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COG I: Good Game, Long Thought (3)

Caram on Games (COG) is an occasional ramble in which I discuss computer gaming, gaming culture and how I perceive them, in an attempt to talk about a medium that I've always been passionate about, or at least enjoyed. Every part is an exploration of thoughts, meaning that it comes together as it is written- so while they may meander for a while, a point will eventually be reached. Maybe. After a lot of words, and sometimes numbers. You have been warned. 

Let's start with the basics:


What makes a good game?

This question has as many answers as there are ways to make a game, and most of them are subjective, dependent on how the individual gamer experiences their play, how deeply they are willing to delve into the details surrounding a game and how much time this will take, expectations towards gameplay and stortytelling, the studio and publisher, familiarity with methods of non-linear stories… This answer becomes more complicated from a publication and development perspective, as it includes many business aspects that the individual consumer does not need to consider- and as an individual consumer, I won't, save the consideration that I won't spend money on a game only to discover I need to spend more money to actually finish it.

But I can answer this question for myself, in three parts:

01. But Can You Actually Eat That Sweetroll

02. Would you Kindly Knock?

03. In-game-novation. Kind of. 

A third answer, having played games for a greater part of my life, has to be "Where is the new in this? How does the execution of these ideas differ from what has come before? Does this refine a formula, or redefine it?" This becomes a bigger question the longer I am around, simply because I have probably seen more and experienced more games (and life- let's not forget there is that as well). In short, this is where gameplay, user interfaces and ludic storytelling matter.

The Story and the Game

The simplest one to discuss is ludic storytelling, which is a posh term for the story the gameplay tells. In most analysis of storytelling, you find flat and three-dimensional characters. Flat characters lack definition, context, or motivation. Three-dimensional characters are fleshed out, have been given context, motivation and a background by the author(s) (not to be confused with the narrator), they have a reason to be where they are-usually explained in the narrative- and a place they think they should be going.

In part one, I said I cannot consider the Tomb Raiders or Uncharteds of this world games, as they don't allow me to influence the experience. While not untrue, this statement is highly contentious, even to me, as, being interactive stories, they include elements of gameplay which I can shape. However, as these elements basically tie cutscenes that are unaffected by the gameplay together, the story thus told never becomes personal to me- a third-person experience, both in presentation and reception. To my mind, this is fine- it is a style of interactive storytelling that makes no pretense of being anything but a movie with action scenes replaced by gamey bits. It is not my definition of "game", but, as there are sections you can affect in gameplay, it is someone's definition. I don't like cutscenes in games- that has a lot to do with it. 

In Tomb Raider, you can tell you are playing Lara Croft (Née Cruz, originally a guy, sex changed for marketing purposes) by the way she moves, the tools she uses and the things you do in the game- with about 25 years of gaming history behind her, she is almost as easily identifiable as Mario. If it runs, hops and bangs its head against bricks with question marks on them, and gets mushroom-induced transformations, it's probably not Lara Croft. There are a number of protagonists of both sexes who share the same traits: She runs, she jumps, she climbs and she shoots (arrows in her latest incarnation). Playing her involves light archeology, occultism and puzzle-solving. 

The 2013 reboot could have spent all its cutscenes trying to convince me that this is Lara. If she hadn't played like an updated version of what I had been led to expect through my attempts at playing Tomb Raider years ago, this would not have been a Tomb Raider game and the producers might have been better off making a film in stead. But, in spite of the lack of dual-wielded HK USPs, the athletic, puzzle-solving survivor I was playing did play like a more refined, younger version of the character I knew. If I had spent the game time between cutscenes challenged to bake 1000 cookies, or to mow down 45 1/2 aliens with the alien minigun while wearing a stealth suit, I don't think the illusion of playing as Lara would have held up for very long. 

The difference between a game and a film is that a film, or book, can get away with telling you that the protagonist is this person and showing you that they possess certain qualities, or abilities, to a point. A game needs to make those tangible and experiencable- you don't get away with saying "Lara Croft is a cunning badass!" anymore, you need to prove to me that I can be a cunning badass as Lara Croft, or evolve into one over time (though I can't help but maintain that Lara canonically dies at the beginning of TR 2013). I need to both feel enough empathy to care about the character to want to keep them alive and to be curious enough about their story to follow that story. A game needs to maintain this over more hours than a film, or most series, would- in one story that is often less complex overall than what a linear narrative can accommodate- there are exceptions, but in my experience, this is the rule. 

