Wednesday, 5 April 2017

More on the simplification of games

I don't know if it's meaningful to rant about the simplification (or casualization as many people like to call it) of games, but I can't help but notice some grotesque attempts at it that in my opinion go on the total edge of destroying game experience just from the fear of alienating the average gamer. And I don't know if it's meaningful, but surely it might be useful or interesting to point out the usual sins.

I just started playing Thimbleweed Park which is a new classic adventure game from Ron Gilbert, game designer and programmer behind classic titles like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. This project was a kickstarter and I backed it too, so I was eagerly waiting for it to be released and I was glad it came out soon enough, compared to a lot of other kickstarter projects that usually fall too far behind in schedule.

While I enjoy the game so far, especially the very mysterious story, the duo of characters coming out of x-files, the retro graphics that although they are too lowres they still evoke some atmosphere, the nice music, numerous jokes (although too much jumping the 4th wall), there is something that annoyed me just by the first five minutes of playing. And I was expecting it, seeing how much effort was put on refining all with tutorial screens beforehand as to introduce new players to classic adventure games. Literally there are five pages pointing you at basic interaction with verbs and the pointer and so on, which is fine, it's there in help, then in options->help and... yes after I scrolled through them (because I was a maniac checking everything on the setup menu) starting a new game will just have you scroll these five pages again!

But I didn't mind that, I went on with the main game. After a short introduction setting up the atmosphere, the player climbs down to an area with a grate and a drunk man. I am very used in adventure games to Look at everything. Even useless things like doors or anything. Just to reveal funny monologues or something interesting I wouldn't even think about.

Here, I wanted my character to first get an impression of the drunk man. Even if the default option was on Talk to, I decided first to do a Look at the man. And guess what happened?

Simply, the command skipped to Talk to! I was surprised. First of all it's inconsistent, because it wasn't even what I wanted to do. I'd rather have the command disappear after the click and pure silence or the character saying "I don't want to do this" than the inconsistency of getting a different thing that you are telling the game to do. Try other commands like Push for example and you get the same. Is this forcing to the correct command for the new players since it's the first screen?

Then, something that the author of this article with similar complains noticed and it escaped me (because of the different order I did things). I still felt the casual forces though. The player has to turn off a light in a later screen where there is a lamp but he can't find any switch. In front of you there is a rock and it's so obvious what you have to do. I kinda felt how easy they wanted to do this, when I did a Look at in the rock, and thankfully it didn't pick it up or used it, but the dialogue told me "Hmm,. I could maybe use it to break the lamp". Well, thank you for telling me the solution to such an obvious puzzle, but anyway this is not that bad and it's consistent because I read a note in the inventory that tells me I have to turn off a light to signal someone, then examined the lamp to be told there is no switch or anything, then concluded as a player too so it's consistent. But as the author of the article above noted, he didn't follow that.

He went directly to look at the stone to be told what he has to do without having even read the note! Commentators on the article noted that in the mind of the character, he has already read the note that tells him he has to turn off a light, but you as a player don't know, so it was normal for the hero to say that. But wait! I came into conclusion I should break the lamp after I examined the lamp and discovered I can't normally turn it off. In a new game, I will go for the rock and it will tell me I have to smash the lamp. But the note wanted me to somehow turn the light I find off. I haven't even examined the lamp to see if there are normal ways to turn it off, so how does it even tell me this is what I have to do? It's not just the unneeded help in the already obvious puzzle, it's also that it destroys immersion. But maybe this is nitpicking. To me, especially the first flaw of acting on a different command than the one I gave is a big sin, maybe I can forgive the second.

