Monday, January 17, 2011

Non-Combat Gameplay

First things first:  If you think video games can be more than just mindless entertainment, and actually enjoy considering their potential and meaning, then you should be watching Extra Credits over at The Escapist.

That said, their most recent video was about non-combat gameplay.  In short:  A great majority of video games are mostly played through combat, and while this is both entertaining and a cheap way of introducing tension and drama, it neglects the many other aspects of life that video games could entertainingly portray in order to tell a good story.

Why is this so?  I imagine it's the same reason sex, by which I mean scantily clad females, is so ubiquitous in video games.  A great deal of both the creators and the players are male; while this has balanced somewhat in the last decade or so, men seem to be the dominant force in the industry.  And let's face it:  Men like violence.  I don't mean this in any sort of denigrating way, it's just the sort of fantasy which we enjoy.  Let's save psychology and philosophizing about why that is for another time.

Could you make a game that is entertaining which doesn't involve combat?  I've no doubt.  But I think the thing that will ultimately make that sort of game successful is a good story, not good mechanics.

The problem is that unless you have programming good enough to respond to a wide variety of player inputs, these sorts of games will probably be a long series of if/then statements.  If player does X, computer responds with Y.  Which is fine, and I'm sure it can be more complicated than that, but it will eventually boil down to predictable management of minutiae, which is going to be problematic for this sort of gameplay.

The entire idea is that you're offering a different way of overcoming obstacles in these games.  Not combat, basically.  If you don't replace the elements that make combat a cheap dramatic resource (tension, risk, the unknown possibilities), then the gameplay becomes formulaic.

Which is not the kiss of death for game, as I said; it's just that the impetus is then on making a good story.  I loved the Phoenix Wright games, and I think they're an excellent example of this sort of thing.  But I'm skeptical we'll ever see a game that fully replaces combat with philosophical debate, pushing the cloak and sheathing the dagger.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Unlockables

I picked up the new Goldeneye: 007 game for the Wii over Christmas. This is a classic game for me, one I spent many hours with in high school, whiling away afternoons with friends. In fact, I never played the single player game when this was on the N64, so finding out that Nintendo was remaking the game inspired a lot of nostalgia for the days of sitting on the couch and blowing my friends up.

So you know what happened when I picked up the game with some friends on New Year's Eve? I found out that half the features I wanted had to be unlocked, including the proximity mines (AKA the greatest video game weapons ever). There was much nerd rage to be had.

Seriously, why do game designers do this? What possible reason could there be to make players spend hours and hours playing one game mode to unlock features in another? I'd say it's to get people to play the game for longer, but it's not like designers get paid by the hours people play the game. It reeks of artificial padding.

I can think of worse examples, of course. Wario Ware on the Wii required you to beat the single player game before you could even access multiplayer. I've played DDR games where you had to progressively unlock each difficulty level for a song. Smash Brothers is defined by all of the unlockable features, which is pretty obnoxious if you bought it to play with friends. It's pretty disheartening when you crack open a game, anticipating a heavily advertised feature, only to find that you have to play the game endlessly before you can access it.

Consider this a negative review of Goldeneye for the Wii. The one feature I was looking forward to, proximity mines, is only unlocked through online play. How? Why, by earning experience and gaining levels through good performance. Oh, and what level do you unlock proximity mines? Level 53. Yeah, whoever made that decision can go suck an egg.

Edit: Forgot to add probably the most important point: This sort of gameplay has a limited shelf life. That is, the online community with which to play the game is only going to be around for so long. What happens when that well dries up? Will that content be forever locked away?

Monday, January 03, 2011

As FATE would have it . . .

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading The Dresden Files books recently.  Well, "recently" may be generous, as I burned through the last of the books in May; the only things I haven't read yet in that series are the short story collections.  With thirteen novels in the series, you can rightly call my interest piqued.  I even purchased the Dresden Files RPG books by Evil Hat.  I'll be the next person to sit in the GM's chair for my gaming group, so it's likely I'll end up running this, if for no other reason than I think the guys are ready for something besides D&D. 

Dresden uses the FATE system, and if you haven't heard of it before, you should really check it out.  I've been highly intrigued by it, and I'm really looking forward to giving it a shot.  In short, there's a lot of mechanical inducements for role-playing, and the flexibility of it seems like it could make for very cool gaming moments.

