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.

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.

Playing: Torment: Tides of Numenera

Continuing in the attempt to bring more content to this blog, today I’d like to spend some words about another game I’m playing lately: Torment: Tides of Numenera. Be aware, however, that this post could contain some minor spoilers on the game’s narrative.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a great RPG that mixes traits of “old school” games with recent technologies and features, resulting in a very neat overall experience. As its title suggests, it is a spiritual successor of Planescape: Torment, just with different setting and rules. The two games have more in common than the genre and a word in the title: they both address gray areas of ethics, philosophy and (I dare to say) metaphysics as well. Behind their narrative focus, lies a very interesting set of mechanics that somehow strengthens those core concepts. There is one in particular that I think is worth discussing: in Tides of Numenera (like in its predecessor) your character cannot die. As an embodiment of a death-cheating inventor known as “Changing God”, the protagonist is a sort of vessel that cannot perish. Whenever his health points reach the zero, he just wakes up in his mind – represented as a metaphysical place, a Labyrinth – and then comes back to the physical world by entering a simple portal.

This is interesting because in certain situations death does not represent an ending state, but a possible development to exit an impasse or solve dramatic circumstances. A very elegant take on the matter, and a choice that I consider difficult to implement consistently as inXile devs were actually able to do. Nevertheless, there is something that bugs me a lot about this mechanic. The fact is that it doesn’t apply all the times, as the protagonist can face some (really) deadly dangers. As in: there are certain specific situations in the game where the rule doesn’t work, and your character might die definitively. From a narrative point of view this is ok. I mean, it fits the setting and the whole storyline without doubt. But when this happens, Tides of Numenera shows you a classic “load previous save” screen – somehow throwing away all its consistency.

Not the wisest Castoff

Tackling the topic of death in digital games could be hard, I am well aware of it (especially if you plan to do it in a concise blog post…). I remember this concept being specifically explored by Ceccherelli (2007), for example. And I believe that it’s relevant to my analysis to also mention Aarseth’s (1997) reasoning over cybertexts’ not-linear reading flow, because loading a previous save kinda “breaks” the narrative construction that the game was trying to achieve with the player’s interactions. Changing the interpretation, the understanding, and the memories about Tides of Numenera as a text.

However, my point here is to focus on the value of a design choice in relation to the game’s credibility and coherence. We have a game, Torment, where the main character cannot die. This mechanic has a strong relation to both the scripted narrative and to the generated story that emerges from player’s interactions with the game (Calleja, 2008). We could say that death, and how to cheat it, is the very main focus of this game. Since the protagonist is an immortal of some sort, including playable situations where his powers are not enough to cheat death appears as a very intriguing design choice. It gives death a value, a meaning, as the possibilities of its happening are scarce, and hence represent a rare resource.

But then, when death comes, the game breaks this dynamic. It grants the player a chance to load a previous save file.

Goodbye, suspension of disbelief.

Hello, meaninglessness of a design choice.

How can death be so central in Numenera, and yet have so trivial value? Could this devaluation-by-design be avoided?

I don’t have an answer to solve the riddle, to be honest. In my reasoning I’d say: for the sake of coherence, let the character die, involve permadeath mechanics in the game so that death actually has value. Force the player to be very careful when taking risks. Enhance the whole experience and its significance. I can see why this was not forced into the game: to constrain permadeath of a character in a 40+ hours long RPG could be lethal for the player’s acceptance. Players commit to their creatures, and they value the time spent playing. As Tides of Numenera is, each player has the chance to go back and try to traverse the game with a different approach. At the same time one could say: “All right, my character died. Let’s start from scratch again.” Which is the reasoning with survival games, for example. There, commitment to the character and its story is completely different.

So probably the choice to devalue death was all about commitment. Or not.

As I said, there’s no real answer to this issue. The designers did nothing wrong, they chose a path.

Still, I’m not sure if I like to walk that way.


Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press

– Calleja, Gordon (2009). Experiential Narrative in Game Environments, DIGRA

– Ceccherelli, Alessio (2007). Oltre la morte. Per una mediologia del videogioco. Napoli, Liguori Editore

Playing: Stardew Valley

If I remember correctly, blogs were born as online diaries. Hence, in order to post here more often, I’d like to share some of my ongoing gaming experiences. Like a diary, but without teenage-ish blues.

Today I want to write some words about Stardew Valley. This pixelart farming simulator with RPG mechanics, designed and developed by the one-man studio ConcernedApe (aka Eric Barone) already drew my attention some months ago, but I couldn’t afford it back then. I never played Harvest Moon nor any other game like this before, so this was a completely new experience for me on pretty much all levels.

In Stardew Valley you control a guy (or a girl) who inherited a farm from his grandad, and therefore decided to quit his job in order to dedicate life to farming in the countryside. Now, the first thing I noticed about this game is its contradictory nature: it portrays, and somehow encourages, a rustic lifestyle where staying outside and social interaction face-to-face are showed as positive values; on the other hand, Stardew Valley is a game where the player can invest hundreds of hours of single player activity in front of a screen, just to grow pixelated plants. Odd.

I’m afraid I cannot stop that, Alex

However, after a short while I could see in Stardew Valley a vast set of possible playthroughs. Its nature creates the conditions to simulate more than just a farmer’s life. In fact, the playable characters I imagined were a bit off the spirit of the game: the serial killer, the idler, the hobo, and many more. I tried some unconventional approaches, and started to take notes on what was or wasn’t allowed by design.

Here’s a provisional list of what I tried to do. Some stuff is very weird, on purpose. Sorry-not-sorry.

Can do

Cannot do

  • Pick up the trash from public cans
  • Kinda look into other people’s lives (spying on unattended diaries and such)
  • Enter other people’s houses
  • Dig (superficially) on graves
  • Plant stuff on graves
  • Drink alcohol (probably get drunk as well)
  • Have heterosexual and/or homosexual relationships (with adults)
  • Cut down trees outside of specific areas
  • Break doors
  • Steal
  • Enter private spaces uninvited (nor follow people in their rooms if they open the doors)
  • Hurt people
  • Die of fatigue (lack of sleep)
  • Steal from the store
  • Sleep during the day and work at night

This is what I got after a few hours of play, but the list could become even bigger as I progress

So far, the most interesting point for me has been collapsing. Basically, when your character is very tired due to hard work and his Energy Bar goes empty, he faints. The day after, he wakes up in his bed, healed, with a new letter in the mailbox: the town’s doctor saved him, and took 50g (money) as payment. The resemblance to USA’s healthcare system was evident to me. As in: if you need medical assistance, you have to pay. My next move there was to spend all my money and see if the doctor would have let me die because I couldn’t afford the treatment. I went to a store, bought a lot of useless things, and then worked like there was no tomorrow with 0g in my pockets. Long story short, the doctor healed me nevertheless (while still leaving a message that said “I took 50g from you […]”). Conclusion: in Stardew Valley you need an insurance, unless you are really poor. Then, Obamacare becomes operational.

Jokes apart, I find this design choice quite elegant although it implies some ethical reflections. After all, it allows even the most spending player to avoid negative consequences, such as permadeath, and somehow it reflects the spirit of the game. Which is okay. Many other actions allowed (or not allowed) point at the same direction, as the game theoretically wants to deliver a specific kind of experience. Something that I would summarize as “polite”.

Hopefully I’ll be able to provide more play-diary from Stardew Valley soon. In the meantime, if you found some other relevant Can/Cannot Do’s feel free to share!