Random Encounters: Do As I Do

AC3 Random Encounters

By Allen

Games are, at their core, metaphors for greater ideas that can be interacted with. Metaphors can be a few crumbled buildings signifying a larger ruined city, experience points to signify progress and character growth, or even points signifying success and accomplishment. Not all metaphors are aesthetic though. From a mechanical standpoint, every action the player takes should be a metaphor for something greater, since pressing a button on a controller does not directly equate to, say, swinging a sword. Looking back on my gaming history from the past decade, most of my favorites blend mechanics and metaphor seamlessly, and games as a whole are stronger when these two ideas gel.

It is admittedly difficult to find a AAA game that uses its mechanics to further a point without running into some sort of ludonarrative dissonance. I’ve been playing quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed III lately to catch up on a series that I used to adore. One of the reasons I dropped off of the series after Revelations was an unavoidable feeling of disconnect from the protagonists and story. By the third game in the Ezio/Desmond storyline, the games were leaping back and forth between present and past, piling on mechanics that seemed frivolous, and trying too many things without being good at any one of them. One minute, you’re hunting corrupt politicians in Constantinople, the next you’re rebuilding property around the city, and then you’re running around outside of the Animus doing first person block-shifting puzzles while learning about a character that barely served as more than a player stand-in in the last few games. Elements like this do not fit with the story being told. In these side missions, you’re supposed to be uncovering clues about Desmond’s past as he himself tries to cope with them. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the actual game part is just an ethereal-looking, poorly-controlling first person platformer. It creates such a huge disconnect that I barely touched those missions.

Fast forward to Assassin’s Creed III. The game starts you off as Desmond yet again, relearning his parkour skills in the Animus as if this isn’t technically the fifth game in the series and the player doesn’t know how to control the basic movement. Granted, very minor elements of the parkour were changed and improved in this title, but these improvements would work much better as an in-universe, contextualized tutorial. I’m all for contextualizing tutorials. Instead of reading a “How to Play” menu option or starting your game off with a plodding introduction, trust the player to learn. Mastering the nuances of a game’s control makes manipulating its systems that much more satisfying.

Eventually, the game puts you in the shoes of Haytham Kenway, a grumpy man with next to no personality. After a shockingly long first level in an opera house and eventually a ship, Haytham finds himself in 1700s Boston. Once set loose, he sets out to hire men who can help him find a secret artifact from thousands of years ago. This is where the game brings up questions about how its mechanics are supposed to make you feel about Haytham: why does the game’s minimap at this point function solely to label groups of British soldiers walking around as bright red dots raring to be killed if they only attack provoked? Why can I attack civilians three times before the game forces me to stop with a game over if Haytham is never at any point shown to be a clumsy killer or one who would ever kill random people? Moments like these just show a lack of polish and mechanical stability in a series that famously has been worked on by hundreds of people.

I’m not simply using this article to criticize the Assassin’s Creed series for not being mechanically resonant. Rather, I’m surprised and impressed when it is. Once the game truly opens up and you get to play as Haytham’s son Connor, many of the UI’s subtle nudges toward violence make more sense. Connor’s village was burned to the ground by British men, so it makes sense that they are all red dots on the map when you play as him. He is new to the Assassin lifestyle, so it makes sense that he might kill a civilian by accident here or there. But the game really shines when you step away from the big cities. In the frontier and homestead, where the game hides some of its best missions, everything you do as a player makes perfect sense with Connor the character. Of course you hunt animals and skin them with ease, because the game shows that Connor’s been doing it since he was a young man. And of course you climb trees and hang evil Redcoats from them with a ropedart; Connor’s home was surrounded by woods, and the Iroquois were known for using ingenuity to create tools for hunting. You’re still stalking enemies and sneaking around British encampments, but the fact that Connor is much more noticeably foreign and, specifically, Native American, means that yes, he’s going to be watched and persecuted at the slightest misstep in the cities, and yes, he uses the animal skins he finds to improve his home and upgrade his tools. Some of these concessions are understandable given the constraints of modern game design, but the frontier missions with Connor really highlight how much better this series (and all games, for that matter) are when the mechanics make narrative sense.

