Category Archives: Game Design

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Oblivion VS. Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls games are each a product of their time.  The first three, Morrowind included, came out in the late 90s to early 2000s.  A time of games on three discs that you would pour hours of your life into.  It was an age of writing information down on paper.  Sometimes you’d be forced to walk away from a quest until you understood how to complete it.   The games were harsh, and so were many of the worlds.  For example, Vvardenfell was mysterious and intimidating, just like the game as a whole.

Oblivion brought in the Xbox 360 generation, when Xbox Live came into its own and games truly hit the mainstream.  The AAA games market was pushing towards the height of realism, experimenting with new physics and mechanics.  It used features like radiant AI and new dynamic facial expressions to enhance the sense of realism.  And for as horribly as they’ve aged, they were state-of-the-art at the time.  The new lighting technology also created a contrast of light and dark that I still love to look at today.

Skyrim was my first “real” Elder Scrolls game.  With the others, I’d mostly watched the action but didn’t really participate or make my own decisions.  When Skyrim came out in 2011, I knew immediately that I had to play it.  The hype behind it wasn’t like anything the series had seen.  It was the first game in the series to release in the true Internet age, when online playthroughs were becoming more popular and hype culture was alive and well.  In a time when AAA developers were perfecting the gritty aesthetic, Skyrim promised to deliver on realism like we couldn’t even imagine.  The web blew up when Skyrim was released.  It was immediately released to critical acclaim, some praising it as one of the best games of all time.  And at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary.

Bleak Falls Barrow
Bleak Falls Barrow, an early location in Skyrim. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Even after just a few years, though, people have already tired of Skyrim.  What started out as a love affair between the public and its new big video game has become a serious seven year itch.  So it only seems right to judge it based on its own merits and see how much it really changed compared to the game before it.

Let’s sling some arrows, shall we?

Story and World

Skyrim‘s tone is completely different from Oblivion‘s.  Like the other games before it, it’s highly prone to bugs and general gameplay flaws.  However, the serious, gritty overtone of Skyrim made these flaws stand out like a sore thumb.  In Oblivion, it adds to the charm.  In Skyrim, it turns out to be more of a distraction in my opinion.

Oblivion
The plane of Oblivion. (Photo: Fantasy Art via Flickr)

Oblivion has a diversity of environments and quests that I think makes Skyrim look like a chore.  While I think Oblivion‘s side quests are better than Skyrim‘s, though, the major questlines may be better or worse depending on what you value as a player.  Oblivion is high fantasy, and it’s not afraid to embrace absurdity, so I never felt any sense of high stakes.  I’d say the most tension I ever felt was the end of the Thieves’ Guild questline, but I won’t spoil it.

Meanwhile, Skyrim has more serious atmosphere and plotlines, so its quests tended to be more action-oriented.

As main story goes, neither one is good.  I found Skyrim‘s to be more compelling, but the sense of participation is lacking in both.  It’s all either “go fetch this” or “go kill this,” and I considered dragons in Skyrim to be more interesting than Oblivion gates.

Mechanics and Stuff

After a while I started to feel like the quests in Skyrim lacked creativity.  The first time you do a block rotation puzzle or a claw puzzle it seems interesting and creative, until you reach your 40th one and realize that this game can be a real one-trick pony.  For how big and beautiful the world is, it’s sure filled with a lot of repetitive challenges.  The good news is, I started with the major quests.  At the time their novelty made them feel more epic than they really were.

Whiterun Fields
The fields of Whiterun in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Oblivion wasn’t much better.  I’d say since its dungeons were darker and more open, they had more atmosphere.  Both games suffer the same problem.  With each game in this series, the world gets bigger and bigger.  The amount of content in that world has to get bigger too, to fill out the empty space.  There’s an increasing distance between the designer and the player here.  In Morrowind, the world wasn’t massive, but Todd Howard and his team focused on crafting every inch of it deliberately.  Every location had a purpose.  Starting with Oblivion, they couldn’t help but copy and paste a little bit.  How could they?  100 years of work across the entire studio went into Morrowind.  Multiply the number of quests and NPCs, and you’re talking about an inhumane crunch.  I think the solution would be to take a step back to the simpler, more personal way of doing things.

It’s no coincidence that both Oblivion and Skyrim also have the quest marker.  There was so much to the game that the designers felt the need to direct the player.  I’ll admit, the ability to follow a dotted line to get through a quest was convenient.  But in the long run, I wonder how much it really makes the game better.  I don’t think Skyrim moved things forward there.

Dragon
The player’s first encounter with a dragon in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Combat in Oblivion is terrible.  It’s fast, and blocking is more useful than it is in Skyrim.  But there’s very little balancing, and not much need to experiment with different options.  Weapons have very little sense of weight, and Skyrim fixed that problem.  The addition of shouts makes the combat way more interesting and engaging, and finding new upgrades to shouts is a great incentive.  That said, fighting things in Skyrim starts to feel like dead weight when you’re fighting your 58th Dragur Deathlord.  I think the lack of enemies is a problem in both games.  Most of them fall into fairly plain tropes.  You fight one, you’ve fought a thousand.  This is something I hope future games try to fix.

The Difference

The first 60 hours of Skyrim landed it permanently in my list of favorite games of all time.  Would I say it’s necessarily better than Oblivion?  Maybe.  Although I definitely prefer Skyrim, I’d say it’s completely subjective.

Northern Lights
The northern lights of Skyrim. (Photo: Kenneth DM via Flickr)

Overall, Oblivion is a game I play with my friends while Skyrim is a game I play by myself.

Counting all DLC, I played Oblivion for 90 hours and Skyrim for 150.  Oblivion is dated as all hell, but it’s a great time getting together with people who know nothing about it, to see them experience its weirdness firsthand.  It’s so awkward it’s become a meme, but I love it all the same.

