June 19th, 2014
This video was too funny to pass up.
For the first time in a long time I was completely satisfied by the E3 showing this year. Loads of great games and plenty of innovation. After hours of reading, watching, and reflection, here are my main take aways from the show:
Video playthroughs focused on select portions of a game accompanied by developer commentary and gameplay trailers with few cuts are the best way to show off your gameplay to a new audience. Montages, CG trailers, early prototype video, and conceptual demos of the developers talking high concept just doesn’t cut it. Let the gameplay do the talking.
Between Nintendo’s Digital Event and the Treehouse Sessions, they covered these bases pretty well. However, the Treehouse videos were often drawn out due to the Japanese to English translation. Yes, I’m interested in Codename STEAM. No, I don’t have 45 minutes to sit through a slowly narrated playthrough with translation delays. Sony’s developer interviews were much more digestible at 10 minutes a piece, but they were too unfocused. Take this video of Hohokum for the PS4. After watching a 9-minute interview, I still have no idea what you do in this game. Start the interview with a short, elevator-pitch summary guys….geeze. The interviews are also inter-spliced with short snippets of trailer footage. It’s a good idea, but there’s not enough gameplay or context in the interviews to be constructive. Sony’s punchy length and Nintendo’s dictated playthroughs together would make a winning formula. Next year, guys.
If you stripped out all the CG trailers and meandering demos from the E3 conferences and replaced them with focused gameplay explanations, they’d be much more effective. I’m an E3 nut, but 1hr and a half of sizzle grows tiresome real quick.
It boggle the mind that Sony and Microsoft continue this pissing match of minor exclusivity. “Console debut”, “DLC first”, “it’s better on…”, “exclusive alpha version”, every time you hear these words—or in the case of self-apparent multiplatform titles, not hear—you know that it’s still a free kick to the other team.
Microsoft’s conference was basically a rehash of what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years: shooting, stabbing, and driving. I have no problem with these kinds of games, but there wasn’t anything genuinely new—unlike Titanfall
The start of Nintendo’s Digital Event was so refreshing especially after two marathon hours of self-important sizzle. It was funny too; I almost fell out of my seat. I also love the idea of Nintendo pushing back against the vocal minority of idiots in the Nintendo fan base. However, it was unfair of them to use Mother 3—a game which they can easily bring over to the virtual console.
Sony gave even more time than last year to indie games and it certainly injected a shot of dynamism into their showing. I’m not sure that Microsoft’s “we have 100s of these games” tactic is as effective as Sony’s curation approach. Giving these games a platform outside of a video montage and winning over some exclusivity on key titles is the best way to demonstrate commitment. That’s to say I think that players are more interested in playing the next great wave of indie games than having a large quantity of indie games to play. After all, we’ve all got PCs. In saying all this, though, maybe it’s just a consequence of the way Sony presented their indie game line up, but it was hard to see how these games were unique outside of their visual flair.
I was surprised that no one said that the new Zelda looks like Killer is Dead meets Skyward Sword. It totally does, right?
Nintendo say that the latest Zelda will be “open world”, but I wonder what that means exactly. Open world design works against the squeeze of gameplay, so I wonder how they’re going to pull it off while still maintaining the high level of gameplay quality that the Zelda series is known for. I guess A Link Between Worlds, which I have sitting on my 3DS SD card unplayed, will answer some of those questions for me. Whatever the case, I think it’ll take all the design ingenuity that Nintendo can muster to deliver on what Aonuma articulated during the digital event.
Splatoon was my game of the show. The genius behind this game makes my head spin. Territory control represented visually and organically as ink. Ink as a central dynamic that syncs into movement speed, traversal options, abilities, game flow and progression, and spatial dynamics. Ink as a solution to the issues inherent to gunplay (easy-to-see bullets that you can respond to, a weight dynamic to aiming, gyro to tune aiming, non-violent gunplay). Motion controls, touch screen controls, and traditional controller inputs. A reinvention of a well-worn genre. In terms of design, this is the most modern and sophisticated game I’ve seen in a long time.
