An Epic Win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible before you achieved it. It was almost beyond the threshold of imagination and when you got there you’re schocked to discover what you’re truly capable of.
Apart from this perfect definition, Jane McGonigal’ “Gaming can make a better world” talk contains some really interesting bits. It starts out a bit strange, but picks up steam quickly.
Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world
January 22nd, 2013 in
| tags: talks
(This article is part of the Dissecting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis series)
Typical Adventures increase the complexity and difficulty of the game gradually and like movie scripts, they often have several distinct parts. Atlantis is no difference, although the acts aren’t clearly marked in the game.
From a high level perspective, the game has these parts:
Atlantis is one of the most complex Adventure games because it has three different paths through the middle section. A lot of Adventure games have multiple solution to individual puzzles, but the paths make so much use of conditional logic and global state variables, the complexity is a lot higher than in other Adventures. According to Wikipedia, adding the paths added an additional 6 month and turned it into a 2 year project, so that cost was significant.
In future posts I’m going to go more into handling state and how the paths work, but for now I want to focus on the high level game flow, specifically on the “Find Plato’s Lost Dialogue” path, henceforth called “Act 1” (The game doesn’t name its acts).
The game starts out in a single location with a single room, New York. The very first puzzle requires you to get access to the theatre. Of course, tickets are sold out. There are three solutions to the puzzle, and the game remembers which one you’ve taken for some important flavor at the end of this act:
- You can knock on the door, insult the bouncer and start a fist fight.
- You can knock on the door, and praise Sophia Hapgood, the bouncer’s idol. He will let you in since you’re okay for a college boy, pal!
- You can ignore the door and push some crates to gain access to the fire exit ladder.
The next room contains the stage hand, which needs to be distracted. The necessary news paper can be found at the street we arrived from, so this puzzle takes place in two rooms but in a single location.
Iceland, First Visit
We’re automatically going to Iceland where we have to talk to Dr. Heimdall and learn about Dr. Sternhart in Tikal and Mr. Costa on the Azores. Once we have learned about these two people, we have multiple locations to travel to: Tikal, Iceland, The Azores and Barnett College, and no clear indication which one should be first.
Atlantis has very gradually increased complexity on us, and at this point the player needs to make choices where to go to and quite likely they will run into a few dead ends. What is important is that even though we have 4 locations, there is only one very linear way to go through this, and each location is essentially self-contained.
Tikal: Sophia is more than just an attachment…
The correct way through this linear progression starts in Tikal. Once inside the temple, the player will need to involve Sophia to advance as she needs to keep Dr. Sternhart busy so that Indy can steal the kerosene lamp.
While the concept of multiple characters isn’t new (Maniac Mansion had three, Zak McKracken had four characters), novice players may not be aware that Sophia is more than just an attachment and Tikal allows to find out about this in a very natural way (as Sternhart will always catch Indy when he tries to take the lamp, it feels very natural to ask Sophia for help).
Another small thing that Tikal introduces is manipulating items in the inventory. Before, you just gave the newspaper to the stagehand, but here you need to open the kerosene lamp and then use it on the spiral on the wall. This is a tiny detail, but remarkable nonetheless.
Iceland, Second Visit
In Iceland, Dr. Heimdall has frozen to death, and the frozen eel figurine is partially exposed at the head. This is significant for two reasons: First, the player is supposed to remember that in New York, Sophia put an Orichalcum bead inside the mouth of her necklace (which looks like a face) and awesome stuff happened. So the mental connection should be “Get Orichalcum and come back!”
The second reason is that Iceland is a very small location and the player already visited it, so it might feel stale at this point. As grim as it is, having Heimdall frozen helps the location to not feel boring as it changed between visits.
The Azores: …she is a real character
With the Eel in hand, the Azores can be tackled. Mr. Costa bluntly sends Indy away. Previously in Tikal, the player could talk to Sophia and ask her to distract Sternhart, which serves as a clue on how to proceed here.
It is not immediately obvious that Costa might react differently to her than to Indy, and Tikal helped in having the player naturally try talking to her (instead of just trying out everything and stumbling on the "Talk to Sophia” option)
When Indy asks her to take over, the player can control her as a real character. This is once again introducing a new concept gradually and solving one half of the puzzle here.
The second half can be solved by looking at the dialogue: Costa wants to trade, but the necklace is not an option. The player may (and should) recall the eel figurine in the ice from the first visit to Iceland (Heimdall even spoke about it, and the player HAD to go through the dialogue explaining the figurine before they could advance).
Exchanging the eel figurine for information about the location sends the player to Barnett College.
Barnett College: The most complex puzzle yet, softened through the intro
So up until this point, every location was self-contained with the exception of a single thing that needed to be done in one location in order to solve the next one.
The choice of four locations is an illusion but it keeps the player busy exploring and makes the game longer without feeling stretched out.
Barnett College, contains a (relatively) complex puzzle, the final puzzle in this act. Also, the location of Plato’s lost dialogue changes in every playthrough. There are three different locations where the Dialogue might be:
- In a chest, which requires a key from the room above
- In the tipped-over bookcase in the library (there are two ways to get it)
- In one of the cat figurines
The player is already familiar with the location (remember, we went through it in the intro), so the fact that we have a whopping six possible rooms with items that need to be carried between is softened a bit by the familiarity.
We may need the mayonnaise from the office to move the totem pole and climb up to the attic, get the key fro, the urn, go down again, move the big box and open the chest.