I left Skyrim feeling very disillusioned, because I went back to the well so many times that the magic was completely gone.  And yet, I barely got over half the level cap.  There’s a good deal left in Skyrim that I never did, but I feel no desire to go back.  I want to show the final part of DimeTree’s series, “The Elder Scrolls Problem,” because I think it sums up how I feel.  In fact, I suggest anyone interested in these games watch his videos.

I’ve heard a lot of people say the same kind of thing, and it’s brought me to this conclusion.  There are some people who mod Skyrim and play it for thousands of hours on end, but for the rest of us, it’s the most magical game of all time until you exhaust it.  From that point on, instead of remembering the magic, we remember all the busy work and glitched quests.  We remember running into the same bandits or the same draugr for the 117th damn time.  Everything is so slow and deliberate that it starts to feel like punishment.  The thing is, those first 60 hours of discovery are unlike anything I’ve felt in any game.  They’re unique, and special.

These two games are both very flawed, but Elder Scrolls games are more than just a reflection of their times.  They’re about doing everything at once.  Maybe they don’t do everything well, but they definitely try.  I still can’t think of another series that looks so good, has full voice acting, hundreds of quests, and still lets you sit down in your house to read a book.  People had to create all of these things, and that alone is a feat.

This is why we play the Elder Scrolls games.  This is why I’m going to play them for a lot longer.  As long as there’s still caring, I’ll always go back to Tamriel again.

“May your road lead to warm sands.”

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Morrowind VS. Oblivion

When December rolls around, I get a hankering for a good RPG.  Maybe it’s the feeling of the holidays, and the combined wonder and stress surrounding the dawn of a new year, but an open-world fantasy always gets me going around this time.  And my preferred poison has always been Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise.

I’ve been a fan of these games ever since 2003 when I would play Morrowind with my sister for hours on end.  I loved every second of it.   The sound effects, music, and rich environments felt vague and earthy, which I loved.  When Oblivion came out around 2006, we did the same thing.  The land of Cyrodiil was at our fingertips, and at the time, there was no offering quite as realistic as Oblivion.  Every character had voiced dialogue, and the world was intimately detailed.  It was amazing for a little kid.

I stepped away from these games almost entirely after Oblivion began to die down, and it wasn’t until Skyrim that my interest picked back up.  But I want to talk about Skyrim another time.  Right now I’m more interested in talking about the two games from my childhood.

Oblivion dungeon
A dark dungeon in Oblivion!

I played through Oblivion properly a couple years ago.  The game was so dated that I picked up the GOTY edition for 5 dollars at my local GameStop.  I was expecting to be let down by how poorly the game had aged.  I had no illusions about it, and it showed in every moment.  But I loved every last minute, even to about 80 hours in.

Morrowind has always been a tougher nut to crack.  About once a year, I try to get back into the game with my own character and make sense of it all.  It was definitely a game of its time, and it held onto the traditional western RPG roots for dear life.  Stats were a core component of the game.  There was no luxury of doing whatever you wanted, at whatever pace you wanted.  You could easily wander into the path of some bandit or creature that would waste you in seconds.  Even combat was based on random chance.  You can stand in front of an enemy, and not land a single blow if your stamina is too low.  To many people, this is like having a button to breathe.  In a video game, it rubs most people the wrong way, especially nowadays when the action element of a game is so much more pronounced.  People love the atmosphere, but don’t want to work with the machine behind it all.  They want the freedom to walk on out into the world and see all it has to offer.

In a lot of ways, I think Oblivion was reactionary to what these people were feeling.  Maybe it was Bethesda spotting a trend in games for the new generation of consoles.  Maybe it was trying a different direction based on people’s response to Morrowind.  Whatever the reason, there is a core difference between these two games:  Morrowind is a slow burn, and Oblivion is a playground.

A lot of discussion has gone toward which of these formulas is “better,” but I think this really misses the point.  Comparing one Elder Scrolls game to another is pointless.  In reality, they’re all completely different games that share certain tropes.  To say one is better than another means nothing.  But I still find it infinitely interesting to look at how this series evolves with time, to take stock of what’s left in, what’s left out, and how things change.

Morrowind Sunset
A sunset treeline in Vvardenfell. (Photo: Joshua via Flickr)

I’ve been doing this kind of thinking a lot recently, which is why I thought I’d take some time to compare these games to each other one-on-one.  I wanted to start with Oblivion vs. Morrowind because they’re polar opposites.

In Morrowind, I notice that I can spend five hours in a single city and not discover everything it has to offer.  In Morrowind, nothing is ever handed to you.  It makes you take notes by hand to keep track of what you learn, how every location relates to every other location, who’s important, and who might be important.  You never know what might come in handy.  Maybe you meet a person who you have to charm in order to obtain a favor.  If you have enough personality, it might be easy.  Otherwise you might need a certain vendor who sells a certain potion to give you just what you need.  There are always different ways to approach a situation, leaving room for the player to deal with things as they would in real life.  The opening of the game doesn’t tell you who you are or what your “end goal” is.  You’re just a prisoner from a boat trying to survive until at some point, you’re not anymore.  Heck, I had no idea what the story of Morrowind was until I looked online.

In Oblivion, you play through a very linear tutorial, and the story and your role in it are laid out instantly.  And logically, you’re basically unbeatable anywhere you go.  Partially, this is because of Oblivion‘s leveling system.  It uses an infamous scaling system, whereby a given enemy in a given cave could be a rat or a troll depending on the player’s level.  Bandits could be wearing cheap hide armor or a full set of the strongest armor in the game.  The world grows with the player, which has drawn its share of criticism.  It’s hard to suspend your disbelief in a world that’s clearly  based around you and your needs.  That’s why so many people value the brutality of Morrowind and, think Oblivion is kind of a joke.

