Monday, September 14, 2009

In Praise of The Deep End

Monday, September 14, 2009
Death to Spies: Moment of Truth is lauded/derided as Hitman in WWII, which was enough for me to check it out. Little did I know that I'd be dropping straight into the deep end of the pool.

Now mind you, game difficulty is a different beast for me these days. I'm a level designer and more and more mainstream games are less geared toward making the player actually figure anything out for themselves more than greasing the skids.
It's a mark of professional pride--I make levels, I make the puzzles in reverse order too, and I'll be damned if there's someone else out there setting out puzzles (outside of Jonathan Blow) that's going to stump me for any length of time. But have the past few years of soft-pedaled difficulty in games dulled my skills?

Knowing the typical workflow of setting out challenges for players doesn't always aid me as a player. Playing all the Hitman games didn't set me up for what I was getting into with DTS, and neither did the game itself.

It was a flashback of sorts. Long-time fans of Hitman will remember "Anathema," the first level of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, with either fondness or loathing. It's a superb mission, but largely ill-suited for the start of a game.

Sure, the tutorial/intro gives you a mechanical understanding of 47's capabilities, but not the rules of the game world or what to expect from the mission proper. And so Anathema starts you with perched on a hillside overlook of an Italian villa, with a priest to rescue and a man to kill and damned if you had the faintest idea of how to go about it.

Which in some respects is a pity--once you know the rules of Hitman games the missions become sublime; you can finish them the first time through with a Silent Assassin rating (given for surgical prowess) without prior knowledge of the mission simply because all missions are constructed with certain unwritten rules in mind.

On the other hand--isn't the genius of Super Mario Brothers that the elegant simplicity hides the depth of play? Trading tips with friends, secrets? Remember riding home from a trip to the store with the game box in your lap, pouring over the manual for every kernel of information about the game you were about to play?
If through trial and error you bested Anathema and gone on to even greater challenges, later you could return to that first mission and find it all laid out before you, clear as day.

But back to Death To Spies. I start the first mission and am given a weapons loadout screen with actual choices--and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck with the rarity of being given choices, right out of the gate, that I know make a difference. You can equip a variety of primary and secondary weapons, and if they are of Russian origin then they'll blow your cover, even if you've gotten yourself a German uniform (I would find out that you need to make headshots if you want to take a German's uniform, since you can't go around wearing blood-soaked camo). I have a choice between suppressed and unsuppressed sidearms as well, which is also a big deal in a stealth game.

I feel a little lost, but I also feel as though I'm being treated like an adult; a welcome change after the tutorializing excess of several recent AAA titles. I happen upon the F1 key, which actually does give me a pretty good overview of individual mechanics, even if it doesn't give me a thread to string them together.
I am cautious, I save and reload and restart the mission with a different approach, intent on gaining this game's equivalent of Silent Assassin rating--but this game follows the travails of a Russian SMERSH agent, do they care about bodycounts so long as the job gets done?

About an hour or so in on my first tentative mission of a surprisingly difficult game, I hesitate.

The most looming game in terms of difficulty slope and esoteric knowledge is X-COM. After selecting difficulty level, literally the first mouse click on the Geoscape (placing your first base) can have far-reaching consequences, very possibly damning you to an early defeat.
Now that's the deep end. I know I probably wouldn't be looking back on the game fondly at all without the steady stream of reliable strategems and real-time advisory from siblings also having played or currently playing X-COM--but the truth of the matter is that I do look back fondly, much as a whole generation of children, regardless of their predilection for gaming now look back fondly on trading tips and mastery of Super Mario Brothers. (Except not at all; those kids were clearly too stupid to save the Earth from an insidious alien threat.)

I still haven't made much headway in Death to Spies but it's a welcome return--a return to the days where developers assume the player can think and can deal with consequences on all by themselves. That I can appreciate.

What games do you admire despite/because of their difficult learning curve?


Jesse said...

I've referenced it a few times this week, but Resident Evil keeps coming up as a perfect example of a learning curve. The game starts out by saturating the setting with quiet tension, and your very first action sequence is terrifying but easy if you can stay cool and level-headed (you only have a knife, and there's no reason to actually fight; just run away).

