Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dante’s Mashup

Dante's Mashup

DmC Devil May Cry has a whole lot of angel and demon stuff in it. It’s is not explicitly Judeo-Christian, but it hews close enough that it might as well be. I mean, where else does the term “Nephilim” come up? Well, a lot of places, actually, but it all seems to stem from the Biblical sort though not exactly in the context of some blasphemous congregation of angels and demons.

Let’s, however, leave religious veracity out of this. I’m not of any sort of faith, but I find most religions to be utterly fascinating. They are so steeped in history and weave a narrative both historically and fictitiously that is just drenched with culture. In fact, of any belief I do hold dear, near the top would be that everyone should be well-versed in most world religions simply for the purpose of better understanding the world. Educational and culture never hurt nobody.

It might be, though, that I’m just a sucker for that. I find DmC to be a fantastic game. The meat of it, which is to say the combat, is simply sublime. It handles like a god damn Ferrari decked out with swords and guns and coated in a sheen of delectably awful puns. But I also found the story to be just topnotch. More than that, outside of the characters and their arcs, I found the premise fascinating.

There was just so much more I wanted to know. Sparda, for instance, has a lot more legs to him this time around than with earlier Devil May Cry titles. Kat’s past has so much potential, and this as a springboard for the rest of Dante and Vergil’s relationship is outstanding. But it’s also just the intrinsic set of reappropriated Christian influences. It’s very obvious that DmC simply continues where one through four left off, but it also takes its own slant on that set of heaven and hell and everything in between.

That, I guess, is where my real obsession lies: the remix. That’s the same reason why I like Supernatural and Buffy and Angel; it’s because they took what is an established fiction (remember: we’re leaving veracity out of this) thousands of years old and making it their own. When someone says, “listen to this Adele song,” my eyes immediately glaze over as my insides attempt to quell the fire that just erupted in my soul. But when the request is capped off with “get remixed with Sonic the Hedgehog,” I perk up again because what was old is new again.

I am just one person and my interpretations of anything—music, movies, angelic wars—are limited to what I know and what I’ve experienced in life, which is to say not much. I’ve probably seen less than .0000001% of everything the world has to offer. The same goes for everyone else, but all those other people have seen a different .0000001% from me, so when they take something we both know and turn it into something personal to them, I’m suddenly exposed to their subset of knowledge.

That’s where Supernatural excels; angels are weak and malleable, God is corrupt, and “Satan” is nothing more than a job title that’s always up for grabs for the greediest and least scrupulous of the far, far, far south bunch. Buffy and Angel set up shop within the same universe and still manage to diverge in to almost completely different directions to the point where the words are familiar but the concepts are altogether foreign.

That’s where DmC additionally works. On top of the stellar combat and characterizations and whatnot, the reimagining of what the Heaven vs. Hell conflict looks like is once again new. Just enough is familiar so you know from where it hails but it’s all just the rockets on the shuttle that take you to another planet. It’s a dark look made darker with the absence but not exclusion of the holy and divine. It takes a tapestry that I’m already familiar with, glues on some new coat of arms, straps on a few more murals, and rips off the fluff. It’s fascinating in the process and it’s fascinating in the result.

So maybe that’s why I found DmC Devil May Cry‘s story to be so good. Objectively, characters have good development and interpersonal story beats, but the use of the Hebrew/Christian framework also spoke so clearly and distinctly to me. Everything that Ninja Theory kept or altered or removed was like peeking into the collective mind of the studio. I know the spawning literature because I studied it, and it’s clear they did, too. I’ve thought about what would be interesting to change and fun to tweak, as have they. Now we’re comparing notes and talking it out through DmC. The remix is the artisanal craft of creating conversation over what is trite and hackneyed, and this one is all the way crunk.

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Combat Context With DmC Devil May Cry

Combat Context In DmC Devil May Cry

DmC Devil May Cry is a good game. Nay, a great game. It excels is so many parts that when it comes together as a whole, you feel more than sated with what you’d just experienced than you’d expect. Ninja Theory managed to make great characters that work exceedingly well within an interesting (if ridiculous) milieu and, most importantly, fight like champs.

The combat of DmC is a vast improvement over past Ninja Theory games. Heavenly Sword was workable as a mashable stew of button presses and whirling ginger locks while Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was passable at best. DmC, though, has struck something akin to gold.

At first glance, it seems to largely operate in the vein of past Devil May Cry games; you have a selection of melee weapons and a selection of long-range weapons and you mix the two to create combos. Guns keep enemies in the air while swords launch them and hammers slam them back down. There are, however, two very important differences: the lack of lock-on targeting and the removal of styles.

Lock-on targeting has been replaced with, well, nothing. Well, technically nothing in that all your hacks and slashes will be subtly guided towards nearby enemies and firearms will automatically pointed at something in your general vicinity, but effectively your manual trigger-enabled targeting system has been usurped by Rebellion’s whipping capabilities (Rebellion being Dante’s sword).

The whip either grabs an enemy and drags it towards you or latches on and pulls you toward it. This turns what was previously a completely non-diegetic mechanic of locking onto an enemy into a combat utility. The meta overhead of having to press a button and switch between targets was never that fun and the cognitive resources required to evade and fight while swiveling around your binary aim were simply too high. It facilitated combat once you were engaged, but reaching that point was always a bit of a gamble, one whose payoff rarely merited the trouble it caused when targeting a piddly little fodder foe while the boss beats you to a sliver of health.

The whip enables you to keep the switching of targets (both close and far) within the context of the actual combat. Basically working like Link’s hookshot, when you finish with an enemy either by killing it or by deciding you need to deal with something else first, the whip puts you immediately into whatever situation you desire. With a launched enemy, you can either follow suit and go airborne or bring it back down to you. Faraway demons are suddenly well within your sword’s reach.

The targeting, however, still relies on some degree of autonomy but like the lock-on methodology of past Devil May Cry games, but the crucial difference is that the whip keeps you in the battle while pressing down on the left stick is a purely player-side activity and has no gameplay impact in that particular moment. When the lock-on targeting (which, by the way, takes zero input as to what you want to target and largely operates on proximity) fails, you have to either settle or continue to dedicate mental faculties to a yes/no check on who you’ve locked onto. The sword-whip, whether it succeeds or fails, simply allows for more combat. The traversal time is entirely within the frame of the fighting so your mindset never changes out of that context while checking where you are locked onto requires you to disengage from the game.