We may need to grab the arrowhead from this room and combine it with the rag from the boiler room so that we can unscrew the back of the library bookcase and get the book. In this case, combining the rag and arrowhead to create a screwdriver is the first use of combining inventory items in the game.
We may need to grab the gum from the desk in the library and use it to go up the coal chute (after we grabbed a piece of coal) and then either throw the coal at the dangling book to get it down, or we may need to get a wax cat figurine and smelt it in the furnace below.
Again, gradual increase, softened through familiarity with the location, but nevertheless a bump from previous puzzles.
After this puzzle is solved, the player has to choose one of the three paths through Act 2 (again, the game doesn’t indicate acts, I’m making this up). Sophia will recommend a path. Remember above when I said that the game remembers how Indy got into the theatre?
- If he went through the crates and took the fire ladder, Sophia will recommend the Wits path
- If he praised Sophia in front of Biff, Sophia will recommend the Team path
- If he beat Biff in a fistfight, Sophia will recommend the Fists path
This is only a recommendation, the player is free to choose any of the three paths right now. Still, it is remarkable how the game tries to learn about the player and then tailor the rest of the game to them, but without committing at the beginning as to not punish a player that has gotten into the fistfight with Biff by accident or decided that they didn’t like fighting.
Act One: Maybe one of the best learning curves in any game, ever.
Some of the things you have read may seem obvious and have you go “Well, duh!”. But I’m trying to see how the game caters to first time gamers who may not be familiar with computers or games (remember, this was in 1992).
The first act very gradually introduces new elements, forcing the player to go through a linear progression that seemingly opens up, but really only turns into a wider tunnel instead of an intersection. Things that are important later on are clearly shown in advance and the player can remember them later (which seems to be an application of Chekhov’s gun in games).
Remembering how you deal with Biff and offering that as a choice hasn’t been repeated in mainstream adventures (with the notable exceptions of Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain), presumably because it adds so much extra work for something that a lot of players will never see – before writing this series, I never went through the Fists path for example.
(Sidenote: There was a big discussion about linearity vs. open world when Final Fantasy XIII was released, since it was very linear. Development costs for games have exploded over the past few years, and making expensive optional content is a concern for the bottom line, no doubt about that.)
In a way, the different paths act as difficulty levels as well. The Wits path may have the hardest puzzles, but is very light on fights. The Fists path is the opposite, and it adds difficulty because of two opponents that are immune to the sucker punch (Keypad 0, will instantly knock out an opponent). The Team Path is a nice balance and is a bit more dialogue heavy.
The beginning of the game introduces every individual element of the game in isolation (and there are quite a few elements if you look at it) and it does so without feeling like a limited tutorial. It encourages safe experimentation and discovery, so at the end, the player should be well prepared for the next part, which is the meat of the game.
I’m just setting up my Commodore 64 again for some authentic gaming. The 5.25” floppy disks on the day use a notch in the side to detect if the disk was write protected or not, and commercially bought empty disks usually only had the notch on the right to make one side writable.
However, people soon found out that the disks are usually safe to use on both sides, and that if you put a similar hole in the other side, you could write data onto the other side as well. There were even sophisticated hole punches for floppy disks.
Wussies I say, real men use cutting tools and make their own holes, so that their disks have character and personality! Okay, okay, I kid, the real reason is that I just can’t find these disk hole punches anymore on eBay, they have become even rarer than disk boxes.
Anyway, my setup is up and running and almost ready to record (fighting with a broken hard drive in a RAID-0 array and with the Blackmagic Intensity Pro’s lack of good configuration options – the setup is arguably overkill anyway, it was meant for 1080p HDMI capture).
One thing I noticed is that the Commodore 64 had some real differences in timing between the PAL and NTSC versions, the Zak McKracken Intro seems to play 50% faster on mine.
Here’s how the Intro is supposed to be like:
Zak Mckracken Intro (Commodore 64)
I like how far emulation has gotten over the years and how we can now experience classic games easier and more comfortable (faster loading times, less or no disk swapping, Save/Restore the system state, no cabling and no need for different controllers), but sometimes, authentic experiences require the real hardware.
Apart from Tube Screens. Sorry, I take the slightly degraded quality on a digital LCD over the size of an analogue, proper NTSC color TV.
Just a small collection of Game Design related videos I found interesting. There is a large wealth of great talks on YouTube and GDC Vault, I picked these because I watched them very recently and there were one or more great points.
Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X
This is hilarious and uses Mega Man X to show how you can teach your players the rules and limitations of the game through good gameplay rather than annoying tutorial prompts. I laugh every time I see the MEGA MAN! MEGA MAN! tutorial prompt and the reaction of the protagonist (because that’s what I want to do everytime I see a modal tutorial prompt)
Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X
Classic Game Postmortem – Maniac Mansion
Ron Gilbert talks about the first SCUMM Adventure, Maniac Mansion. This goes into the scripting part a lot, and I found the clock tick script interesting as an illustration on how many, many tiny pieces of code made the world alive. Some other rather anecdotal parts deal with censorship that required a box art change.
Sid Meier – Everything you know is wrong (GDC 2010 Keynote)
This deals with some balancing and rewards issues in game. For example, it deals with “My strength is 1.5, his strength is 0.5, so I should win all the time vs. My strength is 1, the enemy has 3 and when I’m winning, that feels right. Also, 2 vs 1 is different from 20 vs 10”. Some really good stuff.
