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

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//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.

 

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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.

Bleak Rains: My Foray Into The Apocalypse

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It just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my projects in a little while, so I thought I’d pop out and talk about something I’ve been working on: Bleak Rains. I’m excited about this project for a couple of reasons, but mostly because it’s my first foray into designing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning it runs on the same mechanical engine as Vincent Baker’s masterpiece, Apocalypse World.

Initially a project I started to get out of a funk I was in while writing playtests for my other two major tabletop RPG projects, Bleak Rains takes place in a city called Indra. Indra is a massive, ancient city, on an island surrounded by the ocean on all sides. Indra is at a level of technology equivalent to just before the Industrial Revolution: there are some steam engines here and there, but they’re loud, clunky, and expensive. This city is ruled by a group called the High Overseers. From the top of their ivory towers (literally), they not only enforce law and order, but also the cultural norms of this society. Before the High Overseers, things were, well, bad.

The reason they were bad is because of the ocean. In classic, Lovecraftian fashion, the ocean of this world is full of unknowable things. There are monsters, relics from the barbaric civilizations of a bygone era, but on top of all of that, the water itself is just inexplicably weird. It naturally unnerves people, makes them paranoid, and maybe even causes them to hallucinate. The water is never clear, it’s always murky, hiding something. In the distant past, the people of Indra used to worship the things in the water, the High Overseers pulled them away and dragged them towards civilization.

Things are fine for half of the year: the things of the sea stay in the sea and everyone, with the exception of sailors, fishermen, and daredevils, can stay safely on land and avoid all of the unpleasantness. The problem is the weather: for six months out of the year, Indra is in its rainy season. This means that the water which is the source of all of this general unpleasantness literally drenches the city, and sea levels rise, to the point where lower layers of the city flood. All of a sudden, what was normally stuck in the sea is now free to wander the streets.

The actual play of Bleak Rains takes place exclusively in this rainy season. In this period, the streets are full of mysteries and danger, people are paranoid and selfish, and things that lay dormant wake up. The playbooks, offering roles and identities to the player, are people who, for one reason or another, are forced to (or want to) be in the streets during this dark season.

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One of my goals for the playbooks was that I wanted the roles to be sort of weird. I have nothing against wizards, clerics, and paladins, but I thought that it would be much more interesting to let players define part of this weird setting through play (that is, after all, the mantra of PbtA). Thus, by providing playbooks close to the weirdest parts of this setting, it puts a spotlight to those weird parts and encourages an exploration of them, even if only to get a better understanding of what your character’s even doing.

Take, for example, The Graveswimmer, one of the playbooks a player can choose for their character. The central premise is that traditional burial doesn’t really work in Indra. On top of there not being a lot of land to bury people, the rain has this pesky tendency to bring the dead back to life. Graveswimmers are an ancient order basically responsible for finding dead bodies and giving them their rites, both putting their souls to rest in a spiritual sense and ensuring their shambling bodies don’t bother anyone in the future.

By having a Graveswimmer in your party, you’re forcing your group, or at least one person, to think about the way death is handled in this society. It brings up this conflict of treating a dead person with respect versus limiting the danger they present to society (a conflict that was very real back in the days of plague), and it makes you think of burial as a sort of functional mechanism of society, rather than just a cultural one. If I do my job right, the Graveswimmer will, as they grow as a character, explore more and more of the psychology and cultural importance of death, something that’s kind of hard to do, but might be easier if placed in such a foreign setting.

Another playbook I’m super excited about is The Anchorlugger. Anchorluggers are basically The Scarlet Letter taken to the nth degree. Since straying from cultural norms in this society leads to, you know, the veneration of sea monsters and the potential destruction of civilized society, major social transgressions are treated very harshly in this world. One of the Anchorlugger’s ancestors committed some sort of grievous sin and, as punishment, their decedents, including the player, have had to carry a physical manifestation of their family’s sin in the form of this big, unwieldy anchor.

Where Graveswimmers deal with the treatment of death, and the balance between burial as a cultural and a function construct, Anchorluggers are built to deal with the conflict between trying to fit into a society that hates you, and embracing your differences, even if it means self-imposed isolation. That’s a conflict that might hit really close to home for some people, but Anchorluggers are dealing with crimes and punishments far outside of the norms of our society, and thus maybe have some more creative freedom to explore what it’s like to integrate into, or distance oneself from, a society that hates you.