The second change in the removal of styles is also a qualified change. Styles in past games were slight alterations in the way Dante handled. Pressing the Style Action button could allow you to repel attacks or move and process enemy attacks faster with the style itself open to being changed on the fly through the D-pad. Well, in Devil May Cry 4, anyways, as Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening only allowed changes between missions, so let’s stick with the Nero stuff in this case.

The problem with this is that the shift is entirely passive. Once you press a direction and the style changes, some cerebral allotment must be cordoned off to tracking what you are currently engaged as. Only at the moment of the switch will you be informed of what your style is, otherwise you have to use your Style Action or reactivate that style to find out what it is. That is precious processing power being taken away from figuring out how to protract your combo and being put into remembering one otherwise immaterial bit of information.

More than that, the shift only affects a single button on the controller. A supposedly seismic shift in combat tactics and all Dante or Nero has to show for it is a different button output? Not only does that not make sense within the context of the world but also fails to engage the player with this style-switching mechanic in any meaningful way. You have to switch your entire mindset to use one of four different moves. That’s a waste.

In DmC, the changes are totally active. The triggers on the controller act as shift keys on the keyboard. If you hold the left trigger, you are in Angel mode while if you hold the right trigger, you are in Devil mode. When you don’t hold either, you are back to a neutral (but still deadly) Dante. This eliminates the problem of the switching taking up cognitive overhead because this is an active process. Your physical feedback to holding down a trigger is what tells you which mode you are in. It’s why you never accidentally send ALL CAPS MESSAGES to people when you just use the shift keys; you can forget you pressed the caps lock key and you can forget which style you currently have selected but you won’t forget that you have your pinky pressing down on a shift key or that your fingers are holding down a trigger.

This also addresses the problem of the whole-cloth mode switch equating to one new move. When you hold down a trigger, it modifies just about every button. Your attack is changed because you weapon is changed, providing a visual indicator of what mode you are in; your dodge has a different aftereffect depending on if you are in Angel or Devil mode; and your whip will either lock you or your enemy down as the distance between the two closes. Eventually, instead of associating a single action with whatever you have locked away in that chunk of brain that you have tracking your style, you will shift entire comprehension and interpretation methods of the battlefield depending on which hand (and finger) you have pressuring the trigger.

It’s a physical shift as well as a mental one and it takes your current context and replaces it entirely with a new one. The association becomes innate and you will eventually meld the two concepts of a corporeal actuation with a pugilistic proscenium. As natural as it is to always press the bottom button to jump, you will always press the left trigger to slice and dice while you will always pull the right trigger to smash and bash. It’s a subtle design choice that builds muscle memory connections to three entirely different battle schematics.

There is so much more I can talk about with DmC’s combat like how you can preload input or how now all things vertical have been relegated to the B (or circle) button so combos can vary further between air and ground strikes, but this is about the context of the game’s combat. This is about how cognitive sciences can inform game design. This is about how awesome it is to stick a scythe into a succubus and then whale on it with my giant devil fists without worrying about forgetting what mode I’m in.

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The Kids’ Shows Of Video Games

The Kids' Shows Of Video Games

“Triple-A games are the kids’ shows of the industry.”

That a fairly startling comparison someone imparted on me recently. It was somewhat out of the blue, so that had something to do with it, but also because I wasn’t entirely sure it made a whole lot of sense. Somewhere deep down inside, some part of me instinctively wanted to agree, but on what grounds? If I couldn’t articulate what made this a good metaphor, then surely that made it a bad one.

Or I’m just an idiot, which you can tell me repeatedly in the comments if you so choose.

Either way, let’s explore this together, and let’s start by breaking that statement into its component parts: triple-A games and kids’ shows. Children’s television programming has a long, storied history in American broadcasting. It goes all the way back to the nascent days of the entire medium, starting with Cap’n Tugg and Captain Kangaroo to Scooby-Doo and Bananas in Pyjamas.

You’ll notice, though, that this opens up more questions that need clarification before we proceed, such as which kind of children’s show are we talking about here; Mister Rogers and Yu-Gi-Oh are two vastly different creatures. For my part, though, when I hear the phrase “children’s programming,” I think of things like Power Rangers and Digimon. A little bit of VeggieTales, sure, but for the most part, it’s the mindless action stuff of Saturday mornings.

That’s not to put those down, though, as I know I sure watched the hell out of those when I was younger (and probably still would if I had it in me to wake up before 3pm on the weekend), but let’s face it: those are engineered experiences. They are warm up front but coldly calculating behind the scenes. They are the lowest common denominator. There are very few eight-year-old boys that wouldn’t want to watch giant robots fight giant space creatures.

In fact, there are few people of any age that wouldn’t want to see that, but that kind of proves my point in that shows like Bobby’s World and Animaniacs are specifically designed to appeal to the widest range of people and ages. If they can stretch it, producers will make sure each episode and every show will touch on what four-year-olds to eight-year-olds and even 12-year-olds want while watching TV and eating Fruity Pebbles.

Of course, that is just how network television works; they make beaucoup bucks. But the difference comes in the fact that children’s shows sow the seeds of inanity and still manage to harvest crops from ravaged fields. Your so-called “grownup” television at least makes attempts at complexity and growth. Or, at least they did until everyone realized reality television was a cash cow that never runs dry, but that’s beside the point.

Perhaps the bit about appealing to the widest set of consumers isn’t the part of the comparison that works. Most video games, after all, are picked up to be financed and published precisely because they are likely to be bought by the core of the American people. Mainstream games are focus tested and tweaked until they are the pill most easily swallowed. There are several factors that need to be a certain percentage of acceptance, and once they hit those numbers, they are out the door and onto shelves because, being that they are consumer products, they are made to be sold.

Then maybe it’s the mindlessness. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is most definitely a thing. You’ll notice the first episode of Pokémon was fairly dramatic. It raised numerous questions of ethics and interpersonal relationships that, as a younger child, few picked up on. For instance, it seemed to point the show towards wanting to explore what it meant to use your freedom to exert control over another’s will. It wanted to talk to kids about what it meant to finally achieve your goals and grounding them before they got out of hand. It seemed to want to stretch a wide breadth of topics and go in-depth on all of them.

Then Team Rocket started blowing up at the end of each episode and Brock turned into a caricature of Looney Toons womanization. And Pokémon exploded into Worldwide Phenomenon status. Mindlessness.

