Simple Gameplay In Banner Saga: A Mini Case Study

Finished Banner Saga awhile ago, but I captured this image when I was impressed by some of its simple but thought-provoking gameplay. Seems like a simple multiple-choice question, doesn’t it?

banner-saga-game-writer

So… let’s break this down a little bit.

This challenge (and similar others) comes up midgame and has consequences on the size of your cohort, although I’m guessing that failing or nailing all of these still wouldn’t make or break you.

Still, the challenge does raise some fun tactical questions that convey the sense of a larger campaign that you don’t really see in the central gameplay.

Five choices. If I remember rightly, my smaller army was bottlenecked at a bridge and trying to break through to green pastures. Tough spot. I’d say that 2 and 4 are largely the same, but certainly 2 has its appeal since it seems to imply an aggressive attack that might lead to a successful exit. 1 was interesting since the alien dredge seemed like they might try to win by force of main. 3 didn’t seem like a good fit to me for the situation; 5 seemed like a misfit for the tight quarters.

But five options, and a bit of a word puzzle as I tried to guess at the possible interpretations based on word choices and previous experience. I ended up choosing 1, which I fear wasn’t the best. It cost me some soldiers, but also wasn’t the end of the world.

However, I was impressed by this implementation of simple gameplay. Banner Saga never puts a lot of actual units on screen — battles are staged between heroes, not hordes — but these little multiple-choice challenges are thoughtfully crafted and fit perfectly in the fiction of a large, drawn-out campaign between entrenched forces. If your cohort is drawn down to skeleton numbers, it has a real effect on your success.

Five questions. Simple gameplay. In context, this is effective game design.

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Videogame Field of View

I came across an interesting inquiry on Quora recently, and thought I’d share it with you folks. The question: “In 1st person video games, why don’t they introduce peripheral vision? The angle of sight seems to be a lot less than our own angle of vision.”

I’ve had this complaint as well, in both first-person and third-person games (assuming we’re not talking about something exotic like a “peripheral vision mode”). Gears of War frustrates me because I feel like I can’t see the world since I’m zoomed so far in on the asses of the protagonists.

(I historically have the same complaint about Madden, although for different reasons: I find it ridiculous that I have to contort myself to see near-sideline receivers who are by default off the edge of the screen. Something tells me that Tom Brady doesn’t have this invisible receiver problem. Less of an issue in the HD era.)

This video from TotalBiscuit does a stellar job of illustrating the point. Skip to the three-minute mark to get right to the good stuff:

Here’s a shot from Gears of War. Your protagonist eats up about a sixth of the critical foreground screen real estate. If you played the game, you may remember the annoyance of larger levels where foes were shooting you from every direction while you felt like you were looking for them through a shoebox.

field of view gow

Compare GoW with this shot from Infamous 2. The avatar is smaller, the camera position is further back from the action, and you can see more of the world.

fov-screenshot

TotalBiscuit feels claustrophobic FOVs like GoW’s are due to game developers not caring enough about PC gamers. I think he’s on the right track, but IMHO studios do this extreme zoom-in/narrow field-of-view — and fail to provide options to alter it — for four reasons:

  1. Money (aka complexity). It takes a fair amount of risk for a developer to put in a feature that lets gamers change the field of view. Sure, a few lines of code could change the way the renderer works, letting you see more of the world. Sure, it’d be fairly easy to support that in the game UI. However, adding this option is a significant and fundamental alteration in a very complex system. Your game has to work equally well at all field-of-view settings, in multiplayer, on all sorts of wonky PC systems with wonky chipsets. This is kind of like making a game and a half instead of one game. And you’re doing this to satisfy PC gamers (large fraction of total market) who care about field of view and know what it is (much smaller fraction of the other fraction). Sadly, when the test department starts toying with the FOV option during crunch and filing dozens of bugs on how it crashes this mode and that mode, and causes everything on screen to look weird and skinny, and makes text in the game unreadable, your producer is going to ditch the feature like it’s covered in flaming flatulent warts. Assuming it got that far.
  2. Money (aka framerate). When you widen the field of view, more stuff renders. Guess what? This means that your hardware has to work harder and your silky-smooth framerate goes in the toilet. You can’t fit as many players into multiplayer matches. The big cinematic moments cause the game to choke. People definitely care about framerate. (People are a lot more blase about field of view.) Lousy framerates and stutters cause your game to tank.
  3. Money (aka marketing). GoW wasn’t exactly a critical or commercial failure. People loved the in-your-face action, and the screenshots look like an action blockbuster because you can see all the pimples on Marcus Fenix’s well-rendered butt. It’s annoying to those of us who are accustomed to seeing the game world, but GoW’s other innovations and high-quality graphics were enough to win over the others. Here are some reviews, emphases mine: “Huge, muscular combatants move like giant men wearing heavy gear, fine details are everywhere, and splattering blood never looked so beautiful… It just looks incredible.” – GamesRadar+. “…better than Halo… It’s a fantastic-looking, riveting, fire-first-ask-questions-never third-person shooter that manages to show you things that you’ve never seen before on a console.”- Entertainment Weekly. And, well, this one: “The camera is so good in Gears of War that I never once thought about it while playing. I can’t recall a single instance where it did not frame the action right, or hide anything I should have seen. – Electric Playground
  4. Gameplay. Grudgingly, I admit that GoW was a damned fine game, and that the tight field of view showed off those stellar graphics and made some of the action more fun, like close environments and melee attacks. A game like Infamous 2 requires a wider field of view because of the acrobatic nature of the gameplay.

That’s my take. I like to see the world in these kinds of games, and in the era of hi-def, we can have our cake and eat it in many situations. At the same time, we still see a lot of close-in cameras and narrow FOVs as new games try to out-scream the competition by putting you “in the action.” Hopefully that’s a trend that will die as we move forward.

Oh, and here’s the link to the original Quora conversation: http://www.quora.com/In-1st-person-video-games-why-dont-they-introduce-peripheral-vision

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A Game Hero Should Be Voiceless: Part Two

The Rude Game Hero

The voiceless game hero? He’s an ass.

Well, inadvertently. Have you ever noticed how a voiceless game hero fails to respond to mid-mission communications?

I recently finished Resistance on the PS3, and the game’s avatar, Nathan Hale, is a classic, cliche game hero with little to say and a lot to do. When he gets mid-mission updates, there’re always some stilted moments when the game writer has to wriggle around Hale’s inability to talk. “Hale, are you there? Anyhow, as I was saying….”

Needless to say, this isn’t a major objection to the voiceless game hero, but it is another missed opportunity for emotional connection in a medium (I shudder to say “art form”) that already sorely lacks connection.

Part of the problem is that in-game cinematics – the voiceless game hero’s lone venue to speak – have traditionally been expensive, pre-rendered cutscenes. They are almost always non-interactive, constrictive experiences that players hate to sit through. As games move to in-game cinematics rendered through the game’s own graphics engine, the costs can drop (although not always).

The Situational Chatterbox Game Hero

The Metal Gear series is an interesting special case to the silent game hero syndrome. Snake is quiet during the games, but truly epic quantities of backstory and narration take place in cutscenes and non-interactive radio communications. When Snake has some work to do, he’s as silent as night, but get him chatting to some cute support operative about cardboard boxes, crouched in a supply room in an enemy base, and the conversation goes about a thousand times as long as you’d ever expect. (Yes, cardboard boxes.)

Metal Gear games definitely tread that uneasy line between movie and game. The effect is well-documented: people either hate it or love it.

The Power of the Voice

It is a shame that the prototypical game hero has nothing to say. He can’t trace much of a character arc, and we don’t find out why he’s willing to risk it all over and over again. He’s just a shell of a person, really.

In that respect, movies once again have cultural primacy over games. We often don’t get to know the game hero, and that’d be a huge failure for a movie. Would you enjoy movies if 90% of them featured nearly mute protagonists? Can games be considered an art form if game developers can’t draw a decent portrait of a protagonist?

