Sunday, 28 December 2014

Shadow of the Colossus

You start out with nothing but your horse, your sword and a massive landscape in front of you, tasked with tracking down these 16 Colossi. As you approach the first Colossus, the ground begins to shake. You see a giant pillar slamming down in front of you, and the camera pans up to reveal it's only a small part of this massive creature. It walks past you, and you take out your bow and fire an arrow, hoping it might harm it in some way. The creature is unharmed, yet now its attention is focused on you. It turns around slowly, and begins walking towards you. As the beast reaches you, you make a desperate leap at it's ankle, and start climbing. Reaching the weak spot on its head, you stab  with all your might, and the ancient being starts tumbling down, with you slowly realising the world will never again see anything like it.

This is Shadow of the Collosus at its best. A heart pounding action game full of quick improvistion, mixed with a wonderful sense of discovery. And all of it is drenched in a brilliant atmosphere that manages to shift seamlessly from quiet contemplation, to frantic action, to genuine sadness.

Unfortunately, after a few Collosi, the sense of wonder disappears. You've seen how a typical Collosus battle will go, and the game needs to change up the gameplay to avoid repetition. This comes mainly in the forms of gimmicks and other Collosus-specific gameplay. Some of those gimmicks work better than others, but overall it means that the battles becomes less intuitive. In some cases it's finicky even when you know what you're supposed to do. Two Collosi were incredibly disappointing, in both gameplay and design. They had stun-lock attacks for crying out loud! Even the final boss is rather unintuïtive, and by the end of it I was frustrated enough that I wasn't really able to appreciate the ending, good though it was.

Yet despite all the criticism I've thrown at the game just now, I consider it one of the most important gaming experiences I've had. When I compare it to other games I've played recently, it strikes me how much better the game works as a unified piece. The gameplay doesn't just exist for the player to have something to do between story segments; the gameplay is the story. Everything - the music, the gameplay, the art direction, and even the control scheme itself - comes together to create something beautiful.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Some musings on manuals

A few days ago, I was ranting on twitter about how Baldur's Gate 1 is terrible at explaining to the player how the game works. One of my friends told me that it was from a time when reading the manual was expected if you wanted to understand how the game works, but this isn't exactly true. Sure, games back then didn't have helpful button prompts telling you which button lets you jump, but back then there were plenty of games, even RPG's, that teach the player it's mechanics within gameplay. "So where did this assumption come from?", I wondered.

After a few days of thinking, I remembered that I also used to read a lot of manuals when I was younger. I spent hours reading the manuals to Super Mario Bros. 3, Pokemon Ruby, the Sly Cooper games, and even board games. Not because I needed to, (many of these games were fairly self explanatory), but because I had nothing better to do. I was a kid, and I didn't have the disposable income to assemble the kind of games backlog that I have today. Combine this lack of things to do with a bit of curiosity, and you end up with a little boy who knew the rules of Settlers of Catan by heart.

And I imagine this applies to many other people as well. People that grew up with Baldur's Gate probably spent hours reading the manual. So when they encountered something that seems completely unintuitive to newcomers, they instead knew exactly what to do. Now by itself this wouldn't be a bad thing, but it does mean these veteran players might have a bit of trouble putting themselves in the mindset of someone thrust into a new ruleset without the spare time to slowly figure it out. Which is a bit sad, because those new players often do want to enjoy this game.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Videogames and Dice Rolls

Random numbers are an important part in many games, electronic or otherwise. In videogames, their role is most prominent in RPG's, where they are used to determine the outcome of battles. Here, I'd like to take a look at how dice have been used in gaming, and how their usage affected the way different games feel to play.

And how can we talk about RPG's without first talking about the most influential RPG of them all: Dungeons & Dragons. The creators of D&D realised something very important when designing this game: rolling dice and calculating the results takes time. And since people don't like to waste time, they had to make sure that every dice roll was important. This is why there is a dice roll to determine whether you even hit the enemy, on top of a roll to determine the damage you deal. That first roll has everyone at the table on the edge of their seats; a natural 20 could save the players from a tight spot, while a natural 1 could doom even the most well-prepared adventurers.

But what happens when dice rolls can be processed instantly? Good examples of this are the classic Bioware games, which are all based on the D&D rules. In these games the outcomes of dice rolls can be calculated in an instant, and so the rolls happen at a very fast pace. This results in an emphasis on the combat encounter as a whole, rather than the individual dice rolls. However, the importance of those individual rolls still remains, and the game no longer pauses after every role. Because of this, where you once had time to think about the result of your roll and if you should pursue a different strategy, you're now immediately thrown into the next roll, with you just sitting back and feeling like you don't have much control over the situation.

The obvious solution to this problem is to put less weight on the dice rolls, and more on the player's overall strategy. For instance, Final Fantasy accomplishes this by putting the emphasis on resource management throughout the dungeon. Sure, you can spam ultima to win the current fight without effort, but that will drain your MP at a really fast pace, leaving you unable to use this attack when you really need it during a difficult boss. The game becomes about balancing your damage output between insufficient to survive and overkill.

But what if you want those individual dice rolls to matter? Well, as the XCOM games have proven, there's nothing stopping you from artificially making a single dice roll last long. The chance of hitting your target is clearly displayed, but you don't actually know the result of your shot until after the shooting animation has completed. Combine this with a system that emphasises planning and gives you plenty of time after every single action to reasses your strategy, and you have a gameplay system that feel very similar to the physical rolling of dice from D&D.

My point here isn't that one of these games is better than another, but that developers need to be very careful about why a system works before they try to imitate it. If they don't, they might end up with something that does the exact opposite of what they intended.