I put my PC and my Xbox 360 in the closet today. I don’t have the luxury of unproductive escapism this semester. Did I ever?
Video games are about control. It is what separates them from other mediums such as books or movies. You may have an investment in the characters of a book or movie, but you can’t control them. It is why people scream at the screen during horror movies when some goes outside to check a strange noise. Video games hand you the controller, and say “okay you do it.”
All of this may sound really obvious, but a lot of games I’ve played this generation have forgotten this fairly simple fact. I just completed the single player of Modern Warfare 2, and it removes control from the player on a regular basis. In the first Modern Warfare a mission ended with a helicopter crash, and the character the player was controlling died. It was a memorable moment because it was unique. The second game does this nearly every other level, and it goes from being a unique and profound moment to a complete cock punch. It isn’t because I care deeply about the characters. The game doesn’t develop them enough for that. It is because their deaths are out of my control. I just survived a hellish mission, and made it to the extraction point only to be killed there in a cut scene. I can only watch my character’s inevitable death, and yell at the screen.
Modern Warfare 2 is far from the only game to remove control, though it is the only one I’ve played that kills who I was controlling without my input. I never completed the game Assassin’s Creed precisely because it kept removing my control at critical moments. In that game I carefully studied my prey, and had to be very careful about getting close enough to assassinate them, but as soon as that moment happens control is removed from the player, and we are forced to watch events unfold due to the actions of our character rather than the actions we directed him to take. The exact moment when I stopped playing was when the main character had no choice but to walk into a very obvious trap. So I walked him through the door, a portcullis slammed shut, and enemies came out of the woodwork. I realized my character wasn’t a very assassin, and I couldn’t do anything to change that. botching a mission because I screwed up is one thing. I try again. That is a staple of video games. Botching a mission because it is scripted to go wrong regardless of my actions is incredibly frustrating. In this particular case I had to fight through the enemies, and chase my target across rooftops. Exciting? Sure. It would have been nice if that’s how it played out if I screwed up the job, however, rather than not giving me a choice.
Grand Theft Auto IV did the same thing. Main character Niko Bellic is hired to kill a guy. I drive hom over to the target’s apartment, and am treated to a cut scene in which Niko knocks on the door, and tells the guy he is here to kill him. Of course the guy jumps out a window, and a car chase ensues. Now GTA IV is pretty much all about car chases, but this was a dick move on the developer’s part. Give me the chance to bust down the door, and shoot the guy before he makes his escape. If I miss the chase is on, and fair enough. But removing that control, and making the character I’m playing stupid in the process? Come on.
The Hitman games got this kind of thing right. All during the various jobs in Hitman the player controls their character. Events unfold, and the player reacts. If the job goes south it is the player’s fault, but the key to the Hitman games is making everything go as smoothly as possible. Each mission merits multiple playthroughs just to make sure there are no witnesses, or collateral damage. regardless of how things turn out the player is always in control.
Bioshock adds an interesting dimension to the dynamic of player control versus the events of the game. All through the early parts of the game the protagonist is taking orders from a helpful support character, and trying to reach Andrew Ryan. The confrontation with Ryan reveals that the protagonist is not in control of his own actions, and must obey any order prefaced with the phrase “Would you kindly.” Ryan reveals this to the protagonist, but the player has no way to advance the game except to kill Ryan. After this is done the support character turned nemesis activates a fail safe that will kill the protagonist, but the player is given a way out through an antidote provided by another character.
The confrontation with Ryan in Bioshock was a revelatory moment in the dynamics of gameplay that are usually taken for granted. Unfortunately the game failed to go anywhere with it. After the player receives the antidote they are stuck following the orders of another support character in order to hunt down the previous one who has become their enemy. The game destroyed the idea of the player’s free will, and then presumably restored it only to not give the player any new options. The only choice in the game came from choosing to rescue or kill the little sisters who were sources of the player’s power, but that came long before the player and protagonist realized they were pawns. A significant choice after the confrontation with Ryan would have been much more effective.
