For those who are still waiting: Yes, my playthrough of Final Fantasy V is still in the cards! Work has calmed down, but I’ve got holiday stuff and everything going on this month, and I ended up really enjoying Crimson Dragon so I’ve been spending most of my game time with that lately. I’ll keep reposting old 1UP stuff in the meantime, but it’ll be on its way sooner or later.
You are carrying: no tea
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, August 6, 2004.
I left the beginning of this post here out of historical interest. Hey, I wonder if this PAX thing will go anywhere?)
Do you like games? Will you be in the Seattle area at the end of August? Then you should probably come to the Penny Arcade Expo. I apologize for sounding like an ad here, but it looks like this expo is going to be pretty awesome. There are going to be games, and game-related stuff, and… well, primarily games and game-related stuff, but that’s sort of the point. Also the Minibosses and Optimus Rhyme will be there, so you can get your fix of rock covers of video game songs and Transformers-inspired hip hop all in one convenient location. Plus, I’ll be there, so we could meet up and talk about what’s wrong with Super Mario Sunshine or something. Anyway, check out that link if you’re interested, assuming anyone reading this happens to live around here and doesn’t already read Penny Arcade. The expo is August 28 and 29 in Bellevue, Washington (east of Seattle), which places it almost ridiculously close to where I live now.
Speaking of August, it was one year ago today (the sixth, when I wrote this, nevermind late posting or time zone differences) that Silent Hill 3 was released in North America. Silent Hill 4 is coming next month, which has me excited since SH is the one series that can still get me to buy a game at release. I could certainly survive with one Silent Hill a year, though I wouldn’t mind a longer wait if it meant an even better game. I’ll have to see how SH4 turned out before making any real decisions about whether they should slow down with the games already.
My real topic for today actually has almost nothing to do with the preceding two paragraphs, but I shoehorned them in since it wasn’t worth devoting an entire post to them. Today I want to talk about limited inventories in games. I’ve mentioned them a few times before, but I thought it would be worthwhile to consolidate all my thoughts here. I was inspired to write this by BOF: Dragon Quarter, which seems determined to break every rule I think games should follow and yet still be good, but I won’t go into detail about it until some other time when I’ve had a chance to play more.
My belief about limited inventories is straightforward: they shouldn’t exist. The “You can’t carry anything else” message is one of my bigger pet peeves in games, since it essentially does nothing but waste my time. The game is saying “You need this item, but instead of letting you take it now, I’ll make you go all the way back to wherever you store items to get rid of something else, which you’ll also need to go back and get later.” The exception is when the item isn’t absolutely critical to progress (and/or when you can’t store items, and have to just discard something permanently), so you just have to leave it behind and can never get its benefit. Some games that do this almost seem to encourage the player to play carelessly—hopefully you’ve taken enough damage to need that healing item now, because you’re sure not going to want to come back for it later.
I don’t think any of this is news, though. I assume most rationally-minded people recognize that it’s annoying to have to constantly backtrack and/or leave useful items behind. So, then, why do games still do this? Let’s look at a couple reasons that are sometimes offered. I don’t know that these are actually the reasons the game designers acted on, but they could well be. They’re the justifications that stick out in my mind, anyway, so I’m going to respond to them.
Number 1: An unlimited inventory is unrealistic. This is, technically, true. No one should actually be able to sling around seven guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, fifteen healing potions, the red key, the blue key, the alchemist’s will, and whatever else. Of course, the usual implementation of a limited inventory is also usually quite unrealistic. Take a look at the original Resident Evil, for example, where a single key apparently takes up as much space as a shotgun, and where you can somehow combine multiple ammo clips into a single superclip that only takes up the space of one. The realism excuse doesn’t really hold up in this case, at least, since the limits of what can be carried are so arbitrary as to be completely removed from reality. Besides, if you look at the onscreen character, he or she doesn’t have anywhere to keep that spare shotgun anyway. You’re already carrying way more than you really could, so why not just go all the way and remove the limit?
The way I see it, the inventory management systems in pretty much all games are patently unrealistic. And why shouldn’t they be? Realism can certainly benefit some games, but we have to remember that they’re still games, and games are supposed to be enjoyable. (I will issue the standard aside here, that interactive media could exist that specifically aims to irritate the interactor for some artistic purpose, or just because it’s funny to the person who made it. I’m not talking about such things here.) Until perfect virtual reality is developed, there will always be some unrealism in the interface between player and game world. The mere fact that you can view a list of your items on the pause screen has no real-world analogue, but it’s necessary to make a lot of types of games work. If we don’t complain that using a controller is nothing like really walking around, we shouldn’t complain that an unlimited inventory is nothing like actually carrying things. I would say, in fact, that a limited inventory actually feels less realistic. When it’s unlimited, you rarely have to think about it—you just pick up items and keep experiencing the game world. With a limited inventory, you constantly have to move your items around, and it just brings the already unrealistic inventory system to your attention more often.
One of the most realistic implementations of inventory that I’ve seen has been in interactive fiction. IF has the benefit of not actually depicting anything that’s going on—it’s much less of an intuitive leap to assume that your character is carrying the listed items when you can’t see him than when you have to go to a separate screen to see a list of things he clearly did not have in his posession during play. When IF does limit the amount you can carry, it tends to feel somewhat more realistic. Instead of having some mysterious backpack that everything goes into, most of these games tend to assume that anything you pick up stays in your hands unless you specify otherwise, so it’s reasonable to think that if your hands are full you’ll have just as much difficulty picking up a shotgun as a key. They also tend to associate a hidden weight value with each item, so you can carry a lot of small things but only a few big things. This feature isn’t specific to IF, of course, but in general the fact that you can’t see your items just makes it a lot easier to believe that you can carry a realistic amount. Running out of space is still annoying, of course, but in general I haven’t noticed this happening much in the games I’ve played. Some games even manage to make an essentially unlimited inventory feel realistic, such as Anchorhead. In it, you only have so much room in your hands, but if you’re wearing a coat then the game automatically moves items in and out of the pockets as necessary. It could have just used a standard unlimited inventory and assumed that any items carried are in the coat without explicitly modeling it, but it’s that extra attention to detail that makes games like Anchorhead really shine.
Number 2: Limited inventory is a specific gameplay choice. The idea here is that Resident Evil (and the like) does it specifically to add challenge and intensity to the game. You can’t carry a lot of healing items, so zombies are more dangerous. Whenever you backtrack, you have that much more chance of getting attacked by an enemy. The player is supposed to cleverly manage her inventory in order to successfully complete the game. These could be legitimate reasons, and maybe some people do enjoy that sort of game, but it just doesn’t fly for me. Even recognizing that item management is supposed to be part of the Resident Evil experience, it still just annoys me, and contributed to me giving up on RE Zero. Again I can point to Silent Hill—it has an unlimited inventory (at least in the first three games) and is still better than RE. This is largely due to a reason I mentioned when I was talking about realism—the less time I spend shuffling items around, the more time I spend in the game world, which is distinctly more horrifying than the menu screen.
So, those are my rebuttals to the common arguments in favor of a limited inventory. I just don’t think the concept does anything but distract the player from the meat of the game, and nothing I’ve played yet has convinced me otherwise. Dragon Quarter is an interesting case, and while its inventory system can be bothersome I think I can see a glimmer of reason behind it. But I really need to spend more time figuring that game out before I can write about it. Lately I’ve been rotting my brain with a book instead of playing enlightening video games, but I promise I’ll work on correcting that.
