Everything is (not) under control

What better chance there is to get back to write (about games) than a damn rant? Exactly: none.

So here I go and spend some words just for a personal vent.

Today I re-started Never Alone, a platform imbued with Inuit culture, that is a masterpiece in the field of cultural heritage representation on digital media. Which means that the game is all about you discovering a foreign culture through play, in a nice, emotional, powerful, and meaningful way. It is an important game to me, as I tried to achieve the same goal with a project, learning (the hard way) how difficult this could be.

However, as beautiful and mind-blowing this game is, it grinds my gears nevertheless.


The reason is simple: controls are difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. Not all of them, yet enough to become annoying in certain moments of the game. It is the same situation I found myself into when playing The Last Guardian: all is beautiful, deep, and spectacular, but then you find yourself swearing because things went wrong when they should have gone right. Not to mention any FIFA.

So let me be really straight about this: controls, in video games, are not important.

They are fundamental.

We are talking about artifacts that, for their very nature, require some kind of input from the user to properly function. There is a lot to be argued around this topic, but I believe that what I mean is common ground for many of us. Ok, sometimes the input from the player can be scheduled and automated, or received from uncommon hardware (did someone say BANANAS?), but remains a fundamental component of this medium.

Then what happens when a player is unable to send the desired input to the game? It just does not work. The experience becomes frustrating, and that frustration distracts the player from other stuff. In Never Alone’s case, an enraged player pays less attention to the message that the game tries to convey. He disregards the informative videos or, in the worst scenario, uninstalls the game. Losing an opportunity to learn something new, while the game lost the chance to teach that something.

>inb4 “But Dark Souls has major control flaws as well!”
>”[any Behtesda-related comment]”
>”Just git gud fam.”

Jokes apart, I think this is a serious matter, too often underestimated. When designing a game, it should be very important to be sure that the control scheme works properly or else the risk is to make something that no one would ever play. Or enjoy. Or even understand.

The Invisible Sun

  1. Stumbling in the dark

The sky became a picture of perfect darkness, a motionless frame of infinity. Stars had disappeared behind a veil of malevolence, obscured by the overwhelming shade of an invisible sun. Like terrified, they fled to hide away from all that. In such an horrible, yet morbidly beautiful scenery, the sun was an eye drawn from its orbit. Where light once dominated, there was but an empty space. Left for questions, terrible dread, and immeasurable cold. Without its beacon, the whole world remained silent and lost: people gathered to discuss how to survive, where to go, what to do next. No one was able to understand, not even the shamans that smoked their strange pipes under dirty leather coats. For once, they had no answer. They stumbled in obscurity like everyone else. Soon their status of spiritual guides would have been ripped off, cut down by some angry and hungry blade. By that time, humankind would have been lost behind restoration.
The leaders of every great nations forecasted that peril, and to prevent such deprivation, they took counsel in a hidden valley protected by mountains. They preferred the safety of mother earth to the false holiness of a lost sun-god. Underground, they discussed, fought, wounded each other with the weapons of idealism and selfishness. After a long time, those great individuals eventually emerged from the depths of the world. Tired from all the debates and all the arguments, they announced there was only a solution: humans had to replace the gone sun with another source of power, light, and sainthood.
Soon after that day, a quest began for many courageous and proud men. An army of heroes raised to save the world from self-destruction. An horde of desperate souls, seeking for absolution.

  1. A shadow upon the stars

An unceasing sound echoed among the worlds, carrying madness and fear. It was a dirge well known by those who dreamt of chaos, the soaring chant of an unnameable threat. At first it jangled in the distance: a little bell in flames, somewhere behind the veil of darkness that was the sky itself. Susceptible souls began to shiver and scream in their sleep. Helpless mothers prayed the so-long gods to make it stop, unanswered. Unheard. Unseen.
Madmen accused each other of treachery, felony, and witchcraft. Their screams were loud and fragile, as they tried to overcome the eternal lament with their mortal voices. Mere heretics, whom eyes were covered in bloody tears; preachers of doom, more afraid than others of what was about to come. For they knew, but and no one wanted to believe such nightmarish prophecy. Not until a shadow covered all that was beautiful and good, cruelly gnawing the few lights left, simulacra of a bygone star.
Mankind asked for a new god, but was awarded an ancient abomination. It emerged from the hole that was once known as a sun: grand beyond comprehension, an indistinct shape of obscurity incarnating some stranger terror. Lunatics and poets worshiped his unspoken name, whereas a lone scholar suggested to hide. To wait while he plunged in farther skies. The poor man was hanged by his own guts at once. That was no time for reason: It was an apotheosis of collective insanity. Yet, while men fought over trivial matters, It grew hungrier and hungrier. Its thousands legs grappled celestial bodies for millennia. Nurturing, phagocyting. A timeless dweller, It haunted dead worlds.
Bringer of ruin, came to put mankind out of their misery.