Compare that to the annual gold mine that is Call of Duty. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare blew critical minds by killing the main character. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sparked global controversy and asked everyone to reflect on what it means to be good or bad with No Russian. Call of Duty: Black Ops II had actually one of the most competently reactive player-controlled narratives of 2012. But did any of that matter when the majority of players put the disc in solely to play online multiplayer? Not as much as it should have.

So the oafishness might be it, but both of those are sweeping generalizations that blatantly turn a blind eye towards the counterexamples. The aforementioned Call of Duty moments aside, look at last year’s Spec Ops: The Line. It housed one of the most amazing and complex and subverting stories in video games in such a long time and it was most definitely a triple-A game. Then look at Saturday morning cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and realize that it was a dark, macabre, and twisted look at what it’s like to be an emotionally isolated hero in a corrupt city.

Maybe it isn’t that. But what then? It’s not the polish; big title releases have a sheen of dusted tops and sanded corners that unapologetically green screened kids’ shows lack completely. It might be that both have unwieldy productions, turning both endeavors into ships too big to steer, but that is making a huge assumption about something we can’t possibly know.

In the end, truly and honestly, I’m not sure what makes the metaphor work for me, so maybe I am an idiot; I just know that I instinctively agree with it. Or maybe I was right all along and things like Spec Ops: The Line and Batman: The Animated Series are simply exceptions to the rule (they probably are, but even if they were, proving a tangentially related point doesn’t provide evidence upstream). Regardless, I think this is still a question worth discussing.

What do you think? Are triple-A games the kids’ shows of video games?

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Defining The System, Testing The Mechanics

Defining The System, Testing The Mechanic

I was talking to a friend over the weekend. He’d recently finished up Far Cry 3 and was about to start Dishonored. After some gentle ribbing at the fact that he was so laughably behind the times (“that was sooooo 2012,” to which he unfortunately but appropriately told me I was “so two thousand and late“), we got down to brass tacks and talked about what he liked and didn’t like about the game. The usual bits came up such as loving the open world and liberating outposts but hating the bulk of the story missions. However, one thing continually stuck in my craw: he kept using “system” and “mechanic” interchangeably.

This friend is far and away the worst as misappropriating words—Child Protective Services should rip semantics out of his hands that he’s so abusive—so I’m used to letting his never-ending flow of teeth-gnashing delinquency go unimpeded. But this was one that I just could not abide. I can mostly kind of understand the switch, but this wasn’t anything like swapping out “afflicted” for “infected”; in this case, you might as well start saying “watermelon” when you mean “giant Kodiak bear.”

Contentious as it was(n’t), this invited the obvious but interesting question: what defines a system? What defines a mechanic? Obviously they both involve parts of a video game, but when you get down to it, what makes them so different?

Intuitively, the answer is glaring. It’s blinding in how bright and unavoidably visible the definition is among the dark muck surrounding it. The fact that anyone would even bother asking is kind of offensive. It’s as if someone just asked you your name after spending the last hour staring at the name tag pinned to your shirt.

Of course, once you start trying to put it all those nebulous, vaporous ideas into hard, tangible words, you realize that maybe it wasn’t such a silly question after all. Put on the spot, it’s hard to explain something that you’ve only intuitively understood as a broad concept and not a precise, concrete definition.

So let’s start with what defines a system. A system within a video game is the ocean in which a boat is set adrift. It is a malleable circuit through which the game continually runs that determines the state of the world at any given point in time. This can be background or foreground to the player’s proceedings much like how the water can directly affect or merely be a party to the yacht (rock), but it is interminably viable. Systems can begin to run and continue to do so without any input from the player, though it can also be influenced by direct input; it simply does not need the input but merely allows for it.

In the context of Far Cry 3, this means that all the wildlife on the island is a system. Those animals will prowl and hunt and fight all they want without you having to tell that pig to go wallow in some mud or for a macaque to scamper away from some roaming dogs. You may notice that as you wander about the beaches and forests of Far Cry 3, things seem to be happening that you just stumble upon. Pirates and Rakyat will already be fighting and tigers will already be chasing deer and so on and so on. This is because they are systems and they exist whether you tell them to or not. These are the trees that make a sound when they fall even if you’re not around.

You can, however, influence them with your actions. When you shoot a cage and let a cassowary loose upon an enemy outpost, that is you influencing a system. That single shot opened a cage which similarly opened a bevy of new splintering paths for the system to explore. In most cases, it will result in a few dead pirates and a giant bird carcass, but that is simply the end of the system interaction; the actual systems of the cassowary and the pirates are what happen when they fight.

That single shot, though, that you take to open that cage is a mechanic. If the Atlantic is the system on which your boat floats, all the rope-wrangling and sail-setting you do are the mechanics. At the most base level of video game components, mechanics are a set of verbs you can enact upon a set of nouns. Mario, for instance, jumps; jumping is a mechanic. Ryu punches; punching is a mechanic. These, by definition, require player input. The idea of jumping and punching exist without you, sure, but for them to take place, you must actively decide to do those actions.

In Far Cry 3, the mechanics include jumping and punching but also shooting, running, driving, and a whole slew of other things (that is one of the complaints that my friend had with the game, and I’m inclined to agree; at times, Far Cry 3 can feel overwhelming with the amount of mechanics you can actualize). All those verbs from harvesting to skinning to selling all require you to enact them because they are mechanics.

This is informed by how games are designed. Whether they know it or not, it’s a computer science-based philosophy of being object-oriented. Nouns are the objects like player, tiger, boat and they have functions that are contained within that specific object because they are the verbs for those nouns. For instance, gun.shoot()—gun being the object and shoot being the function—is something that that guns can do, but it wouldn’t make sense for bear.shoot() to exist. This noun-verb methodology informs how mechanics are formed and slowly structure games from the ground up.

You’ll probably notice that tigers and bears are included in systems while the player object is not. That is because while entirely different, there is a necessary amount of overlap in their uses. Without one, the other loses its meaning within the game. With the movement of the sea and the changing wind currents, what does it matter when you raise and lower the sails or where you drop anchor? One is just a simulation and the other is the tabs you pull in a popup book. You need both together to form the gestalt gameplay.

Mechanics, though, are also often confused with gameplay, as ambiguous as that term already is. Gameplay is the overall experience had while playing a game. It is the sum of all the parts to be had in any given moment of interaction with a video game. When you shoot a flare at an approaching guard dog and the errant sparks set the nearby grass aflame, which both consumes a too-slow Komodo dragon and entices some patrolling pirates to investigate, that is gameplay. That interaction of your actions and the systems reaction to those actions is the gameplay. Of course, there’s more to gameplay such as victory and loss conditions, audio and graphical cues, narrative plot, and whatnot, but that would take another write-up to discuss. For now, let’s stick with your intuitive definition of gameplay and focus on mechanics and systems.

