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.

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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.

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.

References

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!

Thoughts: Starving for a routine

Lately I’ve been struggling.

I have many projects going on, and even more ideas pending. Yet, I find it difficult to establish a proper productive routine that eventually will lead those projects to conclusion. This frustrates me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I made Perfectionism – Episode 2: I felt the urge to complete something, start to finish, and leave it alone. The jigsaw puzzle reference in the game isn’t accidental. Puzzles have a tangible final state, an ending that draws a line from “undone” to “done”, and I’m indulging a lot in the feeling of reward, of self-fulfillment and personal achievement that comes from a completed puzzle. It’s like typing the final words in a short story you spent months trying to write. Or playing the last mission of a 40+hrs game. Or just delivering an article on time to your editor in chief. Satisfying, to say the least.

However, productivity for me rhymes with routine: I realized that I function better when stuck in a methodical set of activities. It’s common sense. After all, results come through hard work and dedication. Trivial? Yes. Kinda true? Also. The problem with me is that I am prone to distractions, and also tend to play games too much. For example, yesterday I was playing Don’t Starve instead of writing.

dont-starveThis is fine.

Don’t Starve is a survival game made by Klei Entertainment in which the player’s character wakes up in a procedurally generated world filled with random resources. In order to survive as long as possible, the player has to harvest those resources and combine them into elaborate tools, in a loop that eventually comes to an end. Alongside health, there are two more stats to keep track of: sanity and hunger (hence the title).

Ironically enough, it’s a game I love, but never completed (as in, “reached the final state”, if there’s one). While reasoning on how much Don’t Starve reflects my recent inability to complete almost anything, yesterday I also realized that in survival games there’s a rhetoric for a productive routine. The rhetoric potential of video games has been already taken into account (Frasca, 2003; Bogost, 2008), so I’m not certainly claiming anything new. What I see in survival games, however, is how they encourage the player to organize each day, to plan ahead, and to make the most of the scarce resources available. Which is, more or less, what productivity is about.

In survival games time is probably the most crucial resource. To exploit it means to be able to obtain more, and better, results. The clock ticks and you, as the player, cannot stay idle. If you want to survive another day, you must gather or hunt food, build shelter, create tools to be even more productive the next day. There is clearly a representation of primal human nature (and history) at work here, but that’s way beside my point. The rhetoric I talk about emerges when the player realizes that the same rules apply to everyday life, and tasks are one after the other.

dontstarve2

Livin’ the dream

For example, to build a Crock Pot (cooking device) the player requires 3x Cut Stone, 6x Charcoal, 6x Twigs. The latter can be harvested by shrubs, pretty commonly placed next to the starting point. Charcoal is a little bit trickier, as it can be found after chopping down a burnt tree (hence, the player needs a way to lit a fire -> other resources). Cut Stone must be refined by raw Rocks, found after digging with a Pickaxe (again, more resources needed to craft one) on proper sites. But not all these things can be gathered in a single day of the game world. This forces the player to set a list of priorities in her/his mind, answering questions such as: “Should I build a Crock Pot or a Farm first?“, “Can I find these resources nearby or should I move far away?“, “Do I have enough food to survive until this project is complete?“. Then, each day has to be scheduled in detail for an optimization of the time/results ratio. And so on.

Now, this is exactly what a productive routine means to me: set a goal, organize priorities, make the most out of every day, but also make room for leisure (sanity level decreases over time!), food (do-not-starve!), and all the relevant things in your life. The rhetoric of survival games lies there, and if understood could help in establishing a daily set of tasks. I think it’s fundamental, though, to not let the routine in the game overlap or substitute what should be outside it; the sense of fulfillment can be tricky sometimes, and mislead to contentment.

So, well, don’t be hungry…nor foolish.

References:

– Frasca, Gonzalo (2003). “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” In The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge. 221–37

– Bogost, Ian (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 117–40