July 16, 2016
Well, my game playing tapered off towards June, as I just relocated from Doha, Qatar back to London, Ontario, Canada. My Q3 game playing will definitely be low-key, with all the changes to adapting to the new location, job, housing, etc.
But here are the games I *did* play in Q2, with some flair for Retro 🙂
While a new release, this game is well-situated in retro style. An action-adventure-rpg, much in the same vein as the classic Legend of Zelda games, Hyper Light Drifter is a great exploration game, with plenty of action and solid controls. I find it especially engaging in its “no-text, all-atmosphere” style of storytelling. There is not a single written or spoken word in the game, relying instead on cutscenes and pictograms. It has a fantastic post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and is intentionally vague on what happened/what came before, which drives the player to explore and try to figure things out. If there’s a complaint about the game, it’s that it’s SUPER HARD – particularly with the bosses. I would have preferred less focus on the challenging combat, and more focus on exploration/puzzles.
I had purchased StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty back in 2010 and had enjoyed its style and gameplay. However, the gap between that and the next two installments allowed it to slip off the radar for quite a while. Coming back to it now, when the trilogy was complete, was the best way to experience it (presuming you have the time!) Throughout the trilogy, there was a lot of variety and some really interesting story. I had a particular attachment to James Raynor in the first, and his goal to topple a corrupt ruler. I was surprised to develop a strong attachment to Kerrigan in the second installment, but the dark tone and philosophical debate on human nature and morality was really compelling. The third (Protoss) installment, however, fell flat for me because I found the Protoss characters hard to relate to.
I remember playing Escape from Butcher Bay ages ago (2004), but just realized there was a remastered version released in 2009, along with Dark Athena. I was going through a bit of a “Riddick resurgence” by watching some of the movies, and remembered Butcher Bay had a great vibe to it. When playing through again (I barely remembered the narrative points), it was still enjoyable – despite its age. The concept of Riddick going to jail with nothing, and then managing to escape is a great underdog story. Some aspects were a little cumbersome in controls, but ultimately it still held up after all this time.
Dark Athena was also enjoyable, but quite a different game. It was much more offensive, and thus revealed the game engine’s age a bit more than the sneak-focused Butcher Bay. It still was enjoyable, but it got far too difficult in the last quarter of the game. The Boss battle was one of those events where you need to disable them in a specific spot to approach and trigger a quicktime event. If you don’t, the person is basically invincible. It was garbage, and a crappy end to an otherwise-enjoyable game.
This game is part of the genre deemed by many as “walking simulators”. Ultimately, you don’t DO anything other than walk. Sound boring? Yeah, I know, and yet I enjoyed it a lot! Because combat / crafting didn’t exist, you spent your time wandering around trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Because of your ability to loosely wander through areas, you had the ability to discover narrative elements out of sequence, and it amplified the character’s challenge to make sense of the environment. The story itself was quite compelling, learning about specific characters and their personal lives leading up to the “event”. If I would complain about anything in this game, it’s that the walking speed was set and there was no “run”. So, on occasion, you would wander to a far corner and have to walk back for a while to get to the next trigger point/area to explore. It got tedious. But at 3hrs or so, it was a minor complaint.
I had originally followed Banner Saga back when it was a Kickstarter , and I loved the art style and choice of setting – drawing on Nordic culture (including using the language in the music) is a great touch! This game is meant to throw hard choices at you, and you will most likely lose some of your heroes along the way (death, departures, and even turning on you) based on those choices. I enjoy the strategy, and despite your choices, it still felt like a fleshed out narrative (your decisions didn’t alter the narrative arc, only events within it). This is another tough game, however, and in my opinion too tough (no difficulty settings). It definitely scratched my Game of Thrones itch. If anything, the biggest frustration aside from difficulty was that some characters will leave/disappear and basically screw you over – I was depending on one character as a tank and then he decided to leave, so I was in trouble! All in all I recommend it, but maybe wait until the trilogy is finished so you don’t have to wait 1.5 years for the final installment.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this game at first, because it was pitched as a survival game where you crash land on an alien planet searching for a “new Earth”. But this game really grew on me, because it was a more interactive version of a “walking simulator”. You need to keep yourself fed, watered, and rested, and need to explore everywhere to try to learn about the alien world and the ruins you encounter. The game lacks any “enemies” in the traditional sense (you’re mostly alone), so everything you encounter that’s dangerous is environmental. I do like the feeling of loneliness you get exploring the world. There is little backstory, so you feel like you inhabit the avatar, uncovering things about the world as you progress. This game is finished now, so I should go back to it and play the last couple chapters of the game!
If you were hankering for another Grand Strategy Space game like Master of Orion, Stellaris may be for you! This game is frigging MASSIVE, and I think that works in its favor (earlier in the game) and detriment (later in the game). Initially, there is so much to explore and uncover, and the game also includes “anomaly event” mini-narratives where your scientist can research and uncover them. I do enjoy building an empire, and exploring. But, to be honest, the grand strategy aspect is “too grand” for me – there is so much to manage, and combat against other races is very hard to coordinate. I’ve started over a couple times and I enjoy starting off, but I run out of stam later. Ultimately, I think, I’m best served by a game focused on the exploration, and bypassing the overall “galaxy conquering” management scale.
