2009 was a weird one for games. There were no real monolithic standouts in my mind, unlike 07 (Portal, BioShock, Super Mario Galaxy,) or 08 (Fallout 3, GTA4.) So it wasn't easy, but I fought through the pain to bring you this, my favorite games of 2009. In no particular order.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories: I wrote this one up as a long-form critique just now, so I'll refer you to that post for details. But suffice to say, immersion in the world of Silent Hill was clearly one of the highest goals of Climax in creating Shattered Memories, and they succeeded to an impressive degree. Features graphical technology I was surprised to find on the Wii, and a design which ignores genre boundaries. Cold outside? It's colder in Silent Hill. Play it!

Zeno Clash & The Path: I also wrote these up earlier this year, so I won't go on about them here. I love the scope of these games, and the strange new worlds they give the player access to. Personal to the authors in completely different ways, these outstanding single-A games shouldn't be missed. They'll only ask a few hours of your time each. A small price to pay for such unique experiences.

Batman Arkham Asylum: Everybody loves this one, mostly just for "nailing it" on every front. The visuals, the combat, the collectibles and puzzles and exploration, all top-notch. But I think the game should be lauded for more than just polished execution: both the existing systems chosen and recombined in intriguing ways, and the new ones created from scratch, imply a kind of insight and economy that only comes from a deep literacy with game systems. Similar in ways to another remarkable licensed game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, the team at Rocksteady used all their knowledge of disparate game mechanics to fully express the experience of being Batman, not just through aesthetics but through exploration and play. A real achievement.

GTA4 Episodes: I have a lot of respect for Rockstar's approach to GTA4 and its episodes: they spent an enormous amount of time building Liberty City to tell Niko Bellic's story, and then for each expansion they picked a new protagonist and told his story in that same vibrant city. It's an economical reuse of existing content that allows the player to see the familiar city from new perspectives. It expands the idea of Liberty City as a place, showing you new facets with each episode, giving you the feeling that there really are a million stories in the naked city, and you've been lucky enough to experience a few. The tone of the episodes diverge wildly from the main game, especially The Lost & Damned, which is dark, grim, and sober in a way that few games can claim. The Lost's leader, Billy, is one of the most unique and convincing characters I've met in a game, a testament to the chops that Dan Houser and his writing partner Rupert Humphries have developed since GTA3. If you forgot about the monumental accomplishment that was GTA4's Liberty City, diving back into the episodes is a worthwhile reminder.

Retro Game Challenge: This DS game caught me by surprise. While the updated remakes of classic 8-bit games are fun (and thankfully leverage a number of usability advances discovered over the last 20 years,) what really hooked me was the loving simulation of childhood spent on the carpet with a Nintendo controller in hand. Sitting next to your friend in front of the TV, chatting in hushed tones about secrets and cheat codes, gleefully poring over the newest issue of your favorite video game magazine, yelps of excitement or disappointment at the ups and downs of each game... it'll strike a chord with any lifelong gamer, and it all felt warm, real and genuine. I think one mark of a mature medium is its ability to create entertainment about itself (see the flourishing of movies about making and watching movies in the mid-20th-century.) Retro Game Challenge is only a tiny, tiny step, but a heartfelt and inspiring one.

Brutal Legend: For me, Brutal Legend was all about the world. I'm a sucker for driving a vehicle around a height map (see my total lack of hatred for the Mass Effect side-missions) and the world of Brutal Legend is an amazing place to do so. Both in concept and execution, the craggy mountains and twisted forests populated by outsized icons of classic heavy metal were amazing to behold. You owe it to yourself to drive Eddie Riggs' hot rod, "The Deuce," through Brutal Legend's stunningly-imagined vistas.

Street Fighter 4: Simply put, I haven't laughed so much at probably any game as I have playing SF4 in the conference room over lunches at 2K Marin. The fact that humor in games is "hard to do" comes up fairly often-- only because people think of "humor" as "jokes," which lose their power after their first telling. But humor is when something funny happens, and games are the only entertainment medium capable of making funny things happen in completely unplanned and unexpected ways. In the right company, Street Fighter 4, with its cartoonish brutality, over-the-top animations, and always-surprising reversals of fortune is a consistent laugh riot. Thank you, Capcom.

