Westworld Has A Lot To Say About Video Games

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//This post contains spoilers as to broad setting details, but I’m going to try to keep plot spoilers light. Still, just assume, if you care, don’t read this.

The recent “show that your friends keep insisting you watch” has been HBO’s Westworld, a show inspired by the 1973 movie of the same name, in which rich assholes gallivant across a faux-Wild West theme park full of androids that don’t know they’re part of a theme park. Westworld is as realistic a recreation of the Wild West (at least, as people think of it) as possible, with the exception of the fact that guests basically cannot experience any negative consequences of their actions, allowing them to (show’s words, not mine) rape and pillage their way across the land, knowing anyone they maim and slaughter will show up in their predefined loops the next day, their memory wiped of the atrocities committed.

I don’t necessarily want to just rant about why the show is good (that’s not what this blog is for) but the particular reason I’m so enthralled by the show is how much the show is about game design without being about game design. The employees of the company which runs Westworld talk about seeding the environment with narratives for Guests to discover, and have arguments on whether the Guests should follow along with narratives or just wreak havoc upon them. Guests argue about which side-quests are worth your time.

Obviously, this isn’t the main theme of the show (talk about niche appeal), but there’s certainly a reading of the show that very much does have something to say about games and narrative design.

For starters, Westworld has quite a bit to say about the depravity of modern media. Guests in the park tend to enjoy violently murdering, among other things, the lifelike Hosts in the park. The pinnacle of this comes in a big, town-wide gunfight early on in the series.

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This guy’s just pissed because he saw some girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

This scene is great, and features some fantastic Wild West gunslingin’. However, it comes to an abrupt halt when the leader of the bandits raiding the town, as well as his next in command, are shot by a Guest and left to die on the ground. As the Guest giddily jumps for joy at the murder he just committed, giddy with how lifelike the bandits’ violent dying spasms are, I all of a sudden became extremely uncomfortable with how excited this man was to commit murder.

The counterpoint that characters in the show use is one that we in the games industry have used quite a bit: a sane person knows the distinction between a simulacra of a human and a human. The same argument used for Mortal Kombat is getting used here, but it feels like the show is forcing the viewer to take a hard look at that reasoning. “Look at this,” it says. “Isn’t this guy kinda fucked up? He didn’t shoot a person, and you said that’s OK,” it taunts. “So where exactly do you draw the line? How real is real enough?

These sorts of moments are what makes the show really powerful in this regard. There are great, well choreographed, spectacles of fight scenes, but put side by side with scenes of Guests truly acting like monsters, before those same Guests perform those high-octane stunts, you’re left feeling gross about the entire situation.

Another interesting point the show has to make is the idea of predefined vs. dynamic narratives. Lee Sizemore, the head of the Narrative department of Westworld, has a variety of discussions with coworkers about how his Guests (read, players) interact with his narratives. He spends all this time constructing stories and character arcs and speeches, only to have Guests either ignore them, or “shoot and fuck” them into disarray.

I think the interesting thing here is this idea of “blaming” Guests for ruining storylines. While we don’t really see an uninterrupted playthrough of any of the narratives in the show, what we see of them portrays them as pretty simple affairs, mostly involving murder, simple interpersonal interactions, and some basic travel. Westworld as a whole seems to only encourage shooting and boning as means of interaction with the world (two of the first things you see when you get off the train are a brothel and Union soldiers signing people up for a manhunt). Hell, before you even get into Westworld, the lobby area is full of guns and attractive Hosts ready and able to engage in any debauchery the Guests want. When representatives of the corporation that run Westworld come down from on high to make some changes, they comment on a desire to make Hosts “simpler” and to simplify interactions between them.

In this way, the way Guests behave in Westworld, and the events and tone of the show, can be seen as a direct result of Narrative. Westworld, in this reading, is a game, and it was Narrative’s responsibility to teach Guests how to play. Guests were shown guns and sexy ladies during their “tutorial”, and everything they do in Westworld is based off of what they were “taught” to do, how they were “taught” to play. I think this is a very important point: when players enter our game, what we teach them, and what we don’t teach them, will color how they want to interact with the entire game world. If we want players to behave a certain way, we can’t just expect them to do that, we need to teach them that such a thing is possible. Perhaps by giving players tutorial levels where they learn the controls to jump and shoot, we’re limiting the player’s ability to see the game as anything other than stuff to jump over and enemies to shoot.

