Or find someone else who can be critical…

October 29th, 2010

My twin brother is the vice president of the Game Developers Club at Adelaide University. Just recently he gave a presentation titled Meaningful Play to his peers and further posted the presentation up on Youtube. After watching his presentation, I buzzed him an email reviewing his theory on game design (which nicely falls into the first part of the presentation, below). You can watch the presentation here, here and here in its 23 minute entirety. For now though I have included the first part of the video and my response to it.

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Firstly, I think it is dangerous to use a subjective adjective like “meaningful” in discussing games. Anyone can find anything to be meaningful. It would be better to discuss the game in regards to design and not include one’s ideas which are external to the game. This is something I have mentioned in my tweets recently.

By meaningful, I think you mean interplay. Your quotes from Rules of Play all allude to interplay but are put in a complicated way and fail to sharply address what the relationship is between reactions and gameplay. When you say things in your own words or use examples it’s clear that there is some confusion in your understanding. Here is a clearer quote for you of how games are meaningful:

“interplay is where actions and elements in a game aren’t means to an end, but fluid opportunities that invite the player to play around with the changing situation”

You can read a full description here with examples.

And one by me here

You’ll note your quote on the descriptive definition (slide) is similar to the quote I use in my post, but it goes a little further to add the “fluid opportunities that invite the player to play around with the changing situation”. Meaningful play is not simply that games react to the player (as your quote in the initial slide suggests), it is instead that the reactions lead to more interactions (interplay). And the more interplay there is between mechanics the greater depth and “meaningfulness” there is.

Your quotes exclude or aren’t clear on this point and so too is your understanding. For example, in the slide on the descriptive definition your own words say that the push and pull reaction between mechanics (interplay) allow us to understand the mechanics which are inside the game. This doesn’t say anything about the way reactions work to open opportunities for more interaction.

The evaluative definition is also very nebulous and doesn’t answer it’s own point . I would question your quote by then asking “and what is that then?” or “so what actually occurs?”. This quote is like saying, “chocolate ice cream is what happens when chocolate and ice cream come together” instead of “chocolate icecream is chocalate flavoured ice-cream”.

Your words here are again not so relevant to the quote.

The discernable part and what you then say about it irks me. How well the games makes the unfolding of interplay apparent is not a measure of how much interplay there is in a game. Putting it another way, lucidity!=a part measure of “meaningfullness”. And you certainly can’t use it as a quotient to compare with other games. Furthermore, how can we even compare the levels of interaction in an interactive medium with mediums that have no interaction as you say?

Intergrated is all fine though.

In the bullet point slide it’s clear that you are tripping up on this needlessly complex language.

The noughts and crosses board is actually a mirror and the pieces are halves. Not sure if you noticed that. In this example, you fail to discuss interplay and “discernability”. What you want to say is that when placing a piece on the board, wherever placed, this changes the game for the other player as they must alter their strategy every turn. This interplay is discernable through the representation of the pieces on the board in regards to matching three.

In your Tetris example you again don’t discuss “discernabilty” in regards to the outcome of the interaction/interplay/the terms and conditions of “meaningful play” (ok, no more “meaningful play” from here!) . That is, when you destroy blocks through making a tetris you see new block formations open up which creates new and different opportunities to interact (via your block placement). This is readily discernable as the player can see the visual structure of the collection of blocks and what happens when they remove them and the blocks rearrange.

Personally, I wouldn’t have used chess as the 3rd example as the interplay is similar to noughts and crosses (players pipping players with the position of their pieces). But more so as it actually subverts this whole notion of discernability through the “unknown implications” which you back-peddle on. You need to be clear and say that the fact that I move a chess piece and then physically release it says that I have completed the action. The releasing of the piece represents the end of the “move mechanic” and allows the players to therefore intepret moving as a mechanical feature of the system of rules that is chess.

What you say about the environment (level design?) isn’t so much about the environment itself as much as it is the things in them and how they effect the existing rule system. What you mean here is counterpoint. Again, another quote and another link:

“Counterpoint, in gaming, is a word for the way gameplay develops past optimization by layering interactive elements into a single gameplay experience. When each layer influcences, interacts, and enhances the functions/gameplay of each other layer the gameplay emerges into a medium of expression that reflects the individuality of a player and the dynamics that reflect the complexity of the world we live in.”

Basically, the way elements of games (enemies, time limits, exploding barrels) create ripples in the interplay. And here is an example.

The Killzone 2 example is a killer, but it should have been under the other heading as it has nothing to do with the environment/counterpoint and is actually about discernability (clarity is a better word, I think) and how it cushions the reload mechanic. Using the word “consequence” is a bad choice.