So for now I just want to conclude by saying to developers, “Stop removing control from the player, particularly if you’re only doing it to advance the plot. Characters are the motivating factors in stories. All action stems from them, and in video games the player controls the main character. Our actions can advance the plot just fine without the narrator stepping in and wresting control from us.”
I’m going to talk about my favorite genre, and why it consistently frustrates me.
Role playing games are built on numeric systems that calculate almost every way in which the player interacts with the game world. This is because they were originally played with pencil and paper, and everything took place in the players’ imaginations. It was the only way they had of interacting with the game world. Oddly enough many role playing games that are played in the virtual world of a video game pull these systems from their predecessors without much modification in almost blind adherence to genre tropes. But why does a video game need an attack percentage when the player and the enemy are represented visually, and the player character’s actions can be manipulated directly? I loved Phantasy Star Online, but swinging my sword at a creature only to have the word “MISS” pop up over its head due to some hidden roll of the dice always struck me ass odd. Unlike the old pen and paper RPGs a video game can simulate combat without relying on die rolls.
The counter argument to this is that role playing games should be about the character’s abilities rather than the player’s, but I ask why can’t it be both? For all of its flaws, and bizarre features this is one thing Fable 2 does well. Leveling up your character doesn’t increase his chance to hit enemies with a sword. You control that directly. It increases how fast he can attack, what attacks he can use, and how hard he hits. These are things out of the player’s direct control, and still under the reign of the numeric system. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 work in a similar manner. If the player can aim properly at an enemy’s head he will hit their head. How easy that is to do is modified by stats. Holding the sniper rifle steady becomes easier in Mass Effect the more the player invests in that skill. Picking locks in Fallout 3 becomes easier as the skill increases, but it is still up to the player to manipulate the tumblers with the pick. This is much more engaging than a system that relies on a pass/fail roll of dice, and still takes the character’s abilities into account.
Why does a video game need a menu based combat system to tell the player’s character to hit an enemy with a sword? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, but the RPG genre clings to these old ways as if they are what defines a game as an RPG. The problem is when RPGs made the translation to video games there were no ways to really play a role so they took the systems instead of what makes an RPG a role playing game, and have clung to them ever since though advancing technology makes them obsolete. Final Fantasy and other Japanese RPGs in particular still use strange and convoluted menus and systems to determine combat. In the days of the first Final Fantasy when there was no better way for a single player to control an entire party of characters this was necessary, but no longer. In Mass Effect the player controls a party of three characters. The main character is under direct control of the player, and the others in the group can be given commands without the need for a turn based menu. It is true that a menu is used to do this, and pauses the action while the button for this menu is held down, but at least it is an evolution of the system. Online multiplayer allows for another answer to the multi-character problem by giving different players control over the various characters. This was done at least as early as Diablo in 1996, but that wasn’t a true action RPG because it still relied on hidden dice, and while the number of people who can play online at one time has increased dramatically the way in which they control their characters has stayed essentially the same, which brings me to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.
The MMORPG genre has the potential to become the electronic equivalent of what really defined pen and paper RPGs; a group of characters exploring a massive world together, but they invariably stumble on the game play by sticking to the old systems. Everything is number crunching, and there is a corresponding disconnect between the player and his or her character, which I believe is fatal to an RPG’s all important immersion. Clicking on a target and then an icon to activate an attack rather than pressing a button to attack while standing in front of an enemy might seem like a small difference to a non-gamer, but any fan of action games will know it completely changes the feel of a game. Why do these games that have so much potential retain the use of outdated systems? Lag. Players and developers alike are afraid lag will adversely affect more direct control of characters, but lag will make you just as dead in World of Warcraft as it does in Counter Strike. The scale of the worlds may be much larger, but the ability to bring large numbers of players online simultaneously has constantly increased. I keep waiting and hoping for an MMORPG that takes the chance on action oriented combat, but so far I have been disappointed.
While some developers and players cling to the old ways of relying on die rolls to hit their enemies there is really no reason to do so except personal preference. There will always be people who prefer the old systems, but they are no longer necessary( the systems; not the people), and more developers should feel free to abandon them in favor of game play that takes advantage of what video games can do.
