Thursday, December 22, 2011


Limbo is a game about two things: platforming and death. But it's also about gigantic spiders, perilous pits, murderous hotel signage, facades of danger, and mysterious tribal children who want to kill you.

Because of this, you could say Limbo is a game of two sides, of which all games are divided between: gameplay and story. Gameplay consists of the acts of interaction the player performs: jumping pits, pulling levers, pushing boxes, and evading danger. Story is the meaningful connotation those acts take on through visuals, sound, and writing. Combine the two and you are no longer a series of pixels jumping across an empty pit with spikes, but you are a lost boy with glasses, evading a gigantic spider, and searching for his missing sister.

Limbo is a game that takes advantage of this. It doesn't isolate its puzzles from its story but uses its story to infer meaning beyond its puzzles. What about games that focus on gameplay without story, such as Bejeweled, Solitaire, or Tetris? These games are fun on their own but what does story bring to the table? Story elicits an emotional connection between players and the game. Story has the power to create feeling, to give you a reason to play, to interact with your mind while your hands interact with the game. It has the power to re-contextualize actions so that they take on a meaningful form greater than the sum of their parts. Instead of Limbo being a game just about evading traps and progressing through a world, it instead becomes a game about an oppressed boy searching for his sister through many different perils. And I would argue that's where the real magic of games comes from: when stories and games work together to create something more beautiful than their isolated parts.

Limbo is a beautiful game also because it does not force any of these story elements on the player. There is no direct exposition, no text, and no narrator telling you who you are or why you are doing it. Therefore the meaning of the story is left up to the player to infer. When a group of tribal children begin to attack you, the player is left to wonder why are these children attacking me and who are they? One of the more poignant moments in the game is when the player sees one of these other children operating a fake gigantic spider after the player killed the real spider earlier. Moments like these raise narrative implications that go beyond their immediacy. Does this mean that this entire world of Limbo is a facade? That these children control all the traps and deviousness out to kill you? Such questions are never answered (for better or worse).

In that sense there is no narrative progression in the game; it works instead as an atmospheric exploration of the world the player inhabits, which inevitably must be about death. The core experience of the game revolves around platforming, yes, but everything and nearly everyone is out to kill you. And the amount of times you die as the player reinforces this notion of despair. If the game were to make a final narrative say, then it must be about death--what does it mean that this boy dies so many times? That everyone wants to kill him? That even the boy would risk so much for his sister? It may be assumed that she must be the one person not attempting to kill the boy but the ending of the game leaves this ambiguous, which remains a perhaps better thing.

Limbo is a successful game through its use of signifiers, things that take on new meaning based on their appearance or context. You are not just a player solving puzzles; you are a boy fighting for his life. This is more than what Braid did, which I commend Limbo for. It is in the meaning of the gameplay in Limbo that the true story emerges, not in narrative bookmarks left for us at the ends.

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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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Sunday, July 24, 2011

BioShock 2: On Rapture and Isolation

BioShock 2 is a re-journey through the city of Rapture, the failed underwater utopia, since befallen at the helm of Andrew Ryan, so thoroughly investigated by the game's predecessor. This time, you play as a Big Daddy, and your villain is the all-powerful female psychiatrist, Sofia Lamb, pitting against you many "Big Sisters," (above) while your goal is still somewhat to escape. However, the more I waddle through Rapture, the more I realize that BioShock is in essence not about failed utopias so much as the idea of social isolation.

From the beginning of BioShock 2, we get the sense that we are hated, as we were apparently forced to commit suicide in the distant past through the Plasmid mind control of Sofia Lamb. Once we wake up, we return to Rapture, still despised by the mix of raging splicers, whom we are forced to battle through a series levels, each controlled by a quaint ol' character with a stake of their own in Rapture's lineage. But the point being, the only social contact you have with the world is always plagued by negative reinforcement. Everyone out there is trying to kill you and even your fellow Big Daddies want you dead. And the only sane characters are always separated by a pane of glass, in a different room than you, disembodied - speaking to you through the radio (or even telepathy) - or in hiding. In this sense, you remain constantly isolated from every other character in the world of Rapture, including those of your fellow Big Daddies.

The Big Daddies, of whom you are the foremost, are some of the few characters who actually have a social attachment to another entity: the little sisters. In killing the Big Daddies (which is so integral to the gameplay - they give you Adam, the necessary ingredient for upgrading your character attributes and abilities) you sever the little sisters' connection from their Big Daddies, and forcingly take the little sisters to your side. This somewhat contrived social relationship gives you, the player, some form of companionship, yet it is tainted by forcefulness and fabrication, still leaving you with a lack of genuine friendship.