It’s a bit unfair to criticize modern blockbuster games for not being mechanically resonant. Bioshock: Infinite clashes heady idealistic drama about violence and control with first person shooting, but it’s hard to deny that the shooting is fun, and it helped the game sell millions. Indie games tend to not have ludonarrative dissonance because the small team size and limited scope mean that there is little compromise needed.  Spelunky’s explorer protagonist has déjà vu and the caves he goes to explore reset themselves magically, which explains away the random elements and repetition of his quest, and Super Meat Boy is harkening back to the brutal platformers of yesteryear while still appealing to a modern audience, meaning it is brutally difficult but offers infinite, fast continues. If we want big budget games to improve, we need to ask more from them than simply to be fun or look good. So many shooters empower the player, but also ask them to believe that they are part of a small, rag-tag group of soldiers who barely get by. Why then, do so many shooter protagonists have regenerating health, incredibly fast reload times, and crackshot aim? If we want to see games as a whole improve, we need to expect developers to not slouch when it comes to emotionally resonant mechanics, because they are at the heart of what makes so many games go from good to amazing.

Random Encounters: Licensing Legends

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By Allen

Nintendo’s handling of their most popular licenses has always fascinated me. In the early to mid-90s, Mario was infamously licensed to Phillips for the poorly-received Hotel Mario among other games. Since then, they’ve kept their charming Italian’s likeness out of non-Nintendo titles for the most part since then. However, in 2004, they partnered with Japanese developer Camelot for yet another sports title. Mario Golf: Advance Tour is well-regarded as one of the more well-designed Mario sports games, but what interested me the most playing it now is how, within the universe of the game, Mario and friends are treated as mythical golfers, only playable in multiplayer.

Essentially, Mario Golf: Advance Tour was a tie-in title to the much more popular GameCube game, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. Characters from the former could be transferred to the latter via the GBA link cable, which allowed players to essentially level up a golf pro on the go before bringing them home to play against the pros in the GameCube game. The linking feature was interesting, but Advance Tour stands on its own partly because of how deeply its characters accept that the Mushroom Kingdom and its residents are simply a few tournaments and a lot of dedication awa. The intro of the game deliberately starts with action shots of the main cast of the game, followed by even more dramatically framed poses of Peach, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi before finally cutting to the titular plumber about to swing a golf club. That’s the last time that he or any of his friends are mentioned or seen by name until the very tail end of the main single-player campaign.

From there, the game essentially becomes Golf: The JRPG. You and your oppositely-gendered partner compete in various tournaments and challenges dotted around a camp devoted to golfing, and finishing these challenges awards experience points to be placed into stats like “drive distance” and “ball control”. There’s an entire glossary of incredibly specific golf terms ranging from “pin shots” all the way to intricate definitions of topspin and backspin. These elements all make a lot more sense when one realizes that Camelot was also the team that the acclaimed Shining Force series, Mario Tennis, and just a few years before, the Golden Sun series came from. With this JRPG and sports game cred under their belts, it’s no surprise that Nintendo hired them to create a unique experience to go along with their flagship GameCube golf game.

I have yet to find another game that utilizes its license as bizarrely as Mario Golf: Advance Tour. It’s not bad in any way; in fact, it makes getting to the final tournament where you do play against Mario and co. that much more exciting, because you know that they’re these legendary pros within the context of this game. Some of the references aren’t as clever, such as naming the first cup of the game the “Marion Cup” and featuring a recognizable mustached man’s face on the rug in the Marion lobby. But this game got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of game licensing. Lean too hard on your license, and you get a Star Wars Kinect scenario where the game and license don’t mesh. Focusing on the game first and the license second gives you more successful titles like the recently released South Park: The Stick of Truth. But making your license an unattainable, nonplayable cast of heroes in an otherwise solid game is much more interesting, and Mario Golf: Advance Tour shines even in 2014 because of it.

