Tuesday, 18 October 2016

My CPC Wolfenstein engine (map editing tool)

It's time to continue by revealing the little map editing tool I started creating, just for the purpose of testing textures and designing the first map. Of course it's a crude tool I made just for the occasion, I once made to give to the artist so that he can try a texture loaded as a PNG (designed with CPC palette in mind), size 32*32 or less. It was never planned to be the level editor then, just a testing tool, but it can be expanded in the future in a way so that I can add monsters/items near blocks and additional metadata per block for scripting events.

Right now, you can draw/erase with left/right button on the down left side on the map, while seeing the blocks appearing in realtime on the upper window where you move with arrows (it's a simulation of what you expect to see and play on the real CPC, but on an SDL window in Windows). On the down right side there is the texture, the mouse scroll wheel will go through four textures atm. These are stored in a folder named texture1/2/3/4.PNG. It's just not complete atm, no menu to edit the mirroring of the door (which is hard coded for one of the textures), but there is also a rule. If you upload a texture that is something like 16*16, it will tile normally over 32*32. If you upload something bigger, it will just use the upper left 32*32 block of the graphics. Also,. there is a simple search through colors for palettes closest to the CPC palette. If your PNG uses colors very similar to the CPC palette, it will use those. But throw an arbitrary texture inside the folder (like some 32*32 Minecraft textures I tried) and it will automatically try to do it's best to match CPC colors, although usually it will look like crap.

Btw,. in the screenshot you see the unused two frame bat enemy sprite plastered on the wall. I might try to use this one (but maybe with dark blue instead of black) for my sprite enemies. Some other good news is that I am finally investigating some code for zooming sprites so that we can finally have some meaningful items/enemies in the game (a lot of work has to be done for that, not just zooming sprites, but clipping and calculation of position and zoom factor based on the camera visibility). I was trying some bruteforce slow C code and while you will get 2-3fps when sprite is filling fullscreen (something that will not happen with most sprites, I had to zoom by 8 to get this) this is very slow C code and I am already thinking of a nifty assembly solution, with very small unroll codes, that by calculating cycles doesn't eat more than 1VBL for 3-4 partially zoomed entities. And usually there will be less on screen and smaller items that I will not allow very close zoom in an RPG style game (you will be blocked by such so you won't get too near). And I am already thinking of transparent texture walls (like iron bars and doors) in a way that they can be drawn correctly with sprites and rest of the walls. I have some good ways to solve these problems, I just need to finish coding them first and test.

There are more stuff I want to do writeups for:

  • Texture repeat/packing/column offset engine and the cool things you can do with that.
  • Raycasting math, optimizations and interpolation tricks.
  • Wall rendering unroll codes explained.
  • My ideas for zooming sprite and transparent walls.
The thing is, most of these stuff need more intricate shapes to be prepared and careful write up. So, I am not sure when the next one will be (but I want to cover some of these bigger cool stuff). Meanwhile I might write smaller stuff or little news of progress. And even if I don't for few weeks, this means I might have focused more time on working on the engine rather than writing about it. So, don't expect anything, maybe it will take one or two weeks for the next update. But things are going good and I am motivating myself and planning things ahead.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

My CPC wolfenstein engine (history and progress)

I look back in my old emails and backup folders and repos, one of my biggest projects, beyond regular demos, to build a 3d maze wolfenstein engine for CPC. I was aware it's possible since coders in C64 and Spectrum have done this before and it doesn't involve anything other than fast software rendering and hard math (and a lot of sweat and tears).

Till this day I don't think it's complete, it's far ahead from the goal of perfect optimizing, part of it is still in C instead of assembly and there are few left muls and divs here and there to avoid. Meanwhile new ideas of cool things to do with this engine are coming through, only thing needed is the grand motivation to focus and work on it and hopefully a game.

Yesterday I released the first official playable preview of the engine, in four (six) flavours, you can find a download link here. You will need of course a real CPC or the Winape32 emulator and there are all the versions inside to try (64k, 128k, wolf/rpg, gx4000 cart).