After playing Stellaris, I went back to what is probably my favorite game of all time: Star Control 2. It is a well-written exploration game where your alliance of planets has lost, and you have been cut off for 20 years. You have to figure out what happened, what is happening, and try to get in contact with new races, as well as gather valuable resources and fight off attacks.”Ur-Quan Masters” is a free “enhanced” version based on the original source code that was released, and they made it run on modern computers. I play this game every 3 years or so, and it is still enjoyable every time. It is exciting and sometimes silly, but without being goofy. I also love the exploration aspect, and only wish this game used procedural-generation of locations – it is fixed, so if you remember any locations you can go there without discovering them traditionally.
Considering this is a “free” game, I strongly recommend everyone play this! The writing/narrative is clever and hilarious, the combat still holds up (arcadey-top-down action), and it’s a classic. There are rumors that a new spiritual successor may be coming from Toys For Bob, but we’ll have to wait and see.
This last game I bought specifically for cooperative play, and it didn’t disappoint. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a cute space game where up to 4 players can control different consoles on a space ship (navigation, shields, guns, special weapon). Part of the challenge with this game is that there are more consoles than players, and you have to run around inside the space ship to get to another console to use it. It creates an additional challenging element to the game, aside from worrying about the enemies/obstacles themselves. It is very “cute” (intentionally-so), but I didn’t find it interfered with the game experience. It’s a good couch-coop game!
March 28, 2016
I thought that, rather than write a bunch of posts on games I’ve played, I’d do quarterly write-up on what I’ve played and some brief thoughts. This, by the way, is reflective of games I’ve played in Q1 2016, but not necessarily Q1 2016 games 🙂
This game was plagued with performance problems on PC when it was released, so I left it on the back-burner until now. Overall, I had a good time with this game. I enjoyed the more adult, darker vibe (more Christian Bale than comic zaniness) The game had refined and enjoyable gameplay, and I did enjoy having the batmobile as a chance-of-pace from Arkham Asylum + City. If I were to rank Asylum, City, Origins and Knight, I’d put Asylum first but Knight second.
While I did enjoy it, I was disappointed it didn’t fully commit to the dark vibe throughout (I could give an example of a plot point, but out of concern for spoilers I’ll hold back). I did get game-fatigue closer to the end, and was not inspired to bother with any of the side-quest stuff (particularly the riddler puzzles). I didn’t bother in Arkham City either, so no surprise there.
Here’s a little change in pace from Batman 😉 This game almost borders on party game, from the point of view that it is a ridiculous game that is even funnier when you have friends to laugh along with you. There is no real story to speak of – only that you’re a goat, and you have objectives offered up progressively by the game for points. Other than that, it’s open-world with no guidelines. You can totally mess around in here, and you certainly do. Your goat has a hell of headbutt, a jump, sticky tongue, and can’t truly die, so you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. When you do “die”, you become a floppy goat corpse, but can still move it around until you reset the goat. Even that is pretty amusing 😉
I’d recommend this one for a good laugh for a couple of days. To note, a prototype of the game was originally created as a joke, and the developers got such a positive response to it that they turned it into a commercial product!
I grew up with the AD&D Gold Box games made by SSI, followed by Baldur’s Gate and its ilke via Bioware. This game manages to nail the memory of Baldur’s Gate to a tee. To feel this nostalgic, yet still be modern and approachable, is saying something indeed! It’s very easy to sink a lot of hours into, and the game isn’t exactly small. It’s basically what you want from this kind of isometric RPG (unless you want Planescape: Torment or Fallout, which both have modern iterations in Torment: Tides of Numenera and Wasteland 2).
Unfortunately for me, I got bogged down in some difficult combat and it was enough to side-track me onto the next game… I haven’t made it back to continue yet.
I missed out on the original Homeworld games back in the late 90s because I found 4x space RTS games were way too confusing with camera angles and the like. But when I found this was more Command and Conquer (or StarCraft 2) than Homeworld, I gave it a spin. I’m very, very glad I did! The game’s audio and visuals are stunning. Speaking as someone who lives in a desert climate, it gets the color spectrum and feelings exact. This is a great little game and a fantastic example of what you can pull off in the Unity Game Engine.
If I had any complaints, it’s that it’s FRIGGING HARD! I am no rookie to RTSes (though I tend to turtle) and I lost the first mission. Yep, it’s not a walk in the park. But it’s a great experience all around.
While Homeworld surprised me, I was waiting for Rise of the Tomb Raider. And like Homeworld, this game nails the visuals. Everything looks great, and on a number of occasions I stopped just to look around and take it in (thanks for not being Call of Duty in a constant sprint to the finish line!). Some of the exotic settings and ruins are incredible.
