Thursday, November 8, 2012

Scripted & Emergent Narrative

There are essentially two overarching ways of delivering narrative in a game: scripted narrative and emergent narrative. Scripted narrative includes all the stuff like dialogue and cutscenes, and also scripted action sequences like many of the setpieces in the Uncharted series. Emergent narrative is the stuff that emerges directly from the gameplay, like how you took out a truck in Far Cry 2 by ramming a boat into it, or that time your Sim missed his carpool because he wouldn't stop throwing a tantrum about being bored, or that time a Creeper killed you in Mincraft and made you drop a bunch of diamonds in lava.

In reality you can't escape emergent narrative in games. Even during the most tightly scripted setpiece, there will be some room for player-driven narrative, whether you plan for it or not. Maybe the player doesn't notice the boulder hurtling towards them, and casually walks into it instead. I guess you could make a visual novel, which may or may not count as a “game,” but this is getting a little off track.

I was recently watching Mission Impossible 4 and got to the totally awesome Dubai scene where Tom Cruise climbs the exterior of the Burj Khalifa (which he apparently did for real because... Tom Cruise). In the film he's using special spy gloves that adhere to the wall but, in the middle of his climb, one of them malfunctions! Can our hero make it the rest of the way with only one glove? (spoilers: yes)

**{I dearly wanted to find the clip, but to no avail. Paramount evidently does not want me advertising their film.}**

Anyway it got me thinking, since in my view there are basically two approaches for doing something like this in a game.

Approach #1: you script a sequence where the player has to climb a tower, but then have their glove malfunction (after they pass the halfway point or something).

Approach #2: you present the player the goal of reaching the top of a tower and you give them a bunch of spy equipment which has, among its characteristics, some probability of malfunctioning.

Both of these approaches have various advantages and drawbacks. The main advantage of the first approach is that you can ensure that everything plays out roughly how you intend it, every time. You set up all the dominoes and choose when and where they fall. The main disadvantage of the scripted approach is that, similar to the Hollywood movie, your player most likely understands that this is a scripted event, and knows that if they play properly, they will escape.

Approach #2 is likely harder to pull off well, design-wise (if the equipment failure is too sudden and extreme, it could just be really annoying), but I wish to argue that it not only provides a potentially richer experience, but is also less development-heavy in the long run.

Take a similar situation in Minecraft. Let's say you're low on health and are trying to dig your way to the surface, but just before you make it out, your pickaxe breaks. Now you realize you have to get back to your chest to pick up some wood so that you can craft a new pickaxe, all while avoiding spiders and deadly lava.

In another game this could work as a scripted sequence, certainly. But wouldn't it feel like arbitrary backtracking if the game told you your pickaxe broke and now you had to go back and make another in order to move on?

There is tendency right now for game developers to want to make things “cinematic.” If a AAA studio were designing the above sequence, they might add some musical cues, some shaky-cam effects, and maybe hire Ron Perlman to go “Just my luck!” And it might be totally awesome.

But Notch didn't have the budget to hire Ron Perlman, so instead he built a world with some voxels and some basic ground rules, and he figured out which ground rules made that world interesting to inhabit. Notch may or may not have intended the above scenario, and it might never happen to you, but then there are a million other scenarios that just might.

Scripted sequences can be a powerful tool, but at the end of the day, what you tell your friends about are those moments when you took out like four guys with a single sniper bullet, or when you flew off your motorbike and landed in a kiddy pool, or when your spy glove gave out but you still managed to reach the top.

I'm not arguing that all games should be “sandbox games,” whatever that term means exactly. I think there is lots of happy middle-ground between experiences entirely crafted by the designer, and experiences entirely invented by the player. What I am saying is that it's wrongheaded and inefficient to try and craft every part of a gameplay experience because ultimately, no matter how “cinematic” you make them, those moments will never be significantly better than their film equivalents. Whereas when you give up some control, and design in a way that allow for things to happen organically, a game can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Storystudent's Journey

I imagine many people out there are familiar with Joseph Campbell? The Hero's Journey guy?

Well anyway, he's an academic who wrote a rather influential book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces which basically describes the template found in stories since ancient times. And yes "template" is singular.

I always found it a fascinating notion that there was this underlying structure fundamental to storytelling, and Hollywood has certainly taken notice, but I was never quite able to wrap my head around Campbell's ideas. His map is a little...


Recently though I was Called to Adventure when a friend referred me to some articles written by Dan Harmon, the creator of the periodically outstanding show Community. I encourage you to read them yourself, if this stuff interests you, but basically his version of the Hero's Journey goes like this:
  1. . A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. . But they want something.
  3. . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. . Adapt to it,
  5. . Get what they wanted,
  6. . Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. . Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. . Having changed. 
Or in even simpler language:
Okay, that I can understand.

After reading his stuff, I feel like I have a better handle on this whole "monomyth" idea, so here's my interpretation of three well-known films using Dan's model. I chose these specifically as wildly different genres, and we can nitpick whether or not I applied the model correctly, but hopefully you'll agree that these films very much share the same basic structure:

If we go back to Campbell's work, there are many further parallels. Here are a few (by my own unofficial interpretations):

Refusal of the Call:
-Luke initially tells Obi Wan that he can't leave the farm (but then he finds it burnt to the ground along with his aunt and uncle).
-Dorothy is frightened about meeting the Wizard (although in her case this is after "crossing the threshold").
-Leo doesn't want any part of the scheme until Max convinces him that his drab existence is really no better than prison. (Max and Leo are sort of two opposing halves of a single hero.)

Tests, Allies, Enemies (this is Vogler's phrase. Campbell call's this stage "Road of Trials." Dan Harmon calls it "Search.")
In the first half of their adventure in the "special world," each of our heroes meets a collection of bizarre characters, as well as someone who will menace them later. At some point their resolve is also tested.

Atonement with the Father (aka "step 6: Take"):
-Luke sees Darth Vader, though he doesn't know [it was his sled].
-Dorothy forgives the Wizard and begs him to bring her home to Kansas in his balloon.
-Max and Leo are menaced by Franz Liebkind who is their play's "father."

George Lucas has in fact acknowledged being inspired by Joseph Campbell's work, but the truth is these primordial elements can be found in nearly everything you would call a story, from ancient myths to radio plays, videogames and sandwich commercials.

For more on story structure, listen to Jack Black in a wizard suit (by which I mean he's wearing a wizard suit, but you're welcome to wear one too, I guess):

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Saracen Night

When you go to bed after designing and prototyping for 12 hours straight, you sometimes have weird dreams.

Last night I dreamt of some sort of pen-and-paper roleplaying system in which one of the available classes was “Saracen Knight.” This class had various melee bonuses as well as an interesting drawback: whenever you ran into a British citizen, you were required to pay them money as reparations on behalf of India for the Sepoy rebellion.

Because nothing screams high fantasy and adventure more than ironically depressing references to European colonialism!!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

CERN Scientists Discover Comic Sans!

Today, after years of research and experimentation, scientists at CERN made the remarkable discover that people on Twitter really hate Comic Sans.

They also found the Higgs Boson, a particle theorized half a century ago by the standard model as necessary for explaining the existence of mass in the universe blah blah the point is, font choice is important! I bet when Cowan and Reines published their discovery of the neutrino, they used something sensible like Helvetica!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Humble Bundle V

The current Humble Indie Bundle is absolutely phenomenal. You can pay whatever you want for four different games, but if you pay above the average (which is currently hovering around 8 bucks), you get eight(!) games, each of which I can personally vouch for as being either awesome or ridiculously awesome (except Lone Survivor, which I haven't played, but which looks awesome):
-Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
-Amnesia: The Dark Descent
And recently added (cinching this as a better gaming deal than even Valve's legendary Orange Box):
-Lone Survivor
-Super Meat Boy

You also get all the soundtracks. The Superbrothers soundtrack alone costs 8 bucks, and it's well worth that.

But less than a week remains! So do not dally, my friends, nor dilly. If you must wait, then let it be only to allow Bastion's narrator to massage your eardrums.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cosmic Rebirth

Apparently Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane is bringing back Carl Sagan's show Cosmos. I know that sounds like a setup for a Family Guy gag, but it's set to be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, certified badass, so count me in.

It's set to air on Fox, which means it will reach a large audience, but which also means it will have a glorious first season and then get cancelled.

I look forward to that glorious season.

