Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A Class of Angels

 I have started a YouTube channel where I'll be discussing many of the same topics I discuss on this blog. 

As part of the YouTube channel I have started a series called A Class of Angels where we'll be looking at advanced writing techniques by analyzing the show.

The first episode is live here.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Layering of Rogue-Lights

Rogue-lights generally have two currencies the player receives, one within the run and one outside of it. The currency within the run is generally used on temporary upgrades, relics that give the player an upper hand, but expire at the end of the run. The currency that persists outside the run is used for permanent upgrades, such as dealing more damage or starting with more health, that help the player steadily improve, even in the face of failure.

This is the brilliance of the rogue-light design over the original rogue-like. Even if a player has a bad run, they still gain some sort of long term progress rather than having to bang their head against the same wall over and over without anything to show for it. Lately I've noticed a maturation of this design, where there is not one avenue of long term progression, but several overlapping methods of long term progression to encourage play.

This design element is probably best known as the One More Turn feeling you get from a game like Civilization. The original Civilization's design accidentally stumbled on an overlapping structure of short, medium, and long term goals that make it so the player is always working towards something, always accomplishing something else, always planning on the next thing they want to do. A player might be positioning soldiers for a coming war in the short term, then deciding what building to put in a new city, strategizing on what paths to take in the tech tree. It ensures that no matter what's going on, there's always something happening this turn to keep the player's interest, always something that will need to be done next turn to keep them playing.

Recently I played two rogue-lights that either intentionally or not replicated this system in their upgrade trees. It ensured that even if I had an unsuccessful run and acquired little of the long term currency, I was still working towards goals, I was still making progress.

The first of those games was Children of Morta, a rogue-light dungeon crawler in the vain of something like Diablo or Gauntlet. The game centers around a family tying to fight an evil god. Each run the player selects a family member to play as, each with their own abilities and play style, and fights through several levels of a dungeon. The run ends when either the player defeats the boss, or the player is killed. Regardless, the player leaves the dungeon with whatever gold they've acquired, to be used on permanent upgrades. So far so normal.

The added layer comes in with how the characters progress. Each family member gains experience independent of the other, increasing in level and unlocking new skills as they progress, standard to most RPGs. On top of this, every four levels the characters gain a special perk that applies to every other family member. So instead of just that character dealing extra damage, now all the characters deal extra damage. This is great not only because it helps layer on added progression, but because it incentivizes players to use all of the characters, even if it isn't a play style they would normally try.

The second game was Pathway, a sort of XCOM meets Indiana Jones style rogue light, where the runs are these FTL style maps punctuated by XCOM like tactical battles. What's partially unique about Pathway is there is no in run currency. The game uses money as both the in run currency and out of run currency, creating an interesting dynamic where the player has to choose between buying more supplies for this run or rolling the dice and saving the cash for permanent upgrades later.

In addition to cash which can be used for upgrades to the party's jeep (essentially their base), individual characters level up and gain abilities, just like in Children of Morta. On top of this the player finds items and equipment as loot that can be given to characters and that persists between runs. Once again you have an overlapping system where you're always working toward something. Even if you didn't get any good loot from that fight, at least your characters gained some experience. Even if you got wiped in a battle and didn't level up, you got some cash for permanent upgrades. Maybe several battles have gone past without much experience or gold gained, but you got a cool new rifle or set of armor out of it.

By layering these upgrades, the game not only keeps the player invested, it provides that same One More Turn experience, luring the player into going on just one more run when they might otherwise think it was pointless. Growing up, I never got into Shoot 'em Ups, or scrolling shooters because I was god awful at them. In recent years however I took a strong liking to the Sky Force games, which are vertical scrolling systems with added rogue-like elements, so even if you fail a run you have some currency left over with which to upgrade your ship.

Borrowing these design choices and philosophies from other genres can not only help to re-invigorate old genres by turning them into rogue-likes, but it can also breathe new life into the still young rogue-like genre. I loved FTL but damn was that game hard. Not only was it challenged on its face, but there was a lot of RNG that could send a run sideways. It was really frustrating in that game to lose through what felt like random chance and have nothing to show for it but a slightly better understanding of the game.

Pathway, which has a very similar set up to FTL in terms of its map progression, softens that blow by making sure the player is always gaining something. XCOM, the other game that Pathway borrows heavily from, often suffers from what players perceived to be bad RNG. The difference is that when a battle goes south in XCOM, not only does the player walk away with nothing, but they walk away with a permanent loss, a setback that delays progress toward the overarching goal of defeating the aliens and saving the world.

Overlapping progression like those in Pathway and Children of Morta help the player feel like they're gaining something even when losing. It makes us feel like we aren't wasting our time, like we're still crawling forward toward the summit even if it's only an inch by inch. As designers I think there's a lot to learn here and a lot of room left to experiment in the genre. If nothing else, it will keep these games interesting and the player engaged.