Basically, it’s a panel about psychology in something that’s normally driven by hard math.
Sid Meier – Everything you know is wrong (GDC 2010 Keynote)
Happy Video Game Nerd: Earthbound
Earthbound did a lot of things really right, including the fact that trivial battles are simply skipped and the player wins by default. The first half contains 5 reasons that made Earthbound special. The second of the video concerns Earthbound and why it struggled in the US and is not interesting from a game development point of view.
Happy Video Game Nerd: Earthbound
BlizzCon 2007 – UI Panel
World of Warcraft wasn’t the first MMO to allow a customizable UI or to use LUA, but since the original release in late 2004 it had a lot of polish going into it and is extremely powerful.
The UI Panel at Blizzcon 2007 isn’t simply useful for World of Warcraft, but it includes a few neat ideas on how Lua can be integrated into an existing system and augmented with some custom data (in their case, XML data for a UI interface)
GET LAMP: The Text Adventure Documentary
Jason Scott is one of three men I have a man crush on, and his documentaries are top notch. GET LAMP is a documentary about text adventures and contains many interviews from the people. Of course, a big focus on Infocom, but a few other bits and pieces as well. This isn’t strictly a game design video, but it contains some great insights into their thought processes and limitations (which is why they made the Z-Machine).
If you liked it, I recommend buying the DVD from http://getlamp.com/ since it’s a beautiful package.
GET LAMP: The Text Adventure Documentary
January 20th, 2013 in
(This article is part of the Dissecting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis series)
As you might have gathered from my previous posting about Adventure Games, I’ve spent a lot of time recently playing these games and while there are many different details that I loved in different games, there was one game that stood out because every aspect of it was perfect: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I believe that this game should be taught in game development classes, but as a substitute I’m creating a little series where I dissect the various parts of the game.
Let’s start at the beginning, at the intro. Intros and Prologue sequences have two jobs: They need to establish the scenery/mood and ease the player into the game. If Intros are too long (like many of the “cinematic” games these days), you risk losing the players attention span. If you just drop the player into the action, you put a lot of stress on them from the beginning. Experienced Gamers may feel annoyed by too much handholding and even inexperienced gamers may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by tutorial prompts if that’s how you want to introduce the game mechanics.
Monkey Island and Zak McKracken are great examples for good intro sequences, and when it comes to gameplay tutorials the original Super Mario Bros is to name (even though it’s not an adventure, I highly recommend reading Anna Anthropy’s article about SMB)
Atlantis does something I never saw before it, and it makes the intro perfect: It puts gameplay into the actual intro/credits sequence. As intuitive as point and click adventures are, there is still a lot of stuff going on on the screen with the verbs and inventory.
First Screen: The Attic
There is no stress and no long delay before you can actually play the game. Indy swings in through the window, which establishes him as some sort of action hero to people who don’t know him.
The dialogue lets the player know that Indy is searching for a STATUE in all this JUNK. The emphasis is key here. It encourages the player to look for a statue, and it’s clear that junk refers to the stuff in the room. Now, Indy is referring to a small statue at the end of the intro sequence, but we don’t know that yet. All that we know is that we’re looking for a statue, no idea how big or small or any other details.
At this point, there are exactly two things of interest: The scenery and the mouse pointer. No verbs, no inventory, no other characters, no sideways scrolling, no time limit, no stress. As the player is moving the mouse around, text on the screen indicates what everything is. Clicking on anything will have Indy interact with it.
Eventually, the player will click on the big statue (with the big trapdoor in front of it) which sends Indy down a level.
Second Screen: Storage Room
More credits, more exploration. Except that there is no statue here. Exploring will yield no results. But there is a very obvious hole in the floor (unlike the trapdoor before, which was covered) with a rope, so the player is pushed to think “There is nothing here, let’s keep exploring”, and the rope makes it very obvious that going down the whole is the desired option.
Third Screen: Library
This one appears a lot more crowded than the first two. There aren’t any more items here, but there is a bigger emphasis on differentiating between seemingly similar items. The three bookcases on the right all have different titles even though they look the same. There is an exit in the back, invisible if not by hovering over it (which should naturally happen when trying to discover what the book shelves are and introduces the concept of hidden hotspots) and blocked (because the staircase is currently being repaired).
The sole bookcase on the left contains books about statues. I’m not sure if this qualifies as an abstraction (We’re looking for a statue => maybe a book about statues would help?), but it fits the room. Interacting with the bookshelf sends the player down again.
Fourth Screen: Cat Exhibition
There is one exit, obviously visible but not usable. There are 4 cat statues, and nothing else that can be interacted with. Interacting with any statue gives some flavor text, but nothing else. Only when we interact with statues again, one of them turns out to be a real cat, sending Indy down the coal chute. This introduces the concept of multiple interactions with an object.
Fifth Screen: Boiler Room
Both exits are blocked: Indy can’t go up the coal chute because it’s too slippery and he refuses to leave through the door without the statue. The new concept introduced in this room is the locker door. Clicking any of the three lockers opens it, and the third locker contains the desired statue.
In real life, opening and closing doors seems obvious, but computer games have limitations and the previous screens had objects that couldn’t be interacted with. The lockers emphasize again that you can interact with objects and that some objects have some sort of state, in this case open/closed.
When you open the third locker, two things happen: First, Indy clearly exclaims that this is what he was looking for, and second the statue is highlighted, inviting the player to move their mouse here. The emphasis here is not just to guide the player, but also to let them know that changing the state of an object (opening the locker) can lead to new interactions that weren’t there before.
