Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Design Reboot: Clive Barker's Jericho

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Note: To clear up a common confusion to newcomers to the site: I did not work on Clive Barker's Jericho; this is the hypothetical/speculative work of an outsider to the game's production, as are most all of my posts.
 


Arcade Fire - My Body Is A Cage


Jericho was good enough to get itself into trouble. Most people seem not to take issue with unremarkably bad or uninspired games, but games with enough good ideas to spark a wistfulness for what could have can be upsetting. Glancing blows with greatness--really, it's these sorts of games that inspired this site.

We might not care about Jericho, had Clive Barker (an admitted non-gamer) not first lent his ideas and name to Undying, a horror FPS that found a cult audience following initially poor reception. Jericho may share some elements of the game's atmosphere, but the inspired mechanical depth of that title is unfortunately lacking with Jericho.

Peruse the rather over-detailed wikipedia summary for a plot synopsis: Jericho is about a supernatural SWAT-team of seven characters out to re-trap God' first creation, the Firstborn, in a sort of time-anomalous ruin in the middle east called Al Khalil. In order to do this, they travel back through dimensional pockets back through time.

To say the game doesn't live up to it's potential is facile to the point of meaninglessness, despite how oft-repeated the criticism is of games it's applicable to all but the most perfectly scoped and executed titles; rather we will point out the major issues, and more importantly the kernels of good ideas and expand upon them.

Problems

Jericho's largest faults lay with the dearth of challenge in uniquely videogame terms. Yes, some of the fights are difficult, but all puzzles are solved for you (anything blocking your passage will prompt you immediately which team member is needed to clear it), and logistically the game is lacking any depth with the employment of both regenerating health and regenerating ammo.

There are absolutely no items, power-ups, or collectibles to be found in the environment and very little to interact with. This makes the straightjacket-linear levels, convincingly rendered as some of them are, completely dead to the player; much player involvement is lost when there is no need to investigate surroundings.

Level layout typical of the original Jericho. Linear, with nothing to collect.

There were bright spots however--the early game twist of your stalwart, generic white male hero player character getting killed and becoming a ghost is one of them.
From that point you can possess the remaining team members at will, imbuing them with the character's own healing powers.
There is one other character (Father Rawlings) capable of resurrecting characters so there is a reasonable depth to battles where you must ensure that the squad stays alive by way of resurrecting fallen teammates. With no one left alive you lose and must restart to the last checkpoint.

Resolutions

This gameplay concept is what's worth expanding on, with the attendant hooks in the world fiction. The most obvious problem solving would be to re-activate the world in terms of interest. The player and his squad need to be able to look for supplies and feel rewarded for it; the player also could use level layouts that actually provide some tactical depth.
Longer engagement distances (allowing the player to set up and use Black, the sniper character, effectively), and more varied enemy attack patterns other than straight forward suicide charges or stand-and-fire would also be important additions.

Proposed level layout style: multiple approaches, some which require certain squad mates to still be alive to access, items/collectibles, differing engagement distances.

As covered in the redesign of the game's characters, I think an essential element of a horror atmosphere is the vulnerability, humanity of the team themselves; introducing ways in which they might deteriorate in a decidedly un-videogame-like fashion could be very interesting.

There was an Apple II game, the name is lost to me, that involved rescuing hostages. There was a "practice" and a "for keeps" mode--if you played in the latter and lost a hostage, that hostage's profile was deleted permanently off the 5¼-inch floppy disk.

I thought about this in combination with an element from Hitman: Contracts. In that game, there is a collectible weapon in plain view behind a locked door, the key to which is only acquired in the second to last level. The player needs to get the keycard and then re-play the first mission to get the gun, which like any of the collectible weapons, can then be used in any other mission.
This may just be an aspect of the game's fiction setting up most of the missions as being replayed in 47's memory, but I don't think the framing device is necessary; these sorts of things keep to game-logic, and that is enough. It is unique to the medium and therefore should be used freely, as it is something that is ours alone.

Where I'm going with this is a change to the core mechanics of Jericho that would follow, in terms of achronological game logic: we'll say that characters can be resurrected, as they could be in the original game, but with a price.
There is some toll extracted, shuttling to and from the mortal coil such that after a certain number, teammates will become listless and withdrawn, though their combat effectiveness stays roughly the same. I am thinking of the slow graying, darkening of Wander, the player character in Shadow of the Colossus.

The "death counter" increments regardless of save state, the only way to reset it is to start a new game. This means that together with some more conventional restorations to the gameplay--more interesting levels, item collection, non-regenerative healing/ammunition--the game takes on longer-term ramifications. After say ~20 or so deaths (the threshold number would change based on chosen difficulty), a team member is no longer themselves, a short of walking shadow of their previous selves--so you have the option of leaving them to die permanently. Final team makeup and their death counters figure prominently into what kind of ending you receive, but also the choices the player makes in the narrative.