Thank you for reading. If you would like to support this blog or my work, you can check out my short stories on Google Play.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Spiderman, Combat, and Traversal in Video Games

I recently revisited the Insomniac developed PS4 Spiderman over the past few weeks, partially because I never played the DLC and partially because I watched Into the Spiderverse and Far From Home.  I really enjoyed the game when it first came out, using it as the impetus needed to finally buy a PS4. The game was exactly what it needed to be, mixing a fluid version of the Batman/Arkham style combat system with traversal that really makes the player feel like Spiderman. The writing and story are solid throughout, and though the game has a lot of side content, it never really overstays its welcome.

While the playing the DLC over the past few days I've been thinking about both these elements quite a bit, about how it has borrowed and in some places elevated the Arkham style combat, how fun and engaging the traversal is, the purpose of side content and even how much heavy lifting the animations do in the game to make the player feel alive.


We've all become familiar with the Arkham style of combat over the past few years, itself an update of the Assassin's Creed combat formula. In Assassin's Creed, it was slow and deliberate, focused almost entirely on blocking and countering. For the Arkham games, Rocksteady built a much stronger foundation using those earlier seeds. They took the simple attack and dodge button used by Ubisoft and layered on top of it specific moves to respond to certain types of enemies, and Batman's iconic gadgets.

At its base, it's a really simple control scheme. Square for attacks, Circle for dodging, a button for gadgets. Buttons can be mashed for quick results, or hit in certain sequences to perform combos, with the auto aim and animations doing the heavy lifting. Challenge is added through the use of special enemies that need to be attacked in a specific manner. Enemies with melee weapons have to be knocked off their feet, enemies with shields have to be jumped over, enemies with electric weapons attached from a range with gadgets. The only real weakness in the system is that it can cause Batman to whip around the screen from opponent to opponent in these Herculean lunges, which gives an unnatural feeling of fluidity to the stoic Batman.

Thus the system works perfectly for the agile Spiderman. Seeing him slide between a shielded opponent's legs, launch someone into the air to do a combo, or jump across the battlefield to kick someone in the face all fit Spiderman's tone and style. While some may deride Insomniac for lifting Batman's combat, they use it well and managed to polish some of the combat's weaknesses. Rather than try and reinvent the wheel they decided to polish an existing system to great effect. 

And to me, this is where things get interesting from a design standpoint. Designers, game or otherwise, are often challenged to come up with something new, something we haven't seen before. There's an enormous pressure to build, experiment, explore, even when something that already exists is perfectly valid. Insomniac could have spent a lot of time and effort to come up with an entirely new combat system from the ground up, but would that have really made the game any better? People aren't coming to a Spiderman game for a Dark Souls like system of precision and parrying, they're coming to feel like Spiderman. Using an existing system that players are used to helps lower that barrier of entry and get them whipping and punching and web-slinging like Spiderman in no time.

This is all the easier to justify because of how well the system suits this particular hero. The Infamous games have largely forgone melee, instead using a quasi shooter mechanic, where Cole fires bolts of electricity at people. That could have worked for Spiderman, replacing the electricity for webs, but it wouldn't have captured his agile style of jumps, whips and punches. When someone, perhaps Rocksteady, eventually makes a Superman open world game (it's bound to happen eventually) will they go with something similar? Does it make since for Superman to dodge, punch and counter in the same way as Spiderman and Batman, with or without the gadgets? 

These are all questions of design, and force us to consider what really is the best combat system for the hero we are trying to evoke. The Batman and now Spiderman method would probably work great for someone like Wolverine, but appear awkward or stilted for someone like Iron Man. I still can't help but think there are cooler refinements to be made with this combat system, as tired as some people may be getting from it, and hope to see studios experiment with it further in the future. There's no shame in settling on, and refining, a system that works. After all, no one complains when a game maps shooting a gun to the Right Trigger on a controller. We collectively decided that's the best place for it, the best way to implement that desired result. There's no reason why this combat system should be any different.


Back to Spiderman, did you know that game has a fast travel system? I played it for hours, maybe even tens of hours before realizing you could take the subway to a different part of Manhattan.   This wasn't from bad UI or from a lack of tutorialization, it was simply because I was having too much fun moving around the city as the friendly neighborhood hero.

Similar to the combat, the traversal is pretty simple from a user perspective. The Righter Trigger shoots a web and Spidey swings. There's a jump button and a sort of air dodge you can do with circle, a couple of tricks you can perform, and some special launching abilities Spidey earns over time, but at its core the system is really just about swinging. And it feels so good. The momentum, the arc of the swing, how releasing it affects your altitude and speed. They really nailed what it feels like to swing like through the city, both at the street level and higher up thanks to a host of graphics and animation tricks. 

The traversal is a huge appeal to that game and something the fans demanded be as true to life as possible. It's no wonder then that I skip fast traveling in that game. After all I'm there to feel like Spiderman, and swinging through those neighborhoods definitely makes me feel like the titular hero. I had a similar experience when playing through the Arkham games, using the combination of grappling hook and gliding cape to get my away around Gotham. Arkham Knight did add the batmobile though, and the gliding never felt as good as Spidey's swing.