The Game as a Story

I tend to think of computer games whose gameplay element exceed one screen as a series of vignettes within an overarching narrative, which is a posh way of saying that every game tells a basic story, no matter how it is put together: Enter world, do something, achieve win state at some point, variate and repeat until endgame. Games walk the thin line between telling the story the authors want to tell and the gamers desire to experience as much as possible in the game world. Satisfying both is a lot easier in a game of 2048 than in a massive open world that promises to be a massive open world full of believable and interesting things to do. The protagonist and cast in 2048 are inherently sympathetic: you, yourself and an infinite amount of number 2 blocks to play with. It is far more difficult to put you in someone else's shoes and have them interact with other people and expect you to agree with them all the time.*

One of the greatest criticisms of Bethesdas presentations of the post-apocalyptic worlds of Fallout 4 is that "by any other name it would be a great game", or alternately "Skyrim with Guns", as it removes many elements that make every playthrough of Fallout a deeply personal experience- the detailed dialogue trees, character builds, ending slides and multiple paths to an end. It's also one of the reasons why Fallout New Vegas is considered by hardcore fans to be the last "true" Fallout. I don't disagree, in spite of generally enjoying the worlds Bethesda builds.

Fallout established itself as a franchise by combining the themes of westerns, post-apocalyptic worlds and dark humour with player choice (situational freedom) both in how to play your character and how to react in interactions with NPC's. If you separate the world from the gameplay, can you still call it Fallout? Or to change the question: if the story of a game set in the world of Fallout plays out in a linear fashion, with little player input to develop it, and there are no real restrictions on the character you can build, but many on how you should play them, is it still Fallout? It has vaults, a version of Dogmeat, one of Harolds descendents and some songs about nuclear extinction, it has a radiated wasteland you can build massive bases in… I might argue that Fallout is a highly complex franchise weighed down by nostalgia and at least two generations of fans- one generation that has played the first two Fallouts, and remembers the thought-provoking, multi-path, choose-your-own-adventure style gameplay of those games, the other has not, and therefore does not remember that.

This also means that the audience for this game comes with two sets of expectations: one set will expect a strong, branching story which you can approach in several different ways, with side-quests that flesh out the world and the narrative; the other will expect a first-person world they can immerse themselves in and experience almost endlessly. Both of these expectations are rooted in forms of player freedom in the game world, one connected to the narrative construction, the other to world design. This could also be viewed through the lens of a world that allows an emergent personal narrative juxtaposed with a world that presents a guided narrative. The question is whether they have to be mutually exclusive.

Here, let's consider the publisher for a moment: Bethesda is known for its open worlds and highly moddable games that are released, bugs and all, and somehow manage to remain relevant for years past release. I would argue that, as a developer, they may be aware of this symbiotic relationship with their audience. In the view of this, their approach to fleshing out the world changes- rather than present as many stories as possible, present as many opportunities for storytelling in the form of assets and systems. Or the lacking ability to knock on doors. Rather than tell a fully-fleshed-out story,  present a world and tools that invite new stories in that world. and opportunities to expand the scope of the experience. This can be done by acquiring knowledge in the Creation Kit, which is downloadable. So while, in the case of Fallout 4, the player is initially presented with a world that lacks a complex narrative geography, they are also presented with the tools to add that geography themselves.