Yet the little sisters stand at the centerpiece of BioShock 2. You are meant to rescue them - and eventually be united with your original little sister - by exploring Rapture with all of its inhabitants, since impacted by the changes after the fall of Andrew Ryan. However, the times where I truly started feeling something - any sort of emotion in Rapture - weren't the times when I learned about the history of Rapture or its inhabitants' troubled pasts. Those stories are just words - they don't have any pertinence to the immediate. They don't have any impact on my journey - it's all history. On the contrary, what created feeling for me was what impacted me in the present, and that was companionship - from the little sisters, or even the hacked turrets, or the sentry bots, simply by fighting at my side.

BioShock 2 is a game in which you are literally pitted against an entire world of crazed maniacs who really, really want to kill you. Because of this, any sort of companionship means so much more, because of this great negativity oppressing you. This runs more so than other games such as Halo or Call of Duty, because the very nature of your character as a Big Daddy reinforces this, coupled with the physical detachment of being deep underwater. I didn't care so much for the plot - the gameplay was fine, although it turned into a cycle of 'spam projectiles, scoff down medkits, and then scavenge each room like a homeless person' - it doesn't matter why we're going through these levels, does it? We just do it because that's how the levels are designed - to be completed and explored by players. It's not because we really want to find Eleanor Lamb - we don't know her, or have any emotional connection to her; she's a disembodied voice who tells us things that we don't even know are truth. We go through these levels because they exist as levels, meant to be progressed and completed.

Which is disappointing because the real essence of the game comes from that sense of purposeful companionship, between Big Daddy and Little Sister. Yet the majority of the game is spent on killing varieties of monotonous enemies, scavenging resources, and performing the same mini-games over and over in order to survive. We do interact with the little sisters, but their function in the game is to serve as mini tower-defense sequences, not as a physical character journeying with you, sharing your hardships and trials. Yet it should have been more about the gaining of companionship, the triumph over isolation. Because that's what Big Daddies are about, right? The loss of humanity, the severance of emotional ties, the fabricated relationship with a 'Little Sister.' And to regain that true humanity is what the story should really be about.

The highest crux of emotional feeling in the game, being the arcing change from social isolation to companionship, occurs towards the end, when you are reunited with your little sister, Eleanor, now a Big Sister, ready to fight at your side. She comes to your aid in times of distress, actually wards off dangerous enemies, and finally gives you accompaniment through the once desolate and deadly environments of Rapture. When the game ends with your mutual escape, it is a powerful thing. It wasn't about all the environments, myriad of details, or the well-written depth of characters, telling us why we should do certain things. It was that feeling of companionship that made the game - some emotional connection to a character that actually affected us, not a disembodied voice or an array of narrative backstory. It was to about going from being isolated, socially, to having a friend. And that's what BioShock 2 was about in the end: gaining a friend - a big sister.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Halo 3 Ended a Trilogy

I liked Halo--the first one. It was a game about space, discovery, science-fiction. It was about saving the human race, killing aliens, exploring a mysterious new world, escaping alive in one piece--discovering something unique, leaving it behind and having changed something along the way.

It was a story about the hero's journey. We are Master Chief, in the human fleet, minding our business, trying to do the best we can to keep Earth a secret from these nasty Covenant aliens. But they attack our ship, we get thrown off course, and crash on a mysterious alien world which turns out to be an artificially constructed ring (a Halo, get it?). We grab our assault rifles, join forces with our comrades, rescue our captain, explore this ring, discover that it goes deep for (hundreds of?) miles, and try to find a way to escape. Eventually this means we blow it up, and in a thrilling final sequence we barely escape as the last soldier or alien alive.

But six years later
in 2007, Halo 3 seems to have forgotten what made it so great in the first place. Halo 3 isn't about a journey, the battle for people we care about, or even survival against an unstoppable foe. Instead it's about repetitive action and bad space drama, barely excused by a setup of invasions, war, explosions, and ancient alien technology. It's a game that's lost a sense of self, what it's trying to achieve or convey to players. It's a game that tries to be too many things, and in the end, isn't left with much anything at all.

It first started in Halo 2, when it tried to portray both sides of this intergalactic war and have us empathize with our enemies. The game had us control a new protagonist, the Arbiter, who previously killed humans but then decided to rebel and stop the other Covenant aliens. Then the true villains turn out not to be the covenant, but a council of evil snail-like aliens, which is spearheaded by an even more evil snail-like alien who wants to activate an ancient alien technology in a remote part of the galaxy that will inevitably kill all humankind and probably the universe.