Take it, autotuned Carl Sagan!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Poe in a Bag

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered,- here I opened wide the door;
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, peering,
Looking for my wayward guest, when something gleaming caught my view;
On the porch my eyes were showing that a paper bag was glowing,
Glowing with a dancing fire that with every moment grew.
Donning loafers without prompting, I intently took to stomping,
Stomping on that paper bag, for careless fires I eschew.
Threat extinguished, yet there lingered something sticky on my shoe.
Here I muttered, "Doggy poo."

Friday, May 4, 2012


It's becoming clear that websites like Kickstarter and Rockethub are going to have a large impact on the way we think about paying for games, as both developers and consumers. Crowdfunding gives developers the freedom to go after a much narrower demographic, and you don't have to prove that people will buy what you're selling once they already have.

A couple months back, Tim Schafer asked for $400,000 to make an adventure game, a genre long considered dead by mainstream publishers. In the end, he did not raise his goal amount. Instead he raised $3,336,371! If this doesn't prove that there's still a market for adventure games, it at least proves that there's a market for Tim Schafer games.

With all the great possibilities of crowdfunding, I'm sad to announce the first Kickstarter scam: a game titled Mythic: The Story Of Gods And Men. People started to get suspicious when they noticed that the concept art and CG animation (and office shots) had been stolen from other websites. Also the fact that they were promising to make a game with graphics "up there with Skyrim" with $80,000 in donations, in a year, might have been a clue.

The creator has since pulled the plug, but you can still watch the trailer and laugh at its ineptitude without feeling bad. Also I'm not sure it was wise for the "creator" to show his face in the video, maybe he's unfamiliar with how the internet works.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Panality of Evil

If you're in town for the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo, I'll be doing a panel (2:00, Sunday, Palomino room C) on boardgame design with the Game Artisans of Canada. Come say hello and tell me why the Mass Effect ending sucked.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Very Special Message Board

So a group from 4chan, also known as the internet's sphincter, just released a game about dating disabled girls.

As you might expect, the game is... tasteful?

I'm not really a visual novel or dating sim guy, but this definitely bolsters my faith in humanity. And, other developers, apparently 4chan has more mature and nuanced views on diversity than you. Just thought you ought to know.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Effect 3's Ending Doesn't Suck

**Warning! Huge spoilers below!**Like seriously, "you are NOT the father" level of spoilers**Do not look directly at the spoilers unless wearing proper eye protection**

About a month ago I posted some thoughts about Mass Effect 3. I didn't say much of anything regarding the ending, partly because I didn't want to spoil anything. Little did I know that an internet storm was brewing, with nasty, big, pointy teeth. Apparently the ending was so bad, on so many levels, that it actually ruined everything that had happened up to that point, as well as earning a place alongside such fabled endings as "A WINNER IS YOU" and "CONGRATURATION THIS STORY IS HAPPY END THANK YOU."

The thing is, not only did I not have this reaction to the ending, I actually thought it was pretty good.

It might have helped that I didn't read any of the hype preceding ME3s release because, looking back, some of the statements made seem basically like lies, such as "It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.....The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them.”

No, actually that is completely what the endings are like. You either (A) destroy the Reapers, (B) control the Reapers or (C) merge with the Reapers. Aside from minor variations, any real differences between outcomes have to be inferred.

And I have no problem with this. Most of my questions were answered before the final showdown, and I respect that the events following your final decision are not explicitly spelled out for you. I like a little bit of mystery (and Shepard is dead after all, generally). I also don't mind that everyone's story ultimately comes down to a 3-way choice. Many of the choices throughout the series, when all possibilities are examined, don't have the great divergence in outcomes that is being implied. It's just the fans never collectively compared notes on any of the earlier choices and their consequences. Or maybe everyone assumed that every choice they made would be acknowledged and accounted for in the conclusion in some way that showed that it all really mattered. Well I'm sorry kids, it doesn't really matter; you were playing a videogame the whole time.

