Monday, July 6, 2009

Half-Life 2 - Constant gameplay introductions and their effect on game pacing

In my opinion, Half-Life 2 (HL2) is an example of impeccable game design. For a couple weeks now I have been mulling over in my head on how to approach writing about this 5 year old game that still sets a measuring bar which in my opinion, most games fail to reach. My intent was to approach HL2 by describing the inginuity of how Valve changes the gameplay mechanics from chapter to chapter, always introducing a new way to interact within the boundaries of their game. Upon reading Mark Sivak's entry in the Well Played collection (, I had been beaten to the punch. Mark's essay includes a chapter by chapter break-down of HL2, exploring how Valve create highs and lows in their gameplay, and how the chapters themselves, while fitting into three categories, differ.

I recommend you read the essay yourself, but perhaps I will just explain my own thoughts on the subject. I was never as indepth as Mark while musing over how the gameplay changes from chapter to chapter but I can break it down as follows...

Narrative establishment
FPS action
Introducing vehicles via the airboat
Gravity gun
Survival Horror (Ravenholm)
Driving section
Antlion avoidance
Antlion control
FPS with Alyx & turrents (defence points)
Squad combat
Stryder takedown
God gun
Narritive conclusion

Now those of you that have played HL2 might understand this list (perhaps not also as it is rather simplistic). Other mechanics were introduced in these sections (such as using the rocket launcher to take down airships during the driving section), but for my playthroughs and recollections, this is how the game split its mechanics up. Every chapter introduces something new within the confines of the game's rules. Some sections are story driven, some combat driven, but the pacing of HL2 does a great job of propelling the player forward (and it's not a short game by any means).

What's also interesting to note is that the episodes that followed HL2 follow this path as well. Episode 1 (Ep1) and Episode 2 (Ep2) change their mechanics chapter to chapter. The difference I feel is that being shorter experiences, the change in mechanics is not as substantial, as everything that happens in these games from start to finish feels like a unified goal (while HL2's narrative consisted of goals that changed as the story unfolded). Ep1's goal is to escape City 17 and Ep2's goal is to reach the rocket.

Next time you play through HL2, Ep1, Ep2, or the upcoming Episode 3 (Ep3), take notice of how the gameplay shifts even minutely during different chapters, and try and place how this affects the pacing of the overall game itself. Valve have become quite good at pacing, and the constant introduction of new gameplay mechanics I believe is the greater part of why this is.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Reach for the stars: A history of level end mini-games in the Mario series

This is in part a response but also an expansion on the essay by Patrick Curry entitled 'Everything I know about game design I learned from Super Mario Bros.'

The paper dissects the 1985 game and reveals the secrets of game design held within.

One section I wish to address is a paragraph discussing what Curry refers to as a mini-game within Super Mario Bros. This is the flag pole at the end of every level. The player acheives a greater number of points the further up they can land on the flagpole, capping out at five thousand. Exceptional players can even jump the flagpole itself (a feat I have not been able to achive as of yet). This mini-game is an end of level reward in its own way. You've survived the challenges thrown at you, so now have some fun and try and jump over the flagpole. What amazed me about this approach to the level's end in Super Mario Bros upon further thought is that Shigeru Miyamoto has continued this pattern of end of level mini-games throughout the entire Mario series (granted some are more abstract than others, but we're going to analyze them anyway).

Let's start with the final two NES titles in the series. Super Mario Bros 2, and Super Mario Bros 3. SMB2 was a remake of the Japanese titled Doki Doki Panic, which used the Mario characters to increase game sales when it was ported to American shores. None the less the end of each level ended with a slot machine style game where the coins you collected could be exchanged for extra lives if the slots paid off. This took the mini-game concept a step further in that collecting coins throughout the level had more of a purpose (well ok, in SMB if you collect 100 coins you get a 1up. In SMB2, coins allow you to play a slot machine to recieve 1ups. It's not that different but it ties the coin-1up relationship into the end of the level). In SMB3 there is a single slot where powerups rotate through. Like SMB2, you need to get three of a kind to achieve 1ups (hence you only have a chance every three levels in this game). A mish-mash of powerups would still yield a 1up or two, but if you achieved three stars, you get a prestigious five 1ups, which was always a discussion point amongst friends about various strategies to net yourself a star at the end of a level.