The idea being that as you progress in the game, there are real cost/benefits to how you fight the battles, who you use or push harder. You can rez your teammembers indefinitely if you don't care about them as characters, but at the end of the game you end up with a set of shadow-men, ghostly revenants. There might be inherent conflicts of interest--unlike the original game we'll say that the Priest and the guy with the fire demon possessing his arm don't exactly get along.

You might let a few of the squad members take more hits than others, and sacrifice them later in order to smooth out team dynamics--say I don't care for Church's ninja-style abilities or how she bickers with Black, so I use her as cannon fodder until late in the game at which point I let her die.
Like the original game, there would be roadblocks that would require a specific teammember's abilities to pass--but they would either be alternate paths/shortcuts/access to secret caches instead
A sketch of ending patterns as follows, many of them can be achieved simultaneously:

  • Shadow King: all teammates revenants (50+ deaths) at end
  • Alive Alone: all teammates dead save one at end
  • The Vocation: Father Rawlings (not player) handles all rezzing; no revenants at end
  • Rude Mechanicals: only Delgado, Black, Cole alive at end
  • Get Behind Me: Delgado survives fire demon exorcism
  • Preservation Society: End playthrough with all original squad weapons intact
  • The Loss of Ross: game ends with team leader's ghost lost forever
  • Sun King: No revenants, all teammates survive end
  • The Story is the Same: team agrees to sacrifice themselves containing Firstborn
  • The Story Changes: team defeats Firstborn
My only nagging concerns with this concept is that they fall into the same traps of other titles with multiple endings, being that one ending above all others is considered the "best" ending, whereas others are "bad" or less preferable. I'm more interested in games with narratives centered on player actions, holding a mirror to how the player makes sense of the world and their choices, rather than stale, one-dimensional moralizing or cheap counterfeits of storytelling in other media.
What, dear readers, do you think are ways to resolve this issue?

35 comments:

draco said...

neat ideas m8.

cant think of any answers to your question, as long as some endings leave the player characters better off you'll always leave players that get the other endings feeling bad about how they left their characters.

Bahamut said...

A good way to ensure that all ending are interesting is to grey themselves. For example, "Shadow king" which can be defined as a "bad ending" (I am careless for my teammate and I play like a barbarian), maybe you can add some benefitials to this state of ghost. Revenants are free for corporeal engagement and they wander in the void in this state, eternals guardians of the firstborn. Or maybe they can more easily transmit their powers/knowledge to some rookies or progeny.
In the opposite, the fact that they defeast the Firstborn engage a process in which deamons are now free to be unleash on the earth with no ruler at all.

It might appear artificial but it's interesting to counterbalance endings to give players a choice non-manichaean (or a least a "not so bad" ending with they are poor players).

bhlaab said...

Well you have games like Fallout where the ending you get is completely dependent on your own way of handling things. If you do "good" things then you get a slightly happier ending. Do bad things, you get to revel in the aftermath of your own destruction.

Action games tend to be a bit different because, well, they play differently. Different paths don't crop up naturally as a side effect of gamplay like in RPGs, so you tend to have obvious forks in the road (Did you save the Little Sisters or kill them?) or endings are created by player ability, like in your examples.
Obviously, as a designer, you want the player who takes the extra effort to keep his team alive to get a sufficient reward for doing so at the end. That ending, by necessity, has to be "better".

Aside from those two things, what can you do to gauge the player's actions? Different endings based on which gun they used the most? Getting a special "holy shit you used a lot of grenades didnt you!" ending?

Hmm... now that I think about it, didn't STALKER do something much like that? Like, if you have a ton of money your main character is presented as a greedy guy in the ending.

bhlaab said...

@Bahamut> The problem there is you're still getting that ending for dieing a lot and therefore it's the "you suck" ending.

Anonymous said...

As the characters become shadows of their former selves, would they keep any of the distinguishing character design elements detailed in the last post? If so, how would you do this?

Or, if they all look fairly close to the ghoul pictured here in the frequently-revived state, would this be counted as a "penalty" against the player who chooses to revive them many times? That doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the game you're proposing, so I'm wondering how the player would be able to quickly identify one walking abomination on their team from the next.

soylent robot said...

This kind of reminds me of Fire Emblem. You have units which are one character, a swordsman, mage, archer etc, and they have their own stats and abilities. The thing if, if they die in one of the game's combats, they're dead forever and you can't get them back. It helps that all the units are so well characterized, I often go out of my way to save my favourites. The ending of the Fire Emblem games change slightly depending on who is dead and who isn't, but it's nothing more than the alive ones appear in the final cutscene and say a few lines.