Bethesda, without defending their handling of the Fallout franchise, is historically committed to presenting open worlds that allow a high number of object interactions and simulate- to some degree- a living world and opening up this world as a platform for game development and storytelling. It is to the advantage of this approach to initially present a "flat" world, and a vague reason to wander through it, knowing that over time, it will be expanded by a community. Bethesda seems to acknowledge this in their implementation of the Creation Club, which seeks to profit off the sale of plugins for their various games- a move that caused an outbreak of concerned laughter amidst the concern of a modding community that had been creating and offering similar plugins for free and for years.**

Getting back to the original point, however: as it is sold, it is difficult to recognise Fallout 4 as a game in the tradition of the Fallout franchise when it comes to the story narrative (as opposed to ludic narrative). On the level of being free to create your place in the world… maybe. The world itself is very much like Fallout. As someone who has played the first games to death, what I expect from a game in the Fallout franchise is writing, and opportunities to interact with the stories it allows the game to embody, that is no less than stellar, god-tier, legendary and witty to boot. I expect to be able to play out several flavours of vicarious fantasy and still discover something new after I've been through the game five times. I also expect to play a character I define, not some random soldier called Nate or his lawyer wife, Nora, and endure their musings on this world I am trying to discover for myself. Fail to deliver that and you have failed to Fallout, no matter how much I love the world you have created. That is the heavy baggage that the franchise brings with it, but being a franchise, there is always the next version number to hope for. And a story better told. Call it single-player nostalgia. 

Getting back to the point below that- whether a guided, linear, narrative can co-exist with a personal, evolving one- three brief thoughts: 

1. Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas do guide the player through their stories, but contain so many vignettes, and so many way to play, that even if everyone is playing the same story, the playthroughs can deviate massively, depending on how you are playing it. The story is linear, but allows you to affect so much within it that it does allow a personal narrative to evolve within the confines of the game's systems on a level of story and gameplay. They give you a choice of how to play, and how you act while playing. They also have a definite end to their narrative: the players story ends with the game.

Fallout 3 and 4 rely much more on freeform exploration and quest loops to guide you through the world. The game also continues after the main plot is over, allowing the player to continue their story beyond the narrative presented in the game. 

I will dare argue that qualitatively, the story a player can evolve in the first examples is stronger and possibly more personal, while the latter offer such a quantity of activities that, with enough imagination and time, a player can live through a long, though repetitive life.

2. We have become spoiled by promises of fidelity. Technology has reached the point where it is possible to visit worlds that look semi-realistic and believable in first person most of the time. Virtual AI people and interactions with them will get there in time. Which is a scary, when you pause to think about it long enough. 

3. There is a great difference between a world with stuff to do in it and a world that tells stories: Bethesdas Radient Quest system, which generates infinite random activities gives you a lot of stuff to do because. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox, 2012) involves many of the same activities (with different names attached), however most of those activities are tied to a small audio message giving you a context- no matter how flimsy- for that activity, which fleshes out a character- no matter how flimsy- or the world - no matter how flimsy (NMHF). 

If your character were to keep a diary in a Bethesda (Studios) game, it would mostly read like a ledger after completing the main narratives: Furs: 12/20- Temba; Nirnroot:10/10 - Urag Gro-Shub; Wolves Furs: 3/10- Ariana; Wives: 2/60; Dragons Slain: 34/∞; Dungeons visited: 250 000 000 000. A Borderlands Character (outside of the main narrative) has many diary entries consisting mainly of "and then I met X and then they told me about this thing they needed doing and then I went off to do it them and killed many things on the way and got a this weirdly disappointing gun out of it and then I went to have a beer at Moxxis". 

While both games give you a lot of stuff to do, I find that Borderlands explains its stuff just a bit better, giving me, as a player, just a bit more material to build a character with- NMHF- and motivation to play them. Skyrim feels a bit too much like real life in that it assigns you many random tasks with no real personal connection or meaning to them. And here ends the discussion on the various degrees of the quality of stuff. 

But: Overall, I imagine it is easier to create personal narratives in Skyrim, as the game world offers more lore contained within to work with. While this seems contradictory, it is also a good place to point out the difference between the mechanical design of quests and the overall construction of the world. While Borderlands individual quests offer just a bit more detail than Skyrims, Skyrims world offers many more details in the form of objects to interact with and a few things to do that have nothing to do with killing- the overall experience is more varied. I will say that I consider neither particularly good examples for deep quest design- I would look to the likes of New Vegas or the Witcher for that- but they are very engaging.

Refine, Reduce, Rince, Repeat. Reverse.

