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.

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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.

PAX East 2014 Interview: Dan Teasdale

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By Allen

PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Mike Krahulik, Robert Khoo, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry.

Dan Teasdale has probably helped make one of your favorite games of the last decade or so. He’s been all over the industry in many capacities, but now he finds himself at the head of No Goblin working on Roundabout, a top-down game where you play as a limousine driver in the late 70s driving passengers while spinning madly through stages and scoring points along the way. The game also features plenty of full-motion video, or FMV, which gives it a delightful comedic touch. Dan gets points from me at least for comparing his game to KuruKuru Kururin, a Japan and Europe-only Game Boy Advance game where you played as a helicopter-piloting alien similarly spinning through stages at high speeds. We talked about what brought him to No Goblin, what Roundabout is aiming to accomplish, and why FMV is an inescapable trap for Dan that he just can’t get enough of.

PAX East 2014 Interview: Will Brierly

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By Allen

PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Mike Krahulik, Robert Khoo, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry.

Will Brierly is an interesting person. He’s the man behind Soda Drinker Pro, a game that represents one beautiful joke taken just far enough to actually loop around and be hilarious. I only managed to ask Will a few questions not for lack of time or words. Rather, I was just utterly stunned by the beautiful weirdness that was Vivian Clark playing on the screen next to us. For a game inside of a game, it sure looks cool, and Soda Drinker Pro needs to be seen to be believed. I love it, I love Will and his sense of humor, and it’s this kind of enthusiastic willingness to never let up on a joke that makes him and this game so fascinating.

PAX East 2014 Interview: Tommy Refenes

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By Allen PAX East, a video games-centric convention held in Boston, Massachusetts annually and run by Penny Arcade was this past weekend. I had the fortune of attending on Saturday, and I spent most of my time scouring the crowded show floor for independent developers looking to share a word about their games and position in the industry. First up was Tommy Refenes, co-founder of Team Meat. Team Meat’s first major hit was Super Meat Boy in 2011, a game that has since gone to become one of the best-selling independent games of all time. Refenes and his co-founder, Edmund McMillen, are now working on Mew-Genics, a ‘crazy cat lady simulator’ where the player micromanages a house full of cats of all types breeding, playing, and fighting. The game is set to release sometime in 2014 on PC, and was playable to the public for the first time ever at PAX this year using Steam’s prototype Steam controller. I didn’t get a chance to demo the game myself, but I did watch quite a bit of it being played before interviewing Mr. Refenes about the game and his status as half of one of the most well-known indie developers in the industry.

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: 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.