The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for watching football, running errands, and trying to catch your breath after a hectic week. Maybe reading some of the week’s best games writing will help. Thanks to A Person On The Internet who provided basically all of this week’s links.

  • I like thinking about choice and narrative in games, and this analysis of a number of common structures is useful at prompting just that. How do different kind of branching narratives flow?
  • The quest structure forms distinct branches, though they tend to rejoin to reach a relatively small number of winning endings (often only one). The elements of these branches have a modular structure: small, tightly-grouped clusters of nodes allowing many ways to approach a single situation, with lots of interconnection within each cluster and relatively little outside it. Re-merging is fairly common; backtracking rather less so. Quests generally involve some level of state-tracking, and do poorly when they don’t. The minimal size for a quest is relatively large, and this category includes some of the largest CYOAs.

  • If you haven’t had enough of The Phantom Pain after our month of coverage, over at Pop Matters G. Christopher Williams talks about the wonder of D-Dog. If you’re short on time, skip to this paragraph.
  • Snake and I ran into Diamond Dog in the wilderness in Afghanistan. He was just a pup. After Snake extracted him back to Mother Base by attaching a balloon to him, Revolver Ocelot took an interest in him and began training DD as something more than a pet. After some time passed and I had completed a number of additional missions and side missions, the one-eyed pup, who greeted me enthusiastically every time I returned to Mother Base in the meantime, grew up, donned an eye patch, and began accompanying me on missions as my completely badass, tail wagging sidekick. He even began arming himself with a knife, which he gripped in his teeth and leapt on unsuspecting sentries on my command, cutting their throats and saving my bacon more than once.

  • Jonathan Allford writes at The Guardian about how games aren’t as anarchic as they appear to outsiders, and what a shame it is that they often fail to respond to players’ wilder instincts.
  • But in structural terms, games are nowhere near as rebellious and anarchic as they appear. Most are packed with rules and frameworks which are specifically designed to restrict the player – and there is usually a central narrative that you have to follow if you want to see the end. This is fine in a lot of genres, where rules are obviously necessary to create a tight play structure. But only a select few titles labelled as “open world” or “sandbox” adventures let you completely and utterly shatter the experience intended for you by the developers – or at least punish you in an imaginative way.

  • Game designer Laralyn McWilliams writes about games as a two-way conversation over on Gamasutra. In particular, if games aim to make us feel things, then games should offer players ways to reflect those feelings back into the game. For example, what if you could choose your character’s facial expression, and NPCs reacted to it?
  • I believe one of the reasons social play drives retention is because it better supports player emotional expression. It creates a two-way conversation. We can see other attempts to enable two-way conversation in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, where players can choose how they respond to NPCs.

    What would it mean in a game like Skyrim if the player could do something as simple as choose a facial expression, and NPC characters reacted to it? How would that change NPC barks as you walk around a city? How would your companion respond?

    What if games that don’t have dialogue systems or avatar customization could still feel as personal, responsive, and emotionally connected as a multiplayer game? Would it drive the same virality and stickiness?

  • James Murff writes about Mad Max’s split ambition over at Unwinnable. I feel like there’s a lot more interesting things to be said about this game, and I hope people go back to it after they’re done with Metal Gear.
  • Mad Max’s first few hours convey a unique sense of danger, conservation and wonder, and it’s almost entirely because you aren’t powerful. Few games have the guts to actually strip the player bare of the power fantasy, the notion that they can defeat the bad guy. Even fewer actually stick with it, usually for fear of losing out on a potentially larger audience.

    However, after you’ve scouted a few locations, earned access to a stronghold and completed a few stronghold projects, you are suddenly free to do whatever you want with little to no repercussions. This is when Mad Max develops a dissonance that taints the rest of the game and where the delight of those first few hours spent drifting and collecting fades into a steady background noise of explosions and punches.