Again I'm left to wonder how other games would handle this. If you think about Superman for a moment, and his flight, would players really want to do this in an open world game for as long as they want to swing as Spiderman? A lot of the appeal from swinging comes from the movement in between buildings, the navigating of corners, the swooping changes in altitude at the touch of a button. None of that would really work for Superman. Sure, you could fly between buildings, zig zagging across Metropolis' blocks, but would you? It's far more likely the player would simply fly straight up, clear the roof tops, and then fly across the city in a straight line. It would be faster than flying through the city, but would it be fun?

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is another superhero game that allows you to traverse an open world. You can play as both Spiderman and Iron man in those games, as well as use vehicles. Now you might think that Spiderman is the most fun to play in that game when traversing the open world, swinging around like his PS4 counter part, but to me that's pretty far from the case. It's Iron Man who I enjoy playing the most as.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes Spiderman doesn't swing true like the PS4 version. The Lego webs simply connect to a spot in midair and propel Spiderman along. There are some nice pendulum effects and animation to go with it, but it doesn't match the robustness you can get from a dedicated, fully featured Spiderman game. Iron Man's movement is similarly stilted, he just flies across the map. But the reason I has so much fun with it is how he takes off. Iron Man flies by double tapping the A button. The first hit causes Iron Man to jump into the air, but the second hit engages his boosters, causing him to rocket into the sky and fly off. It's really satisfying at the end of a mission to leap into the air and zoom away as some little old lady thanks you for pulling a cat out of a tree. 

That certainty could be incorporated into a Superman game, but would it be enough? One of my favorite games of all time is Morrowind, a game that had very limited vast travel that was only accessible from a few specific points. When I revisited that game a couple of years ago, I had forgotten about this and was really frustrated by having to walk everywhere, something I originally had praised the game for. This is true of later games in the series like Skyrim. I rarely if ever walked any length of distance in Skyrim unless I had to. I mainly fast traveled around the map from point of interest to point of interest.

The difference is that walking around in an Elder Scrolls game is boring. It's like walking in real life in that it's slow and not much happens as the scenery slowly drifts by. Sure, occasionally you fight a dragon or run into a quest, but few of those moments are very memorable. While crimes occasionally pop up as Spiderman traverses the city, the act of traversal in engaging enough to do on its own. While few games are going to be able to have their player zipping around on web-lines, it does present design challenges even for games of the same genre. Would flying around metropolis as Superman actually be fun? How does the designer encourage that over simply flying up and over in the quickest method mathematically?


The secret ingredient to making these systems work in Spiderman is the animations. Dan Floyd did a video on the animations in the game on his channel here. To me the true wonder isn't in how good the animations are, it's how many of them there are. The animations are wonderful, clearly the work of very talented people, but its how they're used that I find so impressive.

Returning to combat for a moment, there's only one doge button, Circle, and only one dodge move from a strictly mechanical perspective. The player hits circle, Spiderman moves out of the way in the direction the player directs. For this one act there are close to a dozen animations however. Sometimes he flips out of the way, sometimes he pirouettes with the grace of an acrobat. Sometimes he jumps, sometimes he slides, and he generally has multiple ways of doing all of these actions, all for the same button press, the same input on behalf of the player.

This gives the system the appearance that it is a lot deeper then it is, that somehow Spiderman has many doge moves, when in reality they are the same. This not only makes the character feel more alive, it makes the combat system a better fit the character. In the Batman Arkham games, Batman has a few blocking/counter animations that mostly involve him either catching the person's fist, or moving inches out of the way. This fits Batman's strong, stoic persona. In Spiderman however, he makes sweeping jumps, arcing acrobat moves, and tight flips to get out of the way. Same combat system, same player input, same mechanical result, but two wildly different feels for both the gameplay and the character, based solely on the animation used. It's a brilliant implementation of the design, not simply copying it, but changing it to adapt the character's needs.

Side Content

 The one area where both of these games, Spiderman and the Arkham series tend to fall short is the side content. For the record I love all of these games and completed most if not all of the side content in them. I especially have in Spiderman, where I one hundred percent-ed both the main game and the DLC. Each series has slightly different implementations of side quests, but they tend to fall into a few buckets. There are combat arenas where waves of enemies come at the heroes, various races or time trials, item/scavenger hunts, and challenges focused on the use of gadgets.

Each of these side activities are used multiple times, with slightly different variations, stamped across the map in a cheaper, easier way to pad out the game's run time. Adding more mainline story with dialogue, voice acting, and custom scenery assets is expensive. Spawning thirty bad guys in a room is cheap. As fun as some of these challenges can be, I think this is where these games stumble the most thematically. I can't help but wonder when playing Spiderman for instance, where Hammerhead found literally hundreds of henchmen to work for him, let alone the other bad guys in town.

I wish studios making these games instead focus on tighter, more story driven focused events for this side content, rather than stamping cloned activities all over the map. While more expensive, it would make for a better experience. The Witcher 3 had its fair share of formulaic content, but some of its best story telling is done in those side quests. Arkham Knight has a great side quest tracking down a serial killer. From a gameplay standpoint its little more than a scavenger hunt, looking for certain landmarks in the open world, but its done in a way that makes the player feel like Batman. While more expensive, it works better than the hundreds of Riddler trophies spread around the map.