The Game Boy Marioland games (and then the Warioland games) continued this tradition of the end of level mini-game in many interesting ways. However these were designed by Gumpei Yokoi (the creator of the Game Boy), and not Miyamoto, so I will acknowledge their continuation of this pattern and move on (the same with New Super Mario Bros on the DS, designed by Shigeyuki Asuke which returns the flagpole from SMB).

The SNES had two Mario games, both continuing the formula. Super Mario World's mini-game is reminiscent of the flagpole from SMB as each level ends with can only be described as a giant hurdle. The middle part rises and falls and the player gets a higher number the further up he can hit the hurdle. The number is saved and when the player plays enough levels to make one hundred a 1up mini-game is played. In Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, each level has five flowers scattered around. When they are collected (which is part of getting a perfect score of 100 for each level), they are added to a roulette wheel at the end of the level that Yoshi jumps through. If the wheel lands on a flower, the player partakes in one of many mini-games for 1ups and powerups.

Now the 3D Mario games all share their level ends in common, and it's not what I can actually call a mini-game. In Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, the purpose of each level is to collect a star (or a shine). Once the star is collected, the level is over. One would think that removing the hallmark mini-games from the series would diminish the feeling of reward at the end of a level, but somehow the stars retain that feeling (at least for me). The mini-game, the reward and the purpose of the gameplay have now been combined and especially in SMS (I would say the most difficult of the 3D Mario games), you feel you have earned that star when you finally aquire it. This change in design might also be the influence of the new designers creating the 3D Mario series alongside Miyamoto. Yoshiaki Koizumi, Takashi Tezuka, Kenta Usui, and Takao Shimizu have all had design credits on one or more of these games, with Miyamoto taking a producer credit after SM64.

Well that's the history of Miyamoto's mini-games at the end of Mario's levels. I find it interesting how such a nice little reward system was developed and even taking to fascinating new places by other Nintendo developers (the Marioland and Warioland series), and i'm sure was used in many other platform games (the giant ring at the end of Sonic the Hedgehog comes to mind). The mini-game having been replaced by the star has not been needed for a while, but with New Super Mario Bros Wii on the horizon, we might see a resurgence of the end of level mini-game (I somehow don't think it's showing up in Super Mario Galaxy 2).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 2 - Understanding the Game

I've been writing down a few ideas here and there as topics for this blog, but I have Metal Gear Solid 2 on the brain, seeing as i completed the game on Saturday.

Upon doing so, I scoured the internet for any academic writing I could find pertaining to the game's narrative (especially the final two hours). I came up with some links that helped me understand what I had sat through. Well not only the ending, but what Kojima was actually doing within the narrative of the game itself.

*One criticism I often have of academic writing is that I sometimes think people delve too deep. They try to illicit meaning out of work that might not necessarily have deep meaning. I still kind of hold that to be true, but I think it's all very subjective. One person might be able to find meaning in what might be considered the lowest form of culture or entertainment, while another person might not get anything out of some of the great works of literature. In fact, that person might go so far as to lamblast people who did find meaning as pretentious or too eager. For this blog I'm taking the road of subjectivity to the fullest. Feel free to disagree with my readings of games, but please try and put reasoning behind your words. That is all I ask.

The reason I went off on that tangent is because Kojima's games and especially Metal Gear Solid 2 (from now on referred to as MGS2) divides people. It does this for many reasons, and the three academic works I discovered and read through kind of touch on that in different ways. The game certainly affected me, as I'm considering putting it in my top 20 games based on its narrative alone (I am fickle and this list changes from time to time). What I will do now is provide links to these essays and then discuss what they are about, why i found them interesting and hopefully through this exercise, will be able to form some of my own thoughts about the game.

