Tag Archives: action

Bayonetta

Bayonetta is a game where the left-shoulder button, on the Xbox 360 controller, has Bayonetta striking a pose and saying:


“Do you want to touch me?

Bayonetta comes from Platinum Games, a studio formed from remnants of Clover Studio. Bayonetta is preceded by Platinum Games’ first release, MadWorld for the Wii, out in early 2009 (a day before my birthday, even). Having never played any of Clover’s games, MadWorld was my only real experience with either Clover or Platinum Games’ works and, as such, my expectations for Bayonetta going in were rock bottom. MadWorld was a vile, repetitive, and thoroughly unenjoyable game for any play session lasting beyond five-to-ten minutes. In my mind, Bayonetta‘s sole hope was the direction of Hideki Kamiya, whose fingerprints are all over numerous major Capcom titles since the late nineties. Heralded as a spiritual successor to Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, Bayonetta received an abundance of pre-release attention and a fair amount of hype as the next great Japanese action game. As an additional strike towards Bayonetta, Devil May Cry was a series I found consistently uninteresting and unenjoyable and, especially true of Devil May Cry 3 and 4 (games which Kamiya did not play a role) which failed to live up to any aspect of the far superior 3D ‘reboot’ of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series.

This is my long-winded and historically informative way of saying that, going into Bayonetta, I knew with false, presumptuous certainty that the game would not live up to my favorite action game of this console generation, Ninja Gaiden 2. This would not stop me from buying Bayonetta without so much as a single clue as to how the game played. I’m a very optimistic consumer muppet.

Bayonetta is one of the few games in the last few years that I instantly knew was brilliant. It’s a game uniformly centered on a single mechanical concept and Platinum Games designed it to support that concept in every aspect of the game. Bayonetta is a game about flow. Gameplay segments are divided into verses which are filled with snappy J-Pop soundtrack, and a protagonist whose last line before the player receives control for the first time: “As long as there’s music, I’ll keep on dancing.” Every verse is an encounter (either combat, natural disaster evasion, or on-rails vehicle segment), and the time spent traveling from verse-to-verse is minimal. From this point on, if there’s not a cut scene playing, the player is constantly involved in some task. At the end of chapters, players take part in a shooting gallery for additional items/currency. Players remain active even during loading screens, where a slick combo list responds to player input to show what combos the player can execute from any given button press onward.

Combat is paced appropriately for the energetic J-Pop background tracks which accompanies it. The emphasis is placed on combos and the stringing of combos together. Bayonetta has an expansive move list across all modes of combat for all experience levels. Button mashing works well enough, but it’s very likely that players will quickly move beyond it due solely to a simple and reliable set of core input styles. The game is quick to instruct players as to the fact that one attack button defines one type/power/speed of move (punches/hand guns or other equipped weapon), another defines another type/power/speed (kicks/leg guns), and another is always the use of guns.

No matter what combination of hands and leg attacks, the player always feels like the buttons he/she presses will yield some sort of combo. Likewise, a slight delay between any two button presses will always allow for a slightly different combo than one where those two buttons are pressed sequentially. The difference between a new player and an experienced player is familiarity with combos and the timing and what combos chain well into others for maximum verse rank/score.

Combat effectiveness in Bayonetta is more about movement and dodging than the memorization of combos. A well-timed dodge will activate “witch time,” which is a state of action in which the world and its entities slow down but the player moves and acts at standard speed. Dodging is mapped to the right-trigger button and is not the very strictly timed-out trade-off as counter maneuvers in games like Ninja Gaiden or Assassin’s Creed; numerous dodges can be strung together with ease and the timing for an effective dodge is forgiving. Whether a dodge is successful or not is more about whether or not Witch Time is activated; merely avoiding damage is, often, the sole result of a poorly-timed dodge.

Getting damaged is the result of making no attempt to react to an enemy’s attacks or, for certain enemies (namely fire enemies), attacking with close-quarters attacks outside of Witch Time. Bayonetta is not one to annoyingly punish players during active combat. A side effect of this is that, often, there is very rarely a time in the game where dodging does not help the player. The worst the game does is to momentarily take control away from the player after four unsuccessful dodge attempts.

Beyond the basic modes of combat, namely the punches, kicks, and guns attached to all primary four limbs, Bayonetta also allows for a host of play style customization via arm/leg weaponry and three optional accessories. For my first play-through of the game, I largely stuck to the aforementioned standard weapons and used my alternate equipment slot to hold a sword (which behaved strikingly and pleasingly similar to Ninja Gaiden’s Dragon Sword). When I started my Hard play-through, however, I wanted to mix things up a bit. I used a whip for my arm/hand slot and my standard pistols for my leg slots in my first equipment slot and a sword and fire/ice claw boots (which can, alternatively, be used as fire/ice claw gloves). While the specialized techniques I purchased all had unique, but similar feeling attacks across all of these forms of weaponry, the feel and flow of combat was dramatically altered. It’s truly remarkable how much work Platinum Games put into each of these weapons and their effects on standard combat and further demonstrates their commitment towards allowing players to flow through the game in a style which personally suits them. During my normal play-through and now just a brief bit into my hard play-through, I have yet to come across a combat encounter which truly demanded that I use a specific weapon type.