Oblivion screenshot
A fight in Oblivion. (Photo: BenBenW via Flickr)

Oblivion is a joyous experience, though.  Sure, in a lot of ways I enjoy it for the “so bad it’s good” element.  Dialogue and faces are awkward, the combat is laughably simple, and some scenarios are so unbalanced that they ruin a climax.  For example, the last battle of the Mages Guild questline was so absurdly easy for me that I questioned whether it was worth my time.  The thing is, I enjoyed almost every step of my journey through Oblivion.  The setting is gorgeous, and really invokes that back-to-basics style of Arthurian fantasy that I remember from the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood or the vibrant illustrations of The Hobbit.  All the characters are a little bit different, and the combat leads to a lot of laughs.  Oblivion is one of those games that feels genuine for all of its flaws, and balances itself out with enough of a sense of wonder that it feels pretty great to play.  Some of the quests are also really clever.

Morrowind, as I said, takes a completely different tack.  Everything is uncompromising, and finding your way through the world is very difficult and time-consuming.  When you finally do master the game, though, the satisfaction is unlike any other experience in a game.  The thing is, Morrowind is a game that is extremely tough starting out, but which bends to the will of someone with the perseverance to find its weak points.  Becoming a master alchemist or enchanter gives you the path to complete domination of the world. You can buy things for free because your personality is too damn high and destroy the most powerful enemies in the game.  But no one’s going to tell you how to do it.

This idea of leading the player by the hand brings up another defining transition from Morrowind to Oblivion.

The quest marker.

In Morrowind, you have to intuit and remember locations of key figures and locations.  Oblivion will mostly just give you a quest marker pointing to exactly the thing you must interact with to advance the quest.  It also has free fast travel to any of the cities, or anywhere you’ve visited.  As a result, the game feels much more focused on busy work than Morrowind.  Sure, you need to find your way to the end of a dungeon, but the dungeon is marked neatly on your map, waiting for you to conquer it.   The less patient player will enjoy having the first steps of each action done for them, but they inherently miss out on the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves.  A lot of the mystery is lost from Morrowind to Oblivion.

Oblivion Inn
Some in-engine art from Oblivion. (Photo: faustina cartia via Flickr)

Is it better?  Is it worse?  That’s all a matter of opinion.  As I said, each one has its merits.  I found Oblivion to be much more relaxing than Morrowind personally, because I could enjoy the narrative of a quest by going from location to location and unfolding it easily.  Then again, the process of getting your hands dirty and making sense of a world like in Morrowind has a kind of value that modern games don’t replicate.  It forces you to play by its rules, and I respect a game that must be tamed.  That’s why comparing these two games in terms of which is the better iteration of a formula makes no sense.  They are vastly different.  In fact, if not for similar races and lore, I wouldn’t know they were from the same franchise at all.

What makes me curious is why Bethesda decided to make Oblivion after Morrowind, and call it a sequel?  I think that in the moment, they thought it was a revamp and expansion of everything Morrowind set out to do.  Instead, it handed the player a silver key to everything it offered.  But…it’s fun.  I like wandering through the Shivering Isles.  I love fighting through the arena with my bare fists right after finishing the tutorial.  It’s like eating a pile of candy starting with your favorite candy.  Morrowind, meanwhile, is very sweet-and-sour.  You have to experience the perspective and challenge of harsh NPCs, alien environments, and physical weakness before the world becomes your oyster.  I love them both for opposite reasons.  And honestly, I think that’s part of why The Elder Scrolls is so magical.

Super Mario Odyssey: 3D Mario Done Right

I wasn’t excited for Super Mario Odyssey until the day before it came out.  There are a lot of reasons.  Mario oversaturated the market so much in the late 00s that all my enthusiasm for the franchise disappeared.  I wanted a new 3D Mario because everyone else did, but when it actually rolled around, I never kept up with it.  When everyone started calling Odyssey the best in the series, I had to get my hands on it.   Soon, I started to see what everyone was raving about.

3D Mario never spoke to me much.  I grew up playing the All-Stars pack, like the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Mario World.  I also played New Super Mario Bros. Wii a lot.  I never played 64 or Sunshine.  The only one I finished was Galaxy, which is obviously much different but goes by a similar formula.  Up until now, people praised Galaxy as the best one, and…I didn’t see it.

Despite the opinions of my many friends who say Galaxy is one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t remember it very well.  I will admit, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous.  The musical score is fully orchestrated, tailored to each specific environment, and the background music changes depending on the player’s actions.  The cinematic thrill of flying through space between planetoids is magical.  A few actual gameplay moments that stood out are clever Wii pointer challenges, and a few tricky platforming challenges based around gravity.  I have to hand it to Galaxy, it achieved a lot with the limited resources of the Wii.

My problem is, the vast, open experience of Galaxy that everyone else remembers was lost on me.  I just remember a series of tasks in the same galaxies to get stars, and going into each world to do something specific, but never being quite sure what it was.  Power-ups opened up more of the world, but they were also mostly case-specific, and some only lasted a short time.  The result was that the game felt a lot more linear than it looked, and although the individual challenges were well-made, they were more compartmentalized.  I never felt as motivated to  complete the whole game as I thought I could.

But then along came Odyssey.  This game made huge waves, and for good reason.  Every inch shows off its immense polish and innovation.  More importantly, it also had that different structure that I was hoping for.  Instead of having lots of small galaxies with different themes, it has about a dozen “kingdoms” with tons of collectible moons and purple coins in each.  Everything is laid out at once, and most of the fun is finding every challenge in each overworld.  Many are in plain sight, some are extremely well-hidden.  There are so many small tasks that you find naturally, and it feels more like genuine exploration, a theme Nintendo also went for with Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Plus, exploring new worlds and buying new outfits gives you access to content in worlds you’ve already been to, thus adding replayability.

Movement in Odyssey is also a major step up — the dynamic movement that 3D Mario is known for gets a whole new upgrade with the addition of Mario’s hat, Cappy, who opens up the possibility for tons of shortcuts and growth in skill.  You can use Cappy to bounce, dive, and give yourself much more reach if you use the right moves.  Imagine something like the F.L.U.D.D in Super Mario Sunshine, but built more around specific timing than precise platforming.  That, and the added possession mechanic adds tons of depth by making you use different creatures to solve different scenarios and reach new areas.  These creatures serve the double purpose of being good obstacles and being fun to control when you need to.  Just about every object and enemy in the game is there for a reason, and I never felt the need to jump through hoops to do everything.