I'm a graphic designer by trade. You would expect me to be highly sensitive to the most obvious design elements in a game- UI, Fonts, Fluidity, Accessibility, UX… You would not be wrong. But I have played the original System Shock many times, and I have not complained about the UI- which is, if you were in doubt, horrible, messy, chunky, clunky and overcomplicated- once. There are games I have given up on, but I don't recall ever tossing a game because of the way I was forced to interact with it. That said, I have cursed many a developer for what they thought an appropriate way to display information and have users interact with it on a screen.

Apple used to have a design maxime that everything should be "no more than five clicks away". While this has little to do with the way something appears on your screen, it has a lot to do with how how the player interacts with it (User Experience). I don't mind not having to scroll through a menu for five minutes to find that one item I need before I run out of health and die in the next game second. I don't mind at all not having to click through 38 different windows before being able to find that one stat I'm looking for. I don't mind a HUD that does not interfere with my appreciation of a game world- or is part of it! And I hereby do declare: a pox on bars that obscure the action window.  

An example of a game that has considered many of these things is Kingdom (Noio/Licorice, 2013). Kingdom describes itself as "Kingdom is a 2D sidescrolling strategy/resource management hybrid with a minimalist feel wrapped in a beautiful, modern pixel art aesthetic." The marketing does not undersell, but let's talk about the UI and UX of the game: the only element of UI not visible in the game world on screen at all times is a coin pouch, which fills up with individual coins that can fall out and on to the ground. The game is controlled entirely with three keys- left and right for movement and down for actions. When you can interact with something, small coin icons, which you can fill up, pop up over the object. Once these are filled, something happens on screen. That's it. 

Kingdom is- systematically- relatively simple, especially when you compare it with a game like Endless Space's many stat balancing acts and dependencies, and something in me screams that the developers thought of this control scheme and decided to build a strategy game around it. Even so, the gameplay is surprisingly deep and is one of the most haptic experiences I have had playing this type of game- like Subnautica, there is a strong sense of "I am doing this" when playing. If the game were controlled with a mouse- click here to do this, or here to go there- I doubt it would feel as personal. In this case, the gaming experience is very much defined by the way you interface with the game world and control your character: by removing many obstacles to spontaneous interaction, the game becomes intuitive and you do not think about what you need to press, allowing an unhampered exploration of the world. In my opinion, keeping it simple and inviting spontaneous interaction are good design principles. 
Staying with Kingdom, let's talk about the biggest I any game presents: Graphics, which the user is constantly interfacing with to obtain information about ongoing events in-game. Like in the above graphic about comic books, the presentation of the world is a design decision that deeply affects the way a player will experience the game world. Is it side-scrollingy two dimensional with pixel graphics, or shall we go for smoother vector graphics, or shall we attempt to squeeze some semi-realism out of smoking GPUs?

Abstraction has its advantages: it is easier to absorb the content and meanings contained in something less concrete, though it takes a greater leap of the imagination to immerse yourself in the game. The closer what you see gets to approximating a stylised reality, the more specific and defined a world generally gets. This means that the pixellated graphics of Kingdom are more of a generic, symbolic stand-in that represent the idea of kings, peasants, monsters and houses, while the near-realism of Bohemia in Kingdom Come (Warhorse Studios, 2018) is an actual representation, or reproduction, of a defined area in what later became the Czech Republic. In spite of the technical challenges associated with this type of UI, it is initially easier to imagine a reality for yourself in a world that looks closer to what is familiar.

This applies in some measure to characters- again, see above graphic. When it became technologically feasible to make design choices beyond how many pixels a character uses up on screen, and once the option to not use pixels became one that was widely supported on consumer PC's and consoles, artistic choices about style and representation opened up to game designers. Though when it comes to people, the human brain is much more efficient at filling in the gaps between two dots, a line and a cascade of squares to make up the idea of a character. This doesn't help establish a brand, or definite characters.

