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Sea of Dreams

Bioshock was a game defined by its three major components: its streamlined, interconnected game systems, its standout narrative moments, and, most of all, the setting of Rapture and the meticulous level design that gave it life visually and systemically to bring the other components together. Irrational 2k Boston Irrational very clearly understood what made Bioshock unique on all levels. The combination of weaponry with plasmids and the trade-off of using one over the other formed a clever combat system which was constantly surprising the player when various elements combined in fresh ways or the level reacted to the player’s actions in helpful/harmful ways. Every level told a focused, contained story about some facet of Rapture; each had a unique macro design with a mini-hub approach that repeatedly required the player to backtrack and see various rooms in new ways as the game introduced new features. Meanwhile the game was building up one of the smarter narratives in the gaming world leading to one of the greatest climactic moments in the history of video games. The portions of the game that followed the climax were, ultimately, unnecessary and somewhat forced for game length, but only due to the comparison to the events that preceded them (except the final boss, that was purely awful). By the time Bioshock ended, the player had played through the tale of Rapture in its entirety.

By all accounts, a sequel to Bioshock was unnecessary and a sequel to Bioshock that remained in Rapture was picking from the bones of greatness. That said, 2k Marin managed to make a sequel whose narrative is intelligently focused by adding a new tale while simultaneously expanding on the memorable characters from the first game in ways that do no harm. The expanding on characters like Frank Fontaine, Atlas, and Andrew Ryan is more than a nod to Bioshock 2‘s predecessor and, rather, an extensive attempt at enhancing our understanding of these characters. The audio diaries which tell the story of these characters’ rise to power often comes across as completely tangential to all of the player’s actions, but when a specific audio log (or Andrew Ryan’s museum) nails its delivery and content, it’s a fascinating attempt at recreating a story from past to the present as the player works his way to the climax of the new tale.

The restraint that 2k Marin exercised in the high-level narrative of Bioshock 2 is astounding. Any attempt to one-up or surpass the execution of major moments or clever plot twists would come off as clearly fabricated attempts at doing just that (as Modern Warfare 2 discovered). Instead, Bioshock 2 goes for the heart: the story of a father, a daughter, and the controlling, scheming mother who has taken the throne of Rapture in the aftermath of Fontaine and Ryan. As hackneyed as the story sounds here and as awkawrd as it feels for the first few levels of Bioshock 2: stick with it. It’s worth it. Sofia Lamb is rarely interesting, but that’s okay, because Eleanor Lamb is purely captivating. Her transformation from the adored baby destined to for the metaphorical throne of rapture to the devious, destructive toddler, to the hyper-intelligent, insightful young adult is subtle and marvelous. The character of Eleanor Lamb at the end of Bioshock 2 is one of the most natural, clever, and endearing characters I have encountered in a video game.

It is unfortunate that so much time of Bioshock 2 is spent trying to understand what it is before ultimately realizing its purpose in glorious fashion. The first handful of levels of the game are all so reminiscent of Rapture that they come across as soullessly reverent. They absolutely nail the aesthetic and appeal of Rapture, no doubt, but they do so without much feeling or character. It is not until Siren Alley that players begin to seen glimpses of what made the levels of Bioshock so special: the level as short story. And as close as Siren Alley gets to this concept, it’s not until Dionysus Park and Fontaine Futuristics where Bioshock 2 becomes the absolutely brilliant successor that it needs to be. Regretfully, Dionysus Park is the sixth level in a nine level game.

Due to the player’s role as a Big Daddy in Bioshock 2, the management of Little Sisters is now a gameplay system. The player accumulates Adam through the interactions that make up this system; namely, the rescue/harvest choice (the same as it was in the first game) and, now, through the gathering quests. When the player adopts a Little Sister, rather than harvesting her directly when the time comes, the Little Sister jumps on the player’s back and remains ‘invisible’ in subsequent gameplay other than offering adorable little one-liners and commentary on gameplay actions. When a special, 2k Marin-placed corpse is encountered while the player has an adopted Little Sister, players have the option of gathering Adam from the corpse. The Little Sister is placed on the ground, and she gathers Adam while the player fends off the horde of Splicers that smell the Adam and want a piece of it for themselves. Thus, these gathering segments are bite-sized protection quests.

Since the corpses that the player can gather from are placed throughout areas of the standard level, the quality of a gather segment can vary wildly. They are almost universally tedious until the player makes it to Dionysus Park. The story of Dionysus Park is that of Stanley Poole. And Stanley Poole has a dark, dirty secret. His secret is contained within the Adam that the Little Sisters gather from the corpses. Stanley, though, idolizes Johnny Top-Side (the player character), and is willing to let him gather up the Adam in exchange for his silence on what he discovers. These gather quests, then, which have been optional and time-consuming side-quests up until this point in the game, now become the active goal of the level. And when each of the three Little Sisters that occupies the level is rescued/harvested, the player learns a little bit more about Stanley Poole’s secret. With this reward system, on top of the accumulated Adam, the annoying side-quest actually has a ludic and narrative purpose for being executed and, as such, seems far more tolerable. This is on top of the fact that the gather quests in Dionysus Park are now at the fore-front of the progression and, for the most part, make-up some of the best-designed encounters in the game.