So, some series of blogposts could be a good opportunity to remember the past and write my thoughts about the future, possibly motivating me to experiment more, improve things and occasionally post some progress here in the future.

  • 15th December 2010
    • It seems from my backup files, during that day I started working on some new projects and it's not just the first iteration of the wolfenstein engine (which was just the fast wall rendering algorithm without the raycasting yet) but also an unfinished 3d engine project (just rotating and projecting few 3d dots and later on rendering as points or lines). Fun fact, these were started in the old PhrozenC compiler (much much slower and more bulky in code size than the great SDCC I am currently using).
  • 29th December 2010
    • I release the first youtube preview of the engine. This is running at 25fps but that's because the math (distance of columns from camera) are precalculated data in memory for few frames. It's really the raycasting that it's costly and that's the only video where the engine looks pretty smooth but it's just wall rendering and zero math calculations. It looks nice as a teaser but the reality is a lie.
  • 10th January 2011
    • port to SDCC
  • 23th February 2011
    • First backup called Wolfenstration, so this could mean the start of my demo Wolfenstrad using the engine (Wolfenstration was ment too big for the logo designed by Voxfreax, so my brother much later said "Hey, why don't you just call it Wolfenstrad?")
  • 5th April 2011
    • Just as a parallel history (of the 3d engine I was designing for the purpose of doing flat 3d polygons, still pending) that's the day I started trying to write a triangle/polygon rasterizer. It's really a n-gon rasterizer, more suitable for flat color polygons (gouraud or texture won't interpolate evenly for each scanline unless you go triangles) of any number of edges. Used in 2d on my part in 30 years megademo. Still need to work in a future project to finally produce juicy flat and even gouraud cubes (my dream!).
  • 27th October 2011
    • It seems that during this day I started working on the RPG version of the engine, just moving one block per time and 90 degree rotations. The engine was much much slower and buggy even for that then (less than 5fps and would reset to AMSDOS at certain angles).
  • 18th March 2012
    • Wolfenstrad is released at Forever 2012 party. Finally a good use of the engine in a demo. There are many funny and interesting things about this. The real engine is still not playable (very very slow and crashing). In most of the scenes you are in a center rotating around but not moving. It's using a clever precalculating for this where 360 degrees of rays are calculating the distances before each part and you just scroll through these (but they have to be projected or fishbowl corrected to not look static). The walk through part is just precalced distance data I managed to fit. You can still realtime rotate through these scenes, so an adventure game where you fade in/out in new rooms and observe but not move would still be possible with this version. Interesting are also the effects on wall, most of them are pretty fast, based on column offset mapping tricks, an element of the engine which will be really really useful even on the game I prepare, both for fast special effects where you just change offsets of column lookup instead of changing the textures. Also suitable for fitting more textures ready for display in the limited memory and a special way to express them, so that you can have a pure wall and then a wall with a torch and then a wall with a lock without storing three times the texture. I really want to explain this feature in a future blogpost and what you can do with it, it's pretty cool!
  • 23th October 2015
    • Some weeks before this date there was a CPC gamedev competition and I thought I could maybe take part or just boost my motivation to work on this engine. I never finished the game I was planning (which I concluded it will be the rpg version now, it's an easier mode to avoid some tech problems in this engine and more interesting as a game than a pure FPS). But this compo forced me to relocate memory pages so that I have a port of the engine running on 64k CPCs. I even made a GX4000 cart version and released the first playable preview on youtube. That was the time that I used some optimization techniques to make this from unplayable to playable and fixed the problems creating crashes and some of the visual bugs but not all.
  • 9th October 2016
    • The decision was taken to upload the first playable preview so that CPCists can finally feel how the engine plays, walk near the walls (find the ugly glitches :), discover that the dream can be real (and there are still a lot to optimize and fix, this could be more smooth and nice). Such a preview was actually already shown privately at Reset demoparty although not the new RPG versions with knife weapon and ugly fading walls (the last experiments before I abandoned the project again). This is a decision I am fine with and it might release me a bit from the feeling of having worked with this sporadically for five -six years now and not having people see it in the real CPCs with their eyes. Meanwhile while doing so, looking the code again, trying to recompile, I started being inspired, thinking of some ways to fix some more bugs, how to experiment easily and fix the fade colors, try some new rendering stuff and gameplay elements I haven't thought before. I hope I will truly be motivated to work frequently with it (I have made a Trello account to organized plans and ideas for this and other projects to keep the ball rolling now) and post some blogpost or screenshot here and there.