The most mechanically interesting part of Bleak Rains, in my opinion, is Weird. Weird is a tangible measurement of one’s distance from societal norms, and is represented in the form of checkboxes. Characters that are closer to the fringes of society have fewer boxes of Weird. That’s because you mark a Weird every time your character does something that’s really pushing the limits of what this society will think of as acceptable. For most characters, marking Weird is good, because you add the number of Weird you have marked to dice rolls when you use your, well, weird abilities. The closer you get to the fringe, the better you are at manipulating it. However, when you mark all of your Weird, society decides that you’ve gone too far from the norm. At that point, you’re either cast into the shadows forever, with society trying its best to completely ignore your existence, or a lynch mob comes after you.

With Bleak Rains, my goals are twofold. First, I want players to be able to explore the concept of what we in a society consider “normal”, as well as what happens when you leave normalcy, without the baggage that a familiar setting might bring with it. Secondly, I want players to be able to explore a setting where they have some control in the fundamental structures of its society, and explore what I consider to be the most interesting part of worldbuilding: figuring out what happens when the weird becomes the new normal.

I hope to share some more Bleak Rains content on this blog in the future. I think I’m pretty close to playtestable right now, but in the meanwhile, I’ll probably talk about the playbooks and the types of player experiences they’re built to encourage. Until then, be sure to stay dry…

10 Good Ideas: Dead Rising 2 and Combo Weapons

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Dead Rising 2 still burns in my heart as the pinnacle of the Dead Rising series up to this point. While there have been 4 games in the series (technically 7, counting the spin-off Off the Record and the downloadable titles Case Zero and Case West), Dead Rising 2 represents the point where the series really managed to achieve it’s goal of being a big, silly, dumb sandbox designed to fulfill power fantasies and elicit giggles from its players.

For the unaware, Dead Rising is a series of open-world sandbox games where the player fights their way through hordes of zombies using weapons and items scavenged from the environment. The first two games take place in shopping malls filled with shops selling weird and obscure nonsense, although later games take place in full towns. Crazy boss battles are sprinkled through the environment against Psychopaths (which, again, is an idea that got sunsetted as the series went on), and these complement the main story.

The core Dead Rising gameplay loop involves players entering a large space with limited resources and an objective in mind, ranging from saving a survivor to defeating a Psychopath to just simply moving from one end of the area to the other. The player must scavenge their environment for items to increase their fighting ability. As the player makes their way through the area, they expend these resources (items degrade and eventually break with use), forcing constant scavenging. Killing zombies is encouraged as a way to make the path to your objective safer and to gain XP, thus encouraging this churn of items.

This loop works perfectly well in the original Dead Rising, but it never quite, in my experience, makes the player really learn the map. Players might memorize the locations of a couple of key shops (the grocery store and the gun shop being stand-outs in my mind), but other than that, weapons and healing items can be pretty consistently found in any part of the mall.

Dead Rising 2 featured a change in protagonist, from the photojournalist Frank West to the motorcycle rider and mechanic Chuck Greene. To signal this change mechanically, Dead Rising 2 abandons the photography mechanics in the first game and instead introduces a mechanic designed to emphasize Chuck as a mechanic: combo weapons.

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Combo weapons are pretty simple, conceptually. Certain pairs of items in the game world can be taken to the workbenches scattered around the map and slapped together into new, unique weapons which are stronger, cooler, and grant more XP than normal weapons

Combo weapons are immediate a fantastic way of incorporating Chuck’s story identity into the game mechanics, but they do so much more mechanical heavy lifting than that. For starters, the existence of combo weapons forces players to take much greater care into remembering the layout and stores of the mall. Since combo weapons are so good, players are incentivized to use them, so as a result players will naturally try to remember the locations of valuable item spawns across the map so that they can build combo weapons more consistently. Sure, you can find any ol’ weapon in any ol’ store, but if I remember where the boxing gym is, I can build the Knife Gloves, and then I get to be Wolverine, and that’s awesome.