Near the end of the game, the player takes on the role of a Little Sister through a surreal, disturbing look at Rapture through the eyes of these conditioned little girls. It’s a ludically mundane section, intended to be more of a mood and atmospheric piece that a legitimately interesting gameplay segment (much like the occasional underwater bits), but it’s a nice change of pace from the combat-combat-combat focus of the rest of the game. What’s strange about this segment is that, during it, the player can still gather Adam from corpses. This is not, by itself, bizarre; the player is a Little Sister, Little Sisters gather Adam from corpses. What’s bizarre is that there are splicers throughout this section of the game with direct line of sight to the Little Sister who is harvesting the Adam from corpses and they remain completely peaceful and unaffected by the Little Sister’s actions. It’s unsettling and weird and stressful the first time, raising players concerns about risk/reward and all that, but after the fourth or fifth time gathering Adam from a corpse with nearby Splicers, this strange and obvious inconsistency stands out and taints the integrity of the level as a result.

Part of the reason that the first half of Bioshock 2 is so awkward is the speed and seeming carelessness with which it introduces the features that Bioshock pioneered. A weapon can now be used alongside a plasmid, leading to a constant feeling of “dual-wielding” two completely different functionalities. Early on, firefights can quickly become a matter of blowing through ammo rounds on the Rivet Gun while trying to hit something while, simultaneously, attempting to use Electro Bolt to stun the enemy as you tear through your EVE reserves. With only a single plasmid and the Drill and Rivet Gun, combat is already filled with three radically different functionalities, none of which are particularly shallow, and the game is asking the player to manage all of this while engaged in active combat in a cluttered, busy, and interaction-heavy level. This becomes exponentially more difficult as the player gets a full eight plasmids and eight weapons and must manage all of these and their uses, presumably intelligently, amidst Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Brute Splicers, Spider Splicers, Big Daddies, Big Sisters, alpha series Big Daddies, and Houdini Splicers. Combat in Bioshock 2 for some of these early levels feels like a screen that is overloaded with explosions, screen effects, activity, damage, tips telling you to use first aid, more explosions, more screen effects, health and EVE depleting wildly, spamming the two triggers, and moving through a very colorful, wide-open environment with cover in unintuitive places.

And since so few of the plasmids are different from Bioshock in their basic functionality, Bioshock 2 also manages to create a profound feeling that I’ve been here and done all of this before, except it was better then. For all the restraint shown in its narrative, none of that restraint is present in Bioshock 2‘s combat. If the main complaints about Bioshock‘s combat were that, while interesting, it was overly-streamlined and somewhat lacking in personal customization, then 2k Marin’s response was to just blend all of those elements together and force the player to choose how to proceed. Except this doesn’t really work.

At no point does Bioshock 2 ever do what it really needs to in order to provide the player with a feeling of mastery, understanding, and the choice that the narrative so desperately wants to convey: allow the player to specialize. By the end of the game, the player has all of these weapons with these neat, crazy upgrades and all of these upgraded plasmids that do these neat things, but at no point does the game ever take the player aside and say: “Hey, you like doing this? Well, you can do that, but you’re going to have to kind of focus on that.” From the moment a weapon or plasmid is presented to the player, the player has the option to upgrade it, somehow, and the game essentially says: rest assured, at some point you’ll be able to afford this. The scenario I kept running into while playing is that I really like Electro Bolt because it not only has the most interactions within the game world, but it lets me do all I want: slow down combat. So what am I going to do? I’m going to focus on getting better with Electro Bolt using all of my various weapons, because I understand the weapons I have and their effects. I went through the game and upgraded all of my plasmids because I had an over-abundance of Adam (by the game I had all of my eight plasmids at their highest levels), but I only ever really used Electro Bolt.

Why did I solely rely on Electro Bolt? There is a Winter Blast plasmid that actually freezes enemies; combat doesn’t get slower than an icicle. It’s completely illogical that I would continue to use this one plasmid that I got at the very beginning of the game throughout the entirety of Bioshock 2 despite getting a lot better at the game and managing my eight weapons. There is a mechanical and a psychological reason for my reliance on this one plasmid. The psychological reliance is that the game made the acquisition and use of Electro Bolt an actual core element in the first mission of the game. It taught me how to use Electro Bolt, what its various uses were, and it allowed me time to really understand the use of this plasmid. No other plasmid in the game had the amount of game time dedicated to player understanding of it than Electro Bolt; some plasmids were relegated to the Gatherer’s Garden and got no fan-fare at all. This approach to doling out features works in a wide-open game that encourages exploration (like Far Cry 2), but not one which is fast, brutal, and confusing. The mechanical reason (and this is a console-specific reasoning) is that the plasmid/weapon control scheme for Bioshock 2 involves the use of the shoulder buttons; holding each shoulder button brings up a radial menu of the selectable plasmids/weapons. The problem here is that a single-tap of the shoulder button cycles through all eight selectable plasmids/weapons, rather than switching back-and-forth between the last two plasmids/weapons. So at no point can a player really get comfortable with a plasmid/weapon combo without stopping the game and switching from a menu.

The major new enemy in Bioshock 2 is the Big Sister. She’s lean, she’s quick, and she’s deadly. She’s a dangerous, ‘upgraded’ Big Daddy, essentially, and her inclusion in the game is thoroughly unnecessary. The goal of the Big Daddy is that it is a peaceful enemy until the Little Sister he is guarding is in danger or the player has actively attacked it. During this peaceful period, the Big Daddy is slow, lumbering, loud, and completely predictable. What was fun about Bioshock was using this period to set elaborate plasmid/weaponry traps, then trigger the Big Daddy, and watching the gauntlet of death take his health bar down. Sometimes active combat against the Big Daddy was never required whatsoever; taking the big fella down without so much as breaking a sweat was always an accomplishment for me when I played through the original game. Taking on a Big Daddy in active, close-to-mid quarter combat was a dangerous, fast-paced, stressful endeavor. Players were rewarded for thinking through the scenario and avoiding that need to go toe-to-toe. The way that Bioshock 2 approaches the Big Sister allows for none of this strategy. She is, essentially, nothing but the toe-to-toe combat sections that players engaged in with the Big Daddy enemies, except faster and more incomprehensible. The one positive element of the Big Sister encounters is that there is a brief window before she arrives where the player can familiarize himself with the layout of a room before the Big Sister’s eventual arrival, but it’s not enough to do any of the high-level planning and strategy of the Big Daddy combat; instead, it’s just more screen shakes, damage indicators, and postprocessing screen effects while rapidly attempting to stun and damage the Big Sister.

