My two top games this year

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s interesting -well, I find it interesting- my two favourite games this year are a downloadable title from the Playstation Network, and an adventure game from a studio with a very average history.  It’s also interesting, since they both sit on opposite ends of the “ludonarrative” scale.

The Walking Dead is a series of cutscenes, you have a small impact on what happens, just enough for the story to feel like your own, but everything is shown to you, it’s told.  This is an interactive movie more than anything else, and its use of typical “cinematic” techniques to evoke emotions is a benefit of the style.  The other advantage is that there’s no “ludonarrative dissonance,” that is to say that the gameplay feels like the storytelling, because they’re both the same thing.  All of its elements are consistent between gameplay and storytelling, thanks to the rather clear benefit of them being the same thing.

Journey is a game about exploration and co-0peration, it’s a journey in both name and gameplay.  It has no characters, no emotional hooks, and its “cutscenes” are brief vignettes, which show you what is, and what has been.  Kind of.  Mostly they just show some pretty lights.  Despite this, I loved the world it was set in, and I wanted to know more, I cared about my co-operative partner and felt bad when they were hurt.  When I lost one of them through a poor action I felt genuinely bad, and we called out to each other as I was forced to walk away, a sad cry, weakening as I walked away.  The cutscenes in the game aren’t there to tell the story, but to expand on it.  The story is learned through experiencing it, through its gameplay, and the world around you.  Again, it avoids dissonance by having one of the purest “game” experiences available, there’s nothing in it to cause a mental conflict.

My two favourite games of the year are wildly different, and yet still very similar in their own ways.  They both mad me think.  They both drew emotional responses from my cold and withered heart.  They both presented themselves consistently and well.  These two games show where video game storytelling is at its strongest, the two ends of the spectrum.  And they’re both wonderful experiences because of it.

Inverse Kinematics: An approximate real time history

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hi, my name’s Sean Richardson, and I have a weird habit.

“Hi Sean.  The first step to recovery is acceptance.”

Why thank you disembodied voice, I was just wondering though, would you like to know about my slightly odd habit?

“Oh.  Uhhh, not really, if it’s all the sa-”

Great!  So, whenever I’m playing a third person game of any kind, I can’t help but stop my character on slopes, and look at their feet!

“I don’t know if that’s that odd, I mean, lots of people do that.”

Do they though?  Do they do it for the same reasons as me?  Do they really understand?  You know what, I can see it in your face, you’re confused, so I’ll explain.

“That’s really not-”

If you’ve ever stopped, looked down at your character’s feet, and thought “wow, that’s some good connection with the ground my character has” then you have Inverse Kinematics to thank for that.  Inverse Kinematics, you ask?  Well, it’s the opposite of Forward Kinematics!  Forward Kinematics is, for the simplest explanation, a process we do mentally every day.  We think to ourselves “I’d like my finger to be there, so that I can type the ‘f’ key” and so we move our muscles so that our finger is there.  In a computing sense, the idea is that you work out the position of something(like a finger) based on all the previous joints.

Inverse Kinematics, is of course, the opposite.  Inverse Kinematics ask “if my finger is here, where would every other relevant part of me be?”  Or, in most cases, it asks about characters feet.  In fact, their legs were so specific that an early paper outlining Inverse Kinemation in animation referenced legs specifically(Computational modeling for the computer animation of legged figures).  Personally, I started thinking about this recently, after noticing the effect in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which was a particularly good implementation, especially for when it was written.

There are problems there, like when you stand with one leg off an object, and it’s also important to note that Wind Waker has an unfair advantage, which is the length of Link’s legs, which make altering the angle considerably easier when compared with someone of relatively normal proportions.  Like say, Link.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, Ocarina of Time featured Inverse Kinematics.  Remarkably, OoT wasn’t even the first game to feature IK.  So far as my research shows, that honour goes to Jurassic Park: Trespasser.  A pioneer in many fields, a jack of all trades, and a complete failure at everything, Trespasser, released in October of 1998(So it’s beating OoT by less than a month), animated all of its creatures using IK, rather than a more standard animation system.  To say that the results of this were laughable would probably be an understatement.