Bayonetta’s boss enemies are a somewhat refreshing inclusion in the genre in that, in almost every case, defeating a boss does not rely on contrived executions of actions that are overly reliant on pattern recognition. It’s very apparent what players have to do in order to efficiently tackle a boss, but in most cases the process of attacking and damaging a boss was done using standard combos and attacks. There are exceptions to this where Bayonetta has access to a more powerful arsenal of attacks which constantly employ the Wicked Weave (powerful, hair-based attacks) or run a gauntlet up to an enemy’s weak point, but these are the exception. Where the game goes wrong is in the Japanese design habit of tasking players with defeating all of these boss enemies again later in the game. Never has there been a game in existence where the re-use of boss enemies from earlier in the game strung together as a late-game challenge felt like anything other than a cheap means of extending gameplay. This technique is used, in theory, to allow the player to feel like he/she has gotten to the point of a skill where taking on these once-feared foes is now trivial, but these psychological benefits do not outweigh the tackiness necessary to actually design such late-game encounters. Nor does a player’s presence at the end of the game necessarily imply that the player ever either enjoyed the boss battle the first time around or, in the worst case, revisit frustration in a particularly nasty boss battle (which Bayonetta does almost entirely avoid in its boss encounters).

One gripe I continually revisit when playing these third-person Japanese-designed action games is the evolution of encounters as players make their way through the game. With Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and, although to a far lesser extent than either of those titles, Bayonetta I always feel like the early game encounters are generally more fun than those in the mid-to-late game. If a game’s combat system is enjoyable, needlessly complicating encounters with overly gimmicky/pattern-based enemies amidst unnecessarily “clever” level designs is showing a lack of faith in one’s own game design. If an encounter is fun for, say, thirty seconds, why throw as unnecessary complications into the mix? Fighting ninjas in Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 was always more enjoyable than fighting crazy demons much like fighting the Covenant in the Halo games was always more enjoyable than fighting the Flood. Bayonetta doesn’t succumb to any major late-game missteps in the same way as these game but, rather, for a lengthy portion of gameplay around the 70% completion mark, tosses a series of boss battles and vehicle segments at the player for the sake of pacing and “variety.” These segments were, surprisingly, never “bad,” but they were unnecessary deviations from gameplay that I by no means wanted a respite from in this game; however, on the plus side, these segments never violated the pacing and gameplay flow.

Where Bayonetta truly breaks down is when it severs its excellent gameplay flow and pacing with unnecessary, poorly-placed, and surprisingly lengthy cut scenes. The story is at best entertaining and sometimes cute, but more often it is incredibly repetitive and slow with the information it provides players. There were numerous times where the cinematic director wants to remind players that Bayonetta is a cool, sexy, and incredibly talented protagonist who can execute insanely well-timed combat maneuvers with ease. In order to achieve this goal, the player watched scenes which extends upwards of one to two minutes straight where Bayonetta does nothing but kill enemies in cool/sexy ways. While this worked stylistically in the introductory cut scene, it quickly becomes grating as its quantity exceeds one cut scene. These could be forgiven, though, if the game didn’t pair such scenes with plot scenes which continually touched on the same three or four plot points over and over again. The insanity and quirkiness of the Bayonetta plot is endearing and well-fitting the universe and tone of the game, but the gameplay does not only disallow such gruelingly lengthy cut scenes but also discourages breaks in game flow in general.

Much has been made of the hyper-sexualized image and form of Bayonetta. Platinum Games is unabashed in their glorification of the female forms they have constructed. As far as I’m concerned, the prominence of the primarily-naked and suggestive Bayonetta imagery throughout the game does nothing if not support everything Platinum Games has constructed. Bayonetta is clearly a game designed by a male development team, but at no point do I feel that it was chauvinistic or demeaning. If anything, Bayonetta is a game which feels like it was developed by a team who is comfortable with the sexuality present in the game and in using that as a driving for for their protagonist rather than a marketing team. Platinum Games understands that their leading lady is as fictional and fantastical as the universe she exists within. For more along these lines, read: “Her Sex is a Weapon”, “Bayonetta”, and “If You Run Out of Ammo You Can Have Mine”.