Just as a side note, many people will say I played the easy mode. And no, it was the hard mode I've chosen! There are two modes when you start. The easy mode, I tried it from curiosity. It says that there is a lot of help and you don't get all the puzzles. Maybe it's just in these first screens but there was always a text telling you what to do, I noticed additional dialogue, for example the character told me I should turn off the light somehow as I walked towards the rock. And then,. if I click a wrong command on the rock for 3-4 times, I get flashing underline on the correct command. And if I sit still, I get an arrow flashing on the right telling me where to go, like it's fricking double dragon! :P

But anyway,. this is the easy mode. Like the hard mode was hard at all. Thankfully things like this don't happen on every item later on the game. I noticed it only in few occasions, there was a jar with the names of some kickstarter backers, and there every command would be ignored and just open and look the backers names. It's like they thought, OMG maybe the player misses looking at the backer names, we can't allow that! And as far as I played, the puzzles are really easy and not much. I guess, maybe that's a way to make an adventure game where there are less possibilities to be lost which always happens to me when I play adventure games, even the ones that don't have hard puzzles.

My first question is why creators keep doing that even for retro games that will not attract new gamers anyway? I kinda can understand that adventure games are a real bitch to not get you lost and some designers don't want that. I notice some fan made AGS adventure games with much less and easier puzzles and they still can get me stuck for half an hour at specific parts (that's the point where I close the damn thing and come back the next day to realize I missed something obvious). And since the environments don't offer something else, it's not easy for a player to wander around static 2d backgrounds and do nothing for even 5 minutes, adventure games might not be exactly for the gamer who doesn't want to waste the time without action every few seconds, no matter how casual you can make them. (As a side note, one can argue Telltale Games did find the solution to that problem, with important dialogues where you have to respond very fast or QTEs in later games and a bit of very simplified and forced puzzle solving in between, so everything is fast and cinematics, but that's where I felt quite uneasy with that kind of simplification and forced gameplay, although one might say they are not exactly adventure games rather than interactive movies)

Another offender was the design in the new levels from two classic level creators from the Duke Nukem 3D team. The new Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour which is actually a rerelease of Duke Nukem 3D with the old engine (and some basic enhancements on the 3d accelerated version of it) plus a new episode from the old guys. Oh, there was also the voice of Duke remastered that didn't sound particularly well and most of the reviews focused on that. But I noticed something else.

As I am really a sucker for classic FPS level design with some non-linear elements, like different paths/corridors to chose from, areas that are interconnected through many roots, clever secrets that connect one part of the level to the rest and since I know many modern games totally don't do that, and now it's the old engine with new levels from the old creators, I thought maybe they show their brilliance again. New designers in new engines end up in stereotypicaly linear and forced environments. But old legendary designers with an old engine that new gamers wouldn't even bother to play because of the primitive graphics? What could go wrong? I guess they would finally have the full freedom to experiment. Unless they forgot their art or they changed their level design sensibilities or maybe forced by Gearbox.

I don't know what happened. While the art design of the levels is marvelous (every level is in a different country like France or Russia, with new textures and environments reflecting the culture and relevant duke jokes that I enjoyed), most levels are not as big as they make it to be (there was a whole interview, where the designers boasted these are the biggest levels since the past) and most importantly in some levels there is such obvious linearity that I can't not notice it. And even if you explore the level for secrets, a lot of them are pockets in the wall, not enough or interesting interconnections to other areas. And way much more. I really need to make a video about it at some point, showing classic levels of Duke and then parts in this new levels for comparison. I mean,. I couldn't see anyone noticing this, everybody was arguing about the new voice of Duke or other issues. Some reviewer even said the levels were too labyrinthine and it made him quit. To me, it's like they expected them to be labyrinthine, because that's the stereotype of all these classic FPS. It's like there is no real criticism but just pandering to the expectations that since it's Duke it must be labyrinthine. No, in a lot of levels the path is straight forward, kinda gets better in few maps which are still not as inspiring besides the new assets. Someone also noticed the amount of doctor's health bag were too frequent. And there was an area in the secret level where you couldn't get the full 100% monster kills. Why? Because some monsters were behind invisible walls. Why? Because there used to be an area that they removed and forgot to remove the monsters, because they thought it would confuse the player! And that was brought back in a mod on Steam and many players said, rightly so, it wasn't confusing, it even interconnected two areas in a way that made it easier to navigate instead of backtracking.