  • The article above contains the line, “In visual art and design, there’s a duality concept known as positive and negative space.” The article below contains the line, “In art, there is a concept of duality known as positive and negative space.” Coincidence? Nope, they’re by the same author. This one is about flow as a game design concept however, and why it’s a flawed and limiting idea.
  • Continuous flow, designing around perpetually placing players in a state of full attention and pleasure, is antithetical to the expression of emotional meaning and purpose. It is little more than soma, a way to pacify players by manipulating a psychological state. We remember the highs and lows more than we remember that pleasant middle, and games that focus on evoking a flow state are often mediocre precisely because they don’t oscillate.

  • Over at Polygon, Matt Leone goes long on the secret developers of videogames. That is, studios who do uncredited work-for-hire jobs, producing assets or designing sections for games too large for a single studio to make alone.
  • Hyde has been around since 2002, has worked on over 200 games and has had a hand in some of Japan’s biggest franchises, including Final Fantasy, Persona and Yakuza. It just can’t talk about most of them. The team often works in secret, doing its job but not appearing in the credits or mentioning the work publicly. Speaking with Polygon, Hyde President Kenichi Yanagihara estimates that he will never be able to talk about 70 percent of what the company does. And that worked fine until Hyde asked the public for money.

  • Joe Skrebels writes on Games Radar about the strangeness of exploring your own city in a game, when he recently explored London in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

I also get lost very quickly. I could tell you an exact route from Whitechapel Station to the Thames, but setting myself the challenge of taking it in Syndicate has me spinning. The Aldgate area appears to have disappeared almost entirely, meaning I skip over Whitechapel’s tenement roofs and find myself right in amongst the industrial wharves of Wapping being used for their original purpose, before they were retooled into airy housing for all my friends who got proper jobs and can afford things like a local butcher’s prices, or more than one pair of shoes. I can know exactly where I am one second, and be totally out of place the next, London stretched and chopped and reintegrated as I go. I can navigate a faked-up 1100s Jerusalem better than a representation of the city I’ve lived in. That’s odd.

Music this week is Mystery by Boxed In, which I am maybe the last person to hear. Music videos are almost always shite, aren’t they.

30 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    If my IRL facial expressions were able to be read by game AI, most NPCs in them big RPGs wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me, and that would be dandy.

  2. Eight Rooks says:

    I can navigate a faked-up 1100s Jerusalem better than a representation of the city I’ve lived in. That’s odd

    …no it’s not? Given it’s common knowledge the cities in these games aren’t even close to one-to-one, it seems pretty obvious any city you actually know in real life is going to seem markedly more alien. See: all those articles on what-have-they-done-to-Chicago after Watch_Dogs.

    I loved AC: Unity, and thought Paris was incredible, but I’m sure any native Parisians would have found it hysterically funny/deeply unnerving. I haven’t lived in London in a long time but I wouldn’t expect to fire up Syndicate and know my way around based on what I remember (not that I’m buying it, probably, but still).

    • Blastaz says:

      Agree.

      These cities are not and can never be one to one facsimile of the original, they are always going to be curated to benefit the gameplay and make compromises with system limits. They moved the Tiber 90• in brotherhood for example. While Florence actually worked really well for me, it’s a city that I love but always navigate in a touristy land mark to land mark way. That worked pretty well up on the roof tops in ac2 looking for the next church tower.

      A city as vast as London which by this point was really starting to grow is going to need to be cut down to size, and what has ever happened in Aldgate anyway?

      Is Big Ben really the biggest thing they have ever built? I walk past it every day to work and it’s not that tall. It’s not even taller than St. Paul’s… Pretty obvious that climbing it was always going to be a thing though!

      As a Londoner and a massive AC fan I am looking forward to Syndicate. Especially after Paris in unity. Paris was so good, the verticality, the shifts in tone of the districts, the way it decayed as the game progresses and the revolution bit. It was such a shame that the wider flaws in the game stopped people appreciating it, it had as much personality as GTAV but it was just buried.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        I’m a big enough AC fan I am tempted by Syndicate, but the trailers suggest the story will be mediocre at best, the tone-deaf Jack the Ripper DLC puts me off even if it never touches the main game – I don’t like supporting anyone who thinks that crap is okay – and cutting down on Unity’s crowds is unforgivable. Glitches and limited tech be damned, no other open world game in existence – or even any upcoming game I’ve seen – feels like Unity’s Paris and the actually honest-to-God crowded streets therein.