So, truly a lot of things have happened in my life, mostly getting my master's degree, finding a new job and relocating to UK. The first version and demo was coded in Greece while I was unemployed and now remembered after I settled down here in UK. It's a long time, nice to remember how long it takes (although I wasn't working every day regularly on this, there were long pauses and comebacks).

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

On Doom and linearity again

I really like this iconic image all around the internet, manipulated in various forms, making a point that modern gaming sucks, wondering what happened to the genre, lamenting the old times. Guess what, we have all been lied! The original author of this image wasn't intending to represent that idea with this image, he thinks it's misleading to use it all over the internet to argue how games suck these days. Link to the talk where it first appeared. He is actually a person who used to make Doom maps in some of the best megawad collaborations ( Requiem or Memento Mori 2 ) and is working as a level designer in major titles ( Dead Space 2 and others). Here is another talk with an interesting analysis on what Doom does well. It's just funny that a person who used to make Doom maps and likes some elements in Doom, popularized this picture, wanted to say something entirely different than what is spread out there (maybe the fact that his design in Dead Space 2 while linear, is still fun to play). That's just to inform you on something we didn't know about the origin and the meaning of this picture. Although I am still firm on my opinion that I want games more like the map on the left and less on the right.

I have some more thought about it. I am binge-playing Doom WADs these days (using the Brutal Doom MOD, shame on me) waiting for the release of Doom 4 (or simply Doom, I hate when they do this with titles of famous franchises,. like it's the Definite Doom) which I am sure it will disappoint me (I'd rather see new franchises that try something different, the Overwatch and Battleborn games seem interesting, even though I've never played something like this before (inspired by TF2 which I also never played)).

Anyway,. during plays I keep wondering what elements of level design from different mappers I like or dislike. (Right now I am playing the Community Chest series in succession, each mapper has a different idea on linearity, secrets, difficulty, monster and item placing, architecture, texture usage, open spaces, etc so it's interesting to observe which maps I enjoyed most and why). Some of the good elements of Doom concerning monsters/gameplay were already discussed in Mattias Worch second talk (I really like that idea that resonates to me and people who have been played Doom for years so that brain cells are dedicated to specific audio/visual cues and reactions when you open the next door and observe a specific monster configuration and reach instantly, taking decision on which monster to kill first or if you should retreat behind a column while strafe shooting). But what I am curious about is those elements of how the map is designed and I want something more than the linear exaggeration in that mock up image. Because one element that I loved in original Doom was exploration. That one is missing from most games, no matter how violent or frantic action they have. The new Doom or the mock ups of old retro FPS might have crazy violence, frantic action, non regen health, no weapon reloads (those are easy choices) but not even a single one goes for the more interesting oldschool FPS levels.

But I noticed something while playing a specific set of maps (they weren't on CC, not very known, I don't even remember it's a recent download and one episode even used Doom Alpha textures!). The guy had made a totally extremely non-linear set of maps that would make you being lost for half an hour. A very frequent theme would be rooms would be seen from windows through windows through windows, kinda like John Romero's E1M7 but way more confusing and exaggerated. This also made it so hard to reach to the next keycard door while looking at the map, because a window sector will still look like a passage. It was a fun set of maps because they where huge levels filled with shotgun guys and other small monsters, perfect for sniping through windows, but then you had this flaw where it confuses the player to death, even experienced players.

