Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cheating in Machinarium

Is a game too hard if the developers have to include an in-depth hint system?

Machinarium, a 2009 point-and-click adventure by Czech company Amanita Design, is beautiful. Its hand-drawn artwork and quirky robot characters are easy to fall in love with. The game has a cohesive style and minimalist storyline delivered without a single word of text. It's the sort of game my non-gaming girlfriend was able to immerse herself in for hours.

But is it too obtuse? As Machinarium revitalizes a genre from a bygone era, it also revives that genre's bygone difficulty. While the characters are expressive and cute, some of the puzzles are devilishly tough to figure out: "move up and down below an electrical wire at a certain spot so the bird sitting on it tries to copy you and falls off, so you can use the puzzle piece in its mouth to complete a jigsaw and use the fallen electrical wire to electrocute a cat, which you then use to scare a rat out of a musician's didgeridoo." And that's only the beginning of the puzzle.

Conveniently, the game features an extensive hint system. For every room, you can either click the hint button to get a slight hint, or play a minigame to acquire an in-depth, play-by-play illustrated walkthrough of that room. The minigame keeps you from overusing the walkthrough, but the fact that it's even there is slightly troubling.

I appreciate tough games, but shouldn't players be able to get through the game without hints? They should have to make the Walk of Shame to GameStop to purchase the Prima strategy guide--it shouldn't be in the game itself, right? If Amanita thought players needed hints to figure the game out, doesn't that mean they recognized the game they were making was too hard for regular people to figure out?

The act of figuring a game out is part of why we play games. It's something only incredibly complex books and movies can accomplish, but something nearly every game requires. This audience involvement makes the medium unique--aren't you taking that away if you use a walkthrough?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Horror and guitars in Metro 2033

I just finished Metro 2033, a 2010 adaptation of the 2005 book by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Created by Ukrainian developer 4A Games, Metro 2033 is one of the most chilling games I've played in a long time.

The game tells a tale of post-apocalyptic Moscow, where people are forced to live underground in the Metro stations. The structure reminds me of Fallout 3 crossed with Half-Life 2, but with a distinctly Slavic perspective.

It's interesting to play something made in Ukraine. Most video games are either North American or Japanese. Not many are European, and even fewer are Eastern European. The result is a work that could not be replicated in the United States or anywhere else.

Metro 2033 isn't perfect. It's got all the trappings of a survival-horror FPS, and there are some sections that take control away from the player when they should've just let the player experience them on their own, Valve-style. But Metro 2033's atmosphere is melancholy in a way I haven't experienced before. The narrative doesn't spoon-feed you the emotions you're meant to feel as you play through the storyline. Instead, the claustrophobic settlements in the subway stations and the stark icy dystopia of the Muscovite surface seep into the player's psyche. On top of it all, there's a supernatural subtext that's handled beautifully.

The Metro stations are by far my favorite part of the game. Cramped and full of dirty, tattered survivors, these ramshackle subterranean villages provide context for the graveness of Moscow's holocaust. There's no way to "interact" with most of the civilians, per se. Instead, all you can do is walk around and observe these people live their dreary underground lives. The dialogue between all these non-player characters is inconsequential to your story, but they add layers and layers of personality to the world of Metro 2033.

The voice acting here is some of the best I've ever heard in a game (both in English and in Russian--you can play through the game with either audio track), and perhaps because of the work's roots as a novel, the writing is beautiful. Hear two children speculate about what the surface of Moscow (which they've never seen before) is like, or listen to drug addicts argue over their stash. There's nothing tangibly beneficial to you in the game world for listening to these conversations other than to deepen your understanding of the story you're in.

There are a few curious inclusions in these subway towns. First of all, almost every settlement you visit includes someone playing music. There are guitars and other instruments strewn around the game world. And second, there are kids everywhere. Most video games feature few to zero children, but these Metro stations are full of kids. And in a way, it's very unsettling. Will these children ever have a future? Their lives are full of darkness and death.