I’m planning now to revisit Bayonetta a playthrough or two down the line when I have a more full grasp of the game’s various modes of combat and the items which the game didn’t seem to fully intend me to possess on my initial play-through. For now, Bayonetta is a one-of-a-kind action game with a superb execution of its paramount design tenet of fluidity.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is one of those games that does pretty much everything right. It doesn’t take a lot of chances as far as its subject matter or game design go, but developer Naughty Dog nailed all of its elements so well that it’s nigh-impossible not to enjoy it as a whole. It’s one of the few video games in existence that absolutely nails its tone, writing, voice-acting, character interplay, and cut scenes. The core gameplay — the shooty-shooty and the general character movement — feel fantastic. Uncharted is also, as is necessary to say when talking about it, an incredibly impressive looking game that actually employs the full color spectrum (bright colors!) to display the gorgeous vistas the characters visit as they travel from venue to venue.

And, you know, sometimes it’s great to play a game where everything came together beautifully. That’s not to say it’s without faults, of course, as there is the dirty little secret the game harbors. There’s also the poorly-integrated final sequence leading up to a giant quick-time event against a final boss that was treated as an entirely secondary character for the game’s duration. Unfortunately, both of these blemishes occur near the end of Uncharted. And like any bad ending, it’s easy for these flaws to taint one’s thoughts on the game as a whole as they did with me after my first play-through of the game.

One of the design tenets I hold near and dear in all of my work is that every action a player engages in throughout the course of the game has to feel good and every risk needs to be coupled with a reward. The primary reason that I’ve come back to Uncharted again (hard mode play-through) and again (crushing mode play-through, currently underway) is, in large part, a result of how consistently enjoyable and rewarding the game’s core gameplay remains regardless of what context it’s experienced in.

The first component of Uncharted that’s immediately apparent is the quality of the writing, voice acting, and general character interplay. In the initial scene, the character personalities on display are energetic, charismatic, and constantly bantering back and forth both in the initial cut scene as well as the gameplay that follows. The chemistry shared between Uncharted’s two leads, Nathan Drake (voiced by game industry’s plucky voice actor of choice Nolan North) and Elena Fisher (voiced by the gorgeous Emily Rose), is a rarity in video games. The two carry the game’s script on their shoulders and make the cut scenes that fill the game actual rewards instead of an exercise in pain tolerance. Nolan North’s performance of Nathan Drake is especially notable, as Uncharted is constantly feeding one-liners throughout typical gameplay which provide feedback for head shots, the presence of an absurd amounts of enemies, general contextual flavor, and appropriate dismay and disbelief at the acknowledgment of the insane acrobats required of the player/character. None of the cut scenes or dialogue have any tangible effect on the actual gameplay, but their presence and execution enhance the experience and atmosphere and, therefore, enhance the player’s perception of what he/she is doing in-game.

Uncharted’s ability to capitalize on The Indiana Jones Factor is the next pillar of its success. Given that the Playstation 3’s primary demographic is an average of twenty-eight years old, the presence of Indiana Jones in Generation Y’s collective childhood should not be understated. There isn’t a single guy around my age that I’ve met that wasn’t able to wax lyrical about the role Indiana Jones had on male childhood development. Uncharted takes the criminally underused power fantasy of tomb exploration/archaeology and puts it front and center as it casts players as a plucky, energetic protagonist following his hereditary history through tombs, jungles, traps, and the ruins of forgotten civilizations. The game captures this entire setting and tone with ease in ways that Tomb Raider was never able to do by setting up the exploratory and puzzle-solving gameplay in a way that was fun to play through while rarely being a source of frustration. Much like Infamous (released a couple of years after Uncharted), Nathan Drake jumps from ledge to ledge and platform to platform using a contextually smart control scheme that “highlights” actions for the player and displays safe jumps/transitions naturally by utilizing Nathan Drake’s own body as a sign to the player that the character feels the action is safe. When Nathan Drake feels he can jump from a ledge he’s hanging on to a nearby cliff, he will put out his hand in that direction, and the player simply has to hit jump (while holding the stick in the appropriate direction). It’s a control technique that rarely fails and, as such, allows players to execute slick maneuvers through complicated levels easily and maintain the illusion that they are, basically, as badass like Indiana.

As additional testament to the thoroughness of Uncharted’s personality: Nathan never executes these maneuvers with complete confidence; there is always a “whoa!” or “you have got to be kidding me” or an animation that indicates that he’s struggling to hang on to something. This is both an endearing quality to players as well as further emulation of the Indiana Jones method of progression.

More than anything else, Uncharted is an action game. It utilizes exploration and cut scenes as a way of pacing progression through the game, but more often than not the player is tasked with eliminating bad guys. The heart of Uncharted’s combat is heavily inspired by by the Gears of War cover-heavy gameplay. Nathan can take a few hits, but unlike Batman, he can’t run up to a group of enemies and take them all on in simultaneous free-flowing melee combat. Engaging more than one enemy at a time in melee combat is suicide. Even engaging a single enemy in melee combat is a risky encounter unless Nathan has a tactical upper-hand on him.