  1. Shining where there’s no path

A slow and insidious killer, the eternal millipede god-demon became familiar very soon: It was a Sword of Damocles pending upon existence. Generations of unyielding pioneers crawled under the shadow of such a monstrous omen. They were afraid, scared even. By that time, terror was a fuel that inspired some to greatness, forcing heroism as long as cowardice at all the ends of the world. For there can be no courage without fear.
Cold winds howled between mountains, the desperate roar of a dying beast. Answering the call, proud men and women flocked together once again. Under the guidance of the best among them, they started to construct a sanctuary: built in the middle of a certain valley, it rose high beyond measure. A tower, tall and thin, darker than black. An accusatory finger pointed to the starry vault, where something went missing long time before. On the top of such marvelous feat, some wise men crafted an odd machinery. Those charlatans were sons of a forgotten era, well trained in the hidden arts of occultism. They knew what many preferred to neglect, and with their combined efforts they forged a new light in order to force the world-eater to flee. A frail imitation of the past – and yet, a glimmer of hope for any lost soul that wandered in the never ending darkness.
But instead of blinding a monster away, that cracking sphere of light attracted more dangers. Like moths to a flame, stranded tribes rushed towards the black altar.
Swarming; craving; wallowing in egoism and greed.
Humans never change, after all.
Neither does war.

  1. Rubbing out question marks

Decades of conflict reduced the globe to ashes, setting the stage for desolation. The tower collapsed in a short while alongside its fraudulent star. Civilization became a faded memory painted on the walls of a cave. No one had answers anymore for the growing shadow that blotted out the sky.
The age of heroes was long over, as they resigned to decay and agony as well. Sentient beings rediscovered bestiality, hunting to feed nothing but their stomachs. Light was gone from their minds too; there was no sun left to save them. No alchemist with a scheme. No leader with a plan. Just a shadow over the darkness, growing thicker every day. Where some saw a promise of painless death, others, frightened, recognized the menace of an eternal torture. Whether they spoke the truth or not, unrelenting doom was upon all of them.
Savagery would have been prevented, if only men had worked together instead of falling in the old trap of selfishness. The endless night would have led to the brightest dawn, not to the verge of extinction.
Now, as days pass, the deadly chant has become a lullaby of defeat. Here, the earth trembles. The seas growl rough. Abject creatures look upwards, with empty eyes. Hypnotized. Lost forever.
The end is nigh, and the world as we knew it is done for.

Operation nostalgia 64

Since when I lost my Nintendo 64 in that dungeon we have as garage, I have been sad.

But one day Playtonic Games announced their Kickstarter campaign to fund a 3D platformer called Yooka-Laylee. Giving me hope. They did not try to hide the fact that it would have been an operation nostalgia for N64 enthusiasts. Nothing more, nothing less than a “spiritual successor” to Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie. As a fan of that mentally challenged bear (and his abusive companion bird), I believed in Playtonic’s project since the beginning and pledged my reward – a digital copy of the game – at day one. Crowdfunding went very well, and finally Yooka-Laylee is here in all its splendor.

Am I happy? HELL YES.

Does it meet the expectations? Maybe too much.

Has it major design problems? Of course.

I’m reading a lot of conflicting opinions these days. Some people is reacting with incredible enthusiasm, some other people is not – and I believe that both parties have their good reasons. For example, I have read a very interesting article regarding Yooka-Laylee’s level design flaws compared to other 3D platformers of the past (especially Banjo-Kazooie, the #1 comparison meter in this case). I agree, to some extent: Yooka-Laylee does not bring anything new to the genre, nor reflects the greatness of certain old glories.

Good ol’ times…oh wait!

However, I also think that Playtonic’s game is a great (huge!) success in what it does: delivering a specific experience straight outta the ‘9os, with all its pros and cons. Ok, it does not represent a paradigm shift, but that’s an acceptable issue. Not every game should be innovative, genre-defining, or a masterpiece. Especially this, that did not even try, want, nor claim to do such a thing. To understand the value of Yooka-Laylee we should consider its purpose, and how the game achieves that purpose – that is, being a modern antique.