House of the Dead Overkill: It's a totally good lightgun shooter for the Wii, doing what House of the Dead does right: zombie dismemberment, split-second bonus coins to hit, relentless bosses. It adds buyable weapon unlocks and upgrades as well as a host of extras. But what sets it apart is the Planet Terror-"inspired" aesthetic, painting the game in a decidedly 21st-century mis-remembering of classic 70's grindhouse cinema. The yellowed, scratched celluloid filters, the skipping soundtrack, the overwrought narrator and super-sensationalist plot points give the whole production a unique twist. The humor is hit-or-miss: the intentional (but still aggravating) overuse of the F-bomb is sometimes funny, but mostly falls flat. But the ending-- god, the shocking, Freudian, scatological, insane ending makes it all worthwhile. Play it with a friend.

Might & Magic Clash of Heroes: I haven't generally been big into DS games. It's just not a format I want to spend time hunched over for long. But Clash of Heroes kept me absolutely hooked for the entirety of a cross-country flight, and for that I'm grateful. It's a really clever system wherein Bejeweled-style color matching puzzles cross with turn-based combat, special abilities and experience points. It's addictive on multiple fronts, but not in a way that feels cheap or exploitative. Quite the opposite: it's clever and lighthearted, and rewards you for the investment and skill you must exhibit to defeat enemies that are high above your own level. Novel, satisfying, and well worth playing.

Flower: I covered Flower earlier this year when I played it on a friend's PS3. It's one of those experiences that makes me grateful to whomever greenlights downloadable games at Sony. Flower connects the player's unconscious manipulation of Sixaxis motion controls so directly to its lush and fluid visuals that I felt closer to the sensation of floating on the wind than in any piece of media I've ever experienced. It's a real accomplishment, and helps answer the question: what else can video games do?

Saira: I also covered Saira at length earlier this month. I love everything about it: its big explorable galaxy and the way each planet feels unique and different; its open-endedness and faith in the player to explore it all and find their own way; its incredible variety of clever and unique puzzles, challenges and world layouts; its broad feature set, with everything from a starmap to a working PDA to interstellar radio stations to unique protagonist outfits for each different environment. It has that unmistakable Nifflas charm to it (the adorable ambient creatures being maybe the most obvious trademark) but in a new and stunning high-res style that mixes photography with pixel art, paper cutouts, and animation that's so smooth it almost looks rotoscoped. My favorite thing about Saira is that it constantly makes you think, and think hard. Every moment you're making and retaining connections, both spatial and logical. "Ah, I found the clue for this puzzle on that last planet, I'll need to open up my PDA and find the photo I took." "Ah, I can see an adjacent cavern and the entrance is through the top, I'll have to climb up there to make my way in." "Ah, the pool that lets me fly is here, I bet if I fly and use my momentum I can get up there." "Ah, this machine is deactivated and the wire leads to it from the east, I'll have to head that way to turn it on." Constant, meaningful mental investment is the trademark of the experience, all wrapped up in a unique and fanciful set of worlds like you've never seen. I couldn't love it more.

You owe it to yourself to play these games. Hope you had a great year and that 2010 is even better.


Quick critique: Silent Hill Shattered Memories

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an incredibly interesting and enjoyable... what is it, exactly? Well, it's Silent Hill. Which in this case means an immersive third-person/first-person psychological horror adventure. Bit of a mouthful. But the immediacy of navigating this new imagining of that town, Silent Hill, is wonderfully compelling. When not being chased by faceless ghouls, you spend most of your time quietly walking through snowbound streets and abandoned shops, your ever-present flashlight (aimed by the Wii remote) casting enormous shadows on walls and ceilings, searching for locks, drawers and cabinets to physically grab hold of and manipulate (by "pinching" with A+B and moving the remote,) or for numbers to punch into your smartphone, hoping to make contact with some other living person. Just exploring the town in this manner gave me one of the strongest senses of presence in a gameworld that I've felt in quite some time. It's the kind of stuff I find extremely compelling, and it kept me riveted to the game from start to finish, tearing through it ravenously in less than a day like some people do with a novel they just can't put down. The breadth of what you do in the game enhances the feeling of being a person in a place, not a limited bundle of verbs bouncing through a series of boxes: you'll be interviewed by a psychotherapist, driven around in cars (and given full ability to slide from seat to seat and mess with the locks and windows,) log into computers, mess with a fully functional smartphone, and occasionally perform the simple act of walking down the street and chatting with another character. It all gives your experience in Silent Hill the kind of fullness that is so often missing from games. It is an exceptional experience, and one I recommend very highly. I'll quibble a bit though. This is a critique after all.

