Tag Archives: Game Design

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SUPERCHROMA: A New Beginning

When I finished SPACE COLORS, I was pretty much immediately all ready to make its sequel. While a lot of my influences for the game were games like Armada and Subspace, the game I actually ended up creating in SPACE COLORS was far more minimalistic in every sense. It was a different game from those that were my influences, and that was very intentional. I wanted to establish a tone, style, feel, inner loop, and touch interface that I was happy with and, with SPACE COLORS, I (more-or-less) did all of that.

I wanted to be able to step away from the game for a while, so in the interim I worked on work projects (like the recently-released Loot Raiders and other secret projects) and a separate side-project (Gravity Blot). But as I thought about doing a third shmup game, which I definitely wanted to do, I tried out a bunch of prototypes and couldn’t find anything that I was happy with. And then the idea of SPACE COLORS 2 came to mind, and from there on out it was just figuring what that game could be.

I decided I didn’t want to just make a sequel to the game. That didn’t seem necessary at all. If I wanted to add more to SPACE COLORS, then I could just release a new version on the App Store to the surprising number of people who bought the game and have that new content out there immediately.

But, as it tends to do, my mind went back to Armada and Subspace and I decided that I should pursue actually making a game that could be a worthy follow-up to those games. To my knowledge, no one else out there is making something like that — which is sad on its own accord — so, hey, why not me?

So, SPACE COLORS 2 will be an open-world action/RPG. It won’t have any of the rogue-like design that SPACE COLORS was built around, nor will it have the absolute gameplay minimalism. It’s going to be a big world divided into multiple different sectors, with each sector having its own unique look, feel, and enemy set. These sectors will also be fixed. The north-east sector closest to the player’s starting base will always be, say, the Imperial faction’s sector.  That’s not to say that the universe is going to be pre-designed and static whatsoever — the game still is going to revolve around a randomly-generated universe, but the universe is just going to be divided into these consistent sectors. And, of course, the further you get from the origin (the player’s base), the more difficult, more numerous, and more complex the enemies will become. And if you die, you don’t start from scratch, you’re just returned to your home base — though, likely at some kind of a loss or maybe a Dark Souls-esque reason to go back and retrieve your cargo. But this is me just rambling about could-bes and what-ifs at this point.

One thing I want to put an emphasis on is procedural loot generation and being able to customize your ship. I don’t know how far I’ll be able to take the actual visual customization, but I do plan on complete functional customization. Which is what I’m primarily working on this weekend (the feature screen is the first time the game is working with the new game code/backend).

There will also be a ship-doll:

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 11.39.13 PMThis is, obviously, a super early and work-in-progress paper doll, but it is functional, which is my goal throughout development: to keep the game constantly functional and playable. I did that with SPACE COLORS and while it led me to frequently get distracted with new things to fix, I think it led to a better game.

Now, unlike SPACE COLORS, I do plan on this game being free-to-play. I’m going to make it the best free-to-play game I possibly can but, primarily, I just want to make sure that this kind of game is open to as vast and wide an audience as it possibly can be, because I want this kind of game to catch on. I would love shameless clones of an action/shmup/rpg/open-world game cluttering the app store (after SC2 comes out, of course). That is like a dream world to me.

I’m also planning on a small-scale multiplayer arena mode.

All of this is to say that it’s my biggest side-project that I’ve undertaken in a long time. I think it will be pretty great, though. And there’s also a 99% chance that the game will be called SUPERCHROMA (name suggestion courtesy of my friend Josh Sutphin).

So, with that, the first screen of SUPERCHROMA:

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Enigmo: Explore

Me and Chance Ivey wrote a bit about the development/release of the recently-released Team Chaos zen-inducing physics puzzler, Enigmo: Explore, on game industry site Gamasutra.

When given the opportunity to work on the Enigmo franchise, we all had a small moment of personal joy, as the game has always been special to us. I recall Enigmo being my very first phone game purchase, and how much it reminded me of an extremely important game from my childhood – The Incredible Machine. With simple controls and goals, both puzzle and dexterity elements to each level, I loved everything about this game.