I've read a lot of rants against the ending, and people unhappy with it generally deny that what they wanted was a happy ending, and that their objections are only about logical inconsistencies and a lack of choice and explanation. I'm not sure I buy this. Mass Effect's ending is pretty dark. And it's not dark in an Empire Strikes Back "what will our heroes do now?" kind of way, like all too many videogame endings. It left me with a feeling of hollowness like many critics describe, but for me this hollowness was mixed with respect for BioWare being willing to let there series end on such a downer. It was made clear all along that if victory were to be achieved, it would come at tremendous cost. Most of the fan-made or proposed endings I've seen try to wrap things up far too cleanly and happily. We've become so enured to saving the galaxy that we don't expect there to be negative consequences, even though the idea of consequences has been stressed all throughout the series. We're narratively spoiled. For the record, I have seen no ending suggested thus far that I prefer to the one we got. The "indoctrination" theory is intriguing, but it merely defers the issue.

I've read complaints that the final choice invalidates your previous hard work because two of the choices are equivalent to the aims of Saren (merge with Reapers) and the Illusive Man (control Reapers). So you spent the entire first game trying to stop Saren from achieving his goal of merging organics and synthetics, yet in the end you decide this is actually the best solution. This is called DRAMATIC IRONY. This is actually my favorite aspect of the endings, and it fits perfectly with the theme of grey morality that permeates the series.

I've heard various complaints that certain things about the ending are illogical. I disagree, but I won't argue point-by-point. I'll agree that it isn't clear why Joker is using a Mass Relay when he ought to be trying to help out in the final battle, but this didn't occur to me at the time, so it didn't ruin anything for me.

The one point which I do agree on is that I was hoping to see my war assets actually take part in the battle. I think a few cutscenes could have been done away with if I could have seen the Blue Suns shooting at some husks, or a bunch of Geth ships take down a Reaper. That would have been a lot more meaningful to me. Aside from that, I was quite pleased with the ending. I found it satisfying, intriguing, heartbreaking, ambiguous, ethically challenging, memorable, and unique.

I'm very glad BioWare are sticking to their guns and not planning to change the ending with DLC and merely plan to pad it out and explain things a bit more. I could see this potentially improving something that, in my humble opinion, was never broken to begin with.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Hardware Problem

Videogames have a problem that other media don't seem to. Maybe it has to do with their origins as technological oddities, and their primary fanbase of geeks and tech nerds (among whose ranks I count myself), but games have always struggled with an odd duality; they are designed, enjoyed and critiqued as both technological and aesthetic entities, with inordinate attention paid to the technological side. Perhaps it started with the bit wars, with all parties fiercely promoting their products as having the most. That no child at the time new what a "bit" was didn't matter.

The Genesis proudly displayed its now-laughable bit-count on its front:

And Atari marketed its Jaguar with one of the more bizarre videogame ads, which is saying A LOT!

Perhaps because the Jaguar was such a tremendous failure both commercially and, well, graphically, people eventually caught on to the fact that more bits didn't necessarily mean better games, but that just meant developers needed to be a little more subtle about their message, which has become tacitly accepted by review sites and used as ammunition by fanboys the world over. The message: "better tech equals a better game."

I've wanted to write something addressing this for a long time, but for me it came to a head with the recent HD re-release of Silent Hill 2.

Despite being a workhorse with more longevity than perhaps any other game console, the Playstation 2 had its limits, and the environments that Team Silent wanted to create for their game simply would not have been able to run smoothly at the fidelity they needed. Their solution, surround the player with fog and cut the draw distance down to as little as possibly, thereby allowing things within the player's limited field of view to be rendered with clarity, with the added bonus of providing the signature element to one of the most atmospheric and well-regarded horror games of all time. Sometimes necessity is in fact the mother of invention.

So what did they do for the HD remake? Get rid of the fog of course! The PS3 can do way better draw distances!

Left: HD remake - Right: good version

When Masahiro Ito, the game's art director, saw the graphical "upgrade," he was understandably upset. Aside from being an iconic element of the series, the fog also did a few other things such as cover up unfinished textures and map edges(!) I imagine the monsters are also a little less frightening when you can see them coming a mile away.

This example of putting tech ability ahead of aesthetic consideration is inexcusable, but it is hardly unprecedented. Across the industry games are defended on the basis of their technical specs rather than their actual visual appeal, let alone their gameplay.