There are, technically, eight weapons in Bioshock 2, but two of these six are more utility items than weapons. The first of which is the hacking tool, which has three types of ammunition: auto-hack bolt, remote hack bolt, and the mini-turret. The mini-turret is, well, a mini-turret that the player throws down — at which point it becomes autonomous. That’s handy. The other two ammunition types are more problematic. The hacking minigame in Bioshock 2 is a vast improvement over the first; it’s quick, it’s thematically appropriate, and it allows for some tense moments mid-combat where a quick hack is necessary while hoping that enemies don’t notice you hiding in a corner while you do it. It’s a shame that the existence fo the hacking tool completely negates the role of the security entities. Rather than having to stun a camera, run under it, and hope to hack it before it turns back on and sets off an alarm when it sees you — as was the case in the first game — hacking can be done entirely from a safe distance. Shoot a dart at a camera, hack it, and walk into a room like nothing ever happened while a friendly camera alerts you to enemies. The same is true of managing enemy turrets. Due to the long-distance hack tool, the role of security systems in Bioshock 2 are almost always beneficial to the player and never threatening. If an alarm goes off, it’s uncommon and, for me, generally was more of a reload state than a play-through-it scenario. An alarm going off meant I screwed up as a player, rather than just being a thing that happened in the course of play.

The other non-weapon is the research camera, a presumed upgrade to research [picture] camera from the first game. Rather than taking static pictures during active combat to increase your “understanding” of enemies, the player starts the video camera and then goes back to normal combat while the camera rolls. The more unique actions the player takes during the course of combat with the research subject increases the eventual number of research points the session yielded. As the player acquires more and more research points for an individual enemy type, he increases his understanding of it, and unlocks are awarded (more damage, generally) along an invisible progress tree until the final unlock, a plasmid/gene tonic, is awarded. The strange aspect of this interaction is that it makes a system out of a tedious interaction of not having your weapon active at the beginning of combat, then having the game automatically switch back to the weapon (something that, strangely, never feels natural), and proceeding as normal. It’s a bizarrely abstract mechanic for the game which never feels quite right. The research camera seems designed to encourage players to mix up how they handle combat, but there doesn’t seem to be the concept of repetition from session-to-session, so doing an Electro Bolt and then simply killing an enemy generally yielded a solid score from the video session. Over and over and over again.

Bioshock 2 really is an exceptional game. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where my progressive enjoyment has deviated quite so wildly from beginning-to-middle and then middle-to-end. So few games really understand what needs to be done to create an enjoyable ending, that playing one which absolutely nails it is a refreshing experience (even if the road to that point wasn’t quite as excellent). I’m also quite comfortable saying that Bioshock 2 is worth it solely for Eleanor Lamb which, given the narrative, makes complete thematic sense.

Kane & Lynch

IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch is a strange game. It is the work of a very talented developer taking a break from their lucrative Hitman series. This clear talent shines through K&L, but primarily through the cracks in the game’s finish. The game that players of Kane & Lynch see before them is an absolutely incredible game utilizing a setting that almost no other game in the current game industry environment utilizes and, on top of that, it’s a setting that IO Interactive not only understands and embraces, but has a great deal of love for. K&L received a strange critical reception, in part due to controversy surrounding Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann, but also simply a generally mixed reception concluding in the unfortunate final result of Kane & Lynch being colloquially/casually considered a poor game.

The idea of the ‘heist’ as a full-on premise is one that’s been lost on game developers (and maybe Generation Y as a whole), so it ends up appearing only in certain missions in larger games, such as “Three Leaf Clover” in Grand Theft Auto 4. The reasoning for this, as far as I’ve been able to piece together, is that bank robberies simply aren’t “epic” enough. That and there appears to be the belief that most gamers don’t want to play the criminal or the anti-hero, which are the kind of characters that are traditionally displayed in heist movies and stories. All of this runs contrary to the existence of popular television shows over the last decade having characters like Vic Mackey in The Shield and Dr. Gregory House in House, both of whom are morally compromised individuals doing objectively bad things for eventually-sympathetic reasons. Kane & Lynch is not only a heist game with an intimate (non-epic) story-line, but its two leads are vulgar, ‘bad’ people. Kane an ex-mercenary know-it-all who constantly needs to be take charge of situations and Lynch is a psychopath who, in fits of blind fury when he’s off his meds, goes into a violent rage. So, quoth the Gamespot review of the game, “[e]very single person you play as or encounter is despicable and wholly abrasive; thus, it’ll probably be tough for you to find anyone to latch onto and care about.” Lynch looks out for Kane and appears to be haunted by whether or not he was the murderer of his wife while Lynch indirectly got his wife killed and only wants to find his daughter so he can read her a letter. Maybe not the greatest characterizations ever, but certainly sympathetic to some extent.