Compared to games like Galaxy and 3D World, I think Super Mario Odyssey achieves what every 3D Mario has been looking to do since the beginning.  It’s a series of uninhibited sandboxes that keep on giving, there for the player to enjoy at any time.  It’s also full of heart, with references to the best of the franchise hidden all over the place.  All of the other games excelled in their time, and were great games in their own right, but the world of wonder presented by Odyssey definitely struck a new chord with me.  As I make the journey to get all the moons and traverse its many challenges, I’m sure that all the quirky goodness Nintendo put in this little cartridge will last a very long time.

Limbo and Its Elegant Pace

For as much as I love a game that challenges and intrigues me, there are a lot of great ones I haven’t played.  One of them was Limbo, which I played in one sitting with a friend late at night.  It was a real shock to the system, because although Limbo is considered an indie smash hit, I’d seen very little about it.  Everything I encountered was essentially new to me.  All the puzzles, environments, and mechanics flowed together into a tight little package with a ribbon on top, waiting for me to open.

I found myself lost in it all very quickly.  And that’s a good thing.

Hanging cages and a crow
A crow and cages. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

As games get more complex, realistic, and creative, we both gain and lose a lot.  One thing we often lose is a sense of pacing.  Sometimes we’re introduced to a new tool in the middle of a game, and it gives us a controller cue to teach us how to use it.  Other times it takes a slow hour or two for a game to get really good.  There are plenty of moments in games where they do something…inconsistent.  And by this I don’t mean they do something different, or fresh, but something that takes us out of the experience.

To be fair, making a game that doesn’t run into these problems at some point is extremely hard.  They don’t necessarily make a game bad.  The reason I mention them is, Limbo is the closest I’ve seen a game come to having a perfect pace.

Limbo's dark landscape
Art of Limbo’s eerie dark landscape. (Photo: Angel Barreiros via Flickr)

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Limbo‘s meaning and message.  It has no dialogue, no clear-cut cast of characters.  Some suggest that it’s the story of a murderer, of the afterlife, of the struggle between light and darkness.  The very name of Limbo suggests the theme of purgatory, a merging of all things into one silent world.  In this world, conflict has no clear meaning; characters have no faces, and death is only temporary (a truth you learn over and over again).  As I wandered through the grayscale landscape solving one brilliant puzzle after another, there was no obvious transition between places.  I remember being in the forest, in a mine, and in a factory, but not the order in which I found them.  It’s as though Limbo doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, and that feels appropriate.

Hangman
The nameless child stands surrounded by countless dead. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

The endless stream of symbols, solving puzzle after puzzle to reach an unknown goal, almost put me in the mind of the little silhouetted child I was controlling.  The only difference was the immense satisfaction I felt, conquering increasingly tougher, more mind-bending challenges.  When it all finally ended, it took me a while to come back into the real world.  It felt like I’d ended where I’d started, and even in the moments when I was stuck on a puzzle, I never felt fully conscious of everything outside the game.

The rain machine puzzle
The great rain machine. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

Instead, my full attention was on how to get a floating box in exactly the right place for me to reach a high ledge, or how to time my rope swing to get away from a giant saw blade.  Limbo is a master class in doing a whole lot with a clever approach and a creative vision.  It’s so simple, it doesn’t need to follow traditional rules.  It challenges not only the structure of puzzle games, but also our preconceptions of what games can say narratively, using the themes of death, darkness, and the afterlife as its tools.  To whoever reads this, go experience this game for yourself, and make sure it’s late at night.

Its creators, Playdead, repeated their brilliance with their latest game Inside, and I’d say check it out.

Villainy in the Virtual World

Video games are not a medium known for excellent storytelling.  They really don’t have to be.  Since the days of Atari and the Commodore 64, there have been games about nothing more than simple tasks.  Bounce a pixel past your friend, get a frog across a road, stack as many blocks as possible to set a high score.  Eventually, games became more linear, and some kind of context was added.  Whether this meant rescuing someone or obtaining some kind of treasure, games now had an ultimate goal.  And now, since there was an ultimate goal, there had to be an ultimate obstacle.  A villain.

For these past 30 years, games have had a lot of terrible villains.  Not the good kind of terrible either.

That said, all villains can’t be judged in the same light.  Props to Extra Credits for this distinction, but I’ll re-iterate it here.  In video games, you have your mechanical villains, your narrative villains, and your force-of-nature villains.

Mechanical villains are more stereotypical, put there to stand in your way, without much development beyond their design and animations.  Basically your platformer bosses, dungeon keepers, and the villain in any game without cutscenes.

Narrative villains are typically used for narrative games, made to develop along with other characters.  They propel the drama and prompt the player to go through a longer experience for a more climactic payoff.  Take Sephiroth from FFVII, or Frank Fontaine from BioShock.  They often run the game world and manipulate the protagonist, creating a moral obstacle along with a physical one.

Force-of-nature villains are a kind of hybrid.  These are villains of overwhelming power, or which represent a concept.  They are the embodiments of chaos, greed, or suffering.  They’re also used in the wrong places a lot of the time, because it’s hard to give them character.  Ideally, they have to be used to elicit some kind of reflection from the player, to make the characters consider their role in the story and world.  They’re like Kefka from FFVI or several throwaway antagonists from Sonic the Hedgehog like Mephiles the Dark, or Infinite.  Without compelling protagonists, these villains tend to flop.

When I started thinking about this topic, I thought of my two favorite virtual villains: Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda and Sephiroth from FFVII.  However these two fill very different niches: Ganondorf has no distinct qualities beyond overwhelming evil, whereas Sephiroth is the sinister other half of Cloud, a deadly shadow of the protagonist.  But I love each of them in their respective roles.  Neither one is necessarily a “worse” villain.  Ganondorf is probably less memorable, but Sephiroth couldn’t fill his shoes.  He certainly couldn’t be the final boss of Mario either.  The key is, as usual, context.  A villain should fit the game as well as possible.  And I think there are some general guidelines for this.

