Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dave's Top Games of 2010

I know, I know.

The blog has been neglected. That being the case though, I couldn't resist posting my top games lists. I've been doing this in various forms in various places for a few years now, though the most entertaining list was probably last year on the podcast...

Ok, here's how this will work. There are two lists. They both will be Top 6 lists (The great cult movie podcast 'Outside the Cinema' gave me the idea, and it just makes sense dammit!). Each entry will be accompanied by a small paragraph explaining the choice. The first list will be a Top 6 Wishlist. There are too many quality titles these days to play em all, and this will count down the 6 games of 2010 I have yet to experience, but want to. This will be followed by my personal Top 6 Games of 2010!

Let the countdown commence!

Top 6 Wishlist of 2010

#6 - Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

The movie was amazing. Many people have said the same about the game. I love my old school beat-em-ups and sprite art, so it is quite astonishing I haven't made time for this title yet. That shall be rectified sooner or later (I will say that for pretty much everything on this list).

#5 - Red Dead Redemption

Maybe I was burned out on GTAIV. Maybe it's cause I had played Red Dead Revolver. Whatever the reason, RDR just didn't appeal to me upon release. It's only recently at the end of the year, with the continued positive talk about the game that makes me think I should give it a try and see what all the fuss is about.

#4 - Alan Wake

I love Max Payne and its sequel. I have been waiting for Alan Wake by Remedy for years. I do not own an Xbox 360, so cannot play it. I still am holding out hope for a PC port, but am doubtful. A pity. This looks good!

#3 - Donkey Kong Country Returns

A modern reboot of the Donkey Kong Country series with devious level design and co-op play? Count me in! I just have too much on my plate game wise at the moment. This will be a must buy soon enough.

#2 - Civilization 5

The Civilization games consume me. The fifth installment would be doing the same, but i've been a poor bastard for a while so need to wait till a steam sale in the coming year knocks back the price substantially.

#1 - Kirby's Epic Yarn

This is here on a technicality (i always seem to have one of them in my lists). The technicality being it isn't being released in PAL territories till 2011. Regardless, the latest Kirby adventure looks fun, and full of wonder. It sits atop my wishlist with pride!

Some of those games might be on your personal top 6 of the year, so you might be wondering what exactly is on mine. Let us explore!

Top 6 Games of 2010

#6 - Bit.Trip.Runner

This Wiiware rhythmic platformer strikes me as the type of game that would annoy many players. It seems to click with me. The 'keep at it till you get it right' learning curve, and the zen like state you reach while dodging everything the game throws at you in time with the music earns it a spot on my list.

#5 - Alpha Protocol

A modern espionage RPG wherein your decisions have consequences. A lot of RPGs these days tout the moral choices PR but few really make you feel like they pull it off. Alpha Protocol pulled it off with gusto. I've been planning a 2nd playthrough just because i made some seriously bad choices the first time through and I wish to make amends.

#4 - Vanquish

I have only started playing Vanquish today (I had a couple games I thought might make the list this week so needed to give em a whirl). My short time playing the game gives it the #4 spot. It's got an over the top ham fisted story, and half the time i'm playing, i have no idea what i'm doing (kinda like Platinum Games' other release this year Bayonetta). That being said, the mechanics are incredibly fun and offer a nice amount of strategy to a shooter. Also, the bosses are completely over the top. The game is also quite hard, but in that good "I'll get it right this time" way.

#3 - Super Mario Galaxy 2

Funnily enough, the only sequel on my list. Super Mario Galaxy was my top game for 2007, and yes, the sequel is more of the same. As if that's somehow a bad thing! They went overboard on the level design, and the new suits and Yoshi's powers are a nice addition. A class act game all the way.

#2 - Deadly Premonition

You know that children's rhyme that has that line, "when she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid"? That's exactly how I feel about Deadly Premonition. The setting, characters, story, sound, and attention to detail in this game create an experience that leaves me with a smile on my face. The stiff controls, laughable animation, and periods where the game forces you to waste time bring that jubilation to a halt. I've been playing this over the period of a couple months at my friend Kenneth's place (he has a 360). We definitely have a love/hate relationship with this game.

#1 - Super Meat Boy

I haven't had this much fun playing a videogame for a while. Tight Controls, inspired level design, tons of secrets, and bursting with gamer nostalgia. This game chews you up, spits you out, and has you coming back for more. There's not really much more I can say. If you've played it, you either know what i'm talking about or think i'm crazy. Either way, i'm fine with that!

So that's the ol' Top Games list. 2011 is shaping up to be a great gaming year so we'll see what it brings. Feel free to post your own lists in response. I'd love to see what everyone else enjoyed this year.