It’s interesting that a Jurassic Park game would be a pioneer in the field of IK, given 1993’s Jurassic Park film set the benchmark for animal animation through the use of Inverse Kinematics.

Of course, over the years the implementation of IK has improved significantly.  For instance, I was impressed when playing Half Life 2, when I noticed a Vortigaunt’s foot angled accurately on a ramp.  Guild Wars 2’s implementation manages to animate well with properly proportioned characters, and it also has a “reposition” animation which helps to mask the IK calculations, and stops the characters limbs from suddenly repositioning the moment they stop moving.

The best use, of course, goes to Grand Theft Auto 4.  Through its use of Euphoria, and the appropriate body based physics that allows, it has easily the best legs in gaming.  It’s a shame that they’re so hard to see thanks to its camera.  The animation system causes a change in how Niko moves if he’s going uphill or downhill, meaning there’s no awkward moment when he stops, and any IK attempts to kick in.  In fact, the engine even tries really hard to avoid awkward overhangs, by moving Niko’s legs so that he’s always standing on things.

It’s hard to tell from the image, but the back of Niko’s foot is just on the stairs, and any attempt to turn him sideways would fail.  Such a strategy should be applauded, given its flawless natu-

Hmm, oh.  Well, at least they tried(Again, my images are terrible, but in case it wasn’t clear, he is managing to hold his entire body weight on his right leg, while standing casually).

Obviously, Inverse Kinematics go well beyond simply feet, and how they sit on things, but as a very visible, and increasingly prominent element of games, I thought a brief look at them might be interesting.

Given the majority of this is pulled from Wikipedia, and my memory, it stands to reason that there may be things I missed, or oversights made(I find it hard to believe that nobody has made a comprehensive timeline of something so trivial), if so, I’d love to be proven wrong.  If not, well, I guess we can think about feet some more.

Choose Your Own Adventure

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I look up at my screen, down at my mouse.  I count the enemies, and my men.  There’s no two ways about it, someone isn’t making it out alive.  I look at my Rookie, one kill for the mission, his first time in the real world, and I look at my Captain, battle hardened, scarred, and ready.  If this were a movie, the Captain would do it.  If this were a movie, my men wouldn’t have died while hiding behind cars.  If this were a movie, everything would be heroics.  But this wasn’t.  So my Rookie runs out, he takes a glancing blow while running over.  He fires on one enemy, killing it.  My captain advances safely, and guns down another.  Two more advance, surrounding the rookie.  The Captain sighs, reaches down to his belt, and pulls out a grenade.  Live bait is always the best.

There’s something wonderful about watching a story unfold before you.  One where you’re more of a puppetmaster than a bystander.  You pull the strings, constantly fighting against gravity, the wind, and children-in-the-audience-who-throw-sticks-at-you.  It’s still a play though, a plot written by someone else, though with details of your own devising.  And it’s this sort of story that shows the strength of games.

When you go to a movie, you’re not seeing your own story.  What you see, and what the guy next to you sees, are both exactly the same.  This promotes discussion.  You stand by the water-cooler, talk about how great this scene was, or how hot that chick looked.  You talk about the same things, and you compare what you thought of them.  Your standard, blockbuster game is the same.  You go through the set-piece, you slip on the hill, and Soap grabs your hand, saving you from death.  This too, can be discussed.  There’s a small amount of storytelling, in the way you got from point A to B, but there won’t really be much variance.

With XCOM or FTL, it’s interesting to see the return of player driven storytelling.  In a procedural world, A and B are still created by someone, somewhere, but the path between them can be winding, or direct.  The equipment you have, the people there with you, all will be different.  These aren’t games where you discuss what happened.  These are games where you tell.  You share your story with others, and they share theirs.  These games appeal to the tellers, not the listeners.  And there’s something wonderful about that.