As such, cover is the lifeblood of the Uncharted encounter system; gameplay spaces are composed of a mix of cover: crouching, standing, standing/crouching partial cover, and standing/crouching destructible cover. Players are, by design of the space alone, encouraged to be continuously moving through an encounter space as they work on taking out enemies. The game recognized that the typical player will find a single good cover spot and methodically take out enemies rather than utilize the entirety of a battlefield, so the game takes two approaches to managing this. The first is that Uncharted’s AI will aggressively roam the encounter space to attempt to gain the upper hand on the player (including the use of elevation for a height advantage on crouching cover). The second is that the maximum amount of ammunition that the player can keep is kept relatively low compared to the amount of possible damage that enemies can take. These factors work in tandem to make an encounter as dynamic as possible despite the presence of any truly battlefield-altering gameplay features aside from the destructible cover, but the majority of an encounter’s cover is static (though the destructible cover is generally the “ideal” cover).

Players generally don’t have a choice as to how they approach encounters; only about a dozen scenarios have active, unaware enemies as the player approaches. That’s okay, though, because the game’s weapon arsenal is surprisingly deep and balanced. Each weapon is powerful and generally allows players to use whatever weapons best suit their play style; however, players are limited to holding one primary weapon (assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc.), one secondary weapon (pistols and sub-machine guns), and grenades. Something that continually impresses me about Uncharted is how each weapon feels enjoyable to use. They are powerful, have the right amount of controller vibration, and have hefty sound effects — once again going back to Uncharted’s all-around solid execution of all of its elements. The player also has three melee attacks to use: a five-hit combo that is fatal but requires a fair amount of time to fully execute, a three-hit “brutal combo” that is risky and timing-dependent, and a single-hit stealth kill (relies on enemies being in an unaware state). Melee combat is often a dangerous endeavor, though, so these attacks are used sparingly.

One of my favorite design flourishes in the game is that the proper execution of the “brutal combo” rewards the player with twice the normal amount of ammunition dropped by the deceased enemy. This is a completely great way of presenting additional situational risk with an appropriate reward.

Unlike the awkward juxtaposition between the narrative character and the gameplay character’s approach to violence in Grand Theft Auto, the violence in Uncharted is always a recognized factor in the story and in the gameplay, but that creates its own sets of problems. There are a few moments when the story takes a dark turn or Nathan Drake gets angry and serious about protecting Elena (this happens relatively early in the story), but for the most part the main three characters in Uncharted are a playfully snarky, energetic, and cheerful bunch. These are the same characters that are, quite literally, slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds of enemies and then joking about it in cut scenes. This is nothing new for video games, but there are occasions where it has struck me as odd.

Uncharted is just one of those rare games that is exceedingly well-executed across the board. Naughty Dog’s thoroughness in carrying the personality and character of Nathan Drake through every aspect of the game while always focusing on the player’s experience is evident throughout the game. It’s a game where every segment feels like it belongs (even my typically-loathed vehicle segments), every weapon feels like a weapon should, and the game as a whole comes across as a cohesive experience.

Game Design Round Table 0: No More Health

Over the last couple of months I’ve been nurturing an idea to hold a sort of casual attempt at a game design round table where I (or another organizer) would present a topic (and some basic information and potential arguments) to a group of independent or professional game designers. Everyone involved would then be let loose to sound off on their opinions on the topic at hand, argue with each other, and so on. The goal was to provide a format and location that would encourage designers to discuss topics in game design intelligently and thoroughly throughout the duration of the seven weeks that the topic is left open. Once the seven days of discussion were finished, the person who initiated the event would both write a piece which compiled original thoughts and combined them with arguments and perspectives of everyone who contributed to the discussion. Originally, I was planning on doing this by setting up a mailing list and slowly getting more and more people involved but then I realized that the Game Design forum at GameDev.net would be a near-perfect locale for this. With this in mind, I started up the first attempt at the Game Design Round Table (it’s a metaphorical table) entitled No More Health.

Round Table Topic — Regenerative Health
Regenerative health systems are actually a pretty simple one that have radically changed the way that first-person shooters and a number of third-person action games are played. The idea behind regenerative health is that players can take a finite amount of damage in a short span of time before they are sent into a “dying state” — which is typically indicated by a pulsating red screen — and if they take more damage beyond that then they will die. If a player does not take any more damage when they are in a dying state, though, and instead seek cover and avoid enemy confrontation and fire, they will slowly return back to their normal state. The concept of player health is now entirely dynamic and up to player interpretation via some sort of interface cue, red tinge, or other full-screen indicator. The effect of this mechanic is that it abstracts the older method of requiring players to manage their health and pick-ups, something that most players inherently understand (mortality), into a very streamlined and intuitive experience.

