Monday, August 31, 2009


Braid has been critically acclaimed (and rightfully so) for doing what it does right: innovation in conventional platforming (through a nifty time manipulation mechanic), beautiful hand-painted graphics, and an excellent soundtrack that all come together in a tightly polished package.

There's no question that Braid is an innovative, fun, and challenging game. However, where it fails, in my opinion, is by not meshing the story cohesively with the gameplay.

In Braid, the player is presented with a series of worlds with individual stages where the player must solve puzzles. These puzzles usually relate to collecting a piece of a larger puzzle that correlates to finishing each world and progressing onto the next. With this, there's no real connection between any sort of narrative and each puzzle the player solves.
The only exposition the game gives is before each world in the form of symbolic excerpts about love, loss, mistakes, and regret. The only way that this connects to each world and subsequently its puzzles is that Tim, the protagonist, is attempting to find the princess discussed in these excerpts by reaching a castle at the end of each level.

Thus, the only relation between the puzzles and the narrative is the player unlocking a further door to reach the next stage, and next stage, and then the final stage where the princess may finally be.

This doesn't detract from the value of each puzzle at all in hindsight. The player still receives the same joy and benefit from solving each puzzle, no matter how decontextualized it may be. What the puzzles DO lose however, is the emotional connection that is correlated with solving a puzzle, advancing a narrative, and progressing through the game.
What I mean by this is that in Braid, the player is solving the puzzles just for the fact in itself--to solve a puzzle. In Half-Life 2, the player's actions are always contextualized in the narrative. When the player kills an enemy guard, he or she knows it is to help liberate the fellow citizens of City 17 and continue the revolt. In Portal, when the player begins to break out of the facility by escaping through unauthorized areas, he or she has an emotional connection to each action, because the player's very freedom is at stake.

In Braid, there is never such an emotional connection that these--among other games--achieve when progressing through the game. Each puzzle is just an isolated afterthought to reaching the end of the game. The only time that Braid nearly achieves an emotional connection with its gameplay is in the end sequence, when the player finally sees the correlation of their actions and how it actually affects another character and subsequently the narrative. For this reason, the ending sequence of Braid packs a much greater emotional punch than the entire previousness of the game combined. If the designer(s) found same way to connect each prior puzzle to the narrative, rather than just "find key to unlock door to reach princess" then Braid would have been a much more powerful game.

As it stands now, Braid is still an excellent game thanks to its innovation and presentation, but it will never contain the same emotional connection that other games, such as Bioshock contain. What can be learned here is that there should be some correlation between gameplay and story, because the player needs to feel that he or she is influencing the narrative. If the actions that the player performs are independent of the narrative, then there is a lack of indentification and connection to what is going on. Instead, the player's actions should directly instigate the narrative to provide the player with an emotional attachment.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Razor

"Battlestar Galactica: Razor", a two-hour mini-movie as an extension of the series, is quite simply, a history lesson. History lessons--although this is a large generalization--are boring. Assuming you know history, history lessons are not exciting, tension-filled, or suspenseful because they contain an outcome already known by the audience.

When the audience watches the attack on the Battlestar Pegasus in the opening scenes of "Razor", they are not fearful or worried about the characters because they know the characters will be "okay" in the end. The characters aren't going to die here, they aren't going to kill "so-and-so" because the audience has a window into the future that tells them who is going to live and who is going to die. This creates a lack of sympathy with the protagonists because the audience can't worry about the characters, they can't put themselves in their shoes. Instead, they are watching them from a distance, through a history book. (This was also the same problem I had with LOST season 4 and its use of flashforwards.)

So what's the point of creating a history lesson, then? In this case it would be to explore the differences in morality and ethics between the crews of the Galactica and the Pegasus. What makes this pointless, however, is that we already know these things from the 3 episode arc in Season 2. All "Razor" does is put a face to the stories we have already heard before.
For example, in Season 2, Colonel Tigh asks the Pegasus colonel about how the Pegasus survived so many months in deep space. The Pegasus colonel, drunk and intoxicated, tells Tigh about how the Pegasus crew killed civilians and stole their supplies.
This was a great bit of exposition. It worked because this short snippet of dialog in itself provided all the information we needed to know that the Pegasus and its crew were ruthless in their survival. By leaving out certain details, the show lets the audience ponder what actually happened and speculate on the true nature of the Pegasus' past.

Now, "Razor" comes along and what does it have to add to this story? Nothing, actually. It just creates a visual record to reinforce exactly what the Pegasus colonel said in season 2. Entire scenes are devoted to restating what we already knew, which makes them pointless. The show is not making any new point, or revealing any details we did not already know. Instead, the show makes us sit through dozens of minutes of exposition in order to arrive at the same conclusion which was reached in a simple line of dialog in season 2. Effective? No, just boring, and redundant.