As it sits now, though, it seems that we’ve covered some good ground on the two. We even have a mighty fine metaphor to teach and remind ourselves of the two in the analogous water/boat bit. Or maybe you already knew all this and now you want to tell me how wrong I am or how you define the two. Either way, I just couldn’t let me this one go with my misguided friend. After all, he’s about to start Dishonored, and I can’t spend another hour hearing about the Blink system or the patrolling guard mechanic.

I guarantee you I’m going to put “WORDS WORDS WORDS” on his tombstone.

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Arriving First And Finishing Last

Arriving First and Finishing Last

We are standing on a bridge. This bridge connects two things that are both familiar to us and altogether alien, simultaneously in the way you’d expect and not expect. The first is the seventh generation of video game consoles: the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii. It has changed so much since the 360’s launch in November of 2005 that it’s hardly recognizable anymore. The Dashboard no longer has blades, PSN is actually providing value now, and the Wii has come down from its sales pedestal. The entire breadth of that generation is several journeys put side by side and end to end.

The eight generation is just beginning, but it’s a culmination of feelings we’ve long become jaded to. In all, we’re just looking forward to three console launches and we’ve already been through one, and that single event was as lackluster as opening your birthday present to find a countdown to your next one. The console itself is decent enough, but multiple times a year now we are subject to this gnawing sense of been there, done that. Every year we have one or more big Apple product to buy. In 2011 we got the Nintendo 3DS and just last year we got the PlayStation Vita. We are numb.

And now that we’re supposed to also anticipate Valve’s onslaught of hardware offerings and a plethora of specialized Android devices, it all kind of feels like being caught in a blizzard rather than enjoying some fresh powder.

The old trio has grown long in the tooth, though. We’re tired of what the 360 and PS3 has to offer. The Wii has long been collecting dust in the corner. The services and the hardware are more tiring than endearing at this point. We’ve gone through multiple rounds of new controllers and full-on console replacements. We are worn.

So to look forward past the bridge and greet things like leaked Orbis and Durango specs with cynicism is strange. We are tired of where we’re leaving and nervous about where we’re headed. The bridge is our limbo, an imprisonment of our own design. What do we have left when we hate where we’re going and loathe where we’ve been when we should only be looking forward with unfettered optimism?

Perhaps, my fellow travelers, we’re looking at this all wrong. Perhaps we’re trying to get excited about the wrong things. Our mindset is one of the hardware age, and that seems to be all but done. Up until the beginning of the PS2 era, video game experiences were intrinsically tied to the platform. There’s a reason why such vivid imagery pops into your mind at the mere mention of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming when I have said nothing about any particular game or year. This tethered concept began to wither away with the PlayStation and the N64 and never seemed to come back after.

Yet we still have such strong mental images and emotional ties to the current set of consoles. Some games, sure, but it’s mostly and ethereal sense of personal investment. It’s hard to put your finger on it because you’ve rarely had to articular just why things fallout the way they do beyond yelling in YouTube comments about fanboys and haters.

What you’re associating your experiences with is the software innate to the platform, such as firmware and services. Internet irrationality aside, when you boot up a 360, a certain feeling comes over you, a sensation of corporate structure and rigor. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that every movement of yours is guided and purposeful, if overtly monetized and scrutinized. It’s changed, though, since the launch with the blades. Those sliding slabs felt more utilitarian, more like you were there for business and not pleasure. Now it’s a mix of both.

The PS3 boot-up has gone largely unchanged as the XMB has gone largely unchanged. It still opens to a congealing orchestra warm-up and fades into soothing shapes and colors. The association with the console at first glance is elegance. But once you start using it, the connection changes to futility. System updates, game patches, an impossible-to-navigate store, etc. All these things fight against your desire to elevate this to a classy affair.

That is until recently when PlayStation Plus made a compelling argument for a better pay service over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store got a redesign to finally look and function as nice as you’d always hoped it would. Over the past six years, Sony has been working hard to turn around its PS3 image and the public opinion, and it’s been paying off. It’s no longer “that one with the Ratchet games” but now it’s just the PS3.

As far as the Wii goes, it’s almost perfectly analogous to a salad; light, bright, and healthy. Also, incredibly boring if you’re not a Food Network chef. Eventually you grow tired of it. You know that it’s good for you to play (the sprightly gameplay, easygoing facade) but it so rarely changes to something exciting that you eventually put it down. Maybe for a week, maybe for a month, but eventually you put it down for good. Or at least until someone comes along and tells you to add raisins or chicken and then you’re ready to go again.

Notice that for the most part, none of what you associate with these consoles has anything to do with the hardware. The closest you get is with the Wii, but it still stands that the intrinsic association with the console is elsewhere. Different from the days of Atari and Commodore and the NES, the mental ties you make are largely comprised of the things surrounding what you played instead of those within the realm of how you played. That’s because at this point, service is king. Or rather, the services offered.

The very simple reason that the 360 beat out the PS3 this generation is because Xbox Live was far and away the superior online service from the beginning. The playing field has been leveled since then, but even PSN’s $0.00 price tag couldn’t compete with Live’s cross-game chat, achievements, and a coherent ecosystem. And on the console, the mere fact that you could sign into multiple accounts in multiplayer games didn’t even make it a fair fight. The one-year head start was an advantage, sure, but no amount of time could give such an insurmountable plus as being a better software service.

The Wii had a compounded problem of not offering a wide enough range of games or enough high quality games while being a conduit to a service that would have better fit in 10 to 15 years ago. Friend codes were an absolute swing and a miss, and to even say that Nintendo went up to bat is a generous concession. Worse yet, it seems as though they haven’t learned their lesson and now Wii U accounts are basically tied to the console they’re created on. And they have restricted M-rated games to “adult hours.” And so on and so on. Nintendo has already shown its hand in its eighth generation services, and it seems content to once again be in a distant third place.

According to the leaked Orbis specs, though, it seems as though Sony is learning. The highlight is that users can now sign into multiple accounts at once just as you can on the 360 and everyone can individually earn trophies, a major coup in terms of reappropriating the weapons that defeated you before. Sony had previous underestimated the social aspect of modern gaming and seems to be adjusting (it has a Share button, for goodness sake, and I doubt that it’s for the Share Care Bear).