+6 Str, +3 Dex, +5 Sta, -4 Int

October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given I kind of liked my idea from last week for an RPG, I sat down and started thinking up a few ways to make it work.    The idea of a more or less traditional turn based RPG has stuck with me, it’s accessible, simple enough to understand, and as a huge benefit to me, easy enough to design and create.

From a theoretical basis, I decided that you should have a main character(which the story follows), and disposable little side minions, who you need to pay the upkeep for.  I want to keep the main team small, with everyone fielded at once, as you’ll primarily be fighting single, powerful, opponents.  The primary factor in terms of attacking order will be a speed statistic, not dissimilar to that of Pokemon, and your choice of moves will be taken at the start of each turn.  Obviously, if I simply kept it in this line, it wouldn’t be very interesting, so I though I’d bring something in that’s more or less a combination of the Paradigm system from Final Fantasy 13, and the types from Pokemon.  You’d attune yourself to different elements, which would change your spells available, spells would be mana cost free, as I’ve never been a huge fan of mana systems.  Spells would vary in terms of power(I’m currently running off an assumption of 2 spells per attunement), with some support, some straight offensive, and so on.  Spells would, for the most part, do magical damage, and scale off an intelligence statistic for damage, which is what helps to differentiate them from normal attacks.

The normal attacks would have a base amount, scaling off a strength statistic, with an additional amount of bonus damage, which is attuned physical.  Each enemy would have separate statistics for physical and magical defense, which should help you choose what types of abilities to use, and this would help prevent any sort of “god” stat, or ability.  As well as buying attunements for yourself, I imagine you’d have a chance to buy them for your followers, this, as well as equipment or similar for them is currently slightly problematic, given their disposable nature, though if things were bought cheaply for “x” turns, then I’d probably be able to get out of that trap.

While there’s still a whole lot of thought that needs to go into this, and there’s also a whole lot I’ve left ambiguous, hopefully this should give you some sense of what’s going through my mind as I think this stuff through.

Grinding away

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

As part of my continual efforts to never finish a series I start, I figured I’d look at something a little different today.  I’ve talked about Boss Battles before, but I wanted to look at the other part of an RPG, that is, the grind.

While playing Final Fantasy 13-2 today, I came to a rather harsh realisation.  I’m not very good at Role Playing Games.  I mean, I’ve known this for a long time, I’ve never been bothered to optimise my statistics, to research things in detail, to go the distance.  Instead, I’m far more likely to simply look up “Best solution for X” in google, and hope that it answers me.  While struggling with a boss fight earlier, I looked it up, and was dismayed to find that the average person attempting it was 20 levels lower than me(It only really, shows levels for main characters in 10 level blocks(I think)), and that someone 10 levels below me had blitzed through the fight without thinking.  I, on the other hand, had been juggling my paradigm’s, and still failed miserably.  What does this say for me?  Well, it says that I’m bad at games, but damn good at grinding.  That said, I don’t enjoy it all that much.  As much fun as it is to mash “A” while thinking about the universe, I figured there had to be another way.

So, could we have a game that is all about boss fights, and eliminates the grind?  The quick answer is yes.  Look at Shadow of the Colossus.  That game is all boss fights.  However, it’s also not really an RPG.  Yes, there’s a health stat, and a climb-o-meter, but at the end of the day, it’s reliant on skill, analysis, and implementation.  While the analysis is important in an RPG, and in something like FFXIII, with its ATB, skill is sometimes important, the implementation, where you hit the right button, isn’t actually a challenge.  There are games which are less reliant on the grind, Dark Souls, for instance.  In Dark Souls, while you do advance the traits of your character, the majority of the skill gain is entirely internal.  You, as the player, become better at the game, while your character very slowly advances.  The only way to get through a skill limitation in Dark Souls is to optimise your grinding, and even then it will take a very long time to have a noticeable effect.  So while grinding is entirely possible in Dark Souls, it’s not really an efficient way of playing, and it will only have a marginal effect on how well you do.