        • Blastaz says:

          Unity’s problem, apart from the design clutter, was that it was too ambitious technically. Black flag was clearly a last gen game where they threw in some post processing effects for pc and the new consoles. Unity had been designed for them from the start but they had overestimated how powerful they would be and had to start cutting back.

          Now from a personal point of view I’m glad that they are pulling it back a little: my pc is getting on for five years old and splutters it’s way through unity or wild hunt. But that’s a selfish point of view I know!

          Story wise AC has sucked since revelation. They don’t know what story they are trying to tell: is it history, is it your place in history, is it the Templars vs the assassins for ever, is it the modern day, is it some ancient prophecy?
          Ac1, 2 and brotherhood got the mix right. Keeping the focus on the personal and the historical. Brotherhood was much more about the Borgias than it was about the Templars; 2 was best when it focuses on the Pazzi vs the Medici etc.
          Relegation a begins the rot by making the Byzantines the Templar bad guys which was just ridiculous.

          3 failed by trying to cram Connor into every battle in the war, and had you backing the assassins and the yanks when the rest of his village, protecting which is his main motivation for learning to be hench, is on the British side.

          4 tells an enjoyable pirate story, but is just totally disconnected from the assassin vs Templars.

          Unity is just a mess and a waste of the setting.

          The only good story they’ve had recently was Rogue which pretty much ditched trying to tell any history but instead pulled together all the disparate threads of the five 18th C games in a fairly satisfying way. Who knows what they will do with Syndicate, there’s a lot of interesting themes to work with, I just hope they don’t reduce it to “English aristocrats are cartoon rich bad guys” that game would have been better set in Paris of 1870 than London.

          • Eight Rooks says:

            On AC stories: while I’m hardly going to defend 3 Forrest Gump-ing its way through the Revolutionary War, and Connor’s arc – such as it was – was badly mishandled, I thought it was a staggeringly brave and surprisingly affecting decision to have a major triple-A game where the point, at the end, is “Yup, that was all for nothing, history is written by the winners, winners don’t care about the losers, you’re screwed”. Said it before, I’ll say it again; I’d take AC 3 over Far Cry 3 in a heartbeat (and yet the latter was the one that got GOTY awards left, right and centre).

            Black Flag had a great story – again, sure, it was far too removed from the business of Assassins versus Templars (whether or not you actually care about that), but hey, the hero’s journey was intended to lead him to the epiphany that Assassins versus Templars is a load of nonsense, really, and going home to take care of his family is the responsible, adult thing to be doing.

            Haven’t played Rogue, and I may never, since I am irrationally angry that Unity’s good points – and it had numerous good points – were largely overlooked in favour of stubbornly yelling GIV US PIRAT SHIPS NAOW KTHXBAI. Unity was rushed, flawed and over-ambitious – but it wasn’t remotely the disaster it was made out to be, and people should be ashamed of pitiful, sensationalist nonsense like Kotaku’s OMG IT HAS MICROTRANSACTIONS article (who gives a toss, they had no effect on the game whatsoever) and the yelping about the companion app (ignore it already, I did). I quite liked a lot of Unity’s story, apart from the tiresomely predictable ending.

            And I am not expecting anything from Syndicate’s story in large part because the trailer makes it look as if it’s going to be nothing but “English aristocrats are cartoon evil rich guys”, rah rah rah revolution, take back the streets etc., with all the subtlety of a wet fish to the face.

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            basilisk says:

            Eight Rooks, for what it’s worth, Rogue is a fine game, and it’s more or less designed for series fans. In gameplay terms, it’s basically Black Flag injected with a strong dose of AC3’s frontier, and the story does the same thing that Revelations did – playing out some of the so far only implied parts of the overall plot and tying everything up with a nice bow, which is ultimately unnecessary, but nice to see if you’re invested in the story.

            Like Liberation, it’s more of a diversion than anything else, but it’s not a bad game.

          • Blastaz says:

            Rogue is definitely worth it. Mechanically it is the most derivative game yet being a straight rip of off black flag, right down to the modern day sections. However those mechanics are pretty fun and worth a retread.