How I spent my summer vacation
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, August 1, 2004.
This is a nice little snapshot of my gaming landscape circa summer 2004, and most of these are probably still worth trying out if you have the opportunity. But what really gets me about this post is that I somehow had time to play all these games—start to finish, for most of them—over the course of a single month. I had very few responsibilities during that brief period between college and work, so it isn’t unbelievable… but these days, it’s kind of hard to imagine what that was even like. I’m not complaining, exactly, and if I had a month free today I don’t think I’d spend nearly as much of it on games. Still, it’s just strange to think about.)
First of all, you may have already seen "Designing Games for the Wage Slave" if you’ve read Shane's page lately, but if not it might be worth checking out. I mainly find it interesting that many of the author (Stuart Walpole)'s ideas are in considerable agreement with mine, particularly the stuff I wrote about ease of enjoying. My only real comment on it is that while his ideas would, in general, make most games better (and not just to this workforce that even I got suckered into joining), they shouldn't be read as a list of requirements for all games. Probably the one thing I like in games above all else is variety, and I think there definitely need to be some games that break the rules if they can get something positive and unique out of it. The trick is knowing when there's really a good reason to violate ease of enjoying principles. Maybe a game would be irreparably harmed if a quicksave feature were added, but the designers had better be damn sure about this before making the final decision.
Anyway, I just wanted to offer that link since it relates to stuff I’ve written about. My main topic for today isn’t really so deep, but I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. I played a number of games this summer before starting work, and I’ve wanted to comment on some of them but didn’t have enough thoughts for a whole post. So to make things simple, I’m going to write in brief about (almost) every game I played between graduation and employment. This gives me a chance to dump thoughts that have been stewing in my head for a while, and maybe someone reading this will even be encouraged to try a new game. You’ll note that I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of new releases here, but I like hanging back where games are thoroughly reviewed and cheap.
Super Mario Sunshine
Okay, so this is a bad place to start, since I already wrote plenty about SMS. In case anyone cares, the initial impressions are June 13, complaints are June 25, and further complaints from an ease of enjoying perspective are July 6. The summary is that SMS really is a fun platformer, with a big, interesting world and good freedom to explore, but it’s held back by utterly unnecessary repetition that starts to turn the game into a chore whenever the difficulty level picks up.
The Verdict: Definitely worth playing, really, even though I can’t seem to focus on its positive aspects. Just have another game ready in case you start to get frustrated.
Clock Tower 3
Again, I already wrote about this on June 17. I’m trying to mention these games in roughly the order I played them, but that seems to be front-loading all the ones I already wrote about. Anyway, we’ll get to more interesting parts soon. The basics of Clock Tower 3 are that it’s sort of cheesy overall, but the central mechanic of an unstoppable killing machine after you at all times actually works quite well.
The Verdict: I’d recommend at least the first level if you like horror, just don’t pay too much for it.
Beyond Good and Evil
If only I could be lucky enough to play a game this good every season. The original post is on July 3, and what I said still stands: This is exactly the game I wanted to play. It does all the right things, and does them beautifully, and yet no one bought it. This is why we can’t have nice things.
The Verdict: It’s excellent, it’s cheap, and supplies are probably going to dry up pretty soon. I shouldn’t have to spell this out.
Hey look, a game I haven’t written about yet. I followed Fatal Frame back since it was called Project Zero (and The GIA had all their pun-filled updates with Zero screenshots), and then completely failed to play it when it was released. I also didn’t play it after I rediscovered the glory of horror gaming through Silent Hill 2, and somehow let myself wait until it was almost impossible to find. Fortunately I came to my senses and managed to track down a copy this summer, and discovered that my initial interest in the game was not in error.
At first I wasn’t really sure what to make of Fatal Frame. I mean, it had a big spooky mansion, and mysterious spectres that appeared out the ether and made noises and such, but I wasn’t sold on the whole ghost idea. Ghosts just didn’t really seem scary. Unlike Silent Hill’s more original monsters, ghosts are something I already don’t believe in, and their ethereal nature made it too easy to see them as just graphic effects rather than actual physical threats.
I soon realized that the ethereal nature of ghosts is exactly the problem. Unlike monsters who at least bother to obey the laws of physics, ghosts can appear in any place at any time, and don’t even have the courtesy to stay visible or refrain from teleporting immediately behind you. Once I figured this out, every moment of Fatal Frame became a harrowing experience. There’s no such thing as a safe room, you can’t ever clear out all the enemies, and if you try to slow down and move cautiously it just gives them more of a chance to get you. Plus these noncorporeal beings still manage to do a lot of physical damage, and if you want to hurt one most efficiently you have to stare it in the face until it’s just about to strike.
It seems sort of silly now, but I spent most of the game just dreading the moment one of those things would materialize in front of me. The game isn’t all perfect, and some of the voice acting in particular could have used a lot of work, but overall Fatal Frame delivers admirably if you’re looking for a scary game.
The Verdict: Not as good a complete package as a Silent Hill game (let’s not go crazy here), but in terms of sheer horror value it’s definitely a competitor.
Space Channel 5 Part 2
I already owned this game before the summer, but I played through it a couple more times and continue to appreciate its quality. This is a great example of how to make at least one kind of sequel—it removes all the bad parts from the original game and makes all the good parts even better. Technically the gameplay is incredibly simple, but the fact that it’s all set to funky music in a ridiculous go-go space musical makes everything work. Perhaps this is why I like games like SC5p2 so much but don’t care about DDR and its ilk—DDR has no context; it’s just gameplay for the sake of gameplay. I’m sure plenty will disagree, but what I like about SC5p2 is that the so-called rhythm action feels more like it means something when there are actual characters and such behind it. It isn’t just the music that’s funky; the entire game is a cohesive package of funk.
The Verdict: Twice I decided to play a couple levels of SC5p2 before going to sleep, and both times I ended up playing the whole game straight through. Your mileage may vary, but I swear it’s great fun once you accept the fact that you’re playing a game with Space Michael Jackson in it.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Now here is an interesting game. The time reversal system is utterly brilliant, and makes the game incredibly easy to enjoy since few mistakes will cost more than a couple seconds of play. The rest of the game is good too, and seems to be set up to make it easy to do what you need without other stuff getting in the way. This is reflected in such qualities as the generally intuitive controls and the fact that the jump button doesn’t actually make you jump across a pit unless you’re close enough to reach the other side (assuming it’s even possible to make the jump). I really like that last bit, actually—there’s no need to punish the player when it’s obvious that he knew what he needed to do, even if his timing was off a little. Despite all these good qualities, though, I find it hard to really get excited about the game. Maybe it seemed too constrained and linear, or maybe I’m just not into this sort of platforming action so much. I suppose I could call PoP a masterfully executed instance of a game type that I don’t particularly care about, which would make it pretty similar to the original Prince of Persia (although I enjoyed the new version a lot more than the original). Don’t let my thoughts color your opinion of the game; you’ll probably appreciate it more than I did.
The Verdict: A technically amazing game with a lot of really good ideas permeating every aspect of it, which nevertheless failed to capture my imagination. I couldn’t give it Game of the Year when 2003 also brought us Silent Hill 3 and Beyond Good and Evil, but when you factor out my opinion it probably deserves it.