I’m sure there’s more Westworld has to tell us as designers of narratives, and I’ll probably pick up on more in my second viewing, but for the moment, I think one of the reasons Westworld is the best show I saw this year is its commentary about the way we tell stories.

 

 

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My Most Anticipated Games of 2017

Is it a cop-out to do a “Top Anticipated” list instead of actual analysis? Yes. Have I had time to compose thoughtful analysis, or even to play any games, over the last couple of weeks? Hell no. It’s finals.

So, instead, here’s a quick overview of the games I’m looking forward to the most in 2017. Normally such lists are extremely dry and full of vapid hype, but I’m going to go into a bit deeper mechanical detail about why the designs of these games have me excited, instead of just saying “Herp de derp I love new video games”.

Crackdown 3

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I should probably write an article about Crackdown.

I really, really, really love the Crackdown games. Depicting a city rife with criminal gangs, and an omnipresent Agency that sends out superpowered Agents to fight crime, Crackdown will always be my ultimate “just dick around” game. The thing these games do the best is reward you for doing the things you find the most fun by making those things more fun. Driving better and more recklessly, as well as winning races, nets you driving experience points that make cars handle better and make your custom Agency cars do cooler tricks. Exploring the city to find Agility Orbs (I can still hear the hum) makes you better at exploring the world, and lets your character jump farther and higher. Everything is a positive feedback loop.

Crackdown 2, while mechanically superior to the first game in a lot of ways (notably the Wingsuit, the inclusion of helicopters, and better melee combat) suffered from same-y enemy encounters (mostly due to shoehorning zombies into the game for…some reason), so some good mission design will bring Crackdown right back into my heart.

Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite

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Hell yeah, it’s MAHVEL BABY. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was the fighting game that got me into fighting games, so hearing that the series has not only been dusted off and returned to shelves, but we’re getting a brand new game, makes me ecstatic.

The roster for Marvel vs. Capcom games has always been the main draw for me, for a variety of reasons. For starters, having a lot of characters gives the designers more room to put in very unusual characters, knowing that people who prefer more meat-and-potatoes characters will have plenty of options. From the risky play of fielding Phoenix, to the absolute nonsense of putting Phoenix Wright, who is just a lawyer, against characters like Thor or Iron Man, Marvel vs Capcom keeps itself from getting stale by allowing itself characters who radically change the way you play the game.

The thing I’m the most interested in (besides whether or not my boy Doctor Strange will be in the mix again) is the inclusion of Infinity Stones, the all-powerful objects of power from the Marvel Universe. It sounds like players will select an Infinity Stone to bring with them into each match, each offering different boosts (the Power Stone increases strength, the Time Stone speed, etc.) These seem like an interesting way to diversify the ways even a single character can play (imagine a fast Hulk, or a stronger Wolverine), and thus increase the ability to experiment. Very exciting stuff.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III

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I’ve already written extensively on this blog why I think Dawn of War II is a masterpiece, but my excitement for the third installment in the series is a bit more reserved. After a largely mixed public response to Dawn of War II, this game has been said to mix elements of both Dawn of War games together, sort of finding a happy medium.

Not that I dislike Dawn of War, but the second game was always the one that captured me, with it’s RPG-like campaign and the endless tweaking you can do to individual units. I very much liked the pervading idea of “build on what you have” in regards to units, equipment, and even maps from II, but maybe increased basebuilding could tie into that even more, with the ability to build permanent, long-lasting bases, with a few significant characters that linger amongst the hordes of cannon fodder.

Ultimately, I’ll have to see what this game’s mix of its forefathers looks like, but for now, color me curious.

Persona 5

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I KNOW THIS GAME’S ALREADY OUT IN JAPAN SHUT THE FUCK UP STOP REMINDING ME THAT I COULD BE PLAYING IT RIGHT NOW

While the game mechanics of the Persona series are pretty solid (I really like the Press Turn battle system, Social Links are a really cool idea, and the concept of “Pokemon, but demons” makes me giddy), the thing that actually gets me really excited for this game is the style. Everything in the game just oozes this jazzy coolness, this tone of being a suave master thief, that it’s just infectious. Lately I’ve been jamming to this game’s soundtrack in the car, because it just feels like everything in this game is coming together to form this mood, and that’s not something you see in RPGs a whole lot.

That focus on mood, plus the unique setting, great character design, and the promise of top-notch writing from some of the best in the business, keep me excited for this one. Also, reviews are already out, and they say its great, so that helps too.