Tell me this:
 is visually inferior to this:

This phenomenon is not limited to graphical processing either. None of the "respectable" review sites would dare leave out game length as a crucial evaluation criteria. As I mentioned in my rant about pacing, videogames are the only entertainment media where longevity is reliably cited as an important positive attribute. In the end, you are buying a piece of entertainment and, despite the sometimes hefty price of admission, if the hours you spend with it are less enjoyable because the experience has been stretched out to meet an arbitrary consumer expectation, then there are plenty of amusing things on the internet that may be more worth your time. You buy a car or toaster on the basis that it will last a long time, but nobody chooses to buy a novel because it has over 800 pages.

Yet because fun and innovation (and apparently visual appeal) are difficult to market, publishers end up falling back on technology (and content) as something reliable to pour money into, and then they just need to convince the rest of us that the tech is something worth bragging about, and we tech geeks buy into it, argue fiercely about whether Battlefield 3 looks better than Call of Duty 3, and try to ignore the fact that our "non-gamer" friends seem to love clicking on 2D pictures of corn in Farmville or flicking birds who have about four frames of animation in Angry Birds. We act smug and say they're not real gamers. But your Grandma, or your Boss or your sister doesn't care about HD graphics or blast processing, they just want to have fun. And isn't it possible that, in a way, this makes them the purest gamers of all.

Farmville still sucks though.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Negative Emotions

 (This essay contains vague spoilers for the Mass Effect series, but I will try to keep them extremely vague because I hate spoilers and Bruce Willis is your father)

As soon as the final sequences began to unfold in Mass Effect 1, I knew there was something special and groundbreaking about this series. For perhaps the first time in a videogame, I was completely invested in the narrative in a way that I have not been in any film or book. It wasn't that I really wanted to win the game, I literally felt like I needed to complete my mission for the sake of the galaxy. In truth I could have loaded a save had things gone awry, but somehow that thought was shunted from my mind by the game's narrative.

I'm not the first to point this out, but narrative in games is more than just the "plot" and cutscenes and dialogue, it's inextricably intertwined with everything the player does and experiences. Every ladder the player climbs and every henchman the player guns down is adding to the story that the player experiences, whether the developers intend it or not. The problem is that we (both the developers and the players) are focusing on the wrong things.

Near the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, something happened that opened my eyes to a problem endemic to our medium. Through my own negligence (I was eating fish sticks), I allowed one of my Avatar's most trusted friends to be brutally executed during a quick-time event. My initial reaction was anger, shock, horror and guilt, and I immediately considered exiting the game and replaying that sequence. Then it hit me: I and every other gamer I know has been trained to consume games in a way that is antithetical to real drama. My friend had just been gunned down in front of me and I had had the opportunity to save them, and the emotions I should have been feeling were anger, shock, horror and guilt, yet I was automatically annoyed at the game and automatically considering a reset.

The problem is that, for a long time now, games have been too good to us. I don't mean this in terms of their difficulty, I mean that games have almost universally been trying to evoke positive emotions in us: excitement, curiosity, power, satisfaction. It's gotten so pervasive that whenever we feel a negative emotion during play, we instinctively attribute it to some flaw in the design. Plenty of games try to evoke negative emotions during cutscenes and through dialogue (sadness, hopelessness, regret), but because they aren't echoed in the game's mechanics, they come across as hollow. Why is the movie The Road so much more depressing than the also post-apocalyptic game Gears of War? Because Gears of War is really about shooting things. The same themes of loss and despair are present in the "story," but they aren't being evoked via gameplay, which creates a disconnect with the protagonists. I'm not here to bash Gears of War, I actually really like its game mechanics, this is a problem with virtually every videogame I've ever played. Even most "art" games fail to effectively tie their themes to their core mechanics, though some do manage to effectively evoke boredom.

Some games have successfully evoked feelings of fear and helplessness, which is why I think the horror genre has been so effective (until recent years when they started giving us sufficient firepower and frequent enough savepoints to mostly eliminate these negative feelings). Silent Hill wasn't scary because of its graphics or music, it was scary because its presentational elements complemented its game mechanics to evoke a sense of dread and confusion.

Unfortunately we haven't stumbled upon the formulas for evoking most of the negative emotions utilized in other media, and I don't imagine that figuring out how to make the player feel unhappy during play is at the top of most developers' priorities, yet I believe that the substantial resources being put towards voice actors, character models and writing are mostly going to be in vain until we start to figure out the gameplay side. Though these things look nice in a trailer and help game stories look superficially more like film stories, they are ultimately red herrings distracting us from the real barrier standing in the way of artistic (and entertainment) aspiration.