If you examine the leaked docs, you’ll notice that the specs are nearly identical, something that can’t be said for this generation’s 360 and PS3. The hardware is secondary to the experience; Microsoft and Sony have realized that it’s the software wars that matter now. And it’s not just for the consumers. The developers matter, too, as they will choose what is easiest to develop for second and most profitable first. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter because one follows the other. The next generation must court users with services and developers with users, but users will also be drawn to what developers put out there, so if a console is easy to develop for and not full of Cell processors that are hard to wrangle, then it’s a double win.

We are past the concerns of hardware. Past a minimum line and we don’t care; all that matters is that it’s good enough. The more tangible product is the software, the stuff you interact with which interacts with the hardware. The abstraction has become the game and now we’re going to see who plays it better. This is not a bridge from the PS3 to PS4 or the 360 to the 720; this is a bridge from hardware to software, and I’m not sure everyone is going to make it across.

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Tom Hanks And The Cart Life

Tom Hanks And The Cart Life

First impressions are important for people, sure, but they might be even more important for things that can’t defend themselves or explain why they spilled two entire bottles of red wine on your new white leather couch. These things might be something like a movie or a video game wherein your attention must be grabbed immediately or you are likely to be lost forever. In person, social constructs limit you to at least some interaction, but with films and games, you can easily leave with a clear conscience five seconds into an encounter.

Aside from Up and its wholly depressing opening (one that is made all the more impactful precisely because of Carl’s passive lifestyle, one where he’s such a nonfactor that it makes their love story seem fantastical and thus more tragic by the end), The Terminal is a film that I feel could consist entirely of its first 10 or so minutes and still remain a viable movie. The Terminal, for those of you who haven’t seen it, stars Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a Krakozhian national who gets stuck in JFK International Airport due to a revolution in his home country forcing US Customs to not allow Viktor to neither enter the United States nor go back home to Krakozhia. All he has is a single suitcase, a Planters peanuts can, and rough understanding of the English language. There’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, too, but she comes in later.

The opening sequence, though, is what matters here. In the introduction to the movie, Viktor arrives at JFK only to discover his passport is no longer valid. Confused, he soon learns from passing television news broadcasts that this is because his home country is thoroughly engulfed in a revolutionary war. He can’t go home and he can’t enter the US. He is stateless and, more importantly, lost and confused. It seems that he is surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people who do belong here or other countries, people who are on their way home or have a home to go back to. Everyone around him is driven by purpose and backed by a sense of belonging while he is paralyzed through loss of both of those things.

It’s a suffocating feeling of despair that is related to you through Tom Hanks’ superb acting, but also an innate empathetic understanding of what it means to be alone. Standing in the middle of the terminal, Viktor struggles to come to grips with the fact that he is suddenly without reason. More than that, no one is willing or handedly capable of communicating with him. He is alone and lacking the faculty to fix that (other than through his charm and friendly demeanor). The isolation is absolutely smothering in a metaphorical sense but it is also made literal by the fact that he can’t go two feet without bumping into another uncaring human being.

The game that immediately reminded me of the opening to The Terminal was a game that I recommended to you on Friday’s Weekend Play: Cart Life. Cart Life is an indie game that is described by its creator Richard Hofmeier as a retail simulator and is currently nominated for three awards at this year’s IGF Awards including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. While you can choose from multiple characters such as Melanie Emberly, a coffee shop owner trying to prove she can provide for her daughter, and Vinny the bagel vendor, I started out as Andrus Poter. Andrus is a Ukrainian immigrant who has moved to the US in hopes of getting a fresh start as a newspaper stand owner. You’ll be managing both your life and your business in Cart Life and have to do everything from shower to unpack papers to making coffee to sell in the morning.

There is an intrinsic story to Cart Life, but it’s not told through traditional cutscenes and bits of exposition. Instead, it’s all told through the gameplay. How you function as a cart owner is how your character’s life will unfold. But you are dumped into the world as a fresh immigrant with little to nothing to go on. Andrus, in fact, learned English on the boat ride over to the United States, and the fact that you are living his immediately defeating but new life also makes you quickly empathetic to his situation: he’s lost and unknowing with no real purpose or home to speak of.

Owning this cart is not a purpose; it’s a step. What it’s a step towards has yet to be determined, which lends the entire ordeal a meandering sense of desperation. Where he sleeps is not his home; it’s a hotel, and a hotel is not a home. The only things familiar to him are the places and things he’s restricted to through necessity of surviving this new plight. Hell, he doesn’t even know what time it is until he buys a watch.

But even then, he is still alone. He is fighting against despair and apathy. It’s his despair, but it’s the world’s apathy towards him that his struggles marinate themselves in. He can’t readily communicate with others and he has an empty drive to do…something—anything! It’s impossible to pin down because Andrus himself has yet to nail the specifics. It’s just a sense that something must be done because he can’t do much of anything else.

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been paying attention. This almost too perfectly reflects Viktor’s predicament in The Terminal. And it’s not just the overt stuff like the fact that they’re both foreigners stuck in the US with rudimentary English skills, but it’s about that battle against omnipresent apathy. No one much cares about this little fellow over here because everyone else has things to do. He may not have any especially pressing matters, but they do and that leaves them with little time or patience or energy to deal with unsolicited problems.

Andrus doesn’t know how to open a newspaper cart, he doesn’t know how to acquire inventory, and he doesn’t know how to do much of anything because no one is willing to teach him. Things are there for him, but it’s not given; it has to be taken, just as everything Viktor learns and gains in The Terminal is taken through his ambition to be more than a stateless foreigner. You are both fighting and playing into an expectation to work and wither. Get this guy a paper and show him your business license (hope you remember where you’re licensed to sell). Shuffle on home as your cough develops and is agitated. At the end of the day, you can see how completely broken he is by the way he just helplessly posts against the wall of his shower.

This may seem similar to Far Cry 2, but it’s not. This is vastly different—though still in the same camp—from the oppressive nature of Far Cry 2. That game was about an environment that constantly wanted to overpower you. It gave you nothing because it had nothing to offer; everything had already been looted from its dry, dusty corpse and is now being pointed in your direction as a warning. No, more than a warning: a promise. You were still isolated and left to your own devices, but it was a survival scenario of you against the environment. You are fighting against a tangible threat, whereas in Cart Life you are struggling against a concept of empty interactions and a desolate, night nonexistent personal life. The African savanna has got nothing on the apathy that fills every waking moment of Andrus’ day.