First, I’d say make sure you’re using a narrative villain when you need one.  Too many games have rich worlds and backstories with cardboard villains that ruin the experience.  If you do know you need a narrative villain, make sure that all of their dialogue and screen time isn’t dedicated to cliched motivations or monologues we’ve all heard before.  The best kinds of villains are ones with variety, or who subvert expectations.  Maybe then you have to fight someone dealing with childhood trauma, who with values you partially agree with.  Even with the many flaws Skyrim has, I enjoyed the civil war quest because of the many gray areas it made me confront.  I didn’t want to kill the “villain” at the end myself, because I didn’t really think he was guilty.  In many ways, I thought this story was better than the actual main quest as a result.

Secondly, even if your villain is mostly narrative, don’t be afraid to make them part of the mechanics of the game.  Another one of my absolute favorite villains is GLaDOS from Portal.  Her twisted-yet-lovable autotuned voice reads quirky lines as you progress through the game and temporarily fail at solving a puzzle.  By playing the game, you’re basically fighting GLaDOS directly, like an omnipresent villain.  I see the same thing with what JonTron called, the “Gruntilda Effect.”  Gruntilda, the villainess of Banjo-Kazooie, taunts you ceaselessly.  When you die, she pokes fun at you.  When you reach a new area, she says you’ll never make it.  Once you finally defeat her, it’s like overcoming self-doubt.  Or an annoying witch.  Or both.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Metal Gear Solid and BioShock also do a great job of mixing compelling villains into the entirety of a game.  They have great plot twists that got me really invested.

I wrote all this because Halloween is a time of year when we love to examine fears and monsters.  The best monsters tell us something about ourselves.  They thrust us into the unknown, make us crave revenge or feel sympathy.  A great monster, a great villain, is something unforgettable to conquer.  I think it’s a shame that a lot of the character-building moments for villains is cut in game production.  With the talent and tools in the modern game industry, I think there’s room for some amazing storytelling.  Just as long as the will is there.

Horror Movies VS. Horror Games

So it’s the Halloween season, and things are gettin’ spooky up in here, so I wanted to take this time of the year to talk about some horror.  I don’t like horror much, but I find it interesting to talk about.  It’s a rare and impressive work that manages to get under people’s skin, and I think anything which can pull it off is worth talking about.  The strange thing is that horror movies are the bottom of the barrel in the film industry, whereas horror games tend to be pretty well-revered.

I admit this isn’t a site about movies, but I’m nevertheless a huge movie fan.  I spend about as much time in front of the big screen as the CRT screen.  Although they’re two completely different beasts, I think comparing movies to games has a lot of value.  They’re two opposite sides of the same coin: both are entertainment, but one is passive while the other is active.  The two have completely different approaches to horror as a genre, and I think they can shed light on each other.

The first thing we have to ask is, what is the essence of horror as entertainment?  The answer is subjective, of course.  My personal idea of horror is anything intimate and deeply unsettling.  Horror doesn’t just give you a quick scare and pump of adrenaline, it stays with you well after the fact.  But if you’re trying to actively give someone these feelings, it’s easier said than done.

Part of the issue is that horror is even a genre at all.  If someone goes to a scary movie or downloads a scary game, they go in with certain expectations.  Horror movies have trouble getting through to people these days because they’ve existed since the beginning of film.  Since games are a younger medium, they have the advantage of more uncharted territory.  Horror film, on the other hand, is plagued by tropes, cash-ins, and dead-end ideas.  Nevertheless, there are some movies that still manage to surprise people such as MotherSplit, and Get Out to name a recent few.  To me, that means there are reliable ways to freak people out.

I’m going to go out on a limb and  boil down the essence of good horror to a single word: investment.  The instinct of fear is rooted in survival, most often survival of something mysterious or powerful.    With an emotion like this, it becomes much more pronounced when the stakes are personal, and someone is directly involved.  Horror games therefore have a clear advantage as an interactive medium, because the player has agency and responsibility in this dangerous situation.  In a detached medium like film, the filmmakers have to use cinematography, character and world building, and intricate pacing to achieve the same effect.  It’s not as easy to make someone feel afraid of the unknown when the unknown is affecting someone else.  In his review of The Gallows in 2015, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club gave the film a D+, saying, “Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.”  That statement alone captures the point perfectly.

As far as pitfalls go, games and movies run into the same problems.  And that’s important.

If you look at widely discredited horror games and horror movies, a lot of the same problems turn up.  For example, some common gripes are linearity, predictability, and cheap scares.  These things make horror feel manufactured and dull.  A lot of poorly-made Unity games do this, and Five Nights at Freddy’s has taken heat for it.  As movies go, look no further than virtually any horror sequel to see what recycling a formula can do.

Conversely, the best horror typically takes normal characters and puts them through hell.  It also helps if that hell could theoretically exist in the real world.  I like to think of this as the “what-if” template.  Amnesia asks, “What if you woke up in a castle of nightmares?”  Carrie asks, “What if the invisible bullied girl in your high school took unholy revenge?” Silent Hill asks, “What if you had to confront a world of your own fears?” while IT asks, “What if you had to fight fear itself?”

A fundamental difference between excellent horror in games and movies, meanwhile, is that they use fairly unique methods.  Horror games use gameplay mechanics like sanity meters and limited resources to build tension.  Horror movies use compelling character development.  Horror protagonists aren’t particularly remarkable, which is intended to make them easier for viewers to project themselves onto.  The viewer feels along with the character.  All that remains is to manipulate characters to elicit genuine fear, as they slowly break down and change.  In the climax of The Shining, we feel fear as a once-sane Johnny tries to kill his own family, not only because of Johnny’s downfall, but because this fear is easy to understand.  We become invested in their survival as we imagine what it would be like to have this happen to us.