Silent Hill 3
I have of course owned this game since release, but I started playing through it again since my non-PS2-owning friend wanted to see the whole thing from start to finish. It isn’t quite as powerful when I already know what to expect and there are other people around, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still totally awesome. I’ll need a whole post to properly talk about Silent Hill sometime, so I won’t go on right now, but know that SH3 is a finely crafted piece of media and a member of my favorite series.
The Verdict: Not as good as SH2, although it does surpass it in a lot of ways. If you want to experience the primal emotion of fear (and don’t mind seeing a lot of horrible things), you can’t go wrong here. Well, it might be said that Silent Hill is wrongness itself given form, but I mean that in the best possible way.
Metroid: Zero Mission
There’s not a lot to say here. It’s a classic-style 2D Metroid game, which is good, but not something that really needs explaining. I do like how it presents itself as a a remake of the original Metroid, then goes out of its way to mess with people who are familiar with the first game. The endgame Chozodia section is pretty cool too, where the game takes away all your neat abilities (like the ability to kill enemies) and you have to survive either by using caution or by platforming at breakneck speeds with space pirates in hot pursuit. I ended up using the second option most of the time, and it was actually pretty fun to see that I could execute Samus’s crazy acrobatics in an emergency without taking the time to plan out all my wall jumps and such.
The Verdict: These GBA Metroids still sort of feel like filler until they give us a game that’s twice as big as Super Metroid and can cure all known diseases. But it’s still Metroid, which means it’s great fun anyway.
This is what I meant about quirky character-driven music games being better than the other kind. The music and gameplay are really good here, but it still wouldn’t be the same game without Mojo King Bee and company. Wackiness aside, Gitaroo-Man also appeals to me as someone who enjoys guitar solos but can only play one thing on guitar (the baseline to the Cosmo Canyon song). I’ve long felt that participating in music is much more satisfying than just listening to it, and this game fills that purpose quite well now that I don’t exactly play any instruments (or rather, now that I don’t know how to play any of the instruments that I do attempt). The music is great and it’s really fun to bust out some kickin’ solos, even if the gameplay isn’t actually anything like playing a real guitar. Plus it has tremendous replay value due to the fact that the hardest difficulty (Master Mode) is nearly impossible and yet even more fun than normal mode. I normally prefer games that aren’t ridiculously difficult, but Gitaroo-Man just makes me keep coming back even though I’ve never been able to get any further than the Sanbone Trio. And did I mention the music?
The Verdict: Best music game ever? It’s hard to say, but in my limited experience the only real competition is Space Channel 5 Part 2. Let’s just say that they’re both great sources of pure fun, and the correct choice is to play both.
Well, that was pretty massive, but hopefully it can help make up for all the stuff I haven’t been writing lately. Reflecting on what I’ve managed to play this summer (and what I haven’t) has made me realize that there’s simply not enough time for me to ever play all the games I would probably enjoy, but I’m not about to complain about an excess of quality. And this is even in a games industry that’s apparently becoming increasingly stagnant. If everyone started making great games all the time, I wouldn’t know what to do.
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, July 12, 2004.
Unwinnable states are usually no fun, and I did in fact make a point to avoid them in the couple works of interactive fiction I’ve put together. As I mention, though, they do have some value if used very judiciously. I wasn’t too familiar with roguelikes when I wrote this post, but that’s one genre where unwinnable states are a pretty fundamental part of the experience.)
This is a continuation of my discussion of the ease of enjoying concept from the sixth. You should probably read that first if you haven’t already. The summary is that some games have qualities, like a sane difficulty level, quick continues, or a straightforward interface, that make them easier to enjoy. These factors won’t make a bad game become good, but the lack of them can hurt an otherwise great game. The basic idea is that the easier a game is to enjoy, the more time you spend in the good parts, instead of wasting time reloading from the title screen or traversing a confusing web of submenus.
A big part of ease of enjoying is repetition, which I have fittingly enough mentioned numerous times. Even if a part of a game is really enjoyable, I’d much prefer to make progress and see where the game goes next than repeat that same part over and over again. So it makes sense that I feel that one of the most insidious barriers to ease of enjoying is something that forces you to repeat the entire game. Meet the unwinnable state.
What’s an unwinnable state? I could make a really bad joke relating to the electoral college, but I think it’s best for us all if I don’t. An unwinnable state is a point in a game where, no matter what you do, it is impossible to win. Technically these come up all the time—for example, it’s an unwinnable state when Mario is almost all the way down a pit and has no way to get out, and you don’t have any extra lives. The states I’m going to talk about in particular are the really bad ones, where you can save in an unwinnable state. Maybe you’re locked in a room and left the key outside, maybe you burned the letter you were supposed to give to the governor, or maybe the game just let you quicksave halfway down that pit. Situations like these are the ultimate in repetition, because if you don’t have a backup save, you have to start over from the very beginning and try not to make the same mistake again.
I don’t think games should have unwinnable states. Well, there are exceptions, but I’ll get into those later. I’m operating on the principle that games should, in general, be forgiving. Players will make mistakes, and it’s okay to punish them for it, because otherwise there isn’t going to be any challenge. However, games should not punish the player so harshly that it’s no fun to correct the mistake. After all, we are playing these games to enjoy ourselves, right? A game with unwinnable states essentially says that when you make a mistake, you should have to repeat the whole game up to that point, probably hours of stuff you already did. Even if the game itself is fun, it’s no fun to lose all your progress when you want to see the rest of the game. When I find myself in a situation like that, the game had better be so good (or so short) that I don’t mind starting over, because otherwise I’m going to have a hard time wanting to play it anymore.
Fortunately unwinnable states aren’t such a big problem in most games. They come up all the time in interactive fiction, but I’ll talk about that later. In most games something we could call near-unwinnable states are much more common. This is where a game lets you save with low health and no healing items, or with a massively underleveled party in the middle of a dungeon, or the like. These states aren’t exactly unwinnable, since you can potentially pull through and finish the game from them, but it might require ridiculous levels of skill and/or luck to do so. I’d say these are just as bad, since unless you’re really good at the game (or really lucky) the outcome is the same—you have to start from the beginning. These might even be worse in general since that faint glimmer of hope can make players throw themselves against nearly impossible odds, over and over again, to attempt to recover their playthrough.
When I make games, I want to avoid unwinnable and near-unwinnable states as much as possible, since they almost always just make a game harder to enjoy. Unfortunately, the general case of determining whether a game has unwinnable states is undecidable, by my reckoning. For those who aren’t CS theory nerds like myself, that means that it’s impossible to write an algorithm to solve the problem, i.e., no one can ever make a computer program that will tell you if a game has unwinnable states (or at least not one that’s always correct). However, in normal cases it shouldn’t be so bad, since games tend to have unwinnable states for the same reasons. For example, in an adventure game they’ll often come up if the player needs an item to proceed but can’t obtain it anymore, like if you didn’t get a key out of a building that just exploded. Situations like this can be figured out by making a graph of important points in the games, indicating which items are needed where and when they’re available. I’m sure designers already do this since it would probably be necessary to just keep track of everything that happens in a complicated game. In a game with specified save points it’s even easier to figure out unwinnable states, since you really just need to worry about what state the game could be in at each save point. So if there’s a bottomless pit of instant death, just don’t put a save point in the middle of it. Near-unwinnable states are harder to define and therefore harder to protect against, but there are still some common sense ways to avoid them. Again, save point positioning is important, but it could also be helpful to provide amenities at the save point itself. For example, maybe save points always refill your health, or provide teleports to outside the dungeon, just to keep the player from getting stuck in a really bad situation.
