January 6th, 2017
Last year I wrote a chapter called ‘Cracking the Resident Evil Puzzle Box’ for the just-released edited book, Level Design: Processes and Experiences. Around the time I was invited to write the chapter I was interested in researching the knowledge game which underpins Metroidvania-esque exploration.
On a base level, the role of memory and level design is relatively easy to understand. As the player moves through a level, they encode chunks of the level design into memory. With each line of movement across the map, the player adds another row of bricks to their mental reconstruction. Yet games such as classic Resident Evil, Metroid, and the post-SOTN Castlevanias have the player pass through the majority of rooms multiple times and the level design change over time (with new enemies, routes, or player access). And so these games task the player with not simply encoding and withdrawing information from their memory banks, but doing so while also reorganising the schema and editing the information within. I knew that there was an artistry to way these games scaffolded and tested the player’s ability to encode, organise, edit, and withdraw information, but with so many other projects to finish I lacked the impetus to do a thorough analysis. The chapter submission therefore seemed like the perfect excuse to dive deep.
I sat down with Resident Evil: Code Veronica (the most recent Resident Evil game I had completed) and spent about three weeks full-time playing through the game, mapping out each instance of movement across the map (from each key to lock), and noting the implications for the player’s mental model. I ended up with 64 pdf files which each look something like the image above (Evil Resource is an incredible resource for Resident Evil maps by the way). The details were staggering, but fortunately everything coalesced around several distinct trends.
In brief, I found that each chapter of Code Veronica‘s gameplay had a different function within the knowledge game and built on what had come before it (tutorial, developing a mental model, testing the mental model, overhauling the mental model, etc.). The Prison area acts as a tutorial and focuses on a 4-step lock which sees the player doubleback through a handful of rooms. As Claire explores more of Rockfort Island the player is given access to large portions of the game world and the single thread of progression unravels into a system of branching paths. During this time the player can develop and refine their mental model in a freer environment. Claire’s brief excursion to Antarctica pauses the first half of the knowledge game before Chris Redfield arrives at a partly destroyed Rockfort and the player’s pre-existing knowledge of the island is used against them. The final chapter in Antarctica combines the earlier themes together, but stumbles due to the mish mash of environments which are different to mentally organise and logically fit together.
The chapter also covers progression, player choice, environmental story telling, and the components of survival gameplay.
It’s probably the most dense and challenging thing I have ever written. I found it difficult to give grounding and coherence to what is a highly detail-focused but also abstract topic. In any case, I found what I was looking for, so I can’t really complain…but I will encourage you to check out Level Design: Processes and Experiences. The line-up of contributors and range of topics covered is excellent. If this post has tempted you to read my chapter, then I would suggest playing through Code Veronica and reading as you go. The book is available on Amazon or through CRC Press in physical and digital versions.
May 2nd, 2014
You can find part #1 here.
Fire Emblem Awakening
- Fire Emblem with the edges rounded off. Yusuke Kozaki’s character designs, an expressive localisation, and a streamlining of systems and interface give the game a humanity which is grounded by the core mechanical additions of strategic alignment of units and unit groupings. These two new mechanics are an elegant way of increasing the game’s strategic breadth while anchoring the characters. There’s certainly an aura to Fire Emblem Awakening.
- In saying these things, I’m highly skeptical of Fire Emblem‘s strategy gameplay. After I completed Game Design Companion, I played a number of SRPGs (Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, Jean d’arc, and Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together) and took extensive notes on the genre. At some point in the future, I’d like to write up a complete investigation.
Resident Evil Revelations
- Survival horror operates on the fine balance between resources and threat. In the earlier Resident Evil games, the player had few munitions and limited control over the camera, so even a small group of zombies were dangerous. In Resident Evil 4, the player’s artillery and control over the camera increased, but so did the number of threats. Revelations is a combination of both kinds of horror. Resources are scant, the player can control the camera (although their view, of course, is still restricted—perhaps even more so by the 3DS’s lower resolution forcing a closer perspective), and, in an unexpected twist, the enemies convulse sporadically, making them difficult to hit. From sparse groups, to mobs, to one-on-one encounters.
- My initial reaction was that the combat isn’t very fair, but I probably need more time and research to think this one out. I’m putting my thoughts on hold until The Evil Within comes out.