Depending on how you perform in the game, Cart Life may or may not mirror more of Viktor’s time in the airport, but the beginning of both the game and the movie draw the greatest comparisons. Viktor goes from hopeful as he arrives in a new land to completely deconstructed into a walking billboard of the weaknesses of the human condition. Andrus goes from charged fellow fresh off the boat to an immediately broken and lonely man unsure of what he’s doing and what he wants. Both The Terminal and Cart Life have incredibly powerful and meaningful openers. Experience them both. Be lonely for a while. Appreciate when you are not.

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Free To Antagonize

Free To Antagonize

Developers, for the most part, have a healthy relationship with gamers. Aside from the Mass Effect or Tomb Raider controversy here and there, it’s mostly they make the games that we want to play, we buy them, they get feedback, and so on and so on. It’s functional and, at its core, the very essence of capitalism, not to mention occasionally playful (appropriate, given the medium).

There’s been a turn of late, however, that betrays this casual dalliance of give and take. It’s a rising fad that apparently has no intention of leaving us be and likewise has no impetus to even change course, and that is free-to-play—or F2P—games.

The structure itself is harmless enough. The bulk of the game is free and, often depending on the studio and the genre, certain elements will cost money. Sometimes you’ll pay to unlock additional characters or locations for a dollar each and other times you’ll pay money over and over again to reduce some arbitrary energy bar or timer so you can continue playing for the day. One of those is fine and the other, well, not so much.

Paying for additional content has long been an accepted practice in video games. Ever since expansion packs, it’s been a welcome notion from gamers that shelling out additional money for things that operate on top of something you already own is perfectly fine. In modern times, the scope of these extra bits has reduced slightly, but the idea is the same: you like this thing, so we’ll give you more of it.

The problem, of course, arises when the content isn’t “additional” and instead becomes “ancillary.” It’s fun when the developers lock away new hats or character skins behind pay walls, but when the best class or weapon is similarly relegated to those with the money to play, it’s dirty. We feel cheated and it, for lack of a better word, sucks. Straight up, it just shouldn’t be done, and for the most part, it hasn’t, but every once in a while a Battlefield Play4Free will crop up and boy is it gross.

It’s a fine line, though, between necessary and perfunctory. Spaceteam, for example, is a recent iOS game that has people shouting nonsense at each other in the same room as they try to escape an exploding star in their spaceship. It also has things you can buy in its store like new characters and console skins. But there’s also the ability to buy a thing that starts you off at stage 10 for 99 cents. Once you get familiar with the game and those that you play with, the levels prior to 10 become somewhat of a chore. However, skipping them is not vital to the game. It’s just a nice little thing that the developers recognized would facilitate the play of more advanced players. Not vital to the game, but nice to have.

The bigger issue arises under the energy model. Simon Parkin wrote up a very nice thing about it over at Hookshot Inc. a while ago that explains its problems and differentiates it from the arcade model, but it breaks down into this: you have an allotment of a certain resource in an F2P game. It could be energy or fuel or whatever, but mostly everything you do consumes a portion of your reserves, and when you run out of this stockpile of petrol, you can’t play the game anymore. That is, unless you wait it out for a few minutes or hours or days, or if you pay money to refill immediately and get right back into the fray.

This in and of itself is frankly a gross design practice because it’s quite simply poor design. It is essentially a punishment for playing the game that both you and the developer would wholeheartedly like you to be playing and enjoying. Game design, for the most part, centers around player and game feedback. If you do something good like shoot a bad guy, you should be rewarded. This usually comes in the form of collecting some loot or progressing some story, but it should make you feel good regardless. If you do something bad like shoot a friend, you should be punished. You can be reprimanded or docked some health, but the game should tell you that what you did was a no-no.

So then when an F2P game punishes you for no reason other than playing the game, it sets up the logical flow of I played the game and I was punished, therefore I shouldn’t play this game.

But when you get punished, your obvious instinct is to avoid repeated retribution. That’s just being sensible, so when the game offers you an out to not be penalized such as paying money to get back to playing, it only follows that it couldn’t hurt to do so. What’s the harm of spending a dollar or two if it stops you from being harassed?

The harm, unfortunately, is it changes the dynamic between the developer and the player. The items-based model of buying guns and customization options at least feels like shopping, but the energy model creates a meta-game of the developer trying to outsmart and trick the player. In Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, this manifests itself in an early boss battle that, from what I can tell, is impossible to beat the first time; you simply don’t have enough dudes. Each of your guys dies in a single hit and you gain one back every three minutes. It’s a wall that is only surmountable by waiting a really, really, really long time, or by paying money.

This is an elevation of the energy problem because it’s no longer about simply restricting you to a countdown of action or time but instead becomes a toll bridge. Normally, this scenario is a toll bridge versus a slightly longer route around the ravine, but now they’ve purposely lined the detour with barbed wire, mines, and bloodthirsty, mine-proof tigers. The cooperative relationship between us and them has turned into an antagonistic us versus them. Trick, cheat, manipulate; anything to coerce you to walk down the path most desirable to them and not to you.

It’s a situation made worse by the fact that F2P games are no longer free-to-play but still have the in-app purchases that make up most F2P games. FF:ATB actually has the audacity to cost $3.99. That’s four dollars for a game amounts to little more than seeing how fast you can swipe your finger along your iPad. And then it still wants to charge you money to play once you’re in the game. Fieldrunners 2, an otherwise decent game, now has a similar problem. It costs $0.99 and houses a rather insidious difficulty spike that becomes impossible to overcome without spending more money.

Then again, it’s not like player psychology is easy to work with. There’s no easy way to get over “this is a mobile game” hump in most people’s minds. These same games that would cost upwards of seven dollars on Steam are suddenly prohibitively expensive at two dollars in the App Store. Sometimes IAP are justified as tip jars when the free components warrants it, but predicting that is next to impossible.

Developers need to make money, though. That is part of that relationship cycle we’ve established with them as the consumers of their games. So somewhere along the line, we’ve broken that circle, too, albeit at the behest of the free-to-play model to begin with. Nothing is as egregious as some of the practices established or tested in the F2P realm, but it needs to be understood that businesses need to make money. Maybe all the kinks haven’t been smoothed out yet, but the video game industry is an ever evolving one. Maybe one day we’ll figure out how to monetize free-to-play games without insulting either the player or the people that make them. Or maybe we’ll just get back to paying for an entire experience all at once up front and skip the nickel-and-dime stuff altogether.

Or maybe we’ll just forget that Final Fantasy All The Bravest ever happened. God willing.