Random Encounters: I Can Stop Whenever They Want Me To

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By Allen

I’ve been thinking about game design a lot over the past few months. With a new year, the promise of new ideas and meaningful experiences pervading the games that we play is exciting. One design tactic that has caught my attention recently is the way that different games incentivize continuous repetition and how that can make or break certain titles. I was led to this conclusion originally by Adam Sessler’s review of Forza Motorsport 5, where he praised the Xbox One launch title for nailing this carrot on a stick mechanic without being manipulative. Essentially, escapism is a mental escape to another world, and escape implies engrossment or pleasure. With Forza, the escapism comes from beating tracks, unlocking cars, and using those cars to beat more tracks. This is known as the gameplay loop, and it’s what I want to dissect today.

Any good psychology student can explain positive and negative feedback loops to you. Give the subject something they want, and incentivize them to keep getting it. If the subject does something wrong, punish them for it. Two recent games that I’ve played that mastered the endless gameplay loop are Spelunky and the iOS game Joe Danger: Infinity. In Spelunky, you play an explorer descending into a series of caves while looking for treasure to buy equipment to help you get to the bottom. It’s notoriously tough, but not in a remotely unfair way. Ask any seasoned Spelunky player, and they’ll tell you that it is not a hard or frustrating game. The simple reason for this is inherent in Spelunky’s design. Being a rogue-like, it’s all about dying and restarting. Missing a jump, mistiming an attack, or just plain cockiness are the most common ways to end a run quickly. But the game divulges its secrets so clearly to the player that they can’t help but blame themselves. Fell on some spike? Shouldn’t have tried to run and jump over it. Impaled by a Tiki trap? The spikes started poking out before you were anywhere near them, so it’s your own fault. These rules also apply to the enemies in the game, who frequently kill each other due to their rote, memorizable AI patterns. The two main modes in Spelunky, Adventure and Daily Challenge both master the gameplay loop. In Adventure mode, you’re trying to beat the game in one of several ways, avoiding death and buying items along the way. When you fail an Adventure run, you don’t even have to wait for a death animation or a Game Over screen. Just hit the “Quick Restart” button, and you’re in another randomly generated world from Level 1-1. The frustration is eliminated instantly when there is no time penalty for failing. The Daily Challenge mode is its own beast, mainly due to how it is structured. Every player encounters the exact same Daily Challenge “seed”, or random map, each day. You’re still descending the mines, but it becomes a performance game rather than a progression game. The leaderboards for this mode are based on money on hand when you die, and not how far you get. This leads to an interesting risk/reward system, where players who stay back and hoard all the money in the Mines world can actually be higher on the board than those who bought everything and progressed further. Also, having only one try on the Daily Challenge gives each run a special feeling, like that one run is the most important thing in your life for those fifteen or so minutes. It’s a joy to watch and play, and these two modes are perfect examples of the vicious cycle of repeating tasks over and over until they are mastered.

Joe Danger: Infinity has a much more subtle, yet brilliant gameplay loop than most iOS titles. Rather than gate your progress with difficult levels that require you to pay money to progress, it instead rewards you for finishing levels with a constant stream of more levels. That’s where the Infinity comes in. At its core, the Joe Danger series has been about perfecting your runs through a level on a stuntman’s vehicle of choice, collecting coins and landing tricks on the way. When I first installed the game, I only planned to play past the tutorial. However, the levels just kept coming without stop, and I had a feeling that this was either the longest tutorial ever, or something was wrong. What I realized was that the game was trapping me in its gameplay loop from the very first level. When finishing a track in the game, a loading icon appears on the next one in the menu. However, as a new player, by the time you realize the translucent circle is done loading, the next level is already starting. Rather than waste your time with menus and anything outside of its actual design, Joe Danger: Infinity feels like an infinite game; you never stop getting levels fed to you instantly until you’ve beaten the entire game. Even with all the ancillary unlockables like new characters and vehicles, you’re never taken away from that sweet, satisfying loop of play a level, pass or fail, retry or move on. This tiny design choice makes the game feel more intense and difficult to put down than any of its other colorful presentation and level design choices.