The story and challenges wrapped up in the experience tend to be enjoyable, if not quite all there. Disappointingly, the key to every single locked door in the game will be somewhere in the adjacent room (aside from a couple isolated exceptions in the later Nightmare sequences.) It's missing what I so loved about Saira-- that sense of not just making logical connections but spatial connections. I remember past Silent Hills (okay, Silent Hill 2, my only other strong point of reference) having much more spatially-scattered puzzles, which is great! "Ah, right, this key must be for that locked door I saw in that other building. I should head over there." You feel smart for remembering various points in the gameworld and drawing lines between them. Each major location, such as the apartment complex or the abandoned hospital, was its own convoluted, self-contained untying knot. When the key and the lock are sitting right next to each other, there's not much satisfaction in the brief, perfunctory act of untying.

The game is schismatic in general, as there are two separate modes of play: exploration, and the Nightmare. This could be thematically interesting, and does work in the game's favor when the transition to the Nightmare coincides with a traumatic story event. But deciding there will be no combat in the game, and that being chased by phantoms will only ever occur in the Nightmare, removes all tension from the exploration half of the game. Which is a shame, because if ever a player should feel tense, it's when they're wandering through an abandoned high school/hospital/amusement park, alone in the dark with only a flashlight. It's a problem that's not new to Shattered Memories: a consistent complaint with F.E.A.R., for instance, was that the supernatural stuff was never a threat (until the end,) so why be scared of it? In the same way, why be scared in the creaking, empty children's restaurant when I know that monsters only come out during the Nightmare? Well, there is no reason. Removing combat from the game entirely was a bold decision, but cordoning off all threats to one separate context robs the experience of the tension and dread it should be built on. Capcom's Haunting Ground offers a more effective model, wherein the threats are constant and wandering, and the only combat is to momentarily fend off attackers, long enough to lure them to another part of the level and escape.

The story is also kind of meandering and squishy between cutscenes. All throughout the town you'll find tidbits of text and voice messages which describe... what? I guess isolated little side-stories that happened in these places which are just sort of supposed to be generally creepy (someone freezing to death in the woods, an implied date-rape, an anonymous highschooler asphyxiating himself with a belt,) but don't add up to much. They're reminiscent of the narrative bits found in the original Fatal Frame, but where those all added up to express the abandoned mansion's history of ritual sacrifice, these just sort of... are. Between these scattered tidbits and the dreamlike, shifting characterization of the people you meet, it's easy to assume that the story isn't really going anywhere. Until it does, at the very end. And it's a hell of a reveal. The striking convergence of multiple concepts in an unexpected way is top form, really. But you'd be forgiven up to this point for assuming the story's just going to peter out, since so much of it does end up being inconsequential filler. It's not the kind of narrative that grips you with surreal intrigue the way that Silent Hill 2 did, or the kind of ambient storytelling that conveys a cohesive picture of a place and the people that populated it as with Rapture in BioShock. It's halfway there in a way that makes everything between a few major anchor points feel meaningless, which seems a wasted opportunity.