The gameplay is very much an evolution of the original reboot, but I enjoyed that game a lot and thus enjoyed this as well. It plays well, and you like to be in this world, especially as you get better skills in survival and combat. This was one of the few games that actually motivated me to try to get 100% on each map, though as I got to the latter couple of maps a combination of game fatigue and map scale served to end that goal.
If there was anything weak in ROTR for me, it would be the story. In a word: predictable. I figured out a plot twist early on that wasn’t revealed for a dozen more hours. Plus, the characters are a bit archetypal – they play to stereotypes and again become predictable. But, honestly, this wasn’t a big hindrance, and I had no problems playing through to the end.
Ahh X-Com. I have such fond memories of the original ’90s PC game, and the reboot got a lot of it right. X-Com 2 follows in these footsteps and tries to innovate on the existing design with (mostly) good improvements.
This game was very addictive – the “just one more mission” kept me up way later than I ought to have stayed up. I also made sure to name/customize the soldiers to be family and friends, which gives you a LOT more investment in them than you’d normally have. You really want them to live, and even yell at them when they miss 🙂 I loved the base building, the combat, the exploration… pretty much everything.
My complaints stemmed from particular aspects of how they ramped up the difficulty. For one, you start “behind the 8-ball” in terms of limited resources and contacts. You spend a lot of the game just trying to dig yourself out of the hole and (personally) I found this frustrating. This was exemplified with the “Dark Events”, where you could choose to stop an enemy activity – but not all of them. So you were guaranteed to get punished, but you could limit the damage somewhat. Not motivational. Another angle was the introduction of timed missions (10 turns to win or automatic lose). It changed the typical X-Com “take your time” strategy and forced your hand. The problem with this is it happened MOST of the time, so people who enjoyed the strategy of setting up troops felt cheated.
One complaint I have about both reboots was that the original X-Com hid enemy movements from you, including when aliens shoot at you! So you would genuinely “stumble into an alien” on a mission at point blank, or a laser beam would shoot out from the fog of war and SCARE THE CRAP OUT OF YOU. These reboots have the aliens traveling in packs and revealing themselves instantly… I miss that old element!
It’s hard to know how to feel about the Witness in a number of ways. Developer Jon Blow seems to know how to push the right buttons 🙂 This game is different from most other games you’ve played, perhaps overlapping with the classic game Myst most.Myst had little story, and neither does the Witness – they both mainly embrace the puzzles they present. Myst, at least, had more clear motivation on what you were trying to do… The Witness is vague at best in anything narrative (intentionally).
The game is very beautiful and it is interesting to see how it was designed to encourage players to teach themselves the logic of the different kinds of puzzles. But forget X-Com 2 or Homeworld, THIS GAME IS MIND-MELTINGLY HARD. Some of the puzzles are best suited to people who are very logical (good at math and science? this is for you) and punishes everyone else with no real assistance aside from the initial “training puzzles”. A lot of people will dislike how this game denies support or assistance in any way, but since its main reward is the thrill that comes with solving puzzles, it kind of makes sense.
It’s worth a try, perhaps as it gets cheaper, but don’t expect to beat this thing unless you are committed, a logic-genius, or resort to puzzle assistance (this was me) 😉
If The Witness sounds frustrating, or if you are much more drawn to characters and story, Firewatch is much more up your alley. Situating yourself in the 1980s as a park ranger, the majority of your interactions come from another park ranger over the walkie talkie you carry. You spend a lot of time walking around the park (and man is it pretty), and a genuine sense of “being alone” (both positive and negative connotations) come into play for the character. You have the ability to ask and answer questions with some choice, and care was taken to make your choices feel unique.
When I finished the game, I read up on some reviews and realized the game changes notably based on how you response to questions. I hesitated to play again, however, because I felt I got “my story” from my choices. It’s not impossible to replay, however, because the game clocks in at about 3hrs to completion. Some people may complain it’s too short, but it respected your time (especially valuable when you’re older and, you know, have responsibilities other than playing games). I recommend this to most people as a really engaging and unique experience worth having (as long as you don’t mind “not shooting stuff”).
Speaking of shooting stuff, Helldivers is a very intense isometric shooter with co-operative play (up to 4 players). Borrowing from the Starship Troopers vibe, you invade three different types of worlds to “bring justice” to different alien races… through shooting stuff, of course!
The game has a basic formula of choosing a difficulty level, generating a procedural map with specific types of objectives to complete on the mission, and allowing the player to choose a start point. You configure your gear, and drop in. Depending on the difficulty, the game introduces more/different types of enemies, and this game gets very VERY HARD. A friend and I jumped into a game three levels higher than I was playing at and I died in less than 30 seconds 😉
The game plays well and is fun, but is based fundamentally on “level grind” progression which can get a bit tired after a while. Also, while the levels are procedural, the mission goals are from a set group (maybe 7 or so?) so you end up doing the same kinds of missions often. But the coop (collaborative) aspects make this game pretty enjoyable for quite a while. And did I mention this game was HARD? There’s also friendly-fire you can’t turn off 🙂
Now THIS is an experience that surprisingly-new! It’s a First-Person-Shooter-Strategy game, more or less. An FPS, but where time (basically) doesn’t move if you don’t move. So rather than an FPS where you run for high ground or cover, Superhot gets you running AT your enemies, dodging their bullets and feeling, quite literally, like Neo from The Matrix. You need more spatial awareness than any kind of hand-eye coordination, because you have to figure out where the baddies are coming from and what they’re doing. It is really refreshing, and rewarding to clear a level like some action hero would do. Though a totally different experience, there’s a bit of a “Hotline Miami” feeling of accomplishment upon completing a level.