Happy Gaming!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Voice acting - A study of Planescape: Torment

As part of the Vintage Game Club over at Brainy Gamer, i have been playing through Planescape: Torment (PS:T), a game I've had many goes at over the years but never completed. An interesting idea was raised that I would like to explore further, and that is whether voice acting enriches or detracts from a gaming experience.

Now the first thought most people would have is that of course voice acting makes games better. Like movies, it allows the lines to be inflected with the right tone and emotion, giving more weight to performances and thus immersing the player within the game's world and connecting them to the characters. I would agree with this. Games like Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect had time and effort devoted to casting actors and directing them in a way that would add to the overall experience. Many games however do not echo this dedication towards voice work. Whether it's due to time or money, a lot of games have cringe worthy voice acting. Now a lot of games have cringe worthy dialogue so not all the blame can be on delivery, but there seem to be a lot of titles that suffer from this problem.

Voice acting was introduced to gaming in the early 90s. Sure there were arcade titles like Sinistar and Bezerk that had characters speak, but the first games to have every line of dialogue in the game spoken were adventure games like the cd-rom version of King's Quest V. It's interesting that with the introduction of talkie versions of games, and then FMV (full motion video), gamers were so quick to dismiss and defend bad acting (vocally and physically). My thoughts are that the technology was still new and novel, so just having characters speak or actors act out a scene in front of you in a game was an amazing experience, regardless of quality. That was when the technology was new however. Nowadays, I would say there is no excuse. The good news is that bad acting is not defended, and is somewhat criticized now. The bad news is it's still so prevalent.

In PS:T there is minimal voice acting. When you first meet important characters, they usually say the first sentence of the first line of dialogue, and when you give orders to your party, they will vocally respond. Also, members of your party will vocally banter amongst each other every now and then. Aside from this, all the game is text, and one could say text heavy. The introductory voice along with the banter is an interesting concept, as it gives you an impression of how the character speaks, but then leaves the rest up to your imagination. People often complain about when they hear a character they love from a book or an old game has been given a voice actor. Even with good delivery, the voice is always going to be different than what each individual has heard in their own heads while reading the dialogue. I think Planescape: Torment meets players in the middle on this. Sure the main characters all have a voice, but once you've heard it, the delivery is all up to you on how the lines are read and inflected.

Another aspect where i feel PS:T excels with text over voice acting is in its descriptions. Not just with examining objects (because most RPGs if voiced will use text for descriptions), but in having things happen to you that due to the design choices of the game, couldn't be animated. One example is in fetching seeds for this old woman. You discover that the only way to acquire these seeds is to use your will to grow this plant. The plant then creates strands of barbed vines that twist around your arm, attaching themselves to your flesh. You then walk back to the old woman, and basically say "Here's your seeds. Get this thing off me". Without a close up or animated cut-scene, such a memorable moment couldn't have been expressed visually, so the designers decided to use the text, and at least in my opinion, it left more of a lasting impression.

Finally, at least in PS:T, the use of text over voice acting allowed them to focus more on the multitude of choices a player has in approaching how they want to play. Dialogue trees with different options based on stats can drastically change outcomes, as will approaching goals in a certain order and with certain people. You can even have drawn out conversations with your party members that unlock not only experience points but new avenues to explore. That's not to say this level of depth cannot be done with voice acting. Look at the level of vocal options that change the game in this year's Alpha Protocol (which funnily enough is created by the same designer as PS:T).

A lot of RPGs from that era used text, mostly due to the incredible level of dialogue, and budget and technology constraints (CDs only held so much data). Still perhaps part of the reason that Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Final Fantasy VII and others are so fondly remembered is due to the player imprinting their own characterizations into the well crafted experiences these games delivered. Now that voice acting tecnology is no longer new, every game seems to have it, including complex RPGs. It can definitely help a game, but whether or not the voice acting adds or detracts from the experience does seem to be subjective. Just look at the response, both positive and negative when Final Fantasy XIII was released earlier this year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

MMOs and Unethical Game Design

In a talk at an indie developer conference a year or two ago Jonathon Blow (creator of Braid) described the design philosophy of the MMO genre, "unethical". His reasoning was that the games were built on simple, monotonous game mechanics that the player engages in hundreds or thousands of times and to hide this, MMOs create a trail of bread crumbs to entice the player to continue. Keep playing, here's a new level and ability. Keep playing, here's a new sword. Keep playing, here's a new area to explore... and so on.