Combo weapons also encourage exploration, as quite a few of them have their combo card unlocked by saving survivors, defeating Psychopaths, or by finding posters in the environment which provide the inspiration for the weapon. This is a great way to grant tangible benefits to exploration and quest completion. Not only do you get the sort of intangible gain of ticking off quests or saving X survivors, but you also get cool new toys to play with. The same actually goes for those combo cards you get through level-up. Dead Rising has actually always been pretty good about giving exciting level-up benefits (mainly pro-wrestling moves?), but getting a big, dumb new weapon is a great, tangible benefit that’s much more exciting than a simple stat boost.

Another thing combo weapons do well is build up a sense of anticipation and mystery, weird as that sounds. You see, when you pick up an item that’s used in a combo weapon, it’s marked with a little wrench icon, like this:

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This occurs whether or not you know what the combo weapon actually is, so it means that as you’re going through the early hours of the game, you might pick up something like a construction helmet and think “Wait, what does this make?”. You might be motivated to wander around the world and try to piece together the combo weapon through trial-and-error (which you can do, more on that later), and when you finally figure out the combination, either by deducing it or by getting the combo card later, you get the resolution of figuring it out. As this builds up, you feel like you’re getting better and better at whipping together super-powered weapons out of the environment, which you are, and you gain a sense of mastery.

Back to that trial-and-error point. If combo weapons could only be used when they were unlocked, players might feel like their options were a little limited at first. However, a combo weapon can be put together at any time with the right ingredients, having the card merely grants a secondary fire and greater XP gain. So, players never feel arbitrarily blocked off from the cooler weapons, but combo cards still feel like they offer cool benefits to the player when earned. Adventurous players can “cheat” and discover weapons early, and less clever players still get a nice feed of new combo recipes even if they don’t experiment. Genius.

Dead Rising 2 is a game about exploring, about mastering your environment, and about doing dumb things, goals all advanced and made better through the genius inclusion of combo weapons. So, yeah, combo weapons in Dead Rising 2, a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Halo 3 ODST and Non-Linear Storytelling

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Let’s start this bad boy up with an unpopular opinion: Halo 3 ODST is the best Halo game, period.

This is, obviously, an opinion, and a lot of it has to do with how the setting and the fantasy of Halo don’t really do a lot for me. The idea of being a nigh-unkillable space marine is cool, sure, but the games don’t really execute on it in the way that I like, with enemies being pretty bullet spongey and the player character never really mechanically feeling “like a badass”, especially on higher difficulties and when compared to other “badass space marine” power fantasies like DOOM or Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

ODST has a special place in my heart, however, as a game that I felt like always married its narrative with the Halo mechanics much better than the mainline series. ODST doesn’t pair the protagonist with sick guitar riffs, reverential NPC dialogue, and that one hype battle song (dudun du DUUUUN, dududu, dudun du DUUUUN, you know the one). Instead, the game has this dark, rainy atmosphere, a much more survivalist tone, and a somber, jazzy soundtrack that almost sounds a bit like a dirge.

Matching this mood change is a change in story. Halo games typically follow this plot structure: there’s a big thing that’s very bad. Master Chief goes to that big thing and blows it up. Weirdly, this tends to be both the atomic story element (blow up this Scarab, blow up this AA gun) as well as the greater story (blow up the Halo, blow up the Ark), although “rescue Cortana” gets sprinkled in a decent amount too.

ODST‘s plot, meanwhile, actually largely focuses on a lot of the protagonist, simply called “the Rookie”, stumbling around trying to figure out what happened. You end up finding evidence of your squad’s movements through the city, and finding these items triggers flashback missions, showing what your squadmates got up to in that area. You don’t have to do the flashbacks in order, you just sort of piece them together as you go along.

I have a basically completely unsubstantiated theory about Halo 3: ODST. The game’s materials and promotional content pitch this game as a more “down to Earth” Halo game, with players leaving the shoes of Master Chief, who is a literal super-soldier, and instead finding themselves playing someone who is much more of a normal dude. Here’s my conspiracy theory: the player character is not, in any significant way, powered-down between Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST.