There’s something magical about those “old-school” puzzle games; The Incredible Machine empowered its players with something that’s been lost over time: the play-in-the-sandbox feeling. It would provide you with a puzzle, a variety of tools, and then you, are the player, were on your own to figure out how on earth you were supposed to solve the puzzle at hand given a seemingly impossible set of items with which to solve it. Enigmo was the same way; you had a puzzle in front of your face, you had your toolset, and beyond that… You have your brain.

And, as it turns out, your brain isn’t quite as trustworthy a puzzle-solving tool as you’d like to think it is. Games like The Incredible Machine and Enigmo had this way of intensely focusing your puzzle-solving efforts in one direction — thinking that’s the direction that you had to go in order to solve the puzzle at hand. When, really, one small course correction along the way would have solved the puzzle in half the time, with half the brainpower, and reassured you, as the player, that your spot in MENSA was still there waiting for you. It’s a magical quality of these types of puzzle games; no guiding hands, just the reassurance that the puzzle in front of your eyeballs can be solved. Even if you weren’t sure how.

We’re eagerly awaiting the v1.1 patch which will single-handedly remove the most-despised feature that managed to slip into our v1.0 launch: the time-dependent one star level completion.

And, beyond all that, I’ve also got a whole new game — the first that I’ve fully designed and developed on my own (in collaboration with a particularly talented Chaotic Moon Studios illustrator, Alan Defibaugh) — coming to iOS real, real soon that I’m excited to share about.

Starhawk

As of tomorrow, May 8th, 2012, you’ll all be able to buy your own copies of Starhawk! I think you should do this.

Starhawk!

I’ve been working Starhawk since I left Stardock almost three years ago and moved out to Utah (and then to Austin). It’s been weird to freely talk about the game at all, but it’s even weirder to see the game in stores, ads, and the fact that people are a mere fourteen hours away from buying it and playing it themselves.

My focus on the game has primarily been mission design/implementation, cut scene design, inner loop tuning/balancing, and writing a whole lot of LUA script for our missions, tools, and other systems. All things considered, I ended up working pretty heavily on five of the missions in the campaign. I also ended up doing a final (and in some case, last) pass of refinement/camera movements/scripted sequences throughout every mission in the campaign in the final weeks of development. It’s been a great project and we’re all super proud of it and hope y’all buy at least a few thousand copies per-person in your family.

More importantly, though, is that I think our team here at LightBox Interactive has accomplished truly impressive and my coworkers are all totally ace.

Low-Level Systems

In my absence from writing and independently making games, I’ve been doing my best to play as many as varied games as I can get my hands on. The game combination which has specifically spurred this set of pieces (and it is a set) is: F.3.A.R. (henceforth entitled ffthrir), Shadows of the Damned, Bioshock 2 (“Minerva’s Den”), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, DiRT 3, Tactics Ogre, Trenched, Outlands, Gods Eater Burst, and Dead Rising 2. I’m also in the process of adding Fallout: New Vegas to the mix. Also Starhawk, but I’m making that once so I’ll omit it from discussion. None of these games have much (if anything) in common other than as a set indicating that I both play entirely too many games and play entirely too many games at once. One game in particular prompted the thought exercise that led to this series: ffthrir.

A F.E.A.R. 3 Analysis

ffthrir is such a strange game. If someone was to take a cold and impartiel view of ffthrir, I wonder if that person would find what is simply a largely competent and uninspired first-person shooter (a very crowded genre). What I found when playing ffthrir, however, was a game which appeared to not have the significant budget or AAA polish of its predecessors but, despite that, remained an incredibly fun and entertaining game from start-to-finish. On the surface, there was absolutely nothing extraordinary about the game other than its story hinging on a dead psychic girl who is pregnant with the rape-child of the player character from F.E.A.R. 2. What made ffthrir so enjoyable, however, was its dedication to ensuring that everything it did mechanically, it did well. While that is often not enough, it was in this case because the game didn’t really ask much of its player (which, industrially, is far from a commendable attribute). What ffthrir aimed (har) to be was an enjoyable shooter with an interesting cooperative mode and even more interesting multiplayer modes, and they succeeded on all counts. The reason their success was made possible is due, entirely, to how rewarding and interesting their low-level systems were designed and executed; it was simply fun to move and shoot.