I’m also surprised that no one said that Splatoon looks like a Sonic team game.
Odds and Ends
- Prior to the show I was hoping that Nintendo would announce a new IP. In the end they announced six and they all look fantastic.
- Project Spark was one of the only kid-friendly games shown at Microsoft’s conference and so what did they do? They added Conker to it. Well done.
- There seems to be a lot of different coloured gems in Yarn Yoshi. I hope they’re not just excessive collectables. I’m still not convinced of this game.
- It’s cool that Criterion are working on something awesome and completely new, but showing it off so early is poor form for EA.
- Shape Up treats work out moves as interactions and then builds a game around them. It’s a neat idea.
- Having recently read Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper epic From Hell, I’m curious about The Order. However, not much has been said about what makes the gameplay unique and what we saw at E3 doesn’t aspire much confidence that it’ll be anything more than Uncharted 2 inter-spliced with Heavy Rain.
- The Grim Fandango remake announcement was the biggest megaton of the show (although the game hardly needs a remake, but I’m open to being proven wrong).
- The additions to LittleBigPlanet 3 look smart and substantial. It’s funny that the same team who worked on Forza Horizon 2 are working on this game.
- I can’t believe that Konami put out another MGS5 trailer. I wish they would explain more about the gameplay. I guess they kind of did that with Ground Zeros… :/
Yep. Very satisfied indeed. What did you most enjoy about the show? Let me know in the comments.
February 9th, 2014
In order to talk about games as I do, I need a specialised vocabulary of words to help me along. For several years now, I’ve been using Richard Terrell’s Critical Gaming Blog and the Critical Glossary to anchor my writing. Sometimes, though, I need to come up with my own words. Such as when I talked about player roles in Heavy Rain a few years ago. Below I’ve documented the twenty or so words I came up with to get me through my Wario Land 4 book, Game Design Companion.
Arrangement – A group of game elements arranged together, ie. a unit of level design.
Pre-fold – The first half of folded level design, where the player makes their way to the fold.
Post-fold – The second half of folded level design, where the player makes their way from the fold to the starting point.
Interaction set in context – A way of saying “an interaction and all the context that defines it”. Context being the feel of inputting the mechanic, the meanings and associations with the function, the background for the interaction, the visual and aural representation of the game elements and execution of the interaction, etc. An interaction set in context is the smallest unit of meaning in a video game.
Premise – The premise establishes the game world, its characters, and the personality and role of the avatar. By defining the avatar, the premise gives the player the information they need to inhabit the playable character and make interactions under their persona. Since the player/avatar interacts with the game world, the premise gives all individual interactions a collective purpose.
Restricted-to-Freer Practice – A model of variation whereby a level initially restricts the player’s freedom in order to ensure that they understand what is being taught, before opening up to slowly allow the player to take ownership of the content.
Bounding Box – The outer edges of level for a game set in the side-scrolling perspective. Bounding boxes often dictate the behaviour of the camera.
Form Accentuates Function – A type of form fits function where the form exaggerates the function so as to make the function more apparent to the player. (I’m thinking that this term is probably moot, but it served its purpose in the book).
Form is Familiar – Where a game element looks like something from real life so as to immediately give the player an idea about its function.
Test Teach Test – A form of education where the teacher proposes a problem to the students and has them try to solve it, observing as they fail miserably. Afterwards, the teacher introduces the lesson’s content before allowing the students to return to the original problem, now with the know-how to successfully solve it.
Fixed Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player must complete the game in a linear order and has no control over progression.
Freer Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player has some minor control over the way they progress through the game. For example, choosing which level to play first, where both levels must be completed.
Pure Fold – A form of folded level design where the pre-fold is the same area as the post-fold.
Reroute – A form of folded level design where the post-fold redirects the player to a different route from the pre-fold.
Skirting Along the Fold – A form of folded level design where the post-fold reroutes the player through a separated channel that is part of the pre-fold.
Environmental Upheaval – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is radically different from the pre-fold, but still uses the same base level design.
