A good way to die

“Be good at our game or we’ll make it less fun for you” should not be a design mantra. That’s why I dislike the harsh death penalty in the latest Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, that ultimately sees you having to re-tread vast portions of the game to re-try what it was that beat you in the first place. Ultimately the penalty for death is time – fail and you lose 20 minutes. This is harsh indeed, not to mention tedious. This poses an interesting design question though – how do you create a meaningfully harsh death mechanic that doesn’t take away from player enjoyment?

Many indie games have harsher death mechanics, but quick restarts and shallow gameplay mean you are dropped back into the game doing exactly what you were doing before you died. Super Hexagon or Hotline Miami for example. The other archetype is the game that challenges you to get to its end. FTL or Hoplite both do this – death is harsh, you have to restart the game, but games don’t last long, so again, this is not so punishing, in fact it’s a formula that has existed since the advent of the arcade cabinet. As long as the game is consistently fun, then the repetition is not tedious and death is not too punishing. The real trick is implementing a good death mechanic in a longer, story-based game.

So here’s a proposal – one possible answer lies in your absence from the world. When you die, the world keeps running rather than resetting and the penalty comes from not being there to help. This would work well if, for example, you have squadmates who die permanently, or in multiplayer – We don’t specifically punish you by docking your score or character progression, or by making you repeat a section, in fact you’re technically getting a second try, but things escalate more while you’re away so it’s a scramble to get back into the action, and if done right this should be fun rather than a chore. The penalty is not what happens to you, but what happens to everything else while you’re gone, and if you design the game right this all just happens naturally and in an emergent way. All you have to do is create systems that fight each other or tick over without you.

I recently managed to add this concept to a game relatively late in its development – although it’s not always possible to make changes to the core game later in the process, we compensated by placing elements in the world that the enemy tries to attack. When they’re destroyed they’re gone for good – die and you’re re-spotted away from them leaving them vulnerable until you return. This is an imperfect solution, but it did add a nice meta-game for the more advanced players – can you complete the game with all of these elements in-tact? It had a nice knock-on effect of letting better players choose a more challenging game.

Late game review – Brothers. Spoilers.

I played this game a while back but have only recently felt compelled to write this review because of how much people seem to like it, and how much that irritates me. It was described to me as ‘brilliant and brave’ but I found it to be disappointing and quite predictable in its plot and structure. It has the air, not of something beautifully crafted by an old-hand, but of cack-handedness and cliché. It feels like the work of an incompetent storyteller retreating into a new medium, not for the new opportunities it offers, but for the sake of diminished competition.

There are some positives – the environments are nice looking and there is very little repetition of game mechanics. There is a tendency among game designers to stick to a rigidly limited amount of gameplay elements for the sake of readability, but in doing so you deprive the player of experimentation – a cornerstone of the medium. Besides, all of the puzzle elements in this game are tied together by a common language – physics. You pull, push lean and swing. None of this has to be taught because we are already familiar with these actions from real life. I very much enjoyed playing a game where each experience is a new one.

Unfortunately the rest of the game is a let down. The mechanics never deliver on the promise made by it existing as a game, although in fairness, it does try – the bond between characters is meant to be forged by your actions – puzzles that require both brothers to complete. However you never identify with one character due to the disconnect created by you having to control both, and likewise you never form a bond with either as neither are truly external to you as the player. This leaves the story in an awkward place where it feels separate from the gameplay as it plays out in cutscenes in which you lose control – creating distance. The core mechanic too where you control one boy with each stick never stops being confusing and its only saving grace is that the game is short enough for you to persevere despite it.

Also noticeably jarring is the poor execution of the ending – throughout the game you solve challenges as part of a pair – surely the most elegant way of showing loss would be to come across more challenges subsequent to the death of one brother and find yourself unable to complete them, forcing you then to take a longer, harder road. Instead you’re bolstered on by the dead boy’s memory and are able to complete tasks with one that before required two. Rather than emphasising a point, they design a solution to bypass it, a solution to the very punchline that they have built up to until this point. A bizarre choice.

I realised recently exactly what it is I like so much about games, or rather, what kind of games it is that I like. It’s all about exploration and escapism – which is interesting really because creating the world and the art is one of the only parts of the games that we make that I have very little say in. We come up with ideas about the global structure, but I’m no art director. One day…

I’ve realised that this is universal in my life. When I go out it has to be somewhere you can explore – I’m not happy in little micro clubs, and it’s also a big part of the reason why I dislike living in Brighton, and why I love London.

I find it interesting that every time you think you’ve discovered something new about yourself, some nuance that may inform your creative style, you think back and realise you’ve been like that since the beginning. Really we should just try and remember all the things we did as kids and bring them to the fore in our work. From now on all my games will be about eating apples with no skin on and naming cuddly toys odd things.