That moving and shooting in a first-person shooting is fun is by no means a revelation. It’s why the genre exists and why Call of Duty has made more money than exists in active circulation at any one time (not a real statistic). What’s remarkable about ffthrir is how little else of the typical first-person shooter supporting cast is there: the story is passable, there isn’t a lot of complex scripted sequences or cinematics, no open world, no real continuity from level to level, and the level design itself is a throwback to shooters of the late 90s in its workmanlike environments and linear progression/cover placement. To tangent: this is with the exception of one remarkable bit of a level set in a Best Buy-esque electronics store. It’s astounding.

ffthrir is a shooter about moving around an encounter space as ammo and AI maneuvers dictate and all accompanied with the [present] industry standard two weapons and regenerating health. The fact that this is an entertaining game to play through given how many games I play through yearly, seems like it would defy explanation. In most media that wouldn’t be the case, but so much about what makes video games unique is through the interaction with a human player. A game which feels like it gives the player a unique experience solely through how it interprets the player’s actions on-screen has the capability to immerse and enthrall players almost regardless of the game’s specific context and surrounding elements. That importance of that supporting cast of X (where X is the set of the innumerable amount of things that go into the game) should never be far from a designer’s mind, but focus is often a helpful tool. So, in the interest of focus, here is an attempt at breaking down the low-level interactions in ffthrir(for the “Point Man”, which is the traditional shooter character in the game). There is going to be some interactions and overlap between these core systems and higher-level ones, but there isn’t really much of a need or use in being overly pedantic about how granular a given system or mechanic is:

  • Moving
  • Melee
  • Shooting
  • Cover
  • Inventory Management
  • Throwing a Grenade
  • Reloading
  • Avoiding Death
  • Slow Motion

All of these interactions are commonplace in the span of any given encounter throughout all of the game. To take it a step further: with the exception of slow motion these are all interactions that are commonplace throughout the first- and third-person shooter genres. It’s the specific execution, prominence, and the allowed overlap between all of these systems which give each game its unique second-to-second and minute-to-minute gameplay.

Low-Level System Design

Back when I discussed what I was then calling the “systemic integrity of expression”, I got a little bit ahead of myself discussing the high-level importance of various game systems when there is a lot of value in starting with a quick discussion of the lower-level systems that most gamers like/dislike on a largely subconscious level. One of the aspects of first-person shooters that has always fascinated me is the degree to which people begin to internalize all of the lower-level mechanics and systems. Whenever I get a new game, I have about an hour of complete unfamiliarity while my hands, eyes, and brain adjust to the slight differences in systems and input response from the last game I played. And then, once that learning curve has been surpassed, I subconsciously move on to the next layer of design features to really understand.

When I think about what constitutes a low-level system in design, I think of a single interaction (or feature) from the player’s perspective. So, while a number of various code features or content may make up something like the firing of a weapon, it is the act of shooting that weapon which is the system. And that system is made up of any number of individual art assets and code components, but it’s the combination of these varying factors which makes up the system as a whole. Firing an AK-47 in any modern first-person shooter is likely going be composed of a variety of the same components from game to game — sound effects, art effects, lighting effects, camera shake, controller vibration, aim/bullet assist, and recoil — but it is the specific tuning, combination, and implementation of these components which makes one weapon differ from game to game.

These low-level components aren’t exactly topics that are broached in casual design conversation, but they’re where the type of tuning and fiddling that make a game’s “feel” unique are derived. Two of the best talks across GDC 2010 and 2011 were both given by ex-Bungie designer Jaime Griesemer and carried session titles like “Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3″ and “Tuning the Muzzle Velocity of the Plasma Rifle Bolt on Legendary Difficulty Across the Halo Franchise.” It’s hard to think of a more seemingly minute detail of a game that could possibly make for an hour-long design lecture, but both years Griesemere not only pulled it off, but made it superb. And game development and design is a string of these sorts of seemingly-insignificant decisions; this is true regardless of the scope of the game.

