Collaborative Mystery Games

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Running a mystery in a tabletop RPG is pretty hard, as it turns out. An RPG traditionally has a single source of truth, the GM, and thus, all information required to solve a mystery must pour forth from the GM’s mouth. Unfortunately, players have a tendency to assume the converse, that everything the GM says must be essential, simply by the merit of having been said. Combine this with the normal problems constraining a mystery (clues being too obvious or too baroque, unclear motivations, easily sidetracked audiences, etc.) and the whole endeavor is pretty hard.

There have certainly been great leaps in portraying a mystery in an RPG. Gumshoe is a fantastic system for running mysteries, as it makes the fantastic observation that the useful part of a game is not finding clues, but rather understanding their role in the mystery at large. However, it’s still victim to a fairly fundamental psychological problem: sometimes, players just get locked into a train of thought that isn’t right, and end up frustrating themselves as they chase loose ends.

I’m experiencing this right now, in fact, as my current Dungeons and Dragons game is centered around a mystery. I can feel the frustration as my group, myself included, get stuck in our preconceived, false notions about the mystery, both angry enough at the dead ends to know we’re barking up the wrong tree, and too rooted to our current assumptions to be able to create alternative hypotheses.

This got me thinking: player agency with regards to the story of an RPG is sort of the new hotness right now. Plenty of games offer mechanics by which players can create truths about the world around them, and plenty of GMs nowadays are OK with, or even very into, the idea that players should get an amount of say with the game world.

What if players got to dictate truths about a mystery game, defining a mystery as they solved it?

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So, the immediate problem with this idea is that it, well, fundamentally destroys the concept of mystery. If the players can just point at a guy and go “He did it”, and actually warp the fabric of reality itself such that he most definitely did it, there’s no mystery. They’re no longer the audience, but the writer, and a writer is not surprised by their own mystery.

With this in mind, such a system should not give the players complete control over the path of the mystery. Instead, players should have a more granular control over the clues, and be given some say as to what matters and what does not. The greater mystery as a whole is still left in the darkness, under the watch of the GM, but the players can find some fact in the world, some detail or clue, and say that, yes, this is indeed a piece of the puzzle, and here’s why. It’s then up to the GM to determine how that known piece of information bridges into the unknown mystery.

Here’s a really rough implementation idea. Let’s say that every character has some sort of knowledge domain, just like how Gumshoe does it. The rough-and-tumble street thug knows all about the underworld and crime and thievery. The posh noblewoman knows all about courtly traditions and noble bloodlines and gossip. The coroner knows all about wounds and blood spatters and poisons and bodily decomposition. Along with these domains of knowledge, the players are given some sort of metacurrency. Let’s call it Deductions.

When a character comes across a clue in their particular intellectual domain, maybe a splash of dried blood on a couch cushion, maybe a broken lockpick beneath the window, maybe the knowledge that Lady Verisimilitude or whatever left on the day of the murder to go to the the royal banquet at Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames, that character may burn a Deduction to make a conclusion about that clue, a conclusion that is, of course, completely pulled out of their ass.

“Real blood will dry brown if left to stain for that long. This is still red, and thus must be fake”

“This particular kind of break is most common if one attempts to pick a lock with strength instead of finesse, a common mistake for an amateur to make.”

“Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames cancelled its banquet this year after the local Baron fell ill, so Lady Verisimilitude must have gone elsewhere.”

The important thing is that these are facts from this point forward. That splash of blood must be fake, that thief must not be that good a lockpick, and Lady Verisimilitude must have lied about her whereabouts. The key here is that no conclusion is drawn here that cannot be pulled directly from domain knowledge. The player is not allowed to assert where Lady Verisimilitude was, merely that she was not where she said. This would have to be enforced as a rule.

In this way, I guess it would be more accurate to say that the players are not actually providing any answers to the mystery, but are instead being given the power to say what questions have answers that are important. It’s still up to the GM to say why there’s fake blood on the sofa, who in the town is a crap lockpicker, and where Lady V was, but the players can rest assured that those details have been codified as important, and thus, time and mental energy spent pursuing answers will not be wasted.