One of the clever ways Spiderman ties all of this together is in the random crimes that pop up over the city. When traversing from one area to another, Spiderman will occasionally be alerted to nearby crime. This is usually a small, tightly focused combat encounter that comes in a few different flavors. While short, these encounters are genius in the way it solves a lot of these problems.

Like the combat arenas, they're cheap to make, mixing pre-existing art assets with a few spawned enemies. Unlike the other side quests though, they reinforce what it feels like to be the hero and encourages traversal at the same time. These quests don't pop up when using the fast travel system, but will emerge as Spidey swings around town from one point to another. It captures that feeling of the hero on control, and pads out the time between story missions. Compare that to the bleak, abandoned Gotham of the Arkham games, and you can compare how much more it captures the feeling of being a super hero.

All of these things, the animation tweaks to the combat system, the fleshed out traversal, the crimes in progress, they show that a lot of great material can come out of refining an existing design, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. As consumers, we tend to get sequel fatigue pretty quickly. We get tired of the same old same old, but as Spiderman shows, there's often much to be found in revisiting an old design and adding another layer of polish.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Subnautica: Minimal Storytelling, Survival and Exploration

The following contains mild spoilers for the beginning of Subnautica.

The beginning hour of Subnautica is one of my favorites in any video game. It starts with a space ship exploding, a life pod ejecting and the player character getting knocked unconscious. Upon waking, they find the cabin of their life pod on fire and filling with smoke. A hasty sweep of the fire extinguisher helps get control of the situation. Heart rate decreases, a moment passes to breath and regain composure. Climbing the ladder of the life pod, the player emerges onto a beautiful and heartbreaking scene. The Aurora, the space ship that moments before they had been ejected from, lies in the water, smouldering and on fire. All around, for miles in every direction is an unbroken horizon of crystal blue water. No islands. No structures. You've got a knife and a fire extinguisher and a broken, barely functioning escape pod. Good luck.

Subnautica is a survival game of the kind that has become all too prevalent on Steam. You've got a health meter and a water/hydration meter. There are crafting materials and blue prints of how to build things. But unlike the blocks of Minecraft or the endless forests of other crafting games that ask you to punch a tree until you have enough wood to make an axe, Subnautica leaves you with only the endless waves and a crashed spaceship. Diving beneath the surface reveals another world of plants and fish and color and beauty. It's enough to lure you into the loop. Get food and water to stabilize your needs, then go out for crafting materials. Build tools. Repair your life pod. Repair your radio.

There's no story here, no clever writing in these earlier moments aside from your PDA's helpful A.I. guiding you through the early motions of survival. The player character isn't named, they aren't even gendered aside from the grunted voice acting as you jump or hop or get bit by a shark. In these early moments there is only you, and the water, and the crashed ship and the will to survive, to explore. You can't swim that far from the life pod, you've only got so much air and it holds the precious fabricator that allows you to make clean water, well prepared food and your precious tools. That is of course until you get your first radio message.

The player isn't the only one to have bailed off that crashing ship of course. There are others, their life pods failing, their lives slipping away as they sink beneath the waves. You can try to save them but you'll never make it. The ocean, the predators lurking beneath the waves, the mistakes of those trapped inside. Fate always gets there first and all that's left are the shattered remains left behind, the scraps that help you survive a bit longer. Your alone here, with only the ghosts of those who weren't lucky enough to survive to keep you company. This is only the first hour of a game a I spent fifty two hours in before rolling credits. Fifty two hours of crafting and fishing and making clean water and building habitats. Fifty two hours of the ocean, of a single enviroment, of a single landscape. Fifty two hours of a small subset of simplified mechanics in an ever shrinking sandbox devoid of NPCs or quests or loot drops. Why? Because of the Sunbeam.

The Sunbeam is one of the first major story beats in Subnautica. It starts like most other things with a radio transmission. The Sunbeam is somewhere out there in the solar system, and they've gotten your distress call. The first message from their captain is him admonishing the entire crew of the Aurora for not answering the damn phone. The Aurora says it's in trouble, it calls asking for help but when we're returning your call you don't even bother to answer. How rude. Meanwhile you're in a tiny pod in an endless ocean with the view of a burning hulk to comfort you as the sun goes down and the temperature drops, left alone to enjoy your dinner of creeper, washing it down with water you milked out of a bladder fish.

The next day you get another message. It's the Sunbeam's captain. They've detected the large debris field that used to be your ship. He's sorry, he's so damn sorry. After all, he spent the last call mocking a bunch of dead people for not bothering to get off their lazy butts and answer the phone. But's it okay. He offers hope. They're across the solar system, but they're coming to rescue you. To take you home. A few more days pass. I managed to build a small submersible craft called a Seamoth that let's me zip around the ocean floor. I built a small base and started raising crops. The Sunbeam sends me a new message everyday. They're getting close. They're looking for a place to land. They've found an island far to north, farther out then I've ever been. Don't worry they say, they'll be there soon.