It’s these small choices in games that keep us going and going, while not feeling like we’re being manipulated. By respecting the player’s time and offering up new content constantly, games can be the best form of escapist media. Creating the perfect gameplay loop of reward and player instruction is difficult, but when games do them well, there’s nothing more compelling and engaging.

 

Random Encounters: Everything’s Fun, But Everyone’s Angry

Stanley ParableBy Allen

Sometimes, I can’t tell if the general gaming community actually likes games. I certainly do, and I like writing about them and arguing about them with other people. As the next generation of consoles lies just across the horizon, I’ve been reading progressively more reviews and previews of next-gen titles. Unfortunately, the response from both the press and the average consumers seems tepid at best, which is disheartening as we are in one of the most exciting times to play games. As Louis CK once said, “Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

The problem with these responses is that they feed into each other. The news cycle has gone like this for the past few weeks: Journalists report on a new feature/potential flaw of the PS4 or Xbox One, the community looks into it too much, picking it apart for any possible argument for one console’s superiority, and then the journalists simply grow tired of this bickering and hope to God that these consoles will just come out so people can stop arguing. Is this how we want to treat the release of new hardware from now on? Two fairly-priced, exponentially more powerful evolutions of the consoles that we all own and love are being released, and they’re most likely going to work on launch day. Isn’t that enough at some point? Some people don’t think so.

The phrase “gamer entitlement” has been tossed around by the press for years, and it only escalates during these times of flux. I could pick out a million examples from the headlines of fans boycotting a game or studio because their needs weren’t served directly.  Davey Wreden, the developer behind the delightful indie PC game The Stanley Parable removed an image of a white man helping a black child from the game because fans complained that it was “too racist”. Although this seemed to be the intent of the scene (to poke fun at antiquated racist imagery), Wreden removed the image from the game. To be fair, he has gone on the record saying that removing that scene made the game easier to show to non-gamers and family, but it still feels like compromising the developer’s vision to serve an ungrateful audience. Games have become much more iterative and subject to change in the last decade, and this question will only be coming up more as the console manufacturers allow developers to patch and pull down their games at will. All of this arguing and pointless finger-wagging just makes me want to play games in a vacuum sometimes. No hype, no arguing, just the game and I. However, I can’t do that. We’re stuck with each other, and so we need to learn to improve the discourse and change how we discuss games.

I’m not against the idea of catering to an audience. This is, after all, a business-first industry. Games are products to be consumed and discussed like any other piece of art, yet gamers seem more prone to vitriol, entitlement, and hateful comments than any other industry’s fans. This is due in part to the intimate relationship between player and creator. With a film, you can choose to watch or not watch the whole thing. If you don’t like it, you can forget it and move on. However, with games, there is an elegant dance between the world’s overseer and its protagonist. In a linear game like Psychonauts for example, the player is devoting time to something that they either love or hate. The worry in this case is that you can play a game for hours upon hours, and never discover its “good parts”. At that point, you’ve devoted so much time to this experience that you kind of have to accept it for its flaws. The reason I seem to be waffling on this matter so much is that it can’t be solved with a single essay or movement. Each gamer has to form their own sets of judgments and biases, and their money goes to what they support. Personally, I believe games to be an expression of the developer’s vision translated to an interactive experience for a player to be part of. So no, gamers don’t have the right to tell developers to remove something from their game. No, developers shouldn’t make games just to appeal to an audience. Some of the greatest works of art were immensely self-centered, and these types of work actually appeal to more people. We’re all a little self-centered, but instead of telling someone to make something more personalized to us, we should be making our own games for that. If you want a unique experience separate from your own, there are plenty of those out there. There’s going to be plenty more in the upcoming weeks, and hopefully the gaming community can get out of their own bubbles and try new things without hating them. When everyone learns to have fun again and just enjoy games, the community will become more diverse, less caustic, and the games themselves will be better as a result.

