Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Prelude of the Chambered

Notch, the creator of esteemed indie hit, MineCraft, recently released a made from scratch in just 48 hours freeware 3D browser dungeon game called Prelude of the Chambered. And it's brilliant.

The game begins in a small jail cell; players have only one interaction (press space to use) and then start to explore and collect different items which have new interactions; as they continue to discover items, each new ability gives players access to larger areas with new items and more puzzles. The graphics are reminiscent of doom; the textures are extremely pixelated and the corridors are completely rectangular. And yet, despite the crudeness of the experience, the game evokes more primary joys of gaming than many modern games with years of work put into them. And I'm going to talk a little bit about why I think that's the case.

Games have the capacity to evoke certain experiences not found in other media and they do this through interaction. Whereas books and film directly communicate to the viewer through pictures, text, and sound, games communicate to players by letting them experience things and making choices firsthand. In theory, this can produce a much more engaging experience than being at the passive end of the literary stick. Part of what makes Prelude so good is that there is virtually no text in the entire experience. All of the journey, the characters, the explanation, comes as a result of firsthand player experience. We start in a jail cell - innately, we know we need to escape now. This isn't told to us in a cut-scene, rather, it is experienced by us. And there's no cut-scenes either. When something happens as a result of our direct participation, it becomes much more real to us and strengthens the experience so much more.

Prelude also contains a unique sense of empowerment through self-made goals. In the beginning, we are trapped in the jail cell - we have the goal to escape. Then we break open a wall using our only weapon: our fists. However, the next area is blocked by a boulder, too heavy for us to move. Instead, we descend into a dungeon behind us and find a power glove; we head back up and knock the boulder out of our way to continue on. The goals in Prelude are not forced upon us as a player - we are meant to discover them, create our own goals, and then find the means to reach those goals ourselves. When we finally find the item that can enable us to continue on, it empowers us in a way that many other games cannot. This sense of personal empowerment - the at first unsolvable problem becoming solvable through firsthand discovery - is something that Prelude does perfectly - it lets us create our own goals, and then empowers us with new abilities to find the means to reach those goals.

Finally, Prelude also creates meaning through gameplay--the narrative, the goals, and the emotion in the game come from our interaction with the world itself and how it reacts to us as a player. We start to feel and understand the world around us, not through exposition or backstory, but through gameplay. For instance, bats are perceived as friendlier due to their more harmless nature, while cacti men are dangerous due to their harmful projectiles which propel towards us. We understand who these characters are in relation to how they function in the world; a crack on the wall symbolizes a new path just waiting to be opened; a ladder represents a descent into a new territory; a golden enemy symbolizes a powerful foe with a great reward waiting to be gained upon its defeat. Meaning is created through interaction, which is something Prelude capitalizes on excellently.

The last boss encounter in Prelude is one in which we must face an enemy whom we cannot kill or attack - a golden ghost whom we must lure back through a bewildering maze into a magic urn, while dodging enemy attacks, and staying close enough to the ghost that it will continue to follow us. The experience this creates, while extremely low-fi at best, is one that evokes intense feelings of desperation, anxiety, and in the end, triumph.

is a simple game, which is also why it succeeds. It doesn't hinge on the outward form of its presentation, but rather presents an engaging set of mechanics that create an experience, rather than force one on the player. Prelude doesn't do more than it needs to and it sticks to what it does best - it returns to the primary roots of gaming and what makes it so fun in the first place: an immersive, empowering, and meaningful experience.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin is a movie that tricks the audience (spoilers to follow). This is important because there is definite distinction between tricking our protagonist - the character with whom the audience is usually supposed to sympathize with - and tricking the audience, whose very embodiment in the film is channeled (usually) through the protagonist. The difference between the two is that there is a clear violation of trust in tricking the audience not involved in tricking the protagonist.