Because that’s ultimately the death knell for a good mystery, is if a lot of time and energy is spent by the players, and they feel like they gain little out of it, most likely because what they’re pursuing is simply not important to the mystery that the GM has laid out. By giving the players a sort of mechanical reassurance that what they’re doing is important (because they have enforced that it is, no less), they can be assured that they’re moving forward.

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Speaking of the mystery the GM has laid out, they’ll have to do so somewhat differently now that the players have the ability to assert facts. Generally speaking, you’ll have to make sure that your mystery is solid enough that the players aren’t completely dictating the story, yet flexible enough that it can incorporate all of the things that they believe to be true. Furthermore, since Deductions are a limited resource, you need to ensure that every clue you scatter through the game has both a place where you expect it to fall in your web of mystery (in case no one uses a Deduction on that clue), but also is general enough that players can slot them in a variety of places as they see fit.

Perhaps you just meant that broken lockpick to signify that the intruder was not invited in during the Grand Ball, and had to break in, but the concept of the lockpick being broken in an amateurish fashion gives you an extra wrinkle to work with. Maybe the thief’s bookshelf has a dog-eared copy of “Lockpicking For Dummies” stashed on one of the shelves, or their garage has padlocks lying on the workbench, clearly for practice. The detail the player created hasn’t changed who the thief is, but rather acted as a piece of bait that the players bit on to, that you can use to reel them towards the revelations.

I think such a system could be incorporated into any game already capable of running mysteries. Just, at any point where the GM would describe a detail of a clue, instead turn to the player and say “What do you notice?”. I think a certain key would be to give players a finite amount of ability to do this: too much and they’ll end up convoluting the plot beyond the GM’s ability to improvise, or they’ll line up facts in such a way that it basically forces a certain conclusion to be true, ending back up at the point where they are both writing and reading the mystery.

So, where does this get you? Well, your players will be given facts that are 100% guaranteed to be both correct and useful, and since they’re dictating them, they’ll never have to worry about being stuck down a train of thought that’s wrong, because they’ll be able to demand that their focus is, at least to a degree, relevant. This eliminates the guessing game of “Is this a red herring, or is this useful?” that tends to suck the fun out of mystery games.

Here’s the really bloody secret, though: you should already be doing this. If, as a GM, you have dictated from the very beginning how each and every clue relates to your mystery, even if you’re not concealing those clues behind skill checks, you’re running the risk of players getting stuck in those logical dead-ends where they’re focusing on the wrong thing, interpreting a clue the wrong way, or trying to kludge every detail into the incorrect hypothesis they already have. Frankly, the more players are confident in their wrong answer, the less fun you’re going to have.

I’m not saying “the players should always be right”, but instead “the players should always be half right”. Don’t give them the entire mystery, but instead give them just enough that the twists and turns of the mystery come from the parts they do have set in stone, instead of coming out of left field because the players were dead wrong in the first place.

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One Goal, Two Executions: Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild

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I liked Breath of the Wild quite a bit. I had somewhere in the realm of 45 hours played when I finally reached the peak of Hyrule Castle and destroyed Ganon, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some moments where I had a lot of fun. But, that whole time, I couldn’t help shake the feeling like, in this beautiful, wonderful game, there were some things that just weren’t working.

Then, the day after I beat Zelda, I strolled over to my mailbox and grabbed my copy of Super Mario Odyssey, and I was blown away, for a variety of reasons. But, maybe one of the most surprising things for me was how similar the core design ethos of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the ethos of Super Mario Odyssey are, and how, in my opinion, Odyssey got it so much more right in a way Breath of the Wild did not.

For starters, let’s talk about that shared design philosophy, because I do not think that I’m stretching by saying that both of these games attempt to achieve the same design goals. Those goals, in my opinion, are as follows:

  • Grant the player a constant stream of rewards as they explore
  • Create interesting puzzles by configuring known mechanics in interesting ways
  • Encourage players to pay attention to the world around them

Let’s talk about that first goal: granting players a constant stream of rewards. Both Breath of the Wild and Odyssey are jam packed with rewards, from Odyssey‘s 880+ Moons, to Breath of the Wild‘s litany of Shrines, Korok Seeds, and weapons. For both games, if you notice something that looks like it should lead to something, 99.99% of the time it does.