Which brings me to Metro 2033's understatedly brilliant morality system. Many games have a metered "good or evil" morality bar where doing the right thing or the wrong thing provide clear gameplay advantages and disadvantages. Metro 2033, on the other hand, never tells you it's keeping track of the decisions you make. And instead of obvious "kill this person or spare their life" moral choices, the game judges you on a plethora of tiny decisions. Do you stay and listen to the old lady begging for food? Do you linger in a place and play the piano? These little choices change the trajectory of the story without your knowledge. Really, that's a truer "morality" system than "choose obviously good decision for ___ benefit."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Braid Sucks, Pt. II: The 'A' Button

Building off my rant from yesterday:

One of the single most frustrating parts of Braid's design is in its opening moments: teaching players the game controls. Tutorials are notoriously tough to do well in games, and designer Jonathan Blow had noble intentions of letting the player learn the controls on their own instead of flashing "PRESS 'A' TO JUMP" across the screen. Instead, he did this:

A box near a ledge with a picture of the Xbox 360's 'A' button on it. The player can't jump over this little ledge without pressing 'A', so it forces them to learn that 'A', in fact, makes the character jump.

But this helpful box is unnecessary. It's the 'A' button--the most cardinal of all video game controls. Even the original Nintendo Entertainment System featured the 'A' button to jump in most of its games. Braid itself is a satire of the most iconic "press 'A' to jump" platformer on the NES, Super Mario Bros.

Suffice to say, I doubt anyone savvy enough about video games to purchase Braid would need to be told to press 'A' to jump. This would be like a novel telling the reader "turn the page to read more." I could understand explaining more complex control schemes to players, but 2D platformers like Braid have the most basic and intuitive of all video game control schemes.

Even if someone were playing a platformer for the very first time, when faced with this small ledge to jump over in Braid they'd have no trouble figuring it out. The 'A' button is prominently displayed on the Xbox controller; when one holds the controller, their right thumb naturally rests on 'A'. Not only that, but the button is green--the universal indicator of "press this button."

My second big issue is that the 'A' button onscreen is in a box. In most platformers (including Mario), boxes are something you destroy to reveal a power-up.

When I played Braid for the first time, the first thing I did upon seeing this 'A' box was jump on it and try to open it, to no avail. The three other people I've watched play Braid for the first time have done the exact same.

So not only is Blow's 'A' box redundant as a tutorial mechanism--it's outright unfaithful to the genre whose conventions it's attempting to emulate for dramatic effect.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Great Wall of Text: Why Braid Sucks

Braid is one of the most overrated games of all time. Creator Jonathan Blow is seen as Art Game Jesus, and lives up to that title by traveling the world giving speeches about advancing video games as a medium.

The 2008 game is fantastic. It's got a beautiful visual style, stirring soundtrack, and unique game mechanics that play into the plot. It's a one-of-a-kind satire of Super Mario Bros.

With that said, Braid has no idea how to tell a story. Blow weaves an intricate tale of loss and regret, conveyed mostly through... walls of text.

Jonathan Blow is trying to move games forward as an art form, right? His message comes off as a bit stale when his own magnum opus relies on another medium to tell its story.

I'm not against writing in games. Gaming's history is built on text-based adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork. Even in modern games, text is often a better choice than the medium's notoriously abysmal voice acting.

But modern games should only rely on walls of text (or cutscenes) when it's absolutely necessary to convey points that couldn't be accomplished within the gameplay itself. As I wrote about yesterday, Valve is great at telling its stories purely within the mechanics of its games. Blow, however, uses copious amounts of text to give Braid meaning. It wouldn't be nearly as bad if his writing wasn't so... mediocre. The story is cliché and the characters bland.

What if he got rid of this? The "loss and regret" themes are still captured in essence through Braid's flowing gameplay. The game would be much more ambiguous, but would perhaps capture Blow's intended emotions in a more pure form if he had avoided the Great Wall of Text.

