10 Good Ideas: Bloodborne and Trick Weapons

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Well, it’s late late late September, which makes it a perfect time to wrap up my September blog series: 10 Good Ideas. What better game to conclude my list of great game mechanics than my favorite game of the Souls lot, Bloodborne? It works out doubly well, considering my lateness means that I’ll be talking about this Lovecraftian game of extradimensional horrors in this, the spookiest of months. Everything works out in the end!

The full admission with Souls games is that Bloodborne is, in fact, the only one I’ve beaten. I’ve gotten fairly close in a few others, but never beaten, whereas I’ve beaten every single boss of Bloodborne. I think the fast-paced combat of the game is a strong motivator for me (although I certainly still like the combat of the mainline Souls games), and a big part of that is the game’s exclusive usage of what it dubs “trick weapons”.

Trick weapons are, simply put, weapons with tricks. Less cheekily, trick weapons have alternate modes or abilities which can be triggered at a single button press, sort of like alt-fire modes in some shooters. Some switch between two different forms completely, like the Kirkhammer (which is a sword that you can sheathe into a tombstone to turn it into a massive hammer), whereas others gain temporary buffs upon activation of their trick, like the Tonitrus (which is a mace that becomes covered in electricity). For the most part, they’re like two weapons in one.

So, why am I calling these weapons out? Alt-fire isn’t exactly new. Well, the thing about weapons in Bloodborne is that, unlike other Souls games, Bloodborne lets you hold on to weapons through the entire game. Literally. The same Hunter’s Axe I got at the beginning of the game was the one that I used to kill the final boss.

On its face, this seems like a knock against Bloodborne. You just used one weapon? How boring! Could you imagine going through all of Half-Life with just one weapon, or all of Skyrim with the same crap sword? Well, no, because those weapons aren’t terribly dynamic. In most games, a gun just shoots, and a sword just swings, but in Bloodborne, weapons are dynamic. There are light and heavy attacks, you can hold and charge some attacks, and then you can activate a trick to transform your weapon, and gain a whole new suite of options. A single trick weapon has with it a fairly large set of choices to make when using them. Do I want the speed and flexibility of my shortened Hunter’s Axe, or the power and range of the lengthened mode?

Since every weapon in Bloodborne offers a fairly wide suite of options, this means the game can afford to have fewer. Again, this at first sounds negative, but I’m someone who hates when games force you to make ill-informed, numerically-driven, or otherwise boring choices, and that’s kind of what Dark Souls does with its weapons. Look at this wiki page for every straight sword in Dark Souls.

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What the hell is the difference between these three swords? I get that there are minor, minor stat differences (the physical damage varies by as much as four, the Strength requirements vary slightly, and the weight differs by one), but ultimately, these three swords are all, well, swords. You swing ’em, they’re sharp, and they basically, from a player feel standpoint, do the exact same thing. Or, at least, you certainly don’t see how they wouldn’t just looking at them (there are greater subtleties. The broadsword doesn’t thrust on a strong attack, for example).

This is stupid. I don’t wanna stare at an inventory screen to try and figure out which of these three essentially identical weapons I like the most. I’m down for inventory and weapon management, but not on such a minute level of granularity. Now, let’s look at some Bloodborne weapons, and in the interest of maximal fairness, let’s pick three swords.

Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a sword with a massive, bladed sheathe, allowing you to alternate between a normal sword and a fuck-off sized two-hander. The Blade of Mercy, meanwhile, splits in two, allowing you to switch between one- and two-sword styles. The Reiterpallasch, meanwhile, is a rapier that turns into a gun. Despite all being “swords”, relatively little observation lets you notice massive gameplay differences in these weapons, and each covers a very large subset of gameplay situations.

Trick weapons are clever because, by allowing one weapon to handle a variety of tasks, you ultimately minimize the amount of weapons needed for a game to feel like it has a “complete” arsenal. This minimizes the number of inventory management decisions the player has to make, while also ensuring that combat with the same weapon remains dynamic and interesting through the whole game.

Obviously, there’s a trade-off. A smaller amount of weapons means that the drip feed of loot won’t be as constant as in a more traditional RPG, but that really just depends on expectations more than anything else. Sure, Skyrim would be pretty boring if you only unlocked, like, four swords throughout its entire campaign, but most people seem pretty happy with Zelda games (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding) having only a couple of main weapons through the course of the entire game.