Knack 2

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Hahaha just kidding who fuckin’ cares.

Prey

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While I’m deeply saddened by the fact that I’ll never get to play the space bounty hunter epic that the now-shuttered Prey 2 was touted as, 2017 reboot Prey seems like its got even more interesting stuff going on, mechanically.

Early interviews with the developers describe this game as open-world, where you’ll be exploring an abandoned space station fending off assorted baddies, but the interesting thing to me is the idea that you’ll be collecting assorted superhuman powers along the way, including a confirmed ability to transform into scenery objects, including a mug and a chair.

There are a lot of things about this game that get me excited. I like the potential for environmental storytelling. I like the idea of exploring an open space station and the potential for non-traditional spaces. I like the idea of zero-G exploration. But what I like the most is the completely untapped possibility space of playing a chair.

Well, those are some of my most anticipated games of next year! There are others, of course (Horizon: Zero Dawn comes to mind), but these games I think will present something interesting that we don’t necessarily have in the current games space, which hopefully will result in some interesting design come next year.

How I Would Make A Suicide Squad Game

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Step 1: Be Not Terrible

This isn’t going to be a review of the recent Suicide Squad movie, because I don’t have much to say that reviews haven’t already. It’s really bad, and has some severe problems with pacing, choppy editing, and characterization. That’s not interesting to say, though.

Instead, I want to explore a hypothetical. Let’s say that DC wants to release a game following the movie’s critical failure, in an attempt to regain audience approval. It’s going to be a big-budget, AAA game, and I’m assigned to be creative director, presumably because every other game designer in the world died in a tragic accident. Maybe all of GDC got swallowed up in some sort of hell portal. Who knows. It was probably id’s fault.

First thing’s first: I would set the game up in a mission structure, where every mission takes place in a semi-open area, like Dishonored. The prison would serve as a hub area for story elements, to embark upon new missions on, and maybe to handle character customization. More on that in a bit. Each mission has Amanda Waller send the Squad out on some dangerous job, usually to neutralize a super-villain, but there are plenty of collectibles and side-quests in this areas. This structure lacks the “But shouldn’t you be saving the world right now?” problem of games like Skyrim: the Suicide Squad is full of real jerks, so it’s in-character for them to drop what they’re doing and go pursue selfish desires.

However, despite this, we need a reason for the Squad (read: our players) to stick relatively close together. If we include objectives which only one person cares about (which would be cool, I think, like having Deadshot take a diversion to steal some textbooks for his daughter), we need a reason for them not to just book it in that direction and leave the rest behind. The way we handle that is NOT to give the player playing Rick Flagg the ability to blow up any other player’s head, because that is an awful idea. I think the solution would instead just be to make the game fairly challenging, such that players who run off on their own, they just get curb-stomped by a swarm of enemies.

But that brings us to the actual gameplay, then. Here’s where I think the really good design needs to be. My first idea, design wise, is that half of the characters, specifically Deadshot, Rick Flagg, Captain Boomerang, and El Diablo, play from a first-person view, while Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and Katana play from a third-person view. These three characters are largely melee focused, and in my opinion, melee combat just feels better from a third-person perspective. On top of that, those are three characters who look pretty cool doing what they do, from Harley bouncing around hitting people with a bat, to Croc tanking enemies like a monster, so why not let those players see themselves be awesome? On top of that, a third-person perspective gives these players greater situational awareness than the other four, adding to their value to the team.

Actual gameplay focuses more on the players getting swarmed by nameless mooks, like in the film, sort of like in Left 4 Dead. Maybe these swarms will be melee-focused zombie guys, or maybe they’ll be ranged opponents, but mixing it up gives a chance for both the ranged and the melee Squad members to shine. I think key to the design should be that every Squad member plays differently, such that a player who is sick of, or doesn’t like how, one character plays can re-spark their enthusiasm for the game by playing someone else.

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“OK, which one of you ding-dong-ditched me?”

For example, among the melee Squad members, there seems like some surprisingly different gameplay styles implied through the character design. Harley is a more nimble opponent who isn’t actually very physically tough, so what if she played as a more dodging and blocking based melee fighter, maybe not as efficient as Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, but still extremely mobile, and focused on well-timed interruptions to enemy attacks. Killer Croc, meanwhile, is an obvious fit for party tank. He can just wade into enemies, and maybe can toss them around for an added sense of being a real big tough guy. Katana, meanwhile, has a sword that consumes the souls of those it kills, so I think she plays more as a finisher-based character. If an enemy is stunned or staggered, like after being thrown by Killer Croc, Katana can launch a super-cool instant execution and consume that enemy’s soul, which maybe also has some sort of mechanical benefit for her, like regaining a bit of health (since she lacks the survivability of Harley’s deftness and Croc’s size).