The game steadily increases in difficulty as you progress, and the latter levels get really complex and difficult (hence why I haven’t beaten it yet). Graphically it is very abstract, which gives it a unique look and takes some of the violence out of your actions. It also helps you see enemies and bullets as they show up in different colors than the background. Play this if you want a notably-different (but exciting) gaming experience.
It’s been a long time since I played this game originally, and in most ways it still holds up. Grim Fandango is a classic adventure game set in the Land of the Dead with a Film Noir style. It has some of the best plot/environment/dialogue that I’ve seen in any computer game. It’s a classic, and that’s probably why it finishes in the top 10 on most “best game ever” lists (presuming you’re not a console elitist). It’s great to see the Remastered edition allows another generation of people to play this game, since the original is difficult to get set up properly. The developer commentary is also excellent, as it gives us insight into a lot of decisions and processes that made the game what it is.
Now, I can’t let GF off without some gripes – there are some really unclear puzzles in this game. Perhaps spoiled a little by more modern games, there were times I genuinely didn’t know what I was supposed to do next, nor could I figure out what worked with what. They were also experimenting with 3D (physical) puzzles in this game, and some of those are downright confusing or tricky (glitchy) to get to work. I even had the game crash on my a couple times! And the game -STILL- has a puzzle that you can break the game with, which has been there since it was originally released. But honestly, despite these grumbles you really need to play this game if you have not. So good.
And that’s all I’ve played in this quarter… judging on my impending move back to Canada in July, I’m probably not going to have nearly this much to comment on for Q2… but I’ll give it a try 😉
March 18, 2016
Photogrammetry is a fascinating process you may or may not have heard about before, but it is becoming much more common. This technique has appeared in a number of places, but for games the Vanishing of Ethan Carter did it first. The most mainstream example, however, is Star Wars: Battlefront. In fact, at GDC this past week there was a talk specifically on Photogrammetry in SW:Battlefront! Because of my interest/background in photography and video games, this combines a couple of interests at once.
Photogrammetry (for video games) is the process of producing 3D models and textures through the use of source material from digital photography. But photos are two-dimensional, right? Yes, that’s true! The trick with photogrammetry is through the software it uses. This software (Agisoft Photoscan the most common) is able to extract unique points in each picture for the object. So, by taking a number of photos from many angles of an object, these photos can be matched against each other for unique points, and the software is able to figure out from where (what angle) each photo was taken. It sounds clever, but the real magic comes from the software extrapolating all the unique points from all the photos, ultimately producing a textured 3D model!
The traditional method of creating a 3d object and its textures is typically based on producing textures that tile (repeat) or are symmetrical. While this works well for some (often man-made) objects, other objects don’t look natural when they are uniform. Also, the level of (texture) detail of objects is something that, traditionally, someone has to create by hand. The more detail, the more time invested. Photogrammetry is able to extract this from megapixels of photos, giving it far more detail than the typical artist is willing to put in.
In order to illustrate the process, I’ve selected a wall-mounted lamp in my backyard. It seemed reasonably easy to photograph, plus is isn’t perfectly symmetrical (some broken bits) and a distinct texture (dirty).
There is a whole technique for doing this, but fundamentally you just need to get good coverage of your object. Too few photos and you don’t get enough information, but too many and your computer will struggle to be able to process it. It’s also worth mentioning you want to shoot on an overcast day (or inside in an evenly-lit room), because uneven light causes shadows and this means some angles will have less detail.
Once you have your photos (in my case, I took 33), you load your Photogrammetry software and drop in the photos. I demonstrate this with Agisoft Photoscan, as it offers a free trial. Once this begins it will take a while (depending on your computer and number/quality of photos). Once done, you get a neat sphere showing where all your photos were taken around the central object.
Before you move on, you can remove points you don’t want. These may be points that are errant or are part of the background. The more you remove here, the more consistent/clean your object will end up.
Now that you have your initial points, you can generate a dense cloud. This, again, can take a while. When done, you should have a clear view of what your object looks like. What you see is not a texture, but just a pile of unique points! In my lamp, I have 17 million points (that’s a lot!) You can also do another pass at removing unnecessary points, and this will help produce a smoother mesh.
With the dense cloud created and cleaned up, it’s time to generate a mesh. Yep, more wait time. The result, however, is pretty detailed. My lamp is 1,189,000 faces. Note: for those not in 3d modeling, this is a ridiculous number of faces for something basic like a lamp. This will ultimately need to be scaled down to a reasonable amount. As a source mesh, this has (well in excess of) all the detail we’ll ever need.
