Are You So Blind

Frictional Games: The last name “Grip” is strangely apt for a horror game designer.

I recently wrapped up Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and, like many, I have almost exclusively good things to say about it. The atmosphere of Amnesia is pretty much perfect, and while the pacing of the game effectively switches gears from moments of calmer investigation or puzzle solving to moments of excitement and tension, it goes great lengths to avoid letting the player ever feel completely secure. I thought, however, that to keep an Amnesia review interesting, it would be educational to examine the places where the game actually failed for me, and analyze what went wrong. Spoilers abound, but are predominantly relegated to the last paragraph.

You may find it surprising that I think the seemingly hokey, disembodied-hand-based physics engine was actually under-used. I found it quite intuitive, and I can’t conceive of a better way to simulate the flailing dexterity of a panicked person trying to operate a door handle, or pile up a makeshift barricade. The real disappointments were the occasions when it was unclear whether a given puzzle required an abstract solution (like combining and using inventory objects or finding a switch) as opposed to a physics solution (like throwing a rock). If I had it my way, it would have been all physics manipulation all the time, so as to maintain consistency and immersion.

When I first encountered the game’s monsters, I discovered that they would eventually disappear altogether if I merely waited long enough in a secure location, causing me to adopt a boring, tension-dissolving strategy of sitting around in the dark twiddling my thumbs that was in no way discouraged by the game. I discovered that, in later sections, certain monsters never de-spawn – a breach in the apparent “rules” of the game that resulted in me waiting in a side room for 20 minutes straight and wondering whether the monster music had simply bugged out. The permanent monster, aside from shattering my immersion, also totally undermined my “wait it out” strategy, causing me to wonder: Why did the designers choose not to make EVERY monster permanent?

Most of Amnesia’s plot is, predictably, made up of antecedent action, delivered through notes, flashbacks, and monologues with middling to good effectiveness (taking a few cues from Gone Home might have improved this somewhat). The most egregious disruption of immersion in the entire game, however, came from a late game “conversation” with Agrippa, who awkwardly pauses while speaking to the player as if to let Daniel reply, then continues talking as though Daniel had said something that he didn’t. Ideally, I would have simply cut Agrippa from the game, since the appearance of a friendly person significantly undermines the ongoing tension, but in lieu of that, perhaps they could at least have suggested that Agrippa was deaf, or the like, to justify him monologuing at a silent Daniel.

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Everything Smooth as Ice

Lucas Pope: who would’ve thought Naughty Dog ever employed people with original ideas?

I think the most impressive achievement of Papers, Please is not the fact that it took a mind-numbingly boring task and somehow turned it into a legitimately entertaining, flow-inducing activity – it is the fact that this may be one of the first games I have ever played in which the core mechanical systems of the game and the story were united in such an incredible, effective way. Papers, Please is a triumphant example of the medium used for its highest artistic potential: mechanics as metaphor; gameplay as theme; challenge as message.

Papers, Please is ostensibly about approving valid documents and denying invalid ones at a border checkpoint, but it keeps things loose with regards to the real end goal of the game. You can lose, certainly, if you perform poorly enough at this task, but your proficiency to control how and when you fail also provides you with ethical agency. The game regularly prompts you to compromise your apparent function in favour of decency, trust, or the promise of revolution – it asks you to set your own goal, and to express your values, but it does so entirely through the mechanism of approving or denying passports.

This is what Papers, Please does that other games (usually) do not: it presents the player with meaningful, consequential, expressive choices, but it does so as part of the core gameplay, by altering the contexts and input variables of that gameplay. When a revolutionary insurgent asks to be let through with forged documents, you are still playing the same game as before: your pay stub will suffer for letting that person through, which might cause you to lose the game. Maybe, if you are not watching closely, you will miss the forgery and let that person through accidentally. Maybe you were doing badly beforehand, and you have to deny them just to avoid losing the game. Maybe you deny them on principle, because you do not trust the rebels, or because your job is to screen out forged or flawed documents and you just want to do your job.

When you compare Papers, Please to another game that features the same kind of branching storyline fraught with perilous ethical dilemmas, like, say, Mass Effect, you can see much more clearly the difference in the execution: Mass Effect’s core gameplay is combat action, but the only times the player is presented with serious moral choices are as strict “A, B, or C” events in dialogue trees. These set the context for battles, or happen as a consequence of battles, but the combat mechanics are wholly independent of the storytelling aspect of the game. Mass Effect is a fantastic game, but it keeps its narrative, its themes, and its metaphor in one zone, and its core action in a different one. Papers, Please makes no such compromise – mechanics, challenge, metaphor and story are as one; true ludonarrative resonance.