Alarm signals started to go up when we were watching long cut-scenes about aliens incapable of human vocal tracts speaking in English and debating space drama unrelated to what we thought was a story about Master Chief. This is raised another step in Halo 3 when the Flood, the zombie-like creatures in the game, proceed to join forces with us, speaking to us through animated tree-branch-like appendixes hanging out of their deformed mouths. This is the equivalent of the zombies and headcrabs in Half-Life 2 deciding to ally with Gordon Freeman and doing so by speaking to him with sensible English dialog. In Halo 3, the dynamic relationship between the Flood, the Covenant, and Master Chief constantly shifts until all understanding and sympathy is lost in the process.

The gameplay in Halo 3 consists of romps through different locale throughout Earth and beyond, but the setting is barely made important other than the fact that we are always chasing someone or something related to the end of the universe. Contrast this to the goals in Halo 1, which are progressive as we discover with our friends, the other human soldiers, where we are, and what we are trying to achieve. First there is the discovery of the Halo, the map room, and then the control room, each adding deeper layers to the story and our overall goals. Halo 3's goals consist more of locations--the game wants you to be here, and then there, which is briefly explained in a voice-over and pitched with a few key terms, such as "Ark," "Covenant," or "High Runner," meant to alleviate the fact that there is no progressive reason for you to be at these locations other than for convenient action sequences.

Interrupted by these segments of action in Halo 3 are meaningless monologues by Cortana, whom we have since been separated from in Halo 2, who spouts bits of information without any real purpose. These aren't like the audio logs in BioShock or the propaganda in Half-Life 2, which enrich the world and enlarge our sense of immersion by detailing important backstory and enhancing characterization. Halo 3's monologues consist of phrases such as "I am your light, your savior. I knew you," or "The way it ends is foreseen. You know this to be true." These segments are more like bad poetry than any pertinent story development. Furthermore, these segments actually slow down time in the game to a crawl and steal control away from the player, getting us further annoyed by hampering our progress in between actual gameplay.

There were one or two moments in Halo 3 where I felt that sense of meaning in the original Halo. It was when I jumped into an Orca (the flying helicopter thing, like the one in Avatar), and two other human soldiers jumped on the side of the wings, and we proceeded to do something related to one thing or another. But the point is we were part of a larger battle. The game wasn't about me killing endless enemies with a large assortment of weapons. The game at that moment was about achieving a series of goals with your human comrades, as part of a larger battle against a horrible foe.

As a whole, Halo 3 lost this sense of meaning for me. It appeared to be a game constructed for the sake of itself--for action, closure, and the fulfillment of the marketing of a popular sequel. Halo 1 was about something, even to the smallest degree: discovery, survival, camaraderie. Halo 3 wasn't about this; rather, it was about the immediate, the superficial--action for the sake of action, an ending for the sake of an ending--a game that existed just to exist.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Portal 2

Sequels must balance a fine line between predictability and novelty. They must capture the essence of what made the original so great, while standing on their own as a complete experience. The first Portal succeeded because it surprised players. It took something vaguely expected--a challenging, dimension-altering puzzle game--and subverted that with dark humor, an emotional and physical rebellion of the artificial intelligence overlord, Glados, and the manifestation of a world beyond the immediate testing chambers. We expected to be trained in portal technology--we didn't expect to go an emotional journey through a science fiction narrative.

With Portal 2, we come with many expectations. At the end of Portal, Glados is destroyed, we escaped (or did we?), and Aperture Science stood as the enigma facility that it was. So how do you innovate on the concept of portal gameplay, testing chambers, aperture science, and the artificial intelligence overlord, Glados?

The beginning of Portal 2 gets this right. We are awakened by a new voice, that of Wheatley, in a foreign location. This creates an expository "gap-filling" in the player's mind, causing them to interact with the game narrative by filling in the missing details between Portal 1 and Portal 2: how did I get into this 1950s hotel room? Where am I? Who is Wheatley? And how does he function? This gets us interested in the narrative in the same way that Portal 1 interested us: Who/where are we? Why are we testing with portal guns (and so on)? If Portal 2 began outdoors, with the wreckage of Glados, then it would not be nearly as engaging, because that is the expectation. Portal 2 subverts that with a new, disembodied character in a foreign environment, and thus we are motivated to keep playing and alleviate this narrative dissonance.

Unfortunately, the game becomes more predictable from here on out. With the revival of Glados, she re-assumes her role from Portal 1, and expectantly takes vengeance upon us. Having Glados serve as our overlord does not offer us anything new, because we already experienced this in Portal 1. We know how she will act as our testing proctor, we know how the test chambers will proceed, and so this decreases our motivation as a player. Even though it was fun to fight Glados the first time, we evolved from that. We overcame Glados. We defeated her. And now the story and gameplay should move on.