Mark said...

The Dow2 expansion that's coming out soon actually has a mechanic similar to this: each of your squads has a "chaos" meter that increases based on the decisions you make. Higher chaos gives you new abilities and weapons while leaving you unable to use other weapons and having people mistrust because you're acting more and more like the enemy. The ending is different depending on how affected by chaos your squads are.


You could use a similar mechanic here, where the extent to which squad members become revenants is determined by choices that can be weighed by the player.

Building on the idea of ressurection making the characters more ethereal you could use healing as an indicator instead, as that way it feels like taking a certain amount of damage is inevitable even if you play well and so it becomes more a question of who takes that damage.

On top of that, special areas that need powers to breach could be opened by multiple members of your squad, but the effort required leaves the chosen person near deaths door, and reviving them leaves them considerably more distant. Instead of just items down special paths, you'd have people or souls that need saving so it's a question of the 'greater good'.

Eventually the outcome would be that either you take only what damage you can and leave people to die in order to keep your squad human, leave them husks in sacrificing themselves to save everybody they can, or walk a middle road and spread a bit of the damage around (or concentrate it on a handful of members) and save only those who you can afford to.

Revenants would gain certain powerful abilities but take more and more damage from attacks and therefore require more healing as their connection to the world becomes tenuous, accelerating the decay.

Anu said...

You solve it by producing an ending choice set that can't be "all good".

One way would be to *require* sacrifice of one of the team members. The classic "I'll stay behind and set off the bomb" approach. Who do you leave, and why? Is it unfair? Yes. So is life.

Another would be to make it such that survival of all players meant damaging the world or compromising the team's goals - the old "do you save your friend or save the city/stranger" dilemma.

I like the idea of balancing aggressive play/risk taking/"damaging" your characters against a cautious, safe play style, bypassing quests, loot, and fight opportunities but preserving some other aspect of your characters.

The main challenge as I see it is that most games don't do a very good job of making you care about ONE character. Getting me to care about a team of them is very hard.

It's not impossible - Planetfall made me care about an annoying robot, so much so that I cried. X-Com made me care about a number of all-but-identical squaddies. Fallout made me care about an incredibly dumb dog, and Fallout 2 made me care about people who kept shooting me in the back. Etc.

Robert Yang said...

Hmm. The sense of "good" and "bad" endings stems from people associating "good" = best performance = optimal = everyone alive. So possibly if you can disrupt one link in that chain, you're on your way to getting rid of the good vs. bad mentality.

The problem is that you need more of a narrative benefit to becoming a "revenant" because right now it's not a real choice - "optimal" play entails everyone maintaining humanity because that's what's good, meanwhile demons from hell = not human = bad. But I guess it's difficult to support "losing your humanity" as an attractive alternative.

So seeing as it's a game about possession, maybe you could side-step that problem altogether: at the end, the player can only choose to possess one team member alone to survive. In that sense, they choose their favorite world view / favorite play-style. Meanwhile, some characters would specifically refuse to be possessed by you, unless you weakened their will by rev-ing them so much.

Johnnyburn said...

I am curious how these subtleties could or should be explained to the player.

If you want to have a natural-consequences, organic sort of impact on the story, then you wouldn't need to explain it too much: it just happens.

But if the player choices have major and permanent consequences to the game, then you have to educate the player in the beginning or along the way.

I suppose some awkward dialogue in a cut-scene is the standard approach.

Cool idea, and nice composite painting at the top -- I can definitely feel the increased vulnerability that you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the kill-counter independent of save-state is that players will need to get that Sun King ending no matter what & will become furious having to start the game from scratch whenever a squad member dies. like that thing Operaman posted in ycs about kongregate achievements. - hipster

Anonymous said...

I agree to an extent with hipster, but what if you took a different approach to game progress / anticipated multiple playthroughs by shortening the game length?

The mention of deaths being consistent across saves reminds me of the original Prince of Persia. I cursed the time mechanic at first, yet that game wouldn't have been the same without it. I don't remember anyone beating that bastard on the first go, but you weren't expected to either.

So apply the same idea here-- keep the game short, 10 hours max, and use the killcounter across saves as proposed. Most players on a first runthrough will end up with at least a few revenants, which will encourage them to give it another go. Second time through they'll be armed with what they know from the last attempt and be better able to make it through unscathed. Hell, maybe even have the Hitman retroactive unlockables as well, so second time around you have access to some better weapons/abilities or something. The important thing would be that the revenant/non-revenant status of squad members have clear repercussions in the game world, so that consecutive playthroughs are actually different experiences.