Now one could argue that most games have similar designs. Here's a new gun in this FPS. You've unlocked new tracks in this racing game. Here's a new level and ability in this RPG (although this one has a definitive end). So what explains this discrepancy? Well the end i just mentioned in RPGs may have something to do with it. So may the complexity of the base mechanics of the game. A good example is Bayonetta. I'm a couple levels from the end of the game and every time a fight ends, I'm still a little befuddled as to what happened, and part of that is what keeps me playing (It's what i refer to as a 'I have a smile on my face and i don't know why' experience). I think ultimately what distinguishes the way an MMO keeps players playing with its trail is a sense of immediate gratification.

For my examples in the MMO space i will be referring to World of Warcraft (WoW) mostly, as that has been my main MMO experience. In WoW, when you begin, the levels come at you fast. In fact, when you first begin any MMO, everything is overwhelming. Playing from levels 1 - 10 is meant to be fast and easy, mainly to entice the player to continue playing. You learn the basics of the class you've chosen, have started some quests, and are beginning to get into the story if you're so inclined (at least in WoW I've found that following the game's narrative rests solely on the player's initiative). You've started exploring the world and especially once you leave your starting area, the scope of the playable world can be quite awe inspiring.

The immediate gratification starts to wain a little around level 30. Much of the world is open to you, you've experienced most of the quest variety until you reach the expansions, and you've encountered both good and bad experiences with other players. What makes someone continue at this point now that the crumbs are further apart? It's the time you've put into your character. You've grown attached to him or her. You may be in a guild and now have a group of people you play with. You've levelled up some professions and are playing the auction house. You enjoy queuing for dungeons or the battlegrounds.

Basically, the simple crumb trail you were following around levels 1 - 10 has split off into multiple crumb trails. Not only that, but you now have roots in the world. MMOs are after all a social game, and whether that's just getting attached to your character or being part of a larger community, there's a reason for many players to stick around (and of course there are those who just create another character and experience the early portion of the game all over again).

So yes, the mechanics and design choices that MMOs are founded on can certainly be seen as unethical (probably the stickiest part of this argument is having to pay monthly for such an experience), but considering the scope of the game space, the choice of play (even if it is all based on the same mechanics), and definitely the social aspect (which lends itself more to time spent in the game than the game itself), the MMO has certainly shown its strengths, its weaknesses, and earned its place amongst the rest of the videogame genres.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On walkthroughs, strategy guides, and FAQs

Is completing a videogame the ultimate goal of said videogame? If this is true, does this warrant the use of outside assistance when the player gets stuck?

This can be a tricky issue. Gamers can be very elitist, and the thought of using help to complete a videogame can be met with scorn among your peers. I myself have taken many changing stances on the use of strategy guides and FAQs over the years, and i expect that view to change again in the years to come.

They've been around in one form or another for a while. Let's face it, some games are hard. Games have been hard since the medium was created. Out of those who had a NES, who used the Konami code in Contra? Who bought a Game Genie to enable infinite energy, lives, or the ability to warp levels in your games? When Final Fantasy came out, i had my parents buy the Nintendo Power strategy guide along with it. Since then, the walkthroughs have continued, and now thanks to the internet (and primarily www.gamefaqs.com), help to get you through your game is easier than ever.

There however was a period of my life when i was anti-FAQ. Why should i ruin the experience for myself by following a step by step guide through Xenogears? Why does my room-mate need a strategy guide to play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? Well, eventually i did get stuck on bosses in Xenogears, and looked up hints on how to pass them. As for my roommate, his explanation was that he would never play through Vice City again so wanted to explore all the secrets and play every mission the first time through.

I think now more than ever, walkthroughs are linked to game flow. They've always been like that, it's just that flow is a newish concept. If you get stuck in the game, flow is impeded, therefore looking up the solution whether in a store bought book, or online will keep flow going. On the other hand, following a step by step walkthrough through a game might suck the fun and wonder out of the experience, and once again flow is ruined. It's all about finding that balance.

These days my use of FAQs is dictated by genre. Action games, sandbox games, action-adventures, platformers... these games are all about what happens from moment to moment. Looking down at a book or at your monitor breaks the immersion of what these games are all about. On the other hand, Adventure games, and RPGs have a slower pace. It's also very easy to become stuck in these genres. I use walkthroughs for them as a road map through the experience. There are of course exceptions (Mass Effect with its action based combat and speedy pace needed no guide to complete).

If completing the videogame is your goal, then anything that gets you there should be fair game. If however you're playing for fun, exploration, a challenge, or satisfaction, the use of walkthroughs, strategy guides, and FAQs can stand in the way of these goals. In the end, you bought the videogame, you treat the experience the way that makes the most sense to you, and if you have to look at a guide to enjoy your game, so be it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Those who Forget History are Doomed to Repeat it

I am an active retro-gamer.