Ultimately, I think anything that trims down the amount of unfun choices made within a game is a good design choice, and trick weapons certainly do that, so for that, I consider them a Good Idea.

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Every Game I Beat This Summer, Reviewed As Beverages

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Summertime has come and gone, and fall is upon us. For me, this summer was a big one. I graduated from The University of Texas at Dallas with two degrees, went to Chicago, went to Austin, quit my college bartending job, went to Japan, and finally started my first real programming job. In the time in the cracks between those events, however, I played a lot of video games. Like, a lot a lot. I’m kinda proud of myself, I ended up beating quite a decent number, clearing out a little bit of my backlog.

So, with all of these games behind me, I figured I’d do a quick write-up on my impressions of all of them. A lot of them I actually posted about as I was playing them, but a collection of general impressions of them, as well as overall thoughts of my “summer of gaming”, might be interesting.

I also want to rate these games, but I generally find review scores arbitrary. Numerical scores end up feeling either so small in range as to be extremely unenlightening, or so granular that the differences between scores feel slight. The same goes for star or letter grade systems, so instead, I’m going to rate each game by comparing it to a beverage. No real reason, I just thought it would be fertile ground for clever metaphor.

Prey (2017)

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Hey, surprise of the century, the guy with a Dishonored tattoo really likes Prey. At the risk of immediately undercutting the tension of this list, I think Prey might be my favorite thing I played this summer as a complete experience. The art direction is excellent, and the story, while perhaps polarizing near the end, I found a fascinating way of handling some classic genre tropes. If I had to sum up Prey in one word, it would be “clever”.

Prey really shines in its mechanics and level design, however. So many interesting moments in the game happen due to the interactions between separate mechanical systems. Generally speaking, when you think something should happen a certain way, it does, from being able to reduce physical barricades to elementary ingredients using a Recycler Grenade, to having automated turrets begin to target you after you’ve spliced too much alien DNA.

All of this works because the level designs are so open and thoughtfully created. There are a dozen ways to tackle any problem, and never once do you feel really bottlenecked. Moreover, the space feels real, with such a laborious attention to detail (most notably the fact that every NPC has a name and physical location within the game) that it adds to that sort of experimental feeling. When the game world feels like a real space, you feel a freedom to try and apply real-world reasoning to the problems in the game, and real-world assumptions, and have them work, or at least yield an interesting result. I felt extremely clever when I realized that the security monitors tracking everyone on board the ship also monitor your brother, Alex Yu, who you spend most of the game trying to find. While using that monitor isn’t a silver bullet for the entire storyline, it is acknowledged in a satisfying way, and having that work, at least to an extent, is extremely satisfying.

My rating: A Bloody Mary. Formed from a menagerie of different ingredients working together to create a complete whole. Some people might really not like the aftertaste it leaves in your mouth, but I ultimately love the space for creativity, and the freedom to mix new ingredients together and see what happens.

The Last of Us

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Man, this one was a real mark of shame for me for a while. Despite having owned a copy for, god, four years, I hadn’t even removed the shrink from my copy of The Last of Us until this summer, at which point I binged the entire game in a couple of days.

While I was unbelievably stoked about this game after finishing it, I have to say that my love of it has ever-so-slightly waned over time. I feel like the game could have benefited from a smidge more openness, or at least freedom to explore and scavenge the post-apocalyptic environment. I feel like the game’s best emotional climaxes aren’t struck at the end, but instead just before it (I’d definitely call Winter the best chapter), and the ending left me pretty frustrated. The puzzles are pretty brain-dead, and ultimately less intellectually interesting than some of the combat encounters, which themselves become “puzzles” in their own right.

Despite all of this, I still really like The Last of Us. Its highs are really high, its characters are strong and vivid with personality, its combat gritty, violent, and evocative. This is a game that knows how to use its quieter moments, and the experience is all the better for it.

My rating: Fireball. Basically everyone likes this right now, although I kind of wish it was a little bit more complex. But, hey, sometimes the tried-and-trues are great when they’re done this well. Hits you strong, but the further you get from the experience, the more you start to question if it’s really worth the hype.

Deadly Premonition

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I have convinced four people to buy this game since beating it, but I’m still not 100% sure how I actually feel about this game. This game honestly goes for so much despite its limitations as far as design scope, and everything it does it either knocks completely out of the park or falls flat on its face.