Intermission: Outside Bernett College
In theory, Indy could just appear in his office, but instead we see him walk from the storage building towards the administrative building. I am not sure if this was just done to squeeze in more credits and showcase the graphics, but I see another real use here: It familiarizes the player with the location. Later, we need to come back here and go back all the way to the first screen. By having this intermission screen, the game does not need to tell the player later on where the storage room is.
Cut scene: Inside Indy’s office
This is the first time we see other characters, and another important element is introduced here: Every character has their own text color. In the modern age of fully voiced games this may not seem significant, but when Atlantis was first released, there was no speech. By assigning text colors here, we know who is speaking in scenes where the characters aren’t visible, which conveniently happens twice in this scene.
Apart from that, this is the first real non-interactive part of the game, going on for about 3 minutes. At this point the player is (hopefully) already hooked, so they won’t be impatient as they sit through this. It also sets in motions the events of the game and the reason for this whole trip and establishes the time line for people who don’t know Indiana Jones.
Map screen: Barnett to New York
Indy has to travel a bit during the game, and this non-interactive screen simply establishes his current location (Barnett College, which was not stated so far in the game) and signals that you can travel to locations with a red dot.
This is where the game begins for real, but it doesn’t just begin. When the screen fades in, we have the scenery on top, which is a familiar interface by now. Below, we have the word “Walk” and nothing else. Only after a few seconds, the verbs and inventory bar fades in.
I do not know if there is a technical reason to have the word “Walk” visible before the action bar, but to me it seems that they wanted to introduce this new element to the player before they show the action bar (which doesn’t contain the word “Walk”). New Players might now experiment again, noticing that they can interact with the world in a more diverse way. This screen also uses horizontal scrolling for the first time in the game and has player initiated dialogue.
That is a lot of stuff that is dropped on the player at once, but at this point the player is already familiar with how the game works and simply has to play around with the new tools given to them, not with the very basic “What am I doing here?”
The introductory sequence manages to have a long introduction of the settings, the characters and the antagonist without having the player sit through a long non-interactive sequence. It introduces Indy as an action hero and only brings in (light) puzzle solving at the very end. It creates a landmark that the player can recall later on.
Every single thing in the intro seems to have been done for a reason and by the time you’re in New York you’re past the initial bump of getting used to a new game.
As part of almost every application I work on, I need to create Excel sheets one way or the other, usually from an ASP.net MVC application. During the years, I’ve tried several approaches, and they all sucked one way or the other:
- COM Interop: By far the worst option. Requires an installed Excel. Slow. Error prone. Resource-intensive. Not supported in a server environment.
- CSV or HTML Tables: Only supports a single worksheet, not much formatting, prone to break Excel’s heuristics (e.g., the string “00123” is interpreted as a number, stripping the leading zeroes. For big numbers, Excel loves to use scientific notation, which sucks for Barcodes which should just be interpreted as strings) and hard to create (CSV is a pain if you need to escape quotes or have newlines)
- Excel 2003 XML/SpreadsheetML: A crutch. Uncertain future, limited options, big files. But actually, not too bad.
- One of the many Excel 2007+ .xlsx libraries: I tried about 4 or 5, and they all sucked in a different way. No offense, but some library authors try to cover the entirety of Excel’s capabilities, leading to an awkward API. Many don’t catch specific Excel limitations that aren’t part of the standard (e.g., Sheet name length or invalid characters), which means I’m creating sheets that cause Excel to tell me there was invalid data, leaving me puzzled how to fix that.
- Going Low-Level with the OpenXML SDK 2.0. Believe me, you don’t want to go down that road. There is very little help creating the documents, and if you want certain features that seem obvious (e.g., setting the Author of a document, which requires adding the creator element to core.xml) you will find that there is actually no way to do it.
So, all solutions I tried sucked. Which means that I set out to create another solution that sucks slightly less. Armed with some spare time, the ECMA-376 standard and Excel 2007 and 2010 to actually test against, I created a library that has a limited set of features, but implements them well, handles errors properly and (hopefully) has a good API for you guys to work against.
- You can store numbers as numbers, so no more unwanted conversion to scientific notation on large numbers!
- You can store text that looks like a number as text, so no more truncation of leading zeroes because Excel thinks it's a number
- You can have multiple Worksheets
- You have basic formatting: Font Name/Size, Bold/Underline/Italic, Color, Border around a cell
- You can specify the size of cells
- Workbooks can be saved compressed or uncompressed (CPU Usage vs. Network Traffic)
- You can specify repeating rows and columns (from the top and left respectively), useful when printing.
- Fully supported in ASP.net and Windows Services (The documentation contains an example ActionResult for ASP.net MVC)
You can get the Simplexcel Nuget Package for .net 4.0 Client Profile or higher - https://nuget.org/packages/simplexcel
Documentation can be found at http://mstum.github.com/Simplexcel/
Licensed under the MIT License, the code can be found at https://github.com/mstum/Simplexcel
What is wrong in this picture?
If you said “You’re using Internet Explorer” or “You’re using Google+” you might be right, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the fact that there is a big tutorial prompt between me and the application which prevents me from actually using the application.
Google Apps does it. iTunes does it. The Kindle Paperwhite does it. Photoshop Touch does it. Video games do it. Everyone does it.