This is a concept that I have been pondering for a while, since when I got to play Breaking BytesXydonia. Some developers nowadays try to replicate the play experiences from past games, crafting modern products that remind antique stuff. Just like brand-new furniture created using the materials, and sometimes the techniques, from a past era. Playtonic enforced the feeling of playing an old N64 game on new consoles by using design choices, both bad and good, from nearly two decades ago. Doing so, they created a product that emulates the features of antique games. And it does it very well, to be honest. Yooka-Laylee has everything from the vintage golden-era of 3D platformers, except it does not hide behind a veil of emotive conditioning: we don’t look at it with nostalgia-lenses, we see it as it is yet tend to compare it with its “competitors” from recent or remote past.

Of course, adopting design choices from the 1998 blindly – or rather, deliberately – has its downsides. And I’m not just talking about rusty gameplay, camera issues, oversimplified UI. Here is an insight by Ian Bogost as an example of what I mean:

In Yooka-Laylee there is way more than that. Almost every character I met in the game somehow displays a disturbing behavior. The fraudulent snake, the mass murdering mega-director, some sexually harassing plants, etc. I wonder when it stops being British humor and starts becoming an issue instead. We often associate violent games with abuse – GTA, Mortal Kombat, etc. – but rhetoric is not always related to portrayed gore. It can be hidden behind colorful worlds, smiling characters and a PEGI 3 logo as well.

This said, I am enjoying Playtonic’s first game a lot. It is my first chance to play with a N64 again, and I was starving for this kind of experience, with all its highs and downsides.

Uncharted: a rant’s end

A few days ago I posted a rant about the Uncharted series and how it, imho, is a little overrated due to certain serious issues. But probably “overrated” isn’t even the right word for this…let’s just say that sometimes critics, media and gamers have double standards. Some close an eye, or both, pretending to not see very annoying stuff (like when The Last Guardian was being universally acclaimed, for example), and I fail to tolerate this attitude.

It is implicit in my bad temper to deal in absolutes (like a true Sith Lord), however academia taught me to accept new points of view and change my thoughts when facing new evidence. Long story short, I went through the last chapter of Naughty Dog‘s adventurous saga and completed Uncharted 4 as well. Changing my perspective on the whole topic. A bit.

Let’s jump to the brave statements: I think that Uncharted 4 is great. It represents, more or less, the approach I was dreaming of in my last post. Aside its inner “more of the same” core, it indeed covers a lot of the nonsensical issues seen in the past.

Me, leaping to conclusions

The random armies of enemies are still there, better contextualized in the environment and plausible within the narrative scheme. Gunfights can be kinda avoided by a proper stealth approach, there are no more odd spawnings and the overall experience doesn’t necessarily stall due to shootings. Hitboxes are still an issue, as many among the tougher foes seem scripted to go down only after a defined amount of damage – ok, but when I hit a guy with an RPG missle and he loses his helmet it really rustles my jimmies. Then there’s also that detail of the protagonist being a mass murderer for hypothetical self defense, but I don’t wanna go too deep into thoughts today.

Staying on the surface, I can say  that exploration has a greater impact in the game, thanks to wider areas, better designed levels, etc. Almost all from start to finish tickled my sense of wonder, and not just because the goal this time was about pirates. Probably the recent graphics helped, probably I just submitted myself to a “stronger” suspension of disbelief (pls academia forgive me for I sinned). Dunno why, the whole experience was more intense to me than the sum of the previous three entries.

Also: [SPOILERS] when villains capture the protagonist they actually try to kill him. HALLELUJAH.

Level design, characterization, scripted narrative and gameplay are also the best to date in the series. Especially Neil Druckmann’s story is well implemented in the game and has a very good flow, bringing no real fresh air to the genre, but stimulating emotive responses in the player with great animations, dialogue, and interactions between the characters. As a scriptwriter/narrative designer wannabe, this sets for me an excellent example of “doing things well”.

Oh, and the soundtrack! The sfx’s! The Italian voice acting! I loved the whole audiovisual experience, with an emphasis on the “audio” part of it. What more can I say? “A thief’s end” amazed me in so many ways, and probably it is clear as day if you read my post until now. Unlike the first three chapters it didn’t make me feel as I “had to” progress, I just wanted to. That’s the difference I was talking about in my rant.

So yeah, probably we don’t need more Uncharted (especially like 1, 2 or 3). But I’d look forward to the next Naughty Dog games nevertheless.

They aren’t *that* bad at this gamedev thing.

We need less Uncharted and more The Order 1886

This post will be 99% rant, I won’t even try to deny it.

A friend lent me a copy of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. During the last week I tried to play it as a priority in my free time, out of curiosity for a praised and honored saga that emerged as one of the most famous Sony exclusives worldwide. Now, at 82% into the third chapter, I have one or two things to say. And I will do it on the internet, because I’m frustrated and angry.