That's my 2 cents anyway. Cool post.

Also Church is a cutie. Is that wrong?

Anonymous said...

Hello? You still here?

gauss said...

Yes, I am. Ever vigilant, ever scheming. We were due in for an update today, the first of the new year, but some work-related matters are more pressing. Don't worry, it shouldn't be much longer.

Resin said...

One way to approach it would be that optimal endings would account for both players left alive and time taken to complete, pitting the careful gameplay style against the barrell through it approach without necessarily favoring one over the other.

One thing I would find annoying is if this element were not made clear to me at the begining of the game, I would hate to feel like I have to play through the game multiple times unless I really really loved the gameplay itself, and that the game had enough choice involved that I could get a really different experience the second time through.

SideburnsPuppy said...

I like the idea, though not too sure about having the degradation saving-independant. It would really be odd having a character at no deaths, saving, playing through the rest of the game (without saving), then loading that save file again and finding the character a zombie.

Permanent punishments really is a concept I dislike. In a game, a player is thrust into a new world with strange and different rules. Occasionaly, these rules are not fully explain. The player will curiously experiment, only to find that their innocent tests have caused permanent consequences (see: Execution by Jesse Venbrux).

As for tackling the problem of "good" endings, I liked the way Iji did it, by having the game end more or less the same way no matter what the player does, but give the player different interactions with NPCs and slight plot differences depending on their pacifism.

Anonymous said...

For great endings of games it's best to make only one. An ending must CONCLUDE the story and be climatic. To do this look at other games with great endings.

SPOILERS

Portal:
Valve's ending was to the masterpiece that was Portal was beautifully executed.

When you arrive and find GLaDOS. You destroy her morality core only to discover that she going to kill you with it gone. Once it is destroyed her voice goes low and angry. She decides to kill you. Now you have to redirect missiles to hit GLaDOS. This is probably the easiest puzzle of the game but it is so scary because you are afraid of the evil robot thats going to kill you.

Then once you destroy her you her the song "Still Alive" and get the achievement "Heart Breaker" the kinda of thing that says "How dare you kill her!" You feel bad for killing her but you when you were doing it it was the easiest decision you've ever made.

Braid:
Xbox Live's famous Indie game.

The ending of the game is incredible because like Portal you thought you were doing something but really something else entirely was happening

Left 4 Dead 2:
This one is a little different than the other. In every Champaign when the rescue arrives the horde comes at extreme rates so extreme that usually you have to leave at least one of your allies down and to die. In most games this would be no big deal but in L4D2 you're allies are the most important thing so leaving them behind feels like committing the biggest betrayal. All the game does when this happens says "In loving memory of ____" reminding you that you could of helped them but they were Left for Dead.

Anyway, for your ending I think the best ending would be one that one makes you feel guilty for resurrecting your comrades rather than let them die or make them feel bad for leaving there.

Since this is a horror game you should use this to increase the loneliness of being in the game by yourself. By make them paranoid at the fact that there comrades are no longer the ones that they knew and it's worse than them being dead as they were.

Bioshock does a great job of including horror in the game and the Ravenholm section of Half Life 2 are great examples of horror games that could be analyzed to inspire horror elements.

Anonymous said...

I think multiple endings only really work if the game was not linear in the first place.

And make the player know they are building their own road. And at the same time not telling him which direction they are going to.

A massive mistake of many RPGs is to make the game so inherenly complex in their stats, abilities and menus that the player is encouraged to check guides and faqs, and they eventually check the multiple endings and quests. Then they are able exactly what they have to do to obtain certain weapon or achieve certain ending.

A non-linear game with multiple plot directions and endings should NOT encourage the player to see outside of the game world. I think its needed to remove all the infinite menus and stats and quest logs.

In almost all fantasy RPGs I simply look at the stats of the different blades I have and then I know which one is better. I think that's wrong, almost all stats should be hidden so the player MUST test the different swords in battle so he knows which is best for him.

Its the same thing with the endings. The best way to know an ending is to experience it, and if you play again and want to get another ending, take different decisions.

And most importantly, every decision and action the player does should matter.

gauss said...

Good comments everyone.

This is one of the updates I put up while still internally conflicted about the design ideas I put forward in it. But like the act of making a game, at some point you have to set aside doubts and desire to do it over and just commit. And in this case I'm glad I did, there's been a lot of interesting discussion as a result, I particularly like the last few.

I don't know where I sit exactly on the multiple/one ending question; a part of me doesn't want the stinky feeling of getting the "wrong" ending, but the other part rebels at the notion that a medium all about interactivity would tie up everything in the end the same way, no matter how you comport yourself.