Again, game designers are dramatically losing the battle to rival the emotional punch wielded routinely by screenwriters. Your typical half-hour episode of “30 Rock” packs more resonance and character than the entire 20-hour slog through Gears of War or Resistance.

Does that sound like an exaggeration? Well, let’s try some trivia questions:

1) Why is Marcus Fenix in prison at the start of Gears of War?

2) Who gives the orders to Fenix and Delta Squad?

3) What’s Kenneth the Page’s hometown?

4) Who gives the orders at 30 Rock?

Yeah, I had to wikipedia all those Gears of War answers too.

Will Adventure Games Rival Adventure Movies?

It’s really the adventure video game genre that does the best at connecting players with a rewarding narrative journey. Games like The Longest Journey and Grim Fandango are well-known for their humor, characters, and plotlines.

On the other hand, the adventure genre has long been a niche gaming genre that left some of our twitchier game-playing brethren cold. Technology may yet come to the rescue, though. Newer action/adventure titles like God of War and Uncharted 2 are proving that an epic storyline can be paired successfully with addictive, responsive gameplay.

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A Game Hero Should Be Voiceless: T or F?

Game Case Study: The Voiceless Hero

The typical game hero is mute. Have you noticed?

Especially in first-person shooters, your typical game hero is a stoic son of a mesh. He has an inhuman pain tolerance, miraculous healing powers, and can tote as much military hardware as a Sherman tank. But he can’t communicate. He’ll say a few words in the cutscenes, but he’s useless otherwise.

If you’ve served in the military, you know that the average soldier is a lot happier talking about combat than getting shot at. With good reason.

If you were big on symbolism you could delve into this for all sorts of pointless conversation about the status of the modern soldier, the devolution of the archetypal hero, the social skills of today’s kids, etc. etc.

And can you imagine what a Leno or Larry King interview with Master Chief or Samus would be like?

But seriously, what does this mean to gamers and the game experience?

The Game Hero Immersion Theory

game-heroThe game hero vocalization quandry was bandied about a lot by the other game designers and me on two games in particular, the PS2 launch title Army Men: Green Rogue (blink and you missed it) and the PC space-sim Freelancer (top ten). Some game designers liked the strong silent hero because he was more intimidating that way. But the winning reason in both cases was that a talking game hero breaks the fourth wall and disturbs the illusion of verite.

(Insert jibe here about game developers who believe that “realism” is a quality to be preserved when your hero is melting animated plastic soldiers.)

The “broken illusion” argument is persuasive, although I don’t buy it. I hate to play Hollywood and dogmatically rely on previous games to support all my theories*, but I do have to point to Duke Nukem 3D, once a true rival to DOOM and a lighthearted triumph that featured a bombastic muscle-bound hero who’d spout endless and funny catchphrases like Arnold on steroids. I mean, more steroids.

Duke’s taunts and jokes were a big part of the game’s charm. He was a game hero whose verbosity added to the character and fun.

The Game Hero Clarity Issue

On Freelancer, the key question was twofold: how would the player know that the game hero was talking, and what would it add to gameplay?

During gameplay, the player was either conducting transactions baseside or flying/fighting in space. I was hoping our game hero, Trent, could talk while at the controls to break the monotony of long-haul travel and help us deal with some narrative deficits. (We had some sizeable plot holes that had to be stitched together.)

I said that Trent’s face could appear during “comms” just like the faces of other characters did when they spoke during flight. Additionally, our game hero could have sonically different comms that sounded like they were cleaner, louder, and even physically closer.

Trent was another hero who never got his gameplay voice. It’s not a huge regret for me – ask any Freelancer team member, and they’ll willingly admit that we’re all just thankful that we finished that game and got the sales we did – but I do wonder why game developers continue to pass on opportunities to enrich gameplay with the voice of the most important character in their games.

Ok, enough for one day. In my next post: The Rude Game Hero and The Situational Chatterbox Game Hero.

* One hit game does not prove a theory; it only carves a creative rut for imitators to wallow into in search of the almighty “oops I bought the wrong game for Junior!” dollar.