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A Lament For The Lost

A Lament For The Lost

Video games are moving towards their natural habitat. That is, they are becoming increasingly digital. They are, of course, already digital in the sense that all they really are is compiled code, bits of zeros and ones stamped onto a disc that exist to be read out and interpreted by a machine for your pleasure. The increasingly digital part comes in where they are being sold; digital sales through the likes of Steam and PSN and XBLA are booming and show no signs of stopping.

Physical retail has been on the decline since 2008 while digital delivery has increased since long before that. Mobile gamers are expected to double in the next couple of years on platforms that don’t even have physical media. If you look at NPD numbers for December, you’ll notice a decline in reported sales and yet the industry feels like it hasn’t lost a step. The cause? Digital sales are generally unreported.

Case in point: digital is on the rise, which—operating on the assumption that for cross-platform releases, digital vs. physical is a zero-sum game—means that physical is on the decline. But an important part of gaming is disappearing alongside the corporeal, and that is what used to go alongside the disc.

Do you remember game manuals? I’m sure you do, otherwise I’m going to have to ask to see your permission slip for the Internet. But recall how much used to go into those little booklets. By comparison, they make modern manuals look anemic. This is emblematic of several trends like going green and increasingly hand-holdy game design/tutorials, but let’s call it like it is; this is a loss of art. These miniature tomes were not only instructions on how to play the game but also were records of a world we knew little else about.

I remember that the manual that came with Final Fantasy VII on PC included biographies about all of the characters. You had their names, jobs, height, and even blood type. I spent my first half hour poring over that booklet, trying to absorb and retain everything I could so that the world that I was about to enter would be all the more inviting. There was art and hints and contextualized bits of instruction that read like you were already in Midgar.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there was a walkthrough for the first section in the back. Maybe.

Compare that to today’s instruction manuals. I’ve see flyers with more real estate than that. Nowadays, most of them fold out a few times from a 4″x4″ square, half of which contains legal information and the other half a controller diagram. And that’s it. No biographies, no prologue, and certainly no hints. That tells you that either it is impossible to not understand something about the game or it is being purposefully opaque, neither of which amount to much of an apology for removing a chunk of art from your life. There were times when I, as a child, would go out with my family and I would bring a stack of manuals to read along the way, essential literature and not poor kindling.

While not on a similar decline, you can also soon kiss box art and disc art goodbye. The ridiculously large but oddly sentimental and ornamental boxes that PC games used to come in are gone (and for good reason; I’m guessing each FFVII box required at least one redwood and several saplings) and the diminutive size of modern disc cases (gooooo Green Team!) has diminished the once Idaho-sized canvases of old, but the inevitable digital future demands one especially horrible sacrifice: box and disc art.

Some of which is pretty good and some of which kind of makes you glad people won’t be able to just walk into your house and see that sort of nonsense. It could go from the metal-as-fuck cover of Doom to the painfully horrendous North American box art for Mega Man. Recall the contrasting masterful and shameful box art for Ico on the PS2. In the case of Max Payne 2, the box art was an extension of the game, setting the mood for the player before they even booted up. All the industry in-jokes and the generational milestones will be gone.

And with no box, there is no disc. And with no disc, there is no disc art. Sayonara to giggling at the fact that Tennis 2K2‘s disc looks like a tennis ball. Auf Wiedersehen to staring into the psychedelic abyss that is the We Love Katamari disc. That little movement of taking a disc and pinching it precariously between your thumb and index finger will never happen again. Spindle them up on your digits and twirl those suckers because they are going bye-bye.

That High Fidelity kind of lust for records will become a relic of a bygone time—our time—when video games still came in boxes and housed inside of them a disc with a manual. You will no longer be able to pull a case off your shelf and hold this piece of art in your hands. Your appreciation will be from afar, a maintainable and unknowable distance that stretches between the tips of your fingers and the edge of your screen. Rob Gordon’s obsession will begin to seem rational, his austere precautions mandatory, and his appreciation appropriate. And we will understand that he is a lament for the lost.

And we can only hope Catherine Zeta-Jones will one day date us.

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How To Define A Generation

How To Define A Generation

We’re on the cusp of yet another console generation. Well, it already started with the Wii U, so I guess you could say it stumbled a bit off the line. That’s not any commentary on the quality of the console (great) or the software (okay) but rather that the Wii U launch was unequivocally problematic. It definitely wasn’t a disaster, but so much of it could have been better. Hopefully the next Sony and Microsoft consoles will do better.

They had better, anyways, or they will have much bigger problems to face than a lack of identity and awareness. There will be a bevy of Android powered devices (led by Nvidia Shield, Ouya, and GameStick and whatever else people feel like Kickstarting along the way) and the resurgence of PC gaming to deal with. And then there’s the fact that most mobile gaming originates on iOS devices and mobile gaming is becoming an increasingly bigger and bigger player on the field.

What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of noise on the gaming platform front. It is no longer just the PlayStation and the N64. It is no longer just the Game Boy. The gaming console landscape has become so muddied that it might as well be mire of proprietary technology and services. As a consequence, it has also become more and more difficult to define what a “generation” of gaming is.

This is especially true given the fact that this console cycle has been inordinately protracted. Eight years it’s been going on. Eight. Years. November 16, 2005, was when the Xbox 360 was first released in the US and that was when the clock started ticking. It ticked and ticked and ticked and it’s long run past its alarm.

Before this, the longest a generation ever went was six years and the delineations were much easier to deal with. From the hardware standpoint, each console iteration was such a sizable leap forward that it was nigh inconceivable such devices were ready to purchase for somewhat reasonable prices. Do you remember all the hullabaloo about the PS2 being powerful enough to run a space shuttle or something? That may have been mostly nonsense (it was before anyone realized that space shuttles are by necessity easy to power and manage), but it was still in stark contrast with the fact that the PS1 would not have been capable of doing the same. When we doubled the memory in each Nintendo console, it was a big deal. We couldn’t believe that suddenly so much was capable in our video games.

We went from 2D to fake or limited 3D to full-on 3D to…what? We hit 3D and then did what? Those previous jumps were enabled by these hardware improvements and facilitated our definition of what made a console generation: just look at what our games are capable of. But now that there is just about no limit to the correspondence of what we want and what we can make, that dividing line becomes much harder to find.

Motion controls helped, but that was a trope. 3D displays were mostly a novelty (look at its sudden disappearance from CES). The defining trait of this seventh generation might be that this was when we were sated. Obviously technical specs will be improved and the like (the Wii U is a fucking haus compared to the Wii), but for the most part, this is like how few people will notice or appreciate the difference in using a PC with 32 GB of RAM instead of 16 GB.