The Uncharted example is again a good example but it is more about camera angles as validation for chunks of gameplay than counterpoint which you asserted as “environment” at the start of this slide.

The last part on this slide about breaking rules makes no sense to me as your 2 examples weren’t about rules, but rather mechanics and camera.

The Mario slide is utterly confusing and full of holes. You ought to talk about the way the fire flower allows Mario to gun down enemies, Super Mario can break blocks and small Mario walk through tight places. These are all good examples of the integration (level design and mechanics work together).

However, I don’t like this term as tracking the relationship between mechanics, interplay and loads of counterpoint and level design is impossible to do without generalisation. Also certain parts have strong and weak integration respective of their strong/weak roles in the system of rules and mechanics.

Wasteland Ventures (Fallout) #1 – Tutorial and Beginnings

October 22nd, 2010

On to the wasteland. I’ll return to the review the comments made in the previous article once I’ve completed Fallout. In the meantime though, I’d like to analyse Fallout on the grounds of freedom of expression and interplay alongside with my regular “ooh, this looks interesting” commentaries. Freedom of expression speaks for itself, interplay though requires an explanation and fortunately I’ve taken one from Richard Terrell, who coined the term:

“Interplay is the back and forth encouragement of player mechanics between any two elements in a game. Put simply, interplay is where actions and elements in a game aren’t means to an end, but fluid opportunities that invite the player to play around with the changing situation.

The easiest way to think of interplay is offensively/defensively or in counters. Consider two elements of a hypothetical action/fighting game. The first element is the player’s character, and the second is an enemy. If an enemy can attack you, does this attack/enemy have a way to be countered? What happens when you counter the enemy’s move? Does the enemy die, does it reset itself, or does the situation change? If the situation changes, is the enemy still a threat? If so, can you counter the new threat? And the cycle repeats.”

My ideas will be presented in a journal format. This first entry will cover the tutorial parts of the game Vault 13-Kahn raiders camp.

Vault 13

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed my first few attempts at playing Fallout which is steeped in needless trial and error and some arbitrary stat abstraction.

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Your journey begins with the player “rolling” their own character. With wariness of a supposed difficulty spike early on in what is meant to be an already difficult game, I consulted a FAQ and maxed out the most useful stats while minimising the useless ones (known as min-maxing). Useless, or rather relatively less useful, statistics include endurance, outdoors man and luck. The FAQ I used also listed some variables that I shouldn’t raise as I could do so later through books. All very complicated and not so balanced. Fallout penalises players who don’t choose, and then subsequently boost, the appropriate statistics from the outset. It’s quite hard for players to get the gist of the usefulness of certain statistics from the brief descriptions from the menu alone, so rolling your own character has many unnecessary hazards. Fortunately, players can choose a pre-rolled character.

After rolling your character, you leave your isolated home of Vault 13 to a gloomy cave. The introduction to Fallout doesn’t offer any real tutorial on the functions of the game which leaves the player to figure the game out for itself. Fortunately, the cave acts as a fail-safe playground to practice the primary mechanics, despite the fact that they are never introduced to the player. The cave is inhabited by rats which initiate the use of the turn based combat system based on action points and allow for a little practice and experimentation.

Fallout requires some kind of peripheral reading to substitute the lack of tutorial, I pieced together bits of information from the internet as opposed to reading the appalling 130 paged manual (read here) which is written out in long form instead of using a freaking screenshot to tell you what everything means. Argh. After an unnecessary amount of time wasting and trial and error you’ll eventually get the hang of it.

After finally making your way through the army of kamikaze rats, you’re presented with a top-down world map marked with the nearby town of Shady Sands. You’ll learn that venturing out much further will only lead to overpowered enemies and a series of stop gaps that don’t have much use at this stage in the game due to your limited supplies. The map doesn’t disallow players from diving head first in the deep end, it is entirely open-ended, but the initial state of the player binds them to nearby safety zones. Metroid appears to be open-ended but caps players with power-ups, Fallout does so with the heightened difficulty because of a lack of inventory, weapons and ammo and decent statistics. This form of limitation radiates out from Vault 13 so it’s a very natural form of persuasion.

Just making it this far is a challenge—a 2-part one at that, as you’ll need to first grasp the rules of the game and then figure out a way to survive the harsh landscape of the wasteland. Both of these factors have undoubtedly caused many players great frustration. My brother is an example of someone who gave up early on.