To conclude, if investment is the key to horror, then I’d say the greatest virtue to practice in any form of horror is patience.  You need to really work over the audience to make them feel unsettled.  Viewers want to understand the threat, to understand the unknown.  Knowing this, let them make certain discoveries while withholding others.  Make the initial sense of danger something relatively ordinary.  Let the consumer scare themselves a little bit first as they go down a frightening rabbit hole.  The slow burn of discovery will create something unforgettable.

 

Cool Invisibility in Multiplayer Games

A lot of the best, most creative game design nowadays is in multiplayer games.  Especially ones from the indie side of the street.  Multiplayer games are hard for me to talk about though, because the simpler they are, the better.  A good presentation, good maps, and good mechanics are all you need, and there isn’t always a lot to say.

AAA games have mostly left couch co-op behind, minus companies like Nintendo that have flagship franchises based on multiplayer.  Indie games have thankfully picked up the slack and then some.  What’s great is that lots of different games will take a certain theme or mechanic and use it in a bunch of fun ways.

I have a few games I wanna talk about.  Individually I don’t think I could have much to say, but together they have a lot to say.  They’re all amazing examples of using invisibility in games.

Hidden in Plain Sight came out a while ago, in 2011.  It’s not about “invisibility” per se, but the name of the game is blending in.  Players are pitted against one another and forced to kill each other in a room full of NPCs.  But they have to do so without knowing for sure where each other are.  That means balancing walking around like the NPCs while trying to figure out which ones are other human players.

The game is exceedingly simple, and looks like an obscure Dreamcast game, but it built up a pretty big cult following online.  It’s a great example of a game that builds tension in a room full of players.  The beauty of the game is in the challenge of splitting your attention between seeing others while remaining unseen.

I first played the game that inspired this post a week ago with some friends.  It’s Invisigun Heroes by Sombr Studios, a game inspired by Bomberman and TowerFall with a twist.  The players can move left, right, up, down, they can shoot projectiles, and use a special character-specific item.

The catch is, all the players are invisible.

They’re not invisible 100% of the time — using certain items (like Revealers) can uncover other players, and firing a shot reveals the player for a second.  Bumping into objects also causes them to flash for a split second, giving a vague idea of where the player is.  This is supremely interesting, because it demands absolute focus to try to outwit another player.  Every directional tap moves the character one grid-space of each map.  It’s possible to count your steps and still be aware of your lines of fire without giving away your position.  When it comes down to a one-on-one duel and no one is firing, the suspense builds to a head until each one makes a move.  To be honest, playing this game gets me more on-edge than playing any cover-based FPS in the world.

Invisigun Heroes would already be fun without invisibility.  It has great map design, cool powerups, and so on.  But using invisibility in the top-down shooter framework makes the perfect party game.  A long waiting game followed by a chaotic scrap where anyone can win makes every round exciting.

Invisigun isn’t even the first foray into the invisible shooter.  In 2014,  Samurai Punk published a game called Screencheat.  The concept came about at the Global Game Jam, where it was very well-received.  During the GoldenEye 007 days of the late 90s, one of the biggest sins was cheating by looking at another player’s screen during multiplayer.  Screenlooking.

(GET IT.  HE SAID THE THING.)

So Screencheat cranks it up a notch by making it impossible to see other players on your own screen.  Apart from stray particle effects, the only way to see another character is by looking at the arena from their point of view.  In a competition with three other people, this is absolute chaos.  The maps are also brilliantly littered with color-coding to make it easier to work out where everyone is.

Like I said, a lot of these games would be fun and quirky even without emphasizing stealth, but the fact that they do makes them much more compelling.  I feel like this is the miracle of indie development in the modern age — developers keep coming up with incredible ideas in the strangest places.

Star Fox Needs A Real Identity, Here’s Why

Star Fox is one of the biggest tragedies in gaming to me.  I can’t believe a series so charming, original, and out-right cool is so rarely done right.

The series follows ace pilot and anthropomorphic fox, Fox McCloud, leader of the space combat team “Star Fox.”  His friends, Peppy Hare, Falco Lombardi, and Slippy Toad, back him up.  Under the command of General Pepper, they serve as peacekeepers in the Lylat System.  Their enemies include the parallel team of mercenaries Star Wolf, and the evil galactic conqueror Andross.

Star Fox has broken ground since the 90s, but has since fallen from grace.  The games struggle to find a common identity, and that’s what I hope to figure out.

Star Fox 64 Sets the Perfect Tone

It sounds great.

Star Fox 64 is the major example of how to execute the idea behind the series.  The soundtrack is a masterful blend of sci-fi, space opera, and 80s action overtones, similar to what you’d hear in Top Gun.  The N64’s sound chip had distinctive horn and synth channels that complemented the soundtrack perfectly.  The puppet-like 3D models of the N64 look somewhat silly, but they come closest to echoing the game’s artistic influences.

The same thing goes for the voice acting.  Star Fox 64 was the first fully voice-acted Nintendo game, and it contributed massively to the game’s character.  The actors’ delivery is consistently campy, but it became iconic as well.  One-liners like, “Hey Einstein!  I’m on your side!” or “Do a barrel roll!” are so self-aware that they bring the player firmly into the game they’re playing, and make them laugh at the silliness of it all.

Star Fox 64 3D
Star Fox 64 3D art, from the reboot of the N64 version. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)
It looks great.

Shigeru Miyamoto said that one of his biggest influences for creating Star Fox was Thunderbirds, one of his childhood shows.  It was a futuristic kids’ show made entirely with puppets and practical models.  The aesthetic of Star Fox is a play on the usual perception of puppets as the kind of juvenile medium to tell stories about woodland creatures, and also a tribute to the cheesy action serial style of Thunderbirds.  By combining these two styles, Star Fox flips them both on their heads and makes something that surpasses them.

Star Fox 64 also has some great tropes from other media.  If it wasn’t already clear, the series is also similar to Star Wars.  The game has several homages to the films, like the medal ceremony at the end, and the voice of Fox McCloud’s father in his head at the climactic moment that echoes Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi.  Even the way the members of Star Fox communicate with each other reminds me of X-Wing pilots.  The idea of playing with multiple vehicles also seems to reference not only Thunderbirds but things like Gundam and Power Rangers.

