. People will be playing your game over and over again for years to come.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Voice of Approval

by C.T. Hutt

You are Raziel, chief lieutenant of the dread Emperor Kain. Betrayed by your vampire brothers for your arrogance and vanity you are beaten, crippled, and thrown into a swirling vortex that burns away at your flesh like acid. Twisted and broken, you sink down to the deepest reaches of the earth, away from the light, away from all consciousness or memory, away from time. Resting now, laying against the stones at the heart of the earth you begin to realize that while your body may be dead, your essence, your soul is still very much alive. You are not alone. The blackness illuminates and you discover that your wrecked form is surrounded by the slithering tendrils of some deep sea abomination. You struggle helplessly to move, to flee this terrible apparition as it wraps a hideous appendage around you. Face to face with one of its larger eye clusters you see the true scale of this beast. This is less an animal then a landscape, an ancient cancer in the very bones of the planet, an Elder God. From everywhere a booming voice fills your awaking senses and says:

“Arise Raziel, I have brought you back to serve me as my Soul Reaver and take your revenge!”

This was the opening cinematic for one of my old timey favorites: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, released in 1999. Imagine the sound of the Elder God’s voice. Does it sound like Mickey Mouse? How about John Madden? Perhaps it has a cockney accent, or a deep southern twang. No, all wrong. A creature like this would have to have a deep, stony voice and the developers at Eidos Interactive hit the mark perfectly when they hired Tony Jay as a voice actor for the project (You may be more familiar with his voice acting roles as Shere Khan from The Jungle Book or the evil Judge Claude Frollo in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver suffered from many issues as a game, but quality voice acting was not one of them. Taking a look at the medium as a whole, voice acting has been one of the fastest-evolving aspects of the art form, even as narrative and plot remain stunted. Many developers have done an excellent job adding a level of immersion to their games by paying attention to this detail.

Even in the early days of voice acting, some game developers were doing it right. If you played Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, I’m sure you spent at least a little time antagonizing your characters until they became frustrated with you. That was fun in itself but the important thing was the quality of the characters’ voices. The Orcs sounded gruff and violent, the Ogres sounded big and dumb, and the humans sounded stoic and upright. These touches gave the player the feeling that he or she was actually commanding an army of individuals rather than a horde of faceless units. It made the game more fun, more immersive, and certainly more memorable.

Bethesda called in none-other than Patrick Stewart (You may know him by his proper title, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise) to voice the beginning narration of its fantasy release The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. In a game that suffered from playability issues and an over-reliance on hardware, the celebrity cameo added not only a quality voice actor to the game but also a degree of artistic legitimacy to the medium. As video games continue to grow in popularity we will no doubt see a further influx of big-name celebrities as voice actors. This is a double-edged sword of course, but certainly an interesting development.

When writers work closely with the voice talent in games the results are even better. In a recent interview for thatvideogameblog award winning writer and video game legend Rhianna Pratchett (Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword, and the Overlord series) shared her thoughts on the subject:

“I think it’s essential for writers to be involved in the recording process as things can often go wrong in this area. Voice actors are all too often presented with a wad of XL sheets, no proper character notes, context or reference and are just expected to perform. They are very good reasons why voice acting in games can be so terrible. Writers are in a great position to be able to bridge this gap.”

We are with you, Rhianna. Clever writers are desperately needed in the game development process. I can only hope that the next generation of game developers actively scouts for talented writers when planning their next big projects. After all, there is clear evidence of the terrible results that come from a disconnection between writers and voice acting talent. Take for example the ending of Devil May Cry (Capcom 2001) [Spoiler warning]:
Yikes. Don’t blame Drew Coombs, the voice of the protagonist in this clip. I don’t think any voice actor could pull writing like that out of the fire.

Voice acting, for its part, has come a long way in the short time it has been a part of the video game medium. As worlds become more immersive and involve a greater variety of characters, it will be interesting to see how the gaming industry handles the challenges of voice acting on a large scale. While it is clear that voice acting cannot do the job of good writing it is very encouraging to see some real talent being applied to the medium we love.