It’s annoying. Especially the unskippable ones (e.g., on the Kindle Paperwhite). I understand that some of your UX studies show that certain people have trouble figuring out your application. Now, a good team would redesign the app to be more user friendly (and also make it accessible to colorblind and blind people if they were serious about this stuff). A bad team instead just takes the path of least resistance and sticks in a few tutorial prompts.
And a really shitty team goes even further: Instead of a single tutorial on first startup, they have popups every time you use a new feature for the first time. So after you dismissed the “Welcome!” prompt and think you can now use the application, you have to constantly dismiss “helpful” messages. Imagine riding a train and every few hundred feet, someone yanks the emergency brake. Not fun.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having a help/overlay function. Just stick it in the Help menu, accessible by the question mark icon which is widely accepted. But don’t force your tutorial on everyone, because they are an interruption of the usual flow. I want to use your application to get my stuff done, so stay out of my way.
People are using computers since decades, and novice users managed to learn how to use stuff on their own just fine. Not just computer wizards, but normal, ordinary people. Look at Microsoft Office 95, that one was just fine.
Alternatively, if you are a platform vendor, allow me to check a “I know computers” checkbox in my account (maybe call it FizzBin?) to release me from the obligation to jump through several hoops to actually use an application.
December 16th, 2012 in
| tags: rant
I’m currently playing and replaying a lot of adventure games, in order to dissect their individual parts and really understand what I like and dislike about them. I do like to play games for their story even more for their gameplay, but storytelling doesn’t just naturally happen. I’ve played dozens and dozens of adventures, but the ones I focused on most are Monkey Island, Le Chuck’s Revenge and Tales, Zak McKracken, Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones Last Crusade and Fate of Atlantis, Grim Fandango, Secret Files: Tunguska, Lost Horizon, Syberia, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Heavy Rain, To the Moon, The Walking Dead and Gemini Rue, with another dozen or so that I haven’t deep dived into yet and not to mention the old Infocom and Sierra text classics like Zork, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry.
Like: Exotic Locations
I was never a fan of “Haunted House” style settings (e.g., Phantasmagoria or Mystery House), instead I love gorgeous scenery. Waterfalls, Jungles, Ice Caves. Lost Horizon has to get a prize for its scenery, every location is beyond beautiful. Monkey Island 2 had a few gorgeous jungle locations as well, not to mention Woodtick. Syberia wasn’t my favorite game graphics wise, but the train station in the greenhouse is neat. I bought To The Moon solely based on its screenshot, specifically the one with the rocket.
Zak McKracken had the Sphinx, which was even more amazing than the Mars in my opinion. Same for the Aztec temple in Mexico.
Dislike: Frequent Disruptions for non-story related things
Adventure games life from their dialogues and cutscenes, but they are usually at the end of a longer gameplay session. Also, initiating a dialogue usually shifts the game into a different “mode”, making it clear you can’t interact with the normal gameplay elements. Games that make it appear like I can play but I actually can’t or that are interrupting gameplay every few seconds are frustrating beyond belief. That killed To The Moon for me, because in the moment you go upstairs to the dying man at the very beginning, you are put in this really awkward situation where you can’t really play because you are interrupted all. the time.
In a similar vein, tutorial prompts are usually not needed. Modal dialogs are evil, if you need to introduce a gameplay element, introduce it in form of a puzzle and guide me towards the right way to handle the element you want to introduce. Don’t explain what you can show.
Like: Noir Atmosphere, Sinister situations, constant feeling something is going wrong
This one is obviously personal, but I love the noir setting in many games, because it adds a constant source of urgency and paranoia. You do something that brings you forward in the game, but once you leave the room, the bad guy appears and does something. Gemini Rue used that in a few places to great effect, Discworld Noir and Grim Fandango had shown that you can mix humor into it. Victor Loomes was an advertising game for a German bank but had a denser atmosphere than a lot of commercial games. Gabriel Knight is also to mention here.
And then, there is one of my favorite moments, in gaming: Kerner appearing behind the boxes in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. This was unexpected and was really well timed.
Dislike: Illogical, stupid puzzles
Adventures are known for convoluted, illogical puzzle solutions. Arguably, Gabriel Knight 3’s infamous “Put tape on hole in fence, chase cat through hole, get cat hair from tape to make fake mustache” puzzle stands out (If you haven’t read Death of Adventure Games, do so now!), and then there is Secret Files: Tunguska. To quote Gamespot:
She feeds a stray cat salted pizza and then tapes her cell phone to it in a roundabout way of eavesdropping on a conversation.
Now, the problem with puzzles is that if they are strictly logical, they are trivial. There is a key in an aquarium and I can’t get it out because there is some grating at the top and my fingers don’t go through. The correct solution in the game is to get a magnet and basically fish the key out. In real life, I would possibly retort to brute force and just smash the aquarium if all else fails (sorry fishies!). But even if I end up combining items, the logical solution often makes things trivial.
This genre needs suspension of disbelief more than some others, but that doesn’t mean that all puzzles need to be nonsensical. I think the spit contest puzzle in Monkey Island 2 was great because it did make sense. At the same time, the “If this is 4, what is this?” hand puzzle is one of my least favorite ones, although it could better be described like this guy did:
It's a halfway brilliant puzzle just because of the misdirection - after you figure it out, you either want to choke the designer for being so irritating or slap yourself for being so stupid.
Overall, the game should just flow well, solutions should be evident by thinking about it and possibly revisiting a few places, I shouldn’t find myself in a situation where I’m combining every item in my inventory with every other because I’m stuck. (That’s not to say that inventory-combining is bad, quite the opposite).