A count down timer appears on the HUD. I grabbed all the bottles of water and cured fish meat I could carry and stuffed it in my little submersible. I raced across the oceans, watching that little timer tick down, ignoring the calls of others in distress. I had to get there. I couldn't miss this chance. In this place I was so alone, but it was over now. I was going home. The site of land was mesmerizing. For all this time there had been only water, but here hidden behind the clouds was a tiny island. The landing zone was at the north side, I would make it there with plenty of time to spare. Then, rounding the island I saw a building, the first I had seen on this planet that I myself had not built. But it was wrong. Black, full of neon green lines at right angles. Guarded by a force field. Alien.

So I explored the island. And I entered the facility and I learned that while I was alone, I was not the first to come here. But all the while the timer was ticking down. The Sunbeam was coming. I couldn't miss the pick up. Coming back up to planet, I heard the radio transmission. The Sunbeam was here, their captain saw the island. He saw me. They were touching down. This was it, I was going home. But then the building awoke and turned and looked suspiciously like a cannon. There was a flash of light, a burst of screams and then only static. The Sunbeam broke apart like my own ship had and was no more. I was alone again, more so, for the hope of rescue was now dashed.

And I was hooked. Hooked on Subnautica and its story, whatever it turned out to be. Told in much maligned audio logs and journal entries, the story of Subnautica is told sparsely, with long hours of only the waves and the ambient music and the bubbles to keep you company. But it works, it works so well to flesh out the world and add layers to something that appears so flat, so unforgivably silent.

This game is so stupidly pretty in motion.
There are, arguably, too many survival games on Steam. Many of them follow the same model of punch a tree and get a stick. Add a stick and a rock and get an axe and go from there. It's the "go from there" where many of them fall apart. Sure their are things to craft and a tech tree to climb, but there's no real reason to do any of it. The latest trend in these games has been to add multiplayer, to hope the fun and the interesting stories will be player driven and dynamic. While this looks on the surface to be a decision born of wanting to give players an endless mix of new and interesting stories, it is actually a failure of design. Unable to come up with a solution for making the world interesting, they shift a design problem to being a technical one. While adding multiplayer to game isn't easy, it provides a set of logical steps that can followed and a clear indication of whether or not it's working. Building a world that is interesting to be in on its own is far more challenging. Worst of all, these games takes place in familiar forests and caves. Subnautica succeeds not only because they use their environment so well, but because they were willing to do something more with it.
There are at least a half a dozen distinct areas within Subnautica, all hidden beneath the ocean waves and flowing seamlessly into one another. Each hides treasures and materials and story. Each biome is visually distinct, not only lodging it in the player's memory, but serving as its own reward. Each has new life forms, a new color palette, new challenges to be overcome. And that's why at its heart Subnautica isn't really a survival game at all. It's an exploration game that uses those survival elements to push forward that sense of exploration.

Within minutes of playing Subnautica I was set up in a way that ensured I would never fail to survive. I had food. I had water. I had a first aid kit in case I danced too closely with a shark. I strove out into the wilderness, into that inherent risk because I wanted to see what was there. At first I wanted to search for wrecks, for pieces of the Aurora that had fallen so far from where I landed, to find blueprints and new things to assemble. Then I searched to look for new areas, new wonders and life forms, to scan them and build out my database. To catalogue and understand the world around me. Finally I went out in search of answers, of a cure for the mysteries that lie at the center of the ocean. 

It's a blueprint, a map, I wish more survival games followed. Way back on the Gameboy color there was a game series called Survival Kids, later Lost In Blue on the DS, that understood this well. Yeah there was a hunger meter and a thirst meter, but there were also ruins and puzzles and mysteries to uncover. So many games are about exploration. Of systems, of combat mechanics, of equipment and story. They have an unparalleled ability to show us new worlds and experiences. In many, many games I have walked through forests. I was walked through caves and put a rock and stick together to make an axe. In far too few games have I swam through them. In far too few games have I navigated my way through a sunken wreck, looking for treasure, keeping a mental route of the way I swam in so I knew how to get out before my air supply was empty. In far too few games have put an egg into a incubator just to learn what came out, not so I could get some upgrade, or a new companion, but because I wanted to better understand this world that I lived in.

Subnautica isn't perfect. There are times when the game fails to render the scene fast enough. There was a time in which I was cruising through the ocean so quickly in my Seamoth that I hit an invisible wall, only for an entire wreck ship to materialize around me. There was of course, no way to get the Seamoth out at that point, for I had solved the mystery of how you put a ship in a bottle by some sort of quantum teleportation. There are times when things flicker and when fish swim through the air in your supposedly sealed underwater base like some sort of hunger induced hallucination. But these are minor quibbles, technical hurdles on an otherwise supremely well executed design.  

Subnautica is a world of beauty and of color and of interesting choices and stories that are all too few in the gaming landscape today. I deeply enjoyed Subnautica and the things I saw there will stick with me for some time.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Take Note: Why Star Wars has the Best Battles in Cinema

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea for others to consider.