And then it hit me! You can't say that Doom is the epitome of non-linearity. Some of the original levels can be quite linear if you think about it and people will disagree with what that means. While you have rooms connected to other rooms, even entire sections just for additional exploration or finding health/ammo, in many levels the main path from start to end would technically look like the fps map design image in the right. Maybe with some hoops and loops sometimes. Or backtracking. Think about, most levels are small sections of donut shaped rooms, side corridors, but a colored key door. You have to find the key to progress. You can't necessary do A without B. Can't finish the level without getting the red, then blue and finally yellow keycard (unless you do some crazy speedruning feets or happen to make the Archvile open the door for you :P).

I also noticed that some of the levels I loved playing in CC series had the specific characteristics (not always all). Big spaces and outside areas so that you can move freely and observe nice architectures and pinpoint kill enemies from afar. Some very good realistic buildings and places, so that the level is atmospheric and interesting, kinda like telling a story about the place but without cutscenes or dialogues. And third and most important, the level progression was so fluid and without much interruptions, so in a sense it was more linear going from A to B but masked in such a way that there is still the feeling that you are exploring and not pushed through a direction. Meanwhile there were side rooms and secrets, you could backtrack if you wanted, some rooms were still connected so that there are different passage ways, but somehow the progression was planned such a way that if there is a red door on A and you need to go to B, then after getting the red key another passage might open that leads you back to A from a new path where you can directly use the red key to go to C.

I know, it's a strategy I have seen some modern games use frequently that it becomes predictable (the inside levels of Borderlands among others, maybe Half Life 2 popularized these game design techniques I have to check this). But the difference is that new games do this in a way that this is just your path and there are no side rooms and feeling of something different to be discovered, while the good Doom levels are a mix between linear paths and non linear side rooms and connecting passages. Maybe player psychology is taken in account, because if I get the red key and maybe not notice that a new passage has opened, I will do tedious backtracking from the old path, or maybe the old path has closed now so I really have to observe the new alternative path (but that would seem more linear, less choices, more forcing you only through one path). Sometimes because of player psychology I happen to get stuck at a point because a side wall opened with a button that opens the path and wandering around the wrong places for 10 minutes (and sometimes, the splatters of Brutal Doom will make a switch so red that you can't see the button, yes this happened a lot leading in confusion :).

So, there is a balance between linearity and multiple paths, specific look in the psychology of where the player could go next or if they will notice that something has opened (in a recent let's play with John Romero, he describes how in E1M2 he let people playtest his map and most preferred one of the two side doors that go to the red key and how you can never be sure why this would happen and can't predict it will happen with all players) so that the experience is streamlined in a way that doesn't feel as restricted. And of course there are different opinions on this. Some levels that I would consider non-linear, some players could think it's linear as hell. I remember one of my maps, where I wanted to make it feel like an explosion sounds (hidden crushers smashing barrels) and the door behind closes, later to find a smashed wall, and in progression paths where closed and then opened, leading indeed into a very linear directed gameplay but that's just for the 20% of the game, much later it opens and you can visit everything. I got some reviews calling it too linear. I didn't thought it was or maybe people quit on the beginning. I just wanted to tell a story with the level events at that point. At least it was mostly non-linear when a trigger later opened all the restricted doors, the difference with many todays games is that a door always closes behind, being like 90%-100% linear.

Sometimes level designers get very enthusiastic with a specific element, my thing is doing crazy stuff that seem clever or impossible with the engine. I adored the levels that either have a very life like architecture or funny crude stuff done with sectors (like making acid spills, broken pipes, real life objects, designs telling a story that this was a real place not an abstract bunch of lines) or did tricks like bridge above bridge. In the passion to create such things we forget other aspects. Sometimes we designed very cramped small passageways (while I realized, the levels with more relaxed open spaces and outside areas became my most favorites) just because it fits a narration of the hero crawling through scary passageways, with specific functions. I remember such levels, and while they have very realistic designs with sectors resembling real life breakage and machinery and such, it's obvious the author obsessed over detail and forgot gameplay. There was a level in CC3 which had such kind of design, some passageways where you have to find switches to raise the level of water, sectors where representing turbines, etc. I fuckin spent like 20 minutes trying to progress, just wondering, sticking in walls, going around, not shooting anything. And I did kinda liked this level for these life-like design ideas, but imagine someone who doesn't care about architecture and tricks, rather than pure shooting. It wouldn't appeal to anyone even if as a designer I kinda like it. Sometimes I have some hard times in specific levels and I am experienced with Doom and finding my way out, and then I am wondering if I struggled for 5-10 minutes, then how about a newbie who hasn't played Doom before?