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In the interest of fairness and brand consistency, maybe we don’t have Killer Croc be a twelve foot tall murder machine, as fun as that would be.

Among the ranged Squad members, there’s still plenty of room for variation. I think El Diablo, as the resident pyrokinetic, is heavily focused on AoE damage and controlling space. His fire doesn’t do a ton of damage, but by spraying large clusters of enemies, or by covering key chokepoints in fire, he gets his money’s worth by spreading that damage around. Deadshot and Flagg are both similar characters, ability-wise, so I propose leaning heavy into the key differentiators. Deadshot focuses on tricks (like the hopping on the hood of the car thing in the movie). I’m thinking we give him some parkour abilities, and maybe some fun, almost gun-kata moves. Flagg, meanwhile, as the only official member of the team, can requisition some cooler gear, so he has access to traps, grenades, rocket launchers, and other cool weapons and items.

I think Boomerang sticks out as a character whose gameplay isn’t immediately fun. However, given his personality and characterization in the movie, I think we can make him the character most suited for “lone wolfing it”, despite what I said earlier. He’s pretty fast and a little tough, so he can stand being out on his own for a little bit longer than anyone else. Why give him this ability? Because he has a unique secondary goal that ties directly into his character and gameplay: find alcohol and get wasted. The drunker the Boomerang player gets, the more access he has to powerful, awesome boomerang-powered skills that are extremely handy in a firefight. Boomerang might randomly split from your party for no reason, but when he comes back, he’ll be your guardian angel in a firefight.

Add onto these basic mechanics some player progression, maybe through loot, or maybe through leveling up a skill tree for each hero, add in some interesting side quest design and encounter design meant to give every hero a chance to shine, and maybe some raid-style boss battles at the end of every mission, and I think this game would be super cool. It offers the team-based gameplay of a Left 4 Dead or a Rainbow 6: Siege that has players replaying missions over and over again, trying out new characters and strategies and gaining map awareness, but also the character driven gameplay of something like Overwatch that makes every character feel unique, and we have ourselves an interesting game.

 

The Dreaded Backlog

Whenever I mention wanting to buy a new game in front of my friends, I always get the same look. It’s a look I’ve gotten very used to, and what it roughly translates to is “Do you know how many goddamn video games you already have that you haven’t played?”

For the uninitiated, this collection many gamers have of games they own, but have not played (or similarly, that readers have of books unread, or film buffs of movies unwatched) is frequently called a backlog. And mine is disgustingly large. I tried approximating how long it would take me to clear my backlog, and I got pretty sad pretty fast. To demonstrate, let me cherry-pick ten games from my backlog, and show how long completing just those ten would take.

  1. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings – 33.5 hours
  2. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – 96.5 hours
  3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 – 107 hours
  4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 – 85.5 hours
  5. Dragon Age: Origins (plus expansions) – 74.5 hours
  6. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen – 63 hours
  7. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn – 87 hours
  8. Divinity: Original Sin – Director’s Cut – 75 hours
  9. Final Fantasy VII – 57.5 hours
  10. Lost Odyssey – 70.5 hours

By pure coincidence, those numbers all add up to a nice, clean seven hundred and fifty hourswhich is just a smidge over a month of nothing but playing games. Granted, I intentionally picked large, mostly open-world RPGs, but keep in mind I have more games in that genre in my backlog than these ten. Do you know how many games I have? Because I literally do not anymore. 600? 700? How many of these are untouched, or I played so little of so long ago that I basically would have to restart? 50%? 60%?

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This doesn’t even account for games I got partway through then dropped, like Fallout 4, or games that I want to play again with a new character, like Mass Effect.

How did this happen? Well, the answer is multifaceted. One: I’m an idiot and make bad purchasing decisions. I’ll concede to that. Another answer is that there was a period between when I graduated high school and about the end of my freshman year of college where I had a steady, well-paying job. At the same time, my scholarship with UTD covered most of my school expenses, as well as my rent, while my meal plan covered all of my groceries. With those covered, I was free to blow every paycheck on 10 years of games I had missed out on as a kid.

