Bioshock Infinite - praising greatness and searching for the ways to be greater

***These thoughts are light on the mainline story spoilers, though they may allude to some and also to the themes and some specific moments.***

Bioshock: Infinite ends up encouraging our minds to expand and take in a large and multiversal view of everything, so I don't know for definite whether Bioshock: Infinite can deservedly be called a great game when considering where the next decades of games will go; yet it gets close enough for it to earn a magnifying-glass-of-critique on the smaller things which are barely worthwhile examining in other games that never reach for something more or never achieve some slice of their vision. So, after enjoying Infinite, which felt like a meaty and satisfying experience both during and after the playing of it, I want to highlight a few thoughts in praise of it and others of how it could have been even better. But the ideas for betterment would never have been birthed if it hadn't been so great in the first place and offered a glimpse of what was possible even beyond itself. I'm not being comprehensive when selecting which aspects to highlight or even looking at the biggest issues, but these are a scatter of thoughts that came to my own mind while playing … many will be obvious and proclaimed by many but perhaps a few will be original.

In Search of Greater

Moment-to-moment gameplay is important. It lends the game a feel. What hook or drive is occupying the player in their mind as they travel through the game? It may not be the thing you remember games for once you've moved on from them, but it's what busies your low-level attention and I think it colours how you react to higher level narrative beats during it.

I say that because in my experience my primary activity when going through Columbia was that of scavenging. It informed how I most typically moved my line of sight … it would be from cabinet (click-click) to travel chest (click-click) to cash register (click-click) to dead body (click-click). And every now and then I would suddenly realise that I had no awareness of what my larger surrounds were, so focussed was I on refilling my ammo and salts, picking up money and looking for extra hidden items. I did spend a lot of time just being awe of the scenery and architecture and stunning use of lighting but once I take a step back and look at my actions I don't think that the mindless scavenging I was normally in the midst of was a very interesting thing to be doing with my time. There could be something better that involves you appreciating and approaching the world on a more considered level. The scavenging gives the player an ever-present activity so there's always something for you to busy yourself with, but I think I would have a better experience if I was left with a clear mind while journeying in order to be able to enjoy or consider the things I was doing, or figure how I was going to deal with a situation once I got to my next destination. Clearly there would need to be gameplay systems to tie into an alternative that would work - I don't know exactly what these possibilities would look like. I do want to state that I think it can be good to have a reason to take in and appreciate the small-scale detail of a level (and in both the original Bioshock and Infinite I appreciated being able to accentuate this by turning off the highlighting around objects) but I think there should be different motivation for doing so.

In Praise

I love that Infinite is another game in which you see the behind the scenes stuff of how the city works - things that you become so familiar with when just wandering around and that you interact with, like vending machines are subsequently seen being built in the Fink Industries levels. If you go into the large zeppelins which have been shooting at you, you see the bullets waiting there to be loaded into the guns; before witnessing the Vox Populi uprising you have already seen the segregation and oppression at work - you see how the world all connects together and this just makes it all the more believable and is especially interesting when the world contains many elements that aren't otherwise common to our own everyday existence. The original Bioshock and Portal 2 did this particularly on the level of the physical machines that make up the world and although I wouldn't want to see it in every game, it's a neat way to go about things.

In Praise

That opening. A glorious hour or so I spent of just exploration and soaking in the atmosphere, culture and workings of Columbia and entering into the story. There was all the intrigue provided by the posters; what different groups of passers-by were talking about; the technology on show; and seeing various monstrosities of man and machine for the first time. The fairground was a masterstroke in terms of providing an optional and fun tutorial. I kind of just wanted to stay in this zone for longer, and yes, that first dose of violence was a bit of a shock.

In Search of Greater

In contrast to the first Bioshock it was a delight to have ordinary citizens of this place still wondering around and going about their business for a fair bit of the game. Walking into Fink Industries and seeing prospective workers haggling by offering to give their services in performing particular tasks within a progressively lower time allotment or hearing snippets of dialogue as you passed by groups on the sun-drenched beach really added to things. It helped the place to feel alive. But obviously so much more could be done to add to this (and obviously it requires so much development time to achieve this). It doesn't help that the use of same repeated faces feels quite pronounced but these are largely cardboard cut-out people that stay static in their location and don't react as you might expect they would to your presence. I'd like to see how a greater sense of ordinary (or less ordinary) life taking place within a gameworld and greater AI agency for more characters could really add to an experience that a game can craft.

In Praise

Once I started to use the skylines for getting about in the larger combat scenarios such as in the Shanty Town it really was thrilling. I probably never fully managed the smoothness or tried out the inventiveness that this system of mobility offered but the small glimpses of I got were highly memorable and enjoyable.

In Search of Greater

The journey had a number of emotional peaks, often dark ones, throughout it and many of those brought you closer to Elizabeth and meant that you had shared these intense experiences together. So there was some jarring when Elizabeth repeated a chirpy line about being able to easily pick locks right after the denouement of one of these moments. There needed to be a change reflected within her demeanour at those points even if she was to occasionally return to that same chirpiness a bit after that. I heard a lot of praise for Spec Ops: The Line in this regard, with the characters responding differently to situations with their voiced lines the further into that game you got and I can only wonder how that greater believability from Elizabeth's reactions could have elevated her still further in terms of the impact of playing alongside her.

In Search of Greater

When, early on, I walked into a house where there were some sympathisers to the lower-class citizens and I was squarely told by the game that I should not always shoot first since this could effect the outcome of events and would not always be required, I was delighted. But I don't know that Infinite really fulfilled on this promise. If it was only to suggest that you didn't need to fire when patently harmless Coulmbians wandered around their lives before the full-blown uprising, then fine, and I am grateful for those moments as already stated. Yet, there were hardly any ambiguous situations which could just have easily spilled over into violence where it was also possible to choose other options. When the Vox Populi turn against after having fought alongside you, it would have been nice for that turn to not have been so immediately clear cut. There could have been some that still had not received word from Daisy that you should definitely be killed or for others to have still held you in so high regard for your apparent heroics for their cause that despite the fact you should be dead they would be conflicted about firing against you.