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GAME: Whom Fortune Favours

Game where you are a dice who judges the players based on good/bad deeds that they do throughout the day and lands on the side of justice

— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) September 23, 2013

The game I ended up with is a mobile app with two games in one: an asynchronous, turn-based, menu-operated, multiplayer RPG with a major ethics/morality emphasis (lots of Fable-like aesthetic consequences for the player’s actions, plus the player’s actions would unlock or close off future quest lines) and a die-rolling physics simulator that uses the phone's accelerometer motion control. Bear with me, this does make sense eventually.

On the RPG side: the player is presented with a world map, clustered with people in need and dungeons to plumb (plus merchants, skill trainers and whatnot), and they can commit to a quest by selecting one off of the map (à la Kingdom of Loathing). Once engaged in a quest, the player is presented with a succession of multiple-choice scenarios, based on their skills and the context of the situation, not unlike a text adventure. All of the player’s options are substantial choices; there’s less “go north” and more “take the long route, avoiding trouble”; not so much “cast fireball” as “incinerate enemies with impunity”. Every decision has a serious impact on the quest, creating observable consequences, or even taking the player down a completely separate branch of the quest-line.

Every decision also involves some element of chance (how badly do you get hurt while incinerating enemies, how much of your food does taking the long route use up, et cetera), but instead of a random number generator producing those results, we have the second major component of the game: Once a player makes a choice in a quest scenarios, their progress locks, and they are taken to a physics simulation of a twenty-sided die rolling down a ramp (think Rock of Ages), controlled by the mobile device’s motion detection. Whatever number is rolled will be used as the “randomly generated” number for some other player’s quest choice. The roll would not only affect the outcome of that player’s action, but might also be used to generate “random” events to procedurally complicate their quest-line.

Right before performing a roll, the player would be given an anonymous briefing about the recipient character: their current choice and the consequences of the roll; and a set of statistics like altruism/selfishness, cruelty/mercy, and bravery/cowardice of that character based on their history. During the roll, obstacles, power-ups, and modifiers could be hit to affect the die’s momentum and modify the final number, giving the rolling player extra control over the result. Players might earn single-use momentum boosts for the rolling game as rewards for quests, and in the rolling game there might be collectible XP bubbles to pick up, just so that the two components of the game feed into one another more.

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In Search of the L4D Killer

Left 4 Dead & Left 4 Dead 2 are among my all-time most favourite video games, thanks to their unique and ingenious design: a series of short, story-driven campaigns featuring relatable, interesting characters and mountains of apocalyptic window dressing; a four-player cooperative multiplayer format with incredible interdependence between players necessitating effective teamwork; endless replayability thanks to careful randomization elements and the “Director” AI tweaking the difficulty of each level to suit the skill of the players; and the general polish of well-paced, varied, shooter combat.

In their wake, I have been on a long quest for more and better cooperative gameplay.

A few games jumped aboard the multiplayer co-op bandwagon with survival and horde modes, but the concept of holding out as long as possible against inevitable death was far from the goal-oriented drive of L4D’s campaigns. A few titles here and there bother to include cooperative campaigns to complement their single-player modes, but these tend to be lengthy and unreplayable, making it difficult to enjoy a quick pick-up game of them. Exempli gratia: I played only once through Portal 2, and only with a single partner for that entire run.

Borderlands had great promise, adding an open world and customizable skills and gear to the formula, but ultimately leant too heavily on its Diablo-esque format: optimizing a character for play can easily take 100+ hours, at which point there aren’t any quests left and the grind has robbed all excitement from the endeavour. I found myself playing for the addiction, rather than the action, while I could have my optimal gear loadout within 30 minutes of starting a new L4D campaign.

Then there was Brink, which didn’t seem to understand that making a competitive multiplayer mode and then replacing the other team with bots isn’t really the same as having a properly designed cooperative mode. The triviality of respawning every 30 seconds robbed me of any sense of character – I wasn’t a named protagonist, I was just one of an endless supply of reinforcements, regardless of how much consequence the game tried to heap upon the results of a match.

When I heard about Payday, it seemed like a sure thing, being as it was more or less identical to L4D. Unfortunately, a lack of polish was crippling: massive, time-consuming character progression, awful pacing and difficulty balance. Payday 2 had promise, since it did a lot better in terms of varying the gameplay, but has recently extended its character progression into the realm of several years of continuous play, and I don’t have the patience.

Planning to try 2012’s Syndicate and the upcoming Destiny set for release in 2014. Still searching, still hopeful.

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GAME: Store Front

Game where you must maintain your vacuum shop whilst also harboring criminals at the same time.

— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) September 24, 2013

It’s a tycoon game! You need to operate your vacuum shop to the best of your abilities in the classic vein of games like Lemonade Stand, but with a twist: the vacuum shop is just the commercial front for what is actually a mob den. The basics of managing the shop would actually be pretty trivial: each month (or week, whatever works) the gangsters would fund the player an allowance to pay the bills and maintain stock and so forth, and at the end of the month, if the shop fails to turn a profit? No big deal. The heists, protection rackets, and contraband dealings of the mob bring in more than enough.

So while the player would still manage purchasing and pricing stock, advertising their wares, and so forth, only a gross failure on the retail business end of things would end the game: if the shop is being run so poorly that it starts to eat up all of the gang’s actual profits, then it’s become more trouble than it is worth and the gang would have the player whacked. The more important responsibilities for the player would be to facilitate the gang’s activities in and around the shop while maintaining a believable storefront to keep the authorities from discovering their nefarious enterprises.

First and foremost, this would entail spatially furnishing the store to accommodate hidden caches for weapons, drugs, and the mob’s meeting room (which could be un-hidden, as long as it can be rapidly disguised as a mundane rec room, storage basement, or the like). Occasionally, police officers would conduct a search of the premises following simple, predictable AI – something like a tower defence game – so the player’s construction and arrangement of the shop would need to distract and redirect them until they are satisfied of the legitimacy of the storefront. It would also mean keeping the store’s books clean: if the store consistently fails to turn a profit, month after month, tax investigators would step in and attempt to discover the actual source of the shop’s income, perhaps requiring the player to “cook the books” in some manner of puzzle minigame. Finally, the player would need to prepare the store to defend against attacks by rival gangs.

As the game progressed, the player’s goals would revolve around helping the mob expand their operations by expanding the shop, laundering money through purchases and sales of vacuum cleaners, concealing ever-escalating amounts of contraband, fending off increasingly shrewd investigators and interrogators, and increasingly aggressive gang battles. As an eleventh-hour twist, the mob might lose access to a large portion of its funds late in the game and have to run one month’s operations on the legitimate income of the store. And, at the end of a well-played campaign, the player would be rewarded with a lengthy prison sentence courtesy of Jimmy the Snitch.

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GAME: Letters From the Editor

What if you played as a letter of the alphabet that could jump into speech bubbles to either help people or get them into deep trouble?

— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) February 7, 2013

I think that playing as a single letter of the alphabet severely limits the gameplay options and puts an awkward constraint on puzzle creation, so instead, while maintaining the spirit of the idea, I would give the player all 26 letters – but with each letter usable only once. As a scene progresses, the player is given the opportunity to make a single modification to each speech bubble, with the changes they make forcing the story to take a different turn. The player can also opt to simply leave a given speech bubble alone, saving their letters for later.

The biggest challenge would be creating lines of dialogue wherein every line has at least a few opportunities to introduce a meaningful change. For simplicity, the player shouldn't be able to make any change, only pre-programmed ones, but in the interest of fun, the pre-programmed options should encompass every possible, meaningful alteration. "Do you like pie?" might become "dot you like pie?", but the modified sentence is gibberish, so it shouldn't be an option. By contrast, "do you like pies?" is viable, but here we observe a secondary challenge: "Pie" becoming "pies" isn't going to even raise an eyebrow; we need to create sentences that can be changed in substantial ways, ways that alter the flow of the scene. Some possibilities:

• Adding past tense to verbs: "I love you." becomes "I loved you."

• Adding plurality to nouns: "He's got game!" becomes "He's got games!"

• Convert one word into another of the same type: "Go rouse the soldiers." becomes "Go arouse the soldiers."

Ideally, most lines would also have multiple viable modifications: "can't you see the art?" is well-loaded, since "art" can become "cart", "dart", "fart", "part", "tart", or "wart", all of which create significant changes in the meaning and significance of that line. If one can generate enough of these, the only remaining problem is finding the right funny story to string them all together. Making any real narrative would likely create a massive computational difficulty in terms of designing every possible outcome of a scene, and every possible branching plot line that could result, it could be easier to manage if the game were set up as a collection of short skits, with a meta-narrative about the Editor (the player) being directed by management to alter the meaning of the series of transcripts so that the edited versions help push the manager's agenda: "Change this love story so it ends up decrying the evils of deforestation" and so forth. While the long narrative would make for a very interesting story, this idea instead offers more variety and clearer goals to work towards.

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All a Matter of Perspective

Irrational Games: Thinking deep thoughts and brutally murdering people at the same time.