It is great.

All style aside, the game also plays remarkable well.  The levels are full of well-placed enemies, and secret hidden paths that lead to tougher challenges.  The fun of Star Fox is learning how to get the full experience.  It reminds me of what I said about Crash Bandicoot: the game makes a lot out a little.

The sense of camaraderie within the Star Fox team is also great.  Your teammates help clear out enemies and give you hints as long as you keep them safe.  They have distinct names, faces, and personalities too, and that makes me feel attached to them as a player.

How Nintendo Did Star Fox Dirty

Nintendo is no stranger to leaving cool and promising series behind for lack of sales, but Star Fox actually suffers something worse.  It’s now Nintendo’s testing ground for gimmicks and fads.

And when I say a testing ground, I unfortunately mean that a lot of the tests fail.  This excellent video by HeavyEyed explains what I mean, but I’ll lay it out myself as well.

In the early days, it wasn’t like this.  The very first Star Fox was essentially the first fully polygonal shooter, and Star Fox 64 was the first ever game with rumble.  This made it the first game to give physical feedback to the player, a revolutionary move.

But then we got Star Fox Adventures.

Adventures Threw Everything Off

Star Fox Adventures is a 3D Legend of Zelda clone that overhauled a Rareware game with a Star Fox skin.  The game was uninspired, poorly designed, and completely abandoned everything that made the other games stand out.  Instead of a ragtag space shooter, we got a game about fighting lizards on a dinosaur planet.

Star Fox Assault art
Star Fox Assault artwork. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

After this divergence we got Star Fox: Assault, which was decidedly a step in the right direction.  The problem is, it sacrificed a lot of its dog-fighting action roots in favor of third person shooter combat.  Maybe not terrible, but certainly a far cry from where the series started.

Star Fox Command went even further down the rabbit hole by heavily integrating turn-based tactics.  Again, this came at the price of good aerial combat.  The game also had a branching story that bordered on fanfiction, which added insult to injury.

Star Fox Zero was a Near Miss

Then, along came Star Fox Zero, and I had my money at the ready.  Everything about the game was promising at first.  Miyamoto talked about how he was planning to create the best example of Wii U GamePad integration on the system.  It brought back the original cast of characters, and the old presentation.  What could go wrong?

Star Fox Zero
Promo art for Star Fox Zero! (Photo: BagoGames)

Well, Zero delivered on a lot of fronts, but missed out on something important: good controls.  The game required its players to split attention between two screens: the TV and the GamePad screen, both of which are essential.  The TV lets the player maneuver, while the GamePad lets them aim properly.  What it feels like is playing two different games at once and failing at both.  This is the same kind of problem I had with The World Ends With You, although that’s one for much later.

To make matters worse, the story and levels are mostly a copy of Star Fox 64 with a little Assault mixed in.  Secret-hunting and multiple paths are there, but less robust.  So playing Zero essentially amounts to playing a worse version of 64.

The Problem and How to Fix It

If you thought Sonic the Hedgehog has trouble trying to create consistent gameplay, Star Fox blows it out of the water.  It’s basically a series with no idea what to do next.  It either experiments with ideas that don’t fit, or lives in the shadow of its one great installment.

What Star Fox needs is to work off of its 64 formula, optimize it, and set it against a completely different backdrop.  Different planets, different levels, different story, and possibly new characters would be ideal.  Going back to basics was a smart move by Nintendo.  The problem is, they never went past the basics.

No Innovation Without Representation

Having a formula doesn’t mean the series can’t try new things.  I wouldn’t ditch the original formula completely, because I think it works.  If it were me, though, I would add in some ground combat sequences myself.

For example, in Star Wars Battlefront II, there’s a Space Assault mode.  The object of the mode is to destroy as many enemy ships and freighters as possible.  One of my favorite things to do is infiltrate an enemy ship and sabotage it on foot from the inside.  This might be an interesting way to give players options for secrets and defeating bosses.  Just as long as it doesn’t make it most of the game the way Assault did.  It might even be interesting to give the player a way to temporarily hijack ships mid-air.

Nintendo has plenty of room to commit to a major Star Fox game without having it be a remake or a re-skin.  I sincerely hope that the mixed reception of most Star Fox games makes them stop bringing the games back.  It’s probably one of the most brilliant concepts they’ve ever had, and no other game has managed to imitate its fun, intense style.

The thing is, Nintendo will never make the series sell if it keeps throwing in gimmicks without refining them properly.

I want to see Star Fox return to its old-fashioned charm and unique gameplay, without sacrificing the wondrous possibilities on the table.  A good Star Fox game makes me feel more like I’m in Star Wars than an actual Star Wars game would.  That’s saying something, and Nintendo shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make it great.  Here’s hoping we get some space fox on the Switch.

Animal Crossing is Life Done Better

I play video games a lot.  I love games that are complex and compelling.  The Legend of ZeldaSkyrim, and Super Smash Bros. rank among my favorite games ever.  Anything that has action, rich worlds, and intriguing mechanics usually wins my heart.  But the one game I’ve played more than any other game, for over 330 hours, is Animal Crossing.  Specifically, New Leaf for Nintendo 3DS.

This should make no sense whatsoever.  I barely understand it.  How does an action nut with no nostalgia for Animal Crossing fall so head over heels for it?

Animal Crossing logo
The logo for the Animal Crossing series

The truth is, I didn’t fall for it right away.  It took some time.  Animal Crossing is actually a pretty tough nut to crack.  Every game in the series starts with you moving into a new town and buying a new house.  Actually, you basically start off with a tent.  Your mortgage is managed by Tom Nook, the enterprising capitalist Tanooki.  The only way to improve your house is by spending thousands of Bells (the game’s currency, kind of like yen) to pay off your debt.

Already this sounds like a drag, right?

The thing is, the world works differently in this game.  There’s no deadline to pay off your mortgage.  You do whatever you want to, for however long you want, and pay off your debt whenever you can.  So how do you make money?  You can sell furniture, bugs, and fish you catch.  Sometimes you just find money under rocks (wishful thinking).  Sometimes you get it for some other random reason.