In Search of Greater

I thought the boss characters were a bit random. Maybe there's some voxophones I didn't collect, or some diagrams I didn't see that could have made some of them capture my heart and mind, but I could imagine a Columbia without them that felt a more complete and immersing world. I can see how some of their abilities were useful for creating gameplay challenges in very particular ways that were probably needed, but in terms of the fiction I didn't buy into them as much as I could have done. Hopefully I'm not just arguing for realism here, since clearly this is a world that is already somewhat distant from that. The Boys of Silence felt like they came pretty much out of nowhere without feeling properly established with a reason for being.

In Praise

The pacing of Infinite was masterful. The game felt a good length and the story drove along with intrigue, reveals and emotional resonance, and the natural heightening of all of these at the end felt just right.

In Praise

Rich themes. I don't think that these were just thrown in haphazardly. Some were dwelt on more than others and some came to light only at the very end of the game, even if they were touched upon without you realising for the whole duration. That is what I want if games try to have something to say and I would love there to be way more games that attempt it. It all made the world either just more interesting and richer to move around in or actively gave my brain things to chew on, particularly the themes of religion, the nature of certain types of relationships and human motivations. There was enough there that I had fun unravelling what was going on as the credits rolled and also now in the days following.

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An Ode to … Thirty Flights of Loving

Staring across the table to Thirty Flights Of Loving, it could be viewed as a brief, almost throw-away interactive experience that can just be appreciated as a breezy and bright first-person adventure trying to cleverly tell a non-linearly woven crime story … and then it’s all over. I think it will remain obtuse and unsatisfying to some but I’ve always been one to be won over by style and so I’ve found myself captured by Thirty Flights’ gaze while becoming more enamoured the deeper I look into it. The mesmerising feeling this gem, polished to a sheen, was able to create in my mind while playing is too easy to take for granted.

(If you are decided on playing Thirty Flights of Loving now or at any point later on as you read this, just know that the sooner you stop reading the fresher it will be as an experience for you but there won’t be any true spoilers till the story section.)

Brendon Chung who designed it as the prequel to the beloved freeware game Gravity Bone has once again achieved so much with so little (if you do want to read about Gravity Bone then I suggest reading this post by ThatFrood, who runs out of larger font sizes by the end of it in trying to persuade you to play it). Thirty Flights has even less in it that would characterise it as a game as it pushes closer to what is a filmic experience and yet I don’t think its interactivity is redundant despite it succeeding best in two areas that film is particularly at home with: atmosphere and pacing.

Atmosphere

It’s almost ridiculous how strong an impression the atmosphere of many of the scenes in the Thirty Flights were able to leave on me as I played through it, given that I was often only spending seconds of time in any one of them, but despite the simplicity and sparseness of the assets, the art direction and use of sound is so strong that it works in the game’s favour and each location becomes very memorable. There is always just enough animation or an option for interaction with objects in the scene that allows it to come alive and for it to be a world that I actually believe in. I’ve often wondered at the fact that some settings from the best loved films have become so well known and familiar to people, seared into their minds, despite these places often appearing for only a few minutes on film ever. They’ve stuck around and I think I few scenes from Thirty Flights will stick with me for some time yet as well.

Pacing

If I were to choose just one thing from this game that is a revelation and potentially ground-breaking for games then it would be Thirty Flights use of the jump cut because it just works so well. In the game I’ll have just chosen to take one of three routes down corridors that were open to me and then suddenly there’s a jump cut and I find I’m hurtling down a new area. Simply not having to make the full journey down a corridor always, actually takes away a great thing about many games which is in the selling of this really being your experience because everywhere you’ve travelled is as a direct result of your control, but in its place it allows an interactive experience to more readily set a pace that better carries the thrill of an adventure. As the cut takes place the brain automatically fills in the fiction that time has passed and I’ve simply reached this new area and even more ingeniously it didn’t matter which of those 3 corridors I took because they all could have been the one that lead me to this new location as far as my brain knows. So Thirty Flights has some great travelling sequences that maintain momentum as a result but that’s not the only option the jump cut affords and which the game makes use of. In this case it can also transport you to (or flash onto the screen for a few seconds) a completely different location that falls out of sequence of a linear chronology and so juxtapose a prior happening with the current one. It can take you out of a frantic moment into a calm one and vice-versa and my reckoning is that Thirty Flights completely nails this. Even the timings of things happening within a scene or as a result of an interaction are just right to keep the adventure moving.

Story

(Some specific plot spoilers from hereon)

Thirty Loves’ format is exactly how I like my stories – with heaps of style, throwing me into the middle of situations without necessarily explaining everything that’s going on to me, leaving my brain to piece together what’s going on. As my body flew off that motorcycle leaving me standing before ‘The End’ my brain which had already been working on deciphering the puzzle of the story was left in the sudden void-like stillness to chew on the meaning at my leisure, no longer with the inexorable forward push of the narrative. I undoubtedly had some emotional reactions drawn naturally from me during the playing out of the different scenes and glancing behind me at the crashed car in mid-air brought the hit to the gut I’d felt seconds earlier in the previous scene straight back to me. However, I wasn’t fully able to satisfactorily piece the story together even after a long time of thinking. I’ve played through it many more times now and I may have it mostly figured out but there were some key things I missed the first 2, even 6 times through the game and I think it is fair observation that this story would have been most powerful if I was able to piece it together the first time through with the minimum of ambiguity relating to the key details. I accept that everyone’s brain will have a different level of speed and success with recognising and piecing together a story and so not everyone can be catered for perfectly but missing the fact that a late flash up on screen of a woman on the bed in which I’d slept with Anita was not Anita but someone else is a fairly critical thing and perhaps that could have been made more obvious – maybe it’s just me. Likewise, that Anita in the part of the chronology in which the failed raid on the airport takes place had a bionic leg and arm suggesting the accident at the end had already taken place was only realised by me on a repeat playthrough and I almost think it was expected that this wouldn’t be realised the first time through but if it could have been possible to have left more clues so that it was realised by most players after a few minutes thought straight after the ending of the game then it would have had more impact. I am totally aware this is a very hard thing to tune and maybe this was not the designed intention in any case.