I think the worst example of a learning curve is Spore. Every time I turn around while playing that game, I'm wholeheartedly disappointed with the complete lack of attention to gameplay details. From controls to mission design to frustratingly boring trade runs and feeling like the whole game is just filler to have an excuse to create a Universe (which I think it actually was), the scope of the game is huge but the learning curve is nearly barbaric, with each 'stage' of the game thrusting you into a completely new game (essentially) with little/no training.

I also think Company of Heroes is worth mentioning here. In single-player, it's relatively straightforward: create units, throw them at the ai. Sometimes certain units work better than others, but generally speaking you can just throw together clumps of big, expensive units and you'll be able to beat any computer. Multiplayer is another game altogether, where every second counts as a chance to either win or lose the game. The depth of a seemingly simple choice between a machine gunner, rifle squad, or inexpensive engineers can cost you or win you the game. The learning curve starts out simple and I really like how you're encouraged to learn from your mistakes (you can record each match you play).

I haven't played Death to Spies yet, but you've piqued my interest. It sounds like a game with enough depth to be fun, and I did enjoy the Hitman series quite a lot. Strangely enough, I've been playing a lot of Xcom lately too.

Johnnyburn said...

There are some games that I enjoy because they are difficult, and some games that I dislike for the same reason. The reason that I, and most people, enjoy a difficult game is our self-competitive/obsessive drive, which can be a very satisfying itch to scratch.

The perfect difficulty is when the goal is just out of reach. Despair results from making the job too difficult.

Tuning the difficulty relies on the assumption that the gameplay is worth "getting stuck" in. If the gameplay is tedious, or if the player's actions do not determine the outcome, lingering there can be a chore of clicks. The best case is when the player gets to intimately know a problem and to purposefully explore an entertaining, wide space of solutions to win. Really getting to know a complex problem makes its defeat sweeter.

I tend to enjoy puzzle-games for this sort of difficulty, The Incredible Machine, that one flash game with the motorcycle and the apples, and the shooter "oops I quicksaved with one bar of health in a firefight" scenario.

One game that I dislike for it's difficulty is Sim-City and Civilization. It is hard for me to guage the difficulty settings. The problem here is the lag between input by the player and feedback from the game regarding the selection of difficulty. In SimCity, you only find out that you've overestimated your skill when you have sunk three hours into a new city. The XCOM scenario is the same.

With SimCity, the system is so complex (and my skill so low) that I perceive it as almost non-deterministic. Overly-complex games and games of random chance have the same source for their frustration.

gauss said...

Great comments.

Jesse: thanks for bringing up Resident Evil. I've only played portions of the earlier games, but RE4's first ganados village seems built in the same spirit as the sequence you describe from the original. If you're already well versed in the gameplay and controls (or, as in a new game +, already armed to the teeth to boot), it's not really a big deal.

But I have a fond memory of my brothers and I witnessing that first panic-inducing village fight on the Gamecube, and loving every tense minute. We didn't stay cool, and that's a lot of the fun.
In fact I died probably three or four times trying to beat it, and the eventual successful playthrough is exactly the kind of thing that as a designer I would look forward to seeing in a playtest--I was cornered in the building across the road from the one where you find the shotgun, after having jumped off the roof, and the ganados were closing in with few shotgun shells left--and then the bell tolled. Nothing else in the whole game had the raw power of that introductory sequence, but then I can't imagine a game ever managing that sustained of a performance. (It would probably be pretty exhausting if it did.)

I can't give a full recommendation to Death to Spies yet given my own lack of progress in the game, but as this post should suggest, I certainly have been giving it a try. It reminds me of other Eastern European/Russian games of late, which have their development sensibilities rooted in PC games of the 90's in the best way.

COH I've not played--RTS games were always difficult for me and suspiciously like work in terms of how much I have to manage at once--but what I hear from players matches pretty consistently with your description. And hey, with Steam it's always a weekend sale away from purchase.

I think it's interesting that both of you bring up Maxis games independently. Spore I haven't played but again, Jesse's comments seem consistent with a lot of the comments I've read on the game.

John's criticisms I think are particularly insightful, in terms that our willingness to put up with difficulty or challenge correlates strongly with the payoff/feedback the game gives us.
SimCity is a fond childhood memory but we often fell to cheating fairly quickly for the same reasons--the game's systems were inscrutable. Unless this was intended as a wry commentary on the hopeless endeavour of being Mayor Carcetti (brilliant post idea: play a Sim City game with Baltimore modeled as closely as possible), which I don't think it was, this is a major failing of the game.