The characters are a massive strong point, with everyone being just weird enough to be wonderfully quirky and memorable without reaching a point of being completely unrelateable. It reminds me a lot of going through small towns on road trips and being, without any sense of malice or fear, just slightly put off by the slight differences. The story is fantastic and takes some wonderful twists. The soundtrack is weirdly charming, despite consisting of what feels like four songs. York’s dialogue especially is wonderful, and does a great job of making you relate with someone who is initially extremely weird.

But man does this game play like ass. The gunplay is awful, the enemy variety nonexistent, the cars move like tanks, and the level design is full of bland, uninteresting spaces. I feel weird recommending this game, knowing that at times playing it is a miserable experience, but I sat on my couch pushing through the mediocre dungeons because I was dying for more character interactions. I don’t know that Deadly Premonition can reasonably be called a good game, considering that basically all of the mechanics are trash, but the story and characters are so great that it’s definitely a good something.

My rating: A cup of black coffee. When you first try it, it’s basically immediately offensive to the senses. You might pine for a different drink, one that has a bit more sugar and sweetness to it, but as you get used to it, you realize that the foul taste is simply the vehicle for what really matters: an energizing payload that gets the mind spinning.

Kirby: Planet Robobot

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I bought Kirby: Planet Robobot to help alleviate my twenty-six hours of plane flights between Dallas and Japan, and it ended up being a wonderful choice. Kirby games aren’t exactly known for being challenging, and this one isn’t an exception, but charming art design, combined with a pretty well-paced drip feed of level mechanics and power ups, keep the game interesting.

Kirby’s suite of powers in this game are a delight to use, with each of them being just different enough to make the distinction between them meaningful. Do you want the direct confrontations offered by Fighter, or the trickery of Mirror, or the mobility of Jet? The game won’t be difficult no matter what you pick, but playing the way you like, and finding the kinda-hidden Code Cubes, is enough stimulus to remain interesting, especially when in concert with new and interesting level designs, and the mix-ups provided by quick jaunts into shoot-’em-up gameplay.

My review: Milk in a carton. It’s definitely for kids, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have this sort of treat every once in a while. Sometimes you just want to enjoy something simple and good, and it’s ultimately a nice little treat to enjoy.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut

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The first, let’s say 75% of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is probably a solid competitor for my favorite game of this summer, which made me all the more disappointed when the game completely flubbed its final acts. Everything up to Adam Jensen loading himself into a stasis pod to finally hunt down his missing girlfriend is essentially fantastic. The level design is on-par with Prey for being open to creativity and versatility. The plot was interesting and moving in exciting directions, while also full of interesting themes.

Sure, I had some complaints. The “retooled” boss battles in the Director’s Cut amounted to “find and hack some turrets to blow the boss up”, and sometimes I felt like I didn’t quite understand the dialogue system, but the overall quality of the experience was well worth it.

And then, The Missing LinkHuman Revolution‘s main piece of DLC which is integrated into the Director’s Cut release, begins, and the whole thing goes downhill. The Missing Link is full of backtracking, excruciating load times, some miserably boring characters (although one character is a fantastic addition, bratan). Worst of all, it commits the most heinous sin of all: it takes away all of the player’s upgrades, forcing them to play the whole DLC with a limited subset. I get that, at this point in the game, the player is so maxed out that most encounters are trivial, but the solution to that is to make more taxing or interesting encounters, not to take player abilities away.

The game has a small uptick in the penultimate scene before finally taking one last nosedive during the final mission. Stealth options become basically meaningless as there are no consequences for being noticed in this final mission, and it feels like it’s rushing towards one final grand choice at the end that ends up feeling like it comes straight out of left field. Combine this with a completely underwhelming final boss, and the whole thing ends on a completely sour note, and that’s even if you take the option that lets you kill the final boss in seven seconds.

My rating: A glass of orange juice, but you brush your teeth before the last sip. A pretty nice experience for the most part, with wonderful sweetness and flavor. Then, at the last second, the whole thing turns rancid, and you end up wondering how something that was so good could possibly become so insufferable.

Overwatch

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I know you can’t “beat” Overwatch, but I’ve been playing a lot of it, so it’s probably worth talking about. I feel like the pacing for updates of this game has gotten a lot better than it was before (cue PTSD flashbacks to the buildup to Sombra), and man, I just can’t stop playing this game. It’s just so good. It’s also a good thing that the events have started to serve as a fantastic way to cycle in some new and cool gametypes, from Uprising earlier this year to the return of Lucioball.