GiantBomb has the first occurrence of regenerative health in Wolverine Adamantium Rage (Genesis, SNES; 1994). The mechanic’s first mainstream appearance, though, was in its devolved form in Halo (Xbox; 2001) which had fully rechargeable shields which absorbed most of the player’s damage. Once the shields were out of energy, though, Halo still relied on a more traditional health system which included requiring players to find health pick-ups. Halo 2 took this concept a step further with a fully regenerative health system, tasking the player with only managing the ammo and type of his/her weapons. The net result of the widespread adoption (in games like Resistance 2, Killzone 2, Call of Duty 2-4, and so on) of this mechanic into modern action games of all types is that players are no longer thinking of their health some arbitrary number or percentage in the middle of a heated combat encounter.

Does this mechanic simplify action games in a good way? Is the reduction in manageable resources a boon or detriment to players? Are the hit-and-run (to cover) tactics that regenerative health systems not only encourage but often demand beneficial to most of the games that this mechanic is employed in?

No More Health
A health bar is one of the most iconic interface features in the history of video games. Children of the 1980s to the early 1990s have that grown up with a concept of health as being integral to their gaming experiences. For those of us with that gaming history, unless a game designer attempts to trick us, we know what a red bar on user interface means or what a numerical value next to a cross or heart or similar icon represents. That interface feature tells gamers one thing: how safe they are. A low health value or a slim portion of a life bar means that a player is going to play things as carefully as he/she can; no chances taken means that a player can reach his destination, doing something brave or stupid means that a player has little to no chance of surviving a given stretch of gameplay. A full health bar gives a player the sense that they’re safe, they can screw around — maybe get a little explosion happy — and still have room to breathe.

The concept of the health bar is one that the “core gamers” — the kinds of video game players that have been around for years — all understand perfectly, but the attempt to concretely display an abstract concept isn’t a particularly elegant solution for conveying player stability and well-being. And along those lines, the necessity to replenish a health bar yields some realism-breaking gameplay conventions: floating health supplements (medicine packs, wall-mounted rejuvenation centers, etc.) that games generally have players walk over to either be added to an inventory or be instantaneously consumed for additional health. Putting aside for a moment the lack of realism inherent to this gameplay practice, such a system also tasks a player with an additional layer of resource management. This is typically an additional resource to whatever weapons, ammunition, and other items that a player has in action games, though as Aaron Miller points out this is not necessarily a bad thing:

The search for health can be a very interesting diversion in an FPS. It can flavor encounters, making some situations more desperate or requiring stealth or diversionary tactics. It can also, as it was in Doom, be a source of meta gameplay in and of itself, requiring players to risk environmental hazards or rewarding them for quirky exploration.

And as Jason Adams adds this can create for a sort of exigent mid-combat tactic on its own:

[...] a system with health pickups can lead to interesting situations where a player makes a mad, basically suicidal run into a group of enemies with the goal of reaching a health pickup just before death, or where a weakened player can be tempted into navigating difficult environmental obstacles.

While both of these points are absolutely valid reasons to adhere to the more time-tested approach of a concrete health-based method of conveying player well-being and sustainability, are any of the aforementioned points actually necessary? While the presence of in-world health gives players a reason to move about the battlefield when they are near a death state — which is an inherently tense gameplay scenario — the same behavior can be demanded of a player through weapon and ammunition scarcity and management. More than just the management of health, though, a concrete health system enforces a certain type of play style, one of which is that of a strategy of long-term survival as gxaxhx points out:

However, in a game were resource management is part of the experience, I believe regenerating health would be a detriment. Imagine if Left 4 Dead used the health generating mechanic. Most likely the zombies and special infected would have to hit much harder to be any threat to the players. So, rather than experiencing maps where the players literally limp across the finish line, pleased with the way they managed to pull through as a group, most maps would be either the players getting shredded by the infected or flying through the map with no problem.

While specifically referring to the style of gameplay that a non-regenerative health mechanic promotes or enforces, gxaxhx’s argument actually goes back to the treatment of health like an in-game resource. So long as health is a player-managed resource, the player’s actions and carefulness, based on current game events, will be directly related to the scarcity of health in the game world.

If a concrete, or non-regenerative, health system is some form of resource management, then a regenerative health mechanic is a means of enforcing certain player behaviors and game flow. As Josh Petrie says it:

[Regenerative health systems] almost necessarily cause gameplay to be sliced up into reasonably short, controlled encounters of at least some minimum intensity. A regenerative health system basically gives the player a damage threshold: get through an encounter under this threshold, you live and can move on to the next encounter. Otherwise you die. Killing the player is accomplished by overloading this threshold in a short period of time, which means you can’t build suspense in the player via prolonged needling little encounters that keep them at low health [...].

KnTenshi argues the drawbacks of such a system:

You’re in the middle of a skirmish with a group of enemies. You are blasting away at them as they quickly bring your down to the ‘dying’ stage. You dive for cover and a few moments are back to full health. You now return to the blasting away part and them subsequently returning you to near death. This cycle continues until either all of the enemy are dead or a lucky shot from the enemy drops you to 0. There isn’t much suspense unless you willingly run into the midst of the enemy. [...] For me, if a game designer wants to implement a regenerating health bar, it should a a [sic] large chunk of time to fully recharge. Using a slow health regen, enemies are more likely to start hunting you down rather than just using suppression fire, which would increase the pressure for the player to do more than just pop in and out of a hiding place.