Those remedies are pretty obvious, really, and I don’t think game designers are simply ignorant of those ideas. So why do these states still show up in games? Some of them are just mistakes, of course—the scenario designer didn’t notice that one of the hundred items in the game can become inaccessible at the wrong time. These aren’t the interesting cases, though, since every game is going to have some bugs and this doesn’t tell us about design. Sometimes these states come about due to deliberate choices. Maybe the designers decide not to restore health at save points because this would make the game too easy and make healing items much less useful than they’re supposed to be. Maybe they decide that quicksaves are so useful that it’s okay that the player could accidentally save right before certain death (though there would hopefully be some kind of save archive in place to let the player go back to an earlier save if necessary in this situation). These are all some of the tradeoffs that inevitably arise when it comes to ease of enjoying, and sometimes it’s just necessary to make a game a little worse in one way if it can be a lot better in another.
What are really interesting are games that specifically allow unwinnable states as part of the design. A lot of interactive fiction does this, particularly older games (like Trinity—it’s a good game, but it’s so easy to get stuck in situations where you don’t have the right item or enough time to survive). Part of this is because you can usually save at any time, but it seems that in a lot of cases the authors intentionally include these states. I think this is due to the nature of interaction with IF. Gameplay in IF is really a lot broader than in most games, since you can ideally do anything reasonable that you can put into words. Authors of such games probably feel that if the player types “put book in fire,” it should happen, even though they’ll need the book to finish the game. Most other types of games, with a more limited scope of play, don’t even allow actions like that, and if they do you’ll usually be stopped with a response like “You have a feeling you’ll need that later.” I can understand why authors let the players doom themselves, since this makes interaction with the game world much more consistent and realistic. A disembodied voice telling you what items are important usually has no place in the game’s narrative and just breaks up the illusion it’s creating. Nevertheless, I still don’t find unwinnable states to be any fun, even with such a noble reason behind them. They do probably have a place in some types of games, though maybe not as often as some IF authors think, but I’m forced to look at them more as an interesting design choice and less as something I actually enjoy having to deal with. Fortunately IF is generally much shorter than other types of games, so unwinnable states don’t completely destroy the experience of a playthrough. I plan to avoid them whenever I start writing IF, though it will be interesting to see how I can balance a realistically interactive world with the fact that some actions just mess everything up.
There are some intentional uses of unwinnable or near-unwinnable states in console games as well. Resident Evil (and similar games) uses the threat of a near-unwinnable state to make the game more frightening. There are limited amounts of health and ammunition available in the game, which leads to some difficult choices (Shoot the zombie and lose the bullets? Fight it with the knife and put yourself at risk? Try to avoid it every time you come through the room?) and a growing sense of desperation if your resources run low. This certainly does have the effect of making the game more intense, when you know that every bullet or herb used is one more that you’ll never get back. Honestly, though, I’m not really fond of this technique, since I don’t like the idea of just running out of items late in the game and being forced to start over. But, as with so many aspects of horror games, it’s hard to tell if this is really so bad. A game can’t scare you if it only does things you want, so maybe this isn’t so different than when it throws a zombie at you when you really wanted to be somewhere safe. However, the Silent Hill series, which is much more generous with items, is still a lot scarier and more fun to me, so I don’t think Resident Evil has quite got it all worked out yet.
One other game which seems to make interesting use of unwinnable states is Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter. I haven’t actually played it yet (though I intend to soon), but it looks like unwinnable states are to be expected. In this case, though, when you restart you keep your characters’ levels and equipment, and new parts of the game become available. It’s sort of like each individual playthrough is just part of a single, higher level playthrough, in which you continue to progress even when a lower level playthrough comes to an end. Analyzed this way, there aren’t really unwinnable states at all, since even a restart helps you get closer to beating the game. I’ll have to play it to really see how it works, but it all sounds fascinating.
So, there you have unwinnable states. They can make games more difficult to enjoy, and I plan to avoid them in any games I make since I believe games should be forgiving. However, they may still have a place in the design of some games if they’re carefully and deliberately controlled. I can’t say that anything has convinced me that they’re really necessary yet, but I’ll have to see how Dragon Quarter works out. If it’s as interesting as it sounds, then I’ll probably write something about it whenever I finish playing it.
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, July 6, 2004.
I think I struggled a bit trying to explain this concept as well as I wanted, and I’m not sure that I agree with all my examples today. Still, it’s very much true that no matter how fun a game is at its core, aspects outside of the fundamental gameplay can make it harder or easier to access that fun. I’m sure this is well known by actual game creators, though it’s far from a solved issue—games today still approach the problem in a multitude of ways, some more successful than others.)
I’ve noticed a common thread running through several of my posts lately, and now that I’ve identified it I can develop it more clearly. The underlying concept behind my discussions of repetition and difficulty in games (and behind one of the reasons I enjoyed Beyond Good and Evil so much) is, in the most general case, this: A game should maximize the amount of player interaction that directly helps achieve the game’s goal. Since most games have the goal of being fun (and you could justifiably classify anything else as not a game), it simplifies to this seemingly obvious statement: A game should spend as much time as possible being as enjoyable as possible. Not all games focus on edge-of-your-seat action fun, of course, preferring to present interesting stories or create excitement through fear or whatever. The important thing is that however a game chooses to be enjoyable, it should be enjoyable in that way as much as it can.
My explanation may not be terribly clear, so let’s look at an example I already talked about. Super Mario Sunshine’s goal is probably something like “to present fun platform challenges in the context of a stylized resort island.” The idea is that if you’re playing the game normally, you’ll spend most of your time engaging in these platforming challenges, and having fun doing it. My problem with the game was that I spent too much time running along the same paths to get back to the challenges where I failed. This repetition doesn’t help achieve the goal of the game, and essentially just gets in the way—I had to waste time doing things that weren’t fun before I could get back to the fun part.
You could call this concept ease of enjoying, perhaps. Games like Beyond Good and Evil are easier to enjoy because they let you spend as much time as possible in the fun parts, while games like Super Mario Sunshine are sometimes harder to enjoy because you have to spend more time in the less interesting parts. I think modern games are, in general, significantly easier to enjoy than older games, due to changing standards over time. A lot of this is probably driven by technological progress, at least in part. It was no big deal to have to start from the beginning if you got a game over in Super Mario Bros., since it wasn’t such a huge game anyway and was intended to be beaten in a single playthrough. This would be unthinkable in a game like Super Mario Sunshine, though, since modern games are usually so large that they require a save feature to be realistically completable. Despite being enabled by technology, ease of enjoying isn’t just useful in new games, though—take a look at Super Mario All-Stars, which added a save feature to all the old Mario games it remade. This made the games significantly more enjoyable to me, at least, since I could make progress at my own pace and wouldn’t have to repeat everything when I ran out of lives. I find a number of classic games to be difficult to play through, even if I appreciate their quality, due to their lack of modern amenities like save points or unlimited continues. Maybe I’m just not hardcore, but I’d like to think that design sensibilities have improved over the past couple decades. Of course, many of the quirks of older games were necessary to make them last for a long time (as I’ve said about Mega Man difficulty), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do better now that we have the technology.