I do have to step back and wonder if my connection to this game is a smidge unhealthy, though. When I play, my focus is definitely square on the flow of loot boxes into the game. No matter how play goes, I find myself getting frustrated with bad pulls and elated with good ones. The worst part is the way the game convinces me to come back on the promise of more boxes, and if the pulls are bad, well then, I just play to get more. I haven’t spent much money on loot boxes (ten bucks total, which considering I’ve played about 150 hours of the game, feels fair), but it still sometimes feels like I’m trapped in a Skinner Box, especially considering the arbitrary decision to not have loot transfer between platforms, despite the ability to link accounts across platforms.

My rating: Coca-Cola. Literally everyone’s drinking it, and it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t deserve that. When you’re tired of the default, you can jump to one of the less popular flavors for a bit of variety (RIP Coke Zero). Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s definitely bad for your health.

Concluding Thoughts

According to HowLongToBeat, not counting time spent in Overwatch, I cleared 80 hours’ worth of games from my backlog this summer, and the momentum keeps going. I’m turning now to some smaller games in my Steam Library (right now I’m going through Scanner Sombre) before I pop into a couple of slightly larger games, with L.A Noire and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds topping that secondary list.

Another note is the most recent addition to my console collection. An adult’s paycheck means new toys, and in my case, that means that I went to my local game store on payday and picked myself up a Nintendo Switch. My initial thoughts are that the game ecosystem right now is a smidge dry, but has promising releases coming up, although I definitely have enough to play right now. With just my first purchase, which was obviously Breath of the Wild, I have enough to entertain me for a good while, or at least until the end of October when Super Mario Odyssey comes out. Combined with the chance to hop onto some of the indie games I’ve been meaning to play but never got around to (Shovel KnightStardew Valley, and Darkest Dungeon), as well as some interesting new “Nindies” (namely Wargroove and The Longest Five Minutes) combined with some heavy hitters (Project Octopath Traveler and Shin Megami Tensei: New Project), I think this thing will be getting some use.

The satisfaction of clearing out one’s backlog really is wonderful. Not only do you loosen the guilt you feel from having never beaten or even played something that’s been on your shelf for potentially years, but it also is just nice to broaden your experience of games as a whole, and to play all this new stuff.

So, yeah, playing video games is good. Go figure.

 

You Open Your Mouth But The Words Just Won’t Come Out: Dialogue Systems In Games

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//Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect spoilers follow

So, I’m in the process of finishing up Deus Ex: Human Revolution after bouncing off of it the first time, and I’m really enjoying myself. I’m a big fan of immersive sims, and the game offers a great deal of variety in how you deal with the assorted obstacles it puts forward. I especially like how varied your options are even within the duality of “loud” or “sneaky”: you can be a silent assassin, hack a bunch of turrets to do your job for you, quietly knock out the guards in your path, very loudly knock out the guards in your path, or sneak on through without touching a fly. On top of that, sometimes sneaking isn’t required, and you can simply talk your way out of situations.

This leads me to Human Revolution‘s dialogue system, which I really enjoy. It’s usually a pretty standard dialogue system affair, but there are key NPCs that you need to talk to, always in order to get something out of them, that launch the game’s “real” dialogue system. In these scenes, on top of the dialogue and your responses, the player is given a readout of the NPCs mood, their personality traits, and a dossier of their personality quirks (all justified by the player character, Adam Jensen, having augmentations in his skull that boost his social abilities).

With this information, it’s up to the player to use that information to try and bend the conversation in their favor. What I love about this is that the game doesn’t have some sort of arbitrary “conversation” skill, like Mass Effect or Fallout. In those games, you have a somewhat arbitrary measurement of your ability to talk to people, and if that number is high enough, it unlocks the “just get everything you want” dialogue option. Human Revolution has no such measurement, and instead, if you want the best option, you need to actually reason your way around your conversational opponent.

Actually, that’s not 100% correct. There is an augmentation you can spec into which can grant you a “just get everything you want” dialogue option, but when you trigger it, you actually need to select between three such options, each tailored to a certain personality type (either aggressive Alphas, defensive Betas, or timid Omegas). To unlock that “best” option, you still need to pay attention to your conversation partner.