Let’s start with the good things. There are a lot of them: level design is amazing, characters are well written, narrative is epic. All stuff that Naughty Dog took on a “next level” with The Last of Us imho. However, the excellence that can be found in Uncharted is destroyed by many issues that I truly fail to tolerate.

. <-

First, the nonsense that breaks all the premises: infinite armies of enemies that pop up from nowhere inside ancient tombs, taking routes inaccessible for the protagonist – who has to always struggle with deadly puzzles, while his foes don’t – and being armed like freaking SWAT teams all the time. Just to kill one thief/mercenary/archeologist. With bazookas. Of course. Not to mention that the protagonist is often taken into custody by villains that, for some unspoken reason, do not kill him. So what’s the point of sending an army of trained mercenaries? Duh. All these contradictions are so absurd that the whole scripted story loses credibility, unless the player accepts all the nonsense and goes on. Which is a pre-condition of playing games and watching movies, but to this point it ceases to be tolerable and becomes annoying. Clashing with the narrative premises.

This points to another problem: the hours and hours of countless gunfights, with enemies that spawn behind the character, messy controls, odd hitboxes (missile to the head -> not even a scratch -> ok). I think that those situations are there just to “dilute” the game so that it lasts more than 8 hours per playthrough, because many shootings are completely irrelevant for the narrative (main focus of the game alongside exploration and “sense of wonder” as far as I’m concerned). More importantly, gunfights break the rhythm of gameplay creating stalls and frustrating the player with the above mentioned issues. The result is a boring experience that absorbs all the good stuff seen before.

Then you have 4 (F-O-U-R) iterations of the very same game that feel damn redundant. No need to expand this concept further.

So I asked myself: do we truly need games to be like this? With hours of pointless activities meant just to see “what’s next” and nothing more? Sequels over sequels of the same stuff repeated in order to sell, bringing nothing really interesting to the table (say “hi” to Mass Effect: Andromeda)? If the answers are yes, I think that there’s something broken in the way we approach games nowadays.

For example, I remember The Order 1886 being strongly criticized by media and customers because it was “too short” or “too guided”. While it brought some new balance between scripted narrative and player interaction, adopting at the same time very functional storytelling techniques (similarly to Uncharted, to be honest) from established audiovisual language. Still, that “short” playthrough didn’t have dead moments, or frustrating situations due to messy control systems. Was it “worse” than Naughty Dog’s games just because it lasted less time? I don’t think so. Yet they had very different impact and critical response. Neither I think that Uncharted would have been a worse game without all that shooting nonsense.

On the contrary: it could have been a way cooler experience. And I’m talking as a gamer here, without going too much into the academic stuff on purpose.

I told you it was mostly a rant.

New game? No thanks

After many months of not being able to write a word on this blog, I’m finally being (almost) constant with my entries. Yay! But from great blog posting comes great responsibility (sic.), hence I thought that maybe my posts would deserve less schematic titles. The [Category]: [Title] format is a bit annoying after a while. For me, at least. So let’s try a more common “Who the hell cares” approach with simpler titles, and also (probably) shorter entries.

In the last few weeks I’ve been messing around with a thing called portfolio: I’m building one, in order to show my skillset to potential employers and eventually get a job. Very eventually. It takes time tho. A lot of time. Especially if your skills are mostly writing-related, and you’d like to publish stories/books/novels/stuff. And you also have freelance work with deadlines. In the meantime, each day still lasts only 24hrs. Consequence: the available time window to play games is super-super-short. I’ve been playing Overwatch on PS4 a lot for this reason, 10-15′ minutes per session (if a buddy is online that extends to 30′). Previously, it was Torment: Tides of Numenera but a bug in the last dungeon prevented me to complete it, and I quit. Stardew Valley, but that was mostly for academic interest. Fifa 17, but I get angry every time I play it.

This is just to mention the most recent ones. Yet, there are more titles I have completed in the past that would deserve a second take. Tyranny, Fallout 4, Until Dawn, Alien: Isolation, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Basically, the ones that allow multiple approaches. So many games, so little time. Plus, one would like to read, watch TV shows, movies, go out, do sports, etc. Now, this isn’t just my problem: I’ve noticed the very same issue torment many friends that either have a full time job or are attending University.

This is the market’s fault: games cost less, and they are A WHOLE LOT now. Probably also because there’s more audience than in the past, essentially. More demand = more offer. Just browse Steam to get an idea of how many titles are released everyday. Stuff worth 8-10hrs of play if you are lucky. Potentially endless PGC projects. FPS, RTS, MOBAs where each game lasts from 10′ to 90′. RPGs that allow multiple alterbiographies depending on the player’s approach. Time, time, time.