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Uncharted 2 Steals Hearts

Uncharted 2 and Naughty Dog Revive the Adventure Genre

The Uncharted 2: Among Thieves SKU and its action/adventure gameplay are dominating the ratings at Metacritic. Adventure games? Zork? Monkey Island? Indiana Jones? Hello again. We’ve missed you.

Uncharted 2 brings back Nathan Drake (Indiana Jones?) for another round of high-stakes artifact hunting, this time to the fabled Shambhala, a remote valley in the Himalayas, where he’s pitted against a fugitive war criminal.

I don’t have a full gameplay review today — just a little celebration, and a link to Uncharted 2’s astronomical Metacritic score and review.

97, in case you’re curious — a point below all-time PS3 leader Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Gears of War 2 gets a new smoke grenade

Gears of War fans, rejoice. The gameplay for those previously useless smoke grenades is getting a facelift.

In the first Gears of War, the smoke grenades were as useful as they would be in a Quake 3 deathmatch. There’s really nothing tactical about GoW; it’s a pure twitch game with zero stealth. And I’m not knocking it. It does what it does, and does it pretty dang well.

Fortunately, that gameplay is getting an upgrade. The GoW 2 smoke grenades will deliver a shock blast that stuns players within the grenades’ explosive radius. Even better: the grenades will have a unique tactical function, knocking shields out of the hands of any targets in the blast area.

(Shields are another new feature, allowing players and NPCs to roam around with a fair-sized bit of portable cover, like the jackals from Halo.)

That’s the news from here. Keep those thumbs happy.

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Best videogame monster

Best videogame monster: now accepting your nominations

The best videogame monster. Now that’s a competitive category. Like best movie villain, except a heck of a lot more likely to make your palms sweat.

Even if you’re a novice videogamer, you’ve probably seen your share of incredible videogame monsters. Some examples that spring to my mind:

  • the Big Daddies from Bioshock,
  • the implacable Unseen Terror from Infocom’s Enchanter,
  • the suicidal bombheaded screamers from Serious Sam,
  • True Ogre, the oversized, winged, fire-breathing final boss from Tekken 3,
  • the vicious three-headed Hydra from God of War, which you face in several stages (you actually take out a single hydra head early in the level, so you could call it four-headed),
  • Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid, who did some eerie personality analysis of you, the player!,
  • Saddler from Resident Evil 4,
  • and the Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus.

What makes a “best videogame monster”?

Obviously, everyone’s going to have differing opinions about what’s the best videogame monster. Sometimes it’s a devilish boss like Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth. Sometimes it’s just a common grunt like a zerg from one of Starcraft’s zerg rushes.

We could judge by gameplay, by backstory (this is a game writing blog, after all), by ingenuity, by shock factor.

But, my friends, this is a simple blog. Just let me know what’s the best videogame monster that you cherish most fondly. What fiend springs to mind, howling and spitting, when you think “best videogame monster”? It doesn’t have to be your best videogame monster of all time. Just your best monster of the moment or the week or the month. Lay it on us.

Best videogame monster of the moment

For me, right now, it’s got to be a miniboss from the PS2’s Bard’s Tale.

Two words: Haggis Monster. That’s right. An enchanted sheep’s stomach, stuffed with the other organs of the sheep, including the lungs*, liver, and heart. Mmm!

According to Answers.com:

A 150-g portion is an exceptionally rich source of iron; a rich source of protein; a good source of vitamins B1, B2, niacin, calcium, and copper; a source of zinc; contains about 33?g of fat, of which half is saturated; supplies 450?kcal.

* Because you can’t vend any product containing the lungs of an animal in the U.S., true haggis is illegal. Take that, you dirty Scots!

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Gameplay Cliches

Gameplay cliches get a lot of chatter, but when the game is successful and has a core experience that people enjoy, no one says a word.

Case in point: Gears of War.

Mine carts.

Ammo boxes that are strewn around abundantly.

Crates that contain ammo boxes. Also strewn around at every juncture.

Lava levels.

Gears of War has all of these gameplay cliches.

Not a peep about it in the rags.

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