There is one negative emotion players have accepted over the years: Frustration (though this too is slowly being expunged). Gamers are willing to replay the same section many times over in order to achieve victory. The frustration of defeat serves a purpose since it makes success all the sweeter, and the possibility of failure is necessary in most games, even if the player never actually sees a "game over" or "retry" screen. The problem is that we have grown so accustomed to retrying things, we feel entitled to it. Yet this convention of retrying everything until success has become gaming's life-support system; it is the only type of punishment we seem to be okay with, yet it is ultimately one of the primary things that is holding game narrative back.

Imagine a game of Romeo & Juliet. Failing to stop Romeo from imbibing the poison, the player laments that he will have to replay the whole mission. Or, alternatively, Romeo croaks in the final cutscene, and the player wonders what the point was of retrying the final bossfight with Paris so many times if Romeo was just going to die anyway.

I fervently believe that games can be high art (whatever that means), and that they can attain dramatic weight, but this can't be effectively achieved by laying a story overtop a set of mechanics, no matter how good the story, acting and dialogue might be. In order for a game's narrative to properly draw in the player, the dialogue and thematic elements have to be mirrored in the gameplay. (And vice versa; Bastion does a good job of entwining gameplay and story by having the narrator comment on everything you do, making you feel more like the protagonist rather than an unwanted or vestigial houseguest.) Because good drama requires at least some negative emotion, this means not being afraid to make the player, and not just the protagonist, unhappy, and it also means we the players need to be okay with that. Otherwise we may as well be playing Bejewled with scenes from Goodfellas interspersed between levels.

So what did I think of Mass Effect 3? I absolutely loved it. The series is a firm favorite of mine, and like all good Sci-Fi (but unlike any other games to date) it made me question many things about my own moral code. But unlike Sci-Fi in other media, it also forced me to face my own hypocracy and biases on a few issues. Why did I want to try and give the Krogan race a second chance, yet I did not show the Rachni the same courtesy in ME1? I think it's because the Rachni are creepy and look like bugs. I'm fairly certain I am a specist.

I do feel that one major opportunity was missed however. After a certain fleet was decimated due to some ethically-questionable choices on my part, it left behind a debris field. Like many other such fields scattered throughout the war-torn galaxy, I scanned it looking for raw materials. Sadly there were none present. Only afterwards did I realize what I was doing. Causing the near-annihilation of an entire race and then looting their corpses through sheer force of habit would have been a moment that married story and gameplay perfectly.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

hundredth post!!!1!!1!ONE!!!

Huh, somehow I managed to write 100 posts. Not sure how that happened.

If I'm going to keep sharing my most intimate thoughts about games here, I feel like there's something I need to disclose. A shameful secret that I've been hiding for years.

                                 I do not like Super Mario Bros. 3.

Again and again I've seen people cite this as their favorite game, or the greatest game ever made. And it's not that I think the game is good but overrated, I genuinely do not care for it.

If you're still here and haven't gone to report me to congress or something, permit me to try and explain myself.

It all started when I was a small boy renting SNES games from the local video rental establishment. One wintry afternoon (I assume, since I grew up in Calgary) I took home a little cartrage called Super Mario All-Stars. It had versions of all the classic Super Mario titles: Super Mario Bros.; Super Mario Bros. 2 aka Doki Doki Panic; Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels aka Super Mario Bro. 2; Super Mario World; and... Super Mario Bros. 3.

I loved this collection and rented it several times. I've always had a soft spot for Mario games, what with their inviting graphics, jaunty melodies and refined gameplay, and each of the games in the collection offered something unique for my young mind to devour... except Mario 3. That one just weirded me out for some reason. I had no problem accepting Mario 2 and its odd Arabian theme, but there was something about Mario 3 that just felt wrong or off-brand somehow, like it was clearly the black sheep of the Mario family. 'Oh well,' I remember thinking, 'they can't all be home-runs.' (I guess I thought in baseball analogies back then.)

Flash forward a decade and a half, Al Gore invents the internet, and I find it scattered with people waxing nostalgic about how great Super Mario Bros. 3 was, yet I find myself looking back on it the same way I look back on my first trips to the dentist's office. So what did I miss?