And then you throw into the mix mobile games and we’ve got a big ol’ mess. New iOS and Android devices come out so fast that the joke of the phone or tablet you buy today is the one you throw away tomorrow is pretty much a natural law at this point. The devices make such huge jumps in terms of power in such short amounts of time but the games remain compatible, so they have little to no discernible gaps that provide easy definitions. 2009 saw the release of both Canabalt and Angry Birds. Today, we have Joe Danger Touch and Angry Birds Star Wars.

The differences are negligible because on the mobile front, games are distilled and boiled down to their entertainment essence. The additions to the endless runner formula and the Angry Birds formula have obviously come from years of refinement, but any mobile game today could have come out back when iOS debuted and no one would have called witchcraft.

With the rapid rise of mobile gaming and the exploration of its homogenized harvests, the home console counterparts of video games has fallen into the same track of imperceptible generational boundaries that PC gaming has had for years and years and years. PC gaming has largely mirrored home consoles in terms of generational titles since games are often ported to or from the mouse-driven hemisphere. Its interminably and freely upgradable hardware leaves the question of what belongs to where up in the air.

But now that PC gaming has come back up thanks to the help of Steam, it has become less “mirror” and more “peer.” However far PC developers want to push user machines, that’s how far they’ll go. There is no generational gap for them. And since consoles can now operate on a lower magnitude of PC power (instead of distinct releases for the two), people no longer see the console jumps as much as they used to. PC is now an evergreen preview of what’s to come next.

All of this works in concert to muddy the waters; we can no longer see the sharp steps we have to take up to the next generation. It’s all a gentle slope, but it’s kind of amazing no one has even asked whether or not we need to take the journey. Obviously we do, but sooner rather than later, the answer may change to obviously we don’t. It’s a question of how much longer will our aspirations outstretch our means.

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Welcome To The Realistic Agency

Welcome To The Realistic Agency

We’ve talked about player agency a lot here. Maybe too much, as a matter of fact, but it’s just such an important part of gaming nowadays. Maybe not important in the sense that it needs to be in every game from here on out (it definitely shouldn’t), but it’s important to talk about because it implicates so many other facets of game design. It folds in everything we’ve learned over the years about player psychology and narrative engagement, which in turn involves how designers grab attention and pull you along by the nose without ever realizing it.

But there’s another thing about player agency that I’d like to discuss. Don’t worry; it’ll be short. Plus, you can blame it on Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis for bringing to my attention in his and Patrick’s Quick Look for Kentucky Route Zero. But he brought up a concept I hadn’t really thought about until he said it, and that is realistic agency.

Put in another way, it is how the control a player has over the story of a game is either believable or too fantastical to be easily digested. And that raised an interesting question: what makes that control believable?

I’m by no stretch of the imagination a fatalist, but it does seem to be that when big, huge wheels are turning, it’s a lot harder to get them to change direction. In the scientific sense, that is fact; it’s called inertia. In the metaphorical sense, though, it just follows intuition. When so many pieces are moving and you can only affect one single gear, who’s to say that particular one has any real effect on the end result? It might or it might not, but no one can know for sure on any sufficiently large machine.

And in any sufficiently large machine, there is likely to be an assume proportion of gears and cogs and bits and things. There are a few big ones that have many—many—smaller and smaller parts feeding into them. With each step up or down or laterally, your control dissipates. Very rarely can you see a thread you can tug that will directly influence the big pieces. Your view and authority is so limited in scope, just giving you the ability to draw out oversized outcomes is a power fantasy in itself.

This ratio and trickle of control happens in everyday life. Let’s say you make a sandwich for lunch instead of eating some spaghetti leftovers. Will that in any possible way affect whether or not Taylor Swift gets back together with Harry Styles or that her ensuing song won’t be catchy? Maybe, but the overwhelming probably of “not by a long fucking shot” is much more likely.

What I’m saying is that we’re used to this sort of limited dominion. We can control the immediate aspects of our lives and a few parts of other people’s but mostly everything else is way beyond our scope. This is believable agency, for better or worse. It may sound depressing, but this is the control we’re used to and what we find credible.

Take that and turn it towards video games, where we’re regularly put in extraordinary situations. We still have very limited power in that we can still only directly affect the things around us. The difference is that those things are the big, huge cogs in the machine that sometimes connect directly to other sizable machines. We go from pushing and pulling these tiny phalanges of the construct and now we’re suddenly expected to cope with turning these giant flywheels. In the context of the setups, it makes sense, but to our human experience, it is so incredibly alienating.

This makes straightforward narratives make more sense. Excise out the major player choice of letting an alien race live or leaving the intergalactic security council to burn in a global fire and we’re back to normal, believable choices. Do you take cover behind this pillar or that one? Do you jump up this ladder or take the ramp? These are the smaller choices we’re familiar with and that we accept in daily life that don’t make seismic shifts with the ending of the story.

Compare the choices you have to make in Mass Effect 3 and in The Walking Dead. In Mass Effect 3, we’re expected to regularly make decisions that very obviously ripple throughout the galaxy. No small choice leads up to them. We’re handed a cannon ball, pointed towards a lake, and made to watch the aftermath. The average dialog choice is so very obviously directly tied to your paragon and renegade scores that it comes across only as a menu selection of what kind of bonuses you want. It feels less like believable choice and more like a science experiment (but with one chance to test the hypothesis).

The Walking Dead, however, is nothing but small choices that get out of hand. It’s a premise we’re all familiar with, if just with less dead people and more, uh…indoor plumbing? But every choice we make has the very real possibility of affecting later situations because we are knee-deep in both the choices and the situations. Everything that happens to and around us is all within arm’s reach. I also personally turned off the story beat notifications, but know that really anything and everything is up for grabs when things complicate down the road. We choose to share something about ourselves or we choose to find something for someone can all affect drastic life-or-death situations moments or days or months later.

This festering extrapolation of small into big is our everyday life. This is believable choice and credible agency. Constantly choosing to make grand, sweeping changes to things we can’t see or comprehend is not. Realistic agency is the next goal for games with branching narratives (the static ones, I guess, can stay the way they are). The chase is on for figuring out how to convey small choices that balloon into big results, deciphering what makes choices compelling and believable. Welcome to the Realistic Agency. Feel free to press some buttons.

Also, I lied about this being short.

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