As you mention, part of the trap of SimCity of Civilization was that an inexperienced player might not be able to detect at all when they've just made a critical error; it only manifesting down the line when the player has sunk even more time into playing the game. I admit that this is a major problem with X-COM as well, but at least one that is thematically appropriate.

Our family was willing to play X-COM because we had the support/hint structure in place. It was fun to play and the mastery, the compelling nature of the alien invasion meant that we were willing to struggle through sinking time into several aborted/failed playthroughs just so we could "get it right." But then, as some have pointed out rightly, children will play anything and play it obsessively.
Look how much kids played Battletoads and never got anywhere with it.

huge sesh said...

I've been playing a lot of shoot-em-ups recently, and it's kind of an interesting exercise to look at the way their difficulty (90% execution, 10% foreknowledge) stacks up against something with a difficulty more akin to a roguelike (way more knowledge, way less execution). Both types of game are obsessed with death--a good roguelike should insist that the player learn something each time he dies. In a good shmup, your ability to see the screen and react to it has inched forward slightly every time you die and set a new high-water mark. The feedback to the player is quite rapid--ideally the player only punches a floating eye once. Rather than progress in a linear fashion toward the end of the game, the player instead loops over the beginning and increasingly further and further parts of the game until either he or the game is exhausted. I'd like to beat the Hard and Extra modes of Embodiment of Scarlet Devil this year, but I might not. However, I'll definitely have gotten better at it.

Also, I hate playing games that don't challenge me as I'm given more time to think of how boring/ugly/trite whatever I'm playing is.

gauss said...

huge sesh: I have a friend who's deeply invested into shmups and has given me similar insight into what makes them tick--just as you describe, almost a secret, unknown to outsiders of the genre mechanic. Simply "getting to the end," as in most games, really isn't the point, which I think is fascinating.

And I've only moderate exposure to roguelikes as well, and I like that idea very much too: that death should teach. Death hurts, but if you remember your lesson you'll be wiser the next time around.

The quicksave-death-reload cycles of FPS are still fun, but you've hardly learned anything and most of the time you're simply Groundhog Day-ing your way out of a hairy situation.

Anyway, shmups do suggest a number of very interesting alternate design philosophies that pretty far removed ffom mainstream gaming, yet here it's this well matured form in its own right.

huge sesh said...

Yeah, it's really too bad that the FPS became so tightly wrapped up with the idea of the quicksave. There's really nothing more jarring for the player than for him to get killed (losing whatever sensation of 'body' he had for the moment) and then force him to navigate an exogenous menu before the game restarts.

Developers are pretty explicitly trying to avoid the situation by giving the player regenerating health. Being on the verge of death is akin to dying in a more old-school game: the player is forced to take a break and rethink his strategy. Except, in modern games you return without losing your progress and it all happens without navigating a menu.

Jesse said...

I forgot to mention Farcry 2, which was absolutely amazing in some aspects and horribly lacking in others. In it, you have the option to make friends while out in the fields of Africa, and if one of your friends happens to be in a nearby area when you get gunned down, you'll wake up to them blasting away with whatever gun they have at the people who took you out. He or she will then patch you up, and you can run off to safety together or exact your righteous vengeance.

There are penalties and costs to this: You need to make friends in the first place, you don't want to abuse a friend and make them dislike you, and there's a very real chance that your friend will get gunned down themselves while trying to rescue you. The cause/effect is direct and in-your-face.

As for the Resident Evil story, I feel that they have gone farther and farther from what originally made the game fun for me. In Resident Evil 1, you didn't find a pistol until you had become an expert zombie-dodger. You found the shotgun around 1/4 of the way through the game and there was even a trick to getting it (not just a 'BING! Shotgun Acquired' messge). Ammunition was rare enough that I was even hesitant to use it in boss fights. Later, you even got the Colt Python for which ammunition was rare enough that I only fired it just after saving, then reloaded my game. I completed the game with every round I had picked up.

The newer games in the series plop ammunition off every other baddie and there are rounds littered all over every map. I always found myself looking for the next upgrade/gun/whatever rather than trying to get the absolute maximum out of my piddly little pistol. I admit that it wasn't necessarily a gameplay mechanic that catered to everybody, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

gauss said...

All I can really say is that I enjoyed Far Cry 2 much, much more than a lot of people. Look for a 'design reboot' on that game soonish, hopefully, it's been an idea stewing for a while.