The critical press indicate that Kane & Lynch is a ‘bad’ game. In most mediums, a 65 average would equate to a better-than-average product that is still well worth one’s time. Hell, RottenTomatoes considers a movie with an aggregate rating of 60 points or higher to be “fresh.” This is another tangent altogether, but the gist of the matter is that with an aggregate score of 65, Kane & Lynch was widely considered to be an “average” game at best and, with a score like that, more generally labeled as “bad.” This is, arguably, a semantic quibble, but the inflated notion of the meaning of review scores somewhat infuriates me as both a gamer and a developer. The mere concept that a game can be rated on a scale with 100 points of granularity, or split into its components (gameplay, audio, lasting appeal, and so on) is completely absurd.

When I played Kane & Lynch, I played a game that was, to some extent, marred by a variety of technical inconsistencies, bugs, and the occasional straight-up flaw. The controls are not as responsive as a shooter-heavy game like K&L should be, nor is the AI behavior excellent, and the gameplay spaces throughout the game are hit-and-miss (har). Ten minutes into the game, though, none of this really mattered to me. I found myself completely engrossed from the unexpectedly intense beginning through the ridiculously depressing end. I also found the game’s “exceptionally short single-player campaign” to not only be a well-sized chunk of game, but in the case of Kane & Lynch, I’d argue that the campaign was too long.

The structural arc of Kane & Lynch aims to convey its intensity much in the way that Portal conveys its focus. A game’s length is in direct relation to the experience in which it aims to provide. This does, at times, run contrary to the price, hype, or marketing of the final product, but to consider a game’s temporal length as a criterion for its overall value or effect is not only ludicrous, but irrelevant. There is an analog to movies in regards to the critical relevance of length, but often a movie is hailed as “too long,” rather than “too short.” Very few movies suffer from a short duration, a number of movies suffer from a long run-time. A long movie is, and I’m speaking in total generalizations here, more often to be reviewed as unfocused than it is to be reviewed as an appropriate length for the price of my ticket/DVD. Making comparisons from games to film is both annoying and error-prone, but as far as media comparisons are concerned, the movie/game parallels are the easiest to draw.

Kane & Lynch attempts to draw that parallel in its structure, form, and mechanics. It starts with the prison break, the confused, hurried introduction to the characters and the game world, and the frantic, hurried attempts at resolving it (that, naturally, ultimately go haywire). The character and aiming controls are not as fluid as third-person shooter gamers would like, nor is the cover as beefy and useful as, say, Gears of War, but the entirety of K&L’s combat system manages to from a cohesive ludic package: simulating the heist movie shootout. Whether it was intentional or not, it’s difficult to aim, enemies are often brutal in both numbers and ferocity, and the ‘solid’ cover in a given level is almost impossible to find. It’s frustrating, but fittingly so. And much like any ‘squad’ game, the system reinforces the role of your friends, and I use the term loosely for Kane & Lynch, in the experience. Ignoring a majority of the Havana segments for the moment, every part of K&L wants to ludically recreate the experience of a heist movie by providing the thematic framework and allowing the game systems and encounters to do the rest.

Thinking back on my playing experience, I am continually impressed at how well the night club scene worked out. The game is, at times, brutal with the details it puts in front of players and the resulting expectation it has of its players’ ability to react. When working through the night club scene in the mission after “shit has gone down,” the crowd of dancing men and women are oblivious to the fact that a knocked-out Asian woman is being carried on the shoulder of a long-haired psychopath trailing a man in a suit with a gun and a broken nose. A crowd in a busy, foggy, colorful night club would be oblivious to a thing like that, I suppose. So when an enemy is approaching the player through this sea of people, he blends in. What IO Interactive does to highlight these enemies is simple: give them a flashlight. One hand on the flashlight, one hand on a gun, that’s it. The player sees these men in suits with flashlights and, almost without thinking, opens fire on them. The game does not call this out, it allows this beautiful moment to play out: shots fired, men with flashlights fire back creating a blend of muzzle flare and a flashlight lens flare blending amongst the fog and laser lights, people throughout the club are running around in a panic, crossfire takes down random civilians, and all the while Lynch is in the back mere moments from a blind fury pyschopathic breakdown.

And that is the Kane & Lynch I played. Bits and pieces of the rest of the game touch on the brilliance of the night club ‘mission’, and they make the totality of the game an exceptional experience. If IO Interactive hadn’t lost their focus with the Havana endgame, they would have created a superb heist game. Instead it’s simply ‘good’, but games shouldn’t be wary of that word. There’s room for improvement, there is in every work, but just because it’s not ‘great’ doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

GDC 2010 Wrap-Up

Today was my last day at GDC and, at that, it was quite a short one. While I was waiting outside of my first session, a woman came up to me and announced she was a speaker and asked if she could borrow my Mac cord. I said sure. She said I saved the conference. I said “I do what I can.”

My first session of the day was one which I, quite honestly, attended solely to write-up a mocking article later on. The session was Richard Rouse III’s “Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry.” And, if you check out my write-up on the session, you might notice a lack of mockery. This is a result of Rouse handling the topic far differently than I originally intended. I still think it’s an absurd topic for a session and handling the material somewhat well doesn’t change that fact, but it’s not the source of humor I expected going in. Rouse gets extra points for showing the Mad Men scene where Don Draper demonstrates the advertising campaign for Kodak’s Carousel.