I think there are some things that are removed or simplified so much, that if you put them back I would exclaim that there wasn't even the need to do so. That's what the casualization of games do and I am wondering why doing it in retro titles and genres no call of duty gamer would even bother to try? If a new gamer sees Duke3D world tour, it's still primitive with the billboard monsters. He is gonna go away. Also, since you have the classic levels too, he will not start from the new set of levels. He will first want to play the classic levels, which are not altered, so it's gonna be a hell of non-linear start. So, why simplifying the new episode? I skipped the classic levels since I've played them many times before. I went for the new stuff. I might be older, but I can still navigate through complex environment and search for secrets and be amazed by such environments. Oldschool gamers are your audience, so I can't understand how even in a game with dated graphics and gameplay, where the old masterminds of level design are to make new maps, this casualization still happens. I know Romero is planning to make his own new FPS. I am wondering what happens there..

And my last thought is this. Concerning games, especially new AAA titles, I don't expect to see the kind of FPS resembling the classics in their various aspects (and no, I don't consider Doom 4 totally managed this, few levels on the start where a bit more open and non-linear, but later they followed more linear go to a place, spawn monsters, go to next place, spawn monsters. Besides all the sins with glory kills and other elements). Afterall where games go is where the profit is. There are so many people in gaming now and the trend is making things simpler and maybe some gamers ask for this and this is like a black hole, sucking all the good elements, and every next generation will want simpler and simpler, and there is the whole process of letting players play your game and if they have struggle then you always have to simplify (I think there is a very standardized process I forget it's name and Jonathan Blow mentioned it in one of his talks, where a sample of players play your game and you have a questionary and refine till there are no gameplay blocks) and that makes the next generation appreciate the easier and more simplified gameplay norms and being even more resentful for a little bit of struggle and search.

I think, concerning FPS, our hope is the indie community. I have seen how they have brought masterpieces in other genres that can be comparable to the classics (from Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge to my beloved and (be)hated Spelunky) but from what I see from FPS, there are some humble attempts (a lot of them jumped into rogue-like procedural generated square maps, which didn't seem to appeal to me in the case of FPS, compared to genuine map designs) but nothing as far to make me exclaim that FPS are back from the dead. Maybe I'll check some more indie FPS titles at some point and see if I find something better I've missed. Also, there are specific AAA FPS claiming to be retro (Bulletstorm, new Shadow Warrior, new Rise of the Triad, new Wolfensteins, Hard Reset, etc) while they are good on their own, I think they still don't reach the enjoyment and marvel of exploration I have with classics, besides doing some newschool sins (like Bulletstorm mocking COD but then the real game having extremely linear forced path you can't believe, plus a bit of QTEs and bulletspongy shooting that I somehow didn't enjoy, albeit some nice new ideas for FPS).

I have accepted now that the world of games is defined by the majority of the gamers who have quite different needs and impatience than many of us oldschool gamers. So, it's meaningless to argue that much about it, although I enjoy nitpicking on specific things I notice. And I have all my hope on the indie community which didn't have it's real revolution yet on the FPS genre. As for adventure games, there are so many from the past that I have in my GOG account and haven't even played or finished. And some attempts from the AGS community are not bad either. There are way more adventures to keep me occupied than the good early era FPS counted in the fingers of my hands (and maybe my feet and a bit more :P). So, I shouldn't complain much.. (but still, can we bring back the FPS revolution? :)

p.s. I could talk more about these things and others, I kinda play with an idea in my mind to make videos on youtube comparing newschool and oldschool FPS or investigating some good indie titles. Yeah, besides my idea I never started to make youtube videos on graphics coding or retro tech.