Now that we have the mesh, we can generate the texture. Photoscan lifts all the visual detail from the photo and maps it onto the mesh, producing a glorious texture map. However, it will produce textures that are broken up into many smaller pieces (not user friendly). This is something that can be tweaked by increasing the texture size, and by manipulating it in a 3d program after the fact. In all honesty, it’s the texture production which has the greatest visual impact for the end user. Everything looks unique.
Once you’ve saved the mesh and texture file, you can import it directly into 3D Studio or Maya and start manipulating it.
Well, for one, it’s still relatively new. With the success of the process in Star Wars: Battlefront, you will start to see a more mainstream uptake of this technology. A good example is HellBlade, where they used the process to capture the face of the protagonist in this video (Hellblade takes it to 11 by adding photogrammetry to in-engine live facial and motion capture).
Secondly, it’s worth noting only a couple of development houses have been willing to take on the financial burden of the photogrammetry rigs. To capture faces quickly and effectively, they use a LOT of SLR cameras in sync (by a lot, I mean 40-80!). So it is a bit expensive to start with. But with proven results and reduced production time, it will inevitably become cheaper and more common in the years to come.
Lastly, as I mentioned above, you get a lot of detail (mesh and texture) – more than you will need. So depending on the application – for example, a game for mobile phones, it is likely not an efficient process. Phones aren’t powerful enough to handle the detail, so it’s wasted. Heck, if I had a bunch of objects in a game as detailed as my lamp example above, it would struggle to run on powerful gaming PCs. It always needs to be scaled back (unless your end result is a video).
Anyhow, I hope that gives you some insight into this fascinating process, as I can guarantee you’ll see it used more and more in the coming years.
November 2, 2015
With the summer break (which consists of a trip back to Canada from Qatar), as well as networking/investigating future career plans, I’ve been pretty quiet on here. But I’ve been keeping busy, I promise!
I haven’t been very successful at convincing my Dean that I should be seconded on a project making games for my department (Communications). However, I did take it on myself produce some proof of concept projects to see if there’s interest.
Technical Prep Program – Standard Operating Procedure
Another colleague was developing multimedia (for online materials delivery) for a course, and I wanted to contribute with gaming. We agreed to make a “micro-simulation” that could be inserted into the materials and give students a different form of interaction than the typical ‘clicking’. The result was a first-person proof of concept, where the player must follow the steps in a Standard Operating Procedure for replacing a broken part on a machine. From a game standpoint, it’s quite simple. However, it is meant to be played in about 5mins, and by players who may not play games regularly. The demo video can be found on its page.
It was well-received by the Technical Prep Program bosses, and gives them an idea of what can be done that is more rich an experience than an interactive textbook.
Augmented Reality Demo
Augmented Reality is something popping up more often at work as of late, since there are a number of ways it can be used in technical industries to help workers. As such, I decided to learn how to create a basic AR interaction. The result can be seen on its page, including a video. Basically, I wanted to demonstrate the ease in which an AR object can be created and interacted with (aka looked at). The next step will be to look at creating more digital interaction, perhaps when bringing two items together. A great example is this program, which allows you to combine two AR objects together. Other options are creating basic buttons for user interaction.
While these are not substantial projects in and of themselves, they provided some insight to colleagues about what can be done if demand was there (and budget/time allocated). I look forward to playing more with Augmented Reality, and also if anything comes from the Tech Prep Program regarding simulation-learning-tools.
Games I’ve Played in the last little while:
This is a very easy to get into and play (as opposed to an intimidating, time-invested epic story). It nails that “just one more quest and then I’ll stop” that turns 5 more minutes into an hour. I found the world and atmosphere is great – it really does *feel* like Mad Max. However, I didn’t feel a connection with the majority of the story characters, and the story in general. This might also relate to my above statement that it was easy to get into, because it didn’t get me invested narratively.
Probably the single biggest frustration in this game came from a required racing story mission, which was REALLY FRIGGING HARD! It wasn’t executed very well (tight corridors, yet the car doesn’t handle sharp), and it took me almost an hour before I figured out how to beat it. Yes, I was yelling at the screen. 😛
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Considering I didn’t play the first two Witcher games (I tried the second one, but detested the controls), there’s a lot potentially discouraging you from jumping in to the story. However, the developers excelled at presenting the history in a way that clued in latecomers like me, without being too much of a recap for returning players. This game has a very vibrant world environment, and I did enjoy being a part of it. Even the side quests, which are usually drab and uninspired in games, were for the most part unique and interesting. Heck, even the sidequest characters have their own voice actors, and amusing quirks!
If I can fault this game for anything, it’s that I played 99 hours and that wasn’t completionist! It’s gargantuan, and something I find harder to find time to play when I’m older and have things like, say, a job and a family. My wife was incredibly tolerant for the most part. I’d avoid this game if you’re the kind of player that NEEDS to clear the map of all objectives.