Then come to think, maybe some non-linear designs is of your preference, but would they work for the majority of modern gamers? You would beg game designers to map levels more like Doom (at least they can mix the linearity) but maybe there is a director in a big AAA game company that says to the team "No! Remove that corridor, it would be too confusing to inexperienced players". And maybe as a director he is right, because that would not drive away the less hardcore players. Maybe few game fans will be disappointed but the game will sell in the majority and so the director has done his job well. You'd have to base upon the few game companies that have passionate game designers who want to make the game they want to make or play, not what appeals in the majority.

But yeah, that's the issue. I think we obsessed a lot with linearity vs non-linearity, always targeting for the far end. Linearity or non-linearity are not inherently evil. I've seen how a very non-linear Doom map confused the hell out of me even if I found it interesting as a level design, while some less linear but mixed levels with some great atmospheric environments but a hidden linear path that tells a story were my most enjoyable levels. While most AAA games do 90-100% linear designs where they even close the path back or have invisible walls as to play it safe and not confuse the players. In my view I see most modern games like this. Others might have a different view. I am not saying that the solution lies in the middle, because of tastes. What do you like? What maps did you enjoy the most? Would the majority like them? Do you want to keep your job? Do you want to make the games that you would love to design or play yourself? Would you rather fixate on a very linear path just to tell a story?

So, in the game community we have the tendency to say "Modern FPS suck, I want to be lost in the most complex Doom labyrinths". Or "Doom labyrinths are horrible game design, show me the way point and close all alternative paths so that I don't have to search".

p.s. Now I have to find the maps I really loved, keep some notes, and design some new Doom maps myself (so long since I last did this). It seems to me that what makes Doom great or what makes some levels better is something not so well defined and might be different from person to person. But it's good to observe more closely and take some notes and find interesting patterns.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

So, there it is!

One more final merge. There is nothing more to merge. I couldn't keep with some of my blogs. Well, I don't have the motivation or time to write frequently in most of them anymore anyway. But at the end, it makes sense to connect Plasma Fun with Computer Hermit. They both talk about computers, one is more on the light side reviewing games and demos and just having nice screenshot of stuff, the other started as a serious ranting about things computer related. I think that's for the best. And then there is no way I would merge anything any more, Optimus Monologue is totally different than this one, it's two sides of my life, one thinking too much about life and ideas, the other about computers. Unless I decide to create yet another new blog, this will never happen again.

I might only move some of the blog links I still care about here and delete Plasma Fun once and for all. I am not sure if I will review games soon or just rant about game design or computers or maybe even talk about programming. But now everything will be together, instead of two separate blogs with minimal visits, one more abandoned than the other.

Maybe a new post - games I would have written about

This is a quite abandoned blog. Well, I have three of them, and sometimes wondering whether I should connect them all at once. But how many times have I done this thing? Deleting blogs, merging blogs, then deciding to separate them again then merge again? I have to decide. Certainly I decided to never make a new blog anymore, unless there is a special reason. And what should be merged? I would like to kill some of my blogs. Or they don't match together. (But I think I might do one last merge and keep it. This blog is more close to Computer Hermit and also less updated).

