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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Good Ideas: Mass Effect 2 and Interrupts

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Image from Kyle Foster’s Youtube Channel

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

Ahem. Excuse me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.