Another factor is the sale-and-bundle culture which permeates video games right now. I’m sure that when I said how many games I have, a lot of people correctly thought “Oh yeah, Steam sales and Humble Bundles”. That’s definitely a factor. I’ve bought 13 Humble Bundles for $123.56, and received 100 games ($1.24 a game is a steal, by the way, especially when you account for the fact that I also got GameMaker Pro somewhere in there). My Steam Library is 223 games, and I’m sure most of that was purchased during a Summer Sale or a Winter Sale or the Lunar New Year Sale or the Yom Kippur Sale or the Pagan Solar Festival Sale.

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I may have made some of those up.

On top of that, though, pretty much every major game retailer has tried to keep pace with Steam and Humble Bundle, and as a result there are pretty much insane deals on bulk games happening all the time. I remember one holiday season where GameStop was having a B2G1 free deal. I remember walking in, buying three games, and being pretty stoked at the deal I got.

I then went in the next day and bought nine more games. Good games, too. BayonettaBorderlandsGears of War 2.

There’s a root cause here, one that I have trouble bemoaning, and that’s that it’s kind of just a really good time to play video games. Between the AAAs and the indie spaces, there are just a lot of good games coming out right now, at a pretty consistent clip. It used to be that January-August was pretty much a garbage season for games, as big publishers held their franchises until the holidays, but now big AAAs come out pretty much every month, and when they’re not, indie masterpieces are.

This is then combined with the extremely consumer-friendly way games are priced right now. Sure, big AAA games launch at sixty bucks, but prices drop fast for all but a few tentpole franchises (PokemonCall of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto come to mind). Publishers are pressured to match a game’s used price at GameStop, and before long every game is subject to a massive price-gouging sale. Indie developers just want their games to be seen amongst their peers, so they’ll resort to price gouging much quicker, which is impressive given their lower base price point. Suboptimal for developers, sure, but fantastic for consumers.

Compound both of these with the way gamer culture works. When a big, cool release comes out, the internet goes abuzz with hype. People want to talk about new games, share cool stuff and screenshots from those games, dissect in great detail why that new game is either the most incredible thing ever or utter garbage. Then, those games don’t necessarily go away, but they retreat into the background as a new hot game takes the spotlight. Right now, that game in the spotlight is Stardew Valley. Before that it was SUPERHOT and Devil Daggers. In a couple of weeks, it’ll be Dark Souls III.

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There is some real tonal inconsistency within that list.

Conversely, playing a super cool game long after its day in the light kinda sucks by comparison. While not a game, my friend just started watching Breaking Bad a week ago. He’s almost done, and he loves it and wants to talk about it, but he’s stuck because, for the most part, everybody already said and thought everything they want to say and think about Breaking Bad years ago. Now, everyone’s talking about the new season of House of Cards, and getting hyped for the new season of Daredevil.

The point I’m getting that is that gamer culture, and pop culture in general, is no longer built to get people to slowly enjoy games at their own pace. It’s designed for people to pick up the new hotness, play it for a week, then go talk about it on social media, argue about it on Reddit, and get a word in edgewise in the global discussion of the game, before finally moving on to the next new thing. This cycle goes all year long, and while it certainly picks up in the winter, it’s always going.

Oftentimes, there are multiple games in the spotlight at the same time, so you pick up both, but only get around to one, or you pick up the other on sale a month later, remembering the hype that surrounded it. All of a sudden, you accrue this massive pile of games which you haven’t touched not because they aren’t good, because they are, but simply because keeping pace with the hobby has become a Herculean feat.

Or maybe I’m just shitty at making financial decisions.

 

Haruki Murakami and the Art of Not Explaning

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The man, the myth, the guy who really likes writing about how cool Western music is: Haruki Murakami
My first exposure to Haruki Murakami was last year, when I was absentmindedly scrolling through the AV Club when I stumbled across a positive review for a book by an author I’d never heard of. The book was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and the author was Haruki Murakami. My copy arrived on my front door two days laters, and I’d finished it one day after that.

For the unfamiliar, Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author with 13 internationally acclaimed novels under his belt. Murakami books tend to be stories of fairly mundane protagonists who play the straight man to their own weird story. Mysteries are often presented and never explained, and characters tend to operate more in emotion and tone than action. I highly recommend Tsukuru Tazaki as a jumping in point for his works.