So, here we are in the modern age. Technology allows bigger games that benefit more from ease of enjoying, and technology also allows the ease of enjoying features that we so desire. Why, then, are some games still more difficult to enjoy? There are surely a number of reasons. Maybe some developers just never thought of some of this stuff, and never tested the user experience on aspects like continuing. Some games may do it intentionally—while I may grow frustrated with a highly difficult and unforgiving game, some people thrive in that environment; it just isn’t a game for me. A lot of it is probably just due to time constraints. Software development in general operates on a tight schedule, and “make the actual gameplay work better” is probably a higher priority than “make continuing take twenty seconds less.”
There are some more subtle reasons that games don’t maximize ease of enjoying, however. A lot of this comes from the interaction between ease of enjoying (accessibility to game content) and the actual game content itself. An incredibly easy game might be really easy to enjoy, since there’s no chance of getting frustrated, but with no challenge the game isn’t going to be very fun either. In essence, you’re able to pull all the enjoyment out of the game with no trouble, but there isn’t much enjoyment to be had—it’s better to have to work but get a bigger reward. The trick here is balancing these two quantities so the game is fun enough, but it isn’t too difficult to actually reveal that fun. There are other competing factors at work in games as well. Super Mario Sunshine makes you travel through Isle Delfino to get to each level because it’s trying to create a cohesive world, and this works in general—the levels make sense in the context of the island, and don’t feel like mere random challenges. But the balance swings too far in this direction at times, and the resulting repetition makes the game harder to enjoy.
There’s a lot more to say about ease of enjoying, and a lot more ways it affects game design. I’ve only really thought about this for a little while so there’s surely much more that I haven’t grasped yet. Next time I intend to talk about one especially bad aspect of some games that can kill all the enjoyment of a playthrough. I actually meant to write about it today, but this has gone on long enough and I still have to figure out if it makes as much sense as I think it should. Let me know if I’m being too obscure here, and if not, I’ll be back next time to talk about the dreaded unwinnable state.
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, July 3, 2004.
Beyond Good and Evil is pretty much exactly the game I was calling for, or wanting to make, in many of my early posts on the blog. Somehow, it’s ten years old this very month. I should probably play it again someday.)
I imagine the conversation went something like this.
Michel Ancel, creator of Beyond Good and Evil: Hello, I’m Michel Ancel. I’m making a new game, and I’ve arbitrarily decided to ask for your input. What would you like to see in a video game?
I give him the laundry list of positive game qualities, the sort of things I’ve written about here.
Michel Ancel: We’ll see what we can do. Now I must erase your memory before returning to the mystical land of France.
That’s the only way I can think of to explain Beyond Good and Evil. Well, it’s possible that Ancel and I are just on the same wavelength in regard to good game design, but we have to go with the more likely scenario here. This game surprised me because it gets pretty much everything right. It exemplifies qualities that I’ve thought about recently and discussed on this very page. It really felt like someone had read my posts and then retroactively created a game to suit me. Of course, not everyone will have the same tastes as me, but I think BG&E’s qualities are pretty universal, at least if you like, you know, fun.
One thing that struck me right away about BG&E is how well the world is presented. I wouldn’t call it realistic, since it doesn’t attempt to accurately simulate reality, but it does feel like more than just an environment in a game. Perhaps the virtues I’ve called “realistic” before are better described as believable or coherent. The world of BG&E isn’t just there as a backdrop to gameplay, but rather feels like a complete place that has reason to exist on its own. There are so many details that are unnecessary when BG&E is examined strictly as a game, but make perfect sense when you think of it as a complete virtual world. There are ships in the sky and the sea, traffic in the city, and animals everywhere. The animals do affect the game since you can earn money photographing them, but this rarely seems like just an item hunt—BG&E’s planet of Hyllis feels like a natural, inhabited world, and there are perfectly believable opportunities for nature photography within it. Seeing a whale breaching on the horizon gives less of a “oh boy, I can cross that one off the list” feeling and more of a “holy snap, look at that, I should take a picture” feeling.
The world is also made more believable by the depth of culture presented. It sort of reminds me of Firefly in a way. Hyllis isn’t anything like Firefly’s Chinese Space Western setting, but it shows a future which is similar in that all sorts of cultures have come together into this wonderful melange. Also like Firefly, BG&E never hits you over the head with backstory about how this unique world came to be—it’s a rich enough setting that you can tell that there’s plenty of history behind it, but the feel of the world is more important than any specifics about how it came about. The accessible world in the game isn’t terribly large, but all these details make it seem like it could be an actual place that you just happen to see a certain part of.
BG&E isn’t just about wandering around a world, of course—there are plenty of things to do, and these require gameplay. The gameplay complements the coherent world nicely, however, by remaining straightforward and intuitive so as to not pull you out of the experience. There are a number of different ways to play in different situations, from cruising around in a hovercraft to straight-up combat to sneaking around military facilities to whatever else. These help cement the illusion of the world, since you can engage in a more realistically varied range of activities instead of solving all your problems with one approach. Fortunately, there are only a couple sets of controls and they’re all pretty easy to pick up, so you can spend more time interacting with Hyllis and less interacting with the controller. As I’ve mentioned previously, the game also keeps the difficulty level low enough that you can enjoy it without getting stuck and repeating anything too much, but still manages to make the experience feel exciting and challenging. There are the big action sequences I talked about a few days ago, but even regular combat works this way—you generally just move around and push X to attack, but Jade whips out all sorts of fancy moves depending on variables like the relative position of the enemy. A simple setup like that wouldn’t work in a fighting game, of course, but here it keeps combat interesting and dynamic without requiring you to memorize complicated controls. (I’ve heard a couple people suggest that you can or should select Jade’s attacks with more precision, but I only saw one place where it would really be useful, and even then not by much. I didn’t feel that complexity of combat was important to what makes this game good.)
There’s even some nonlinearity in BG&E, which is nice because you can’t really explore a world if the game is always telling you where to go next. This mainly comes in the form of the hunt for pearls. You need pearls to buy various important things from time to time, and there are a lot of ways to find them. Since there are more than enough pearls for your needs, you have plenty of choices: you can participate in the hovercraft races, explore caves, liberate pearls from the enemy, get them in exchange for photographing animals, buy them, or do a number of other things. Collecting pearls never felt like a Rare-style item hunt, since getting most of them meant exploring genuinely new parts of the game, and if I didn’t like where one was I could skip it and find more somewhere else. They’re really just a reason to look around Hyllis and find neat new places. Besides, you can get a pearl detector, so you’ll know if you’re on the right track or not.
I could just go on about this game, but maybe I should let some of its merits explain themselves. The bottom line is that Beyond Good and Evil is a brilliant example of how to make a fun game set in an interesting, coherent world. It’s a kind of game that I’ve been wanting more of, and hope to create myself someday. I can tell that an emphasis was put on just making the game enjoyable to play, and it really paid off. If this sounds at all interesting (and you don’t mind some stealth—it’s not bad or particularly hard stealth or anything, but I guess it could be a deal breaker if you just hate sneaking) then I think you owe it to yourself to play BG&E. It’s down to $20 and it’s available on all three major consoles plus Windows, so you don’t have much of an excuse. Come on, everyone else is doing it. Well, not really, but they should.
Life in easy mode
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, June 28, 2004.
I think I’ve come to appreciate difficulty a bit more since I wrote this, at least in principle, though it still isn’t something I actively seek out most of the time. A big thing for me is that I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time. A challenging game is fine as long as it’s enjoyable even when I fail, and if I can feel myself improving as a player even if it takes a while to actually move forward in the game.)