My favourite games of 2013 (In no particular order)

…and my colleagues thoughts on them.

Screw it.. TOP THREE!

The Last of Us. 
I loved this for its production values, the beautiful music and the quality of the writing. It’s not just a good story for a game, it’s a beautifully told story for any medium. You can approach each encounter in a variety of ways from the stealthy to the ultra-violent and on top of that every mechanic supports the theme of survival – the weapons you use break and the crafting system forces you to choose between different but equally useful items leaving you hoping you made the right choice for the next encounter. The menu system that is your backpack is incredibly elegant too, and the bow is a joy to use once mastered. 

Studio survey says: “I don’t like games that are just like interactive movies.” “It’s not really like Mario, is it?” “The crafting is confusing.” “It’s too stressful.” “I loved the first half hour. Amazing. Probably the best 30 minutes I played all year.” “Really enjoyed it but I missed the lack of targeting.”

Gone Home
This was such a lovely example of the kind of linear storytelling that can work better in games than in any other medium. It’s a beautifully told story that’s deeper than I was expecting. You’re given a world to touch and unfold. Short but sweet. 

Studio says “What, so you just walk and click things? That’s it?” “The lack of action made it bland.” “Not enough mechanics.” “Yeah I’ve heard really great things about it. Not gonna bother playing it.”

Remember Me
This one really surprised me and I’m so glad it did. The combat was fun once mastered and the enemy design was intersting. A lot lets it down, but it more than makes up for it by being one of the most beautiful looking game worlds I’ve ever explored. In fact it made me realise it’s this aspect of games I enjoy the most despite being more of a gameplay designer. 

Studio feedback: Designer’s muse ‘G.F.’ liked the system for customising combos. No one else in the studio played it sadly, which echos how it did in general. Shame. 

Honourable mentions

Tomb Raider
This game is just so well executed. Every new item you get unlocks new routes around the open world. The bow is a joy to use and the story, though forgettable, is well-told enough to keep you coming back. Personally I would have liked less set-pieces. Worth playing just to experience a master-class in gating an open-world. 

DMC
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the crass humour which is really not the kind of thing I usually enjoy. It’s a testament to good voice talent and direction. I would also describe the music as the kind of thing I hate, but it worked so well in this game. Demons, black goo, the occult – I like none of these things, but I couldn’t put this game down until it was finished. Can’t wait for the next one. I genuinely liked the characters.

Guacamelee
The design! The colours! The music! I played it on the vita and loved having it in my hands, I’m not sure how I would have felt about it on a bigger screen, but this was just such a nice game to be in. It also had fantastic traversal and colour mechanics that forced you to use specific moves (also coloured) on certain enemies. A little flying enemy is a lot harder to beat when you have to attack it from above! A treat. 

Proteus
This is a lovely little world to walk around. The music and sound evokes such a lovely atmosphere. I love this game for what it could have meant for non-traditional storytelling in games. If only it had had a point. 

Studio says “It’s on YouTube 36 minutes full play-through. £1.40 saved. Not as pretty as minecraft sorry.”- Steam pours out of my ears…

Remember Me

In Remember Me there is a shining gem of a game, worn dull by an outdated world structure, cliched themes and a combat system that just falls short of brilliance. It should though be commended for its portrayal of a well-realised, non sexualised female lead.

Let me first say that I enjoyed playing this game more than I have enjoyed any in a long time. For all its flaws I felt its strengths far outweighed its weaknesses. It is one of the most inviting worlds I’ve ever experienced in a game. It’s also worth saying that I’m only ever this critical of things I love, because I want them to be perfect. This annoys my friends as I appear to have more of a problem with the films, games and books we like than the ones we dislike, but it’s only because I’m interested enough to obsess over the details.

I’ll try and keep this spoiler free.

There are several problems that I have with the narrative, some missed opportunities I think would have been really great, and there are also a wealth of small gripes like poor voice acting, (though the main cast is excellent). It’s not really worth focusing on these as they’re easily ignored, but I do wish they’d made more of certain story themes – Nilin’s amnesia for example would have been a great opportunity for her to be manipulated by people claiming they were old friends.

The combat system has some fundamental flaws and later unlocks make it pointless to ever use initial combos, as you get no bonuses for finishing them. The bigger sin though is that although you can continue your combos between enemies, if the one you’re fighting dies you lose the progress. It almost feels like a bug.

I also find the inclusion of the mutant ‘Leapers’ disappointing. Must all games include a mutant or zombie of some sort? They come with Gollum-like voices and it all feels a bit silly.

My main problem with Remember Me though, is that like a lot of older games it’s a slice of a world I wish I could explore fully. You play in closed off environments, bookended by cutscenes and mission cards. You have access to abilities that are only available to you a few times throughout the game and only at certain points. It feels like a teaser for something much bigger, a vertical slice. You do not feel like a free agent.