I adore this system, because it actually makes you feel like some sort of shrewd negotiator. Instead of just mashing the “win the conversation” button, you sit there and think a little. “Well, I know this guy is trying to save face in this public setting, so if I really push him into a corner that makes him sound guilty, he’ll be forced to buckle”. It’s not exactly rocket science (for instance, when the personality hint tells you that you should directly confront a character when they try to weasel out of a tricky subject, one option is usually just labeled “CONFRONT”), but it’s certainly more interesting than a normal dialogue tree.

What if the game went a step further? Human Revolution just hands you a subject’s personality traits on a silver platter, but what if it didn’t? After all this is a game in which violation of privacy is a central theme, in a genre in which violation of privacy is a central theme, so what if instead of just being given a person’s personality traits for free, you had to research them, pick around their public and private histories to build that personality profile. By analyzing their emails, their phone logs, their public speeches and debates, their reputation with their friends, allies, and enemies, you built up a profile of your target as a conversational opponent, and then used that to bend them to your will? After all, that’s what people who actually debate for a living do.

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I can actually pretty easily imagine a whole game centered on this. Imagine playing a detective or police officer, or maybe even an attorney. Games of this sort usually center on the collection of evidence or testimony, but imagine one in which that was only part of it? On top of that, imagine that your “targets”, perhaps witnesses or even suspects, have particular personality traits. Usually, games have such characters crack conversationally when presented with facts or with proof of their inconsistent testimony, but maybe on top of that you also needed to know how that person debates.

If you have a witness who’s had an incomplete account of events, and you have proof that they’ve been lying, your course of action can still change depending on how that witness reacts to being under pressure. Perhaps they’re notoriously slippery, and you have to really hammer them with facts to get through. Perhaps they’re pretty averse to pressure, and you have to gently present the facts to avoid a complete shutdown on their part. It adds another dimension to a normal dialogue system, and gives players more to mentally juggle.

The thing about dialogue systems as they tend to exist right now is that they’re tactically uninteresting. By considering a character’s personality traits, it adds a layer of strategic depth which the system as it is largely codified in modern gaming simply lacks. It also does something which many modern dialogue systems don’t, which is that it rewards gameplay rather than skipping it. Many games use dialogue systems as a way to let players who lean that way simply skip entire sections of the game. Famously, Mass Effect lets you just talk the final boss into shooting himself in the face, which is a neat concept, but in the end just means players don’t experience a part of your game that might have been interesting. In fact, despite having played the game four times, I’ve literally never done the first phase of the Saren boss fight due to this.

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I have absolutely no idea what happens if you don’t convince Saren to kill himself. Maybe you have a dance battle.

That’s kinda silly, don’t you think? If I’m playing the game, I want to, y’know, play the game. If we opt into a system where improving conversational odds against an opponent requires research, now we have a dialogue system which rewards gameplay. Maybe we do get to skip a boss fight or a dungeon with our conversational skills, but to do so, we introduce a whole bunch of new gameplay of rooting around computers and audio diaries looking for clues, of pressing associates of the target to learn more about them, and other sorts of detective work that wouldn’t be necessary if you decide to just, y’know, blast the dude in the face. A dialogue system like this feels like a different path, just like a ventilation duct or secret passageway, and less like a skip or a cheat.

A dialogue system with greater complexity that just “are you smart or dumb” or “are you good and evil” opens up some fantastic new design space to think about the way your characters interact with each other. Dialogue systems right now are a hotbed for design creativity (see Oxenfree or Dropsy), so I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done here, looking at the groundwork laid by Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

10 Good Ideas: The Darkness and … Darkness

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Starbreeze’s The Darkness remains one of my favorite games no one’s ever heard of. The game puts players in the shoes of Jackie Estacado, a mafia hitman who also happens to be the human host of the titular Darkness, a timeless, immortal god-being which basically lives to kill everything it sees. Jackie is on a quest for vengeance against the mob which betrayed him, a quest which is much easier when you can harness the power of a hateful god.

On your quest to murder every mobster in New York City, as well as potentially a couple dozen innocent passersby, the game hinges on this idea of darkness, lowercase d. You see, as one might expect, the Darkness, uppercase d, doesn’t really care for light, so whenever you’re in light, your powers are unavailable to you, making you just a regular dude, and regular dudes are pretty easy to kill.

When you get in the cover of shadow, however, things change. You become much more resistant to damage and can heal damage you take, you can summon imp-like minions, or you can just have your Darkness tentacles rip someone in half and eat their heart. You go from Jackie Estacado, regular dude with a gun, to Jackie Estacado, Death Incarnate.