I would like to write about some games like in the past. I stopped at the first Borderlands and Test Drive Unlimited. I could have reviewed what I like and dislike about the sequels of these games which I played to death. Or there are few special titles that I would definitely like to mention. Special types beyond your typical AAA game. Indies or almost AAAs that I specially adore and are my favorite games of the year. But maybe I'll make a list for now:

  • Legend of Grimrock 1/2
  • Life is Strange
  • The Talos Principle
  • The Witness
  • Spelunky
  • To the Moon
Those are. Those are some of the recent games that I am really glad they are out there in the game industry, making things better than playing another AAA title with boring cinematics and QTEs. And maybe I forget few more.

Also, I'd like to mention some recent oldies I replayed and appreciate (some of them remastered).

  • Deus Ex: GOTY
  • Strife: Veteran edition

And of course:
Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale Undertale 

Hehe, the Undertale madness is insane. And I quite liked it, even though I have more love for some of the other games in the list. But anyway, Undertale deserves this too for doing something different and surprising with the retro rpg genre.

And there are quite more games I would like to talk about, also Brutal Doom and it's impact, why the community is divided. Also sometimes I play regular Doom or Brutal Doom and wonder what is the thing that makes it so unique compared to modern FPS. Or discuss what are the good elements from Serious Sam or how many new things had Duke Nukem 3D made and how back FPS are (or they followed a different route of cliche cinematics and linear storytelling with boring action). I could make a lot of analysis on some game design subjects I come back a lot of the times and wonder about.

Or maybe talk about demos and other stuff that I wanted to cover in this channel too. Maybe..

p.s. Or maybe do the merge. That will be a final. One is my thinking about life and ideas blog, Optimus Monologue. The other should be Computer Hermit (and I get rid of Plasma Fun title which is weird, didn't gave it much thought then). I know,. I would be killing some links to this blog, maybe the replies to the messages are copies and maybe I have to move some of the good links before deleting it. I think I'll make the move..

Thursday, 21 January 2016


Sometimes how specific terminology has come to stay make me furious. It shouldn't matter since it doesn't affect my life. But strolling through gaming or tech forums, I might end ranting to the air, search for other people hating the same terms, rejoicing in the thought that I am not alone.

Today it was 2.5D. I don't know how I have come here, maybe from articles defining raycasting, raytracing, raymarching, sphere tracing, remembering all those terms that are so intermixed with each other, sometimes even in graphics articles or papers. Later, on wikipedia talks about raycasting, people mistakenly calling Doom or Duke 3D raycaster based, also named it 2.5D. Although does it matter? What if we use the terms but then if misunderstood, describe in more words what we exactly mean?

2.5D. That's the problem with this term even between those who use it, which is used to describe various different cases of rendering and gameplay. They might be meaning 2d gameplay in a 3d environement (Trine series), 3d gameplay in 2d rendering (oldschool isometric games where you could still climb over objects and above enemies, e.g. Knight Lore), or games with 2D maps but 3d gameplay like Doom (about which, there are many misconceptions I'd like to discuss another day). And there is even misunderstanding of what they mean, for example some consider the new Mario World 3D on the Wii U to be 2.5D because sometimes the level design forces you to move through one axis. What they want to define is so diverse, that it's better to describe both it's gameplay and rendering in more detail than shoehorning it into one category.

I personally hate the term at all. It's meaningless. I read it was used as a derogatory term to differentiate classic first person shooters from later 3d polygon games. And sometimes I like to joke about it, talking about fractal dimensions and especially 3d quadratic koch surfaces (exactly 2.5D by Hausdorff dimension :).

It's isometric, so it must be 2.5D, right? :)

