Everything is controversial

I have been complaining a lot about people claiming that the IGF should cater only to those who actually need the money and recognition associated with the awards rather than simply those who make the best games… This is of course more than a little silly considering how much connection to the IGF I have really had. And to be fair, there are also voices from the other end of the spectrum claiming that games with high production values should beat out all others. Which is what this is about, really, apparently Nintendo recently said it wants games to have a certain level of quality to be released on their consoles. Nothing new about this, really, but apparently it was controversial and Nintendo now tried to smooth things over.

It is more or less the same argument that Hecker and Blow have talked about for so long, how people are reluctant to explore ideas to any depth. Nintendo approaches the subject from a business standpoint of wanting to provide quality to the players rather than a playground for the developers – arguably a poor excuse for a console with that much shovelware, but still a sound idea. And that is not even what they are arguing about, the whole idea of Nintendo being more elitist about who they work with is fiction – neither Sony nor Microsoft will support and send devkits to a studio that does not have office space with proper security.

That is not to say I dislike hobbyist development. Some of the best games I have played have come from one-man teams and there is always tremendous fun to find in people’s experiments. I do hobby development myself – but there is a difference to making a small game about something simple and a full game that explores multiple ideas to a deep level and manages to balance the design. Both can be good games, but they are different enough that a platform can reasonable choose to provide one but not the other.

Posted on Mar 29/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 seems to expect the player having a lot of faith in it, it starts off with a tutorial and some awkward attempts at emotion with characters you do not know, then throws the player into a city with offhand instructions to “make money”. Except for how the story is told there are no hints of a greater purpose or bigger events unfolding, the game rather half-heartedly encourages you to look around on your own until you find something interesting to do. Being heavily story-based it is odd that Bioware designed Dragon Age with such an uninteresting opening, not even sandbox games tend to leave the player without a sense of purpose – but then again, Bioware are known to experiment some with story structure. And to be fair the game does get a lot better after awhile even if the tough moral choices and sense of meaning that made the first Dragon Age great are only really prevalent in the last five hours or so of Dragon Age 2.

Technically, it is like Mass Effect 2 a more refined experience than its predecessor.  There are slightly less choices about equipment, abilities and setup but the ones that are there are more unique. The controls are better and the combat has a much better flow to it, in addition the difficulty curve is more even. Not being used to saving manually constantly, I remember having issues with the checkpoint placement in Dragon Age Origins РDragon Age 2 only automatically saves when you enter a new area but since the difficulty is more manageable and the areas smaller this is no longer a problem.

Something about Dragon Age 2 that I am not sure whether I find interesting or annoying – but that I am sure was completely intentional – is how the gameplay and narrative is woven together regarding the motivations of the characters. It is hard to build a functioning party of characters whose views do not clash, meaning even if you do not care about the outcome of the events in the game yourself you are likely to get rivals among your party members, which in turn affects how the game works. There is also the fact that the main character has a name and a voice this time around and is more of a character than the Origins protagonist was… The game narrative encourages you to establish a character but the gameplay encourages you to be friendly with your party members and you cannot always get both – Andrew Vanden Bossche wrote about this a while ago. But in the end, Dragon Age 2 is a rather adult game tackling questions of racism and intercultural respect, violence, freedom, control and fear – even if problems are sometimes banal it would be doing these subjects a disservice if it allowed for easy solutions and simple compromises. And I also have to wonder if the impact the game had in the end would have been as great if I had not familiarized myself with the environments by running around for hours doing mindless tasks.

After all, I really liked the game and I hope to have opportunity to play through it again, but the question is how good an idea it is to make a game longer with filler content in order to make select few parts of it appear deeper.

Posted on Mar 27/11 by Saint and filed under Reflections | 2 Comments »

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Dead Space 2

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The first Dead Space was sort of a positive surprise that threw a variety of situations at the player, the sequel does this a little less and seemingly tries to keep a higher level throughout instead. Gameplay-wise it is a bit more linear, more akin to Bioshock than any other influences the first Dead Space might have had. It is very similar to the first Dead Space in direct terms, though – upgrades, controls and gameplay elements are more or less the same.

Dead Space 2 is a horror game and it uses a lot of the common tricks to provide gameplay horror – narrow field-of-view, enemies appearing behind you, very limited resources and enemies charging at you for grissly fatality scenes. While it is a decent way of making the player panic, it only really makes the game startling, not really frightening. Making the player feel unsafe also serves to make the game very punishing if you do not play it very carefully – if you do not pick up all the ammunition or do not kill every enemy in a strategic manner, the game will leave you shorted for a long time. This is a tricky balance issue in itself, but it is worsened by the game narrative constantly telling you to hurry along.

Speaking of the narrative, there is not much to say about that either. The big difference to Dead Space is that Isac is no longer a silent protagonist but a real main character, considering the emotional trauma at the center of the story this makes it less awkward. Sure, he is not the most original of characters but at least he is consistent.

Dead Space 2 feels like a sequel by the numbers, it has a small amount of new things to give it value but is more or less the same game as the first one. I think the things that annoyed me about the balancing might have appeared in Dead Space as well but that I did not pay attention to them. I really would like to say something more interesting about Dead Space 2 but the truth is I simply thought it was about as good as the first one.

Posted on Mar 20/11 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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On Depth and Awards

Designer Nels Anderson tackles the tired subject of depth in games with a somewhat fresh perspective, comparing the games industry to the music industry. I fully agree with his points that there is little reason to begrudge the perceived shallowness of mainstream games when they are in fact intended as an enjoyable consumer product more than a way to convey meaning, that as long as the long tail produces variety we can rest assured that the medium is expanding and that this rings true for other media industries as well. He also mentions that the volume of alternatives is lesser for games, there are a multitude of reasons for this and discussing them is outside of the scope for this post but I would guess the fact that games are largely born from toys and arcades (that is, pinball) as opposed to art or culture makes the “entertainment” part more prevalent.

I am not so sure about the presentation of “shallow” mainstream games, this is more a reflection on the culture surrounding art games than Anderson himself; the point of his article is, after all, that there is nothing wrong with enjoying games with little or no meaning. It does kind of come off as something you deign to do in between meaningful pursuits though, and deciding what has meaning and not in something as complex as games should not be done hastily. Small games often contain only a fraction of the content of mainstream games, and for instance a well-executed multiplayer mode might be immensely profound and enjoyable even if the rest of the game is bland. Even if a game lacks meaning in the narrative theme and presentation it may present aesthetic, technical or design solutions that are deep in themselves (Anderson actually mentions his rant not being about design, I just do not think it cannot be decoupled from meaning). And even if we do stick to the narrative, who is to say what is meaningful? … Then again, both the movie and music industries have indie appreciators decrying the shallowness of larger productions even when they have redeeming elements, so maybe this is just the way the world works.

On a related but slightly different note, Chris Delay of Introversion writes about a pretty cool voxel experiment and Рmore importantly for the purpose of this post Рabout his experiences judging the Techincal Excellence Award for the IGF. Feeling I had nothing to add I did not write anything about the IGF this year, but it seems my worries about elitism and eligibility were shared and some people felt that Minecraft Рdue to its reknown and financial success Рshould not be eligible to receive any IGF awards. I think this kind of thinking makes the IGF smaller, a sort of members-only club prizing  obscurity rather than simply celebrating great performances and great games Рit is a bit sad. On the other hand it seems most award shows are heavily influenced by politics and for the IGF it all worked out in the end with Minecraft taking home a modest number of impressive awards.

Posted on Mar 10/11 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »