Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Control Resolution: I'm Good With My Hands

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 12
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood features a showdown mechanic which doesn't quite work--and the reason why is control resolution.

Get ready to draw like you're holding the pencil in the wrong hand.
But what do I mean by control resolution? In short, what and how much I control with what input. Much ado has been made about Batman: Arkham Asylum's largely one-button fighting system, yet generally people approve because it makes sense. Batman is Batman, fighting a group of thugs to him would be as easy as, well, pressing a button.

COJ:BIB is an FPS, which assumes that the majority of skills needed for gunhandling the character does automatically.
Breath control, muscle memory, there are a host of issues that come into play in reality which we may happily elide for sake of whatever kind of gameplay we want to achieve for most casual games, though ironsight-aiming has come into vogue.
(Simulation games are typically about the player directly controlling more actions. While hardly simulative, America's Army does place breath control into the hands of the player, whereas most FPS games reserve such a mechanic for long range shooting.)

It's a Western game, so absolutely Bound in Blood should feature a showdown mechanic. The trouble here is that the game experience is about me playing a character that is a gunfighter.
But then for a short minigame I play his arm, not the gunfighter.
During the showdown I'm suddenly given fine resolution control of Ray or Thomas' shooting arm in screen space, which is a completely foreign control concept to the game. Which means I glide through most of the game, feeling appropriately bad-ass as a gunfighter, and then I'm forced through a minigame repeatedly that shatters my sense of mastery.

I found myself wishing it were more gestural. A gunslinger stays alive with fast-twitch muscle response, split-second stuff, and in this game I'm a gunslinger. Pitching the resolution of the simulation down to gross motor function in that kind of set-up without accordingly narrowing the setting/gameplay (like fight night, which makes sense) is a serious misstep.

Trespasser rather infamously featured an arm that you controlled like an alien might control the body of an earthling, and the problem was the same. It's a neat idea, but unless the game were, in fact, written to be that the player takes over an unfamiliar corporeal form, it makes the experience about a very strange person trapped on an island, wrestling with controlling her own arm. The ghost of proprioception rides again.

Same basic issue with Alone in the Dark's disastrously misconceived inventory and control system, taken even further. I don't want to play as a character with some motor control problems, I want to play a guy who understands how his own hands work.
I press a button to swing a fist or swing a chair at someone's face because the guy understands that basic action, I shouldn't have to do it for him.

The game's control and inventory system conspire to produce the ludicrous experience found in the demo, where I'm tasked to dispense a supernatural villain who will keep coming back lest he be put down with fire. I understand with the gimmicky operation of the combine-o-tronic inventory system I'm probably going to need to fashion a lighter-and-hairspray flamethrower, but I'm left to figure out the laborious inventory system and combine these items, in real time, while my assailant beats me about the head, neck, and tender bits. No thank you.

Ultimately what I find interesting about this problem is that it can be discussed in a somewhat academic sense, as above, or it can be solved with a question of role playing. If you're building a game around a certain type of character--a professional athlete, a professional warrior--are you pitching your control resolution to a level that makes sense?

Monday, September 14, 2009

In Praise of The Deep End

Monday, September 14, 2009 17
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?
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