So I asked myself: is replayability still a value in games? Or is it a problem?

Well said, Dr. Zoidberg!

For me, right now, it’s a huge problem. When it comes to buy a new game (or just to daydream a purchase), replayability in relation to estimated time for completion is on the “CONS” column. Because I really like to try many games, but I tend to commit to something when it’s good for me. Especially with regards to RPGs. I used to complete them many times, especially the Fallout and Dragon Age (Origins is my record – 7 times in a row) series. This is why I’m scared by Nioh, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, Mass Effect: Andromeda and some other games I didn’t buy yet. They would be an investment that I cannot afford, in terms of time. Not to mention money (sad face).

From a designer point of view, the issue brings other questions in my mind. Since people could not have time to play a game more than once, would it be better to create a replayable game or a (shorter) remarkable one-time experience? Would it be more fair to the customers who invest money on your game? Better in terms of costs-efficiency of the final product?

For sure it’s a matter worth considering when making a game, imho. People in the future will most likely chose carefully games rather than buying a bunch of titles that they’ll never play (all our Steam libraries say “hi”) once, never mind replay them. Which means less sales I suppose…? Dunno, just thinking out loud here.

Aaand I guess I exaggerated with words this time too.

Let me summarize.

tl;dr – I’m broke and adult life sucks.

Thoughts: performative game development

There’s a project I’ve been following for a while, simply called v r 3.

It’s the most recent work by Pippin Barr, one of my favorite game people. If you don’t know who he is or what he does, well, Google can help you understand his approach to games better than my words would ever do. You’ll find some (very) amazing stuff on his blog, I promise. </fanboying>

So, v r 3. With this project, Pippin wants to create a digital exhibit of all the water particles available for Unity, including third-party assets. Which is interesting on many levels, especially if you read the flow (hey, a pun!) of thoughts he explained in his blog posts. He’s also following the design process by regularly posting on Facebook and Twitter about his progresses, development issues, and such. So when he recently announced that v r 3 is close to be completed I was sad, because this means no more tweets or posts about v r 3. No more water misbehaving in .gifs. No more funny nor clever comments by other game designers/followers about it. No more reflections (another pun!) regarding this digital museum. As soon as v r 3 will be finished, it will leave a hole in my everyday habits, which included looking at Pippin’s progresses with this project. There will be more contents from him about future works, I believe. But v r 3 will be done and gone.

It’s a very egoistic way to look at things, I realize. For my personal amusement, I desire that someone who has spent a lot of effort in working on a thing just doesn’t finish the said thing. “The show must go on”, to some extent a legacy of our times: when you have something going on you are tied to your audience. If they say “Continue!” you have to. Many thoughts about spectacularization come to mind: talent shows, YouTube, Twitch, early access, game walkthroughs, livetweeting, etc. There’s a whole thesaurus for that. The argument could indeed extend in many directions, as it’s really broad and complex. Yet, my aim now is to ponder a small area of that topic because I see an artistic performance going on here, and feel like a spectator.

Something (Barr, 2017)

Curious about game making that becomes a performance, I looked up online for performative game development, and found an intriguing GDC talk dated 2014 by Vlaambeer developers Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman. I understood that they analyzed the process of developing a game (Nuclear Throne) in front of an audience, livestreaming their work sessions and receiving constant feedback from the community. Something really close to what Pippin is doing, yet not exactly the same. v r 3 is most likely not going to be sold, so there is no monetization involved. Its audience is mostly composed by fellow game devs/critics, not players-customers (an oversimplified definition for the sake of understanding). Lastly, the performative act differs: instead of a livestreaming we have here a trail of bits in the form of Tweets/Facebook posts. So there’s a a posteriori kind of performance, where the artist shows only some selected part of his act to the audience. Hence the meaning, and the possible interpretations of the whole performance are different. Mh.

This is a reasoning that applies with other events too, I guess. Football games, extraordinary events, TV shows…whenever someone posts on social media maybe? And when does it become a performative act? Should there be awareness by the actor?

I don’t know. Not even trying to make a point, to be honest. This is just me giving perhaps too much thought to an event.

Still, I’m pretty sure Pippin is already aware of this, and it has been intentional: he once admitted that his very presence on social networks is an act of performance to some extent (and isn’t it true for all of us, after all?).

But damn! I’ll miss that water nevertheless.

Update 03/29/2017

V r 3 is out, downloadable from Pippin’s blog. You can check it out here.