This is very much an action-RPG version of the space-sim Elite:Dangerous. I found this game, like Mad Max before it, is very easy to jump into and play for a while. To be honest, I enjoy running around doing paid missions just as much as following the narrative – perhaps more! You can jump to different solar systems, each with differing difficulty. So this works well to promote the continual upgrading of your ship, much like a typical RPG ups the difficulty.
If there is a complaint, I don’t find the narrative riveting. Granted, I did come from playing Witcher 3, so hard to compare. Arguably, though, this game doesn’t hinge on the narrative (not even as much as Mad Max). The narrative simply there for the player to have some centralized focus aside from just running around, completing missions and upgrading.
April 25, 2015
“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
And in many ways, they mean it. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is essentially an exploratory puzzle game. The player arrives on the scene because of a letter sent to him by Ethan Carter, and your job is to try to uncover what is going on.
Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot of guidance. Players are left to explore and uncover things in the environment, piecing the story together like a detective examining a crime scene. It’s an interesting approach to take in this age of game maps and objectives and directives. There is no game map, and there is not even always a clear direction. Sometimes I found myself exploring only to find that I had doubled-back on my position to a previous puzzle I had solved (specifically when trying to find the mine).
All in all, this experience was a good one. The game is short, but does not need to be any longer. The puzzles can be challenging, but there were enough clues that I was always able to figure them out. The mechanic of reassembling crime scene narratives into the correct order was also entertaining. Characters were believable, and there’s a healthy dose of surrealism going on here. And something you would remember when this game was originally teased: the graphical textures/materials in game are stunning. There’s a crazy amount of detail and you can even zoom in to see more!
While it echoed bits of other games, such as Dear Esther or Alan Wake, this is clearly its own entity and a refreshing change. There’s more control than Esther (which isn’t saying much), but the game does not choose action to deliver its engagement. Akin to something like Myst or 11th Guest, the atmosphere goes a long way to prompt emotion in the player, as well as thrill (damn miner!)
It is an interesting coincidence that prior to playing this I have been thinking more and more about designing games that privilege exploration. A hands-off exploratory approach lets the player stop and take in the environment. The player explores at his/her own pace and has a genuine sense of satisfaction from finding things “their own way”. By the end of the game, they (hopefully) feel like the game experience has been their own, rather than a canned, scripted affair.
Where this could backfire is in missing pieces of or entire puzzles while exploring. For example, the boundaries of the first puzzle you encounter in Ethan Carter are not immediately clear. I ended up uncovering most of it, but continued exploring and found myself at a second puzzle. “Oh, I’ve got to go back and look more”. This could be particularly frustrating for someone who missed solving a puzzle early on, and has to backtrack through a notable portion of the game. Levels need to be designed with a natural flow, yet not feel like corridors (Ethan Carter does this quite well). Alternatively, if you’re clever enough a designer, design it so that the puzzles are optional as well. Of course, when puzzles are attached to a kind of narrative, it might get tricky.
An idea I’ve returned to regularly would be a game designed in a hands-off, exploratory manner but that contains multiple different narrative/puzzle elements. Players, based on their own exploration, might find all, some, or one of the puzzles. For example, if a player was trapped on an island, there might be multiple ways to get off the island. Players will explore and find some of these ways to escape, but different players will have different gameplay experiences. It’s a fantastic concept for prompting discussion of gameplay experiences, which could be harnessed in education to have students journal their gameplay experiences and share them.
March 21, 2015
AAA game studios are known for their flashy graphics as much as their overly-violent renditions of gameplay. They’re fast, they’re fun, and they’re fluff – when you finish you rarely come away with a more enlightened view.
It’s rare to find a video game that puts forth a mature theme and message, and yet this is the second post in a row where a game manages to do just that (The Talos Principle being the other). It’s even more rare to find a game like this come from a AAA studio, but Ubisoft saw this diamond and wanted to share it.
I’m so very glad they did.
Valiant Hearts is a game that does a great job providing players with the experience, atmosphere, and background research about a war we rarely talk about in games: The Great War: World War 1. While it does take occasional liberties with the narrative to promote drama and gameplay, the result is still very true to events and gives what is likely the first and only game that provides an accessible World War 1 experience through a game.
Made at Ubisoft Montpellier, it has some Canadian sensibilities, such as a considerable effort to reflect all the different players involved in the Western Front. The usual suspects of Germans, British, and French are represented, but also other key players such as the Belgians, Canadians, and Indians. Even medics, and their canine companions, contribute considerably to the game. It’s refreshing to see a multicultural cast reflective of real events. Now I can hope this game sold well-enough so they can make an Eastern Front game replete with Ottoman Turks, Australians, Austro-Hungarians and Russians which is even less-remembered these days.
The game itself presents very mature and horrific themes, but does so through its stylized art (think Adventures of Tintin) and tailored gameplay such that the experience is shocking but not repulsive. Rather than take the typical gaming “low-hanging fruit”, the game avoids you overtly killing in the game. While this may sound sterilized, the levels on the front are littered with the injured, and corpses. Player focus is placed on solving puzzles and helping others, and as the medic directly treating the injured. It provided such a fresh experience and the pace allows you to take things in and appreciate the details.