And Luke Parkes-Haskell writes a superb post that begins with praise about regenerative health systems while bringing up what he feels are complications when the system is carried over into the competitive arena:

Personally, I feel that the system has it’s merits. In a game that warrants quick encounters with equally matched opponents (e.g Call of Duty 4 multiplayer), wherein the player has the potential to be eliminated reasonably quickly, giving the player the ability to regain their health prevents them from suffering immediate game-impacting permanent health loss if they are glanced early after spawning – and thus they are also not immediately forced to predictably move to locate health pickups. It serves in some respect to assist in leveling the playing area in an often sprawling, maze like arena, and prevents lucky or random shots from killing outright, but with a lower player health, a misjudgment or tactical error can easily lead to death.

[...] However, such a system certainly has no place in some competitive arenas. Consider Unreal Tournament 2004, and the common one-on-one death match. Ultimately, a regenerative health system could only detract from the nature of the game. Experienced and veteran players are very much familiar with the strategic and tactical nature of determining one’s path through the chosen environment, denoting that damage and health critical pickups are only available at certain intervals. Failure to adopt an appropriate means to control these power-up points and deny them to the opponent is a very prominent emphasis in what would otherwise be a much more bland and imbalanced game; since otherwise the player could not be encouraged to move; since they can find a suitably strong position to sit in, and remain within it, given that they are able to always regenerate their health. Without the ability, they can occupy this position, but will be forced to abandon it should they take damage – and in the case of many a good level design, health pickups are in the more vulnerable and frequently passed through areas of the map.

My favorite contribution to the thread comes from Drew Marlowe (a designer on Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, Mercenaries 2, among others):

I think that regenerative health systems are definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to simulating firefights in action games. This is because in many circumstances those systems are fantastic at simulating the real life feeling of being fired AT but not being hit which makes up the majority of 20th and 21st century combat. [...] In a real firefight (disclaimer – I’ve never been in a real firefight) many more bullets are fired into walls, the ground, the air than actually hit a target. The oft quoted statistic is that in the current US wars the US is firing a quarter of a million bullets for every insurgent they kill. All these bullets are getting fired in order to scare the shit out of the targets, and get them to not move or fire back while the US figures out how to safely kill them. It usually works because getting shot at is FUCKING SCARY. They also fire so many bullets because it is really REALLY hard to shoot someone. If you’ve ever shot a gun, you know that it’s a little bit harder in real life than it is in games to get an accurate head shot at 50 yards.

However, getting shot at (not hit) in a game is a non-issue. It doesn’t really phase most gamers because it’s just a game. With their music up, they may not even know that a bullet just zipped over their head. It doesn’t feel scary because you’re not punished for almost getting hit. So how can a game properly simulate the feeling of getting shot at, of needing to be behind cover, that makes first and third person shooters look and feel realistic? You can do it by make it a lot easier for the bad guys to hit the player, but allowing the player to respond to getting shot without a long term punishment. Against 5 or 6 enemies the player will stick his head out of cover but quickly be overwhelmed at the volume of fire and duck back down – not because he was afraid of the amount of bullets being shot at him, but because his health was getting low due to being hit.

The concept of a player experiencing and understanding the distinction between the danger of shot at compared to the consequences of being shot is fascinating. The influence that a game’s health system can have on such an experience is arguable, but the benefits of allowing players to experience a sort of “warning shot” that does enough damage to cause some visual/interface/post-processor effect but doesn’t incur any long-term damage (that would be almost inherent to a more concrete health system) seem worth looking into (in theory, if not practice). Drew goes on to illuminate one of the most notable difficulties of simulating such a experience by saying:

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is extremely difficult to communicate to the player exactly what circumstances will cause him to be shot. If I stick my head up will I have 3 seconds to fire, or will I be shot immediately? If I am shot immediately, does that mean I am never allowed to poke my head up at that spot, or is it just the randomness of the AI’s fire that caused the shot to land so quickly? The player has no idea, and because he needs to find a health pack every time he makes a mistake he is discouraged from experimenting in order to find out more about the combat systems.