Link Numero uno:

The first link written by James Howell in 2007 takes the approach of MGS2 when compared to its predecessor Metal Gear Solid. It explores what people expect of a video game sequel and how MGS2 delivers on a couple of those expectations, but then usurps said expectations creating an experience while reminiscent of the first game, is infuriating for its fans.

I only played through the original MGS a year or so ago. Like MGS2, i ended up wholeheartedly enjoying this spy thriller full of science fiction, and super natural elements. A game where revelations, double-crosses and secrets are spewed out at the player with wild abandon. In essence, a narrative assault, especially when coming from a stealth based video game.

MGS2 delivers the same narrative assault in my opinion, but there are many links to the first game. There is a cyborg ninja, there is a rag tag group of supernatural terrorists, there are many characters from the first game, and you do get to play as Solid Snake (at least for the first couple of hours). In fact, part of the ending reveals that most of the game was a training exercise meant to recreate Shadow Moses (the events of MGS). Howell's essay takes most of these similar elements and explains how they heighten your expectation of what MGS delivered and then refuse to pay that expectation off in MGS2. The epitome of this is one word, Raiden.

Link dues:

This is quite an extensive look into the ending of MGS2 by one Artemio Urbina. It includes links and readings to many outside sources on the subject matter and themes presented by Kojima in this game. A transcript of the ending is also available to aid discussion through the paper.

If I had to sum the theme of MGS2 up succintly, I would probably say something along the lines of 'the free distribution of information in our digital age hampering our evolution as a species'. It's a little more complex with secret societies, AI, genetics, virtual reality, betrayal, etc, but like the first MGS, Kojima is able to weave something thought provoking in a narrative that really shares more in common with pulp novels, cheesy action movies, and government conspiracy thrillers.

If the last couple of hours of MGS2 confused you or angered you, this reading might clarify some things.

Link Three:

This article by Tim Rogers was discovered last year while I was researching an essay on 'new games journalism'. It approaches MGS2 as one of the first postmodern videogames (Earthbound probably taking the mantle of first). This article is all about approaching MGS2 as a game that knows it's a game. Explaining how Kojima wanted to write a story only a videogame could tell, Rogers explores how Raiden is a true videogame character, and how the MGS2 narrative plays with the idea of knowing it's all a game.

Art is purely subjective (as I also established earlier are people's readings into it). I think it can be argued that a game such as MGS2 that runs the reactions of astonished to repulsed to confused, and possibly even to indifferent, fufills its duty as an art form.

Also I'd like to put forth the idea that not many people in the mainstream go out of their way to experience something different in the art world. By creating a sequel to a beloved game that was so radically different on purpose, in order to circumvent people's expectations and to open up some thoughts on the digital world they live in, was a bold move by Kojima.

I have yet to play Metal Gear Solid 3 but I have to wonder if it will have a similar effect.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Intro (mach 3)


My name is Dave.

I am a gamer.

I also am a university student close to graduating with a degree in Computer Games from Bond University.

Lastly, I have a podcast where my good friend Andrew and I talk about games from week to week. It's called 'The Console War Vets'. The link is on the sidebar.

So why a blog? Well I've been reading quite a lot of academic works in regards to gaming lately (for those of you not in the know, yes there is a huge field of academic essays and books regarding video games). Through my degree I've also opened myself up more to what video games offer as forms of entertainment and as forms of art.

This blog will be for budding ideas on topics of game mechanics, concepts of play, fun, design, and reactions to what I'm reading. What I'd like to do is also try and delve internally into games I'm playing at the moment, and see what's there in terms of topics.

If you're looking for opinions on games, new releases and game news, well that's what the podcast is for. :)

- Dave out