Shady Sands

If the rat cave was a tutorial on combat, then Shady Sands is a tutorial on social mechanics. Well, actually Shady Sands could be an extended tutorial of combat if the player so well chooses because Shady Sands is a really an introduction to player freedom before anything else.

When players enter Shady Sands they are greeted by 2 guards. If the player still has a weapon equipped (which in all likelihood they will as there is no reason to de-equip it) the guards will ask the player to remove it. Right here is moral choice and freedom. The player can choose to ignore the guards, in turn starting a fight or conceal their weapon and have access to the village. The interplay here is just fascinating, I tried both approaches on different saves and here’s what I got:

Aggressive Option (player doesn’t holster weapon)

-the doormen will attack the player

-the player can flee or attack

————attack

—————-if you defeat the guards, you can take their loot from their bodies

—————-other people in the village will pursue you as well, reverting to attack/flee option

———————attack

————————you can effectively kill everyone in the city and raid the whole place dry

————flee

—————–leave the doormen and the screen, state of doormen is back to neutral

Peaceful Option (player holsters weapon)

-the player is treated as a wanderer which means that all the facilities in the town are available to you such as the advice from the doormen, a healing centre, bartering and trade

-the peaceful option opens up a microcosm of other choices each with their own separate avenues

As we can see, a very natural occurrence in the wasteland (defending one own’s turf) leads to numerous ever-changing possibilities for the player to react to (interplay). I took the peaceful option, so let’s continue the game from there.

Interactions in Shady Sands

From the onset Fallout establishes a high precedence for player vulnerability and the interactions and decision-making in Shady Sands are all pertinent to this element of survival. Depending on your decisions, NPCs will cough up tangible goods and money, act as safety net for levelling up and so on. How you get them is up to you. Here are some further examples of player choice and interplay:

Problem: Earning money and goods

Solutions: Trading you wares up with good deals until you earn more, pickpocketing the cash and goods

Example of Interplay: There’s a risk that you will get caught pinching money and the villagers will turn on you. Trading wares requires many interactions with people in order to nab the best deal.

Problem: Getting Ian to join you

Solutions: Choose the dialog option that pleases him or pay him a fee of 100 bottle caps

Example of Interplay: Having Ian on your side radically changes the combat portions of the game as he’s another character with their finger on the trigger. He makes the exploration of Vault 15, the radscorpion caves and latter exhibitions considerably easier.

Problem: Radscorpion invasion plaguing the town and making villagers sick

Solutions: Go to the radscorpion cave and defeat the scorpions or don’t

Example of Interplay: If the player defeats the scorpions then their tails can be gathered and given to the town doctor who will use the tails to make an antidote for the poison and give you a sample. Later you can use the antidote to heal people and gain experience. The town elder will respect you, the gate keepers will offer additional advice. Later they will call on the player to save Tandi from an opposing faction, leading into another story arc.

Comments on The Rest of Shady Sands, Vault 15, Radscorpion Cave and The Raiders’ Camp

The rest of Shady Sands

As I mentioned previously, I can’t bear reading “too much” text in video games. Playing Fallout, I was still stubborn about this point and it was to my own detriment. This first tutorial chunk has taught me that to survive the wasteland you need 3 things: goods, decent statistics and proper intel. You’re simply far too underpowered to be lacking in any of these. By knowing the lay of the land, you can avoid venturing off aimlessly and wasting precious time and resources. The advice the NPCs doll out then is just the kind of support you need. The dialogue also has a dual function of adding to the lore of the game as well as simultaneously dropping hints. NPCs are thoughtfully spread out too so that prioritised characters with something to say are marked by their unique appearance and convenient placement, while peasants are placed apart and interaction with them doesn’t launch into the dialogue/trade menu.

In Shady Sands, the gatekeepers are placed right at the front and communicate the most necessary information, hold the most useful items for trading/stealing as well as tell you who can give you more info.

Vault 15 and Radscorpion Cave

The radscorpion cave is a little obscure as you can’t reach the location on foot, but are instead teleported there by one of the gatekeepers who reckons he knows the way. The location of Vault 15, on the other hand, is marked on the map after you prompt your partner Ian for directions. Both areas are extensions of the rat cave tutorial at the start of the game with the ante raised some. I found that these areas helped me fall into the rhythm of combat since fighting and looting is all there really is to do in these parts. On reaching the bottom floor of the abandoned Vault 15, I was surprised that there wasn’t some kind of reward. I suppose this is part of the Fallout charm.