Stroppy Katamari went back to the days of Action Quake to illustrate the benefits of a sort of hybrid health system that merges some aspects of a concrete health system with those of a regenerative one:

Action Quake, an older NRH game which everyone interested in FPS game design should check out, has a bleeding/crippling/bandage system which could easily be adapted to a RH game. When you are shot (anywhere but on armor), even a very minor hit like 5hp from grenade shrapnel, you start continuously bleeding health – slow or fast depending on how serious the initial wound was. To stop the bleed, you must bandage yourself. This takes several seconds, cannot be cancelled and leaves you defenseless. So there is an awesome trade-off and mindgame that follows from one player being wounded; they have to bandage, eventually, and if you catch them at that moment you win. But they know this, so they can wait (and bleed) long enough to ambush the other player following their blood spatter tracks, and then bandage. There is also a leg damage mechanic which cuts the runspeed to half or so when you recieve a hit to the legs, also curable by bandaging. This makes for viable tactics like taking one fast shot at the enemy at long range, inflicting the bleed and leg damage, and then stalk the slow, bleeding enemy while staying out of sight. You can even use a shotgun for this as the initial shot only needs to hit the legs, not do real damage. [...] You could do regenerating health the same way, requiring the player to go defenseless for a while, etc.

As a number of the people who contributed to this first attempt at this kind of project and discussion noted, the usefulness and enjoyment that can be derived from a given system are entirely dependent on the specific game which employs it. This is, of course, an incredibly valid point, but one I’d like to encourage further round tables to worry less about. The goal of these discussions is to attempt to get developers and designers to communicate with each other about certain issues in game design; this requires a knowledge of gaming trends, for one, but more importantly it requires designers to make intelligent arguments with one another. Making an argument isn’t as simple as posting a quote from a famous designer or citing an excellent game which had a certain design but, rather, making an argument and supporting it with a combinational of practical examples/experiences and general theory. A discussion about games is generally impossible to boil down to pure empirical data and concrete facts, so I would encourage contributions to think a bit about their own arguments and, if necessary, feel free to generalize into theory rather than relying on an obvious fact like “this all depends on implementation” or “this only works in this specific game.” There are lessons that can be extracted from specific examples and that’s, ideally, what I’d like to have people take from their discussions with one another in the future.

There is no correct way of handling the concept of a player’s life and longevity in a video game; there is no genre in which this is more true than in the fast-paced action of a typical first-person shooter (or a similarly-designed third-person action game like Gears of War). The varying means by which shooters achieve intensity and encourage players to adopt certain play styles is, in a lot of ways, entirely dependent on the way it handles its health system. As a number of the discussions and points made throughout the round table discussion illustrate, there are benefits to both an abstract health system where a player’s life is largely up to his interpretation of interface/screen cues (regenerative health) and that of a more traditional, concrete health system that relies on life bars, numerical values, and in-world health replenishment. There were some absolutely great contributions to this sort of test run of the Game Design Round Table — a name which I admit sounds incredibly pompous and pretentious but I think reflects the goals of the discussion pretty well. Before I wrap up, though, I want to point to a post made by Nick Halme which I couldn’t figure out a way to integrate into this article but, also, made a number of very poignant design points through Halme’s own past design project.

The next Game Design Round Table will be posted to the GameDev.net Round Table, with some revised guidelines, on Tuesday, April 21st. If anyone has comments regarding my first attempt at handling this whole thing that they want to direct personally to me, feel free to e-mail me trentp@gmail.com. I plan on doing this every two weeks (this may turn to three, as preparing this took a decent chunk of time) with the first week being a discussion of the posted topic and the second week being the eventual posting and discussion of the aggregate/argumentative article written by whoever organized the current topic. I’ll probably keep doing this for a few more times and refine the guidelines and eventual article format as I go along, but if anyone would be potentially interested in spearheading a later iteration of this feel free to e-mail me.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this, the discussion was great, and I’m sorry if I couldn’t work every post into this piece.

For anyone that wants to contribute to further discussion for this piece (casual comments can be kept here), I recommend visiting this post’s entry at GameDev.net.

Games of 2008: Ninja Gaiden 2

It’s easy to be disgusted by a game like Ninja Gaiden 2. Team Ninja’s (now former) director, Tomonobu Itagaki, makes no pretense for a fair display of gender differences. The game makes no attempt to convey an intelligent and thought-provoking story through its occasional and concise cut scenes. And the game makes no attempt to further the integrity of video gaming as a medium. Within the first five minutes of the game a player is treated to pints of blood being splattered across the entirety of a given level and inhumanly large and buoyant breasts are barely stuffed behind a skimpy leather top attached to a CIA agent in an equally revealing miniskirt.

Unlike Grasshopper Manufacture’s No More Heroes, no aspect of Ninja Gaiden 2 is designed to subvert and exploit the expectations of the medium or the desires of young teenage males. Ninja Gaiden 2 is what it is and, really, not much more. It is, through and through, an action-focused video game.

And as an action game, Ninja Gaiden 2 is the absolute best in its class for one primary reason: the game places the entirety of Ryu Hayabusa’s behavior into the hands of the player. There are no quick-time events, there are no platforming segments where a player solely has to keep the joystick pressed forward to successfully progress, and at no point is there an AI-controlled ally character who exists to help the player along. The closest the game comes to taking away direct control from the player is when Ryu is “obliterating” an enemy foe who is in a state of near-death and operating in a kamikaze fighter. During these segments a five-to-ten second animation players where Ryu will absolutely decimate an enemy’s body, thus preventing this enemy from ever troubling the player again throughout a combat encounter. These segments, as automated as they are, serve as the only moments of respite in combat and, on harder difficulties, are used as a strategic period of invulnerability against, say, a group of enemies volleying rockets into the air through their rapid-fire launchers.