Another comic book analogy: lower printing density and restrictions on the way cheaper printing inks were mixed up to the 1990's imposed a palette composed of bright primaries and thick, contrasting black lines on comic book artists in what is now considered the golden age of comics (the 60's, basically). As of the 1990's, digital printing techniques and automated mixing procedures made it cost-effective to use a more nuanced colour palette for what is supposed to be a cheaply-produced, weekly form of entertainment. A lower pixel density 8-bit colour palettes are direct influences on the blocky, but highly recognizable shapes that make up a Mario, a Link, a Leisure Suit Larry, and the colours that define them. As pixel density increased, so did the detail of the characters, as did the possibilities of representing more detailed worlds in different styles. 

In parallel, the technologies supporting vectorised drawing were progressing. Somewhere in between, studios stopped making interactive movies, which for a long time were one of the few ways to approximate realism in motion in computer games, even if the photo-realism was degraded by aforementioned low pixel densities. Gabriel Knight: The Beast (Sierra On-Line, 1995) within was fun and looked gorgeous for the time. However, even though it is a film, it lacks the detail and definition of later games, even if they are not live-action films. 

My main takeaway from this thought is that as long as it's appropriate to what the developers are trying to convey, it doesn't really matter what graphic style they use. My personal preferences will make me more attracted to one style than others, but it is possible to tell highly complex stories, and offer unique gameplay experiences using relatively low-definition graphics, or the latest version of the Unreal engine. As long as the presentation serves the content, the wide stylistic palette that can be used in said presentation only means that there is more for me to experience. This is a good thing. 

Finally: Why don't I like cutscenes, and why do I consider them UX? Cutscenes are films that show the characters doing things that are beyond my control as a player. I don't like gameplay elements I can't affect. So every time a game shows a cutscene, I wonder why I am not playing this, which lessens my experience as a user, and identification with the protagonist I am supposed to embody. I did not come to watch, I came to game. There are methods to involve the player in the exposition, or have it play out without interfering with the gameplay. I prefer that, even if it means standing still and watching for five minutes. Simple. Exceptions will be made for excellent cutscenes.


The last thing on this long list of thoughts I'd like to discuss is gameplay, without relating it to any surrounding elements. As I feel that I've said most of what I want to say about gameplay in previous sections, it will be short.

There is an ongoing debate about how games, especially games by the bigger studios, contain more and more similar gameplay elements. This is not untrue, but again, I think it's a result of technological progress: it became possible to include options of movement, transport, puzzles and world in a single game that used to be contained in separate titles.   What once seemed innovative- Halos, or Half Life 2's vehicles and transport spring to mind-  became mainstream. Audiences seem to enjoy and buy that kind of game, there is no real reason not to do build such a game, provided you have the budget for it, and the need to maintain a multi-million dollar (or whatever) cash flow. What gets lost in the process is something that truly stands out from the crowd, and, considering the financial investment, the will to risk. I am very glad that indie development seems to be on the upswing- change usually does not come from those who are invested in maintaining their status, it comes from those who are invested in improving it. And good writing improves anything. 

Ironically, the past also appears to be becoming the future as OG developers seem to be leaving the larger studios to do their own thing. It may be me, but the two upcoming games that most excite me are Underworld Ascendent and System Shock 3. Ultima Underworld and System Shocks 1 and 2 are possibly two of the most influential games when it comes to innovating immersive gameplay systems. I am very curious to see what some of the original developers can do with technology that is 20 years more advanced than what they started out with, having filled those years with experience in game development.  

I do believe that the current generation of games has plateaued in terms of interactions, especially when I look at consoles or PC's. It is a high plateau, thankfully, and something that seemed very far away 20 years ago: you can do a so much in every game that it is not surprising that the experience is superficially similar. In fact, I might go so far to say that there have been no real gameplay innovations in the last 20 years or so, only refinements and changes of format, hopefully to be proven wrong.*** But it is always fun to see evolutions, remixes and iterations, to discover new, more intricate worlds and gameplay systems. In short, it's interesting to watch the  Matrix being built, and with the current trends towards Machine Learning, VR and AR, not to mention Robots, it seems very close on some days. 

There are games I keep returning to, or parts of games. By now, you may have figured out that I enjoy 2048, because it is an infinitely repeatable challenge I can play for five minutes and put down again. Even if it is a very casual mobile game, it actually takes some skill and planning to reach the higher tiles. It's an example of how a relatively simple game can be highly engaging and long-lived, as long as it is based purely on player skill and cognition.