The concept of the therapy sessions impacting the gameworld has a similar problem. Your answers to the therapist are supposed to change the game itself, creating a nightmare tailored just for you (as an opening "Psychology Warning" screen states.) I played through the game one-and-a-half times. On that second half-playthrough I chose the exact opposite responses as I'd given the first time to see what would be different. And the answer was... not very much. Why was the bear in the hunting lodge dead on the table the first time I played, and standing stuffed in the corner the second time? Because I said "I'd rather spend time with family than friends" in the therapy session? I don't know. Is going through the planetarium instead of the art room in the school actually a meaningful change? Why are the wording of the text and voice messages slightly different, but the meaning still the same? The implementation of this system seems to have too many vague points of input, with too subtle outcomes. Depending on your answers, some characters' appearances will change slightly, and some dialogue will change slightly. So what? It seems like the developers weren't truly committed to the concept: how about giving me big, binary choices in the therapy sessions ("Who do you think loved you more? Your mother, or your father?") and then have that present me with truly divergent content (I meet an entirely different character in the following chapter) if you're going to do it at all? The implementation in the game is a middleground that doesn't really accomplish much. If they couldn't afford to branch the game significantly based on your answers, I'd kind of rather the answers literally have no impact at all. The aesthetic power of being interviewed by the therapist would still be there, without teasing me into wanting to replay the game for no real difference in the experience.

I've spent a lot of time quibbling over elements of the game that are half- or mostly-there, because it's easier to pinpoint what was wrong than what was right. So to be clear, what's right does outweigh what's not-quite-right. The game gives you an exceptionally immersive sense of being there, conveyed by a strong presence in the world as expressed in your direct physical manipulation of doors and other objects, your constantly-roving flashlight, and your highly functional cell phone that allows you to call all sorts of numbers found in the world, as well as take photos, browse voice and text messages, and employ a working GPS map. The world is rendered convincingly, stuffed full of evidence of everyday life with that strange Silent Hill skew to it all. First-person perspective is used to great effect, often to make you feel claustrophobic and trapped, but also to better convey conversations with characters throughout the game. And the characters themselves are quite well-realized, both visually and in their dialogue and behavior: the creepy, overconfident psychologist, the no-nonsense cop, the friendly, playful prom queen all feel like truly different personalities that could nevertheless all coexist in the odd world of Silent Hill. Outstanding facial & character animations and believable dialogue give the sense of the presence of other actual humans, not cardboard "characters." The Nightmare sequences are legitimately frantic and terrifying; the closest analogue I can remember is fleeing desperately from Constantine's Manor in Thief: The Dark Project, which is the nearest I've ever been to experiencing an actual nightmare in a video game. High praise coming from me. And the ending packs a hell of a wallop, while leveling out into a touching and satisfying resolution (the ending I got, anyway.)

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does an enormous amount new and right, and masterfully uses the Wii's motion controls in ways that draw you deeper into the world. Its tone and content are worlds apart from most games you'll have played this year. Anyone who thinks that all that mainstream video games can do are adolescent power fantasies needs to play this game, to be reminded that there's a world of possibilities out there. It doesn't nail everything it attempts, or even everything that Silent Hill normally does well, but Shattered Memories is as exciting for what it does as for the potential that it implies. A reason to turn on your Wii again. Don't miss it.



The untying knot

I'm going to recommend you buy a video game today. The game is Saira by Nifflas. It's a knot that's made to be untied.

The nature of the untying knot is part of what makes some video games feel like a "waste of time:" that they are often ornate puzzle boxes, taking years to construct then hours to disassemble and discard. In a game like Saira (or other Metroid/Castlevania-style games) you start with no knowledge of the gameworld around you. As you spider out into all the nooks and crannies, you unlock new areas, eventually uncovering all the hidden rooms, all the important items, complete all the goals, and you're done. The knot that someone spent so long tying has been undone and lies there limply on the floor.

The predestination can be palpable-- it's so convenient, isn't it, how all the keys are on the correct sides of their locks? How all the clues are available before you reach the puzzle? Everything has been placed carefully, and you can be secure in knowing that it is possible to sweep away every barrier. This world has been constructed by an intelligent presence. To practically feel the designer leaning over your shoulder can be eerie. It can also make the experience feel oddly pointless: ah yes, this is a series of tests that someone created, for me to waste my time unraveling. I must go through all the motions everyone else has to go through to finish this exercise and move on. If you get to the point of "why bother," it's all over.

And so the job of the fiction, of the visuals, of the sound and music and all the presentation the puzzle comes wrapped in is to distract from the mechanical artificiality of the base interactions. The puzzle box has to be brilliantly crafted, but we must be made to forget that our actions in disassembling it are predestined-- that we are in fact volunteering to be manipulated by the designer. And on both fronts, Saira is wildly successful.