I think my favorite approach, and the one I tried to mirror a little bit in the design, is the original Fallout's ending: it is satisfyingly final, closing all major plot threads, but it also has a "whatever happened to so and so?" segment, which parcels out interesting info regarding the various people, factions, places and so forth that you've encountered in a big way.

It's not a form that fits all games, but it's one of that was one of the most satisfying overall that I can remember.

And you're right, [most recent] Anonymous--the trick is not having this variable, player-decided content, but educating the player that he's making decisions that matter.

Though I will say that generally, most players in the first third of the game tend to approach something with almost unlimited hope for its possibilities.

I also agree that burying stats as much a possible is in line with how I like to approach things. Personally. The stats-to-the-heavens approach has its own place and time, even if certain mechanics have really worn out their welcome.

Anonymous said...

"In almost all fantasy RPGs I simply look at the stats of the different blades I have and then I know which one is better. I think that's wrong, almost all stats should be hidden so the player MUST test the different swords in battle so he knows which is best for him."

If the weapons are named somehow (which they'd need to be to differentiate stat-free swords, etc) this would probably increase the likelihood of me looking up which is best online. Why should I spend ten minutes empirically testing each of the 10,000 junk swords I run across, when I can spend 5 minutes to look up which is best? The trouble is balancing realism with ease of understanding.

I'm personally a fan of the weapon system in Mass Effect 2. With 13-odd hours logged in the game, I only have maybe 4 alternatives to the default weapon loadout, and the major improvements come through researching upgrades.

Copperkat said...

It's almost a bit funny that "saving the world" isn't enough to make the player feel like they've effected change in the world around them anymore.

Sometimes alternate endings feel cheap to me. Not just the black and white ones. How do you make a player feel accomplished without patronizing them?

Perhaps there's a way to keep the same ending, but stray in meaningful ways afterward? Any ending based on statistical performance rather than subtle decision making will feel like a report card...

Vanguard said...

I don't think there's a problem with the way you propose doing the endings. Some endings do sound clearly better than others, but it's based on different levels of success/failure in your ability to play as opposed to the old "you chose the old "choose the option that matches the developers opinion to win!" thing.

Vanguard said...

I have no idea how the comment ended up that way. Sorry. I meant to say

the old "you chose the option that matches the developer's opinion to win" thing.

Resin said...

For me the best games just don't end, emergent sandbox MMO features- The way Mortal Online is going about it, is at least in theory the best I could possibly ask for, including their handling of weapon variations - kind of off-topic as that is an entirely different genre though.

Endings are so important, so many books and tv series had me fully enthralled only to blow it hard core with the endings. Battle Star Galactica and some of Robert Jordan's books come to mind. I really liked the ending to A Serious Man - it flew in the face of the big mistake so many writers fall into of wrapping everything up too neatly while still addressing a sort of thematic conclusion. I'm still holding out hope for the final season of LOST and for Robert Jordan's Song of Ice and Fire both of which could easily blow everything I've enjoyed about them with a crappy ending.

Maybe it seems a bit off-topic but I did have a point, and that was simply Quality over Quantity. If you have 2000 possible endings and they are all crap, who cares. I would rather see one or just a few possible endings truly well done than a million possibilities.

To waffle on the point a bit though, a good ending to an interactive experience should be reflective of the player's choices. But not in a report card way, and I would actually say not in a 'gotta see em all' way either. Rather it should reinforce and conclude thematicly what the player has created.

How the hell do you do that?

Anonymous said...

The obvious (at least to me) solution is to have no ending whatsoever. An end to the main storyline, sure, but put enough into the game after that last mission that I keep playing, and in such a way that my choices are reflected in the world. I'd rather see my choices affecting the world around me than be informed posthumously that they did (a la Fallout 3).

As for how to affect the game world, I think it should be cumulative, not the result of one-time decisions. For example, in Fable 2, as a child you have the option of collecting some arrest warrants for a guard, or giving those same warrants to a criminal. When you return years later, the district has either flourished or become a crime-ridden slum accordingly. While this makes sense on occasion (Fallout 3- Megaton's nuke), the majority of changes should be a result of run-of-the-mill actions. If I run around breaking laws, the city should VERY SLOWLY shift into a poverty-stricken mess. Alternatively, If I help out every person I see, perhaps the people become inspired and civilians begin to take up arms against any criminals they see.

The only problem I see is striking the right balance. Some developers will have too many variables, some will have too few. That's just the nature of things.

Resin said...