Leaving on a positive note though, Thirty Flight succeeded in drawing me towards Anita and in making me having some semblance of feelings towards her despite the limited interactions I had with her not providing any real choice – nevertheless the tale being wrought coaxed me along such that those were the interactions I naturally wanted to take, even though they were based on loose inclinations that only had a second’s thought behind them. To manage that, is just one more triumph among many others which Thirty Flight Of Loving manages to achieve.

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An Ode to ... The Stanley Parable

I recently played the Source mod ‘The Stanley Parable’ and now feel inspired to write a lot about it.   However, if you are reading this and have not played it then I strongly urge you to do so now with as little extra information as possible and come back later to read my thoughts if you really want to.   It calls itself an “experimental narrative-driven first person game” which is accurate and it’s a fairly short experience.   If you need a slight bit more inducement to play then I am willing to call it the best mod I’ve ever played and am seriously contemplating how far up the best games I’ve ever played list I could rank it while still being able to argue my sanity.   However, I’m willing to concede that many would not apply so many superlatives to it as I am doing but might settle for describing it as ‘pretty neat’ ... yet that’s still pretty good.   So, if you haven’t yet gone off to play The Stanley Parable here’s your last link and now I will indeed try to argue my sanity for rating it so highly.

This is all complete spoilers from now on so I should probably mention even if you have played through The Stanley Parable that there are five (edit: actually six - I missed one myself and will update this blog later when I get the chance) completely different endings.   If that fact evoked any amount of surprise and curiousity in you then maybe you want to go back to try and find those other endings.   I also hear they are findable on Youtube as you might expect.

My original playthrough

So what did you do on your first playthrough?   I followed diligently along with exactly what the narrator was telling me I would do, partly because of my deep-seated respect for authority and partly because seeing where the game apparently wanted to lead me seemed the most likely way of getting what I was ‘supposed to’ out of the game compared to the alternatives (as far as I could make out at the time).   Also, I had no objection to doing anything the narrator was telling me that I ‘would do’ in advance of me doing so.   That necessary weird turn of phrase throws up what’s strange about the use of the narrator in The Stanley Parable since the narrator normally (thought not always) pre-empts what the player is about do.   An (almost too convenient) counterpoint to this is Bastion whose narrator in what I’ve seen of the game always reacts to what the player is doing rather than pushing the player along ........ hang on....   scratch that stuff about “pre-empting” the player.   You see, I just replayed the game to check that what I was saying was true and that actually isn’t ... necessarily ... and this in itself throws up the problems of interactivity and guiding the player that The Stanley Parable is trying to address.   During my first and every subsequent playthrough, save for this last one, I waited when I got to the first choice of 2 doors with no way of knowing which to choose and got the dissonant narration telling me what I was going to do in advance of doing it.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.   You can just wander through the doors and the narration keeps pace by describing what you just did smoothly, which is what the narrator wants you to do.   Yet games are interactive and when presented with the opportunity to exercise choice, even if that choice is momentarily waiting to make a decision, it can completely muck up the intended game narrative and player experience – something I’ve experienced myself and was just telling another GB user about recently regarding the ending of Far Cry 2 (I may paste that anecdote into the comments).   So the Stanley narrator seems to take no chances by narrating the desired story anyway to coax the players along, so hell-bent is it on making sure it takes place as planned.

Game designer’s guilt

This brings me to what my own main thread of thought in the back end of that first obedient playthrough was.   I’m designing a mod myself which has recently shifted my perspective closer to that of a designer and so it was in this case that I was feeling guilty while playing along.   Guilty that I too desire to manipulate the emotions and attentions of players by perfectly cued moments, and yes, the moment when that spark comes down from the generator was perfectly cued.   I didn’t need the narrator to prompt me first for my head to be raised inexorably upwards in that case.   The subtle manipulation of it all.   This is what game designers strive for and yet as I played along I felt slightly dirty for wishing to control players according to my will; tricking them into thinking that my will is their own.   I don’t know if this was one of the intended motivations of the author, Davey Wreden.   I do know it wasn’t the only one because The Stanley Parable does many things which I only appreciated upon replaying it again and again and teasing out all its different endings.

My reading of the design of all the routes through the game is that each one is intended to be tailored to the type of person that the creator guessed/intuited would take that route and they each get their own little satisfying story with which they feel justified in the assumptions they made towards the narrator while all their stories ostensibly end in failure.   If this theory is correct then each binary decision acts as a filter until distinct categories of people have been directed onto different paths like a flowchart and can then be subjected to their personal ending.   It really is very clever.   Here’s my guessing and naming of the types of people that might reach the different endings The Stanley Parable; the assumptions I think they make about the narrator and then how the ending is tailored to suit those assumptions.

Which ending?
Decisions made Character of player Player view of narrator Validation/failure in ending
‘My/your way’ left door – yes
upstairs – yes
generator off – yes
  Obedient (as discussed above) Can be (might as well be) trusted
  The narrator could indeed be trusted since it allowed the player to succeed but player is acutely aware that their freedom was at the ironic cost of doing exactly what the narrator said.
"Then he pushed a button" left door – no
lift up – no
 Willfully disobedient/contrary
Shouldn't be trusted.  Try to fight.
The narrator breaks the 4th wall and reveals himself to be an antagonist who ultimately just nullifies the player's choices by 'restarting' the game in a cutscene and then describing the player's death (and boredom) as a result of never having chosen to escape.
‘The other narrator’ left door – no
lift up – yes
Tries disobedience then stops caring (perceives meta nature of game)
Distrust.  Can't beat it (that's the game's intention).
The narrator reveals himself to be an antagonist but ultimately as the appearance of a further external voice (narrator) reveals, there was no way to win as intended by the game's design and indeed the player doesn't as ended by themselves.
'Mariella/Amelie' left door – yes
upstairs – no
Reflective - after initial trust, questions the nature of their surroundings in the game
Starts to doubt and question why there is one.
The narrator starts a meta-commentary of the game showing it was right to question such things.  Player character dies while being reflected on themselves by newly introduced character Mariella (ala Amelie?).
‘Self destruct sequence' lift door – yes
upstairs – yes
generator off – no
Final act of disobedience once a more game-y environment is revealed
Goes along with it but never trusts. Needs to know what happens if they rebel.
The narrator was the secret antagonist as they were the one that killed all the other employees all along but ultimately there's no way of escaping (even by pressing buttons!).
 
