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?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

What I don't like about Telltale games.

Strangely enough, I haven't played yet one of the most popular titles, The Walking Dead. This was on the radar of all gaming sites as a masterpiece, not playing this would be like not living on planet earth as a gamer. I know, I know. It's on my Steam library now. I just didn't found the time or motivation to start it.

But I had to start playing some of the Telltale games. I read about them and have seen videos of people playing and was wondering at first where is the interactivity because I was watching long dialogues and nothing happening. No, I didn't watch some spoilers, I just tried to jump in parts of a video of Tales of the Borderlands or Game of Thrones to take a glimpse on how the gameplay is. I heard they were adventure games. I was always falling sort on dialogues with some brief moments of very harsh choices. Or maybe they are interactive movies, depending on who you ask.

And even more strange, I haven't played any of the Telltale games a month ago but was just finishing a similar game by another company that really touched me and really dragged me into it's world and it's characters, Life is Strange. I know. I know, what many people are just saying. "That game? That was very bad! Highschool drama. Cheesy dialogues. Bad lip syncing." even the very laughable "Feminist propaganda!".

And many people said this is a Telltale rip off. And I thought "Wow, if this is a rip off from Telltale style and I really like it, imagine how much I will like Telltale games!". Yes, at that moment, I was still an alien gamer on earth, having finished a Telltale "rip off" but never even played a single Telltale title, let alone the very awarded The Walking Dead.

I still haven't played this one but it's my next on the list, but my impressions from Tales from the Borderlands is this. This is one of the funniest games I have ever seen, very good plot and characters too, amazing presentation, really witty dialogues, it's exactly how you would do a correct addaptation of the original Borderlands games style, humour and characters to an adventure game (or interactive movie, whatever you consider these games to be). Marvelous, brilliant,... but left me cold.

It left me cold because there is something very off-putting to the way they handle interactivity. Maybe it's this special kind of game which is not exactly an adventure game in the traditional sense but more of an interactive story, something similar to Heavy Rain or Beyond Two Souls on the PS3 and a bit evolved with many dialogues and choices. Maybe it's just that kind of game and I don't like it the same way I don't enjoy sports game. I love story games, I even enjoyed games that are considered non-games, like Dear Esther or Gone Home. But not so the recent Telltale games style, which might be outrageous considering that there seems to be no gameplay at all in the so called "walking simulators" than a Telltale game.

For me, it feels like the Telltale game I tried (and I believe it doesn't change in Walking Dead and more of their titles) is how simplistic in your face it is. How it totally takes control from you and then tries badly to convince you that you are the one who is playing. To me it feels like it's mocking the player, it oversimplifies the already simplified yet it presents it to you like you have a choice. I am not talking hear about choices not matter at the end, I do understand that it's a very hard problem to make a vast tree of choices taking you to exponentially different outcomes in video games and I don't feel the same with many players who for many titles think "Hey, it gives you choices, but nothing matters at the end, except from a final dual 'go with this or go with that' challenge at the end. This never mattered to me, because I know how difficulty is to give exponentially unique endings after a vast tree of choices.

But it's how it totally tries to be a movie rather than a game, first of all with the dialogues. There are long sequences of dialogues which is good for a story, but a few times you get choices yet there is a timer going so fast that you don't have time to even read your choices sometimes. And guess what, if you don't answer, the dialogues will move on like a movie, because yeah modern gamers would think it's so unrealistic if you had all your time to give an answer like classic adventures, while in real life if a character talks and you don't interrupt, the plot and dialogue will move on. And fine, it's just an alternative way for dialogue interaction, something different they tried but I really don't like to be pushed to answer, I don't like an adventure game or interactive fiction that goes on it's own and doesn't let you breathe.

And that's the least of the offenders. It's when they give you "control" that I feel I am mocked. Yeah, after a 20 minutes dialoguefest I finally can control my character. In a very restricted camera, very small environment and with the most easy riddles I have ever seen. And I don't mind easy riddles, most recent adventures even those of the traditional style have quite ridiculously easy riddles if you ask a hardcore adventurer. But the riddles in the very few restricted sections where I could finally move my character where so obvious with the single object I need nearby that it's like they won't to convince me that "Hey, this is not just an interactive fiction, there are some adventure game elements in there" but it's just some clicks for me so that I progress. And not only that, they have to point you at it like you are such an idiot to even think of that! I really despise this era of gaming where companies have to make the games more and more easy because maybe they are afraid they will drive the gamers away. And how would adventure games evolve in this mindset if the user has to stuck for half an hour in the same place, or if it doesn't have the flawless progression of a movie? Telltale games.

The most recent example is when there was a rumble of obstacles that my character was not strong enough to lift, and when I found that out after clicking on the rumble, before I can think whether I should make a lever or ask my robot to lift them for me, it shows a cinematic where my character and this robot looks at each other, like they tell you "hey, just go ask the robot for a lift!". They even needed to tell me that obvious thing! Or when you have an inventory so that we consider this is an adventure game actually, but you can never drag one object to use, but if you had to use a screwdriver to some object to solve it, suddenly there is a second icon with just exactly the screwdriver below the look icon when you hover over the object. The game gives the solution to you like you are the most stupid gamer and even if it didn't it was already so obvious. Oh and don't start me about QTEs. QTEs is the equivalent of we want to show you an amazing action sequence but give you the impression it's you who did it, so yeah mush some more button we throw at you like a Pavlov dog just to progress. Why don't I watch a movie then? Imagine watching your favorite Anime, but every once in a while the M$ Clippy would pop up asking you for an imaginary choice, killing your immersion, not being sure whether you watch a movie, interact with a game or neither.