Speaking of littering ammo, who else has played the L4D "Crash Course" DLC? Anyone else disconcerted by the profound overpopulation of stage 2 weapons and molotov/pipebomb spawns?

gauss said...

Huge Sesh: agreed. I think that we'd do better to consider more and more varied alternatives to quicksave, but on the other hand I'm also a believer in letting a player enjoy a game how they see fit. It's a challenge of giving them the niceties they believe themselves entitled to (generally PC players = quicksave) while still nudging them in the direction you want. There are OK and there are generally better ways to play certain games; you hope the player is at least aware of them.

Dave said...

One game that I've been actually been talking to my roommate about recently in regards to the learning curve would probably be Vagrant Story. The combat system for it is one of the strangest and most complex ones I've ever played in a JRPG, and in the 9 years I've had it, I don't feel like I've even begun to truly touch on how thoroughly you can exploit it if you know what you're doing.

For those that haven't played the game, it's a dungeon crawl JRPG where the properties of your weapons and armor are modified in real time depending on what kind of enemies you're fighting. (For example if you're killing a large number of humans with an axe, it will become stronger against humans, but weaker against elementals, and vice versa.) Essentially, it is impossible to play through the game using only one weapon, and trying to do so will result in an utterly broken weapon and boss battles where you chip away at a Dragon doing 0-3 damage with every strike. Rather, you have to tailor and modify weapons for each separate classification of enemies while forging and reforging them in blacksmith's shops scattered throughout the dungeon, making sure to enhance the desired attributes while weakening the undesirable ones.

The thing about it is that the game drops you in with almost no explanation of how this system works, and the actual status updates showing how your weapons are modifying are hidden by default, you have to go through a fairly elaborate series of menus just to turn on the option to learn what's happening to your sword as it happens.

My first playthrough when I got the game was when I was still in highschool, and through a bizarre combination of ingame glitches and unfortunately timed saves, I ended up rendering the game unwinnable at around the 60-70% mark. However, even before then, 45-60 minute long boss battles were a frequent occurrence for me simply because my weapons were so gimped. On my second playthrough, the average boss battle took about 20 minutes at the longest, but I still never completed the game due to a lack of time. Still, for Square's reputation of making easily accessible games, this one shows a willingness to let the player fail that's uncommon outside of the SaGa games. If you want to get good at weapon forging here, you really do have to work at it, and the game isn't going to give you any indication how to do so.

I've been wanting to replay the game for a while, as the presentation was some of the best on the Playstation, but it seems like since graduating highschool and then college I just don't have the time to sink into JRPGs anymore.

gauss said...

Dave--thanks for the detailed explanation of the combat system in Vagrant Story. It's not a game I'm familiar with at all, and I'm not typically one interested in JPRGs and their conventions, but that sounds like a fascinating approach.

It's funny how much games change the less time we have to play them... maybe all these games coming out are a lot more fun than we give them credit for, but for a younger generation?

Michael said...

One of the highest learning curve games I can think of is X3: Terran Conflict, as well as its predecessors.

It is a space game which puts a lot of focus on the world's economy in addition to the fighting. In Particular, all the goods and ships you can buy are produced by in game factories with supply and demand. For some particularly rare guns you have to search the galaxy for a factory producing it, then sell supplies to it so it can start producing the gun you want. The game lets you build stations of your own as well as manage fleets of ships instead of just your own.

From the start you are thrown into a large game world with a small ship and practically zero credits. If you follow the optional plot it proceeds in a simple fashion (follow x, help him kill y) at first, then pauses as it asks you to acquire a large amount of some type of resource without any direction of how to go about it. (For example, asking you to build a certain type of factory somewhere, which requires much more money than the plot mission rewards give you.)

Were it not for the active community produced guides when I was playing X3: Reunion, I would not have played past the 5 hour mark. I've played about 200 hours in both games now and I still haven't done all there is to do, and frequently find better ways to do things I thought I had perfected.

Another game with a ton of options is "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura". Think Fallout 1/2 in a Steampunk meets Middle Earth setting. While Fallout had a lot of options in character design Arcanum had even more.