This mechanic is complemented by a relatively simple addition to the game: you can shoot out most lights.

The reason I think this mechanic is great is turns fights into microcosms of player progression. When you play a normal FPS, sure there’s usually some sort of player power progression over the course of the game, but within a single encounter the player usually remains at a constant power level. The Darkness goes against this trend with an extremely engaging loop. The player enters an area filled with bad guys, and that area is usually pretty well lit, meaning odds begin against the player, since it’s gonna be harder for them to use their powers. As a conflict goes on, the player will shoot out more and more lights in the arena, turning the fight into a sort of horror movie when you’re the encroaching monster. The symbolism alone is fantastic, as the lights above your enemies fizzle out, and you approach them, literally covered in monstrous, dark tentacles.

A series that operates on a very similar loop are Rocksteady’s Batman games. In those, players will be tossed into arenas full of armed goons where, initially, their odds are pretty bad. However, as time goes on and they take out more and more goons, player confidence builds and enemy confidence shrinks. Survivors start freaking out and getting audibly paranoid, as you all of a sudden have an easier and easier time picking the leftovers off.

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That loop is present in The Darkness as well: enter an area facing overwhelming odds and, through good play, turn the tides until you end up feeling like an unstoppable monster. On its face, this doesn’t seem too revolutionary. Your odds get easier the more enemies you beat, so what? Mathematically speaking, every video game that puts you against groups of enemies does that.

The thing that The Darkness and Batman do so well is that, on top of good play just naturally making encounters easier, good play also makes the player feel cool. Imagine a gunfight in a Call of Duty campaign. The tone of that gunfight doesn’t really vary over the fight, you’re just sort of shooting dudes until you’re not. The last enemy puts up the same amount of a fight as the first, and you probably feel like as much of a cool soldier person at the end of the fight as the beginning, if not a little more accomplished.

In The Darkness, a fight brings about an environmental change in the player’s favor in the form of encroaching darkness. It responds to the player’s success in the form of enemies freaking out and screaming. Success isn’t just good, but it feels good, it compounds the feeling of being this monster of darkness. I’d actually say it’s the same kind of feeling evoked when the lyrics kick in during a boss fight of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. You’re using non-mechanical tools to make players feel badass. And that’s a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: You Don’t Know Jack and Screws

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You Don’t Know Jack is a long-running but somewhat obscure series of party trivia games, sort of like if the trivia questions that play on the TVs at a Buffalo Wild Wings were written by an asshole. The name of the game is simple questions, phrased in such a way to maximize confusion. This includes special types of questions like Who’s The Dummy, where the host delivers the question through a ventriloquist’s dummy and, due to the voice he puts on, can’t pronounce the letters B, P, or M.

The point of You Don’t Know Jack is to rile up a reaction, and being able to logically think through a question while you’re also laughing at the ridiculous premise is the primary skill required when playing. This, as one might expect, makes You Don’t Know Jack a great party game, since it’s far better to laugh at a ridiculous premise, or to try and reason why a question about Nostradamus has only video games for answers, as a group.

Of course, this only goes so far. While you might be all laughing or confused at a question together, the base rules of the game don’t actually involve direct interaction. Multiple players can select the same answer, so there’s no risk of being “locked out” of the solution to a question. At this point, You Don’t Know Jack involves as much interaction as regular bar trivia, which is, y’know, fine?

Here’s where screws come in. Players receive a single screw per game, a powerful weapon to use against their opponents. Basically, when you use your screw (or, if you prefer, when you screw), you pick one of your opponents, who then has to answer the question in five seconds, or else they take a massive score deduction. If the screwee gets the question right in five seconds, the screwer ends up taking that deduction instead.

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What separates the screw from other quiz game/show interaction mechanics is that the screw kind of has nothing to do with understanding the game, per se. Questions are largely equally confusing, meaning that “screw on the toughest question” doesn’t tend to emerge as a viable strategy for players. Furthermore, “screw the player in the lead” isn’t bulletproof either, as the player in the lead is also probably good at the game, and has the best chance of answering a question in time to make your screw backfire.

What screws do reward is knowing your friends. In my time with the game, the strategy that eventually always emerges is to screw someone when a topic comes up that they know nothing about. When I play with my friends, I am almost universally screwed on questions involving any sort of knowledge of professional sports. My friend Craig gets screwed on questions on classic literature and cinema. My friend Stephen gets screwed on celebrity culture. Since there’s such a punishment for having a screw backfire, you want to make sure that screws land on players that have no chance of answering the question right, and the best way to do that in a room full of your friends is to remember what your friends are and aren’t interested in.