Makes me think of Mount and Blade - just a good sandbox style world. And that works for that genre, but I do think there is something of value to be found in more narrative based games. Perhaps a sandbox style world with narrative based quest arcs that effect the world would be the best of both worlds.

Anonymous said...

The problem with multiple ending in this case, is that you are just essentially punishing the player for bad performance. Players feel insulted.

The way to solve this is to either allow the player to easily "fix" his mistakes or making it less punishing.

For example, you could put a spin on the narrative and play in a way that you are finding out what happened at HellHoleVille by playing the levels.

You play a succession of levels and you get a bad ending. But wait, the game isn't over yet. You find yourself in a world that would logically be left after the ending.

And you can alter that by replaying the levels. You can replay the first level with no deaths and with no revenants, and you find that you begin the next level with no revenants.

You can then introduce some nice tricks with both the narrative and gameplay. You may know weak-spots, have powers that are out-of-line with what the story supposedly gave you the first time around (and the characters would note it). So you could end up with a meta-story or something.

Or you could just do a more simple thing and make a horror story that does not involve a squad of well-armed soldiers fighting monsters that can be harmed with bullets.

Anonymous said...

To expand upon that, if I may:

You unlock "more" hints and possibly weapons and powers by always keeping the characters alive, according to a certain skillset. The priest-guy could read latin (the more revenant he is, the less able he is to remember how latin went). One of the girls could pick locks (whatever would be according to their nature) or reach otherwise ignored areas for goodies or access safer routes. Appropriate stuff could be done with guy characters as well, "Jones" would know how to make controlled demolitions, Delgado could summon and talk with spirits (he used to be a shaman) and so one.

As for the gameplay, the grind-tasting "shoot the bright weak spot" should be removed.

Instead, one could make the gameplay a bit more like L4D: you have to navigate from point A to B, trying to find better routes. Instead of canon fodder, you would have innumerable canon fodder: endless amount of enemies that you can only hope to survive and avoid, fights only broken with an occasional boss (or not even that). Kill the boss, and you gained yourself a moment of peace in which to move on.

Anonymous said...

the problem with this is that you again fall into the trap of certain endings seeming "better" than others. Imagine a role-playing game, where there are good actions, and there are evil actions (aka anything made by bioware). Whether to be good, evil, or even somewhere in between is personal preference- the world will change somewhat, and certain plot aspects will be different, but the good player isn't going to have access to all these awesome guns while the evil player gets crappy ones.

For example, I never detonated Megaton in Fallout 3 ever. I did it exactly one time, to see what would happen, but then re-loaded my save. Why? Not because I always played a good character- because no matter if I was playing good or evil, Megaton was always more convenient to have as a home town than Tenpenny tower. What was supposed to be a massive Good vs Greed decision was instead a simple matter of "If I blow this town up, I'll have to load a new area one time more to sell all my stuff than if I don't."

This is a design flaw, when practicality overrides morality. (Not to bash Fallout 3 or Bioware, I absolutely love them. Therefore, they're the handiest examples, as I've played alot of both.)

quantumdot said...

The last Anonymous brought up a point that I was considering as I read through--the possibility of the "main" game itself being very short, but depending on how you fared with the rezzing and the final battle, getting a "bad" ending might actually end up unlocking additional playing time. The world's gone to shit, and your ragtag bunch is nearly completely wasted of all humanity. It's up to you whether to fight off the demons, or simply give into the inevitable wasteland that's before you. I don't know how well this would break any paradigms, but usually unlocked = good ending; in this, it'd be very clear that's not the case.

Additionally, looking at the summaries of the characters' personalities on Wikipedia, I got a sense that the characters were initially very strong with their own dynamics, drives, etc. Whether this carried through to the actual game, I don't know. But incorporating these elements and forming bonds--Black is the only one who empathizes with Cole because of the latter's autism, Church is dating Delgado--could re-enforce the increased focus on character. Without going so far as to make a Final Fantasy out of it, these dynamics could easily come into play wrt to rezzing and such. Some characters might be less willing to take part in certain things because of these dynamics.

Obviously, from a game developing perspective, the latter would be tough to thoroughly implement, so maybe a watered-down version would be better. But hey, this is an idea factory after all, and who knows? Maybe some day the technology will support it.

quantumdot said...

Well, penultimate anon, since it seems another commented while I was typing!

Anonymous said...

"the problem with this is that you again fall into the trap of certain endings seeming "better" than others."

It's not a trap if you do it intentionally. People want a happy ending or an ending that has a point.

Playing trough a game only to find out that all your efforts were for naught is not something you want to archive.

As for morality, the best thing you can do is to move away from dualism. That is, and I know I am hitting an undead horse here, move away from writing path that either set you out to be Jesus-incarnate or Satan/Devil/AntiChrist/WhatHaveYou walking the earth with a stick somewhere uncomfortable.