The difference is that Zelda has these rewards scattered across one massive world, while Mario opts to instead cluster them into small, but dense levels. Ultimately, neither of these approaches is right or wrong, but in the end I dislike Zelda‘s approach because it fails to capture that travel time well, in my opinion. This time spent moving between shiny things is ripe for exploitation and enjoyment, either by using enjoyable movement mechanics (a la Just Cause, or the Batman: Arkham games), excellent radiant story morsels to find (as Bethesda’s games like to use), or just by having the journey punctuated by the engaging, challenging combat (like a Souls game).

Zelda does none of these things, unfortunately. The movement in Zelda doesn’t feel terribly great, unfortunately. The limited stamina means you can only run paltry distances, especially in the early game, and horseback riding and climbing are both not terribly interesting. If you find any story tidbits on your journey, they won’t amount to much more than a meaningless side quest or the same Yiga Clan ambush that happens a hundred times. The combat, unfortunately, is also fairly cut and dry, and the game’s limited pool of enemies ensures that these fights get stale fast. Combine all of this, and getting from reward to reward is ultimately a chore. Your “steady stream of rewards” is cut up with these long sequences of boredom.

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Some might accuse me of simply being of short attention span, preferring the immediate, constant stream of rewards that Odyssey presents, which is true to an extent, but I also don’t think that I’m out of line by saying that if a game wants me to enjoy the journey, there should be something about the journey to enjoy.

Moving on to that second philosophical point, the idea that puzzles are to be created by configuring known elements in new ways. So, you’ve traveled that long distance and gotten to the shrine or the Korok seed or the Divine Beast, so what do you do to solve it? Well, while I haven’t completed every shrine in the game (I’m sitting at about 40 out of 120 right now), that sample size is big enough that I feel fairly confident in saying that most every puzzle utilizes a subset of the following components:

  • fighting
  • traversal mechanics (running, gliding, or climbing)
  • Stasis
  • Magnesis
  • Cryonis
  • bombs
  • electricity
  • fire
  • water
  • wind

There’s certainly plenty of clever puzzles one can construct out of these building blocks (especially the Shiekah Slate powers), but there’s a fairly simple problem: with few exceptions, each of these mechanics are introduced to you in the tutorial, with no expansion of their ability throughout the game. I understand why this is the case: since the game is open-ended and players can encounter any shrine at any time, they wanted the player to be able to tackle any of the puzzles contained therein.

Now, this is again a result of Zelda‘s open world design. Since Odyssey has a constrained set of levels, to be taken in a largely premeditated path, it can introduce puzzle mechanics (largely in the form of capture targets) right before you’re going to need that knowledge. Zelda does not have a predetermined player path, and thus does not have this luxury.

However, the trade-off is this: the puzzle variety gets extremely stale over time. Once you become fluent in the language of Breath of the Wild‘s puzzles, they become extremely rote and repetetive. There’s a metal thing, use Magnesis on it. There’s some water, use Cryonis on it. Since you’re introduced to all of the puzzle mechanics immediately, that gives you maximal time to get bored of each of them, instead of drip-feeding you new mechanics over time.

Contrast this with what we might call “traditional” Zelda design. While not open-world, it seemed like older Zelda games, especially A Link Between Worlds, had tried an alternate solution with great success. The world was littered with puzzles that, while featuring a common language, had solutions requiring components that the player might not have had at that time. As the player accrued items over the game, they eventually collected the abilities they needed to solve the puzzles they found. It certainly seems like having puzzles scattered about Breath of the Wild‘s world with solutions you didn’t have yet would both increase the sense of mystery and wonder the game tries so hard to cultivate, and offered another set of rewards to add to the other types: puzzle-solving abilities.

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Let’s move on to that third point: paying attention to the world in order to find puzzles and rewards. Before I get accused of jumping onto the bandwagon of just bashing the year’s popular games, I want to close with how Breath of the Wild does this particular component better than Odyssey.

Super Mario Odyssey is interested in having its players pay attention to the world, but not in a sense of mastering it, like something like a Prey, but instead with an analytical mind. I see these two walls are close together, so I can wall-jump up them. There’s a lady Goomba, so I’m going to go find a male Goomba to woo her. There’s no need to really master your environment, nor cleverness that can be performed with that knowledge.

Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, is a game all about learning about your environment and using that knowledge. Learning environments allows you to know what natural resources grow where, allowing you to craft the dishes you need. Learning your environments gives you new vectors to attack enemies from, as you glide down from cliffs or launch enemies into the briny depths. It gives you vantage points from which to shoot arrows from afar, or alternate routes to avoid enemies that are too tough. This is all compared to Mario, where mastery of a level just tells you where the stuff is.

Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild both are interested in very similar player experiences, but thanks to fundamental differences in style of game, diverge upon their execution. With this in mind, I hope not to bash one game or another, but to emphasize a point that I emphasize frequently on this blog: game design is not mathematics. A problem does not possess only a single solution (I know this metaphor doesn’t map one-to-one for math, but go with me). You can pursue a single goal, and depending on the environment constructed by the other basic elements of your design, you can come up with answers to that same question as different as, well, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

 

Super Mario Odyssey And Clever Puzzle Design

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I only realized that I had accidentally played Super Mario Odyssey for five straight hours yesterday when I collected a moon and realized that the date stamp which appears when you do so had incremented by one. The game is truly charming and fun, but one thing it does amazingly is the way it handles puzzles.

You see, the thing Odyssey does that I love is that it takes time very early on to set up a consistent language of puzzles, one which the player quickly learns fluency in. For all of its amazingly unique enemies, levels, and mechanics, the game uses surprisingly few actual puzzle mechanics. Generally speaking, most of them can be batched into the following types of puzzles:

  • some sort of acrobatic or platforming challenge
  • getting to a specific place within a predetermined amount of time
  • collecting a set of things
  • bring a thing to a person who wants it

These are hardly revolutionary puzzle designs, but the variety comes from these base modes being mixed and matched. Some puzzles are just one of these elements, such as those where you have to collect 5 Moon badges in order to unlock the real Moon, which is thoroughly a puzzle of the third kind. Others are a blend, like the musical notes where you have to collect every note in a certain amount of time, which is a blend of the second and third puzzle types.

Then in comes the captures. In case you missed the memo, Mario Odyssey‘s hallmark mechanic is ability of Mario to throw his hat onto enemies (so long as they don’t have a hat on their own) in order to possess them, like some sort of couture ghost. When you capture a character in this sense, you gain access to a new set of moves. Bullet Bills can fly through the air. Chargin’ Chucks can charge forward, smashing obstacles. Hammer Bros can toss hammers.

The thing that makes these captures really jive well with the puzzle structure is that, while captures are definitely necessary to solve certain puzzles, the extent of the puzzle is very rarely “just be thing X and you win”. Instead, when you perform a capture, you’ll still be performing those same core puzzle types, just with a different bend.

Take the Gushens, for example. These fish-like enemies are surrounded by a ball of water, and can use jets of water to hurl themselves forward or upwards, but only have a limited supply of water to do this with. They need to touch a body of water to replenish themselves, or they’ll run out. The obvious puzzle to build with these guys is “hit this thing with water to unlock it”, but that’s not the norm. Instead, Gushens are usually at the center of challenges that are extremely reminiscent of regular platforming challenges. The difference is, instead of the challenge coming from the timing of moves, it instead moves to conserving water and ensuring you can make it from one body of water to the next. Same puzzle type, different focus.

Another great thing Odyssey will do is give you the same or similar puzzles with different captures as the focus, changing the way you have to approach it. For instance, one level early in the game has you racing down a roadway on a scooter, requiring you to get to the end before the timer expires and the roadway disappears. In the postgame, you’re presented with the same challenge, but with a twist: there’s no scooter, you gotta hoof it. What was once a challenge of controlling the slightly unwieldy scooter is now one of trying to maximize your on-foot movement to reach the speed you need.

The benefit of this common language of puzzles relates to the open-world design of Super Mario Odyssey. Some of these levels are big, or at least they feel really big for a Mario game. On top of that, many of the levels change over time, either with the addition of new characters, structural changes, or sometimes massive state changes (the Sand Kingdom early in the game transitions from frozen-over to a hot desert over the course of the time you spend there). These levels are all full of assorted puzzles and challenges, too, some have as many as 80 Moons to collect.