Screws also serve another fantastic purpose, which is that they make you pay attention to the room. Normally, when you’re doing any sort of group trivia, reading the room is largely a useless skill. You can try and notice whenever someone’s struggling with a question, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Screws change that dynamic, and whenever I play You Don’t Know Jack, any sort of verbal admittance of confusion (usually involving the word “fuck”) is very shortly followed by that player getting screwed. In the same way that a good board game makes you pay attention to your friends, so too does You Don’t Know Jack, as you lie in wait for someone to admit any sort of weakness so that you can screw them and tear their score to ribbons.

It is thoroughly my opinion that multiplayer games, of any sort, should be designed in such a way that players can inject their own personalities, as well as the dynamic of the group as a whole, into the game, so as to make each play unique. Some games do this by simply allowing such a wide range of strategies that players can express themselves through strategy, like Civilization. Others require a degree of creativity on the players’ behalf to create part of the game, like Legacy board games or The Metagame. And some require you to know your friends’ personalities and use that knowledge against them, like Coup, poker, or You Don’t Know Jack. And for rewarding me for knowing my friends, and for reading their behavior, screws are a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Mass Effect 2 and Interrupts

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Image from Kyle Foster’s Youtube Channel

Let’s be real: if you played Mass Effect 3 through to the end, you took the Renegade interrupt and stabbed Kai Leng. If you didn’t, you should have. Kai Leng is my most hated character in the entirety of Mass Effect (disclaimer: have not played Andromeda yet), and getting the chance to shatter his stupid goddamn DeviantArt-ass katana and stab him in the gut like the bitch he is felt so good SCREW YOU KAI LENG YOU KILLED CHARACTERS THAT WERE SO MUCH BETTER WRITTEN THAN YOU.

Ahem. Excuse me.

Interrupts, a mechanism introduced to the Mass Effect series in the second installment, are pretty simple: while a character is talking, you occasionally get the opportunity to, well, interrupt them, usually with a line of dialogue but occasionally with something kickass like stabbing somebody’s fanfiction in the chest.

Interruption as a concept is technically a concept that’s existed in game writing presumably for as long as games have had writing (I don’t know that there’s an easy way to see the first time a game character interrupted another, but I’d be interested to know!), but it typically they’re pre-written into the dialogue. For games with heavy dialogue or subtitles, this usually results in a line of dialogue being displayed with a dash or ellipses at the end, basically screaming “something is going to interrupt this”. Hopefully the dialogue is timed right such that the interrupting sentence begins while the first speaker is still talking, or else the whole thing sounds terribly stilted. There’s even a whole TVTropes page about it.

Mass Effect 2 attempted to alleviate this problem by mechanizing the concept of interrupts. When you see the button prompt during a conversation, you can mash it it have Shepard interrupt the current speaker. Sure, the execution isn’t always perfect, and the timing can occasionally feel wonky, but it’s certainly better than having a subtitle just awkwardly cut off halfway through, or having someone politely stop mid-word so that someone else can interrupt.

Here’s the thing: human beings interrupt each other, a lot. The concept of interruption is actually an extremely meaningful tool when it comes to analyzing human interaction. Interruption is indicative of certain personality types (specifically assertive or controlling people), as well as moods (discomfort, excitement, or anger). An interruption is a sign that the topic being discussed is one of importance to the interrupter. It’s also a sign of comfort with one another. I know, much to my friends’ irritation, I pretty consistently attempt to complete my friends’ sentences. In the same way, it can be used to mark the power dynamic in a conversation, as one person gets less and less of a chance to get a word in edge-wise.

We’re in a design space right now where people are interested in building complex dialogue systems. The Walking Dead has a timer on dialogue, forcing players to formulate a response in a given amount of time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution lets players spec into augmentations giving them complete personality readouts of conversation partners. LA Noire pioneered hyper-realistic facial mo-cap so that people could actually read the faces of their conversation partners. And yet, relatively few games, at least to my knowledge, have tried to harness the power of interruption to add depth to dialogue.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave you entire psychological readouts of key conversational characters

Of course, some have, most notably in 2016’s Oxenfree, which allowed players to choose dialogue options at any time, allowing for interruptions, polite conversation, or silence. Giving players more granular control over the timing of the conversation like this is excellent, and can be used to create more interesting relationships between characters. But, to my knowledge, the mainstream introduction of mechanized interruption occurred in Mass Effect 2, and because it allows for more natural and human dialogue, it’s most definitely a Good Idea.