Moreover, reviving Glados this early in Portal 2 disinterests players by removing that great "gap-filling" narrative dissonance. By entering the narrative this early, she is able to spout direct exposition at you, removing key mysteries in the narrative: What happened since she was gone? Was she really not even angry? Was she being so sincere right then even though you broke her heart and killed kill her? If you do not allow Glados to answer this by keeping her dormant, this leaves those open questions to the helm of Wheatley. This would make it much more interesting, since Wheatley speaks to you with the clout of unfamiliarity, not directly acknowledging the events of Portal 1. Continuing this would have made the story much more engaging due to the lack of narrative closure, motivating the player to continue playing and find out the answers to the dissonant questions between Portal 1 and Portal 2.

In contrast to reviving Glados early, a better way to have subverted player expectations in Portal 2 would have been to treat Wheatley as the main villain during the first act of the game. Instead of reviving Glados, simply input Wheatley into the dead Glados core early and have him betray you at that point. Then, leave Glados out of the narrative until the mid-section of the game when you explore Aperture Science's history.
If you let Wheatley serve as the villain during the first act, it gives the player the firsthand experience of his villainy so that players can learn to despise him as a character. You can use him as a different test proctor to provide a new testing experience for players instead of rehashing Glados in the first act. Then Wheatley's evil nature would be directly impacted on the player's tests, motivating the player to overthrow him as the facility overlord. This makes the player much more motivated to defeat Wheatley in the second act by finding and allying with the player's previous enemy, (and the lesser of two evils) Glados.

Moreover, you can use Glados' second act introduction as a catalyst for the backstory of Aperture science. Just say that Glados has a reboot copy of her personality hidden deep within the mining sections of the facility. This gives a natural story incentive to explore these back sections of Aperture Science other than just, Let's run with Potato Glados, escape the underground, and defeat Wheatley while learning about the history of Aperture Science on the way! You can then tie in learning Aperture Science's personal history into discovering the location of Glados as a story means. Then, the back-story of Aperture Science would be embedded into the story goal of finding Glados' backup, rather than the side-juxtaposition it is now in the happenstance discovery during your mining escape.

Finally, the last act of Portal 2 subverts the player's expectations better, but by this time in the narrative, we can already see how the game will end. The original Portal was great because we started the game only with the expectation of completing test chambers. However, this was totally subverted towards the latter chambers, as notions of an escape crept in on us. By the time we switched our goals from testing to escaping and got to Glados' final test chamber, the realization that we were going to destroy her finally became a fulfilled reality. In contrast, in Portal 2, our expectation at the beginning is already to escape. Even after this is thwarted with Glados' resurrection, our goal never changes from this, even after Wheatley betrays us, and we get dumped into the back-sections of Aperture's history. Despite the fact that the during the last act, the game uses a great set piece (Aperture Science 1950s-1970s) and the new gameplay devices of the gels (which are implemented very intuitively), it is all progressing toward a predictable conclusion. Because of this predictability and the fulfillment of our expectations in our narrative goals, we are not nearly as motivated to escape as we were in the spontaneous rebellion in the last act of Portal 1.

So how do you successfully subvert player expectations when creating a sequel? Valve already did it with a different "2" game, Half-Life 2. That game took the original source material of Half-Life and expanded on it to create the oppressed, post-apocalyptic world of City 17, where aliens have enslaved the human race. It did not retread its old material at all--an alien invasion in a subterranean New Mexico facility--rather, Half-Life 2 used its source material as a foundation to go further, to explore new areas (Ravenholm, the Coast, Nova Prospekt), new characters (Alyx, Eli, Dr. Breen), and new forms of gameplay (the Gravity Gun) not restricted by the original concept of Half-Life. Half-Life 2 subverted our expectations as a player, and because of that, it broke new ground and made Half-Life 2 an arguably even better game than the first.

Portal 2, however, mostly sticks to the expectations from Portal 1: the return to Aperture science, the continuing use of test chambers, the vengeance of Glados, and more portal puzzles in a linearly progressing chamber sequence. We experience the same type of portal gameplay as Portal 1, yet unfortunately we don't have the succinct emotional beats of isolation, rebellion, and escape or even that sense of mystery which motivated us to escape. Instead, we experience the expected: a prolonged and failed escape, a continuous use of testing chambers, our submission to Glados, and a foreshadowed betrayal with Wheatley. Portal 2 does do many things right, such as the role-reversal of Glados as our inferior, the handling of the gels, and the ultimate relationship with Wheatley, but its failure to subvert our overall expectations results in a game that cannot match the same awe as in the first Portal and the surprises that it gave us.

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