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There are two ways this could have gone hilariously wrong. Were these puzzles all just “lock and key” puzzles, where it was just a matter of bringing the right thing to a puzzle spot in order to solve it, repeating that task 999 times would have been really boring really fast. On the flip side, if each of these puzzles were hypercustomized with their own special solutions, having up to 80 of them side by side, with the components required for their selection all intermingled, would have been mentally overwhelming. Imagine 80 Myst puzzles, all within the same city block, with their solution components all spread about. Blech.

Instead, Odyssey finds this great middle ground. By teaching players the lingua franca of the game’s puzzles, the game is free to scatter all of these puzzle components around the game’s levels with reckless abandon, knowing that when a player comes across a solution component, like an enemy to capture, they’ll know the sorts of puzzles they’ll be able to solve with it, and when the player encounters a puzzle, they’ll know what they need to do or get to solve it.

Take the humble Goomba for example, throwaway enemy since Super Mario Bros. When the player encounters a Goomba, they know exactly the kinds of puzzles Goombas are good at solving. Goombas don’t slide on ice, making them ideal for getting across frozen platformers. Goombas can stack on top of each other, allowing them to either reach really high platforms or activate switches requiring a certain amount of Goombas to activate. Goombas can also be used to woo Lady Goombas, which always yields a Moon.

Thus, whenever a player encounters Goombas, they know to be on the lookout for puzzles of these nature in the vicinity. The reverse also holds true: when the player finds a high platform with nothing around it, a Goomba switch, or a Lady Goomba, they know they need to hunt down some Goombas.

As the player runs around a level of Super Mario Odyssey, they’ll be seeing and trying to remember a lot of significant details around the world. Instead of having a pile of disparate elements bouncing around in their head which the player is constantly trying to fit together in a logical way, like an old school adventure game, Odyssey makes it so the player always has some prototype in their head of how to solve a puzzle, instead of randomly trying to fit puzzle pieces together, which is a much more satisfying way to fill a world with puzzles, and to make the player feel smart for putting them together.

Dark Souls Is Not A Role-Playing Game (And Some Stuff That Isn’t Pointless Too)

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HOT TAKES! GETCHA HOT TAKES HERE! PIPIN’ HOT!

//The following article contains some general spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, for some reason

I know, I knowDark Souls? Arbitrary definitions of genre? Axiomatic declarations of truth? Man, I’m about to call out Pretentious Game Design Blog Bingo here. The reason I think this blog is worth writing is not that whether or not the Soulsborne games’ genre really matters, but rather, the thought put into to deciding it does. That is to say, the conclusion of the argument matters much less than understanding the argument to get there.

Allow me to make my case. Say I walk into a physical game store, and I go up to the dude behind the counter. I say “Hey man, do you have any recommendations? I’m looking for something new to play, something super different.”

After some deliberation, the guy snaps his fingers. “Oh man, I know the perfect game for you. It’s a game with a super heavy focus on its combat mechanics, to the point where you’ll feel like you’re absolutely getting your ass kicked early on, but as you progress you’ll feel amazing as you start to get used to it. You really have to learn about your enemy’s attack patterns and respond to them, instead of just mashing buttons.”

“There’s not really a heavy focus on dialogue or traditional narrative,” he continues. “And all the characters that are there are kind of bizarre. You have inventory management, both in the form of items and consumables, and have some stats that you can upgrade over time. Ultimately, though, none of that matters, because of you’re good enough you can go through the whole game with trash weapons and no stat increases. There’s a bunch of secrets to find, and also, it has a bunch of crazy boss battles and this insane Gothic aesthetic that’s just dripping from every room.”

“Dope!” I respond. “I’ll take that.”

With that, the clerk goes over to the shelf and grabs me a copy of Bayonetta.

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I know, I can hear your arguments screaming through the computer. Bayonetta doesn’t really have that many skills to upgrade, just Health and Witch Time. Dark Souls has a veritable Excel spreadsheet of stats to manage, and tons of items to collect and equip and use. Bayonetta just has melee weapons, that’s all. And Dark Souls has this rich, immersive lore-filled world full of deep characters and interesting motives, and you get to make choices! Bayonetta just has a linear story about punching God into the sun or something.