If a system is defined as the concerted operation of its components, then it follows that good system design is about breaking down problems into a bunch of little pieces and knowing what to tune and when. That’s far more general advice than is particularly useful, though; specifically, good low-level system design is being able to identify a problem and consider one of the many solutions that could possibly fix it. In addition, the problem being identified needs to be at an appropriate level of granularity to yield positive and productive discussion following its identification. It’s not enough to say “the game is too hard,” designers need to know enough about the game to be able to say “enemy A does unbelievably aggressive” or “enemy B is impossibly accurate” or a more fundamental “the player’s health takes too long to recharge.” Saying “the game is too hard” identifies a feeling, which is a good starting point in a discussion, but it’s a fundamentally meaningless statement by which to balance the game.

Basically, in thought and discussion, spend time identifying the right problem before tuning things which will at best be a partial fix and, at worst, cover up a more glaring issue. Beyond that, system design is generally learning the granularity with which to break down a system as well as what is and what is not important to tweak (see: Sid Meier/Soren Johnson on tuning).

The Shooting in the Manshooter F.3.A.R. (ffthrir)

When compared to F.E.A.R. (1ear) and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (fe2r), the weapons of ffthrir are actually fairly reserved and tame. There’s no particle cannon which vaporizes enemies, there’s just a laser and a nailgun (video games). There are the standard fare weapons, though, and these provide not only a good baseline for design comparison, but they’re also the primary weapons in the game as well.

For the sake of comparison, I’m going to look specifically at the initial SMG (acquired in the introductory level of the game) and the “advancement” of that, the assault rifle. First, there are the common gameplay elements you’d expect in a modern first-person shooter weapon:

  • Ammunition: max clip size and total ammo count
  • Rate of fire: the speed at which the weapon fires every individual projectile
  • Reload time: the amount of time it takes a player to reload the gun
  • Damage: How much damage each projectile does. This is modulated by where the projectile hits on a target and while I don’t know the specific breakdown for the game, it is, hypothetically, base damage for a torso hit, 0.75x damage for arms/legs, and 2x damage for a headshot.
  • Recoil: the amount the gun kicks the player’s aim vector per every shot fired (may operate with a different value set depending on hip fire versus iron-sights fire)
  • Spread: the x/y velocity variance (and the increase per shot) when firing a projectile — this may also function slightly different when using iron-sights as recoil will take care of the spread that is simulated when hip firing
  • Muzzle velocity: speed at which the projectile is fired from the weapon (which determines the delay between firing and the projectile hitting its target)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the values which go into the gameplay behavior of ffthrir‘s weapons, but it’s a decent working list. And to get the desired gameplay variance for two types of weapons, it’s just tuning these values to end up in a happy place for each weapon and each weapon within the context of every other weapon (both criteria have to be satisfied).

  • SMG: The “quick,” reliable, low-powered weapon. Moderate clip size/ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, fast reload time, low damage, low recoil, and moderate spread.
  • Assault Rifle: the “go-to” weapon is moderately powerful, accurate, but takes longer to reload and has more recoil. Low clip size, moderate ammo belt, moderate rate of fire, moderate reload time, moderate damage, moderate recoil, and low spread.

Here are two weapons with similar characteristics, but which behave slightly differently at a numerical level and, in practice, “feel” differently enough from each other that in my playthrough of ffthrir, these were the weapons I chose to have on me most often.

It’s not enough to have purely numerical variance between weapons. While these two weapons will feel different in the hands of the player who is familiar with the game, there may not be a perceptible difference to someone who is not extensively familiar with the game. This is where other presentational elements pick up the slack. The weapon model and audio will obviously be different, but there are other things that the game does to further differentiate their behavior in a very low-level way: controller vibration and camera shake. The only tool the player has for interacting with ffthrir is the game controller and how the game responds to his input. Controller vibration plays an obvious role in that it simulates the feel of actually firing the weapon, but the game camera needs to have the same caliber of response as well to maintain the player’s perceived simulation. By giving the assault rifle a stronger vibration and more potent camera kicks/shakes, that weapon is more obviously differentiated in a way that is consistent with the player’s perspective of the game.