Like: Few, but meaningful Characters
Is Balder or Epsilon Five trustworthy in Gemini Rue? What about Dr. Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? What are Melissa and Leslie up to on Mars in Zak McKracken? And what is Olivia up to in Grim Fandango?
Adventures tend to have large sceneries, but only very few main characters. Pretty much all of the Adventures that give you a sidekick are doing really well, giving you a meaningful, deep and interesting character. Sure, Sophia Hapgood may not work on her own without Indiana Jones, but her dialogue is well built out and she doesn’t just feel like that annoying secondary character you have to control every once in a while (unlike e.g., Shelly Birkin in Resident Evil 2).
Betrayal and distrust can be very strong story drivers even in humorous games, because regardless if a character betrays you or not, you constantly question your decisions.
But even the characters that you can trust need to stand out. Wally in Monkey Island 2 is a relatively undeveloped character but is still remembered because he was one of few. The pirates are pure fluff (apart from the rat puzzle), but we remember them. Glottis stands out in Grim Fandango, and the reason The Walking Dead just won a Game of the Year award can be summarized in one word: Clementine.
Heavy Rain and Gemini Rue use alternating storytelling to switch between several main characters throughout the game, a feat that’s hard to get right and yet they succeeded.
Zak McKracken is an offender here, stretching the gameplay through mazes. Regardless if you’re in the jungle, on mars or inside the sphinx, there are mazes. I can understand a single maze making sense as part of a puzzle (e.g., following the shop keeper in Monkey Island 1).
Sorry, I don’t think that I should need to map a place or find some obscure hint through the maze more than once, if I want mazes then I play some dungeon crawler/roguelike game.
Like: Multiple-Choice Dialogues and multiple solutions to problems
Few adventures offer actual choice with different outcomes, but multiple choice dialogues offer a great way to give the illusion. Also as Ron Gilbert said perfectly:
The other thing that’s nice is when those dialogue choices come up on the screen—there were four choices—you only got to choose one of them, but you got to read all four. That was a great source of humor because I could tell four jokes at once.
That being said, actual choice is also nice if done well. Indiana Jones could talk his way out of fistfights by the right choice of dialogue or through a puzzle that involved a lot of beer and a very big enemy. Gemini Rue gives you the option to walk around an enemy or fight them (arguably, that’s the only choice in the game), Fate of Atlantis has three different ways throughout the game (Action, Puzzles, Team with Sophia). Adventures don’t usually have as many branches and outcomes as RPGs (Bioware is a great example of branches in KOTOR, Mass Effect Dragon Age), but there are notable exceptions: Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain feature a lot of meaningful decisions that result in alternate dialogues and endings.
Dislike: Multiple characters at the same time
I like linearity to an extent. Open World is nice, as long as I don’t feel like I’m missing something. Giving me control over multiple characters at the same time always makes me question if I’m playing the right character right now. Gemini Rue gives you control over either Azriel or Delta-Six and even though it really doesn’t matter in which order you play them, you don’t know that at the time. I constantly wondered if I needed to advance with the other character in order to solve a problem with the other one (you don’t).
Zak McKracken had a similar switching between characters, although it worked a bit better since they were all part of the same narration, but it was at times really confusing to figure out whether I should continue to do stuff on Earth or on Mars.
Like: No Fail
As said, I play games for their story. I don’t mind challenges and timed puzzles, but I dislike dying and returning from some savegame a long time ago or even restarting the game.
Both Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken could become unwinnable, and you may not immediately recognize it and screw up your savegame for good. Luckily, the vast majority of Adventures can’t become unwinnable. Gemini Rue for example autosaves before every possible death trap and if you lose, you get right back to the scene without having to constantly replay parts.
Monkey Island even made fun of this with the rubber tree joke when you jump off the cliff. Adventure games are interactive storytelling/puzzle games, not action games which like to send you through the same easy part over and over again just because you can’t beat the boss at the end.
Interesting in this aspect is Heavy Rain: Even when you “lose”, you still advance the plot and will eventually come to an ending. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade is somewhere in-between because you can die, but you get an ending scene (instead of just staying in the game with no indication that you can no longer finish it).
Dislike: Too many fundamental open questions at the ending
I’m not a fan of “The ending is intentionally ambiguous, everyone can interpret it like they want”. I do understand that the Monkey Island 2 ending is so well known because it was so absurd, but frankly, it wasn’t good.
Gemini Rue was an amazing game right to the very last scene, I really thought the ending wasn’t worthy of the game. Two examples in other genres are Braid and possibly the most infamous example of a bad ending, Mass Effect 3, an amazing game in an amazing series, completely and utterly ruined by possibly the worst ending in the history of video games.
During the game, I develop a relationship with the characters, sympathize with their cause, suffer their pains and enjoy their joys. I’m immersing myself into their world and I want to see an ending in which stuff comes together and that makes me go away from the game with a good feeling (even with the dark endings in Heavy Rain). Don’t screw that part up, since a bad ending can undo an otherwise stellar game.
I also feel that this is the section to address a problem that’s specific to one developer: Episodic content. Now, I don’t mean to pick on Telltale Games because I own almost all of their games and can highly recommend buying them. But because each of the five episodes in a season need an ending, the storyline is often shallow and rushed. Tales of Monkey Island was a good game overall, and Morgan LeFlay is a great character. The Ending of Episode 5 is magnificent, it’s dark and yet it’s Monkey Island for sure. But Episode 2 and 3 are shallow and feel pointless because the narration isn’t strong enough and they are just too small to really create the narration that is needed. Back To The Future has a similar problem where the end of Episode 5 is stellar, yet previous episodes lack cohesion.
