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

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:

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.

New Project: Civility

I’m going to start up my game of the year posts soon, but I also wanted to post my first screen shot of the new project I’m working on: Civility.

This is going to be a decent-sized project and, unlike my last four, more of a straight-up game rather than another attempt at mechanically expressing an emotion or state of mind or anything like that. Civility is, at the high-level, a customizable shmup set during the “civil war” (thematically and conceptually, not temporally) with the structure of a Monster Hunter game.

Balance Source Release

Around a year ago, I released the first of what became four straight particle-only games in Unity. The game, Balance, was both my first attempt at a more rapid design and development cycle as well as an attempt to treat a game as a very focused expressive piece (kind of like a short story). Balance is also still my only attempt to make a one-button game ever and, aside from Broken, it is my favorite of the games I’ve worked on independently.

Anyway, point is: someone recently asked me if I would release the source for any of these recent games, so I am! All of the content that I think is necessary to build the game (under Unity 3.0) can be found here. I also uploaded a new build of Balance with a couple bug-fixes and an improvement to the postprocessing effects.

This release does come with the obvious caveat of: things are ugly. I treat the programming of my independent projects like one would a rough sketch; too much thought into architecture and system design generally just impedes progress when it’s late at night and you’ve been drinking, so I just generally roll with it. I don’t think this is as big an issue with Balance as, say, Broken or my current project, since Balance is a simple game, but who knows! Do let me know if there are any issues or if I neglected to include some critical file or what not. And if this actually proves useful to anyone, I’ll do similarly for Doubt and In the Wind in the future.

Next Up

I haven’t neglected this site, I’ve just chosen to go from a weekly entry to writing lengthy posts on more interesting, more well-considered topics. I’ve also been working on a few new projects. The next of which is this (and, no, there are no compression artifacts in the image):

And aside from Halo Reach, ClaDun: This is an RPG! is probably going to end up being one of my favorite games of the year.

Inaccuracy and Stakes in Kane & Lynch 2

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, much like Kane & Lynch, is a remarkable and flawed game.

The first half of Dog Days is a linear third-person shooter which treats its levels as a living space within which the player is constantly moving and adjusting his position as-necessary for reasons of additional cover, vantage point, or ammunition. The first two are nothing new for a current generation shooter; cover has been done to death by many a game. What’s fantastic, though, is how Dog Days works to recreate a big movie shootout: massive inaccuracy on both sides of an engagement and characters who are frequently changing up their weaponry entirely (not just reloading). Ammunition is not just a number on the HUD which is constantly non-zero but, rather, an actual resource which must be managed within an engagement as players burn through missed round after missed round. The firefights during these early segments of the game are more about bullets going everywhere than they ever are about the aim-adjust-headshot shooter loop.

It’s easy to see how players could be frustrated by this system: some of the core shooters in the FPS genre have always been about allowing those with the talent and skill and hand-eye coordination to dominate the playing field with accurate weapons (namely competitive shooters like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament). And even the introduction of aim spread by more tactical shooters, and the more inaccurate aiming system of cover-shooters like Uncharted and Gears of War still provide a fair amount of aim control in one firing mode or another. Regardless of the actual scheme employed, the end result of shooters seems to come down to a single core tenet: provide players with a reasonable semblance of aim control and the ability to predictably (and reliably) take down several similarly-typed enemies. If variation is to be introduced into the system, it needs to come in the form of a different enemy, not a different tool.

Starting Dog Days, players are given the choice between varying types of sub-machineguns and pistols, neither of which have much stopping power nor accuracy. Every encounter in the introductory levels of the game becomes a two-sided round of whack-a-mole with one side popping up, draining a clip, then going back into cover to reload, and the other side then taking his chance. Eventually one side will get the hits necessary to take down the other side. And, given an infinite supply of ammunition, these encounters would look hilarious to all involved (especially given the extraordinary documentary-style camera/effects the game is presented with). There is no infinite supply of ammunition, though, so while an encounter initially starts with each side comically popping in-and-out of cover, the need for either more ammunition or a new weapon quickly takes center-stage and requires the player to venture out of his safe zone into the more treacherous “no man’s land” space in the middle of an encounter area. Cover is dodgier, vantage points are less obviously advantageous, and, worse still, the player doesn’t have an abundance of life to live through any sustained enemy fire. This system works incredibly well for Dog Days.

Instead of consistently and cleverly mixing up this system for the mid-to-late sections of the game, Dog Days, instead, makes the same critical mistake that Kane & Lynch 1 did: raises the stakes. And while there are no invasions on a capitol building in Havana with a small and disposable revolutionary army in tow, there are still helicopter battles. This time there are helicopter battles over downtown Shanghai in the middle of the afternoon. And, for reasons which confuse me, a level that takes place in a giant warehouse as Kane and Lynch fight off soldiers or something. It’s all incredibly painful to play as the memories of the excellent first half of Dog Days reside in one’s head. And to make matters worse, not only are there far higher “stakes,” but there are ludicrously more enemies and the weapons the player has access to are far more accurate and predictable and the game becomes solely a matter of: pop out, headshot, duck, pop out, headshot, duck, etc. Which works when the inner loop is a crisp and balanced set of systems, but that is a thing that Dog Days doesn’t have the benefit of.

Despite my issues with each individual game, I am still entirely of the mind that the Kane & Lynch series, now two games in, is an incredibly interesting and promising one which is severely overlooked. Dog Days‘ first three hours or so of gameplay was tremendously interesting and well-paced and I consider the game worth it for that alone. I just wish, like I have before, that the games would stop trying to top itself as players progress through them.