Random Encounters: Packing for A Long Journey

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By Allen

How much luggage do you bring on a long vacation? One bag, with the hope that you can survive only on necessities? Or several, trying to be safe and prepare for any possible risk? With games, we bring a lot of luggage whether we want to or not. Our experiences, knowledge, and biases are all brought into games that we play, and we project them onto the static images on the screen. Even when our motivations differ from the protagonist’s, we still feel just as powerfully about each of the actions that we take in these virtual environments because it’s impossible to bring just one bag.

I haven’t played that much of Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto V’s missions yet, but I have spent several hours just driving around the city of Los Santos as protagonist Michael, with as little HUD and interface as the game allows. It’s a strange experience, but not because I’m ignoring the meticulously-crafted missions and UI that Rockstar has created. Rather, I find it oddly pleasing to step into the shoes of someone like Michael. He may have a rough past, and he may be the head of an incredibly dysfunctional family, but he seems to find some level of pleasure in driving around with no destination. One of the cleverest things that the game does is, when switching between protagonists, the player gets a brief glimpse of what they were doing as you hopped into their perspective. Trevor may be sleeping next to a cow, Franklin might be buying coffee, but Michael is almost always in his car. Some times he’s saying goodbye to a mistress, sometimes he’s stuck in traffic. More often than not, he’s got his head tucked down on the steering wheel, looking as depressed as a man can possibly be. It’s at these times that I like to take Michael for a drive as the sun sets, following traffic laws, and only speeding on the open road. In theGTA V narrative that I brought along with me, Michael is taking a day off. No bank robberies, no talking to crazy strangers, and no bloody gunfights with the police. Today, it’s just him, the car, and the radio. I’m there to make his day a little bit better.

I can empathize with Michael here. I’m not part of a criminal trio of horrible psychos, but it is a common human feeling to crave travel. Whether it’s to get away from something, or to get to something, travel is what fuels our exploring minds. Michael may want to drive to forget, but I’m driving to relax. After a long day of class and studying, it feels nice to cruise around a beautiful city with the top down, absorbing the game’s atmosphere. I can turn the game off, feeling like I took a nice trip somewhere far, and that experience will stay with me forever. Even though I’m going to come back and probably play more missions another day, that was GTA for me today, and that was Michael’s story. By creating this dissonance between player and hero, games allow us to dip our toes in various walks of life without the fear of failure, but with our unique investments into the experience.

A fantasy game like Dragon Age: Origins encourages you to embody your character, and to make the decisions that you would if placed into the same situation. In The Legend of Zelda, the character is a vessel for you to imagine their personality and motivation. Roaming around Los Santos in GTA V, the protagonists embody me. I decide when to get a haircut or play golf, and I decide when it’s time to initiate the next mission. Even as technology advances to the point where game characters have photorealistic intelligence, the player is still going to be the decision maker. No matter how badly Michael wants to get away from a life of crime, it is I who decides that he’s going to sit on the couch all day and smoke weed, contemplating the hopelessness of it all. The player embodying the character, and vice versa, are two of the most intimate relationships in modern video games. As Michael sits in his expensive vehicle, waiting at a red light, I too am waiting. Waiting to take control again, and steer this car through the bustling city until it’s time to go home. It’s more empowering than many other mediums, where the viewer is and always will be a passive observer.

My virtual luggage colors how I view my actions in all games. Even though the on-screen avatar is technically an emotionless chunk of code, I see him as a part of me. Michael is that part that craves freedom and excitement through any means. He carries with him my expectations and my trepidations, looking for something in a world where he has everything. And as I drive him into the sunset, lens flare blaring through the window and the music on loud, I feel like I brought just the right amount of baggage to Los Santos that day.