Dog Ear – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is very short.
Phases – Solid and permanent sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Once a phased is reached, the challenge cannot go backwards to an earlier phase.
Forms – Fluid and temporary sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Similar to phases, but the challenge can go backwards to an earlier form.
Linear Phase Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has several phases and the player progresses through these phases linearly.
Looping Form Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has multiple forms and can revert to an earlier form.
Without these words, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Wario Land 4 much at all.
January 23rd, 2014
This essay builds off the points I made in the On The Book’s Structure heading in the How to Read This Book section of Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. You don’t need to have read that section to understand this article.
Games Writing and Levels of Abstraction
Writing is the least ideal means for talking about games. The process involves using an abstract set of symbols to make comment on an abstract system of rules. For the reader, this means burrowing through two layers of abstraction just to understand what you’re saying.
(In saying this, I still believe that the written word is the way to go when it comes to serious games analysis. Video inevitably amounts to entertainment, as the stimuli created from moving images distracts the brain from, and therefore diminishes, the meaning of a text. And with audio, the linear flow of speech doesn’t give the listener the ability to naturally pause and absorb the information being given. It’s a bit like being on a content treadmill).
There’s also the problem of length and details. Because games are complex systems that are defined by their details, a writer must give a significant amount of background on the game in question before they can arrive at any sort of critique. By this point, the reader may have lost interest. So what’s a writer to do? How can we make games writing more accessible without sacrificing integrity?
A Narrow Focus
At some point, preferably before any writing takes place, the writer must decide whether they want their article to have a broad or narrow focus. Most games writers go for the broad option, even though it’s easier to have a narrow focus. Writing just about one particular aspect of a game not only affords the writer more accuracy, but also allows them to cut down on the preamble and jump straight to the chase. On the other hand, without a generous word limit, writing about an entire game can be a troubling task. Games are monolithic structures that, more often than not, cannot be critiqued within the confines of a 800-word review, so while game reviewers no doubt have plenty of opinions, the format offers minimal space for the writer to explain how they came to their conclusions. So unless you’re prepared to put in a few thousand words, it’s best to have a narrow focus.
Cutting Down on Words
Less is more. I often use writing as a means to get to what I want to say, but once I know what that is exactly, I cut everything else and just say it. Here are some techniques that I use to say more with less:
- Heavily edit the parts of the article that give context to the analysis/criticism. There should be little to no fat here.
- Use video or images in place of words. There are plenty of game reviews and Let’s Plays on YouTube which already do a good job of introducing games. Why write about it yourself when someone else can do the hard work for you and the reader gets to see the game in context?
- Use diagrams to explain ideas too complex or fiddly for words, or to reinforce a worded explanation.
- Use metaphoric language. This is something that I’m not so good at, but many games criticism bloggers are adept in. Analogies and metaphor are a great way to convey a lot by saying very little. This technique suits certain topics better than others (like game feel, for instance).
- Find a creative way to present the content. I’m working on this with Adventures in Game Analysis.
Chunk it Out
By chunking your writing out, you give the reader more room to breathe. Here are some more techniques:
- Use dot points where possible, especially to break up long sentences. Here’s a good example.
- Break articles up into a series. When I write about a game, I usually identify several key discussion points and then, given that I can write about them at length, I’ll write the articles individually. Game Design Companion is a great example of this: it’s just a bunch of individual essays.
Write a Story Instead
We’ve been sharing stories since the dawn of time and so the brain has developed quite a fondness for narrative. Stories allow us to ground abstract ideas in relatable situations. Writing story-based criticism, though, can be quite a challenge as critique doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to storytelling and you have to do more than double the work (write a good analysis piece, a good story, and have them seamlessly connect together). Here’s an example of a games analysis story done well
- Bold key sentences. I rarely do this, but it’s a good technique.
- If you’re interested in giving this writing thing a go, then write something and send it in to me. Like everyone else, I’m pretty busy, but I’d be happy to help out too. Writing about games is hard, so us writers need all the encouragement we can get.