I bring up Mr. Murakami for one of the main features of his work, one that sort of permeates Japanese culture as a whole, and that’s his lack of explanation. Some people dislike Murakami’s more recent works for an egregious amount of this, but I always like it. Murakami will present his characters with situations, characters, and moments which are simply never explained.

Here’s an example. During Tsukuru Tazaki, the eponymous protagonist is being told a story by his classmate and friend, Haida. In this story, Haida’s father is taking a break from his studies and visiting a rural hot springs, where he discovers the mysterious pianist Midorikawa. The two become friends, and Midorikawa eventually reveals that he has accepted a mystical contract to die in two months, in exchange for having a wonderful time during those last two months, and being able to perceive people’s colored “auras”. Also, he might have had an eleventh and twelfth finger.

What does this have to do with the main plot? On a direct level, nothing. Tsukuru Tazaki is the story of a man trying to discover why his high-school friends cut off contact with him. Hell, Haida, the person telling the story, disappears a few chapters later, never to re-emerge.

This sort of ambiguity permeates the entire book, and all of Murakami’s books. Some things will just happen, and never tie directly back to the main story. Characters love to focus in on tiny, ephemeral details in scenes. Despite this, characters still feel grounded. Despite having their quirks, they grow and react and think like people do, but like people stripped of practical worries and allowed to think on a more spiritual level than we actually do.

Games haven’t completely forsaken ambiguity in their storytelling, but I feel like too much of it takes the form of the cliffhanger ending. What does the ending of Bioshock Infinite mean? How about the final level of Condemned: Criminal Origins? These games like to explain every aspect in their setting up to those final climactic points, then leaving on a single mystery, framed in a game full of facts. Condemned as a standalone game does leave quite a bit of mystery, but it’s defeated by it’s sequel, which feels the need to explain everything.

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Even Bioshock Infinite’s ambiguous ending wasn’t ambiguous for very long.
Even games we praise for not explaining things actually do. Dark Souls has a very descriptive and detailed explanation for everything in its world, it just hides it very well. If you want games that don’t revel in explaining every oddity in their world, you’re basically stuck in the horror genre.

Murakami books aren’t horror novels, though. Sure, there are scary moments (the subterranean chase in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comes to mind), but the books as a whole aren’t horror, their objective isn’t to scare you. They just, have mysteries in them. These mysteries aren’t the focus, they merely provide interesting situations for interesting characters to inhabit.

Games, I think, need more of this. Why must we know exactly where Alma comes from in F.E.A.R, or why people have turned into amorphous monsters in LISA: The Painful? When you present these moments as mysteries and don’t solve them, players have to think on their own to draw conclusions, forcing them to interact with the story and setting on a deeper level than before.

In Tsukuru Tazaki, Tsukuru is presented with a series of surreal moments, some dreams, some stories, some real moments, none of which receive a clear explanation. What Murakami does correctly here is ensure that all of these moments tie back to Tsukuru’s personality: they are either drawn from his memory or subconscious, or guide his decision-making in the future. These moments are moments where the singular point is to explore an element of the character.

Because Haida’s story about the twelve-fingered pianist aren’t grounded in anything, we can’t question its effects on characters, on the plot, on setting, or even anything that happened in the scene itself. The singular question that’s on your mind when Haida finishes the story is “How does this tie back to Tsukuru?”. That moment of the story is a prompt for readers to think back through everything they know about the story and characters, and try to draw their own conclusions. I think this is really interesting, and gives readers a little bit of authorship over the story, in that they can draw their own conclusions from these moments. Either way, reader investment in the story increases.

I think games should implement this. By providing scenes which have no grounding in reality, where characters are forced to deal with ludicrous situations, we as players are forced to ignore any questions of context, of plot significance, of consequence, and simply ask “What does this mean to the characters?”. If you pull it off wrong, it will come of as pretentious nonsense. But, connect your scene well enough to the characters themselves, and avoid being too random, and the audience will dig deep into their own knowledge of the setting and draw conclusions.

What a Beautiful Duwang, and Weird Superheroes

I promise I'll explain this
I promise I’ll explain this

Writing that last post about Dishonored made me realize how much I really enjoy weird superheroes. Superheroes whose powers don’t really fall into the normal categories, and don’t lend themselves to “having a cool superpower fight in the city with a bad guy”.