Spoiler Warning: The following article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The article below only talks about the space battles in the film. Characters and locations will be discussed loosely, and without names. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, check back later. Everyone else, let's do this.

One of the opening scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is a big space battle. I know, you're shocked. A big space battle in a film called Star Wars. I'll give you all a minute to catch your breath and finish clutching your pearls. Good? Good. It was during this scene that it occurred to me why Star Wars battles are so memorable, and why they work so well, even when they are largely inconsequential to the overall plot. These  long movies, with several story lines to deal with, philosophies to expound on and secrets to reveal. Do they really have time to waste on all the pew pew and bang bang? More importantly, how do they get away with wasting time on them? In a film about space wizards fighting with laser swords, which is already pretty awesome, it's saying something that many of memorable moments come from rust buckets trying to gun each other down.

Stop me if you've heard this one: In a Star Wars movie there's an enemy fleet of baddies about to kill kittens or something. And there's another fleet of good guys trying to stop the bad guys or run away or save the universe. Both sides have launched their fighters and the big battle is about to really get going. And then this happens:

Do you remember this guy? Looks familiar right? Do you know his name? I sure don't. But this, right here, is why Star Wars battles actually work. This guy isn't one of the heroes. He's not even an important second tier guy like Hawkeye or a recurring jokes like the Cabbage Vendor. Nope, this lovable fellow exists only so that a handful of minutes from now a lucky tie fighter pilot can turn him into charcoal.

The obvious move here would be to say that Star Wars takes the time to show you the pilots, to humanize them. To remind us that behind the cockpit of those crafty X-Wings and speedy A-Wings are real people with real emotions. That in conflict, fighting for your ideals has a price. But in truth, you'd have gone to far. It's not that Star Wars takes the time to show you a human face, it's that Star Wars takes the time.

The space battles in Star Wars have stakes. They have moves and counter moves. They have tactics and gambits that either pay off or fail and they have a resolution. In essence, they are a story unto themselves, a stage play of battleships and aircraft dog fighting on the endless sea of space. The films take the time to show us this, to let us know who and where all the pieces are on the board before things really get under way.

The opening space battle in The Last Jedi is about a Rebel fleet trying to escape from an Imperial fleet. The Imperial fleet has a big battleship that can punch through the shields of the Rebel fleet's capital ship. That's it. That's all you need to know and it's set up in like thirty seconds in the film around story dialogue and other bits. The Rebels release all their ships to take out the big Imperial ship and then we get our quick cuts to each pilot's cockpit. More important than the score, we know the rules of the sport we're playing. The Rebels have a ship they want to protect, the Imperials have a ship they want to protect. The time limit is determined by when the Rebels can escape. Everyone releases their fighters onto the field and it's time to play ball.

So much of modern cinema forgets to do this, or dices it up so finely that it is unrecognizable. So many fantasy movies with battles full of orcs and mystical beasts and big explosions and it's all meaningless, not because we don't know what the stakes are, but because we don't know how the game is being played. All we see is two mobs smash into one another interspersed with clips of our heroes cutting through mobs of faceless enemies while exchanging witty one liners. It's all fluff. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the details of any big, army sized fight scene in a Marvel movie for instance, or Lord of the Rings, but I can recall just about every space battle in every Star Wars film to date. I can tell why they were fighting, what they were fighting over, who was in the battle and where they were.

I can tell you those things because the Star Wars films, all of them, the good and the bad, have taken the time to set their stage. In the Marvel movies, which are all great, often times our heroes are reduced to punching baddies until the plot timer goes off. Four or five of our team is left to thinning out the herd until one of them can reach the thing they're fighting over. And that's not to knock the Marvel movies. They've done a lot great work that puts the ten-thousand-cuts school of film editing in modern action movies to shame. But the reason why Star Wars is so enduring, why it is so memorable on top of the lightsabers and the Force, is because each of their battles are communicated to the audience effectively. Who, what, when, where, why? These are questions we're all familiar with, questions we all apply to our stories, but how many of us stop to ask them of our battles?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Take Note: Terrain Elevation in Sniper Elite 4

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea or mechanic for designers to consider.

The Sniper Elite series by Rebellion is one of those titles that always seems to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough into the mainstream, but is never quite able to get there. I've been playing the series and its Nazi zombie flavored spin offs since Sniper Elite V2. The series falls into the stealth action mold alongside titles like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. The games follow the exploits of Karl Fairburne, a ken doll looking sniper working for OSS during World War II. With each release of the game, the developers over at Rebellion have improved their design, refining a fairly basic sniper title into an excellent third person stealth action game.  If the name of the series doesn't ring a bell, you've probably seen their best known mechanic, the bullet cam.

I recently picked up the latest in the series, Sniper Elite 4, and was blown away by the level design of the game's first mission. In Sniper Elite 4, each mission takes place on its own open map, where the player can freely explore around the area, complete objectives and find collectables in the form of letters and reports. The maps give the player the freedom to tackle the objectives in which ever order they like, and explore the map's nook and crannies at their own pace.