An example of this in practice is Danish developer Playdead's 2010 avant-garde Limbo. Both Limbo and Braid are indie 2D platformers initially released on Xbox Live Arcade, and both tell the melancholy story of a silent boy searching for a girl.

But perhaps due to their Scandinavian design instincts, Playdead created a much more moving experience with their game. Limbo features absolutely no text, and there's no HUD. None of the characters speak. The minimalist visuals are all in silhouette and even the music is dissonant. Through this, the game conveys pure emotion in a way no other art form can come close to, because the audience is completely involved with it. It's not static... as text is. Jonathan Blow, on the other hand, relegated the majority of his storytelling to text. It's a strange misfire for someone who seeks to be a spokesman for video games as a storytelling medium.

Limbo is the game Braid should have been.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Stanley Parable as a parallel to Portal, and analyzing linear narratives

This past summer, Davey Wreden's Half-Life 2 mod "The Stanley Parable" was released to a wave of critical acclaim. A one-man project that took two years to create, it explores the concepts of player choice and linear narrative in game design. It's mind-boggling.

If you haven't played it, you owe it to yourself to download "The Stanley Parable" right now. It's free, it doesn't even require Half-Life 2 to play (on the PC), and it takes under an hour to do everything there is to do. There's no shooting aliens involved, so even if you don't play many video games, you can appreciate this one.

During my playthrough of "The Stanley Parable," it struck me that many of these themes were similar to another Half-Life 2 spinoff: Valve's own Portal.

Both "The Stanley Parable" and Portal deal with unreliable narrators who may or may not be characters within the game. Both feature silent protagonists who are a tiny part of a giant corporation.

But why? Why does Half-Life inspire such critiques of gamic narrative? The core Half-Life titles themselves involve a silent protagonist and uncertain overlord character. Valve is often put on a pedestal by the gaming community as the pinnacle of Western game design. Story and gameplay interwoven perfectly, with narrative and character development advanced without need for cutscenes.

I'm tempted to be cynical about this canonization of a game developer. But their work really is that good. And if they inspire someone to create something as chillingly beautiful as "The Stanley Parable," I'm okay with that pedestal Valve sits upon.

It was interesting watching my girlfriend (who doesn't play many games) play "The Stanley Parable." Upon learning the plot's twist, she quit the game and shut off the computer. "That's the only way to win the game," she said. And really, I guess she's right.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Metroid Prime says about Samus, and how it defines East-West relations in game design

Proposal for a 25-page research paper I plan on writing:

Metroid was already Nintendo’s black sheep. While the series has seen just as much critical acclaim as the Japanese gaming giant’s other flagship franchises, Metroid has never been the commercial colossus Mario and Zelda are year after year.

So when faced with the jump from 2D to 3D technology, why did Nintendo for the first time hand over one of its own series to a U.S. developer? 2002’s Metroid Prime is the culmination of Nintendo’s marriage of East and West.

The series was Western from the beginning; its biggest influence was Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s Nintendo’s only franchise directed at an older demographic with a more serious tone, and their only franchise that sold better in North America than it did in Japan.

And unlike Mario and Zelda, Metroid wasn’t created by Video Game Jesus Shigeru Miyamoto. Samus was conceived by Gunpei Yokoi, most famous for creating the Game Boy and for ruining his career with the infamous Virtual Boy.

It wasn’t just handed over to a Western developer. Metroid was handed to Retro Studios, an inexperienced U.S. developer in shambles with an absent CEO. And they made a first-person game—perhaps the perspective most emblematic of Western design. Through all this, how did they create one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time?

I’m splitting this paper into three sections: the context of Metroid Prime from Nintendo’s perspective, the development of the game from Retro Studios’ perspective, and an analysis of the game itself, looking at how it represents the marriage of East and West in game design.