In fact, come to think, even the most modern 3D polygon games, what they really are, is projections onto the 2D screen. That's another way I like to mock this term. Your nextgen 3D games are 2D. Not even a half more :P

p.s. I read so much misconceptions about Doom that I will briefly mention. First, it's not a raycaster, no rays are cast to determine the wall rendering, not everywhere in the code. But the walls are still rendered with stretched column rendering just like wolfenstein. Then, people said you don't have control on the vertical axis. That's not true. While the maps have sections called sector made only by 2d vertices and having information for floor/ceiling height, all the things (player, enemies, items) have three dimensions. You can walk from a ledge and fall or climb stairs. They could easilly have added jump function in the game. Someone said there is autoaim when you shoot, which shows the limitations of the engine. It's not because of limitation. They could have done it. They just didn't have look up or down to aim the crosshair in one axis at the time because it would be harder for the gameplay. Also, there is an effect where you shoot a bazooka that hits a wall below a monster on a ledge but the explosion radius damages it. Just lazy coding. Monster has x,y,z. Your projectile too. Could do 3d distance or 2d distance like it does and another 1D distance check between heights of projectile and enemy. When imps throw fireballs at you from higher ground, the fireballs really move on a 3d linear path. Cacodemons fly above and below. If you shoot a bazooka on a higher place and later another monster crosses the trajectory below, it's not hitting it because it's above. At least, there is true 3d gameplay, things move in three axes and the 3rd axis matters.

p.p.s. Come to think, that's the best thing 3d graphics technology (no matter if real polygons or projections of 2d walls) has given us. Not more brilliant visuals, but an expansion of the gameplay space. Suddenly you don't scroll in front of a background, but you can discover things behind it, find hidden rooms from the other side, hide above or below, reach and attack from other paths, new views of the same data. Think Deus Ex. So many unique paths to infiltrate the same place. One could argue that you could have some of these things in 2d games but this has expanded a lot in the 3d space. That's another reason why it makes me mad to see another linear on-rails FPS with "brilliant" graphics but very restrictive paths. I could joke another time and mock modern FPS games by saying they take the 3D and restrict it in 2.5D. If we wanna play like this, Doom, naively called 2.5D, has more exploration and expansion of your 3D senses in terms of gameplay than your average modern FPS.

p.p.p.s. Yeah, I am ranting. I could be writing more if I didn't stop now..

Monday, 30 November 2015

Players should be bothered

Small rant, it still pisses me off that the gaming industry thinks more of the gamers like they are delicate flowers and they must not stuck in a game even for 1% of their time. So, we have "adventure" games where it runs more like a movie and they even force feed you the solution and then fill it with QTEs to make it look like you are in the action. And FPS/Action games where things are easier for the lazy player because you can just shoot mindlessly, yet god forbid if there is an alternative path in the extremely linear level and will make people get lost. You have "RPGs" where they simplify everything after every franchise because yeah, gamers are gonna cry.

And you have this eternal problem, for example you ask yourself why oldschool adventure games have died (well, one would say they are ..kinda revived, but pretty much a minority). And yes, there were the stories of pixel hunting and moon logic, things that nowadays adventure makes try to avoid, by simplifying riddles and having objects closer to your vicinity and designing puzzles that are generally more obvious and all that. I remember of some recent adventure games I played that in retrospective to the oldies they are much much easier in puzzles, yet I would still find myself stuck a bit sometimes. Because I realized that even with more simple adventure games, the player can still get stuck because his logic at a particular point of the game might be different than the developer's logic. As long as you have even the most basic puzzles, there is a possibility that at least some of your players will get confused. The only way to make a game where a player doesn't stuck is if it has basically 0% actual puzzles, basically to follow the Telltale games direction, where the illusion of acting on puzzles and fighting with QTEs is there and the handholding has reached a new low. Because there is no way like this that the player will get stuck even for few seconds and stop the flow of the story, which would be considered bad design.

And that's where I digress. Players should be bothered. Players should get stuck once in a while. If you want to avoid all distress and all you think is that good game design is a streamlined experience without troubles then you are giving a hollow experience to the gamer. It's the same with the FPS games. Let them click triggers and shoot extravaganza but without the exploration of classic FPS. They call Doom a labyrinth mess but Doom was well designed at some of the levels of Episode 1. John Romero once said he actually designed the first levels to have some distinctive characteristics that makes you remember the space. So, there are some stairs going up to the armor in the left, a window and four blue pilars in the center, a zig zag road later near the end, in such a way that they are very memorable and you know you have to go to this and that room with the specific architecture and details. There was thought put into it. And I am saying it because I have played some much worse Doom-clones at the time which were the real freaky labyrinths! But now you can't play an FPS that doesn't push you through the path or doesn't get so extremely linear, not allowing alternative design choices, because nooo... that's baaad design! And there is even a pointer telling you where to go and any door behind will close shut so that the player is not confused and go back, no backtrack allowed. Because backtrack==baaaad desiiign.