I’m having a hard time collecting concrete numbers to substantiate this theory, but here’s my reasoning: the Master Chief has always actually been kinda squishy in-game, and his “super soldier-ness” seems most supported mechanically by his large reserve of rechargeable shields, meaning the player can afford to run into danger and take some hits. In ODST, by pulling these shields back just a little bit and returning to a health kit system, players still do and take the same amount of damage, it’s just that they’re punished for being more gung-ho.

The main way that ODST creates a tone of weakness for the player is through story and setting elements. As mentioned above, a somber soundtrack replaces a heroic one, the game is dark and shadowy instead of bright and colorful, and perhaps most importantly, the player character is not the main catalyst of the story. Instead of doing all of the really cool things, you see the results after the fact.

Of course, players don’t like not being the main executor of story events, just look at some of the negative responses to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s story, which at times feels like you’re the bodyguard for the protagonist, instead of the protagonist. ODST doesn’t want you to be the hero that saves the day, that’s not the tone it’s going for. However, it cheats: you, the Rookie, aren’t the one who does all the cool stuff, but you, the player, are. You still get to play all of those cool scenes where you drive a Scorpion and you are the elite sniper or whatever, but since those are flashbacks, these scenes don’t create a sense that the Rookie is this sort of super-protagonist in the way the Master Chief is.

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Here, look at a list of the things the player, not just the player character, does in Halo 3: ODST.

  • lead a charge of Marines using a Scorpion tank to pierce Covenant lines
  • defend, and then blow up, an ONI base
  • hijack a Covenant dropship
  • fight a Scarab
  • retrieve and escort a super-important AI

Man, those…sound like regular ol’ Halo objectives, don’t they? Most of those are things that the Master Chief actually does on his own in mainline Halo games. On top of all of that, consider that you’re fighting the same enemies, with the same guns, and they’re going down in the same number of hits.

However, Bungie tricks the players, through the use of music, color, environment design, and narrative design, to “remix” this set of Halo setpieces to feel like a totally different game. When you compare ODST to other Halo games in terms of mission design and raw combat mechanics, not a lot is actually different. However, since the players are taken out of the driver’s seat of the story, narratively, even though they actually 100% are not when you actually look at what the player does over the course of the game, they don’t feel like a world-saving badass, despite doing all of the things world-saving badasses do.

With a few clever tricks of narrative design, Halo 3: ODST tricks players into thinking that what is ultimately any other Halo game is a reserved, quiet, more grounded experience, using minimal changes to repackage the Halo experience into something totally new, and that is a Good Idea.

 

10 Good Ideas: Blitz: The League II and Thirty Yard Downs

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Here’s an uncontroversial opinion for someone as heavily invested in “nerdy” hobbies as I am: I don’t much care for American football. Where I differ is in the amount of it I’ve watched in comparison to most people with similar “geeky” dispositions. I worked at what was ostensibly a sports bar for four years, in the suburbs of Dallas, a very, very football-heavy town. I feel pretty comfortable saying that I’ve watched a majority of NFL games for at least the last three years.

I certainly don’t think football is per se bad, mostly just boring. A common phrase I hear said is “football is a game of inches” which is between our co-opting of the word “football” and use of the imperial units, maybe one of the most American expressions possible. This phrase is supposed to speak to football’s very strategic nature, but for me it just highlights how slow the game is. The game is typically played in ten to fifteen second bouts, before the whistle’s blown, everyone just sorta stops and putzes around, and maybe you see an advertisement for Carl’s Jr. or something. Most plays, to me, look like a lot of dudes just sort of crouching, before most of them just slap into each other, and maybe the guy with the ball moves forward six feet, maybe he throws the ball, and maybe he just falls down.

With this, let’s call it, lukewarm opinion of football, it’s easy to find it surprising that I really like Blitz: The League II. In fact, not counting motorsports or extreme sports, Blitz is the only sports game I own. So, what does this game do to the formula of American football that changes it from a snoozefest to a staple on my shelf to my eyes? Simple. Blitz makes football dumb.

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It does this in a lot of fairly superficial ways: you can beat the hell out of opposing players, leading to some ridiculous, Mortal Kombat style X-ray views of bones being broken and nuts being smashed, and there’s also a full subsystem for exorbitant touchdown dances, my personal favorite involving pretending to poop out the football. When it comes to mechanics, though, Blitz: The League II makes one change that radically changes the game, and that’s thirty yard downs.