I recently began playing Diablo 2 again in preparation for the impending release of the much anticipated Diablo 3. To me the Diablo games have always been about efficiency. The goal is to kill everything on the screen at all times by clicking on enemies repeatedly. I don’t feel as if I’m doing well in the game unless enemies take only one or two clicks to die. I always play a straightforward melee class. This works out pretty well early on while the enemies are fairly weak, but eventually their life bars get longer, their defenses become tougher, and I start missing because my attack rating isn’t high enough. It is about this point in the game that the mana sucking, squishy spell casters who can nuke the whole screen come into their own, and it becomes impossible to simply wade into a giant mob of enemies with my melee powerhouse without drinking health potions like some kind of liquid popcorn.
This has always bothered me. The endgame for the melee fighters is basically hit and run due to the number of enemies on the screen at one time. Getting surrounded is inadvisable. In short playing the melee fighter becomes inefficient compared to the nuke casters.
Early on in Diablo it is the other way around. The casters don’t have enough mana to power their spells for extended period of time, and either have to gulp potions, or simply wait around for it to recharge. They have to use mana draining fireballs to kill a skeleton while a melee fighter can simply whack it with a sword, and sometimes they miss, wasting mana. If a fighter misses the player just keeps clicking.
I invariably become bored with Diablo games around the point my fighter can’t carve a path through enemies without constantly retreating, gulping potions, or teleporting back to town for a free heal. If there was any ingenuity involved in alleviating these problems I would gladly continue playing, but I can only click like a madman, praying my health holds out for so long before I find something else to play.
I become dissatisfied with the efficiency of the tools at my disposal, and I stop playing. I’m not questioning the game design of Diablo. Blizzard is renowned for their tight design. It simply stops being the game I want to play.
I frequently discover I am not playing games as the designers intended. Oblivion is a good example. Oblivion has so many skill sets and such an open world it offers myriad possibilities for play, but I always gravitate towards a stealth, ranged character in an attempt to emulate the game play of Thief: the Dark Project. I played a Khajit (cat person) for their ability to see in the dark, which was an absolute boon to my stealthy dungeon crawling, but I discovered this ability was a timed spell rather than a natural ability. This made no sense to me. It also frequently occurred that though I put an arrow right into an enemy’s head they would turn around and run at me with an angry yell, which ruined my fun. Clearly stealth wasn’t very efficient in Oblivion. Fortunately other people felt the same way, and there were many mods I downloaded, and installed to create the game I wanted to play from Oblivion.
When it came time for Fallout 3 I was faced with same dilemma, or so it seemed. Coming from the same company, and set in an open world with many options for how to play Fallout 3 is remarkably similar to Oblivion in all respects except setting, but the stealth is much more viable. I had played Oblivion on the PC, and could mod it to my heart’s content, but I bought Fallout 3 for the Xbox 360 where no mods exist. I had to play the game as it was intended. Thankfully the combination of rifles rather than bows, and a seemingly more capable stealth system meant I could sneak through entire complexes making head shots, and not alerting everyone with a mile radius to my presence.
A game like Fallout 3 has so many options, however, I felt the need to play it through once more with a different skill set. The problem is I had already discovered the most efficient way to play. Shooting unaware enemies is much easier than brawling with them. Using cumbersome weapons like rocket launchers that have scarce ammo is more bother than using a rifle. Being able to pick locks was much more useful than the ability to hack computers, or use high charisma to steer conversations in my favor. There were many possibilities in Fallout 3, but most of them were more trouble than they were worth.
From a design standpoint the complication of including so many ways for the game to be played is making sure each path is equally viable.