            Story wise however it is pretty strong, and the way it links black flag, freedom cry, liberation, 3, and 4 is satisfying.

            Plus it has Haytham in it. Need I go on?

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            kfix says:

            Bravo to both of you for a very interesting series of comments. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first but had been put off starting Unity by the fuss (and more importantly by a Witcher-induced lack of time), but you’ve convinced me to go fire it up.

      • Scurra says:

        I’m actually surprised to learn that “Big Ben” isn’t taller than St Paul’s (although they are not that far apart in height, really, but St Paul’s is also on top of a hill, whereas the Palace of Westminster is, obviously, at river level.)
        But landmark to landmark is probably always going to be the best way to represent a city at a “mythic” level, and the locals can go hang…

        • Blastaz says:

          No building was allowed to be higher than St. Paul’s for ages, in case it spooky the view.

          Even now (I believe) they still note if a new tower block is going to be higher.

          • iucounu says:

            Luckily it was nevertheless possible to build the Walkie-Talkie, the pint-glass shaped enormity that now squats on the other side of the river, fucking up the view for miles around.

        • Blastaz says:

          Damn lack of edit:

          In much the same way the dome of the Duomo in Florence is higher than the bell tower, not that you’d realise it going by the achievements in AC2…

        • Eight Rooks says:

          Tenuously connected, as far as historical accuracy in AC games goes: my father studies Islamic patterns (fairly seriously, as in he collaborates with other academics, writes scholarly papers now and again, contributes to books and so on) and it amused me when I showed him the first game, and his initial reaction was to point out that Ubisoft screwed up the patterns on the Dome of the Rock (I think it was the Dome; he showed me what it ought to have looked like in one of his textbooks). Not quite as jarring as when I took him to see Kingdom of Heaven and he was nitpicking it there in the cinema, but close.

    • bill says:

      Conversely, I remember really enjoying driving games set in cities that I knew / had visited. For example the Midtown Madness representations of San Fransisco and London.

      They weren’t 1:1 representations, but they captured enough of the key points and connections between them that it gave a nice sense of place and I knew where I was and how to get where I wanted to go.
      Driving at high speed may be different from walking around though.

  3. Blastaz says:

    Disagree on pacing in Mad Max.

    I pvped in WoW vanilla, I’ve had quite enough negative space in my life thank you!

    I don’t think there is an advantage to be gained from just wasting time staring at the screen without anything happening.

    The obvious down time in mad max is the driving, which punctuates the frenetic violent or creepy moments on foot.

    IMHO the two problems with that are a) random war parties that interrupt you as you drive; and b) the easiness of the combat. There shouldn’t really have been any patrolling vehicles, but there should have been a way of triggering (vantage points to go to that would trigger a convoy perhaps). And you are just so damn good at cqc that it takes out any of the fear of exploring. Some areas are genuinely quite scary/horrific (I was constantly expecting an ambush in the sunken church) buy at the back of your mind you know you can just breeze past any threat.

    But make me sit at my keyboard while he chows down on some dog food, or wait while Max fills his canteen? Not really thanks.

    • ironman Tetsuo says:

      I believe games with a constant pace or flow certainly have their place and they suit certain moods, I play and enjoy my fair share, I’m just responding to your comment about not seeing the benefit in nothingness.

      It’s that nothingness in games like DayZ or Open Play in Elite Dangerous that lull the player into an almost comatose state which when interrupted by sudden threat of instant in-game death and loss of a large investment of time amplifies the adrenaline response to almost heart attack levels. You just can’t get the kind of rush from games that are created with a constant rhythm.

      It’s like the difference between the movies Crank and Drive.

      • Blastaz says:

        Sure but I don’t think that it follows from having large sections of down time that adds piquancy to staccato burst of action in a rogue like that you should just chuck in delay, grind and busywork willy nilly into whatever’s going.

  4. Frank says:

    I’m not in the games industry, so I’m wondering whether people really put flow forward as the one-and-only design goal?

    I think it’s great for arcade games (as the article mentions, like Cook Serve Delicious or timed modes of ShellBlast), but find it hard to believe anyone but a businessperson hooked on a buzzword would suggest it applies more generally.