Immediately after that twenty-five minute session, I went on over to “Designing Shadow Complex” with Donald Mustard. It’s unfortunate that this equally short session had to be so abbreviated, because Mustard was not only an incredible speaker but also was showing some amazing procedural tidbits regarding Chair’s approach to developing Shadow Complex. Most fascinating was that Mustard and the Chair team used Adobe Illustrator to create an entire ‘paper’ graph of the world map of Shadow Complex. It was divided into the squares/screens that divide the actual game’s world and included various guards, pick-ups, blocked doors, ladder, and, seemingly, a level of clarity for the full game world that was completely fascinating at such an early point in the game’s development. On top of this, Chair developed a “player legend.” This is the size of the player, the way he can charge in either direction before he hits critical speed, how high a single jump goes, how high a double jump goes, and the maximum height of the player’s hook shot. The team then dragged this player legend around the map to get an approximate idea for how Shadow Complex‘s planned game world would play out.

Once the team was happy with it on a paper level, the entire game world was blocked out in Unreal Engine in BSP and with some pick-ups and enemies and very basic cover. This allowed the team to get into the game with and iterate on and perfect the core gameplay loop. Mustard said handling the development of the game this way allowed them to add more and more weapon functionality that really worked together with the world to create emergent strategies and functionalities. It was a fascinating look into the game’s development on a level that I would have adored to see in, say, the Uncharted 2 post-mortem. I asked Mustard how they handled changes once the BSP world had been made, and he said that once the game world block was in the engine that all changes were made directly to the BSP layout (which makes sense) and also that the original BSP brushes formed the basis of the game’s collision volumes in a lot of cases. Lee Perry’s prototyping talk the day prior had as imilar level of depth and behind-the-scenes to actually aid developers as well.

I ran out of the Mustard’s session once I had my process question answered and ran into a nearby lecture hall to get my MacBook power cord back. It was here that I realized the woman who asked to borrow it was Christina Norman, lead gameplay designer at Bioware on Mass Effect 2, and had just finished giving a giant speech on the design refinements between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. So that was awesome. Next up on my rushed attempts to get back to the hotel and head to the airport was a quick meet-and-talk with Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software. He was talking to Michael Abbott when I came to say hi, so it was great to briefly talk about Manveer’s talk with him and once again thank Michael for organizing last night’s dinner. And this brought an end to my first-ever GDC.

GDC was, quite simply, a totally fantastic week. I’m not a quiet person, but I am very shy about introducing myself and meeting people, so it was totally great to meet all these super friendly people who I’ve talked to online about games in various forms for years. And listening to five days of sessions gave me some great insight into various design processes as well as some ideas of my own both for my independent work as well as my work on our project at LightBox. My one regret is that there were some people I met that I didn’t get to talk to in much detail, but that’s just kind of a thing that’s bound to happen at a ginormous conference like this.

Here’s a wrap-up of my daily GDC write-ups. It’s also worth noting that I didn’t do full write-ups of all of my sessions as I don’t complete hate myself enough to do that, so there are analyses and summaries of various other sessions buried throughout my daily write-ups.

And here’s a list of all of the live write-ups I did on various sessions/lectures throughout the conference. I can’t stress enough that these are very rough, but I felt it was more important to get them up for people who wanted the information than to spend a lot of time on polishing the writing. This is why I’m not a real journalist.

Thanks to GameDev.net and LightBox Interactive for making this whole trip possible.

GDC 2010 – Day 3

Being from the Central Time Zone, I’m really digging the fact that I actually am waking up early by local standards throughout the week. My morning office consists of a couch and table in the back of a hotel that I’m not staying at:


My plan for the day was to attend the Game Design Workshop since, well, I am a game designer, so it seemed to fit. After a couple hours of correspondence and writing I met up with Scott and Tim and we all walked all scrawny nerd pack-like over to Moscone North. After getting lost once or twice, I actually successfully ended up in the Game Design Workshop and took my seat near the pack because new people scare me.

Then I got kicked out because media badges weren’t allowed.

Since I actually planned out my schedule for the week well and didn’t rely on my normal amount of organized disorganization, I actually had an entire day of Indie/Serious Game Summit sessions lined up throughout the day. The first of these sessions was the Indie Game Summit kick-off lecture by Ron Carmel: “Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System That Never Worked.” This is the kind of topic that has been coming from game developers and publishers of various sizes over the last few years but the primary focus of Carmel’s talk was how the newly-proposed Indie Fund could potentially fix the publishing system for smaller, digitally-distributed games. The talk wasn’t anything particularly new or insightful (especially since the Indie Fund had been announced well prior to the lecture), but it was the perfect tonal kickoff for the summit.

The lecture immediately preceding Carmel’s was given by the indie-famous Cactus whose hyper-prolific development habits have yielded several gems of games over the year (including Tuning, which is a finalist in the IGF awards this year). Cactus delivered the kind of message which more indies should be giving and more developers (as a whole) should hear: imbue your own sense of style and character into your games with little regard to design conventions. Cactus also played one of the best scenes of any David Lynch movie by putting the Lost Highway party scene on display for the entire room. So, you know, props for that. This talk was my first attempt at live-writing up a lecture and, as a result, it has a bunch of grammatical and tonal oddities (I’m pretty sure I switch between two or three tenses at random), but it was a fun first one. The write-up, like all my other material is at my development journal.