It seems that they got their storytelling tighter in The Walking Dead, but I still think that the need to have 5 different endings is detrimental to the strength of the overall storytelling.
Like: Music and Ambient sounds
Music makes or breaks the atmosphere. Especially in the older games where technology doesn’t allow us to really show everything we want to show, music provides the perfect way to transport emotions.
I was lucky to grow up with a Commodore 64 and its legendary SID Soundchip. Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken have legendary intros because of their respective music. Gemini Rue has a great ambient sound, with machines humming and rain... well, raining. Especially for modern Indie-Retro-Games, Chiptune- and Synth soundtracks work extremely well.
Inherit the Earth is possibly the Adventure with the best overall music of any adventure I’ve ever played, it’s just so perfect in how it creates the atmosphere of solitude and mystery.
Zak McKracken Intro (Commodore 64)
Dislike: Third-grade voice acting
Voice acting is a blessing and a curse. I remember playing the first “Talkie” versions of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Flight of the Amazon Queen and these games couldn’t be more different.
Indy has first grade voice acting, while FotAQ is just painful to listen to. It seems that female voices are especially problematic, because they often range from “obviously fake” to “pitched so high I want to stick a fork into my ears to make it stop”.
I do want to give an honorable mention to the German version of Inherit the Earth, called Erben der Erde. I don’t think I will ever forget the first words – “Um uns sind der Hammel, das Land und die Seen, und wir fragen uns: Sind wir die Einzigen?”. Goosebumps. (I really dislike the English version)
I think that voice acting is a must for every adventure these days, and it must be good voice acting.
Flight of the Amazon Queen
Like: Journal feature
Often, I play a game for a while and then don’t touch it for weeks and months. And then I rarely finish the game because when I want to resume playing, I completely forgot where I was, who the people were and all these little clues that are important later.
Secret Files: Tunguska has a journal which captures the most important plot details and clues, so I can easily refresh my memory without having to go to GameFaqs in order to find a Walkthrough.
Dislike: Unclear User Interface / Meaningless Items instead of clear text
The old Lucasfilm Games adventures had a text-based verb and inventory bar at the bottom, spelling out in clear English what you are doing. Later games replaced the inventory with icons (Monkey Island 2 and Indy 4 were the first ones as far as I remember) which mostly worked well, but already introduced a few minor usability issues when the icon didn’t exactly match the expected item or when a pun that was useful in a puzzle was lost.
In an attempt to make games more cinematic, Full Throttle and The Dig completely got rid of the permanent UI and introduced context-sensitive actions, which has since become the standard. The remakes of Monkey Island 1 and 2 use icons instead of textual verbs as well now at least on iOS.
The problem is that these icons are often hard to decipher, for example “Give” vs “Pick Up” (both are a hand with an arrow, but the hand is dominating, so I always need to look twice). Some games combined these actions or tried some alternate approaches (e.g., Gemini Rue uses Eye, Hand, Mouth and Foot icons, but Hand is a more generic “Use” verb) and ultimately overload the mouse button with multiple functions.
Secret Files: Tunguska does it mostly right: Left Button is Walk and Interact, Right Button is Look and Cancel. The Inventory is permanently displayed at the bottom, making it easy to combine items and focus on playing the game.
I also have to call out Loom here. The game was very imaginative for sure and I think it’s sad the story was never completed, but I didn’t like the control scheme at all.
Over the past few years, I’ve been a huge backer of Kickstarter Projects. The sister of a friend wanted to fund the debut album for her band, which made me make my first pledge in April 2011. The Album turned out to be an awesome piece of Indie Rock, well worth the money and wait.
Since I joined Kickstarter, I backed 121 projects, of which 98 were successful and 2 still running (but well over the goal, so make that 100 successful projects).
Of these 98 projects, 41 are fulfilled (I received the stuff I pledged). Another maybe 5 or 6 are in an uncertain state (no updates and/or no reaction from the project owner, but that doesn’t necessarily mean something bad, I’ve seen projects go dark for months as the owner was crunching to get the product done). Further 50 or so post regular updates and clearly seem to progress.
The remaining 2 projects were scams.
The first is “Authentic Chiptunes needs a new home!” which promised a digital download and vinyl, but never communicated and ended up deleting the account. Also, the Kickstarter account of “John Smith” was deleted, even though the Bandcamp site is still online and lists a different name. There is a high possibility that someone just used that guys music for the scam.
The second is SnapStylus, a magnetic stylus for the iPad. I actually received a product, but it didn’t actually work as expected (“Jack Malone” clearly advertises it as compatible with the iPad 1, but it turns out that the iPad 1 isn’t actually magnetic). Other people didn’t receive anything at all, and some digging revealed that the product is just a plain normal magnetic stylus from a Chinese wholesaler, available at Amazon for a dollar or two.
These two are so far the only two cases where someone did an obvious scam. There are a few other projects that have honest struggles, but nothing that I’m worried about.
Star Command made some big headlines when they posted how they spent their money, and had to admit running out of money and needed to do a round two Kickstarter. They have delivered the Wallpapers and Gameplay videos and I don’t see any foul play, just some issues that can be attributed to inexperience and naiveté.