Let me back up here. In American football, play is measured in terms of downs, with each down basically being a unit of play. A team, when on offense, gets four downs, or basically four plays, to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. If they do, they are awarded another four downs to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. Either the ball ends up making it all the way to the end zone, or a team will fail to move the ball 10 yards in four downs, causing possession to switch. I realize that my American readers are probably scoffing at the idea of me explaining football, but between international readers and just, like, nerds, I figured it was worth the explanation.

In Blitz: The League II‘s rendition of football, however, this rule is changed slightly. Instead of having to advance 10 yards in four downs, a team in Blitz needs to advance thirty, or a fourth of the field. This does a massive amount towards making the game faster-paced, more aggressive, and host to more ridiculous stunt plays.

You see, when you have four downs to move a measly ten yards, you can kind of afford to have small gains with every play. Moving two and a half yards a play is not terribly difficult, but it’s not terribly exciting either. If we presume an average human running speed of about 10 mph (which is admittedly a pretty rough ballpark), an average person can run two and a half yards in about half a second unopposed. Factoring in acceleration time, as well as taking non-straight routes due to opposing players, we’re still talking maybe a couple of seconds to accomplish the distance. That means that, on average, if you’re running the ball, a successful play only needs to run a couple of seconds. When you consider that, between downs, players have to reconfigure and maybe huddle up to devise and disseminate a strategy, these short bursts of action end up kind of boring. They’re too fast for you to really build up excitement, and what excitement you do build up fizzles out in the long downtime.

When you have to move seven and a half yards a down, however, things get a smidge more interesting. We’re now sitting at about a second and a half for an average human to run that in an optimal line, 300% the length of regulation football. Moreover, we have to consider a change in strategy. According to the stats given by TeamRankings, literally every single NFL team averaged less than 7.5 yards per play last season, and in fact, every season for the last 10 years. This means that all of your strategies that form the meat and potatoes of your team’s play need to be thrown out the window.

So, what is the strategic status quo that we’re shaking up? Well, let’s look at the statistics. Last season, NFL teams passed the ball for between 50% and 65% of plays, and those passes yielded between 5.5 to 8.9 yards on average, depending on the team. Again depending on the team, these passes were successful between about 54% to 70% of the time. Actually, let’s plot pass completion percentages and average yards per pass, shall we?

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We can see a positive correlation that teams complete more passes get more yards per pass, which is good! Let’s look at passing play percentage versus pass completion percentage now.

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There is way weaker a correlation there, with results pretty much being all over the place. What this means, with a rough statistical analysis, is that in football, passing a lot doesn’t necessary correlate to completing a lot of passes, but completing a lot of passes does correlate to a large amount of gain from those passes. In layman’s terms, I have statistical support for the anecdotally obvious: passing is a high risk, high reward play.

What the hell does this have to do with anything? Why did I start talking about passing so much all of a sudden? Well, anecdotally, passing is probably the most interesting thing that can happen in a single play. It’s harder skillwise to throw a ball successfully and then for someone else to catch it successfully than it is to just sort of hold a ball (while both are pretty hard in an NFL setting), making it a bit more of a technical feat to watch. Passing the ball puts it in the air, making it a bit more visible than if it’s in a big mob of dudes. Passing opens up potential for interceptions, which tend to be big, dramatic moments in the game. The act of passing also just creates anticipation, as the crowd watches the ball go through the air, watches a player line up to catch it and the defense move to counter, and everyone naturally tries to complete the situation in their head before it happens.

What does this have to do with Blitz: The League II. Well, sparing you another graph, you can look here and see that, generally speaking, running the ball yields fewer yards than passing it. This is fine in a ten-yard down game, you can see that every team on average scores more yards per run than the two and a half they “need” to. However, in a thirty-yard down game like Blitz, these numbers don’t cut it. All of this data basically exists to prove something that your average football player knew the second they read the headline: in a thirty-yard down game, you have to pass more. More passing means more anticipation, more clarity, and more big plays. All things that I find interesting. And, for that, thirty yard downs in Blitz: The League II are a Good Idea.