The new couple of hours were a lot more subdued. Not being used to this whole sort of thing, I quickly discovered the limitations of my MacBook’s batteries and the lack of any real area for people to just sit down and charge/use their laptops. There is always the press lounge, but for some reason the lounge is in a tiny, incredibly crowded room with a dearth of seating available. As a result, we asked for directions and for some reason the GDC photographers felt this should be in the GDC 2010 gallery (check out my rad flip-flops; they’re so floppin’):

The next series of talks that we attended were all focused on the more social aspects of game development; the first of which was a talk on marketing and PR (“open development”) by John Graham of Wolfire Games. I went into this talk incredibly skeptical regarding the validity of “good marketing” claims by a company who has yet to actually release a game. It seemed, to me, that a well-marketed game is one which does well once it has been released. Graham, however, made a very compelling and interesting case for the way that Wolfire is handling the marketing of Overgrowth (their in-development game). Graham promoted being open, making friends, and staying in contact with their personal game’s community as well as the large game development/game-playing community as a whole, but the real take-away from the talk that Graham didn’t explicitly mention was the benefit of being completely earnest and honest throughout the development process. No one will know whether the Wolfire marketing style will yield long-term success or not (and how much it takes away from active development time), but, for now, it appears to be treating them well.

The next major session of interest was the Independent Game Summit keynote from Tiger Style’s Randy Smith (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor). I already did a somewhat lengthy write-up of his talk, but I’m still not entirely sure what I thought about it. Smith seemed to add an unnecessarily divergent meaning to what designers/gamers typically refer to as “depth” in a game by conflating “depth” with “meaningful content” rather than the traditionally-used definition of mechanical depth. I appreciated his focus on immediacy/”depth” and the importance of utilizing the strengths of a platform like the iPhone. What I wasn’t as much of a fan of was the exceptional amount of time that Smith spent on analyzing his case study games; both Spelunky and Captain Forever were each talked about for about ten minutes each. While both of these games are fantastic and deserving of analysis, it’s not something I would expect in a keynote speech (nor would I expect to hear Smith’s ideas for improving those games). Smith’s incredibly random shot at mainstream games by indicating his apathy for Uncharted 2 (which he admits is an incredibly tuned, polished, and iterated-upon design) and following it up with the joy of being indie. Not only is this not a bad message to deliver — especially at the Independent Games Summit — but burying that message in the last five minutes of a speech came off entirely as a crowd pleasing oration trick rather than a meaningful point.

I also discovered that Randy Smith is, like me, an incredibly fast and energetic talker which not only makes live-writing his speech difficult but makes me have sympathy for everyone that has to listen to me on a daily basis.

The rest of the night was filled with the enormous, multi-course GameDev.net dinner followed by the group of us ending up at a Mexican restaurant. I also drank my first margarita. So that was fun. And salty. And delicious.

GDC 2010 – Day 2

Like every good day, Day 2 began with the sound of the guy in the bathroom of the room adjacent to mine gargling with mouthwash.

San Francisco is one of the most strangely organized cities I’ve ever seen. It’s like the settlers of 1776 were looking around the Western reaches of this new territory, saw this incredibly hilly terrain and thought “this will work.” And it does work, it’s just hilariously ridiculous looking. Tim, Ian, Scott, and I did the tourist thing early in the day which means, of course, the old school cable cars had to be used. As we traveled up the steep hills of downtown, every single side-street we passed had some sort of gorgeous cityscape to behold. I can’t even begin to imagine how much of a ludicrous pain in the ass it is to drive through the city, though.

Of the touristy things that we saw was the home of the 1996 Michael Bay epic cinematic film entitled The Rock, starring Hollywood’s Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Enjoy this tiny iPhone picture of Alcatraz (LOOK HOW TINY IT IS):


So that was fun and stuff. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of this little excursion was Newspaper Man. Newspaper Man was a made wearing a suit made out of the comic strips of newspapers sitting on a lone chair along Fisherman’s Wharf. As the four of us were walking by, Newspaper Man said “Why do French people like eating snails?” We all looked at each other, somewhat confused, until Tim said “… No, why?” at which point Newspaper Man triumphantly proclaimed “Because they don’t like fast food!” This man was poised to become my new best friend… Until he revealed that his face was covered in clown make-up.

On our way back downtown to pick-up our press passes, I discovered that cable cars are dumb. And they have hard seats.

Going into the Moscone Center for the first time, even though it was almost completely empty when we were there, was definitely something. This is a large building. As I remarked on the enormous size of the Moscone building nearest our hotel, I discovered that it was just one of the building that make up the “Moscone Center.” Big cities are a weird thing. And check me out:

And behold the poster boy of the Game Developers Conference:

At night the GameDev.net crew (myself included) all went over to the GDC Kick-Off Cocktail Hour, hosted by SparkPR. It was a rad little shindig and we talked to a bunch of great people, but the most astounding development of the night was the discovery that Tim ‘nes8bit’ Barnes moonlights as a bit of a poolshark.

The night ended with some of us going to a super random, out-of-the-way Asian Fusion place called SO near the Cocktail Hour. Also an endless bowl of noodles that made anyone serving a dish look incredibly intelligent. Incredibly.

GDC 2010 – Day 1

I’m not much of a traveler. I don’t dislike it, I just don’t do it much. Going to the Game Developers Conference this year is something I’ve wanted to do for ages. Back when I started getting involved in game development when I was a tiny little fourteen-year-old kid reading the forums at GameDev.net for ideas on how to make the world’s next major RPG. Yeah. I was that kid. I was the super energetic bastard who thought that getting a team of complete strangers together to make this super cool video game was a smart thing to do. And, luckily, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to look at that post while writing this and be reminded at just how dumb I amwas.

So that’s a thing.