I'm more convinced by some of those theories and characterisations than others but generally most seem to make sense to me.  What do the rest of you think who've played it?  I'm particularly interested if you chose one of the other routes first as I think that's the only real way to know whether those characterisations described how you were thinking and if you think the game was successful in how it responded to you and the ending it presented.  Did you indeed feel validated by the views you held to get to the ending?  Maybe I'm wrong of course, maybe none of the endings are suppose to give a validation to the player and all are meant intentionally expose (or expose anyway unintentionally) the flaws of using a narrator or just more generally having a game try to track the underlying reasoning behind why players take the decisions that they do.  Either of these outcomes is valuable and The Stanley Parable provides insight into these issues.
 
A few other random scraps of wondering and pondering:  I named the 'reflective' ending with a reference to 'Amelie' (the film) because the style and nature of what the narrator said voicing the internal monologue of a reflective young women immediately made me think of Amelie.  I am going mad here or did that immediately stand out to anyone else?  Also a comment based on the narration of the willfully disobedient ending which says something along the lines of: if the option (that had been provided by the narrator) was taken away for Stanley to escape then does he have any reason to exist at all, given that he is then then just constantly pressing buttons?  This probably refers to a lot of things but I wondered if one angle was of the narrator again embodying game designers with the parable being that a game cannot work if a player willfully works against the game that has been designed in which case there's no point in playing it all.  Therefore the take home message being that the game designer needs to respect the player and the player needs to accept that they need to work within the confines of the designed game in order to have something worthwhile to do in the first place.  I don't know though, that works in my head but ultimately seems a bit obscure to be one of the main intended messages of the game.
 

Implementation

Ok, enough about trying to decipher the message of the game.  That's not the only thing that makes this game stand out - it's been built really well too.  I already stated how I'm impressed by how there's a number of unique endings and that every one, I think, is pleasingly satisfying.  Well that's made possible by the impressive pacing of the game.  It hits its beats really well and uses the right music in the right places.  That's the thing, the endings that end abruptly and silently (one without credits and just a blank screen) make sense in terms of the tone of the rest of the playthrough and the ones that end with music leave you in exactly the right frame of mind at the end even when there's a bit of irony involved ... I chuckled when I recognised it was Frank SInatra's 'My way' playing at the end of my original playthrough.  It wasn't the only time this mod got a laugh out of me either: being dumped unceremoniously in front of the red door again; having the countdown self-destruct sequence start up; a 2nd female narrator coming out of nowhere; and of course the gentle chiding of the main narrator when disobeying him - I was thoroughly entertained when exploring the multiple ways through it.  Of course, the main narrator's voice performance is a star of the show here - it's amazing I've written so much without mentioning it so far because it really does make everything else work and breathes an awful lot of life into the whole endeavour.  I'd have to count it as ranking above Dear Esther as the best voice acting I've heard in a mod (although admittedly this narrator has a greater variety of tone and personality to work with in their script).  I also have a soft spot for the seeming similarity in style with Peter Cook's voice as The Book in the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy original radio play which I listened to ardently for a period while younger.
 

Greater relevance?

Finally, I just wanted to comment that I really think The Stanley Parable might be something special when looking at interactive media as a whole.  I can't think of another game that achieves the same level of having a meaningful and thoughtful story/message while maintaining conciseness, immediacy, entertainment and polish, all of which creates approachability.  I can think of Passage maybe and from more mainstream games Portal makes a case, but even that with it's relative brevity is filled with a ton of puzzles that people outside of gaming would struggle to get through to appreciate and digest the interesting story and twist behind it.  It still doesn't have the immediacy of interest to grab someone unused to the gaming scene.  What I'm saying is, I think this is a great game to hold up to those who have never touched a game before -  not only does it work well as a game in its own right but it is a commentary on some of the key issues in the interactive medium and can introduce people to these.  I'm already plotting in my mind about finding the opportunity to introduce non-gamer friends to The Stanley Parable because I really think they'll get something out of it.
 
Maybe I'm over-reacting and over-hyping this and will wake up in a few days or hear some comments somewhere and will realise this isn't such a big deal, but I dunno, I think this game might be ... time will tell.
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Dream Design Docs – randomised plot points

If I’m not careful this could actually become a semi-regular blog series or something.   In a departure from my first such blog for a dream game (that I continue to pine for – read about it here) this will not so much outline a full and specific dream game that I wish to see produced, but a particular idea that I’d love to see implemented in one or more games.

The practice of having multiple endings in games is now well established and indeed many games move beyond that to diverge to far greater degrees, with Heavy Rain being just such a recent exponent by even allowing the characters you control to get killed off before the end of the game based on your choices and actions, thus enabling different players to experience a quite radically different story (though I confess I haven’t played Heavy Rain since I don’t own a PS3).   Only somewhat related to this, an idea occurred to me that it would be really interesting, and I think cool, to have randomised plot points within games, even regarding the larger plot points a game may feature.   Allow me to explain what I mean by that phrase.