Fuck that shit! Well, maybe the gaming industry is going that way because there are millions now playing games and some of the people are more casual gamers in the sense that they want to come back from work and with little clicks on their controller they want to get all the cinematics and glorious graphics. I do believe that also the recent console generation brought all these trends. But what pisses me off is not that these new trends are more frequent, but that anything going to the other direction of actually challenging the player is considered some times bad game design.

At least there are developers who go their own way. Two recent games I adore for not going that way but also refining their gameplay in the middle ground (or maybe more tending towards challenging the player but with somehow more logical puzzles, so avoiding the sins of the old gaming era but still keeping it hard) are The Legend of Grimrock 2 and The Talos Principle.

LOG2 followed on the footsteps of the first one, but started you on an island and soon I realized that it basically gives you a non-linear open world where you can visit a lot of areas earlier and in different ways than the first playthrough and there are so many secrets to find and riddles that challenge you a bit but still keep being logical. It's like a proper balance between "We don't want to hold your hand" and "we neither want to have some very ridiculous illogical puzzles like in the past" and sometimes you have to leave a place and come back later and the solution might come or you might discover something else that helps you with that. I spent over sixty hours with that but it was a great experience at the end and I didn't mind the many times that I had to wonder around for few minutes being stuck on what to do next (I'd hack and slash random encounters in the meanwhile till I find some items or hints I missed before at different areas). I heard few people being frustrated of the puzzles because they wanted plain hack and slash, and still makes me wonder, should games be 100% streamlined experience without the player being bothered? Zero puzzles and linear paths means zero bothering, just mashing buttons and seeing cool spectacles. No,. I hope the few companies that don't follow, won't be influenced in the future by such.

And then you have The Talos Principle which is literally a first person puzzler in the likes of Portal but is something I enjoyed much much better than Portal for various reasons. Besides the very clever puzzles, which are although presented to you in a progressive way from very obvious riddles to gradually challenging new concepts and game mechanics, in a way that they are almost never unfair (there was the one that you had to stack a box over a sphere, seemingly illogical, but I prefer once in a while to be confused like that than 0% real puzzles) and gradually becoming more mindblowing, even though the game taught you well to start thinking in their logic. And the secret stars you have to think out of the box (literally) to get them. Besides that, there is a whole story filled with ideas about AI, virtual reality, ethics and other matters which created an experience that really blew my mind. There are some terminals between surreal scenery where you have to convince a computer that you are a human or discuss moral philosophy with another distant being which you don't know whether it's real or a bot. In one of the terminals, there is a letter of a dad to his daughter which basically say that she is free to explore the world and he doesn't have to hold her hand anymore, she has to explore and learn on her own from now on, like the game writers make secretly a mention to the handholding craze in the game industry.

Another funny mention to the handholding trend in gaming, can be seen in the new game I am playing now, Undertale. Which is quite an easy game, but the ideas in it are so unique that I get the recent hype.

literal handholding

p.s. Maybe I should just calm down and keep playing the few games where developers still get it. We are lucky there are still such developers. We don't need to simplify games any more, they are more than simplified already! There can be games that are both not easy but not unfairly difficult. Those two games for me have fair riddles but they are there and might make you stuck. I can never say they have bad design because one would stuck for 5 minutes, because they are well designed with modern standards, but never simplifying. But still that wouldn't satisfy many gamers. I hear of gamers who say "I am coming back from work and have only few hours to enjoy a game, I don't want to be stuck for two hours" or "I wish games were shorter". Well, do you want a game that let's you delve in it's world and learn the secrets of it, or just a movie experience?