A group of us got into San Francisco last night around 6:00pm PST, which is especially fantastic given that when entering a new city I’m not entirely unlike an easily-distracted puppy dog attracted to shiny objects and big buildings and people on the streets doing the robot. After , John, and I all rocked BART to our hotel near the Mascone Center, we all met up at an Irish pub for Oscars, drinks, and food. At some point in this there was a guy ghost riding around out hotel who made it two blocks before being arrested by San Francisco’s finest. Being a newly-minted resident of Austin, Texas who needed a new driver’s license, I have the fortune of displaying my ghetto, out-of-state paper ID as a means to get alcohol. Which means I don’t get alcohol. Which means me and San Francisco aren’t off to a great start.


These are a bunch of nerds.

The night ended in a befittingly extravagant way: going back to the hotel room and forming my schedule for GDC. Also there’s a window in my hotel room bathroom which opens up to a window in the adjacent room’s bathroom.

The Character of Mass Effect 2

[Warning: Mass Effect 2 spoilers that run the gamut of the game's narrative lay ahead. There is also a paragraph near the end of the piece which references ending spoilers from Uncharted 2.]

Mass Effect 2 is a strange game. It’s the most divergent sequel I’ve played in years. Its differences from its predecessors are so profound as to make Gamasutra’s ever-insightful Chris Remo classify the game as a “surprising genre experiment.” I’m, personally, still somewhat unresolved as to the effectiveness of the ludic changes made between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; however, this piece is not about that.

Anyone that’s talked to me at length before knows my opinion on science-fiction and fantasy: they’re genres filled primarily with insidious nonsense. That’s not to say all science-fiction and fantasy is bad, just that most of the works in those genres, in particular, seem to miss the mark by miles when telling an affecting story. Science-fiction gets obsessed with telling stories about clever science-inspired plot lines about future technology or dangerous evolutions of modern technology. Fantasy gets lost in crazy magic and imaginative worlds. These are two genres which seem to have a large overlap with the gaming industry due to the “typical” game developers’ inspiration in works like Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, and so on. Games, like many other forms of media, when paying homage to their thematic and tonal influences, often seem to miss out on what made those original genre pieces so great: the characters which inhabited them.

There is almost no better analogy for the importance of character to a competent science-fiction-inspired narrative than Star Wars. I’m not, personally, an enormous fan of this particular franchise, but it is without a doubt an important cultural work. Well. Part of it. The original trilogy is a classic in science fiction and pop culture. The more recent prequel trilogy, however, is a laughable set of films amongst critics, fans, and seemingly within pop culture at large. The original trilogy has its epic science-fiction (science-fantasy, really) tale about good and evil, but that tale is seen from the perspective of, roughly, six-eight characters. These characters drive the movie. When we think back on The Empire Strikes Back, we don’t think about any given plot line, we think about that climactic moment when Darth Vadar reveals the ultimate plot twist with the line: “Luke, I am your father.” And drama. Comparatively, the prequel Star Wars trilogy, best analyzed in this hilarious yet poignant seventy-minute review, used characters as little more than set piece to carry along a weighty plot. The most memorable aspect of these movies is. Uh. Maybe that music that played at the end of the first one.

I have no desire to really analyze an enormous genre or even cultural icons like Darth Vadar or Luke Skywalker; there are, really, endless comparisons to be made. Recently, the popularity of the Harry Potter series is notable for its complete rejuvenation in the public’s interest in fantasy. It’s not because J.K. Rowling created a clever alternate universe (though, that’s certainly not insubstantial), it’s that she created this clever alternate universe that we, as readers, experience through the believable eyes of Harry Potter, a kid who grew up in a cupboard.

Story succeeds through character drama and moves forward as a result of character motivations.

I’ve talked about my personal crusade against needlessly epic scale in the past, and although I mention Mass Effect as an example of the epic, the game did something great: its driving force was character motivation to hunt down and bring Saren to justice. It was a very personal motivator throughout a game that insisted on getting to its imminent galactic disaster plot line. The Saren character was always just one step ahead of Shepard in Mass Effect, always committing some vile act or snatching up an important part of the grand puzzle. It was a refreshing change from most games. It was personal.

Mass Effect 2 takes that personal motivator out of the narrative equation and replaces the looming evil, ancient threat with a new looming, evil not-so-ancient threat. Instead of wrestling with the Alliance throughout the game, you’re constantly bashing heads with the will of the secret, shadowy organization who is funding your whole project. Essentially, the overarching plot is the same thing as the original Mass Effect with some new names. And some guy called “The Illusive Man” which, really now, how did that get past a brainstorm session?

What Mass Effect 2 does well, in concept anyway, is adopt the formula of a typical heist movie: we know the end goal upfront, but we need all of the players in order to have any hope of achieving it. With this in mind, Shepard 2.0 ventures off in the galaxy to find some friends — some new, some old. It’s a clever idea for a game, and I enjoyed it. In concept.

One of Bioware’s hooks has always been that the player has a somewhat customizable protagonist and that he fills his party with some scripted, crafted characters. This has the aim of being a somewhat dynamic, unpredictable play-through a very scripted, well-crafted world. In most of Bioware’s games, this tenet has worked out very well. I keep the characters I like with me and hear their witty, entertaining, or enlightening banter as I go through the game and when/if I play through the game again, I can use new characters and have a slightly-altered gameplay experience. Mass Effect 2 uses the characters that fill Shepard’s party as a means to provide that emotional weight that the core storyline lacks. Presumably, through the acquisition of these characters, the player is drawn into the world and the motivations of those that inhabit it.