And say I don't mind about fast paced dialogues or forced QTEs. The fact itself that this thing moves like a movie and in few occasions have you solve pseudo-riddles in a very restricted environment without even being able to truly rotate the camera yourself and really explore the level and find things for yourself is a downer. And that's what Life is Strange didn't do. In LIS you have a 3rd view camera of your character but she can rotate and move freely all over the place, look at various objects and read material that relate to the story which you have to discover yourself, look at places, check every corner, talk to characters that stay there for you, not being forced into this though. There is talking in Telltale games and there is the chance to Look At objects but these are very minimal and few, always in your path, there is no sense that you are actually there in the world exploring for yourself and learning it's secrets alone, without anyone pushing you, without anyone showing you the solution. Telltales adventures just by restricting the camera so that you only find the interactions you have to do to progress, steal this feeling from you, and at some points no matter how good the story is, it makes me forget I am in this world but rather that I have to do these chores to progress, give an answer out of three fast, find out where I should click to progress.

And the riddles in LIS, while I must confess are quite simplistic by purist adventurers standards and even more, they are there for  you to explore. They are not always given to you at the same proximity in a room, you have to use this special time rewind ability (yep, there is also no real inventory) or find clues in your notes. There are few times that I got stuck for a while, but what did the game do? It didn't point me to the right direction in my own face before I even decide how to solve a riddle. I do remember when I was trying the same things, the 3rd time the main character giving me some subtle clues. This is not a bad thing, if you get stuck, an adventure game to give you subtle and not direct clues on what to do next. But the way this Telltale game I played did it was outrageous, I didn't even had the chance to decide for myself before getting stuck, not that it would be possible.

This is one thing I like in classic adventures. And also games adapting the first person view but are not necessary shooters (I actually quite like the first person perspective for adventure games and games generally inspiring exploration). They just throw you in their world and let you discover things. You can just stare in a background or scenery for half an hour, pondering what's there next to do. Not exactly the kind of game for people who are hungry for content in the least seconds spent. They might hint things at you but never throw the solution so blatantly in your face. And they never restrict you in a fixed camera with few clicks to progress, they let you explore all around you even if 90% of the items are just there for the character to Look At and get witty comments that are irrelevant to the main game. Telltale games kill that feeling, although they would be great for small anime movies following on the story of already existing franchises. They really do that part very well, if you remove the forced interactivity.

And maybe you will tell me I played the wrong game. Maybe I should play The Walking Dead because it's more dark and emotional. And yes, I believe Borderlands has a witty style, and The Walking Dead will have a different style and I know from one game and few other "let's play" video glimpses (I didn't saw spoilers, just jumped here and there) in their titles that The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and Wolf Among us will have amazing presentation, good dialogues, characters and story. I am planning to play them and recently bought all their collection in Steam. But I am very afraid that even in Walking Dead or other more serious titles, I will somehow lose the immersion. I will feel like a Pavlov's dog, mashing buttons to progress, never being able to really explore the surroundings and find things on my own and really get into my character's boots. Mostly because they are doing this one single thing, they take control from you. They try to be like a movie.

Many critics said videogames shouldn't try to mimic movies so hard. There are other interactive ways to tell a story. Be subtle. Let the player discover things on his own pace. I enjoyed games that are even not considered games like Gone Home or Dear Esther, way more than the Telltale games I played so far. Just because they let me walk and stare at the scenery for minutes, letting me go back to revisit places, discovering subtle clues in the environment and easter eggs, no matter if there was no actual interactivity. I felt like I was inside their worlds even just for 2 hours of play and I would "play" them or "walk" them more times again. I felt the same with Life is Strange, it left a mark on me and I still remember the locations and characters and all subtle details of the story. I don't feel this as much in Tales of the Borderlands while near the end of the game, even though they depict perfectly the characters, style, background story and world atmosphere of the original FPS game.

p.s. While I don't like to comment on this, is Life is Strange "feminist propaganda"? Is it the same with "Gone Home"? No. I didn't felt that really and nothing really killed the enjoyment of the game for me. There are some tropes in the game that could remind someone in a lesser degree of things feminists say (or let's say modern era feminists) or maybe this is just girl talk. But even if it was, why not think of this like they give you control of a character that just have these traits (and really Max is ok, it's her friend who is more radical and annoying) and you are playing along these lines and hear girls talk about these things sometimes, in the same way you would play a game where the hero is an anti-hero with a dark past or maybe believes in things that you don't personally like. If you dislocate yourself for a while and just think that you live the inner world of Max with her own thoughts/feelings and nobody is trying to preach you anything then maybe you would be able to enjoy a game more. (This actually reminds me of this priceless Onion news article ). This from someone who is a bit more supportive with Gamer-Gate than anti and recently discovered that some feminists are scary, although doesn't want to be involved much into this discussion (yet).