I discovered, in the aftermath of BioShock Infinite, that I have relatively little to say about it that is interesting without criticizing it or defending it against criticism, which is a shame, because Infinite is a great game that is both fun to play and features an intense, moving story. If Infinite were any other game, I'm not sure I would even have played it, which is telling: I played this game because of its lineage, and I knew going in that it would be impossible for it to live up to its predecessor, so while it wasn't actually disappointing to me, it was nevertheless not what I wished it would be, either.

SPOILERS: The game is inconsistent with it's internal rules for parallel universes, a limp hand-wave is the best we have as justification for the existence of vigours and various special enemies, and the bad guys are heinous, unambiguously evil people who are beyond sympathy — but assessed for what it is trying to do, I think Infinite succeeds extremely well. The criticisms that I encountered online saying that it is overly violent and even racist are fair and legitimate too, but these properties are mostly mishandled components of a focal story which, in itself, is solid.

BioShock Infinite is about a horrible, murdering brute – Booker – who is trying to redeem himself, crossing into a parallel universe to kill Comstock, an alternate version of himself who, in that timeline, tried to deny his past. Parallel universes being the core conceit of the story, it is set in 1912, in the cradle of modern physics (just as BioShock was set in the cradle of modern genetics, the late 1950's). Comstock, the villain, must be vile both for the player to feel motivated to kill him, and because he must symbolize that Booker cannot overcome his past by denying it and "reinventing" himself. Comstock plays off of the evils of the setting time period: American exceptionalism, religious zealotry, racism, classism. He is unambiguously horrible, but he is not supposed to be a complex villain, he is supposed to be part of Booker's self-loathing.

This makes the story of Booker a story about a murderer who knows no other means of overcoming his problems, thus he slaughters his way through a conflict that is, by virtue of the properties of the villain, a story about defeating racists. Those race issues are dealt with poorly in a bid to make the morality of the conflict less obviously one-sided, resulting in Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox becoming absurd baby-killers for no good reason (although I must admit, hatred begetting hatred didn't strain my suspension of disbelief at the time). The violence in the story, on the other hand, is both excessive and unavoidable: the fact that Booker is a murderer is perhaps his most critical quality to the story, and it is why both he and Comstock need to die.

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GAME: Dire Reflections

Imagine a game where you instantly die if you see yourself? The enemy is reflection.

— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) October 22, 2012

For this one, I think the player needs to literally be Medusa. Aside from the fact that using a well-known myth reduces the need for exposition, this sets up an amazing horror story that I would really love to tell, and can really only be told through the eyes of the monster. It will be a very different species of horror, though: we can pull a jump scare the first time or two that a player gets to see themselves, blasting Medusa's dying scream through the speakers and flashing a properly horrific visage (fractal images of violence and suffering that collage into a contorted face, maybe?) onto the screen, but once the player has a grasp of their ability to control whether they see themselves or not, we need something more than the player's own reflection to scare them.

Gameplay-wise, this one must either be first-person, or it needs to be an extremely-tight over-the-shoulder view. The latter might be useful since it would widen the player's periphery (allowing them the chance to see reflective surfaces before actually seeing Medusa's face in them), but I feel like it also diminishes the effect a bit. We can also make use of the snake-hair thing as a warning device – having the snakes become more agitated as reflective surfaces get dangerously close to revealing her reflection. From the first-person, the snakes would show up on the screen edges, and might also help the player by obstructing the periphery (to help avoid accidental glances).

Any other entities Medusa encounters in the game have to turn to stone the moment they cross in front of the player's view. The ability to create instant, line-of-sight-blocking statues has me thinking about navigating mirror mazes, but such challenges would be mostly for changes of pace from the game's real focus: Medusa's search for a place of comfort, safety, and, most problematically, community. Throughout, Medusa will interact with other characters, sometimes trying to befriend them, other times (accidentally?) killing them. This would, given her condition, frequently be via speech and sound alone, so one might want to make sure that whatever system governs those conversations is appropriately deep, even if it just means extensive dialogue trees.

This is a game about loneliness, abandonment, futility and existential crisis. Medusa doesn't necessarily hate the other humans she encounters, but they nevertheless fear her and shun her, and they ultimately die as soon as she encounters them in person, leaving her alone and bereft of a meaningful life. Medusa is a modern symbol for nihilism: she represents the horrible "truth" that we don't want to acknowledge (that life is meaningless and the world is uncaring), because proverbially looking that truth in the eye feels, to us, like death. That's why, after overcoming the challenges of the game, players should find themselves utterly alone in the game world, their efforts ultimately without reward, and with nothing left to do but look into a mirror and end the game.