The endless combat encounters are the lifeblood of Ninja Gaiden 2 and are composed with a caliber of depth more like a fighting game than a third-person action romp — no surprise given Team Ninja’s work on the Dead or Alive games. Combat is fast and relentless, requiring a player to make snap decisions about whether to guard, counter, evade, attack, obliterate, switch weapons, use magic, or run away to a safer location (long-range rapid-fire rocket launching ninjas are frequent, especially on the hardest difficulty modes) in order to continue fighting. What’s more, there is a great deal of complexity attached to the functionality of every single one of the game’s nine melee weapons. As expected, each weapon has its own “move list” that is unlocked as a player’s upgrades a given weapon as he/she progresses through the game. What’s remarkable is how profoundly different combat becomes when switching from weapon to weapon. With the Dragon Blade (Ryu Hayabusa’s initial weapon, a single sword) combat is fast and frantic with a variety of employable strategies from short to long range to an entire arsenal of in-air maneuvers. A set of boots/claws will make combat even more fast-paced as a player is required to engage solely in close-range and execute combos quickly, evading, and then targeting another opponent. And so on.

It’s on the harder difficulties, the ones where a player is required to beat the game on the hardest-available difficulty before unlocking, that Ninja Gaiden 2 becomes an effort in tightly-controlled action. The button-mashing, lucky counters, and accidental evasions will no longer suffice on these unlocked difficulties. Nor, really, can a player simply choose his favorite weapon and eventually overcome all foes. On these difficulty levels, Ninja Gaiden 2 becomes the kind of success-through-repetition/mastery/memorization that Bizarre Creation’s The Club was attempting to achieve: a racing game-like dedication to figuring out enemy patterns and the kinds of actions which don’t work in certain enemy group configurations. And it’s Ninja Gaiden 2’s decision to make this type of gameplay strategy a requirement for the unlockable difficulty modes which allows it to work well.

Ninja Gaiden 2 wasn’t released to the same kind of critical fanfare that its predecessor was which strikes me as unfortunate. It doesn’t take any radical chances as a sequel but, rather, it simply fixes some of the game-ruining issues and adds in more of “what worked.” The level design is streamlined to both prevent confusion over how to progress and to limit the number of times a player is forced to backtrack and explore, both of which were ill-fitting aspects of the original game which ruined its pacing. Ninja Gaiden 2 also focuses far more on humanoid enemies and uses the “fiends” sparingly and befitting in-game situations.

Most of all, Ninja Gaiden 2 embraces its status as a video game, and a linear one at that. It eschews the common trends of the medium in a year where “games as art” is a popular topic and grit and seriousness are the preferred tone. Instead, Ninja Gaiden 2 goes the route of the lone ninja of gaming’s past killing thousands of other ninjas and mutants in the most absurd ways possible. And, sometimes, that’s all a great action-focused game needs to be.

But, seriously, stop with absurd breasts and the inane physics calculations being applied to them.

Dead Space

On paper, Dead Space is a game where a voiceless protagonist fights aliens aboard a gigantic space ship whose crew has been ruthlessly slaughtered. In practice, though, Dead Space’s existence is a fresh entry in the action/horror genre that justifies its existence from the introductory sequence to its movie-caliber conclusion. Every chapter is more violent and horrific than its predecessor while, at the same time, it demonstrates a more comfortable new franchise that excels when its vacuum, zero-gravity, limb-severing gameplay mechanics feel comfortable enough to all combine into a single antechamber. It may start off a bit slow, but once it gets going, the team at EA Redwood demonstrates their deep understanding of their own game.

Dead Space has a very deliberate pacing that helps deliver its consistent feeling of impending doom that makes the action within the game have a fairly prescient meaning. It’s a horror game whose scares don’t rely on cheap startling tactics (or if it attempted them, they don’t work), but rather its ability to make players approach every corridor and room as if they were bombs that could explode at any moment. At no point in the twelve hours it took me to play through Dead Space did the laundry list of objectives given to my voiceless character feel like chores.

Dead Space tells its story through a series of audio and text logs and a handful of interactions. It makes its narrative seem as a pretext for violence early on while it grows slowly through each chapter until, suddenly, it becomes a legitimately entertaining and interesting tale that doesn’t rely on cheap plot devices or a tangled web of twists until it feels it’s earned the right to drop a bombshell or two.

Most importantly, Dead Space carves a niche that only it can fill. It’s neither Resident Evil 4, DOOM 3, nor System Shock 2; it takes its influences and makes them its own.