There are two primary faults with this method of exploring and utilizing character motivations as they relate to the core plot. The first of which being the structure of the typical character acquisition ‘quest.’ In most cases, the player does not actually meet the character he’s adding to his ranks until the last third or very end of a quest. This means that the quest is occupied almost entirely by blatantly-secondary characters and the banter of the characters in the player’s party. It’s hard to have much of a vested interest in any of the secondary characters. Not only do they come across as guest stars in an episode of a television program (this seems intentional), but they’re almost universally one-dimensional (this seems unintentional). Any character with a dilemma magically will find a resolution in the magical Paragon/Renegade words of Commander Shepard. That is, of course, unless that dilemma resolution requires some arbitrary quest to be completed — but it’s hard to fault an RPG for adhering to the trapping of its own genre.

All of this results in each quest being largely dead air. We get our setup, our known resolution, and everything in between is more or less just filler towards our ultimate goal. Since parties are player-defined, none of the characters with Shepard throughout the quest have any vested interest in its on-goings other than the rare one-liner or even more rare banter between the two non-Shepard characters. So, these characters definitely do not carry the plot alone in these segments. And since most of the quest is build-up to the eventual discovery of the key character, that character’s relevance to the over-arching plot isn’t explored until the quest’s completion. This results in each quest feeling like narrative busy-work. A filler episode that doesn’t do much (if anything) to advance the overarching plot.

The second problem with exploring character motivations is with Mass Effect 2‘s actual filler episodes: the loyalty quest. Every party member in the game has a unique loyalty quest that the player must undertake in order to gain that character’s “loyalty” (alternate costume and locked ability). These quests are tangential to the main quest and are also not necessary to complete in order to advance the narrative. They’re simply little vignettes meant to flesh out the secondary details of the primary characters. The issue with these segments? They expose everything that’s missing from the core plot line. As improved as Shepard’s character is in Mass Effect 2, he is still primarily a way to project the player’s will into a fictional proxy. The game is dependent on the likes of Garrus, Tali, Miranda, et al to carry the emotional weight of the game’s story.

During the loyalty missions, the player has that mission’s character forced into his party for the duration of this quest. This means that throughout the quest, that character is a chatty little fella who wants to remark on everything seen, everything done, and interject into every single conversation. For the twenty-thirty minutes that these quests typically last, that character is an actual person. The loyalty quests all follow a very predictable structure: character problem on ship, Shepard embarking on quest, character detailing the best place in an area to start the quest, conversation with key secondary character, Shepard is transported to that quests “level,” the player fights through a few hallways, a wrench is thrown in the mix, a boss or hard enemy encounter is fought in a big open room, and there is a resolution where the subject of the loyalty quest must make a hard decision. Every single loyalty quest follows this loose structure (with two exceptions, but the narrative structural pieces remain in their place). And, yet, I had the most investment in these quests because someone in my party had a vested interest in the outcome. Seeing sweet, adorable Tali slowly fall apart as she discovers that her father was doing some nasty experiments was heartbreaking. See the cold, logic-driven Mordin discover the effects that his Genophage had on the Krogan people come to a harsh realization? Brilliant.

Choosing whether or not to let Garrus take his revenge on the subject of his loyalty quest was the hardest decision I had to make in Mass Effect 2. There wasn’t an “I win” Paragon/Renegade action for me to take which magically resolved the entire scenario (unlike the final brilliant choice in Tali’s quest, which was utterly ruined by the “I win” button on the conversation wheel). I actually took a few minutes to think about what course of action would have the best effect on Garrus, one of the characters in Mass Effect 2 I really liked. I eventually decided that Garrus assassinating this man would bite him in the ass, so I stuck through the entire scenario and, eventually, it was revealed that the man Garrus blamed for the death of his squad wasn’t as at-fault as he wanted to believe. It was a predictable turn, but the way the scene is set-up is tense, complicated, and dramatic and the game didn’t ruin that situation just because my Shepard was a goody-goody Paragon.

When these loyalty quests where finished, I returned to the primary narrative line with all of my buddies backing me up. As I did the final quest, I felt the very generic lines of dialogue spoken by the various characters I selected to fill various roles. I thought to myself as I watched the ending play out: any character I selected to fill this role would have said an equally concise one-liner that got the exact same point across. This ending which is supposed to play out as this epic experience unique to me, the player, instead actually reads like a very carefully-drafted script where any character I select to play Role A will utter this line of dialogue as voiced by actor C. I think back to Uncharted 2 where I saw an ending play out with Drake and Elena where Elena was near-death, and watching Drake’s intimate, personal reaction to it. It’s not a reaction he would have had to anyone other than Elena in that universe. No other swapped-in character could have elicited the same emotions, not even the other love interest in the game. It’s said that Uncharted 2 is a very scripted, carefully-crafted experience and, as such, can get away with evoking emotions like that in a non-interactive cut scene.

Mass Effect 2 has the same goals in the ending I experienced (where two squad members died), it just does not succeed. The goal is to personalize an experience through player choices throughout a very large, deep game experience, but if that personalization yields inferior drama, what is gained? Maybe Mass Effect 2 is simply one step towards a time in the future when developers have the production bandwidth necessary to fully explore every possible scenario that a player may put a given character in. That is a problem that seems to open all sorts of rabbit holes, though. If Mass Effect 2‘s goal is to be a convincing character drama along the lines of some films, the abdication of authorship in favor of what are admittedly fairly minimal player effect on major plot points throughout the game, then maybe its goals are somewhat at odds.

When I finished Mass Effect 2, I did not feel that my relationships with characters had an impact, but I know that I was impacted by the stiffness of what felt like interchangeable character drama throughout the game’s finale.