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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.