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GAME: Dilation Ball

Game where you play a day that lasts 1 second. Need to find elements that stretch time by 1 second. You win when you live a 24 hour day.

— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) March 12, 2013

This one is an iPhone balancing game in which the player must guide (by tilting the phone) a sphere that moves at its own, constant speed along a precarious system of narrow rails, and if the sphere falls off the rail on either side, then you restart from the last checkpoint. Think Labyrinth, but no stopping and there are more holes than paths. The sphere's pace is set such that reaching the first checkpoint, which is just a straight beam requiring that the player only hold the phone level, takes pretty much exactly one second. Between the first and second checkpoint, however, the sphere slows down and the length of the beam extends, such that that stretch takes exactly two seconds. Each stretch takes 1 additional second to complete; so the player has to maintain balance for increasing durations between checkpoints. In addition, the slower sphere becomes less responsive to the player's inputs as the levels roll on, requiring the player to become a better judge of how much force they need to apply to the sphere, and for how long they must apply it, in order to keep the ball steady in the face of increasingly frequent, randomized complications like curves, obstacles, and balance-disrupting events like sudden gusts of wind.

The game can be paused at any time (otherwise it never stops), and from the pause menu the player can purchase Rescues: any time you are about to fall and lose, the game auto-pauses and asks if you want to use one of your Rescues, in which case you are placed back in the centre of the rail and you lose any lateral momentum you may have had, resetting your balance but saving your progress. You also earn one free Rescue any time that you reach a new checkpoint. Furthermore, the game tracks all of your total real-time spent playing (paused time doesn't count), and for every few hours that you play you earn another free Rescue. Rescues make it so that your last-second fall at the end of a 30-minute-long stretch won't force you to start all over.

The game ends when you pass a single 24-hour-long run, which means the whole game should take 118 years and change to finish… except that everyone playing, everywhere, contributes their total "earned time" (the duration of the stretch they are currently playing) to a global tally, which unlocks benefits for all players as the player base passes certain milestones. Some possibilities:

  • Total global earned time ≥ 24 hours = All checkpoints passed now add 2 seconds to the duration of the next stretch instead of one.
  • Global clock ≥ 1 year = All checkpoints are now worth 1 minute. This should help the players reach the 24-hour stretch much faster.
  • Whenever an individual player actually achieves the 24-hour goal, all players everywhere get a free Rescue, everyone's levels are worth an additional 1 second, and that player gets to start a new profile to add even more time to the clock.
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It's Judgement That Defeats Us

Yager Development: Because shooting dudes should… wait, who?

I had a wonderful time with Spec Ops: The Line, both because I have no problems at all with the fairly basic shooter formula it follows, and because I love Heart of Darkness. Like its primary influence, Spec Ops tells a story about the brutality of which humans are capable when stripped of any sense of restraint; when we are freed from consequence, or pushed to severe desperation. At the same time, it is an incredibly self-aware experience about the nature of violent games, which are themselves examples of scenarios of zero restraint: there are no consequences for actions taken in a video game, there are no lines a player must not cross.

SPOILERS: I wrote an article summarizing a key moral choice from the game, along the lines of a few other reviews I've written, but I found the article hollow and inadequate: although I could justify my course of action, it was far from decisive, and even my own pragmatic code suggested that quitting the game would be more "correct" than my course of action. The drive to stop playing altogether was something of a trend – Spec Ops, unlike any game I have ever played, actively hates the player and wants to make him or her quit.

It is, for example, impossible to proceed past the game's most outstanding "moral choice" moment without performing an staggeringly vile deed: dropping white phosphorus bombs (albeit unintentionally) on unarmed, innocent civilians. Arguably, this is not even a choice, which the impeccable dialogue of the scene seeks to highlight: after determining that the white phosphorus is the only way to bypass the mass of soldiers before them, Lugo objects: "There's always a choice," he says. "No… there's really not," is Walker's reply. Both are correct, in a sense: there is no way to progress through the game without using the white phosphorus, yet the player is only forced to perform the deed if he or she insists upon finishing the game.

At some point, most other players of the game disconnected from Walker and started to see him as a separate entity rather than an avatar of themselves. I, however, continued to identify with him, continued to try to rationalize my actions, and learned something about myself in the process. I told myself that survival and progress toward comparatively noble goals could justify all of my actions, from the white phosphorus, to the occasion when my itching trigger finger caused me to shoot and kill an innocent civilian who ran out from behind a corner in the middle of a firefight. I didn't mean to kill that person, and regretted it deeply, but I still kept playing because like Walker, I was driven to see the conflict through to its resolution, regardless of the cost.

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