A couple days ago I watched some of my friends play Mega Man Anniversary Collection. They attempted to complete the first three games, following the same pattern each time: “Okay, tonight we are beating this game” followed a while later by “Dammit, I’m done with this game” and giving up. We exchanged theories on why exactly the developers seemed to hate players so much, and wondered why they didn’t just make a Spike Man who is simply a room filled with unavoidable spikes.
It’s been said that games are easier than they used to be, and things like Mega Man make it hard to disagree. But this statement is usually made to lament the current state of industry, as if games have been dumbed down to appeal to lowly gaming plebeians who aren’t hardcore enough spend hours perfecting their technique against that Rock Monster thing. I think the situation is more complex than that, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with where we are now.
The way I see it, older games were brutally difficult because they had to be. The NES and its kin were not exactly computational powerhouses, and their games were tiny (32KB was the original limit on the NES, though later technology worked around this). As a result, games were very short, at least by today’s standards. If they were easy, they just wouldn’t be worth the money—you’d spend $40 (or however much games cost back then), get a couple hours of play, and then be done. The answer to this was to make the games require significant amounts of skill to complete. Even if a game is technically only a couple hours long, you get a lot more play if you have to try each boss fifteen or twenty times before moving on, especially when you can’t save and have to start over whenever you run out of lives. I’m not saying difficulty was just a cheap trick to make short games seem longer; I think it was a genuine matter of economy and worked out well for both developers and players. Difficulty was a perfectly legitimate means of extending gameplay, and people seemed to enjoy slowly building their skill until finally triumphing against the harsh challenges.
Games have been getting easier because they can. Technology has advanced, games can be longer, and there are simply more options available to developers. This isn’t a new occurrence, either, and has probably been going on almost as long as gaming hardware has been improving. Look at Super Mario Bros. 3; it’s a much bigger game than SMB1, with a larger variety of play, and it’s also probably easier. It’s certainly easier than Lost Levels. SMB3 doesn’t have to be so hard because the game lasts a long time on its own.
Length isn’t the only factor affecting difficulty of modern games. The important thing is that modern technology allows a greater range of potential game experiences. We can make games that are simply challenging tests of skill, but we can also make games that tell stories or present detailed worlds to be explored. A high difficulty level isn’t conducive to all types of games anymore, and in some cases a game offers enough on its own without being terribly hard to complete. Not everyone likes games that focus on something other than challenge, of course, but these are still legitimate games, just ones with different goals.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of difficulty in general. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I never had a NES growing up, and don’t know the simple joy of spending every afternoon trying to beat that dragon on Mega Man 2. Whatever the reason, I like games that provide more than just challenging gameplay. I like it when games really pull me into the experience, and make the world they present seem coherent and believable. If I’m trying to explore somewhere interesting but keep getting killed and having to repeat the same area until I memorize the patterns of a killer robot, it hurts the experience. It just doesn’t seem as real when I get stuck doing the same thing over and over again—it, well, feels like a game. This is going to sound fickle, but I like it when games feel difficult, but I can still get through without trying too many times. There’s certainly a rush from pulling off some impressive feat of skill to get past a vicious set of obstacles, and if I can do it on the first try then I don’t even have to suspend my disbelief through a restart and it’s that much better. Beyond Good and Evil (which is really good!) is very good at making action sequences seem intense without making them overly difficult. There are some cool chase scenes where you have to dash madly while everything is either exploding or shooting at you and it looks like you could die at any moment. I never died on these scenes, and in retrospect they’re probably not that hard if you have some experience at action gaming, but it certainly felt like I did something cool in getting through them. These really added to the experience of playing the game—a narrow escape is much more believable if you don’t die five times before actually pulling it off.
If you do like hard games, don’t worry. While technological advances may shift the focus of the gaming industry, they never actually reduce the types of games that can be made. There are still plenty of games with steep skill curves that will require all sorts of practice and cursing to master. I’m not the best source for information on what these games actually are, but they’re certainly out there—may I recommend the Mega Man Anniversary Collection? And hey, even I can appreciate a good ridiculous challenge from time to time. If you like guitar solos, be sure to check out Gitaroo-Man, particularly Master Mode. While the game is full of stylized graphics and wacky charm, the real focus is on the gameplay, and Master Mode takes no prisoners. I’ve played it until my fingers were too tired to keep up, and I still never got past the very beginning of the Sanbone Trio level. Plus it has good music, so at least you can enjoy some crazy Spanish xylophone beats while being mercilessly thrashed by skeletons with Dual Shocks for pelvises.
It’s not that games are simply getting easier, not really. Games are just getting more varied. Games do things now that weren’t possible ten or twenty years ago, and not all of these benefit from a high difficulty level. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see any problem with there being a wider variety of games to choose from. You can still have your ridiculously challenging games if you want them, and if you get sick of that you can join me over here in easy mode.
Yes, I want to continue
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, June 25, 2004.
Super Mario Sunshine seemed to get stuck in an awkward place between modern open-world design and classic retry rules. It’s a shame, as the game has a lot of good in it otherwise.)
As a wannabe game developer, I try to play games with something of a critical eye. In addition to just having fun with games, I try to see what does and doesn’t make them enjoyable, and what lessons I can glean from that. Sometimes I gain abstract, theoretical insights, the kind of thing that I haven’t written much about lately. I really like thinking about these and coming up with such ideas as how to enforce morals without limiting freedom in a game. But there are also other, simpler lessons to be learned, little things that don’t affect the core of game design but are nevertheless very important. Recently I learned one of these lessons from Super Mario Sunshine.
I have almost given up on SMS. I might get back to it at some point, since I could probably get enough shines to beat it with some effort, but I’m in no hurry. I still think it’s a good game, but it has some issues, and one in particular is starting to suck the fun out of it.
Allow me to give an example of the problem. I want to get the eighth shine at Pinna Park, which requires riding a rollercoaster and shooting rockets at balloons. I start the game in Delfino Plaza, travel through town, over the canal, get in the cannon, and go to Pinna Park. Once in the level, I go forward a bit, up some stairs, and into the park proper. Then I have to go forward some more, past rides, make my way up some platforms, and cross a bridge to get to the rollercoaster. Then I talk to someone and the actual challenge to get the shine begins.
This is a lot of work just to get to the real trial for the shine. Well, it isn’t a lot of work, it’s just a lot of time. This in itself isn’t a problem. Part of the point of SMS is to put all these challenges in the context of Isle Delfino and the happenings there, and I enjoy this—it makes the game seem more like one of those interesting worlds I like so much, rather than just a series of platforms to jump around on. You have to travel around the island because you couldn’t just choose levels out of a menu if it were a real place.
Let’s continue the example. I’m on the rollercoaster, trying to shoot down the balloons, but I fail to hit them all in the time allotted. When the car returns to the beginning of the track, it disappears and the game acts as if I’d been killed by an enemy—I lose one life and am kicked out of the level. Then I have to re-enter it and travel all the way back to the rollercoaster to try again. If had no extra lives left, I can continue from the very start in Plaza Delfino and go through all the travelling again just to get back to the challenge.