What if the events within a story were randomised so that they occur differently even if 2 different players were to make exactly the same decisions within their parallel games?   The random elements could just be decided by the game’s programming right at the start of each unique playthrough no matter who you are, and this should be very possible technically.   I’m talking about more than just random battle encounters within a JRPG or discovering the same space station stocked with different goods at different prices in Elite, but more significant narrative elements such as what the personality or allegiance of a character is or indeed how the big climactic moment at the end of a game unfolds.   For example, if the killer in Heavy Rain could end up being different people depending on the random decision the game makes before you start playing.


  Here be dragons ... or not

Maybe this sounds like a really bad or just plain unnecessary idea to you at present.   I’d probably agree if this was just implemented in games arbitrarily.   However, random elements are already commonly implemented into other areas of game design, for which one of the reasons is to depict events that are unpredictable by their nature and cannot be perfectly understood in advance, causing the randomness to actually add a greater life-likeness/believability to the game in this aspect.   In a similar way, randomising critical plot points within a game could allow a better simulation where the plot point being affected relates to something around which there is some doubt and uncertainty or to reflect the ease with which an aspect of the game could just as easily inhabit one state as another.

I came across a perfect example of this recently in the midst of thinking about this subject when reading an interview with the creator of Minecraft, Notch.   He referenced an old game which he had played and loved called Darklands, about which he explained:   “It was a take on Germany in the Middle Ages. When you start the game it’s random whether or not dragons exist.   So you don’t know throughout the game – people keep referencing dragons, but they might or might not exist.  It was how people in that time thought about the world.”   How awesome is that!   By randomising this plot point – this aspect of the game – it was creating a more powerful game simulation in which the doubt that was present in these fictional citizens of the game was also able to be mirrored in your own thoughts to a greater extent because there is this genuine possibility that the dragons didn’t exist at all.   There are myriad ways in which this randomness could be utilised to reflect the fiction, though – here’s a few examples off the top of my head:

  1. Having a buddy NPC (e.g. mercenary/pirate) that you work alongside in the game for a considerable time who could potentially betray you at some point, thus heightening and representing the uncertainty behind the alliance (remember that these probabilities don’t have to be 50/50 choices and so the possibility here might be very slim, but still be enough to keep you on your toes).
  2. In an adventure-RPG game having one or more NPCs that you meet on your travels randomised in terms of how they treat you, and if they favour you or not, to emphasise the uncertainty present in how each new stranger encountered on a journey might respond to you.
  3. Having a game taking place within a setting where there are two warring factions, but for different people’s playthroughs having a few minor details changed that will just tip the balance slightly in suggesting either the first faction is more at fault or the second one is.   This could then represent the intractability of deciphering who is ultimately to blame in certain conflicts and how the information can easily be different depending on the perspectives of those providing it.
  4. A big catastrophe is randomly determined to either occur and affect the world or not.   There could be different missions associated with either of these possibilities and possibly something like the supply of some resource drying up or enemies being introduced or wiped out depending on the game type.

These kinds of possibilities genuinely excite me as I feel like they could aid in producing more immersive worlds in which you don’t turn off your brain as much while playing them because you suddenly have to account for a wider range of possibilities occurring (even if they don’t happen) and it would generally increase in games the handling of probability and risk in the way that is common to all of us living our real lives. 

Player driven choices like for Megaton have a different feel compared to random catastrophic events initiated by a game

I can see some players having issues with this approach.   Take example 4 above:   reading it back to myself it rather reminded me of the decision players can make near the beginning of Fallout 3 of either saving or nuking Megaton since it is a catastrophic event that then has knock-on consequences of different groups of quests etc. becoming open to the player or not based on their decision.   The key difference here is that it was the player’s decision and not the game’s to do this and surely this is the cooler and more compelling route to take, of the player getting to make these dramatic choices?   I’m interested in getting to make those choices on occasion too, but it all falls into the power fantasy mentality behind games which I feel can actually be detrimental to the respect that gets given to the world I’m interacting with.   Though this is another big topic in its own right I actually appreciate not always having ridiculous control of the world I’m inhabiting in order to emphasise that the world isn’t revolving around me.   It lends the world more weight and I respect it more and in turn feel more immersed by it.

I wonder too if such randomised plot points might get players to feel the loss of what might have been in the case of the game having clearly telegraphed to them that one possibility was chosen at the expense of another one.   Typically when playing a game we just accept the way things are and the settings around us but I wonder if gameworlds would feel different if we knew they could so easily have been different – if it would make them feel more dynamic and alive.   I’m taking a guess here, but I think it’s very possible.

Writing this, I’ve realised in a way that none of this might really be necessary; that randomising key plot elements shouldn’t gain a game anything in theory for a person while they play it, because how would you know the game was doing this unless it specifically tells you in advance?   Couldn’t the same effect of uncertainty in a player be recreated simply by a clever narrative which tricks a player into believing there are multiple possible states that a part of a plot could have inhabited, whereas there was actually only the one all along?   Of course players might feel cheated later on if they find out the truth from another source, but that wasn’t the case while they were playing.   I’m not sure I immediately believe games can get away with such narrative tricks effectively enough though and if a game broadcasts before I play it that it’s programmed such that these large elements of plot could be radically different by the use of randomisation, my suspicion remains that my experience playing it will feel that much richer.

I think these ideas have a lot of merit but are there any arguments that completely undermine my points?   I confess I may not have succeeded in explaining them as clearly as I might have, though I have tried to.  And given that I don’t have a cosmic overview of gaming are there more games than I realise that may have attempted such a system but I’m just unaware of them?

Further reading

The interview where I got the quote from Notch about the game with/without dragons. ( http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/03/07/a-day-in-the-life-of-minecraft-creator-mojang/)

Randomness - blight or bane:  A lengthy and deep article on the effect of including randomness in games, that shaped some of these thoughts.   ( http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane)

From the Design Reboot blog, a game idea riffing off of the start of Unreal.   The random elements and open-ended structure of the proposed game have stayed with me and grown on me since I first read it – definitely another of my dream games.   Part 1   Part 2
 
[Edited because some links had disappeared]

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Dream Design Docs - open-world buddy road game

So I felt inspired to write down this idea for a game that I'd love to play which has formed in my head over the last week.  Even if this precise game never sees the light of day (which is somewhat likely) I eagerly await for some or all of these ideas to make their way into games in the future.  I think the capability to create it already exists.  This game concept originates from having read the excellent blog "Where are The Road Games?" a little while ago whose ideas have been rattling around in my head ever since and then were catalysed by reading Frictional blog about telling stories in a more general way just a few days ago. 
 