I think this little quirk of mine probably started after catching Mystery Men on cable TV one bored summer afternoon as a kid. The movie follows Ben Stiller as the leader of a B-team of superheroes with extremely lame powers, like throwing silverware with extreme accuracy, and turning invisible if nobody is looking. The story involves these heroes figuring out how to confront a traditional supervillain-style lair with their incredibly specific skills. To the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail, and to the woman with exceptional bowling skills, everything kinda starts looking like pins. I thought Mystery Men was an extremely fun movie, but didn’t think of it much more than that.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m on my computer, staring at the above comic panel, confused. Is this…what is this? I mean, it’s a manga, obviously, but what the hell is a duwang?

As it turns out, a duwang is a translation error, made in an extremely shoddy fan-translation of Part 4 of the series Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. After discovering this, I dug deeper, and learned that Jojo’s is a long-running, classic manga series by Hirohiko Araki. Describing the overarching plot of Jojo’s is…hard, but know that it follows the bloodline of the Joestar family, as they fight various forms of evil using special powers known as Stands: manifestations of one’s psychic energy in the form of a sort of humanoid…ghost…thing. They’re Personas. Stands are Personas. It’s not fair, because Jojo’s far predates even the first Shin Megami Tensei game, but it’s the easiest way to explain it.

Except, like, some people don't have Stands and just breathe real good, and others can spin a ball really fast, and some people are just vampires? Don't worry about it.
Except, like, some people don’t have Stands and just breathe real good, and others can spin a ball really fast, and some people are just vampires? Don’t worry about it.

Now, there’s a lot of reasons I like Jojo’s. It’s hilariously stupid in a delightful way, every character constantly strikes a series of ridiculous poses, every name is a reference to Western music. However, in a sentence probably never before recorded in the history of time, I think the reason I like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure so much is the same reason I liked Mystery Men years ago.

Let me explain. Every Stand in Jojo’s has a unique power or set of powers. Early on, when Stands were first introduced in the series, these powers were pretty standard superpowers. Star Platinum, Stand of Part 3 protagonist and somehow-17-year-old Jotaro Kujo, is super strong and super fast. Muhammed Avdol’s stand, Magician’s Red, can shoot fire. Jean Pierre Polnareff’s Stand, Silver Chariot, is…really good at sword stuff.

As the series went on, however, be it by design or by pure creative bankruptcy, the powers of the Stands in Jojo’s got real weird, real fast. Crazy Diamond, Stand of Part 4 protagonist Josuke Higashikata, can return anything it punches to its original state, allowing it to heal things…via punching. The Stand called Echoes is capable of placing sound effects on surfaces, allowing associated effects to be activated when they are touched (for example, touching the word “whoosh” would cause a gust of wind). One Stand, Pearl Jam, takes the form of sentient tomatoes, which heal and restore anybody who eats them.

This did, in fact, result in a Stand being used to punch a plate of spaghetti.
This did, in fact, result in a Stand being used to punch a plate of spaghetti.

Both the heroes and the villains of Jojo’s were subject to this, meaning that the duels between Stand users, which used to involve a lot of trading punches and fireballs, got a bit more interesting. All of a sudden, battles became more like puzzles. How do I use my incredibly specific ability to counter my opponent’s incredibly specific ability. Since every member of the Joestar family has a Stand which can punch real fast, the physical blows are usually the sign of victory, not an actual element of the fight itself.

 

For instance, take an early fight in Part 5: Vento Aureo. The fight takes place between protagonist Giorno Giovanna, whose stand Gold Experience allows him to turn inanimate objects into living things, and vice versa, and Polpo, a gang boss whose stand Black Sabbath has been hunting Giorno across the city. Polpo, thinking he’d bested Giorno, revels in his victory with a banana. However, as he puts it in his mouth, Giorno reveals himself, and returns the banana to its original form: a gun. Polpo accidentally kills himself, and Giorno is left the winner.

Some character’s weird powers end up being extremely powerful as the character explores the possibility space of their powers. For instance, take Rohan Kishibe, from Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable. Rohan’s stand, Heaven’s Door, allows him to literally read his opponent as an open book, flipping through the pages of their life and, literally, reading their thoughts. Furthermore, Rohan can write in this book, allowing him to alter memories or, as he discovers, have direct physical effects on the target. For instance, Rohan writes “I will fly backwards at 70 km/h” in the mind of the arc protagonist, and when he closes the book, sure enough, the protagonist flies backwards. If Rohan Kishibe can get close to you with a pen, you’re done.