What makes this stand out from a battlefield of educational game corpses is that the game has ensured that gameplay is the top priority. It works well as a game, and because of that it is able to provide historical context in a way that does not disrupt game flow or feel contrived. To me, at least, it reinforces why educational games need game developers to guide the process, rather than educators with a spurious knowledge of how games work. It’s this kind of game that continues to inspire me to work towards finding and defining the balance needed for educational games in the future.
March 14, 2015
As soon as I first heard about The Talos Principle, I was excited. Not as much because CROteam was known for Serious Sam (which I’ve never been partial to), but because Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes were attached on the project as writers. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both at GDC, and both lean more towards philosophy and exploration of concepts. So this will be a puzzle game with some genuine depth to it?
And…. I wasn’t disappointed! For those who are familiar with Valve’s acclaimed game Portal (which I presume is most people), the Talos Principle:
– provides a similar test-like environment in which the player must solve physical puzzles using the tools they are provided
– focuses less on the player’s need to be dexterous during play (it’s not pixel-precise, nor does it require quick reflexes)
– focuses much more on the “narrative”: a mashup of found-texts like diaries, literary excerpts and emails which explore concepts such as “what it means to be human”
– includes an insane number of little easter eggs
The second point is something I think should make it more accessible to a diverse group of players. You don’t have to have first-person-shooter skills to play this game. The game never rushes you or judges you for taking your time (or giving up and trying a different puzzle). In fact, the game will actually encourage you to do so if you seem to be taking a long time! This is tied into the narrative, where the emphasis is put on completing the puzzles rather than speed-running or being driven along by a world-ending scenario.
The third point, I believe, is where this game really differentiates itself from its peers. I’ve had a number of game experiences that, while enjoyable at the time, leave me feeling a bit “hollow” at the end. Why did I just invest 30+ hours in this? What did I learn? The Talos Principle actively engages your intellect through its dialogue and readings to consider concepts that apply beyond the game itself. Rather than just react, it hopefully makes you think about the bigger picture of life itself. There is also some self-reflexivity in the game, considering you are using a computer to play the game to … use a computer 🙂 This delivery made me feel both like I was being nosy and being exploratory. It has more gravity than someone barking audio-narrative at you as you play.
If I were to grumble about anything, it would be that the game has so many puzzles that I got a bit tired of completing them after a while (I’m also a completionist, so I did more than I needed to). There also a number of “arrange the shapes to unlock” puzzles which are tedious. Both of these issues may be born from the demand to have games meet a certain number of hours in length (15/20+ hours), and/or it may just be my personal preference (and lack of spare time).
Ultimately, the Talos Principle is a great example of a game that is grown-up. Something adults who are less interested in the twitch-gaming (and mass murder) of Call of Duty could get into. It’s a game that tries not to be hollow, and give you something to take away from the experience. We need more grown-up games that matter, and this is the kind of experience I aim to reproduce in my own work.
March 1, 2015
My personality has just enough of the obsessive and compulsive that I struggle with open world games. There’s always more to unlock or discover, and if there are multiple endings my psyche nags me until I see all the outcomes.
But I’ll be honest: I didn’t finish Far Cry 4. Well, aside from the secret ending right at the beginning. And for me and my above-listed personality, that is uncharacteristic. So what was different with Far Cry 4?
A Gritty, Real-World Grey
First of all, I want to emphasize how nice it is to see a different locale and populated by “geographically-accurate” ethnicity. There aren’t many white people in this game, and none of them encourage affinity. I also want to highlight that Far Cry 4 does a solid job of reflecting the gritty, complex happenings of problem spots we read about. With the war in Syria a great parallel example: Who’s bad? Who’s good? How do you tell the rebels from the extemists? Can a newsreader summarize the problems into some convenient sound-bite? Absolutely not. While President Bashir Assad was “painted black” and the rebels “painted white” at the beginning, everything’s a murky grey now.
Far Cry 4 presents these kinds of issues with a variety of dubious allies and decisions to make to find out more about Kyrat, its past and its potential future. For example, do you burn the opium fields and destroy the corrupt government’s means for income? Or do you save the fields for the rebels and use the money to help defeat the same government? Which is right? Which is wrong? Ubisoft intentionally leaves this unclear, challenging the player to consider that their actions may not be having the clear-cut intentions they hope.
I have to give credit to Ubisoft for permitting this angle to be reflected in their game. It is uncharacteristic of mainstream games to take a distinctively “unHollywood” like approach. This game often feels more documentary than action movie (though there is more than enough action to go around). A particular standout is the character of “King” Pagan Min, whose eccentric (and somewhat unhinged) personality is as vibrant as his suit. Sadly, he doesn’t feature as prominently as I’d like, considering other characters come across much less compelling. He’s an easy guy to hate at the beginning, but as players encroach on the ending he doesn’t seem as out of place (or crazy) as you’d expect.
So, Where Was I?