The nature of trust stems from the principle of sympathy in films. We, the audience, need to embody our emotions in a character in which to understand the story. And so, we do that with a character who gains our sympathies. We want to feel things - and if we feel for a character, we root for them, and thus put our own emotional backing within that character. In Star Wars, Luke wants to become a Jedi; his parents die; Han Solo makes fun of him; and we emotionally back Luke - we want him to succeed. Luke becomes the embodiment of our sympathy and eventually so do the other cast of characters in the film, as well. In Lucky Number Slevin, the introduction is a bit more unconventional, but we are eventually made to believe that a guy named Slevin is our protagonist. And so, through his constant perils at the mishaps of mistaken identity at the hands of mafia henchmen, we are probably going to sympathize with him.

However, when characters do things that violate our trust - things that we disagree with - we (the audience) become unsympathetic to them. This is most common with villains, the "bad guys," of a story. Back in Star Wars, Darth Vader chokes the helpless rebel man who doesn't know where the Death Star plans are; he chokes again his own subordinates on the Death Star; he kills our dear friend, Obi-Wan. As a result, we don't like him - we are unsympathetic to him; and as a result, we don't want him to succeed. Rather, we want our protagonist, Luke, to succeed. In Lucky Number Slevin, we see the mob bosses and assassins of the film as unsympathetic in general, for they run contrary to Slevin's goals. They want Slevin dead, hurt, mangled, or otherwise. So we want Slevin to win, right?

Things become complicated when the film unveils it master trick, or "twist" (called a 'Kansas City Shuffle,' no doubt). Tricks are usually nice in movies - we like a good twist. But since Lucky Number Slevin tricks the audience rather than the protagonist, it fails to win our sympathies. When we find out that Slevin was really working with Mr. Goodkat, it meant that Slevin was lying to us the entire time. And because he was lying to us, that is a clear violation of our trust and we lose our sympathy with him as an audience. As a result, we don't feel anything in the twist - we just feel that we were lied to. We can't embody ourselves in him anymore as a character, because we never really knew him. In Star Wars, when it was revealed that Darth Vader was Luke's father, we felt that, because it wasn't revealed to the audience, per se - it was revealed to Luke. And we were right there with him, taking in all the joys and sorrows of his journey.

But Lucky Number Slevin violates this trust in tricking the audience, not the protagonist. We don't feel for the twist because Slevin wasn't tricked - we were. And the filmmakers knew that. Slevin knew everything that was going on, and we were led to believe that he was just as clueless as we were. We were rooting for him because we thought he was in peril. When we find out he was just deceiving us the whole time, we have no one to sympathize with who isn't killed, except for perhaps Lucy Liu's character. The one moment of redemption in the film is when she is saved, for she is one of the few characters kept alive who didn't know Slevin was a liar. When she dies, the movie becomes cold to us; when she is saved, there is some hope left.

Lucky Number Slevin is a movie that violates our trust, and in so doing, loses the audience. Movies are all about trust - we trust our characters, and we trust the filmmakers to provide a certain experience. When that trust is violated it breaks the suspension of disbelief and our sympathy. If we can't feel anything from a movie, then that movie failed to do what movies should do - and that is to tell us a story, not trick us for the sake of it.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

6 Things I Learned From Mass Effect

Mass Effect (2007), by BioWare, is an exploration of a traditional role-playing-game mechanics into less traditional RPG spaces. It takes risks, explores customary RPG tropes, and comes out a mixed bag. I would not say it's better than Knights of the Old Republic (well the combat, maybe) because it lacks several things that KoTOR just did so excellently: the proper sense of adventure (replaced in Mass Effect by a lawman investigation), a galactic conflict (replaced by a mostly solitary manhunt), or the endearing cast of characters whom you pick up in the most varied of ways (replaced by a small cast of characters mostly all picked up at the beginning, who really want to talk about their unique position in the universal socio-political space drama affecting everybody it seems).

The game explores character customization, loads of backstory, a fusion of RPG and FPS elements, and the ever-popular moral choice scheme. However, at the same time, it felt like BioWare was holding back - that they were keeping the best on reserve for use in coming sequels. Here are six things that I discovered while playing it, concerning both RPGs and storytelling as a whole in games.