One way road

The key idea of this first-person game is that you have a core goal of making it to a distant location via long stretches of road, but beyond that there is an open-endedness to how you end up reaching your destination.  That's it.  I don't know exactly what the character motivation would be but some examples could be:  needing to escape an individual/group/government by reaching this city that's a known refuge; you've just lost or decided to leave your family community and so are making your way to this place you know of, where you think you can build a better life for yourself etc.  Whatever the precise details, it will essentially be a quest to reach this 'promised land' over a long journey.
 
The things I like about this central conceit is that the goal is so well defined from the very beginning and is simple and uncluttered, leaving space for the player to use their own mind to decide how to progress within that framework.   We apply the descriptive term 'linear game' to those games that can be reduced down to a prescribed route that the player has to take in order to progress through it and complete it.  My idea has this sense of linearity in that there is this route you have to generally follow, but linear games normally break down the game into lots of individual elements so that you're never really fixing your eyes on the end goal but on just completing the next objective.  I think it would add weight to the whole proceeding to always have the final destination in mind.  Also, unlike a linear game you would have the option to drive backwards in this game, but it just wouldn't get you anywhere; it has linearity to it just because of its context.  


 I'm thinking maybe a setting like in Rage would work, just more linear ... yet non-linear

 

The buddy

You'd get awfully lonely just by yourself on this trip and so you'll have a buddy to accompany you along the way.  Again, I only have general ideas in my head of what he needs to be like but it'll probably be someone who you've only just met shortly before you join the game as the player or who you meet at the very beginning, a beginning which I can most likely envisage being an action-packed opener in which you experience the reasons you need to leave wherever you start off in a hurry and head out on the open road.  This buddy character in my head will probably be someone who is somewhat mysterious and reserved and who is more experienced than you, having perhaps already been to your ultimate destination in the past and so knows the way.  Quite a lot of that is up in the air.  What's important is how you experience this relationship and grow together with the character over time.   He’ll be someone who likes to tell stories while you’re on the road and late at night.   ‘Cos yes, I have an image of the game mechanics including deep darkness during night time that will discourage driving, coupled with requirements to rest and find sustenance that will encourage the finding shelter for yourselves at night.   I love the idea of you creating campfires before going to sleep and the natural lull in the game allowing story to be imparted by your companion during these tranquil moments.   It would have to be really well written dialogue and a fully developed character to hold your interest but I think it would be possible.

The key to a believable and satisfying character to have around would be his reactions to the dynamic events that would occur during the course of the game.   He would need to respond realistically while never repeating himself to all kinds of events which could occur in possibly different orders.   Think similar to the contextual dialogue offered in the Left 4 Dead games.   I foresee this being perhaps the hardest aspect of the game to create that I’m suggesting, and would require a huge amount of work, planning and writing to get right but I’d love to see someone try it.  I don’t know how close Bioshock: Infinite will get to trying something similar with the relationship to Elizabeth in that game but that might be more linear than this suggestion.

Also, your buddy should totally get captured about three quarters of the way along the route with you then having to stage a daring rescue in what will form a departure from constant travel in the game.   It will be at the point in the narrative when you’ve just really got to grips with the character and have formed a bond with him (that’s the idea anyway) and your dramatic escape from whatever compound he gets held in will set up the final act of rushing to your destination.

More companions with believable and gripping personalities that respond dynamically to situations, please!


Dynamic open world

 
What of the meat of the game you ask?  Well there will be shooting, though I wouldn't want it to be a shoot on sight policy with everyone you encounter along the route.  So there will be dialogue trees and interactions with characters and bargaining in order to gain the supplies you'll need to keep yourself fed and maybe upgrade your ride.  Not sure if long quests would work though as you need to be on the move and so wouldn't be revisiting people that you meet.  There will probably be some different factions or bandits spread across the landscape and there will just generally be all the elements in place for crazy dynamic situations to develop spontaneously ala Far Cry 2 (which I loved btw).  Maybe you are being chased the whole time by some party which is what is driving you forward constantly and so you need to watch out for them and guard yourself against being found or even convince locals to hide you if required.  There can also be strategic choices about routes that you could take that all have their own associated risks that you have to weigh up - maybe you could catch a lift on a train that runs through the landscape and can carry you and your buddy (including your vehicle) quickly for a section of the journey (though naturally there's a hijacking attempt once you get on the train which spices things up).
 
 
As for the overall tone of the game, it would have a seriousness to it and a realism that would encourage  immersion into its world.  I would love there to be some grander themes explored through the narrative and even expanded by specific encounters you have - maybe something about the nature of journeys in general and perhaps one or two more themes of which one might revolve around discovering more about your buddy and his story along the way - he might even change and develop during the game.
 
Well there's a hodge-podge of an idea for you; not fully formed but a promising embryo.  I would love love to see such a game created.  I can but hope and dream.


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Reflections on the thought-provoking Opera Omnia

I wanted to write a little about a free indie game called Opera Omnia that I played recently because it does a number of unique or unusual things that are worth thinking about.  It's certainly provoked an awful lot of thought in my own head during and after playing it at the very least.
 
In brief, this is game in which you play a young historian who examines a number of historical scenarios and by positing when migrations took place between different cities over the course of time, tries to demonstrate how the populations of different peoples has fluctuated in the past, sometimes being influenced by famine or war.  Each of these scenarios are explored after a conversation with another individual, who largely provides the historical scenarios you are meant to be investigating.  So the pattern of the game is of 20 sections where your character and this other guy have a chat resulting in you playing around with various migration routes till the population shift matches up with the starting conditions that you are provided with.  You then 'Submit your thesis', have a brief summing up with the other character and move on to the next section.  It's worth pointing out that this is all done with very basic graphics and the interface for plotting these migration routes is fairly abstract although perfectly sufficient for showing the population shifts over time.
 