Back to my problem. With the “Golden Path” rebel’s two leaders always at odds on how to proceed, your character is brought into the fray to be the definitive voice on which leader’s plans are applied. In the game’s final act, you must choose which leader you will back in a final mission: to destroy (or capture) a holy temple. Whomever you support will ostensibly become the leader of the Golden Path (and ultimately, the country).
So I heard Amita’s argument. Then I heard Sabal’s. And I must admit: I didn’t like either of them. I wanted a third option, which pushed me onto the Internet to try to figure out why I’d want to choose from two bad choices. I ultimately found that whomever you support, it’s still a bad choice. And here is where the game falls flat for me.
Again, I appreciate the effort put the player into a real-world, complex political situation. However, in their narrative delivery this open-world game became distinctly limiting. Instead of the bad choices, why couldn’t my character, a Kyrati-expat, do his own thing? Don’t I have as much right to become the leader as these others do? Unfortunately, in a game designed around freedom, I had none.
And so, with all the Bell Towers, Fortresses, and Outposts captured, I threw up my hands, quit the game and watched the endings on Youtube. While I don’t need a Hollywood ending, I think most players ultimately feel compelled to want to solve problems and try to do “the right thing” as best as we can. Alas, in the case of Far Cry 4, that real-world option is not open to us.
February 22, 2015
Lynda.com’s Unity Essential 2D training “Super Jetroid” (above), Unity Technologies’ 2D Roguelike (below)
I find it amusing that even less than ten years ago there were few tools beyond straight programming for someone to use to develop a video game. Nowadays I actually struggle with the myriad of game engine choices! Do I focus on Unreal Engine? CryEngine? Game Maker? Construct 2? Source Engine? Flash?
Well, as a beginner it’s best to approach engines that are simplified. They’re less discouraging. Engines like Construct 2 and Game Maker can allow you to rapidly-prototype games.
Once you’ve become accustomed to the basics, and have a familiarity with scripting/programming (this is where I am), I think there’s merit in moving towards a more professionally-utilized game engine. For one, it allows you to produce more professional-looking games and reach more platforms. But also, once you have demonstrated skill with an engine it might help you get a job with a company who uses it (or something similar) 🙂
So I’ve pushed ahead with Unity3D. Throwing my eggs into this basket means I don’t have to keep on re-learning interfaces and scripting languages – I can just stick to one. Unity3D also is very versatile, allowing for development of a variety of games in 2D and 3D styles. There is also a lot of overlap with Unity3D and other professional engines (like Unreal Engine 4), such as managing assets, attaching scripts, and using state machines.
I undertook a “Unity Essential 2D Training” tutorial on Lynda.com which I found was very helpful in a number of ways. Not only did it allow for a start-to-finish development of a tile-based 2D game, but it also used a variety of Unity’s features, acclimatizing me to Unity’s UI (which can look quite intimidating if you don’t understand it!) It also demonstrated a basic workflow approach to development, which was great to see. You can develop a variety of scenes in Unity, and create some just for “staging” (testing) various components of the game. Once you’ve done this, you can create prefabs of your objects and just drop them all in a scene. Previously, I used to test features in the actual game, and this compartmentalizes this aspect nicely. Once your features are fine, just build a number of scenes (levels) and you have your game!
Following this, I noticed a brand-new “2D Rogue-like” tutorial was released by Unity itself. As this game uses procedurally-generated levels, it takes a different approach to the game development workflow. You build a “game manager” which handles the implementation of all the key assets into the level. While this was more complex in its programming, it is invaluable to see how to construct something like this.
Moving forward, I am looking at some small-scale game projects, modding one of the above games and using it as a base for the new game. Considering I work full-time and have other familial responsibilities, taking on a game of epic proportions would likely be a bad idea (it hasn’t worked in the past!) I was contemplating modding the Roguelike to either [a] be a unity version of my text-graphics C++ roguelike, or [b] make a game about Diabetes-awareness. I’m also always on the lookout for more Unity tutorials to help solidify the programming/development skills. We’ll see which comes to the top!
November 3, 2014
Well, Eid Jam didn’t go as anticipated! I made the rookie mistake of trying to develop something fairly (mathematically) complex. I’m no mathematician, so I got stuck in the calculations. To top things off, my cat had some health complications, so that absorbed a chunk of my time with vet visits. (the cat is fine). Following that, there was a death in the family and I had to return to Canada. So, needless to say, there’s been a lot of obstacles to development recently.
But all was not lost! After the frustrations of being mired in core coding and not getting to gameplay design, I redirected my holiday energies towards Bethesda’s Creation Kit. Rather than get bogged down in the coding-heavy underpinnings of developing from scratch, Creation Kit lets you build levels from existing assets, create quests, and play straight from Skyrim itself. Having worked through the level design tutorial, I built a basic dungeon to test design features.
Moving forward, I want to apply this further and develop:
– over world section
– some interior areas
– some quests to utilize the area
It’s a lofty goal and the scope can easily get out of whack, but it makes a nice project to hone skills of development and Creation Kit. I have a particular soft spot for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, so that might become a high concept for the project.
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