1. Player Customization Only Occurs Out of Necessity

Like in so many other role-playing games, in Mass Effect, you are allowed to customize your character's armor and weaponry on the fly. The sentiment behind this is that you want to adjust your character's attributes for your style of play and the enemies you will encounter. For instance, when fighting organic life forms, you want the "organic-life-killing" type of bullet.

However, I totally ignored these options - whether out of boredom or plain negligence - until I finally started dying - a lot. Which made me realize in this case that dying was actually a good thing. It forced me to re-evaluate my stance on how I was playing the game. It forced me to actually strategize and make use of the game's features (granted, I still didn't know about biotics and I was six hours in). Once I kept getting killed by the same three Krogan mercenaries, I finally customized my armor and weapons in order to be able to survive the next battle. Dying is not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually enrich a player's experience, when used correctly. You want your game to be hard enough that it forces players to actively engage the features in front of them, and to make choices that thereby enrich the game's experience.

2. Backstory is Interesting Only When it Matters

An unfortunate incident that occurred in Mass Effect was the introduction. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's previous foray, Mass Effect begins with a lengthy dialog sequence on our ship's helm, explaining who we are about to fight, where, and for what reasons.

Does this matter to me as a player right at the beginning? No, not really. When KoTOR began, we understood that the Sith were evil and were trying to kill us. The game doesn't need to explain every detail of our mission (we're here to escort Bastilla, a Jedi - good enough). We just need to know the immediate situation. But in Mass Effect, we are encouraged to listen to something about a human colony, Prothean artifacts, intergalactic racial tension, and more all before we even have any actual gameplay. Since I have no emotional stake in this world or in these characters, why should I care about these things? Only when I have actually started playing the game, or experienced the world, or can connect these facts to a sympathetic character would these things start to matter to me.

Not to say that all exposition is bad - it works when it is presented at the right time and in the right place. But in Mass Effect, there's just so much of it - you can learn about the Citadel, dozens of alien races, countless planets and moons - that it becomes hard to realize what is important and what is just "filler", so to speak. Which led me to realize that the only time I cared about backstory was when it had a direct influence on my character and my main goal: to stop Saren. If it was important about the main goal, about the Protheans, or about understanding what I was doing, then it was important to me. Anything else presented was at a disadvantage of "Why?" Why is this useful to me as a player? Does it give me a better understanding of why I'm doing what I'm doing? If not, then that backstory information holds little value.

3. RPG Elements Only Succeed When We Have Enough Time to Act

Mass Effect is unique among many RPGs in that it is really an FPS-RPG: a First-Person-Shooter with Role-Playing-Game elements. This means that there exists both real-time, skill-based gameplay (aiming/combat), and turn-based, strategy-type gameplay (powers/customization). Mass Effect is not the first game to try this - the BioShock series also did something similar with its own assortment of weapons and Plasmids. However, Mass Effect's execution succeeds far more than BioShock due to one critical element: time.

In Mass Effect, players have a sufficient amount of time to strategize with their powers due to the fact that they can pause the game mid-battle, set up their next attack, and then resume. Contrast this to BioShock, in which when you want to use the appropriate plasmids on the correct enemies and environmental objects, the game can at many times be so chaotic that you don't really have a chance to make informed, strategic decisions, which defeats the purpose of having so many powers in the first place. On the other hand, because Mass Effect gives players sufficient time to pick and choose their powers of attack, it successfully melds both skill and strategy-based gaming elements.

4. Planning and Progression is What Makes Players Come Back

Why are RPGs (including Mass Effect) often so addicting? One way Mass Effect accomplishes this is through setting up goals only achievable in the future. For example, when you bring your two best buddy squad mates with you on a mission, you probably level up several times, and then realize that the other squad mates you left on the ship also leveled up. After this, you want to keep playing to get back to your other squad mates and level them up. You want to play and finally regain access to that reward - it's the idea of planning your next actions and playing in hopes of fulfilling that plan.