That’s still not enough.

For every release of Battlefield prior to Battlefield: Bad Company, hit feedback was relegated solely to the game’s user interface. When the player hit an enemy, an ‘X’ appeared on the UI signalling to the player that his shot connected. There wasn’t much in the way (if any) of hit reactions on the player model and there was no blood. Without the interface, it was almost impossible to discern when a player hit an enemy and when he missed. As a result, games of Battlefield 2 (when the graphical fidelity reached a level where the lack of hit feedback became jarring), the game’s core shooting mechanics felt wrong. For all of the violence going on between vehicles and the large explosions, infantry combat was relegated to a very sterile, non-dynamic shooting model. It wasn’t until Battlefield: Bad Company was released where DICE added blood sprays and hit decals to the world, giving players a more natural, visual response to their primary method of interaction within the game.

Ffthrir handles hit response like any other first-person shooter, but they do it to a level of completion that manages to completely sell their first-person shooter gameplay. Enemies have blood sprays for every bullet they take, decals that get projected onto walls to highlight where the enemy was when the player hit him, animated hit responses so the enemy can clutch whatever part of him was just hit (and also momentarily stun the enemy), the crosshair/UI will have a quick flash to indicate a successful hit, and a voiceover clip to play for the added aural response. At the very least, one of these methods of hit response will be noticed by the player, providing him/her with the information he needs while maneuvering and shooting around the complex encounter space.

And that’s an analysis, more or less, of one of the lower-level components of the game that I outlined earlier. The resulting gameplay is the result of all of those low-level systems being tied together through a set of mid-level systems, which serve to deliver on the goals of the game as a whole. In my mind, that’s the ideal state of a low-level system: a thorough, encompassing set of components delivering on one aspect of the game. The firing of a weapon in ffthrir is by no means original or innovative, but it is a very simple, straight-forward, and well-executed system. The interplay with everything else in the game is what makes the game ffthrir, but taken as an isolated component, the weapons and the feel of using them in the game are solid.

By no means are all of those layers of the shooting systems necessary, but it’s all informed by the kind of game that ffthrir wants to be: a fast-paced first-person shooter which seemingly has more in common with an FPS from ten years ago than the more cerebral, genre mix of the genre presently. And the game is completely consistent in all of its low-level systems with this goal, and that is largely why it works so well. It does everything it aims to do, and it executes on each of those goals well.

Starhawk

The game I’ve been working on as a designer for the last couple of years was announced last night; the game is Starhawk. The official site is at www.starhawkthegame.com and there are some good screen shots and videos there.

Basically, though, we have a giant transforming robot. And here are some more screen shots for good measure:

GDC 2011: Day 3

Day 3 started, much like Day 2, at 5:00am, because for some reason I’m under the false assumption that I should continue waking up at my normal time all week.

That is a poor assumption.

Day 3′s sessions started with the keynote from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, and was entitled “Video Games Turn 25.” Largely, the session was about Iwata recounting the early days of Nintendo and attempting to promote feelings of pride and ambition in the development community through a variety of anecdotes. This part of the session was actually great to listen to, but it’s when Iwata began talking about the features and promise of the Nintendo 3DS specifically that the keynote became more of a light version of Nintendo’s E3 press conference (Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimes even came out at one point to talk at length about it).

What should have been the keynote was the next session, given by former Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director and now LucasArts creative Director Clint Hocking (about whose site/twitter name I had a remarkable discovery). The session, entitled “Dynamics: The State of the Art,” was general enough and entertaining enough to appeal to just about anyone at GDC — not just the game design track it was on — and contained an abundance of useful and insightful information. Hocking, whose GDC lectures are consistently amongst the best sessions that GDC has to offer, posited that before we bother talking about what specific video games mean, we need to understand “how they mean.” Hocking’s point being that we need to be able to understand the most basic aspects and at the highest levels of how an interactive medium conveys meaning through play. No single part of this session was mind-blowing, but its tremendous holistic value cannot be understated.