With commendable optimism I grab myself a copy off of Wii Virtual Console and fire it up, eager to see what my younger counterpart missed all those years ago. 'Okay' I thought, 'the music and the graphics still don't appeal to me, but I'm mature enough to look past that now.' A few levels later I feel my enthusiasm start to fade as the game continually finds new ways to irritate me.

'Well the game's over two decades old,' I hear you say. 'Of course it's not going to hold up to modern scrutiny.' Pipe down, Strawman, I'm a retro gamer. I just played through and enjoyed Castlevania 3, and it has a couple of mechanics that are objectively awful. Dated gameplay does not faze me.

To be safe though, I went back a replayed Super Mario World, and for me the difference was like night and day. Where Mario 3 felt weird and frustrating, Mario World easily won me back with its smooth gameplay and inviting presentation. Yes Super Mario World was released later on a better system, but when you throw out claims like "best game of all time" it doesn't mean "best game ever for nine months, going by North American release date."

I've put several hours into Mario 3 now, just trying to suss out what I find so un-fun about it. My main issue stems from the fact that Mario controls sort of like a freight train and begins moving quite fast once he gets any momentum behind him. Sonic the Hedgehog has a dash attack that allows him to plow right through enemies, but Mario can only defeat enemies by landing on them, which becomes quite a bit more challenging at high velocity. Couple this with a lenient timer and the fact that the levels seem specifically designed to have stuff unexpectedly pop out and kill you, and a slow and cautious approach tends to work a whole lot better. This pretty much kills any flow since as soon as I start to do well, Mario takes off like a bat out of hell and I have to put on the brakes or risk running headlong into some minute projectile, or landing a jump two pixels in front of an enemy. The screen also seems a little reticent to show what's about to hit you.

However I think most of my irritation stems from the level design rather than mechanics themselves. Enemies always seem to be in the most awkward locations, making them difficult to avoid even when they don't catch me by surprise. I'm all for challenge in games, but where I find Super Meat Boy's levels satisfyingly frustrating in an "I can't believe I just did that" sort of way, in Mario 3 I'm usually saying "I can't believe I let that kill me!" I don't think the Meat Boy method of shortening the levels and giving me infinite lives would fix the problem, although it might have prevented a few controller-shaped dents in my wall. The airship levels are pretty rad though.

A lot of the problem is that I just can't get past the presentation. I think it's some sort of uncanny valley type thing. Titles like Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy appeal to me because, despite the things that set them apart, they somehow embody that familiar Mario-ness I've come to know and love. Titles like Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario RPG, and Yoshi's Island appeal to me because they are so wonderfully unlike anything else in the Mario-verse. But Mario 3 somehow manages to straddle the line and be just familiar-yet-different enough to make me subtly uncomfortable, like it's Hannibal Lector wearing Mario's face or something.

Ultimately, I can't make a very compelling case for my position. The controls are tight for the era, and there are no major flaws present. It's a "death by a thousand cuts" kind if thing. Mario 3 is not a bad game by any stretch, and I'm not trying to suggest that it doesn't deserves its place in gaming history, I'm merely saying that I would rather eat glass than play any more of it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Magic Cards With Googly Eyes

I don't know how this took 18 years to happen.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pac-....*blam blam blam*....-ing

It seems to be all the rage right now for AAA developers to try and ape the style of Hollywood blockbusters. Games like the Uncharted series are doing so a little more openly, but increasingly almost every big budget title seems to be taking lessons from Hollywood schlock, from the flashy setpieces to the cliché characters and dialogue.

Putting aside the question of whether videogames really ought to be aspiring to be more like Hollywood, for the most part I don't have a problem with this cross-pollination. Peter Jackson's King Kong game was a breath of fresh air, and I had a blast with Uncharted 2. I think there are many elements of blockbusters that work well in a videogame medium. Story structure is one of the things which does not.

Most good action movies follow a basic structure along these lines: You start with a big action scene to get everyone's attention and stifle their ADD; you throw in some scenes to establish the setting and characters, some action to show the heroes in their element, until things start spiraling out of control; put in a couple of quiet scenes to make the characters less one-dimensional; something goes wrong and everything seems hopeless, the heroes get mad at one another; then, when all seems lost, the protagonist gathers everyone and everything together for a final desperate stand and wins the day at the last possible second, using a nugget of wisdom he learned along the way.