Random Encounters: The Search for Virtual Reality

ImageBy James

Whenever I play Sid Meier’s Civilization V, I become somewhat obsessed. Civ V is an all-day affair for me, a 6-8 hour job in which I make an empire for the day, and try to keep it running for as long as possible. Civilization is a series of games centered around creating an empire, with the ultimate goal of winning through military, diplomatic, or scientific victories. It’s a turn-based strategy game, and consists of various cities, units and resources which must be placed and organized in the optimal way. Empires can be huge, or they can be small, but there is always a way to make your empire dominate the political playing field. I have had some great empires, and I have had miserable failures. But the thing that always keeps me coming back is the possibility of immersion.

Civ V is probably the best strategy game I have ever played. Its structure is fair, tactical, and simple enough for anyone to pick it up fairly easily. Beginners don’t have a steep learning curve in front of them, but experts can still feel the imminent crushing defeat when they research the wrong technology. The problem is that I never seem to finish a game. The games typically take 10- 20 hours to complete, a length comparable to the campaign of other games. However I have spent many more hours than that in a single game of Civ. While some would say this might be due to a short attention span or the desire to leave the house on the weekend, the truth is, I can never finish a game because the experience is not quite right. Even when I have a perfect setup going, it is still hard for me to continue with the game at hand. Sure, there are alliances, intrigue, spies and enmities, but it still is not quite an Empire. I can control an empire within the game, but I can’t be an Empire. The problem with the game is that I always want more. I don’t want to play Sid Meier’s Civilzation V, I want to play James Sheehy’s Civilzation V.

Videogames are tremendously subjective. Playing as a character can be extremely emotional, and the stories are rich and rewarding for those with the time and attention to appreciate them. The inherent problem with games is the lack of creation. Sure, there are loadouts to personalize, characters to create, and empires to build, but there is always the niggling feeling that something just isn’t quite right. I love games that try to be innovative, with a novel take on an outdated concept, or a new idea entirely. Special mechanics, an interesting concept, or a new style of RPG will always drive me to a game, but in the end, I always feel disappointed. The major source of disappointment is the fact that I still can’t control the core aspects of the game. True, I can control characters, vehicles, empires, even worlds, but in the end, there is always a limit to my creativity. Ultimately, there is only so much that my character can do. And every victory feels all the more hollow with the sense that the possibilities are limited by the vision of the creators.

There is an intricate connection between the two halves of video games. Games try to tell stories, while simultaneously trying to allow the player autonomy. These two halves are hard to manage. Allowing a player to do whatever they want means that sometimes there are huge gaps between the chunks of story. Try to create a coherent story, and autonomy is forced to take the backseat. Some of the best games try to blend these qualities, like Bastion, while others take the opposite path and ignore the story completely to try and create a better experience, like the Civilization series or to an extent, the Grand Theft Auto series. The inherent problem lies with the fact that the gameplay itself can never come close to real. Even with better graphics, there is a fixed limit on how much time and effort the developers are allowed to spend on creating subtle animations that people will never see. Though I acknowledge that there is no possible way to change that, I can’t help but feel frustrated.

Video games for me are not escapes, but rather mental exercises. What happens if I change a parameter? The games are as much a matter of focus as they are of entertainment. They are about a speedier return on investment of my time, a way to make noticeable changes within a short period of time. For me, the personalization of a game is imperative, and as such, I can never be truly immersed in a game until the day when anything can happen in a game. And though I wait for that day with bated breath, I realize that I will have to settle with the games that we have now, and even though my empire might not be as niched as if I ruled the world, it will do for now. In the meanwhile, I will try to sit back and finish an empire.

Random Encounters: Humanity From Mundanity

5079220070206_220232_12_bigBy Allen

On a fundamental level, role-playing games imitate real life better than most simulation and story-based games. Although the activities that you do in them are usually truncated for the sake of pacing, it still feels satisfying to clear out a bunch of quests in a game and be rewarded with a shiny new axe or a plot revelation. The comparisons to real life go a whole lot deeper than that though. In an average RPG, you play a character that is brought into a strange world with your only tools being what you find or are given. You head out with a goal in mind, and there are various obstacles standing or crawling in your way.