The fundamental choice was to become Technological or Magical, where
the more magical you became the higher chance technological things would spectacularly fail near you. Besides that there were an array spells and inventions, combat, diplomatic, and thieving skills, as well as 8 character stats. For the most part all sorts of characters could muddle through the game even if not particularly strong, except for exactly one level which kills several character builds. (or forces them to grind on random encounters, which is almost a fate worse than death)

Despite having the highest learning curve games I've played, Arcanum is my favorite game of all time, with X3 being a close second. I think it is because more options mean a higher learning curve to effectively use all those options, and I love having options.

gauss said...

The idea of getting an arms factory's production levels up to a certain point simply so you can get a gun that you want is one of the most unexpected gameplay mechanics I've ever heard.

I'll confess that a combination of factors stopped me from getting very with the demo for X3. Mainly that it's a fairly rough hewn game, control/presentation-wise, but probably most unfortunately because of my own expectations were skewed toward thinking/hoping it was like some of my favorite space shooters. It isn't, which isn't the game's fault, but it didn't change my not really wanting to continue. Everyone who speaks well of the game, and there are many, get me wondering.

Arcanum I'm more familiar with, though that game is another list of unfortunate victims of unstable initial releases... am I right in thinking that like VTM:BL it got some fan patches late in life, or am I thinking of something else?
Funny how ahead of the curve it was on the whole "steampunk" craze.

Anyway, I agree absolutely with your final point. High initial difficulty usually pays off with mastery, and once there you've got so much more to experience than an easier, but simpler game.

Michael said...

Arcanum certainly had a terrible initial release, but the company itself fixed most crash and unable to complete quest related bugs eventually. The community then made a massive patch that fixes many game-play related bugs. Also there is a high resolution patch that was released, so its on my list for another play through when I get the time.

Unfortunately the production problem in X3 is emergent rather than by design. When the X3 artificial life manager detects a NPC station is failing it destroys the station. Since the AI is inefficient(partly by design even) it means that some of the guns that have less demand from NPC's have most of their initial factories removed, and the ones remaining barely struggle along.

Another point about X3 is that Egosoft (the developer) actually encourages the players to download scripts for the game to the point where they've included a script editor accessible while you are flying, and they compile the best user created scripts into an official bonus pack. The scripts range from adding additional hotkeys that should have been there in the first place to a complete re-balance of ships or redesign of AI routines. This further raises the amount of time you must spend learning and preparing to have a good experience. Usually I wouldn't include mods as part of a game's learning curve but since they are so integral to X3 it only seems right to include them.

If you liked Freelancer they redesigned the flying interface in Terran Conflict to mimic the Freelancer controls. However the interface and the number of clicks it takes to do some simple things are one of my biggest complaints about the game.

One area where I find spending a lot of time learning the mechanics doesn't increase my enjoyment is most Real Time Strategy games. I enjoy the genre as a whole, but I hate when I spend more time thinking about game mechanics than outsmarting my opponent.

gauss said...

Re: production problem--hey, it's a feature, not a bug! My own experience of production at times seemed like "polishing" the game was about slowly ironing out bugs, but also the endearing idiosyncrasies and endearing quirks of the AI and game along with them. Hard to keep a game fresh, sometimes the rougher hewn, overly ambitious-type games seem to retain that much more magic.

I'm impressed with the bit about the scripts though. Sometime soon I'd like to do an update about indie development and enfranchising the player base--even majors like Valve are admirably far removed from old ideas about "artist" and "audience" and never the twain shall meet. Not that you don't have to be careful, but call it "crowdsourcing" or whatever, getting your best and brightest players in on the act absolutely makes your game better, no matter who you are and no matter how big the game.

Also I've had discussions about why we don't see as many space games as we used to. They're not nearly as prohibitive as FPS and the like but not nearly as popular--and I guess there's your answer.

Thanks again Michael, some very interesting descriptions about games I've heard of but don't know enough about.

Anonymous said...

Planetside: Planetside was, and still is an amazing game to me. The learning curve is rediculious becuase of how many strategy, FPS, squad based, etc elements compose the game. But once you've become part of it.. it all makes sense. Of course, you get on the drop ship as a unit to assult an enemy base when they let their guard down, of course you can use these implants and that armor to bypass the enemy and take out their spawning points. It takes forever to explain the mechanics.. if you can even do it through pure explanation. but the rush of falling from 300 meters in a armored exoskeleton and running full speed past enemy soldiers in a hostile base.. not stopping untill every last round of amunition has been pumped into the core of their power generators... Well. Words don't do it justice.

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