Part of this is due to having a friend with an Atari 2600 when i was little, and beginning my own gaming career with a NES, a 386, and the arcades. The other part is a fascination with the history of videogames. To not only see where genres and franchises began, but to witness the refinement of mechanics over time and gameplay choices that would definitely not hold water today.

I can see the possibility of this idea becoming a regular feature, but am reluctant as there is already the Bad Game Designer: No Twinkie database by Earnest Adams which is a great read.

None the less, i was playing King's Quest (1984) yesterday (part of Telltale Games' wonderful charity bundle this year), and came across two game mechanics of interest.

The first deserves it's own discussion so i'll just mention it for now, as this was a staple of the entire genre for quite a while. I'm referring to character death in an adventure game. In pretty much the entire Sierra catalogue, one wrong move could spell a grisly end for your character. The first game i remember playing where your character couldn't die was The Secret of Monkey Island, and even then, many adventure games kept this mechanic.

Granted, some of the deaths i experienced yesterday in King's Quest were amusing (getting baked into a gingerbread man by the witch being a highlight), and other games by Sierra like the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games had hilarious game over scenarios, but death seems antithecal to the main mechanics of the genre.

If i had to boil it down, i would say the main gameplay mechanics of these games are exploration, problem solving, and playing out a story. The fact that your character can die doing the wrong thing seems like a kick in the teeth. It doesn't encourage trying out ideas, but encourages safety during play.

With proper use of save games and patience though, character death can be overcome while playing these games. However King's Quest is guilty of a far worse mechanic, and that is the ability to create an unwinnable scenario.

The goal of King's Quest is to find three treasures and return them to the king. There are areas of the game where you can come across a dwarven thief. He will run into you and steal something out of your inventory. I think you know where i'm going with this. Yes, he can steal the treasures out of your inventory. There is no way to retrieve them when this happens. Essentially, game over. I'm at a part of the game where the only way forward is to walk through a screen where this dwarf appears. Loading the game over and over, i cannot make it through without losing a treasure. Looking online i can sneak past him using a ring of invisibility, but i have not come across this ring yet.

It's almost like a variation on character death, but this is a punishment for either not exploring enough or trying to do something in the wrong order. King's Quest 6 (1992) had a similar problem. You could pawn off a ring of yours for different items (trading them to the pawn broker and back many times throughout the game), but if you didn't possess the ring at the end of the game, you couldn't complete it. Once again i remember Lucasarts's games doing away with this problem of the genre (and unlike character death, this is a mechanic that didn't stick around).

Well if i come across any other mechanics such as these, i will post again on this topic. In the meantime, i'll make sure my next post is on something other than the adventure game... i promise.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pheonix Wright and the Death of the Adventure game

In my post about Pheonix Wright, i mentioned how as an adventure game, it relies mostly on its story and characters, and is occasionally interrupted by puzzles in the form of finding inconsistancies in testimony. I would like to expound on that and put forth a possible explanation to the decline of the adventure game genre.

First a little background. Adventure games were one of two genres that overtook my gaming interests in the mid 80s... till about the mid to late 90s. Oh sure, i played anything i could get my hands on, but adventure games and platformers were my genres of choice. my first memories of adventure games were the Sierra text parser games, notibly the Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Police Quest series (I didn't get into King's Quest until KQ6).

While the genre still lives on, i have done a lot of thinking on when it really exited the mainstream, and while i think it was slowing down by the mid 90s, i would say the adventure genre's final breath was with Grim Fandango. Why is this? The rise of 3d, the action/adventure genre, the FPS, and within the FPS, most notibly, Half-Life.

It's not that putting the storytelling, characters, and puzzles of an adventure game into an action game made the adventure game redundant, it's that this highlighted the problems of the adventure genre itself.

As i said when talking about Pheonix Wright, you have a linear story broken up by frequent puzzles that have to be solved to continue. Now Pheonix Wright is much more linear than most adventure games, but the same problem still stands. Especially these days more than ever, a player wants to constantly move forward when playing a game. In an FPS, you're travelling from firefight to firefight, and if there's an area you can't progress in, it's due to a combination of tactics, and skill. You know how to continue. In an RPG, more often than not impeded progress can be solved by grinding (killing monsters till you level up enough to continue). My point is, in many of these popular genres, it's obvious what is needed to move forward. This is not always the case in the adventure genre.