What at first appears to be a standard open world map slowly reveals itself to be a great example of level design. Each objective takes place in a desecrate combat zone that seamlessly blend together across the map. Each of these areas has multiple approaches from different directions. This allows the player to tackle them from what ever direction they choose and offer approaches for different play styles. A typical choice in the game may be to try and find a tower to snipe from, a hidden path to sneak around the encounter, or heading up the main road guns blazing. While stealth is a big component of the game, its forgiving enough to let players disengage from a fire fight, regroup and try again.

The thing that impressed me most with the game, from the very first mission, is the change in elevation across the map. The game goes beyond adding simple towers to snipe from, to having massive changes in elevation across the same level. In the map above, the beach at the bottom of the map is down a steep cliff face, as is a pocket of beach further up the map. In most games that would be an inaccessible area. In Sniper Elite 4, it's not only accessible, one of the objects are located there. More subtle changes in elevation litter the map. Creaks and gullies below the main road that allow you to sneak past enemies, or hills cresting above that you can snipe from. While we've seen this type of difference in elevation in games before, Sniper Elite 4 manages to make it feel natural. Each path, each approach, is tied together in a way that makes it feel organic that other games struggle to pull off.

In something like Far Cry, you may have a observation tower to snipe from, or a hill that crests over an encampment. Even in Metal Gear Solid 5, one of my favorite stealth action titles from recent years, the changes in elevation are often anemic. A building may have multiple stories, and the surrounding country side may have a hill or two, but they aren't enough to affect gameplay.  There's really only one combat area in Metal Gear Solid 5 with a drastic change in elevation, that being the terrace area in the Afghanistan map, but even that is a linear progression from low to high. The rest of the game features the box stand cliff to observe from, but few actual changes in elevation.

Sniper Elite 4 manages to tie its high, low and medium areas together in a way that gives the player options, allows for a variety of play styles and look natural in way most games do not.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Missed Opportunities: Watch Dogs 2 Should Be Hacker Batman

Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game in which you play a young activist hacker trying to expose the corrupt dealings of mega corporations that are selling people's private data to get even richer. It's not exactly new territory, but Watch Dogs tries to liven things up with a young cast who values having a good time just as much as making the world a better place. The game has this juvenile, Rage Against the Machine, down with the system vibe punctuated by neon greens and fluorescent purples. While not really my aesthetic of choice, I can at least admire how much the developers leaned in to it. They really went for it, going past the bounds of the expected, past even tacky until they broke all the through to a pulpy hacker tale wrapped in a cloak of hashtags, spray paint and memes.

A  photographic summary of this game's style.

Throughout the game the player steals cars, hacks cameras, pilots drones and causes all kinds of mayhem in the name of sticking it to the man and pulling the wool off of people's eyes. Overall, it paints a picture of  the fun, carefree revolutions of the young who don't have to worry about logistics or the impact of the consequences of their actions. While not exactly realistic, it works for the game. It takes an average young black man and turns him into what amounts to a superhero all thanks to a cell phone and a few hundred lines of code.

The biggest issue I've had with the game so far comes not from its campy attitude or instance on packing a pop culture reference into nearly every line of dialogue, but from the combat. The mechanics are typical open world fair. You have guns, a stun gun for those wishing to go non-lethal, and a bare bones cover system to help when you're in a tight spot. Additionally, thanks to your hacker skills, you have additional options like sabotaging power boxes or making gas pipes explode. This is largely what the industry has come to expect from this style of open world game, from Game Theft Auto to Mafia III and even Infamous, battles often devolve into combat arenas full of goons with bad A.I. to slow you down from reaching your objective.

In Grand Theft Auto or Mafia III, the thought of gunning your way through mobs of enemies fits in with the overall themes of those games. In Grand Theft Auto you're a criminal, either currently or previously, so the thought of killing people should come as no shock. In Mafia III, you play a mafia underling turned special forces veteran who's out for revenge, closer in sensibilities to the Punisher rather than Batman. In Watch Dogs 2 however, you're supposed to be a good guy, not really an anti-hero. Your idea of braking the law is more stealing a car or breaking an entering and less cold blooded murder.

Watch Dogs 2's combat leave you little options. Sure, the game gives you a stun gun, and a variety of tools to hack your way into and out of situations, but even a slight misstep will result in your death. See, the guards in Watch Dogs 2 don't really make sense. Mixed in with the average pistol armed rent a cops are guys with military rifles and automatic shotguns, not to mention the guys in head to toe ballistic armor. And this isn't in super secret installations either, regular street thugs and paid by the hour security guards walk around with fully automatic shotguns. Even crazier, when seeing a trespasser, their opening move is to fire at will. See a suspicious person? Don't bother asking them to leave, just mow them down with a military grade weapon for no reason.