Next up was the GDC Microtalks, with Naughty Dog lead designer Richard LeMarchand presenting all of the individual speakers (ranging from David Jaffe to Colleen Macklin to Brenda Brathwaite) in his opening microtalk. It was in this opening microtalk that LeMarchand gave the theme for the session: “How you play.” Nothing in these sessions provides new information, but each lecture had a very sentimental core (except Jaffe’s, which had a largely practical tone about the amount of time it takes to get into console games) with the takeaway being largely inspirational in nature.

It was around this point that I disliked that the main conference didn’t have the same lunch break time instituted that all of the summits do. Not that my abilities to eat a sandwich while walking are particularly bad, but they are.

Frank Lantz’s “Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime” was next and it was a very interesting talk to hear, as I am largely unfamiliar with Go and a pretty poor Poker player. Lantz’s primary purpose was to illustrate the timeless nature and endless depth that both of these two games have and the way that they are pervasive in the mind of anyone who plays them. My favorite point was the relatedness between the notion of “expected value” and probability in Poker and how it leads people to inadvertantly come to understand the scientific method through a practical introduction to what is, essentially, bayesian theory.

“The Failure Workshop” was next and, really, the main takeaway from the whole session was to prototype early and test out ideas before rat-holing into tangential work too early on.

My favorite talk of the day came from Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts and former designer at 2k Marin who did Bioshock and the in-production X-COM, entitled “Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?” In the session, Hudson went over both the theory/ideas behind a more systemically-driven game design that allowed games to take a less prescripted approach to story-telling and a more involving player experience. The way to get here is to more systemically measure a player’s actions and, specifically, their relationships to other entities in any given game. Through this relationship monitoring, the game can heuristically monitor a player’s actions and, as necessary, react to the sum total or an individual component of all that collected data when the time is right. Hudson referenced the three tenets of self-determination theory to determine what players really need in order to reach “happiness”: autonomy (referred to as “agency” in the session), relatedness, and competence. And it is through the successful recognition and embrace of these three pillars that a game can properly involve a player in its world. Hudson then took the necessary step from all of the theory into the practical world of AAA game development, by highlighting that it is necessary to rethink the way that AAA games approach content in order to properly be able to fill out a game world with content flexible enough to be able to respond to a variety of player stimulii. Hudson, specifically, referenced the removal of five major time- and money-consuming elements of content: VO, custom writing, environments, models, and animation, and ways to really “own” a style that allowed a development team to re-appropriate its budget as necessary for a game that isn’t as prescripted as a lot of today’s games typically are. Given that the last thing I wrote for my site was entitled “The Systemic Integrity of Expression”, I agree fully.

It’s somewhat sad that directly across the hall from Hudson’s session, David Cage was saying things like “Game mechanics are evil. Mechanics are a limitation. We need to redefine what interacting means.” Which, I mean, no.

After the day’s sessions wrapped, it was time for the Independent Games Festival awards show and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards show. Unlike last year, the awards show was unexpectedly entertaining and completely hilarious due to IGF host Anthony Carboni and GDCA host Tim Schafer being thoroughly amazing. It weirded me out a little that, during the Game Developers Choice Awards, so many of the categories were filled with games that I had so little love for. The closest I got to rooting for a game was when Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies and Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker were both up for a nomination (in the same mobile game category).

The day ended with some good fun at the Nidhogg tournament at the Eve Lounge and then some other miscellaneous happenings.

The Systemic Integrity of Expression

I receive strange looks when I tell people that I think Alpha Protocol was a better game than Mass Effect 2. More strange looks, still, when I talk positively about games like Nier, Lost Planet 2, and Kane & Lynch 2 over those like Fable 3, Red Dead Redemption, and so on. I’m used to it.

It’s not like I don’t understand why people like some of these games. Mass Effect 2 is a well-made space opera that brings fond memories from an abundance of 70s-onward science fiction source material that is close to a lot of gamers’ hearts. Red Dead Redemption is a very thorough, loving recreation of the an underused setting (one which I have a great deal of personal love for). Fable 3 is the third game in an ever-evolving, clever action/RPG series; a series of whose first entry I played through at least three or four times. These are all appealing games in a lot of ways, and I have little-to-no doubt as to why some people adore them so. I also understand the predisposition to like these games as they represent the culmination of years of talent from the very well-respected and remarkable studios which produced them.