This is the problem. I appreciate the context of the island, but once I’ve gotten to the rollercoaster the context has proved its point. There is no reason that I should have to go all the way back through the level after failing to get the shine. There’s especially no reason that I should have to go all the way back through everything after running out of lives. There’s no actual challenge in getting to the rollercoaster; it just takes up time. It’s only a few minutes, but since the rollercoaster itself only takes a few minutes about half of my play time is just rote repetition of the same route. This is completely unnecessary, and makes it much more difficult to want to keep playing the game. If I’m stuck at a particular challenge, I probably want to keep trying it, and the current setup adds an irritatingly long amount of dead time before I can get back to what I was doing.
This is really a case of the repetition I complained about the first time I addressed SMS, but this is a particularly troublesome instance. It’s one thing to die and have to get some red coins over again, or have to climb up to a high platform after falling off, but this isn’t even repetition of anything interesting. Yes, Isle Delfino is an interesting place and there are a lot of ways to travel around it, but when I’m really trying to do something else it reduces to following a fixed path over and over again. The only part of the game that doesn’t throw you all the way out of the level when you die are the “secret” abstract platforming areas, which I’ve come to enjoy quite a bit more since the last time I wrote about them, partly for this reason.
So, SMS is a good game that gets repetitive and annoying if a challenge is buried deep within a level and you can’t succeed on your first try. The lesson I learned here is that a game should always let players continue easily from a reasonable point. Reasonable depends on the game and the particular challenges involved—if the challenge is to get all the way through a level without messing up, it’s fine to kick the player back to the beginning of the level when he loses. But if the challenge is contained within one part of a larger world—say, a rollercoaster—it is not reasonable to force the player to go through an unrelated portion of the game every time he fails. This is especially true if the unrelated part is easy and therefore just boring, but if it’s particularly challenging itself then it could be pretty cruel to not provide a checkpoint after it. There’s no hard definition on when challenges are unrelated, and this is ultimately up to the deveopers, but some choices are better than others. The developers of SMS could say that the entire trek to the rollercoaster is all a part of the challenge, but I’d say that means the game design is just worse than I thought.
The other part of this lesson, which I’ve mainly picked up from other games, is that continuing should be easy and fast. SMS isn’t bad in this regard—although you have to travel a lot after dying, at least you can get started on that right away. Eternal Darkness comes to mind as a game with the opposite problem—you can save anywhere, but dying just sends you back to the title screen where you have to reload your file from the memory card. This takes time, and becomes nontrivial if you get stuck at a certain point and have to keep reloading (trust me). A simple “Continue?” screen after death would have been much appreciated. One game that seems to get this completely right is Beyond Good and Evil, whose merits I may extoll in more detail at a later date. I’ve only died a couple times in the game, but each time I was able to continue straight from the game over screen and end up just before where I died. Once I even had more health than I did going in, which was very thoughtful.
I did pick up a somewhat more abstract lesson from my experience with SMS as well: Think very carefully before doing something “because games always do it that way.” For example, Mario Sunshine has limited lives, just like Mario games have always done. I don’t want to second-guess the developers here (well, maybe I do a little), but I have a hard time seeing what lives really add to the game. If you die in a level but have lives left, you have to start it over. If you run out of lives, you have to travel to the entrance to the level again and then start it over. All a game over does is make you spend time going through an unchallenging area. Lives made sense in older games where you would actually lose for good and have to start the whole thing over, but in today’s big games where you can save your progress it just seems like a relic. There are surely all sorts of other examples in other games if you look for them. What I’ve learned here is to make sure that every element of a game has a real purpose behind it, and isn’t just there out of tradition.
Remember, I really do like Super Mario Sunshine, and I enjoyed most of my time with it. But sometimes little, simple problems can overwhelm even the best of games. One of my personal goals for game design is that I want my games to present an absolute minimum of annoyance to the players, so by getting annoyed myself I can hopefully learn what not to do. Future advances in game design may bring a whole new wave of irritating flaws for me to trip over, but at least I won’t be making the same mistakes people are now. Probably.
Evolve or Die
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, June 22, 2004.
I never played Spore, but it might be the closest thing we ever got to an EVO successor. As a kid, I had an idea for an EVO 2 that took place on Mars and walked through the evolution of bizarre alien life, which could still be a fun idea.
Incidentally, I mentioned “Nico”—eventually Shadow of the Colossus—below as well. That ended up as a great example of how to make a successor to unique game.)
Ah, sequels. Many have lamented the gaming industry’s reliance on sequels, and there’s certainly some merit to that complaint. From a strictly cynical, capitalistic point of view, it’s a lot easier to sell a brand that people already like than an original one, even if the sequel doesn’t offer anything particularly new or interesting. A lot of them are just shameless cash-ins, reiterating the same basic concepts to the point of irrelevancy. Take Megaman, for example—I used to like the series, but now it’s tiring to even think about a new Megaman game. The new games are probably still even good from a technical perspective, but I’ve already seen all the Megaman I could ever want and there just doesn’t seem to be any point anymore.
However, I think some people have an excessive distaste for sequels. There’s a fine balance to be found between the two extremes of no followups whatsoever and a relentless, unstoppable horde of sequels. It would be a shame to never expand on an excellent game concept just because the new game wouldn’t be totally original. As in much of life, what’s important here is moderation. I doubt most games fully explore their conceptual space, and with enough time the development team can probably find ways to take a game’s ideas in interesting directions so the sequel stands on its own as a good game, rather than just a retread. But if they’re forced to pump out too many sequels too quickly, it’s less likely that any of them will have more than superficial differences from the original. Occasionally a game will be so good (and so short) that a straightforward “here are more levels and a few gameplay tweaks” sequel will be worthwhile just because everyone was unsatisifed by the amount of play they got out of the original. But this doesn’t happen very often, especially now that games in general are getting longer and deeper.
Plenty of undeserving games end up with sequels as unnecessary as the originals that spawned them. But there are also games that should have sequels but just never get them. Some games are based on really good ideas that could be developed in all sorts of interesting new ways, but due to poor sales or whatever other reasons, they’re never given a second look. I won’t go on about Ico since this supposed Nico game might still exist (and because the idea of an ‘Ico franchise’ could hurt the singular appeal of the original, but I trust the team behind it to come up with a worthy followup), but there are some other games that I think could really use a modern sequel. In particular I’m thinking about a little game called E.V.O.: The Search for Eden.
Did anyone else ever play EVO? This odd game was released by Enix on the Super Nintendo way back in 1992. It’s sort of a platformer with RPG elements and very few actual platforms. The really interesting part of this game is how you advance your character, which is intimately tied in with the plot. The basic idea is that you’re a fish, and Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, wants to meet you in Eden for some reason. To get there, you travel around the world and through time, fighting bad animals and ensuring that evolution progresses as it should. Since you’ll need to deal with more advanced forms of life, you can spontaneously evolve yourself by spending the game’s equivalent of experience points. The game spans about 500 million years of prehistory and lets you evolve into such interesting creatures as amphibians, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals all the way up to early humans.
The thing about EVO is that the gameplay isn’t actually very good. The control is pretty awkward, which is partially intentional—you won’t be very mobile unless you evolve that way—but even with the best agility there are still ugly factors like having to tap forward twice to dash. This isn’t really a huge issue, but that’s mainly because the levels are so dull, consisting generally of a flat plane populated by a single type of enemy specific to that area. The few exceptions tend to be mazes, which isn’t really an improvement. The game often reduces to walking back and forth, eating enemies over and over until you have enough EVO points to evolve a new upgrade and move on to another flat level with slightly harder enemies. There is some strategy required on the bosses, but they’d be more fun with better control.