Each character has to take a number of Aspects.  These are essentially descriptors of the character, for anything from personality quirks to life goals, or even just physical attributes.  The more wordy, the better the Aspect.  For example, Harry Dresden, lead character of the novels, might take an Aspect such as "Wizard."  That's accurate, but very dull and boring.  Instead, he might take the Aspect, "The only Wizard listed in the yellow pages."  Much more descriptive, and gives a lot more room to work with.

Why do you need room to work with?  Well, characters get a number of Fate points to play with.  You can spend your Fate points to obtain supernatural powers or learn special skill tricks, but all unspent points can be used in the course to play to make things go your way.  This is done through "compulsion" and "invocation" of Aspects. 

Let's say that Harry wants to make something happen in the game.  He can invoke one of his Aspects by spending a Fate point if it's related.  This can give him a bonus to a roll, let him reroll, or even just declare something to be, depending on the situation.  Of course, the GM can also compel his Aspects.  If Harry is trying to keep a low profile during an investigation, the GM could compel his Aspect mentioned above, forcing circumstances or actions on Harry's part; if Harry accepts this, he gains a Fate point he can use later.  If he'd rather not have this hanging over his head, he can instead spend a Fate point to tell the GM to go suck an egg. 

Aspects aren't just for characters, either, meaning there's a lot of interesting ways to make use of this system.  I really like the back-and-forth potential this creates between players and the GM, and it sets the players up for really getting to shine in the spotlight when they need to.

I know some might complain that the GM has a lot of power to screw over the players in this sort of system, but I think if you're worried about the GM abusing power, and the players, then you already have problems in your game.  This sort of system only works when the GM is working together with the players to tell an interesting story.  If it's just the GM telling his story, or just pushing the players as hard as possible because you're only doing it right if the players are tearing out their hair, then the system breaks down.  Those GMs, though, probably don't get the point of this sytem in the first place.

Go check it out, if nothing else.  It's a really neat looking game, and the design and production values of the books are fantastic. 

Saturday, January 01, 2011

TRON: Legacy

As part of my resolutions for the year, I'm attempting to post more frequently on the blog.  While a Monday-Friday schedule might be more conducive for traffic, I may as well start the year off right.

You might recall (by scrolling down the page) that I wrote about a little game called TRON 2.0 back in August.  This was partly as preparation for the upcoming film, TRON:  Legacy.  Well, I saw said sequel over my Christmas holiday. (For what it's worth, none of the content of TRON 2.0 is referenced by the movie.)

Overall, I liked it.  I think this is partially because of my fondness for the concepts and atmosphere of the series.  The film isn't breaking any new ground, story-wise.  In fact, I'd argue that most of it is simply recycled from the first film.  So, light on plot, heavy on spectacle; exactly the reasons I disliked Avatar.  I'm still not sure what to make of that, except to say that Legacy seemed to at least attempt to tell a new story, albeit one with very familiar elements.  

The film really is stunning, though.  I didn't see it in 3D*, but I'm told it's makes good use of the technology.  As with the original, the film does a lot with a little, making very attractive settings through the use of geometrically simple structures and monochromatic designs.  The music is a fantastic companion to the visuals as well; I liked Daft Punk before, but they truly outdid themselves for this film.

Should you see it?  If you're a fan of the original, then you won't want to miss this.  If you like sci-fi action films, then this is worth your time. If you're into the spectacle of films, and loved Avatar because of how pretty it was, then you'll probably enjoy this as well.  Everyone else . . . your mileage may vary. 

You might also be interested in this review of the movie, courtesy of Movie Bob, over at The Escapist. 
* - I really, really hate the surge of 3D films coming out in the last 5 or so years.  I find it to be mostly a gimmick, as well as an excuse to sell $15 tickets.  After all, if you're having trouble putting butts in seats, why not reverse that trend with double-price tickets and a technology that isn't easily replicated at home? 

But mostly, it's because I wear glasses.  Those 3D glasses you have to wear are a massive pain to wear for the course of a movie, and eventually those movies end up making me vaguely motion sick.  Stupid 3D movies.