Works great for a 90-120 minute move. Now try stretching that formula over an 8-12 hour game. The most ubiquitous method is to pad out the action sequences to ludicrous proportions. Most games make me feel like I'm watching a cut of Die Hard where every time McClain encounters the terrorists, he has to kill hordes of them for 45 minutes before the plot can resume. This can cause a weird disconnect where the Nathan Drake of the cutscenes is a plucky adventurer whereas the Nathan Drake of the fighting sections is a serial murderer. Another common method for addressing the problem is to make the plot so ridiculously convoluted that it takes a whole 12 hours to play out, but most games that go this route don't seem to stir sufficiently and you get lengthy clumps of repetitive action floating in a large bowl of nonsense and exposition.

Weird pacing in videogames is definitely not a new problem, but the more we've tried to mimic film conventions, the more it's begun to stand out as something that isn't working. Through their interactive nature (and sketchy Skinnerian techniques) videogame worlds can draw us in better than films can, allowing them to waste our time with hour-long fetch quests, and room after room of identical goons.

And it's our fault. Not just because we put up with it, but because we constantly criticize games for being too short, and commend them for being lengthy. When's the last time someone complained that Casablanca was too short? Do people love The Godfather because it's 3 hours long? I understand wanting to get value for your money, but I'm more concerned with getting value for my time.

Despite the success of Portal and Braid, I don't expect shorter game-length to be embraced anytime soon, so what are some ways of keeping an 8-12 hour experience from dragging? Well, the issue isn't the length itself, but the pacing. So how should a videogame be paced?

Most RPGs, particularly hefty 30+ hour RPGs, are liberally sprinkled with "sidequests," optional missions that distract from the main plot. The fact that these quests have only tangential connection to the main quest is important, because they help break up the action and flesh out the gameworld without having to increase the complexity of the main story. (In JRPGs, sidequest-like sections are often mandatory, but this isn't that important to the issue of pacing, assuming the sidequests are compelling enough that you'll do them regardless.) For the record, I find the pacing in most RPGs even worse than in action games, but the method by which a game like Persona 3 can keep you interested for 100 hours(!) is by providing an overarching plot, with lots of smaller plots strategically sprinkled throughout, similar to the way TV shows generally have an overarching plot with smaller story arcs occupying individual episodes and seasons.

In fact I would argue that TV shows could provide a much better template for videogames than films, at least in terms of pacing and storytelling. The average season of a TV show is comparable in length to the average action game, and both are written with natural stopping points in mind (episodes/levels, though in videogames there is more flexibility). Characters in action/adventure movies have to be drawn in broad strokes, because there isn't time to develop a cast of fully-realized human beings. TV and videogames don't have this restriction. Benjamin Linus (Lost) and Lex Luthor (Smallville) are well-developed and interesting villains who would both come across as completely milquetoast in a summer blockbuster.

The other suggestion I will make is to mix up gameplay better. Most games have two to four different types of activities, be they shooting, platforming, exploring, driving, macrame, etc. I nearly gave up on Mass Effect (one of my all-time favorites) when, right after the first mission, it had me wandering around talking to random NPCs on a space station for literally hours, and my housemate did give up at this point despite my assurances that it got better. It's not that wandering around talking to random NPCs is inherently a boring activity (which it is), but rather that any type of activity has a tendency to become boring after that length of time.

It's also important to recognize that "quiet bits" in action films are not automatically analogous to "quiet bits" in videogames. Having a conversation scene sandwiched between two action sequences is not the same as having a section of backtracking sandwiched in between two action sequences; In the one case, I'm getting to know the characters, in the other, I'm watching a guy walk down a series of hallways. Please embrace the jump-cut, or at least lay dialogue over the backtracking.

I recently purchased the much lauded Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as well as the much reviled Apha Protocol (which was on sale for a single dollar). Alpha Protocol has no shortage of problems: technical glitches, a broken upgrade system, an almost incomprehensible plot, dodgy AI. And yet I've currently put three times as many hours into it as I have into HuRev. Why? Because when I put a couple of hours into Alpha Protocol, I complete a few spy missions, uncover some secrets, make some friends and enemies, and buy some cool spy gear. Most of the time I've put into HuRev so far has involved wandering around talking to random NPCs.