One such example is your ability to enter someone’s memories and alter them, changing what they do in the real world. However these only happen at set points making you feel a loss of agency. It’s a shame they couldn’t have built a system where you could steal anyone’s memories, gaining you access to a variety of places around the world, some insignificant, some vital to the story. It would not have been able to be as complex as the current implementation, but I would rather have an ability that I could use at any time, anywhere, than one that I wasn’t truly free to use.

It’s these things that make it feel outdated. I want to be free to explore the world I’m in, after all, along with interactivity, exploration is one of the fundamental differences that games have from other art-forms. Gameplay too is our way of touching the worlds we play in. If we’re shown that a character has an ability we are not free to use, it only distances that character from us.

Nilin is supposed to be a Memory Hunter, someone who operates above neo-paris, a detective who steals peoples memories in order to unlock the city. It’s just a shame that we were simply told that story, rather than living it ourselves.

Digital sightseeing in Remember Me. I have to admit this one almost passed me by due to the slightly disappointing reviews, but I’m very glad I played it. It’s set in a meticulously and beautifully crafted world. It also made me realise that this is what I love in a game – being taken away to another place. Escapism. Interesting how the rest of my current design team differs. I think my creative director has similar sensibilities, but the other two designers play games for very different reasons. One likes create characters who are very different from themselves and who they then rollplay, while the other is fascinated by numbers, statistics, odds and probability.

Unfinished

I wrote this before he died. I was going to re-phrase this, but I think I’ll just leave it as it is. It’s unfinished, and there’s a bit of a mess towards the end, but perhaps that’s rather apt. 

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Iain M Banks is dying. This actually hit me in a more profound way than I thought it would. I’m not the kind of person who gets upset about the deaths of people I don’t know. I was surprised by my own reaction to the news, but then I started to realise that he has been one of, if not the biggest source of creative inspiration in my life since I was a child. 

I was always drawing robots when I was little, and making things out of pieces of cut up cardboard. I’d watched StarTrek before, and Star Wars, and I knew I liked these things in some way but I never considered them as part of a genre. When I first started to read his science fiction books I was amazed at the seriousness of them, the sexiness. They are written like adult novels, there are no ray-guns or spandex-clad barbarellas. I began to think about these things more and more. I watched Ghost in the Shell, I looked at the concept artwork for Metal Gear Solid. There is a style here that I want to be part of, I want to contribute to. Good stories told about incredible things, or just stories told in interesting worlds. Often this is a genre that allows a great deal of philosophical reflection as it can be so rich in metaphors. Science fiction releases you of so many restrictions imposed upon you by other genres, especially in Games, which I now make for a living. 

So much of my imagination is plagiarised from the ideas in his books. Actually so much of so many things are plagiarised from his books. The ‘halo’ from Halo for example…

When I was younger, before I went to film school, one of my often daydreamed ambitions was to make one of his books into a film. There are so few good sci-fi films. I always imagined the letter I would write to try and convince him to let me do this, and to justify why I would do the material justice like no-one else could. 

As I’ve got older I’ve grown my own worlds inside my head, and I no longer want to simply tell the stories of others in a different form. But still, these worlds wouldn’t exist without his writing and I still wanted to ask him for his permission to include some homage in my work. It’s an odd, very selfish feeling to realise that I will never achieve this; one of my earliest ambitions. 

If you read one thing from his volume of sci-fi work, read the short story ‘The State of the Art’ from the book of the same name. 

I read it once on a family holiday in Turkey, and then again lying next to my friend in central park in NYC, with him too hungover to move. It’s about our world as seen through the eyes of others, but there are no UFO’s or aliens in the traditional sense. You follow a woman as she walks around European cities, contemplating humanity. 

rewrite - 
traditional science fiction ideas with genuine people and a more realistic view of the future that satirically criticises current western culture. moulding the spiralling, inky-abstract grasps for something more lucid that began to form in my head when I was young. 
his ideas - 
Stories that begin and end at opposite times and meet in the middle.
ships within ships, endlessly and intricately tattooing each other, recursing into… something

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I never knew him, but it makes me sad.

The less sleep you have, the more stupid the jokes…

Recently at work I’ve tried to entertain myself at the end of the project by being the most irritating and antagonistic member of our internal blog. The creative director also enjoys this.

From the internal blog. Thanks guys. Idiots…

The inconvenience of convenience

When forced to work on a bank holiday, I try and cheer myself up by indulging in many little things. On these days I treat myself to many more cups of tea than usual, but our modern studio manages to take the satisfaction out of the ritual. I like the fact that this was a two minute break, you can rest your eyes, clear your mind. But of course, we don’t have a kettle any more, we have a boiling water tap. A cup of tea takes 15 seconds to make and then I’m back at my desk. This is a good lesson to learn; not everything is better optimized. Fuck you, boiling water tap.