The other thing that "Razor" suffers from is being a one-dimensional story. The entire film is centered around the idea that Pegasus had to dehumanize themselves in order to save mankind. This is a fine idea, and it was already explored in season 2, but it is not substantial enough to devote an entire two hours of film to it.
One thing that makes the new series of Battlestar Galactica so successful is that it explores every aspect of its concept of the human race on the run. It is not concentrated on just the military element of the escape. Instead, the show also explores the maintenance crew's lives, politics, a traitor scientist, enemy Cylons, personal relationships, and more. Razor only focuses on the military aspect of the show, and because of this is not as "multi-layered" or interesting as the show it attempts to emulate.

If there's one thing you can say about Battlestar Galactica: Razor, I would say that it shows that portraying the entire backstory of a character is unnecessary. You don't need to visually communicate a whole character's history in order to reveal his or her qualities. Simple lines of dialog suffice just as well. Creating entire scenes to just reinforce one point about a character is a waste of the audience's time and attention span when there are much more efficient and quicker ways to relate the same idea to the audience.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009


I like Firefly. It's a fun show. But not the best show.

What makes it so fun is its originality, or its skewing of cliches. The show takes what you expect in a certain situation, then flips it upside down in an entertaining way. It's original because it does things that you don't expect so that you don't know what's going to happen.

So what does Firefly do to be original?

First, it flips dialog upside down to break from cliches. It takes the standard dialog exchanges that we all know and loathe and turns them into an entertaining and unusual experience.

Case 1:
Mal and 'Jerk' are about to get into a bar fight because Jerk said something that Mal is not fond of. In a typical, cliched scenario Mal says, "Say that to my face," then Jerk repeats his comment by facing Mal, who then punches Jerk out of aggravation--boring. Here's what happens instead:

Mal: Say that to my face.
Jerk: I said, you're a coward and a piss-pot. Now what are ya gonna do about it?
Mal: Nothing. I just wanted you to face me so she could get behind you. Zoe hits him from behind

Yep. Fun.

Case 2:

Another example: Mal and his nemesis are in a fist battle, locked in an epic struggle of will power over a careening and deadly pit. Mal's friends come in to save him whereupon Zoe, Mal's first mate, intervenes and says that this is something Mal must finish for himself. The cliched outcome? Zoe and his friends let Mal almost die and then Mal defeats his enemy and calls it a good day. Here's what happens instead:

Zoë: Jayne, this is something the captain has to do for himself.
Mal: (Struggling) No! No it's not!
Zoë: Oh! (Zoe shoots the bad guy who was about to finish Mal off)


Case 3:
Last one: Mal is trying to comfort his accidental wife into being an independent person. Normally, this would constitute a bunch of positive, cliched talk about free will and happiness. Instead, here's what happens:
[Mal is alarmed about his new bride's expectations and attitudes.]
Mal: Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back! Wife or no, you are no one's property to be tossed aside. You got the right same as anyone to... live and try to kill people.

There are two main ways the show treats its characters to reach these creative dialog exchanges.

The first method to get creative dialog is breaking from cliched characters by mixing them up from their orthodox roles. Instead of having the first mate of the ship be a cocky, young male, the first mate is a battle-hardened woman. Likewise, the mechanic of the ship is not a dirty old man who resembles a trucker, but an energetic and perky girl. Then you have the preacher who is not a stereotypical pacifist but instead adept with violence, weaponry, and the criminal way of life. The show thinks of the traditional way that the characters of 'captain', 'pilot', 'first mate', 'mechanic', and 'gunsmith' are portrayed, and then changes something about each character that makes them different from what is expected. This makes the situations the characters are put in much more fresh and interesting.

The second method the show uses to get creative dialog is by having deeply contrasting character traits. Jayne, the intellectually challenged gunsmith is contrasted with the smart and uptight doctor, Simon. Inara, the morally questionable "companion" is contrasted with the morally upright (and most times nameless) preacher. Kaylee, the young socialite is contrasted with the socially inept Simon. Inara, the polite and upper-class woman, is contrasted with the jovial and laid-back Kaylee. By having contrasting character traits, it creates some hilarious exchanges due to the differing backgrounds in terms of social status.

Case 4:
This exchange illustrates the intellectual gap between Simon and the rest of the crew (Simon is teaching the crew doctor jargon in order to pose as orderlies and infiltrate a hospital):

Mal: "Patients were cynical and not responding and we couldn't bring 'em back-"

Simon: "They were cyanotic and not responsive."

Simon: (to Jayne) "What about cortical electrodes?"

Jayne: "Oh..." (obviously doesn't know the answer) "We forgot 'em."

Mal: "Pupils were fixed and dilapidated-"

Simon: "Dialated-"

When you put contrasting characters in a situation that explores their differences, funny things can happen. It's the disagreements between the characters that create the hilarity. If all the characters were from the same background, social status, or moral-standpoint, they would all agree on everything and act the same. Instead, opposing views make each conversation a joy. Conflict is good, right?


So, Firefly is a pretty fun show. Fun, but not as gripping as LOST or Battletar Galactica, partly due to its lackadaisical attitude. After some episodes, it does become a bit cringe worthy to see this mishapful crew of nine to jovially engage in laughter after all their space journeys of danger. There's never as much tension or drama that you get when dealing with "The Others" or the Cylons. However, Firefly's great dialog and original ideas make it a sometimes more enjoyable show.

Worth watching?

Yes, definitely. You will have a fun time.

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Creating Satisying Goals

Last week I was climbing up a gigantic piece of granite rock by the name of "Lembert Dome." This experience taught me some things, the least of which is related to game design, which is why I am referencing it.

By the time I reached the final stretch of the hike, the sun was about to set and the peak was still ahead of me. With a little help from my friends, I made it to the top, and learned some valuable lessons about goals and what it means to achieve them.

How does this apply to game-design? I would say that in order to have satisfying goals, you need three elements: Payoff, Originality, and Failure.

1: Payoff
Why do people do things? Why do you endure struggle, pain, and hardship? The obvious answer is because it will be worth it, but the end goal must be gratifying enough that it is worth the struggle. If you know the payoff will be high enough, you can endure many difficulties in order to reach it.
What's the notion behind hiking to the top of a giant dome? The 'explorer' answer is for the view--you get to a see an aerial perspective that is not available from down below. As you're climbing, in the back of your head you know that there is a great view waiting for you, and that motivates you to keep going. This is the reason why you would exert force and endure the pain to reach the peak--because you know that there will be a payoff, a reward for your efforts.
In game design, there should always be a payoff to every task that requires the player to struggle. Why should the player explore a giant underwater, mutant-infested Utopian residential section? Why not just sit in the corner and not doing anything? In order to motivate the player to explore, there needs to be some sort of reward, and in this case it would be extra health, ammo, items, or power-ups. What's the reason for the player to defeat the gigantic cyclops boss in the Earth temple? To gain an extra heart container, advance the story, and unlock new areas of the world. Whether it's fighting a boss, or just exploring a level, there needs to be a reason as to WHY the player should be doing it. If there were no rewards for completing a given task, it would be pointless to do so. In game-design, there should always be a payoff to each of the player's accomplishments, whether they are big or small--the payoff will be adjusted accordingly. The greater the promise of reward in each specific task, the more incentive the player will have to reach it and the more intrigued he or she will be to keep playing the game.

2: Originality
The second item required in achieving satisfying goals is originality. When given the choice of hiking two places, one already hiked and one never traveled previously, which one will a given person choose assuming that both hikes have an equal payoff? Logically, most people will probably choose the hike they had never done before, because it provides a new experience.
When hiking Lembert dome, I had never seen the top before, so it was a new experience for me. If I had already experienced the view before, it would have not been quite as magnificent.
Likewise, with game-design, goals should be new and original in order to be satisfying. If the goal of every level in a game was the same (interrogate the traveling merchant, pickpocket a thief, then eavesdrop on a conversation) then it will become stagnant and boring. When you achieve those goals, it is not as rewarding because you've already done them before. If goals are new and unique (become a Big Daddy, liberate City 17) they will be more fulfilling because you have never done anything like it before. Goals should be original as much as possible in order to provide the best experience for the player.

3: Failure
The last element necessary for satisfying goals is a chance of failure. When reaching the peak of Lembert Dome, I saw the tall granite cliff wall and wasn't sure if I could scale it to the top, especially since it was dark and the sun was setting. Also, since this was an original goal, that added to the difficulty since I was not sure I could do it. If I knew I could have made it to the very top before I even started hiking, that would not have been as fulfilling. Instead, since there was a chance I could not do it, that I could fail, that made it much more rewarding when I got to the peak.
With game-design, an element of failure helps to motivate the player to give her best to complete a task. If a game is too easy, there is no satisfaction when reaching a goal. If you already know you can kill these two-hundred Germans because your health respawns and you quickload when you die 5 seconds prior for each death there is no chance of losing at all. This makes the completion of each goal unsatisfying since it was a matter of when, not how to complete the goal. In contrast, if you don't know how to defeat an enemy and may die in the process, it makes the success much more enjoyable. When the Big Daddy comes around a corner, and you are not sure if you have enough health, ammo, and leeway to destroy him while staying alive, it is very fulfilling when you fire the last bullet into him and he thuds to the ground, giving you a payoff of money and more. When you jump onto the final dragon boss and hookshot your way across several flying pedestals to reach the dragon's neck with only several hearts remaining, it is much more satisfying to destroy him while almost dying than to have beat him without losing a single heart container. It is the chance that you can fail, that you can die, that makes something so much more fulfilling when completed.

When I reached the top of Lembert dome, there was a feeling of mutual victory, thanks to the fact that I had some fellow hikers. In the same way in games, victory is just as sweet when shared with fellow players.
On last stage of Goldrush in Team Fortress 2, when the cart is several feet away from the drop zone for the first time (originality), and there is only several seconds left (chance of failure), victory is mutually satisfying when you push the cart in and get to kill your enemies while seeing the gigantic hole explode (payoff). A shared victory always holds something slightly more than an individual victory, but both still benefit from a payoff, originality, and chance of failure.

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