It’s something I wish the few Jojo’s games would actually capitalize on, or even more games in general. While most Jojo’s villains are punched to death, that’s not really how they are beaten. Each one gets figured out like a puzzle, as the protagonists figure out how to apply their very specific skillset to each new scenario, like the aforementioned man with a hammer figuring out just how the problem they are confronting is, in fact, a nail. It’s interesting, and I want to see it applied to more games, especially as games like Gunpoint and even Shadow of the Colossus present the idea of combat as a puzzle.

I think an interesting way to form one of these “combat puzzles” is to follow the formula set up by Mystery Men and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: give the player an extremely situational and specific set of tools, and a fairly complex problem, and let the player, like a computer scientist trying to simplify a problem into a simpler form, try and simplify the situation they are facing into one solved by their extremely specific solution.

The Walking Dead, 12 Days A Slave, and Fun

Last weekend, a friend and I went to go see 12 Days A Slave in theaters. He had to do it for extra credit in an American History class he is taking, and I just wanted to goof off on a Sunday afternoon.

Without burdening my point with the summary of the movie, both he and I left that theater in unanimous agreement: the movie was excellent, probably Oscar-worthy, and we hated every part of it.

We weren’t entertained, we were horrified. Depressed. Miserable, even. The movie tells the story of a slave in the American South, as tensions are building between Northern and Southern mentalities in the states, and it does not pull any punches. It is gruesome, brutal, and honest. And it’s great. The narrative is engaging, you feel for the characters deeply, and every twist and turn of the plot has you reeling.

This got me thinking about games, specifically Telltale’s The Walking Dead. This is a game that, much like 12 Days, I would say is absolutely fantastic, parroting most reviews. And, much like 12 Days, I found many parts of the game to be intolerably depressing. Walking Dead is full of characters that you empathize with, combined with horrible situations, making you constantly mourn and empathize with these poor people. I found myself having to take breaks in between episodes to release my emotional distress.

This brings me to the question  I am now bringing up: Does a game have to be fun?

The answer, I think this has proven, is no. For so long we have belabored the point of games having to be fun, but now I’m starting to see games which focus on other emotional responses rather than amusement, games which are seeing critical success.

To look at this from another angle, allow me to present an idea I’ve had for a while. I, very pretentiously, like to call this idea The Fun-Quality Matrix.

fig A. The Fun-Quality Matrix

Basically, the synopsis of the Fun-Quality Matrix is that the quality of an experience is irrelevant to the emotion it provokes. Fun things can obviously be good, as evidenced by most every game ever to receive critical acclaim. Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Halo are all fun. However, things can definitely be good without being fun. In fact, the best examples of many mediums elicit a reaction other than entertainment. Schindler’s List is commonly cited as a horrible, depressing, and fantastic movie, and The Walking Dead can be brutal with it’s treatment of beloved characters. Even more bizarre is Quadrant 2, proving that there’s also success to be had with something that’s crap, but fun. The cinema example I give is the movie Drive Angry, a Nic Cage movie that is by all accounts terrible, but was a great time to watch because of how simply atrocious it is. Ride To Hell: Retribution is in a similar “so bad I love it” category.

Well, what does this analysis show? That a game doesn’t even have to be good, much less fun, to be a success? Not quite. What that original question about fun in games has led me to do is develop a coherent theory about what makes for a successful game. This theory is as follows:

A game can be considered a successful game worth playing if

A. The game is capable of bringing about a strong emotional reaction in the player, most commonly one of entertainment

or

B. The game’s level of quality is so low that the badness of the game is, in itself, the primary feature of the game

This theory seems pretty “no duh”, and that’s because it is. It does, however, provide a good working definition of what defines a game worth playing, one I can work with as I continue my thoughts on game design. It also provides a good guiding light on what a good game should, at a basic level do. Hopefully my games will strive for option A, rather than B, but either process does get hands on controllers and games in consoles (or hands on keyboards and games in Steam libraries, put your pitchforks down PC gamers). Obviously, this theory needs expounding, which I will do later, but for now, this provides a good base for my dogma of game design: make a game that brings about emotions in players.

This theory also immediately makes any game design I set out to make player-centric, which is good, but that’s a different topic. The point this all comes to is this:

Games should bring about some emotional reaction in the player, with as strong an intensity as possible, be the game as fun as Halo or as soul-crushing as Schindler’s List. That’s how a game makes a lasting impression.