Another interesting projects is IRONBUDS, which promised modular earphones. Over the course of 117 updates so far we can see someone who has the vision and technical ability, but was lacking the expertise. But Thomas Young is doing a great job making up for any delays and issues. In fact, he sent out 3-piece earphones (cable + two ear pieces) while he’s still working on the 6-piece earphones (the yoke in the middle is giving him trouble). Some people are a bit impatient, but those people really need to read Kickstarter is not a store. IRONBUDS is a great showcase product for Kickstarter.
The categories that deliver fast and good are Board Games and Books. I backed a lot of projects in each category and received physical goods within few months. There are one or two projects that haven’t delivered a physical book within a year yet, but they are still posting updates and showing progress.
Technology Projects are hit and miss. B-Squares delivered a great product within a few months. A few people seem to find the solar powered squares a bit underwhelming and the use a bit limited, but the product delivered what they promised. Lens Loop is a really simple product, and absolutely delivered what was promised, great product. Same for Capture, a product that required a lot more engineering and was at the time one of the highest grossing products on Kickstarter.
On the other hand, some products take a lot of time with more or less progress. I already mentioned IRONBUDS above, which is a positive example. My second ever Kickstarter project was Teadrop, a tea timer/steep filter. This one went dark for a long time until Michael DiStefano finally started posting updates, detailing production problems. No foul play either (some of the postings that detail issues are backer only), just a long (18+ months) wait from funding to (hopefully) receiving.
The big topic these days is Video Games, thanks to Double Fine’s 3.3 Million Dollar Campaign. Over the past months, I backed a ton of Video Game projects, my #1 category. So far, only two products have delivered an actual game: FTL – Faster than Light is available on Steam and is a nice, fun, little game. It doesn’t try to be overly ambitious, has pixel charm and is fun.
The other game is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and was released today on Steam, GOG and GamersGate. I haven’t received any physical rewards yet (their focus is on the game, as it should) so it’s not one of the 41 fulfilled projects. The game is great, good controls, lovely art, awesome music, if you like Platformers I recommend picking it up.
There’s a few other games that aren’t finished but progressing. Core of Innocence seems like a nice little game, I actually watched Don James live-stream the drawing of sprites. Maybe not “Game of the Year” material, but the game looks fun, I can see that it progresses through regular updates and previous live streams.
Most other games are definitely far, far off. I don’t expect Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Double Fine Adventure, Jane Jensen’s Moebius, Tex Murphy or Project Eternity to be done before the end of next year, and that’s fine. Since I do usually pick the $100 Collector’s Editions (somehow, these are always the sweet spot between a reasonable amount of money and a ton of goods), Fatigue has set in. The small games have fallen off my radar a bit, and I’m waiting to actually receive some games to see how good they are.
The other category that has long waiting times are movies. Indie Game: The Movie delivered a charming documentation with fantastic music (although they needed a second push), while others are simply long in the making. Viva Amiga has posted some updates recently on their blog, Rogue Wing gave a sign of life after 16 months and Jason Scott was very upfront about the fact that it might take until the end of 2015 to deliver (As an owner of both BBS and Get Lamp documentaries, I trust him blindly on the documentation work, that man knows what he’s doing and also keeps people in the loop on things).
So yeah, that’s my experience based on almost 100 projects over the course of 18 months. A lot of fantastic products delivered in a reasonable timeframe, a wealth of insight into the struggles of newly created companies (that I helped founding, after all), some long delays with or without good communication and $35 lost in two scams.
Kickstarter is not a store, but I found it to be a great place to get some exclusive products that wouldn’t otherwise exist and to get in touch with many people that are actually creating stuff and going through all these. There is always a possibility for failure, but even a failing project can recover (e.g., Haunts and Open Locksport got hit by devastating blows but seem to recover, thanks to the help of people).
Know the risk, use your internet street smarts, and help fund some amazing products.
Last week, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was finally released and apart from a few rough edges, it's one of my contenders for Game of the Year. The subject of the game isn't the game itself though, but the lady on the right. Dr. Vahlen leads the research division and has a few spoken parts in the game.
Her nationality isn't explicitly stated, but it's generally assumed she is German. In the first tutorial mission she has to talk to a German soldier, and I can confirm that her accent isn't German, not even close. It's eastern European, my best guess is Ukrainian, maybe Russian. She speaks English with an accent that is also not what I usually hear from Germans speaking English. During a later part of the game, she loudly exclaims "Nein!" which is German (rather than "Njet" which would be Russian). Now, the general consensus seems to be that it's just the typical bad localized voice acting from AAA games (apparently the voice actress is British), but it got me thinking anyway.
I met quite a few people that spoke German like Dr. Vahlen did during the tutorial. These people were eastern European immigrants with a German citizenship. Immigration is the most normal thing in the world and even though we still associate accents with the country of it's origin rather than the legal nationality of the person, in computer games we seem to expect a more clear-cut separation. When someone is German, we expect them to speak High/Standard German. If they speak with a Russian or Turkish accent (which, again, isn't that uncommon) then somehow it feels "off" unless it's explained as part of the story. Granted, the same is true for localized Games where accents are perceived as horribly out of place (the Saxony voice in the German Baldur's Gate is legendary) or used for comedic effect (German StarCraft II's Thor).
It would be interesting to see games that use foreigners with accents that are foreign to their nationality. I think this is usually done well with Hispanic accents on Americans, but those seem to be a sole exception.
October 17th, 2012 in
| tags: games