More still, I understand how easy it is to fall in love with a game which so wholly reproduces the feeling or memory of things which are near and dear to our past (or present) interests. To argue against the allure of riding a horse through the rolling landscape of Texas and Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is likely impossible and, more to the point, unnecessary. There should never be a doubt that what Rockstar San Diego achieved both artistically and technically with Red Dead Redemption is anything but outstanding. And if Red Dead Redemption was the film it sometimes so desperately seems to want to be, that might be enough (probably still not, but that’s neither here nor there).

Thing is, these games are all so mechanically and systemically broken — or, worse, simply uninteresting — that their allure seems to reside largely in the appeal their reference/source material allows them.

In playing through Mass Effect 2, I wondered what kind of game I was supposed to be playing. Am I playing a third-person action game? If so, the care devoted to a feel and control in a game like Uncharted 2 is certainly not present. And if I’m playing a role-playing game, why am I either bound to a good path or bad path (for maximum use of their associated gameplay systems) or a schizophrenic character who punches children in one scene and resuscitates a polar bear and carries it to safety in another. There’s either a comically good (or bad) role that I’m bound to playing to put the game systems to best use — one which does not carve out something even close to a believable, much less a compelling, character — or I choose the answers of the character I want to build and become some systemically ineffective player but maybe get an interesting story out of it. That these systems can’t really be narratively reconciled is a design sin in its own right, but it’s compounded by the fact that whatever shallow or complex character I create in the dialogue/story bits of Mass Effect 2 is entirely irrelevant to the character I play as during the overly abundant shooty bits of Mass Effect 2. It’s not a matter of ludonarrative dissonance, it’s ludonarrative irrelevance.

I generally get a rap for being overly invested or analytical about the systemic integrity of games; what confuses me, though, is why everyone else is not. When I talk about my love of mechanics and systems which reinforce themes and narratives, I’ve actually had the example of the Uncharted — a game series I thoroughly adore — cited as some purported counter-example. While it’s true that the Uncharted games are linear and feature a sometimes disturbingly cheerful protagonist despite his having killed hundreds (thousands?) of enemy soldiers, Uncharted is a game which I feel elegantly marries its narrative and systems. The goal of this game series is to emulate that of the Indiana Jones-era action/adventure movies and, despite its flaws, Uncharted and Uncharted 2 absolutely nail this goal. There is no point in either of these games where I feel like I’m limited from what I want to be doing within the universe these games exist in.

Jack Bauer endures more moral dilemma and executes better judgment in the matter of “who do I shoot and who do I not shoot” in the most absurd and overwrought episode of 24 than Commander Shepard does at his absolute best moments in any of the Mass Effect games, so we can’t possibly be looking at this as some sort of fulfillment fantasy can we? It’s either pulp science fiction, in which case it’s a game that is theoretically relegated to the nerdiest of the science fiction nerds (much like my library of Jim Thompson books are for a Noir nerd)… But that’s not the case. Mass Effect 2 is a major AAA game development endeavor beloved by millions upon millions of gamers across the world. So, again, why do we care?

We care because there’s something alluring about the mere concept of having anything to do with the path that Commander Shepard takes throughout these games. The illusion of choice and the perceived consequence of our personal decisions as the controller of these games is an intrinsically interesting prospect to us. Despite how much the Mass Effect games make explicit both visually and through its narrative, our minds will still fill in the gaps with something that somehow makes this mass murdering do-gooder (or do-poorer or schizophrenic do-whateverer) compelling. And, likely, this occurs because there is absolutely nothing in Mass Effect 2 that is not hideously well-polished. There is very little in the game that can be considered a “rough edge” — it’s just all so pretty and palatable.

There aren’t an abundance of times where you can find as close an analogue between two recent games as there is with Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol, so let’s stick with that.