Despite these apparently significant problems, I still really like EVO. The evolutionary method of character enhancement is just so fun to mess around with that I’m willing to go through the merely tolerable parts of the game. There are a considerable number of ways to customize your character, each offering distinct statistical effects while also changing the animal’s appearance. The options available change throughout the game as well, since each class of animals (fish through mammals) offers different evolutionary paths. It’s just neat to come up with stuff like a giant hippo-faced rabbit with antlers while searching for the form that best fits your style of play.
A modern sequel to EVO could greatly expand on the evolution system, with a wider range of changeable body parts and ways to alter them, and maybe more classes of animals to play as. Everything else from the original can go. I could see this as an action-adventure in big 3D environments, maybe with some nonlinearity relating to your chosen evolutionary path. For example, if you need to pass a large cliff you could fly over it as a bird or dig under it as some kind of burrowing mammal, depending on the choices you’ve made throughout the game. There are a number of ways the game could play, but the important thing is to use the evolution system. For years I’ve thought that it deserved another chance in a better game, though I don’t expect that a sequel to a no-name game from twelve years ago will ever really be considered by the Square Enix of today. Who knows, maybe I’ll make my own evolution-based game someday—it’s not like they own the rights to the theory.
There’s nothing wrong with sequels as a whole—just imagine the dark world we’d be living in without games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Silent Hill 2, or Star Control II. As with any other type of game, good sequels are good and bad sequels are (get this) bad. They just have their own special brand of pitfalls to avoid, since a carbon copy of an originally good game is merely pointless. We’ll just have to hope that game companies will keep making good, creative sequels, stop making repetitive yearly upgrades, and maybe even find the time to give us some interesting new games while they’re at it. Plus it wouldn’t hurt to make another damn evolution game already.
Dreams Into Games Part 2: The Quickening
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, June 20, 2004.
I never did make this, of course, though it still pops up in my head from time to time. Unlike the previous game idea, this one is entirely feasible for me to create, so it’s more question of finding the time and deciding I really want to do it. The concept does not feel super-original anymore, though I am still a bit fascinated by arcologies, so I’ll have to see if I ever get the right inspiration.
I did make another dream-based game a few years back, Old Town, based on what I think is a more unique scenario. It ended up quite a bit broader and less detailed than the game I describe here, but for what it is, I’m not dissatisfied.)
On the fifteenth I talked about one of my game ideas that was inspired by a dream, and now I’m going to talk about another. I don’t know when I had the dream that was the primary inspiration for this game, since I apparently wasn’t keeping track of dreams at that point, but it was at least several years ago. In it, I lived in an indoor city sometime in the future. The city was actually a really interesting place. It was all contained within a single building, and wasn’t even that big. I travelled between various areas through rather dark and cramped passages, but it all had sort of a familiar, lived-in feel to it. It felt like a real place where people could actually live, despite the dissimilarity from modern cities. I don’t recall if there was any particular reason that no one went outside, but it seemed like life outside the walls wasn’t really an option.
Then the nanomachines showed up. I don’t remember where they came from or why they were there, but they didn’t seem to like people too much, except for me. For some reason the nanomachines really liked me. I think they killed everyone else in the indoor city, I don’t remember exactly, and then I left with them. Outside everything was very green and unspoiled, in contrast to the dark, narrow corridors I had spent the rest of the dream in. The nanomachines decided they wanted to wipe out humanity, but I managed to convince them to spare one city. I returned to my hometown of Puyallup, still a regular outdoor city, to live out my life with the only remaining people on the planet.
I dredged this dream out of my memory a couple months back while trying to come up with ideas for interactive fiction games. The game I want to make is rather similar to the dream, but with more details. It takes place in a future where biological warfare has made the atmosphere quite unpleasant and generally deadly, so everyone is forced to live in indoor cities, ranging from mall-sized edifices housing a few hundred to massive, towering arcologies. The game is set in a rather small and unassuming city that happens to house a laboratory where experimental materials for use in the war are developed. The newest breakthrough, nanomachines sporting adaptive artificial intelligence, arrives, and then things go rapidly downhill. You can guess how it might progress by referring to the dream (though the ending or endings will probably be different), but I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot since I may well actually make this game in the next year or two.
Does the setup sound like typical sci-fi pablum? I don’t know. My real purpose with this game is to experiment with the expressive power of interactive fiction. I want to take the world I experienced in my dream and bring it to life as best I can through IF. Interactive fiction doesn’t easily allow realism in the traditional sense, with graphics and physics models and the like, but as I’ve discussed before, there are many more ways to make a game seem believable. It’s similar to the difference between movies and books—a well-written paragraph can do the job of even the best special effect, and it doesn’t require millions of dollars or a team of experts. I don’t know if I’m that great of a writer, but I hope this game will have the necessary descriptive power and attention to detail that will make this world of my creation seem like a real, believable place.
One area where IF really excels is in the method of input, and I hope to take advantage of this in the game. Text input wouldn’t really work for a lot of genres, but in an adventure that requires a large range of interaction with the environment, I don’t see any better way of giving the player freedom of choice aside from total virtual reality. Look at something like Ocarina of Time—Link’s supposed to be able to do a lot of different things, but to accomodate the limited controller interface the buttons constantly change purpose depending on the situation. This is apparently so awkward that the game has a legend in the corner of the screen to let you know just what each button does at any given moment. Plus, your actions are still generally limited to the ones relevant to the situation—maybe you want to push a certain object, but if it wasn’t designed with that in mind, then you can’t even try. This does help steer you toward the right solution to puzzles, but it isn’t very realistic since you shouldn’t really be able to just wander around and automatically see what actions are available in different places.
I don’t mean to say that a limited control scheme is without merit (though Ocarina of Time seemed to cram too many actions into too few buttons, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve actually played it); it’s just useful for a different type of game. But in the particular type of game I’m trying to make here, which allows widely varied interaction with a detailed environment, that style of control just doesn’t work. I want the player to be able to try whatever she wants in the game. IF is great because you can attempt any action that you can express in words. Of course, this doesn’t accomplish much if the game always replies with “I don’t know how to” whatever, but the parsers and world models provided with programming languages like Inform and TADS already cover a considerable range of scenarios. No game will ever respond meaningfully to every command, of course, but with some work I should be able to get it to generate the appropriate action or response for most requests that are reasonable within the game world. In this game, as with the previous dream-inspired game I mentioned, I hope to add a lot of little details that reward creativity in play and enhance the depth of the simulated world. Maybe the SMELL command never does anything productive with regard to actually completing the game (and would not be worth wasting a button on if it used a controller), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to find out what it smells like in an indoor city of the future. This is the real power of IF—the player can be quite creative, and if the author has anticipated this then you can find a whole range of experience not possible when input is limited to a specified set of actions.
Maybe I’ve gotten a bit far afield here, but the important points are that IF offers a style of gameplay not available elsewhere, and that my game will ideally use that style to let players act in an interesting and detailed world. This game is still a ways off, since I’ve fallen behind in my study of Inform and I don’t have a terribly good track record for finishing recreational projects. But if I do move forward on it someday, I’ll post about it here. I realize my descriptions of game ideas so far are painfully short on details, for various reasons, but I think this game could be pretty interesting. Hopefully I won’t be the only one entertained if or when this game is completed.