But I wanted to design something different.  A game which involved stat based boss fights, where your skill could affect them, but where you had the opportunity to “level” yourself up between them.  My simple solution, combine two genres.

Now, I’m sure this isn’t an original idea.  I doubt I’ve ever had an original idea in my life.  But so far as I can think, I don’t know of any games that have done this in quite the way I’m envisioning.  So, if I’m stealing someone’s idea, I imagine it’s only by accident, or coincydink.  So let’s start with the boss fights.  They’re something classic, maybe traditional Final Fantasy style, maybe more like the newer ones, maybe more Dragon Questy, I don’t know, details are hard.  Before each fight you have the option to distribute stat points, equip items, buy things, all that jazz.  You get all this stuff in a store(including buying stat points using the currency), and deal with it appropriately.  I imagine if you fail the boss fight, you have the opportunity to retry with what you have, or to go back and redistribute everything.

But how do you get this currency/point system things?  Good question, as you’d imagine, you get given some for defeating a boss.  Maybe there are minor rewards for completing it in certain ways, or in a number of turns, or something like that.  This encourages people to play the RPG side well, and think through what they do.  In between the boss fights though, you need to get to the next boss, and for this examples sake, you do that in a puzzle platformer.  Designed something like “N” you’d run from point A to point B, collecting currency, and using skills.  The reason I use N as an example, is that it has the fascinating pay-off between collecting gold, and getting more time.  This keeps the levels short, fast, and makes you question whether doing something is worth it.  By improving your time/collection in the skill based game, you get the ability to improve your character further.  What this allows for is people who are good at one element of the game to still play it.  That is, if you’re good at the RPG side, you’re still rewarded, but you need less reward to be able to complete the “boss fight” elements, and all you need do is get from point A to point B in the platforming section(which should be relatively easy).  Whereas if you’re good at the platforming bit, you can win the boss fights, due to the extra points you’ve gotten through all your platformingness.

Of course, this means that if you’re bad at both, persistence is key(or maybe just failure), and if you’re a glowing golden god, the game will become really easy, but sometimes positive reinforcement is a good thing.  Can I say unequivocally that this game would work?  No.  But so long as it’s designed well, I’d certainly love to give it a go.

Life in the Metro

October 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Metro 2033 has always surprised me as a game, developed by 4A Games(A developer made up primarily of Ex-GSC Game World employees), and based on the work of Dmitry Glukhovsky, it’s safe to say that it’s a very different game to most.  I first played Metro at the end of 2010, via an underpowered laptop, and while I enjoyed the gunplay, and loved the doom and gloom, the long loading screens and terrible general performance turned me off.  Now though, thanks to the power of a decent computer, and even more useless knowledge about the gaming world, I’ve come to appreciate just how similar Metro is to other games, and just how different.

Metro 2033 is a first person shooter, mostly set in a suite of corridors, with a colour pallet made up primarily of different shades of Grey and Brown.  You make your way through these corridors, fighting other people and mutants, advancing its linear plot, and going through a whole series of set-pieces.  However, its gameplay is surprisingly emergent at times, with a very similar feel to it as that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with both stealth and gun blazing options perfectly viable.  It has occasional use of colours, through radioactive plants, and other oddities in the Metro, which contrast wonderfully with the usual feel, and its story will often refuse to spoon-feed you, a beautiful change from the video game norm.  On top of this, the game really pops when it runs well, and thanks to the length of levels, allows for snack sized play, if you so desire.  Though, admittedly, that’s mostly the fault of optimisation.

I guess it also helps that the game is a lot of fun, so hopefully, despite my general failure when it comes to finishing games, I will be able to finally knock this one off my pile.

Your Opinion is Wrong

June 20, 2012 § 3 Comments

I want you to do something for me, no, no, don’t worry, it’s not very complex.

I want you to stare at the picture I’ve put in just below here.

And now, I want you to think about what you noticed. « Read the rest of this entry »

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