Part of the problem is that most developers are a bit squeamish, for obvious reasons, to allow the player to do a despicable act. It's easier to write it into a novel, draw it in a comic or even have actors play it out, but due to the less-narrative nature of video games... well, I would guess that every studio's nightmare fears a newspaper headline like "video game encourages violence against children and elderly men" or something on similar lines.

Try to imagine any moral conundrum. Then imagine how you would have to do it in-game. Then imagine how easy it is to misinterpret that.

You see, one of the problems with moral decisions is that you can re-load your game to a point before the moral decision. Or that people will keep making the same moral decisions every time because they perceive them as being the right ones.
You see, there is the problem with doubt and second-guessing the whole issue. If players do not second-guess, then you have created a moral-choice system for nothing. If players do second-guess, then they re-load and end up being frustrated. If not out-right figuring out the developer's intentions.

Here's an example: in the first BioShock, you could have chosen between absorbing the Little Sisters or freeing them. The choice between them supposedly is that you may deliberately cripple yourself if you do not kill little girls. Only to find out that by rescuing them, you essentially get the same thing if you were evil.
So you have to realize that no one will choose evil. And then you have to make moral decisions that makes the player curious rather than insulted or their moral values questioned.

As for the Megaton thing: what made it pointless is not only that you inconvience yourself by nuking a city (that was incredibly hap-hazardly placed to begin with) but also lacked incentive. What would you get again, some money? I was playing Too-Good-for-Goodie-two-shoes and I was swimming in money, guns and whatnot. I never had a problem with money.

As for relationship: one of the things video games should focus on is going on more subtle cues to give narrative.
For example, Church and Delgado could hug in more peaceful moments and ask about the other when separated.
Black and Cole could have a bit of "bis siter - little sister" sort of relationship, Black never quite admitting her care for Cole and Cole looking up to Black. This could be represented by occasional comments of "Now what has she gotten herself into?" from Black and "I wonder what Black would do?" from Cole. Or something like a common piece of clothing, showing a bit of a bond.

And finally, let me again expand on what I meant under L4D stlye gameplay: the point of the levels is to constantly be on the move. The group must not stay in one place for too long. The feeling then wouldn't be some maxed-out commando team moping the floor with their enemies but give a sense of desperation.
This would also give impression of the hellish environment: their guns, their powers, their will is useless for they are in an eternal prison that will suck out every bit of their strength.

Anonymous said...

"Playing trough a game only to find out that all your efforts were for naught is not something you want to archive."

I'm not positive, but I think you mis-understood me. I think that the ending should be reflective of your play style. If you choose to kill somebody, then the ending should be affected by their absence.

However, if you complete the game without ever dying even once, you shouldn't get a different ending. Do you deserve a new ending? Perhaps. But, if you are given one, the game is now unadjusted to the player- instead of being able to play at a pace/difficulty challenging for you, in order to experience everything you must have a certain prerequisite skill level.

As for the duality of morality (which, btw, is quite catchy. Have you considered a career in poetry?) I completely agree. When I'm given two options- help an innocent, or kill him because he's in my way- it leads to a good playthrough/ evil playthrough mentality. You play through once as a saint, and then again as a demon, never actually thinking about the consequences of your choices. The best choices were the ones that were grey- for example, in the original Mass Effect, deciding which teammate to leave behind. Neither decision has any moral consequences, aside from those the player creates for themselves.

That's not the only way to go about it, however. Another method I liked was Dragon Age: Origins. In DA, there was no morality meter- it simply didn't exist. Your choices affected your companions' opinions of you, but that was it. If you chose to kill someone for no reason, companion A slightly dislikes you, and maybe you have to do some side-quest where you're arrested for the murder. I had characters that moved from one extreme on the continuum to the other over the course of the game.

Jakkar said...

I'm late to this one, so I'll only make the point that ambition and dedication are missing in the average development team. Poor decisions lead to bloated development teams dependent upon publisher paychecks, trying to turn art into a living through persistence rather than inherent worthiness in the quality of their produce.

It is always someone's fault that a team end's up rushed, underfunded, crushed under someone's boot or terrified of losing the office lease, or their own homes. Cruel perspective, but the choices are made somewhere - even if so far back that the choice was 'start a formal development studio' without being able to handle it.

We all make mistakes sometimes, of course. But we're still to blame for them.

My sympathy for the rushed-developer underdog is wearing thin in recent years.

...

Shadow of the Colossus was a work of art. It felt unusually complete. It felt like it made no compromises. There were tiny lizards. There were birds. There wasn't a corner of the world that didn't mesmerise me.