And that very nature of what this game is about and its subject matter is the first thing of note.  This is a game about being a historian.  The core gameplay is about plotting migration routes.  I love it for having this unique set-up, not that it is superior to any other but it is so thoroughly different and refreshing to inhabit such a niche role and I want games to explore a greater depth of roles and scenarios than they currently do.

 What Opera Omnia looks like as you lay down migration routes between the cities marked as simple cross-hairs
It is perhaps the mechanics of the game and how they fit into its narrative that are the biggest talking point, so much so that I feel that even talking about the implication of the mechanics would spoil what you might get out of the game compared to working things through in your own mind as you play it.  So if you have any serious intention of playing Opera Omnia, I suggest you give up reading at this point for now (I'd hazard that it could take you anywhere between an hour and a half to 3 hours to complete).  You can download it from here.  The mechanics themselves took a while for me to wrap my head around akin to when I played Portal or Braid for the first time since you need to come to terms with working backwards through time.  You know what the current population stats in different cities are so you're working from the present back to the past (see bottom right of above image for this backwards timeline).  This means that creating a migration path that starts from City A and goes to City B means City A will then grow in size as you travel back through the timeline since your migration path suggests City A started out bigger before people migrated to City B.  It also means that a population in a city will appear to get bigger as you move backwards through a period of starvation, since that city will have been bigger before the starvation gradually started killing its citizens.  It's all about getting used to thinking backwards through history which could be really intuitive to you or take a while to grasp.

 
That's the nature of the mechanics, but that in itself isn't what's interesting.  From this point onwards I'm not sure if everything that I'm inferring was intended by Increpare, the game's creator, but all of the following are thoughts that I feel are being provoked by the game's design as I experienced it.  For each section's task you are given these sets of conditions for what the overall population or the population of certain cities should exceed or be less than at the earliest point in the timeline.   However, as you mess around with different possible migration routes it became clear to me that the population at the earliest point in the timeline could vary wildly depending on if large amounts of people were in a city during a time of famine or not.  There's not always a convincing justification for why you are theorising migration routes at certain times and in certain places.  All that seems to matter is that you meet these initial starting conditions, which themselves seem questionable having been provided by the other character who you learn fairly early on is a senior politician in your fictional nation.  For a scenario in which a known large population in the past has now been reduced to a far smaller one it seemed presumptuous to simply assume that starvation was the only possible cause (though that's the only option you have to work with in the game).  Surely that explanation could just as easily be covering up some kind of mass genocide that had occurred in history.  You are praised by the politician for the work you submit in your theses and yet I always had the uneasiness that I hadn't really done anything other than somewhat arbitrarily drawn migration routes onto a map.  My character on screen though was clearly thrilled to be producing such important work and enamoured by his position as historian.
 

 The politician (above) chatting with you, the historian (below)

Thus, a large part of the game for me was trying to ascertain the true motivations and thoughts of both my character and the politician's.  At one point the historian pronounces that his job is 'not to make predictions or establish causality', just to submit the evidence of what occurred plainly it would seem and yet this seemed at odds with the arbitrariness of the mechanics.  Things develop as you learn of the existence of the Others, another nation who is supposedly hostile in nature, and has been to your nation in the past, although you seem to be living in relative peace with just some racially motivated rioting in a few cities.  I was fully anticipating the two game protagonists to be fully against the Others once they were first mentioned in the narrative and then to falsify history to the ends of their/your own nation ... well yes, that kind of does happen, but it's more nuanced than that.  The politician even stands up for the Others at one stage and says they're not as war-like as the majority of your nation considers them to be and that that's all just rumour and yet you then go on to have 2 of the most blatant sections that expose motivations of the characters.  One involves claiming the world's greatest artist as your own rather than belonging to the Others by showing that the town he was brought up in originally belonged (could have belonged?) to your people.  Then you also manipulate another scenario to suggest that the Others appeared out of nowhere, rather than always belonging on the earth like your people by just playing around with the stats cleverly.  Politics meeting history it would seem.  That seems to be a point that the game is making.  The weird, but also very interesting thing, is that your character the historian seems to implicitly believe everything he is 'proving' is the reality of the past.  The very character you are semi-inhabiting is one that I felt pushed away from as I was unable to see eye-to-eye with the interpretations he was bringing to bear on the scenarios he was examining.  It's the very opposite of a game such as Half Life (that eternal example in discussing games) where Valve openly state that they make Gordon Freeman a silent protagonist so that the player can fully inhabit the character without feeling distanced by Freeman potentially speaking dialogue that doesn't mesh with what the player would say at that time.  The final underlining of my suspicions about the narrow-sightedness and virtual brainwashing of the historian came with the last section where you are now questioning the historian at some point in the distant future and discover that The Others had been almost wiped out in a war that you had already seen was brewing previously.  In a city that was in the midst of starvation you only see the numbers of The Others fall while your nation grows slowly.  That simple graphic was quite touching and horrifying.  It is immediately clear what that represents by this stage of the game.  The historian says that many of his people had died in the war and yet it is clear that those numbers were nothing compared to those of the Others and he simply rejoices in the prosperity that it brought for his own nation.  He also claims that he had nothing to do with the war although the implication is clearly that his own work was used as propoganda tools to unite his own nation and undermine the history of the Others.
 
So yeah, that's pretty unusual and thought-provoking.  It raises subject matter that is practically unheard of for a game.  I don't feel like it particularly changed any beliefs I hold but the power of games is to immerse you in the perspective of another and even with the limited graphics and text-based narrative, this game was still able to achieve that for me and that's a powerful thing.