I play Far Cry 2 as a stealth shooter. I carefully stalk my enemies, taking them out with silenced weapons, or create distractions on the far side of camps with explosives. It is highly enjoyable, but I adapted this style of play because rushing in guns blazing doesn’t work very well. It is clear from the lack of a robust stealth system this is not meant to be the focus of the game. There is no way to tell if someone can see you aside from whether or not they are shooting at you. Once again I found this to be the most efficient way to play the game, but it made me wonder why all the inefficient ways are included. To an extent open world games (like Fallout 3, Oblivion, and Far Cry 2) are about creating your own experience within the game world. The player is given tools, and objectives, and left to figure out the best way to proceed, but my point is there should be more balance. If there is a best way to do something why not make the game about that? Otherwise it is like having the freedom to do things incorrectly.
I’m a big fan of open worlds, and multiple options to get from point A to point B, but I feel it can be done better, and some options are thrown in by default without the effects they have on other aspects of the game play being taken into account.
I’m left handed. This has of course presented me with some minor difficulties in a predominantly right handed world, but it wasn’t until recently I noticed how it affects me in video games.
One of the things that makes me an irrelevant gamer is the fact I sometimes dislike titles that seem almost universally loved, and one of these games is Resident Evil 4. For everyone else it seemed like a breath of fresh air to a stagnant franchise, going from the fixed camera to being an over the shoulder shooter. One of the biggest complaints against Resident Evil games up to that point was about the controls. If you’re saying to yourself there was nothing wrong with those controls I challenge you to go back and play Resident Evil 2, and attempt to dodge all of the zombies on your way to the police station during the opening of the game. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
So with Resident Evil 4′s more action oriented gameplay the controls were much improved. According to everyone else. I just could not get the hang of it, and at first I thought it was because I couldn’t move and shoot at the same time. After all I was pretty good at fist person shooters, but I never had to stand still to shoot in those. So I never finished the game. It was just too frustrating.
When Resident Evil 5 came out, and looked to be the same game with a two player cooperative mode I was wary, but having a friend who wanted to play through it with me made me take the plunge. I thoroughly enjoyed the game. Standing still to shoot didn’t bother me, and the controls seemed fine. Did they tighten them up from the previous version? Did I just suck when RE4 came out? I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t really think about it much. I just enjoyed the game.
Then one day I played the game by myself as Chris, and I couldn’t get anything right. I was missing shots, and getting mauled by zombie dogs left and right. It dawned on me that I had been played as left-handed Sheva the whole time I had been enjoying the game. Chris is right handed. This may not sound like a huge difference, but Chris’s roided up torso takes of a a large portion of the left side of the screen as the player looks over his right shoulder. When you play as Sheva it is the reverse. When I played as Chris if felt like I was driving down the road with something on my windshield, or one eye closed. Playing as Sheva felt completely natural. Leon from Resident Evil 4 was right handed just like Chris. I finally knew why I couldn’t stand a game most gamers seemed to love.
It is probably important to note that I’m not only left handed, but also left eye dominant. The way to find this is is to point your index finger of either hand at something while keeping both eyes open. Then close one eye at a time. Whichever eye you have open when your hand appears to have moved the least is your dominant eye. If you do it with something nearby the difference will be negligible, but you will see a larger discrepancy with far objects.
After discovering this odd little fact I thought about it more while playing games, and realized that it even has an effect in first person shooter games. I almost always run to the right as soon as a match of Call of Duty 4 begins. In maps where I can hug the right flank, and keep the action on my left where I notice it quicker I tend to do better. Pipeline is probably my best map while Strike is my worst. Anyone familiar with the layouts will know why.
I have a friend who works in the gaming industry so I related this odd factoid to him. He thought it was pretty interesting, and told me it would also be easy to mirror the animations in a third person game like Resident Evil 4, and he would relate my experience to the guys in his company who are making a third person action game. So if games start having a option for choosing which hand the protagonist uses I might have been the catalyst. Of course when I told him I wasn’t enjoying the Arkham Asylum demo because Batman hogs the left side of the screen he simply said, “You’ll have to get over that, lefty.”
I don’t actually have anything to say at the moment, but I wanted to post something so my main page isn’t just a 404 error. I should probably point out this blog is going to be about video games, but unlike the previous incarnation I will try to write things worth reading, and not just rants about Microsoft’s customer service. I have a few things in mind to get started, but I don’t have time to get into them right now. So consider this a place holder.