 

 

10 Good Ideas: Gears of War 3 and the Retro Lancer

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Gears of War as a series effectively canonized the modern cover shooter. Chest-high walls, the “roadie run”, the cover button, all of these things, while not necessarily originating with Epic’s 2006 title, were all packaged very neatly by it and presented as the starting point for an entire subgenre of the shooter game, with its influence extending far beyond its own titles.

The thing about cover shooters, however, is that they by their very nature they encourage a sort of very methodical sort of gameplay. There’s a reason the genre is also known as “stop ‘n’ pop”: you move to a piece of cover and sit there, popping out to shoot enemies whenever they, themselves, pop out of cover, before advancing towards the next piece of cover. Rinse and repeat. Compared to more aggressive shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, and especially compared to the modern wave of movement-focused shooters like TitanfallGears of War feels kinda slow. There’s a fair amount of waiting involved, between waiting for enemies to reveal themselves from behind cover, to waiting for the right time to advance between pieces of cover.

Now, Gears of War itself has actually acknowledged that through its design. A fair number of enemy types, namely Wretches and Tickers, actively charge players in cover, forcing them to take immediate action. Gears also balances its weapons, generally, such that those weapons which take you out of cover are the most powerful, with shotguns usually providing instant kills and the Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet always providing instant kills upon landing.

The thing here is that these mechanisms end up sort of in opposition to the game’s movement systems. Gears characters are big, hunky marines with the physique of linebackers. They don’t move with much quickness, except for the roadie run, which is a single mad rush in a straight line forward with very little steering ability. Beyond these tools, all the player has is a sort of clumsy roll that can take one a very short distance quickly, with some animation delay between the end of the roll and the next player input. Essentially, what this means is that trying to move into position to use any sort of short-ranged weapon leaves the player vulnerable. You’re defenseless for a short time after using the roll, have no control over your direction while roadie running, and are kind of just a sitting duck while walking. Long story short, you can either move or shoot.

Enter Gears of War 3, the final* episode in the main series, and the introduction of the Retro Lancer. The gimmick behind the Retro Lancer is pretty simple: instead of the series’s iconic chainsaw bayonet, it has…a regular bayonet. With that, the command which normally revs the chainsaw bayonet up instead launches the player forward in a weaponized version of the roadie run, bayonet forward. If you hit any sort of enemy, you skewer them, instantly killing human-sized enemies.

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The thing about the Retro is that it provides an aggressive movement option where the game never had one before. Previously, your options were to either move or attack, whereas charging with the Retro was both. This doesn’t sound terribly significant at first, but what it does is incentivize player aggressiveness in a series and genre normally all about slowly progressing forward. Instead of dividing gameplay into attacking or moving, the Retro Lancer lets the players mount an attack and, as a result, change positioning.

Let’s back up a smidge. Once you’re actually in a piece of cover in Gears, the decisions that you have to make aren’t actually terribly interesting, in my opinion. You wait for a guy to stand up, then you stand up and shoot him. The only thing that changes about the game state is that there’s one less guy shooting at you. You can choose to move forward, but that’s pretty universally a bad idea unless there are, let’s say, two or fewer enemies left, or you’re on a pretty low difficulty.

The Retro changes that dynamic by offering a new decision. Let’s say you’re in a piece of cover and you realize that you’re in a bad spot. In a traditional Gears dynamic, you’re offered two options: try and clear the room from your disadvantageous spot, or cut and run, leaving yourself exposed to enemy fire. The Retro offers a third option: an aggressive push outwards, a marriage of the two decisions. And here’s the best part: to maximize the Retro’s usefulness, you need to charge towards enemies, encouraging you to violate the “my cover-your cover” dynamic the game normally has while also not making such a decision very dumb. Charge towards an enemy flank, stand up, rev the Lancer, and you’re probably dead. Charge towards an enemy flank, immediately skewer someone, then push towards cover, and your odds are slightly better.

Providing incentive on breaking from the player norms of playing a cover shooter is what the Retro Lancer encourages (and in fact, a focus of a lot of Gears of War‘s design decisions), and that is a Good Idea.