As I mentioned above, I'm not fully clear if all of my interpretations of the narrative are justified by the game and are what the author intended, so if you have played this little game previously or if this post has compelled you to try it out then I would be genuinely interested to hear what your reactions to the game were.  Thanks for reading.
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Question: How to allow failure but maintain verisimilitude?

So, my first real blog post, but I'll restrict the self-indulgence to this sentence.  The point:  relatively recently I committed myself to making a game, having never done anything like that before but having an idea for a game that I wanted to explore and also to give myself the challenge of completing an ambitious project by myself, which I have often struggled with in the past.  (It will almost certainly be a Source Mod, for the record.)  I'm very much still in the thinking stage rather than building anything in a level editor anytime soon, but I've run across an issue which is fairly hard to reconcile and yet fairly central to what the game will be like.  I'm genuinely interested in what suggestions people have to get around the issue.
 
The actual point/issue this time (in condensed form):  There has to be fail states in games where right decisions need to be made in order to progress, but being able to retry after having failed strains the sense of verisimilitude the player might feel with the game and is compounded by any subsequent repetition of game elements that the player then experiences.   That sentence was considered carefully but it may still have flaws so feel free to point out any amendments to it if you are able to argue them clearly.   When saying ‘verisimilitude’ I’m meaning a gaming experience that shares enough similarities to reality such that the player instinctively starts to interact with the world as they would in real life and has expectations of the world that they have of the real one (I think the same probably holds true even if the player is consciously role-playing).   That above phrase doesn’t apply to the majority of games since many don’t try to achieve that (fair enough) and many revel in their ‘gameyness’ – personally I’m particularly interested in games that try to create that verisimilitude since there are things that can only be explored and encountered when that is the case.   You may think this is weird because as gamers we’re used to dying and then just trying again so don’t see what the big deal is, but I’m fairly convinced this is because we’re often not playing with a real sense of verisimilitude with the game world and this is precisely because that’s so easy to lose and so hard to maintain.

For the game I’m thinking of creating, this issue is made more complex because at the beginning of the process, when I was deriving the core elements of the game that should be upheld during the creative process, I decided that it was key that the player felt like they were thinking for themselves and applying their own intelligence to the problems they’ll face in the game.   This is important and awkward because the problem created by fail states (dying) could simply be reduced by making the game have no real challenge or by doing a lot of hand-holding and guiding of the players - exactly what I don’t want to do.

So what suggestions do people have for a good solution?   The obvious way would be to try to cleverly reduce the number of places in which a player could die, but maybe someone has ideas that work completely differently.   Here are a few of my ideas so far:   if a player fails a challenge early on, the like of which could lead to failure/death later in the game, they do not lose if they fail but are instead taught (in some way that makes sense within the world) what they should have done differently.   Hopefully this will start to get the player thinking successfully for themselves to the point where less hand-holding needs to be done.   To generally reduce the number of places in the game where the player could fail, but to have negative lasting consequences for other failures that do not lead to a complete game over.   To include some randomness in the events that occur (at least in their order) so that if a player fails because of one event, they are not confronted with the exact same one again immediately which keeps the game fresh and I think gives a greater chance of keeping the verisimilitude of the gaming experience.   If the player dies/ fails try, as much as is possible, to have the last save point at an occasion and location which makes sense within the fiction of the story and generally feels natural to the player.   To have an in-game help system (again, making sense within the world) that offers help if it looks like the player is struggling to complete the necessary tasks, thereby reducing the chance of failure – need to do this carefully to make sure the player feels like they solve any challenges themselves.

I’ll leave it there.   Hope that made sense since I’m aware this is all fairly abstract – I’m not going to give away the whole game idea here.   I’ll add a few details that could be useful:   this isn’t going to be a big gaming experience but maybe just around 30 minutes and will all take place within one confined space (no it’s not an escape-the-room game in case that’s what you were thinking).   So yeah, leave any ideas below if they spring to mind or poke me if anything I said didn’t make sense or if I need to explain myself in more detail. 
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Commentary on wiki section of GB being hidden

Just posted this in a new forum topic.  Thought I'd post it here as well in case (I don't know how) it gets more views (somehow) from being here, since I feel it's so important for GB to be what it should be as a site.

I really like the new look that GiantBomb has since the makeover but I have a suggestion which I feel quite strongly about.

You note now in your main description on the front page that "Giant Bomb is the world’s largest editable video game database", but there are no longer any links to this wiki content from the front page like there used to be.  I understand that based, I'm guessing, on not many of those links getting many hits previously, but otherwise it's unlikely for me to penetrate GiantBomb's huge database since I have to go specifically to the "Browse..." tab, which is unlikely unless I'm looking for something specifically.  I can say from personal testimony that I have checked random GB wiki articles far less since the redesign.

What I'm trying to say is that the wiki database is a huge part of what GB is as a site and without some reference in the guise of specific links being placed on the front page then it feels like this significant part of GB is generally being hidden away apart from those few pages that get referenced by the articles that you guys post.  There's all these potentially really interesting articles that are just hidden away and don't get the attention they deserve from people that might be interested in them if they ever came across them - and that feels against the spirit of what the GB database should be all about.

Well, that's my sentiment.  What should be done?  Given only a little thought I would suggest at the very least having some sort of 'random article' button such as Wikipedia has (maybe there too many competely empty pages that this would prove worthless?... a guess - but maybe it should include a minimum word limit fro what articles it shows).  However, many specific links would be better, which should probably change frequently.  So, for example, having each day: an "article of the day" (maybe hand-picked or via a fancy stat-tracking algorithm); 'upcoming article of the day'; 'recently popular'; 'interesting article you'd never normally read' .... you get the idea.  It only has to be a few links like unlike the many you had before, but I hope you GB staffers can find space for it on your front page since it is so much of what this site is about.  Reply also if for some reason you think this would be unnecessary.

To everyone else:  what do you think of this?  Do you agree?  If so, what do you think is the best way to link to the GB wiki pages from the front page?
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