It was an adult among children, a god among men, a diamond in a pool of mud a kilometre square. SOTC had something even the industry giants don't. Half Life games have a lot of rough edges, Halo 2 and 3 were frayed at the seams where level design goals became obvious and you could smell the old paths that had been cut back to remove overambitious chapters and scenes. Modern Warfare generally feels like a burnt out modern day Quake mod made love to a sweet and inexperienced Movie whore on a strange night in vegas, and produced a braindead, twitching mutant child without eyes or fingers. Damn, I should probably sleep when I start typing things like that.

You point out small details many players won't notice long after it starts, such as Wander's slow degradation as he trafficks more and more of Dormin's spirit. Details that earned nothing, were still implemented, AND didn't stop the gaming being the single most 'awesome' experience I've had.

Real life has had its moments - blizzards last year, massive thunderstorms with four strikes of lightning hitting the sea less than a mile out, an entire ant-nest exposed beneath a slab, such beautiful, intricate complexity.

But I think SOTC actually won out, over all I've seen and explored. Mixing music, incredible visuals, involving gameplay with a deep, physics-active interactivity.. And then inviting my own imagination in just to bring the whole experience to life without any immersion-breaking bad decisions.

The most 'complete' of my awestruck experiences, then. The most absolute.

A good reference to make in almost any game design article. It's one of the benchmarks I cite in my own musings, alongside Vampire Bloodlines characters, Fallout's freedom and atmosphere, System Shock 2's depth, Dwarf Fort's unparalleled scale and ambition...

DemonDoll said...

I was waiting for an appropriate article onto which to tack a discussion about spoilers and this comes pretty close. I really like your ideas about touching and meaningful video game stories, choices and gameplay mechanics. I find myself dreaming up these situations, too, where a player might need to make a tough decision... but then I think about how I myself would play such a situation and am disappointed.

In a previous article you said something along the lines of not wanting to play a game to get the perfect ending but rather to get it to tell your own story. That seems like a beautiful sentiment but I've never been able to do that to any degree. In any game that keeps track of anything I like to get perfect scores - that is what is satisfying to me about finishing those types of games, e.g. Painkiller - getting all the cards/treasures/kills/etc. or Final Fantasy - getting all the materia/summons/weapon upgrades/etc. In both of those cases I was forced to resort to spoilers, to varied degrees.

The point is that I DO NOT LIKE DOING THAT! so let's explore some games where that is not necessary. One example is inFamous, where the game tells you exactly what you need to collect and why and even gives you a mechanism for locating the hard to find ones so that I don't have to poke my head in every hole a dozen times. Even in the story every time there was an event I could influence Cole explained the general outcomes of the choices so I didn't find that I needed to look that up. Now, I totally recognize that because of all that inFamous was not a particularly deep game (many moral decisions were guided by whether you were trying to be evil that playthrough) but my point is that it is somehow possible to make a game that doesn't require spoilers even for insane hoarders like myself.

With my next example I aim to show that it is possible to do this with a deep and engaging story and a complex world. In Deus Ex you find all kinds stuff - it is everywhere and some of it is well hidden. I was okay without a walkthrough because it was an organic experience where there was no 'feeling of missing something' if I didn't get that shotgun on level one because it didn't mean not getting 'Weapon Number Three' or 'Treasure 6/13' but rather one tool that wasn't strictly necessary and could be found later on. The game did such a good job of creating a fluid believable world that I didn't look up what the outcomes of the main branch in the storyline (towards the middle, I don't mean the endings) because I didn't even notice it!

I know I'm jumping around a lot but your Deus Ex reboot where you took over Gunther didn't do it for me because it features the equivalent of a karma system where I would be making certain decisions based on whether or not I was trying to get the 'nice human' or 'evil cyborg' ending. It's naive to think that all players will find that 'accidentally killing a victim while trying to disable' thing poignant - many people will just reload and think of another way of getting guaranteed non-lethal takedowns so that they get 0/423 NPCs killed at the end of the game (and the appropriate shade of grey or level of modifications or whatever). The beauty of Deus Ex is that it in no way judged your actions. Some characters disapproved of your massacres, but there was no tally of kills (or greying of character model or whatever) and that whole goal of moral ambiguity had the side effect of me not having to look up the best way to solve every situation.

Sorry for the ridiculously long post but I really hope that you address hopeless number junkies like myself in your future articles because while a moving story is very nice, if a game gives me any inkling that I will be judged or graded I need to spoil it all. My closing thought is that it is possible that my playstyle is diametrically opposed to experiencing a fresh and surprising story but I really hope that someone will think of a way.

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