So many games today are about instant gratification and action that it's refreshing to play games that offer long term rewards. It also comes back to Flow Theory - you want the player to be engaged at the micro and the macro levels. Mass Effect contains both immediate goals (kill the enemies in the level) and long term goals (upgrade your squad mates with the loot you got, sell this weapon you found, complete this quest you discovered). Engaging the player both in the immediate and the long term encourages players to keep playing the game, enhancing its longevity.

5. Quests are Cumbersome Once Loot Becomes a Burden Rather Than a Reward

At a certain point in Mass Effect, side quests become very repetitive, becoming a chore rather than a fun activity. Part of this comes from the fact that the reward from the quests start to become a burden rather than a reward. How does this happen? Once loot from enemies starts to become useless (meaning you would have to sell or discard it to gain any real value), then the quests associated with that loot become a chore, since the reward from the quest is not worth getting at all. Therefore, it doesn't make any sense to go through the quest if your time is not justified by the ends.

What would have worked is A) Removing many of the side-quests; many of them are simply repetitions of each other and have no real intrinsic value. Just imagine if in KoTOR there were random side quests in-between planet-hopping to kill a Sith outpost resulting in useless loot - it doesn't add anything to the game - rather it just distracts from the main storyline. B) A second solution is to lessen the amount of "useless" loot and assign one specific item of value to the completion of each side quest. This way, players know that the completion of each side quest results in something particular gained, not just a repetition of the last quest's rewards. C) Or, simplify the process of discarding "useless" loot, so that the burden to sell it or break it down is removed from the player. Much of the hassle from these side quests and their loot comes with the monotony of performing the same item-discarding after the quest is over. When the rewards in a quest don't justify the means, then that quest no longer is fun for the player.

6. Choices Without Emotional Investment Aren't Meaningful Choices.

***Spoiler Alert*** One of the main emotional cruxes of Mass Effect takes place during an infiltration mission in which your team gets split up into two branches. With you are your immediate two squad members, and with each separate branch is another of your squad mates. One branch contains Kaidan, a biotic soldier; the other contains Ashley, a gunnery soldier. At a certain point in the mission, you are separated from both groups, each under attack by Geth soldiers. At this point, you only have the option to save one group and its squad member, leaving the other to die.

Admittedly this is a great set up. It forces you to make an actual decision which has severe repercussions - a character you have been playing with for 10-20 hours will die because of your actions. However, this didn't work for me because I wasn't emotionally invested in both characters enough to have to make a difficult decision. What I thought was going to happen was that the game would force you to choose between one of the members in your immediate squad. If one of these squad members had died, then I certainly would have been more emotionally invested, since I liked them enough to take them by my side in the first place. However, certain characters like Kaidan I almost never interacted with or shared any sentiment for. This could have been alleviated had the game forced me to use different characters at different sections of the game, becoming more attached to them emotionally. But because I never really used Kaidan anyway, a choice that was supposed to be emotionally difficult ended up not really being a difficult choice at all.

Part of that is understandable, for if the game let any character die, then it wouldn't make any sense, production-wise, to record so much dialog and gameplay in the sequels for characters that could have died. So, by limiting it to only one of two characters, Mass Effect restricts wasted production costs in the next games.


Mass Effect is a game that tries to do many things: meld FPS and RPG combat, create a living universe, have vehicle sections and many explorable planets, but it seems to fall prey to a recurrent trend in open-world gaming: the more freedom a player has, the less interesting the choices become. That is, the more options you give a player, the more generic they must become in order to be produced. It's the same in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - the world is huge and filled with so many things, yet the more you explore, the more everything seems to remain the same. Mass Effect appears to fall susceptible to the same error, for in trying to accomplish so many things, the game becomes more and more cumbersome and less generally interesting. There are so many repetitive side-quests, identical worlds, useless dialog sequences, endless backstory, and unintuitive customization options that Mass Effect becomes redundant rather than immersive. Had BioWare focused less on sheer quantity and crafting a tighter player experience, then Mass Effect would have been a much more enjoyable game.

Maybe in Mass Effect 2.

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