  5. malkav11 says:

    For my part, I felt like the transition in Mad Max from scraping for every bit of leverage you can come by to actually feeling competent and effective is really empowering and enjoyable. It does unfortunately undermine certain elements of the survival fantasy, like pretending that you will ever run out of fuel, but to be fair, fuel is never really any issue anyway. There are respawning fuel sources all over the map and even without any Griffa tokens invested in fuel economy, it depletes slowly enough to make getting to one of them very easy.

    But water and food are a problem just often enough to feel relevant, and even as your ammo belt expands and strongholds give you free replenishment every so often, ammunition remains scarce and potently valuable. And the more you upgrade a stronghold, the less relevant those upgrades become as you deplete the surrounding areas of content.

    Furthermore, the game regularly encourages you to take the fight into new areas that you’re once again threatened in. The treadmill presumably eventually runs out, but I’m nowhere near that point and I’m a good 15 hours in. I’m not too worried.

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    Thirith says:

    I’ll have to reread Laralyn McWilliams’ piece, but I was kinda put off by the assertion that my reactions to the gameworld are meaningless in terms of self-expression because they’re not turned into game mechanics. My reactions to art don’t require the work of art to validate them in order to be meaningful. If I come out of Vault 101 and stop in a moment of awe, at least for me that awe would not be more real or more meaningful if I could choose a facial expression in the game to express it; as a matter of fact, I would find such a means of self-expression reductive of what it means to interact with art. Doesn’t mean it’s the same for other players, but it’s definitely true for me: my reactions, my feelings in response to the game, these are as much part of the interaction as what happens when I press a certain button, because my responses in turn affect what I do next with the tools the game gives me. An emote button would just put a layer of interface between me and the world that doesn’t fit with how I do express myself in games. My awe at the sight of the wasteland affects how I interact with the wasteland, which in turn affects how the wasteland reacts to me. For me McWilliams’ argument comes across as an overly literal, overly mechanical notion of interaction and self-expression.

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      kfix says:

      I hope you did read that piece again, because I think you missed what she was saying – she wasn’t saying that something about your reaction is invalid, she was saying to game designers that they should look at how they can take cues from player behavior (like panicking at radscorpions) and feed that back into the game. The emote mechanic mentioned wouldn’t be to somehow validate the awe you feel, but to allow you to show the NPCs in the game your mood thereby widening your range of expression in the game – an entirely unrelated situation to the first glimpse of the wasteland example she used to illustrate how designers converse with the user.

      I thought it was a very interesting article and I hope some designers start thinking more about the ideas she raised.

  7. daphne says:

    Much better haul this week. Thanks Graham and person on the Internet.

  8. James says:

    Here’s a piece on how The Bloody Baron quests were written and produced if anyone’s interested: link to pcgamer.com

  9. Gap Gen says:

    It’s a fair point that games are actually quite conservative, because being rules-based requires a certain level of adherence to a basic system. Another aspect is of course that large publishers are chasing a very specific market, and pandering to a reactionary image of a young male who likes guns and America.

  10. frogulox says:

    I dont know if its been said elsewhere, but perhaps a person on the internet could just take over sunday papers?
    Though i do like your intros graham.
    Maybe you could/should all do your own weekly presentations?
    And wheres the pipwick papers?? I like the shake of her pepper.

  11. UnholySmoke says:

    Bit surprised the Gamasutra bit didn’t mention Kingpin, which was yonks ago, but let you walk around pressing any one of a positive interaction, neutral interaction or negative interaction button. Granted, these equated to either saying ‘Sup’ or ‘GTFO’ to the street heavies, but nothing’s even had a stab at doing that since. Putting away your sword in Skyrim is about as close as you come.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Saints Row 3 has the same system. I can’t remember if 2 did.

      You would get passers-by complementing or insulting your getup, and you could return in kind (which, since you were a pop-star gangster in 3, could make them excitable). They’d even get offended if you shunned them.

      You could also use the negative response to taunt standoffish enemy gangmembers into attacking, for a respect bonus.

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      kfix says:

      Hat-tipping in Red Dead Redemption?