The (Kahn) Raiders’ Camp

After obtaining the antidote from the town doctor, you learn from the gatekeepers that one of the girls in the village Tandi has been kidnapped by the Raiders (who you learn earlier have been ransacking the village). The village leader obligates you to save her and you can do if you wish.

The Raiders are one of the wasteland’s many factions. Their base is in an decapitated house just south of Shady Sands. Guards are settled out in smaller tents around the make-shift base. Like Shady Sands, you need to holster your weapon before you’re allowed access. Once holstered, you can walk straight in and negotiate with the leader Garl on Tandi’s release. There are several ways to tackle the situation:

There is clearly a great deal of flexibility in how the player can tackle the situation and each option supports key strengths that the player could have rolled into their character. In order of my listing above the options support bartering, combat, conversation skills, weapon skills or just utter failure (let’s just assume that killing innocent an abused ladies is the failure option).

Conclusion

At this stage I hope that you get a basic idea of the degree of freedom and the resulting interplay present in Fallout. It really is quite fascinating to explore the different outcomes of the player’s choices. Some of the stories I’ve heard of inspire me to be more experimental with my approach. It will take some time before I get to the next entry, so there’s still time to join in if you want. Otherwise, please enjoy the reading below.

Vintage Game Club – Fallout

Retronauts Podcast – Fallout

Western RPGs: A Checklist of Suppositions

October 20th, 2010

I grew up playing Japanese games and despite the continual global popularity of western games in recent years, I still haven’t really formed a strong taste for them yet (there are exceptions, of course). In fact I only seem to be gravitating even more closer to Japanese games, particularly with the forth-coming release of the 3DS. So, as with my prior phobia of PC games, I’ve decided to take the issue head-on and the first step in dealing with a problem is to talk out the situation. Therefore, I present a Japanese game fan’s interpretation of the nichiest of all western-made games; the western RPG. Later, after downing some of the genre’s classic staples, I will return to this piece and re-address my current suppositions, some of which are obviously a little ignorant (which is the point really).

Western Ideals of Freedom and Democracy

Despite the degradation of democracy over the past few decades due to capitalism and the centralisation of power, westerners still believe in it either as a virtue or a dogma, which goes to say that this large chunk of our ideology permeates into everything we produce, including our video games too.

Many westerner games, not just RPGs, run with this quality of freedom, which leads to more player-driven experiences. From what I can gather there are two main parts to this: the first being the option of rolling one’s own character (therefore assigning themselves to a customisable playstyle), the second is dialogue options which allow players to steer the course of content (choose your own adventure). JRPGs tend to be much more rigid by comparison, offering a grandiose director-controlled narrative . To be honest, customising the avatar and directing my own experience is something I haven’t had too much exposure to, so I’m not all that comfortable with it. Simply put, when I’ve comes across these options in some games, I just choose the less shit option and stick with that.

“High” Contexts

Science fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy, are popular themes for western RPGs, and to be honest, this scares me a little. From what I can judge, the fiction in these games is inspired by the respective books this brand of fiction is rooted in, and I’ve always had a phobia that I will never understand the science fiction/high fantasy niches. Maybe interacting with these worlds through games will act as a point of access.

Too Much Text and Reading

Lately I’ve clued onto the fact that if not actively engaged in the media I consume then it just turns me off. I suspect that video games have instilled this taste in interactive media and utter boredom with anything else. Consider these examples of consumption habits over the past 6 months:

Movies

Faust, Nosferatu, Metropolis (German, black and white expressionist films)

Inception

Books

Comics

Watchmen

Music

Massive Attack Discography

-I’ve been listening to Massive Attack for a few years and really dig the thematic elements of their music. Their lyrics are minimal and almost invariably abstract, which allow the interpretations to work as an open slate of theories. I tend to stew over the lyrics and composition to figure out what each song is trying to say and how each song interconnect.

I don’t dig fiction that I can’t get my teeth into. The fact that the player interfaces with characters through menus and text conversation, makes me weary that there will be too much reading and not enough “playing”. And of all things that cut off my enthusiasm to critically mine a game, reading sits right at the top. The games appear to be very rich in context, so it would be disappointing if text cut the thread to some potentially compelling narrative.

Limiting “Real” Choices Which Could Instead Happen Through Gameplay

Dialogue options, their reductiveness in simplifying life down into a few binary decisions really cheeses me off. Why not give the player a toolset of potential interactions which would grant them much wider degrees of expression than 3-4 options from a menu? I guess it comes down to the way these choices are implemented and the weight they have alongside other forms of expression.

The Journal

The next part of this project will be a journal covering my observations of Interplay’s post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout. Stay tunned!