Herein lies my critical point: while Dark Souls has a bunch of gameplay features that we traditionally associate with role-playing games, what it actually does with them puts it much closer to the character action games that Platinum puts out, like Bayonetta, than an actual role-playing game.

I think the biggest point at which to start here is the stats, that omnipresent table of numbers that define who you are in a role-playing game. Dark Souls‘s stat screen is certainly intimidating.

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Here’s the thing, though. Literally none of the numbers on this screen affect who your character is, and they provide no wider a suite of options to the player as a selection of gun in a first-person shooter. To compare, let’s look at the “stats screen” of a true-blue role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.

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There are numbers on this sheet that describe how well a D&D character hits things, of course, but these numbers have a much greater sweeping effect on your character than that. The column of attributes down the left side inform the specifics of how your character behaves, what kind of person they are. Are they funny? Are they smart? How’s their critical thinking ability? Are they kinda shifty? Or big and brutish?

Go back and look at the Dark Souls stat screen. How faithful is a Dark Souls character? How much does that change when you increase your Faith stat? Turns out, you have no idea, and not much at all, respectively. Similarly, it’s not like your character has such better ideas when you increase Intelligence, merely the weapons that arbitrarily do more damage based on Intelligence will…do even more damage.

This is because of one simple truth: a mechanic does not make a game what it is, it’s what you do with that mechanic that matters. Dungeons and Dragons (and Planescape Torment and Pillars of Eternity and what have you) have numerical stats and use them as a way to precisely describe the distinct characteristics of a character in quantifiable terms. Mechanics are a way to represent what makes characters unique, what makes them, y’know, people. They are there to reinforce the idea that you are now this character, by giving you a better idea of who that character is.

Mechanics in Dark Souls do absolutely none of that. The numbers on a stat screen do not exist to help you get a better idea of who your character is, but rather they are variables to fit into the game’s mechanical calculus, elements to introduce to your strategies and tactics. They’re used as a way to fine-tune your combat strategy, to shore up parts of the combat where you’re weak, and make your preferred tactics more viable. In this way, they actual bear more resemblance to a scope in Call of Duty than they do D&D’s Intelligence stat. While a role-playing game’s stats push you closer to the character you’re inhabiting, stats in Dark Souls are merely modifiers to your combat aptitude.

I could go on with other aspects of the game, but I feel as though my argument is the same. The use of equipment and items in Dark Souls is merely used to modify and enhance combat strategies, and in no way is a reflection of the character’s identity (weapons as a reflection of identity in D&D can be seen in class restrictions in usable weapons. Since only certain classes can use certain weapons, using a weapon is an expression of that class).

The amount of story and narrative in Dark Souls also doesn’t make it a role-playing game, obviously. Plenty of games that aren’t role-playing games have deep stories. Metal Gear has a deep story. Touhou games have a deep story.

Now, some of you might be asking, what is my definition of a role-playing game? And my answer is that it doesn’t really matter. I’m just using this genre discussion as a vehicle, a sort of Trojan Horse of clickbait through which I want to make my real point: when it comes to identifying the soul of a game, intent shines through much greater than the actual mechanical building blocks themselves. It’s how Dark Souls takes all of the mechanics of role-playing games to build a solid action game, how Thomas Was Alone uses the mechanics of a platformer to build a character drama, how Doki Doki Literature Club builds a horror game out of a visual novel.

This can also be seen in less homogeneous mixtures. Borderlands points role-playing game mechanics in the same direction as FPS mechanics, creating a single harmonious thing. The same thing happens when Brutal Legend points open-world action-adventure mechanics to run parallel with a strategy game.

Of course, saying that mechanics “belong” to a genre at all is stupid. Mechanics are just mechanics, and a good designer can make any mechanic feed into the central philosophy of any game, with proper tweaking. A stat block can be used to enhance combat, a gun can be used to solve puzzles (Portal), a player’s movement can be used to cast judgement upon them (The Stanley Parable), and so much more. So unshackle mechanics from their context and really run wild with them, and see what you can make.

 

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.

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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What did we do to deserve stock art?

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.