Another example would be the X-Coms on ever higher difficulties and ever more challenging mods, or Invisible Inc (Klei, 2015). Both of them provide an engaging, chess-like challenge which test both skill and tactical thinking against a competent AI opponent. Their procedural generation of levels ensures that I will seldom play the exact same level twice. Each offers a different type of challenge, though they are superficially similar- one is about stealth and tactical avoidance, while the other is far much more head-on and instantly gratifying. Both are based mainly on skill, especially at the higher difficulty levels. Though both do guide your playthrough with a story, it is not integral to the game experience after the first few runs, though every run of X-Com (2, 2016, especially) is, by virtue of the character pool, a new and highly personal tale.

I also return to build a new version of Skyrim for myself every now and then, though it usually takes a while until I get to actual gameplay. I say this to illustrate that sometimes, building something new out of what already exists is as much, if not more, fun as just diving straight in, and I've come to see my load order as a kind of puzzle to solve. Apart from knocking, I usually add effects such as cold and hunger, environmental interactions such as bathing, farming and barding, harder combat and many restrictions on healing and a few graphical tweaks. I rant about this this in more detail here: Rant: NPC V ///// Remaking a reality.

Recently, I've discovered co-op play through Borderlands 2- I greatly enjoy the simplicity and fluidity of the gameplay, the world is fun and quirky and I love the art style, though FPS games were never really my thing. I include this to say that sometimes, it's enough to build something-NMHF- that works well, and is fun to play, even if it is an iteration, rather than an innovation, in its particular genre. And what it does do, Borderlands does very well. I know I'm years late to that party, but I'm glad I found what's left of it. And I have a new theme tune, thanks to that game!****

Finally, two arenas. There are times when I really don't feel like mucking about with game worlds, story, characters or narratives. My favourite one remains the Joker Arena level (Carnival Challenge) in Arkham City, as it is a test of skill, attention and endurance that does not require I engage with all of Gotham to get there. The second is the arena level in the Witcher 2 for similar reasons, but with swords and a bit of magic. Both are cases of "came for the story, stayed for the arcade bits". The inclusion of this kind of challenge in any game raises the overall quality of any game in my eyes, but these two are still the most fun to me. 

The common denominator between all of the above-mentioned is that they test my skill as a player, rather than challenging my empathy, puzzle-solving abilities or social skills. There are games that I return to for a playthrough occasionally, but for very different reasons- it's more akin to re-reading a book to probe your personal perspective- but these are the games that have stayed with me after playing them through at least twice. They are things I can return to as casually, or seriously, as I feel at the moment for a quick, fun fix. And apart from the challenge of playing them, that's what games are supposed to be about, after all: fun. Bonus points for thought-provoking fun.

04. Leaving the Labyrinth

Coming Soon 

Notes & Links

Mark Brown/Game Makers Toolkit: Anatomy of a Side Quest: Beyond the Beef: On how a quest can be structured
The Graphic on Reality vs. Meaning is from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics- It applies to most forms of graphical representation.
Jim Sterling on the Ubification of Games: It sounds to me like he's making an underhanded compliment while asking for better writing. 
Ron Duwell/Techbuffalo: Innovation and Refinement in Video Gaming – Are There Any New Ideas?- Asks the question and explores it. Interesting for historical dada, tu!

* If you want to do some serious binge-watching, have about 160 hours to waste, or need a radio while you're working, I'd suggest watching Gophers playthough of the Witcher 3 for many examples of this. Delightful clashes of strong personalities (Geralt vs. Gopher) make for the occasional meta-conflict that almost makes performance art out of this series.  
** The Creation Club also raises a number of questions when it comes to the value of digital goods, and probably a few more philosophical reflections on digital materialism. 
*** There are two exceptions that spring to my mind: Papers Please is the first passport booth simulator I know of, and the Orwell games deal with a type of data mining that simply did not exist 30 years ago, and did not have a recognizable graphical representation. Both games had to develop gameplay systems to reflect their narrative intentions, which is a new type of gameplay. 
**** Next thing you know, I'll be playing Fortnight(nite?). On iPad. Yayy. 


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