The protagonist wakes up, picks up their sword, equips their best armor, and opens up the quest log to begin a day of adventuring and experience. A businessman wakes up, dresses in his finest and most comfortable suit, and drives to work to build on what he has done the previous day, and hopefully come out of it with a paycheck at the end of the week. The warrior’s reward is dependent on the player’s investment and skill at combat or whatever it is the game asks of them to pass the obstacles. The businessman ideally is improving his work with the hopes of a larger paycheck, but he ultimately does not take that many risks for fear of his steady income ending. Allowing the player to control a character even when there isn’t a crucial conflict going on makes the story feel more believable, and the more dramatic moments exponentially more impressive.

For example, one of my favorite games of all time is Jade Empire. It’s a Bioware game from 2005 where you play as a customizable protagonist making his or her way through an ancient Chinese landscape with a group of allies. Essentially, it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Republic with a more active yet simple combat system, and a more original world. Besides the fact that martial arts and the physical manifestation of each fighting style is a fascinating concept to me, the reason I was obsessed with Jade Empire when I played it was because it was the first game I played that simulated both the most fascinating and mundane aspects of your character’s life. Not every day in my life is full of twists and adventure, but each one is important, and adds up to a cohesive whole. In the same way, not every quest in Jade Empire was about saving the world, but they all provided context and detailed the world. After questioning the townsfolk and collecting evidence, you can return to her with the name of whoever you think committed the crime. I never picked the correct person when I first played it for whatever reason, but the game didn’t penalize you for being wrong. The wrong person was sent to jail, and you were rewarded just as much as you would have been if you had selected the actual killer. Since it’s a game that is supposed to be fun and not unfair, you can always reload an old save and try the quest again, or just look up a guide and beat it without any risk. But doing so robs you of this brief glimpse into this small town and some of its charms. Everybody you question is a liar, the law enforcement is useless, and the woman trusted a few strangers walking into town with a homicide investigation. Just like in real life, I played Jade Empire without reloading my save.

The worst part of any game is the breaking of immersion due to a bug or overlooked design flaw. Sticking with Jade Empire, the trip to that same town is played out as a top-down shooter where you control a hang glider soaring above the forest and fending off corrupt warriors. The reason it doesn’t work or gel with the rest of the game is how easy it is to fail. In the rest of the game, failure is clearly forewarned because of the prominent health bar that is only shown or being depleted in battle. In this awkward, brutally difficult act break, the enemies don’t seem to follow any sort of pattern. The player’s only penalty for failure is their time, but it’s clearly meant to be tried over and over again. Since it’s supposed to be a short diversion, there aren’t any checkpoints in this mission to keep the player from getting frustrated. One could argue that that’s the point, and that they want to show the journey in one fluid series of events, but that just doesn’t work when the game becomes so reliant on reflexes and memorization. By making it easy to fail and annoying to restart, the immersion is broken either way. Even though there are some magic elements to the story, they can’t explain this hang glider miraculously recovering itself at the starting position over and over again. In life, decisions have weight because they are irrevocable.

The argument then becomes: Do I want a game that breaks immersion for the sake of fairness and momentum, or do I want to traipse through a game, making mistakes left and right without stopping? My personal answer lies somewhat closer to the second option. Developers sometimes feel afraid to put failable quests in their games because that supposedly goes against the power fantasy that so many games strive for. But my argument is that, to truly make me feel like I’m controlling a hero, I need to see and control their greatest victories, their most tragic defeats, and the moments in between. A quick trip into town to buy equipment, a failed attempt to woo the local brothel girls, even just a hint that all of the senseless violence committed in the average game has consequences are a few things that make the journey feel believable. By showing me what my character had to do when he or she wasn’t skinning monsters for pelts or watching their home be burned down by a dragon, moments like the murder quest in Jade Empire make me feel less like I’m seeing the highlights of my character’s life, and more like I’m an integral part of it from start to finish.