Putting Alpha Protocol side-by-side with Mass Effect 2 is an unfair exercise; one of these games is gorgeous and polished and the other is Alpha Protocol. It’s hard to look at Alpha Protocol and see anything remarkable but, given the time, it’s a surprisingly clever game with expressive mechanics that are tangibly (if loosely) tied to the narrative. And even the level design in the game allows for a modicum of expression within the realm of the game’s high-level conceit: empowering the player to play through an absurd super-spy storyline as a character reminiscent of James Bond, Jack Bauer, or Jason Bourne. You can shoot dudes, you can tranquilize dudes, or you can stealth your way around dudes. At times, you can smooth talk your way out of dudes entirely, but the conversation system in Alpha Protocol is actually somewhat complex and timing/situation-dependent and does not, at any point, highlight what the “good” or the “bad” way to react to a situation is (thus, it’s difficult to exploit your way out of a situation).

Alpha Protocoldoes, at no point, imply that you could Sam Fisher (pre-Double Agent and Conviction) your way through the game; you’re bound to the kind of spy that could kill an entire room of dudes easily if you so chose to. It’s not a complex simulation, but it’s a fully, if roughly, explored set of consistent systems. It’s within that conceit that there is expressive wiggle-room, and the mechanics of Alpha Protocol do a lot to take that conceit as far as it can within it’s sub-AAA production values. It’s not a pretty experience, but it’s all there, and it all works to create an entertaining experience that surprised and entertained me, on the whole, more than Mass Effect 2 did.

When I think about my time with games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3, I think I had a perfectly acceptable experience. I probably had the experience that the development team wanted me to have with their games. With Red Dead Redemption, I at no point didn’t experience the story of John Marsden, but I sure didn’t play it. With Mass Effect 2 I got the new gang together and did some really cool stuff in space, but outside of the combinatorial approach to a “dynamic” ending, I didn’t bring much to the game as a unique player.

And then there’s Fable 3. When I played Fable in my college dorm room after a particularly dull Michigan football game (Wolverines! or something?), I had a ball. I got to be this asininely powerful guy who, over the course of an admittedly short experience, I defined into this hideously ugly magic-abusing lightning rod of a guy. And, sure, it only took four-five hours. And, sure, it was ludicrously easy. And, sure, it wasn’t a particularly novel storyline. But, what Fable was remains one of my fondest gaming memories: an action/RPG where the way I played the game actually seemed wholly unique from my friends. My old, magic rune-covered dude rocked some mean lighting that cleared entire screens of enemies. One friend had a big weapon and a dude with horns. Another actually tried to find some kind of balance. And while it doesn’t sound like much it was, in practice, a refreshing thing to see how differently we all played this one, seemingly hyper-linear game, from one another. We all, largely, experienced the same story, but we all took the gameplay segments we were given and put a little bit of ourselves into those.

Now, six years later, I’m playing Fable 3 and wondering what the fuck happened to the potential I saw in that game. I’m now playing a game where, almost insultingly, I’m meant to be along for the ride rather than defining my gameplay style. Rather than defining my game through play, I’m opening discrete chests along the “road to rule” which ends in me unlocking everything there is to unlock in non-dramatic and uninteresting fashion. Instead of playing how I want to play, I’m making a few high-level choices about how I run my kingdom in order to prepare for an oncoming assault. And, while it’s a clever twist, it’s a wholly unexceptional one that allows me, as the player of this game, very little room for expression. I eventually find that I can exploit the passage of time in the game and just leave my Xbox 360 running while my various estates pool absurd amounts of gold instead of oppressing my people for money during discrete game events, but this is not a rewarding discovery, it’s a cheap one. I’m not using lighting to kill everything (and, in the process, making my character age quicker and get scars everywhere), I’m doing the equivalent of taking the game disc out and hitting it on the ground until it does what I want when I put it back in.

None of these games are bad games; not by any means. I’ve talked to people who have loved all of the games that I’m presently ranting against and their reasons for loving them are entirely valid. As a game designer, though, it seems that we’re arbitrarily limiting the potential of what remains a limitless medium in order to maintain some collective vision of the narrative experience. The nature of an interactive medium should be the feedback loop between the player and the game; to not explore (or, at least, consider) the expression space of this cycle seems to be a missed opportunity.