On paper, this sounds easy, and maybe even boring.  The whole game consists of talking to your fellow villagers, doing odd jobs, planting trees, flowers, and structures in your town, decorating your house, and collecting things.  Isn’t there any challenge or spice to make this game more complicated?  Well…yes and no.

New Leaf gameplay
Animal Crossing: New Leaf gameplay.

Animal Crossing games are not hard.  Instead, they’re meant to keep you there for the long haul.  That’s where the magic happens.

There’s no time constraint on paying hundreds of thousands in debt, but it takes a while to make that much money.  This also means it takes a long time to get the biggest house and furnish the nerd paradise you always dreamed of.  Animal Crossing sucks you in and keep you coming back, day after day.

Interested in catching every fish, bug, and/or sea creature?  You’d better be prepared to stick around all four seasons of the year and keep coming back every day.  But don’t worry, it’ll give you the chance to celebrate Toy Day, Carnival, and the Harvest Festival with your animal friends.  (Yeah, this game has holidays, and they’re super fun.)

Like creating custom designs for your clothing and town flag?  You can become a pixel artist and create clothing from whatever video game, show, or crevice in the depths of your brain that you want.

Want to cultivate every color of flower in the game?  Well, to get the elusive blue rose, you’re going to have to buy daily fertilizer from the most upgraded convenience store and learn the genetic layout of red roses like Gregor Mendel is your damn patron saint.

Gregor Mendel
I just felt the need to include Gregor Mendel here. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Animal Crossing is only as hard and time-consuming as you want it to be, and at first glance, there’s no reason to do any of this stuff I’ve mentioned.  It all sounds humdrum and boring, like a poor recreation of real life.  But the whole reason this game was made was in order to serve as a second life, one that’s better than reality.

The series’ creator, Katsuya Eguchi, wanted to make the game because of a sense of loneliness he felt from being 300 miles away from his home in Chiba.  Therefore, he wanted to make a game that provided a sense of “family, friendship, and community” for all its players.

True to form, my perception of Animal Crossing is a simulation of the perfect life in a perfect town.  There are challenges, problems, and room for improvement in every town, but everybody trusts each other and wants everybody else to succeed.  Bad blood has no place in Animal Crossing world.  In a world that’s often stifling, cruel, and selfish, these games provide a true escape.  They are the ultimate source of “me” time.  It’s probably why I played New Leaf for an hour every day for almost a year.

Also, the music is just…sublime.

I should mention that these games are not perfect.  Eventually you start to run out of room to put things.  Having your villagers suggest nickname changes or say the same things gets old, and the illusion begins to wear thin as always.

But before that happens, you’re going to spend days’ worth of happy times doing…whatever you want, and that’s why Animal Crossing is different from any other game in the world.  It showed that escapism and fun in video games doesn’t need to be high fantasy or intense action.  It can just be a place where you feel like you belong.   Your very own utopia in a box.

Think I’ll pay mine a visit.

Terraria, Adventure, and Quality Versus Quantity

The indie hit Terraria usually gets the short end of the stick by getting called “2D Minecraft.”  In truth, the two games look similar on paper, but have different design priorities.  It took me a long time playing both to realize it, but for a less realistic-looking game, Terraria is basically high fantasy.

To illustrate the point, I’ll cover the shallow common ground between these two games.  You begin the game unequipped.   You can then go on to build, mine, and explore a random world.  Minecraft better executes this style, but Terraria is completely different in the long run.

Terraria ice biome
An icy biome in Terraria. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The focus of Minecraft is construction, expedition, and intrinsically rewarding play.  It’s simple, atmospheric, and usually pretty grounded.  Playing Minecraft kind of feels like living out a life.  As I talked about in my previous article about Minecraft, this stuff is probably how it became so huge.

The Hallow Biome
The Hallow biome, accessed in Hardmode! (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

Terraria exchanges the z-axis for much, much more content.  This is oversimplifying it a little bit, but I’ll explain.  The shift to 2D has a few important consequences, like a zoomed-out, side-scrolling camera angle and 2D sprites instead of 3D models.  The art style is more colorful, but the world is entirely pixel art.  Building in this game doesn’t feel as good, and doesn’t have much of a payoff.  True, it can be cool if you like making 2D art and have the in-game resources, but this isn’t the focus.

Terraria giant house
A pretty impressive house in Terraria. (Photo: Tamahikari Tammas via Flickr)

The trade-off is, it’s much easier to include more content in the game.  Terraria‘s progression is more like a traditional RPG, with different materials and weapons to obtain, modifiers, events, and bosses.  The world even shifts to hardmode after you defeat the Wall of Flesh.  Terraria is about magic and monsters, dungeon crawling, and fighting.  And it does it amazingly well.

Skeletron Prime
Fighting Skeletron Prime in Terraria! (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

This design is a double-edged sword.  I’ve played Terraria for many, many hours and fell in love with it quickly.  I beat just about every boss and in-game event, having the time of my life the whole way.  It’s my kind of game.  I get to make cool equipment, fight monsters, and explore.  Yet, I don’t come back to this game too often.  Creativity doesn’t come too naturally in Terraria considering how much there is to do.  After doing just about everything, I saw no reason to stick with it.

Good news for Terraria, ‘everything’ encompasses a lot of really fun gameplay.  It’s like exploring my own Land of Ooo from Adventure Time.  Building myself up in this game was a blast, it’s just not something I wanted to do more than once.  Fighting a single boss takes a lot of prep, and each one feels unique.  There’s nothing like killing a boss, then fighting it later with better equipment and beating it easily.

Minecraft is easy to play aimlessly, but Terraria is more goal-driven.  Neither Terraria nor Minecraft is more fun than the other, because they really don’t compare.  Terraria is definitely more low-tech, but the sheer volume of options and possibilities makes it a great time.  Actually, it’s a great game to play to understand the sandbox genre.