In fact i recall many games where either one puzzle or a multitude of puzzles kept me from progressing in an adventure game, sometimes for months. To this day, i still haven't completed Riven. In Pheonix Wright, you're enjoying the story and for the most part, progress is easy, but then you come to a puzzle that no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. The game screeches to a halt. This is indicitive of the adventure gaming experience.

This next part is tricky. I am reluctant to say that the gameplay of adventure games is not fun. The satisfaction you get when solving a puzzle can be very rewarding. Having said that, many puzzles are unclear, and require very odd leaps of logic, or the solution hides in minute detail. Many puzzles are not fun so that the satisfaction of solving them is usually replaced with confusion or frustration. Also, it is rare that the puzzles themselves integrate well with the story (ie. "I have to break into this house. Oh look, there's a relational number puzzle acting as his door lock, but he's just some security guard"). At least the puzzles of Pheonix Wright all fit into the story, but that's a rarity in the genre.

Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka of Bioware have talked about story in videogames, saying such things as their games are moving the industry towards games driven by story, and not combat. At the time Kotaku covered this (July of 2009), i was pretty angry about it. I felt that the adventure genre had been completely overlooked and they believed this idea of having a narrative driving your story was a new thing. The industry has changed however and that is part of the reason why the adventure genre has a niche audience now. What i believe Bioware has been trying to do with their games is to allow player choice to propel the game forward, so the player believes their decisions are having direct consequence on their experience (i'll have more to say about this when i complete Mass Effect any day now).

To finish up, i'll say that while a game's story can have a lasting effect on a player (Killer7 is one of the greatest stories i've experienced in a videogame for instance), it's gameplay that drives videogames. The adventure game had problems with this balance, and as games evolved, they got relegated to niche audiences. The trick is to have the story serve the gameplay, or in recent years, to have the story itself be the main element of gameplay (i believe Mass Effect falls under this category as the RPG elements and combat are secondary to your choices as a character. Games like Heavy Rain definitely fall into this category). As long as such games keep the player moving forward, i don't see these games falling into the same pitfalls of the adventure genre.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pheonix Wright and a Case of Tension

I've made a mistake.

Since my last post saying i'll be back, i've been doing a lot of thinking about writing about video games. What am i going to write about? Where can i do some research so it sounds like i know what i'm talking about? Will they be as good as the couple articles i wrote last year?

I've decided it's time to just write.

Let's talk Pheonix Wright.

Since the DS version was released in Australia in early 2007, i have been enamoured with this series. Recently since it is becoming difficult to find copies of the DS games that aren't ridiculously expensive, i bought the three games on Wiiware and am playing through them again (well replaying the first and second, i have not played the third as of this date).

Having completed the first again, i would like to talk about it. I might do this for the second and third title, but i'm not making any promises. Pheonix Wright is a streamlined adventure game set in a courtroom. Sure there are sections of the game where you have to investigate crime scenes and talk to witnesses, but those are preperation for the meat of the game, which is again, the courtroom.

To turn playing a defense attourney into a fun game mechanic required a little retooling of the court system. A trial can only last three days so the player has a definite time frame of how close they might be to declaring their client innocent. The prosocution calls all witnesses and has incredible influence over the judge and the police force. In fact, the only tool the player as Pheonix Wright has is cross-examination, where you scour through the witness testimony looking for inconsistancies and contradictions.

What surprised me in this replay is the tension of the courtroom drama (especially because even though this is a game that involves defending clients of murder, it is a quite humourous experience). It reminded me of how in many movies, even though there's that logical part of the brain that tell us "He's the hero, there's no way he can fail", there are sequences in these films that have us on the edge of out seat. Pheonix Wright employs the same logic. If our client is guilty, we lose, therefore the trial has to turn around. Why then are there so many occurances of Pheonix's hide being saved at the complete last minute?

It all comes down to the writing and pacing. It's an adventure game after all. Even the puzzles (finding contradictions) are scarce compared to the unravelling of each case. The characters and writing are what keep the player's attention, and to fake the player out, thinking that perhaps they chose the wrong contradiction or have travelled down the wrong path keeps an element of uncertainty in a very linear game.

That and how fun it is to yell "Objection!" and slam your hands down on the desk... even if you're not playing the game.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Wow, has it really been about a year since i made my Half Life 2 post?

I felt I was just getting on a roll too.

Basically what happened was that this blog was a weekly experiment to get me writing about games (one of my main passions). 3 weeks in and i recieve the opportunity to become editor and project manager for www.appspy.com. Under my tenure the site got launched, and the review and video structure was created. I left in March to finish up my university degree and since my gaming podcast is gearing up for a relaunch, i've felt the itch to write about games again.

Watch this space for more updates soon!