- The lack of enemy hit-stun is concerning.
- The first person mode is interesting in that it harkens back to the earlier versions of Resident Evil 4.
Final Fantasy: Theatrhythm
- An easier version of Elite Beat Agents with the notes coming in from left to right as oppose to appearing anywhere on the screen.
- Using the bottom screen to respond to notes on the top screen lacks the directness of simply touching the notes as they appear.
- Unlike Theatrhythm, actions in HarmoKnight are more direct because you’re pressing buttons to interact within the game world, as opposed to trying to match up your stylus movements with actions occurring on another screen.
- The cutscenes in this game are so attractive to look at.
- The meaty tutorial is front-loaded at the start of the demo, instead of presented in context when the player needs it. This puts a huge strain on the demo’s pacing and leaves the player with a list of things to remember that they have no conceptual understanding of. Worse still, when the player is later given the opportunity to play around with the game’s systems, the tutorial is nowhere to be found. A simple button on the touch screen would have been suffice. Because of the lack of tutorial, I found it hard to appreciate this game.
- This game is very Matsuno in style, and I’m a big fan, but it’s going to be a pass from me this time.
- The menus are a gorgeous mess. Key information should be prioritised. Everything else should be tucked away.
Project X Zone
Wow. How much time you got? This game is a complete mess . I’m not even going to bother writing about it.
February 15th, 2013
Last year, my brother played Resident Evil 4 for the first time. After he finished the game, we discussed it over IM. Here are some of the key points from our conversation:
Moving and Shooting
Not being able to move and shoot does several things to the gameplay:
- it forces the player to find a spot and bunker down, creating a stop ‘n pop style of shooting.
- it makes Leon vulnerable, forcing the player to consider the surrounding environment and locations of the enemies and formulate a plan of attack.
- it creates a tug of war over the ground between Leon and the enemies (spatial dynamic). The player wants Leon to keep his distance, while the enemies attempt to close in on him. This push-pull relationship contributes to the inhale-exhale flow of the shoot-outs.
- it removes the clutter of moving while shooting (as moving throws off aiming).
Spatial Dynamic and Fly-Kicking
- The closer the enemies are to Leon, the easier they are to shoot, but the more likely they are to attack him (spatial dynamic and risk/reward).
- Leon can gain ground by stunning and then fly-kicking enemies, but they need to be close to him/he needs to run over to them to execute the attack (risk/reward).
- The cool down after the fly-kick, where the player has no control over Leon, balances the mechanic and extends the risk/reward.
The game builds tension by either:
- limiting the size of the play area and thereby the distance between Leon and the enemies
- adding more enemies to overwhelm the player
- increasing the Ganado’s armour (interplay)
- increasing the number of directions enemies can approach from (adaption skills, multitasking)
These methods squeeze more skill out of the player.
Camera and Viewpoint
- The camera is brought in close so that it’s both claustrophobic and functional. This is a neat throwback to the fixed camera angles of the original games.
- The laser sight helps to distinguish depth.
- Most shooters have weak interplay: you just shoot an enemy and they die, and if they don’t die, you shoot them a few more times to make sure. In Resident Evil 4, the player can shoot to stun, which then opens up opportunities to execute special attacks.
- The enemies also have interplay with one another. For example, if a Ganado is knocked into a group of other Ganados, it’ll push the whole group backwards.
- The organic interactions between enemies feeds back into the interplay between Leon and the enemies, creating deeper and more emergent interactions.
- Because each body part causes the enemy to react differently when shot, the body maps the potential interplay and strategic options. The designers can then tweak the availability of certain strings of interactions by covering up certain parts of the body (armour plates, for instance).
- The game speed is slowed right down so as to give the player enough time to deal with the hordes of Gonados. The large number of enemies make the relative time faster. So although the player has more time, they need to do more in that time.
Quick Time Events
- QTEs are only used in contextual situations or when regular interactions aren’t possible (ie. cutscenes). In this way, they add more interactivity to the game. Many games now tend to use QTEs to subtract interactivity.
If you liked Resident Evil 4, then you should totally check out Vanquish. It’s a different type of shooter, but you can certainly feel the lineage between the two games. I’ll be writing about that game soon enough.