This encourages a lethal play style, of which the game is all to ready to push you toward. While it starts you off with a non-lethal stun gun, ever other weapon in the game that you can either buy or pick up is a fully lethal gun of some variety. The blood thirsty guards add to this by opening fire with little in the way of warning. A slight misstep in the game's limited stealth mechanics means two or three guards will begin opening fire with their guns while a fourth calls for reinforcements. This game is ready at any moment's notice to drop a dozen heavily armed goons on your for simply being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's more than bad A.I. and bad level design, it undermines a lot of what the game is going for.

When I first started the game I thought I would go non-lethal. Between the aforementioned stun gun and the game's melee attacks, I figured I'd have a good time sneaking through the shadows, hacking terminals and being this "for the masses" hacktivist the game wanted to make me. Unfortunately, within two missions I was facing fully armed swat teams that were best taken out by the tried and true method of finding the biggest gun in the place and slinging lead like I was auditioning to be the next Rambo.

It's an even bigger shame when the game so clearly demonstrates that it's capable of so much more. In one mission, I was tasked with infiltrating this warehouse along the docks, getting an access code and then stealing a truck full of electronics. The place was patrolled by over a dozen guards armed with pistols, shot guns and rifles, and stealth wasn't getting it done. Instead, I solved the problem by remotely hacking my way between cameras in order to get line of site on the truck. Having already acquired the access code to the gate, I used an upgrade ability to remote pilot the truck through the docks and out of the warehouse. While the guards were running around trying to figure out what was happening, my character was standing smoothly across the street, using a tablet to drive the stolen truck to a perfect stop inches from where he was standing. And that's where the missed opportunity comes in, that's where the game missed its chance to be more than your average third person, open world, mass murder simulator. What the game should have done was make you Batman.

The Rocksteady Arkham games have become well known for their combat. It's become a colloquialism to say it has "Batman" combat. The Assassin Creed style, protagonist surrounded by bad guys with an attack, dodge and counter to help you jump from enemy to enemy and chain up large combos. That's not the part of Batman that Watch Dogs 2 needed. Watch Dogs 2 need the other part of what made those games so enjoyable.

This part.

The Rocksteady Arkham games were at their best when forcing you to think like the bat. You have a room full of six guys. Two with electric batons, two with shields and one with an automatic rifle. The combat encounters were not just battles, but puzzles. Get the gun guy first, swooping down from a gargoyle to tie him up. Then get rid of those annoying baton guys with a swish of the cape. Flip over the shield guys and hit them from behind. Take out the last guy with a reflexively thrown batarang. Those games gave you a host of different abilities and then forced you into situations in which you needed to use them effectivly in order to come out unscathed. Watch Dogs 2 feels like they started to go down this road, with electric panels placed around the environments that can shock enemies,  and abilities focused on luring opponents, but then never does anything interesting with them.

Back in the PS2/XBOX days, it was common to have a game in which the only way to solve a problem through combat was in giving the hero a gun and letting them kill as many folks as possible. And make no mistake, I love my fair share of running and gunning video games, but in the modern era, gamers expect something more. They expect the thematic elements to resonate with one another. Watch Dogs 2 either doesn't get this, or willfully disregards it in the name of  presenting the player with a false choice of non-lethal or lethal, while pushing them into a world of blood thirsty murders.

I think the game would have been far more powerful, and the engagements far more enjoyable if instead of presenting the player with killing fields full of a few stealth elements, they approached the game more like one of the Batman games by giving the player gadgets and choices that allowed them to control the battlefield in ways that didn't feel like one off magic tricks or electrifying gimmicks. At the very least, a different approach to the guard's A.I. would have made a non-leathal, or at least less lethal path more viable. Look at Hitman, where when caught trespassing guards ask you to leave before moving into combat. Even when moving into combat, they always attempt an arrest before going into murder mode. Both of these would have done a great deal to helping the guards in Watch Dogs 2 feel more like people and less like brainwashed drones who need a blood fix.

The story would have also benefited. The carefree attitude and pop culture obsessed nature of the characters starts off  making them endearing. It makes them seem like real people, young people, up against impossible odds. But after a few instances of walking into an innocent movie studio and gunning down a few dozen people, or killing the hundrth security guard that was just doing their job, it no longer feels so carefree. Instead it feels rather blind to the people they claim they are trying to save. It ends up with this dude-bro culture of refusing to acknowledge consequences, much like Ubisoft's other big open world hit, Far Cry 3. The whole thing comes off as tone deaf, as blind to its own message when it could have been so much more.

The thought of young hackers, of people trying their best to make the world better through their skills and ingenuity, rather than their marksmanship or willingness to kill as many as it takes is a message modern video games could benefit by exploring. The creators of Watch Dogs 2 had a real opportunity to take a young, black protagonist and make him someone that refused to kill even when met with lethal force, much in the same way as Batman. Through gadgets and cleverness, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 could have come across as an upcoming, amateur vigilante that was trying to save people, to make the world a better place. Instead, he comes across as a childish sociopath who goes on murder sprees in-between stealing cars and making youtube videos with his friends.

In the end, I was left wishing Ubisoft had made the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 something a little more Nightwing, and a little less Jason Todd.