It's an indie production of surprising scope and depth: what you do is mostly run and jump around alien planets, solving puzzles using computer interfaces and collecting key items to fix a broken machine. The scope and depth come from the incredible imagination and attention to detail evident in every aspect of the experience.

Saira, a bold adventurer and freelance photographer (giving her something in common with Beyond Good & Evil's protagonist, Jade,) finds herself alone in the universe after a mysterious teleporter accident. In your quest to find someone, anyone, you'll explore more than a dozen different planets and satellites, each with its own unique aesthetic and set of challenges: some are idyllic and Earth-like with rolling grass hills, others covered in snow drifts or dotted by the ruins of a destroyed civilization; a derelict space station is riddled with steam jets and radioactive leaks, a planet with a toxic atmosphere challenges you to hurry between life-giving plants; the effect conveyed is of an astonishingly varied universe where each place has its own history and ecosystem.

As Saira, you'll become a master of any environment, running, climbing, leaping from rock to rock, and even occasionally flying to achieve your goals. There are some dangerous creatures, but there is no combat whatsoever: Saira's only abilities are athleticism, intelligence, and her trusty camera and PDA. Death is never a major setback, as checkpoints are placed liberally around the world, you never lose progress, and you can teleport back to your ship at any time. The goals and obstacles then are refreshingly inventive: not just the clever arrangements of rock formations and cave systems, but the cryptic clues scattered throughout the environments that you must photograph and use as guides. The different logic and timing puzzles take the forms of everything from a footrace to a multiple choice quiz to light computer programming and circuit design. Each world truly does have its own identity in visual aesthetic, spatial arrangement, and the logic of the manmade systems left behind by the universe's vanished civilizations.

The great success of this type of game-- and Saira is a great example of the genre-- is its ability to simultaneously draw you into both the raw cognitive connection-making of mentally mapping spaces and logically deconstructing puzzles, and the aesthetic allure of exploring new and unknown locales, discovering the flora and fauna and history of these strange and alien places, of receiving bit by bit the story of the protagonist and how she's come to be where and what she is. It's an experience that engages both the left and right sides of the brain in equal measure-- as Michael Abbott says, "Play Saira and see which side gets stimulated the most."

It's that sense of discovery, of freedom to explore as you want, of real ingenuity when you overcome a tough puzzle using your own wits, of achievement and completion as you unlock every last tricky little passageway, that makes Saira feel like a legitimately enriching, thoughtful, special experience, not just another waste of time.

And so I suggest you visit Nifflas' site and explore the strange, wonderful, challenging universe of Saira. I hope you'll get as much out of untying this knot as I did.

Illustration from the deviantart page of Saira's concept artist



Quick hits

Wherein I sling bullshit regarding a few game things, in brief segments.



In the most recent issue of Edge Magazine, Randy Smith's column addresses three approaches to dialogue with AI characters.

1. Natural Language Processing-- speaking to an AI as you would another person, and letting them reason out a response procedurally. He acknowledges that this requires non-existent technology for processing human speech into meaning and Turing test-passing AIs to synthesize that meaning and respond believably. In other words, not in our lifetimes.

2. Dialogue trees. We've all seen these, most often in traditional RPGs like Fallout or Planescape. You have a limited list of authored dialogue options, to which the AI replies with a limited list of authored responses. This is effective for what it is, but very transparent to the player.

3. Single-word query response. The system used in old Ultima games wherein the player could type in any single word they liked and test whether the AI "knew" anything about that (ie, whether a response had been authored for that query.) This allowed the player to feel out the possibility space more organically, but presumably leads to a lot of interactive dead ends ("I don't know anything about that" in response to all but the handful of recognized queries.)

Smith prefers the third option overall, and I think there have been examples of games that mix 2. and 3. fairly successfully: Sam & Max Hit the Road, for instance, presented dialogue topics as single icons, so you knew which topics were valid (no dead ends) but didn't know exactly what your character was going to say about it. As you encountered new concepts they were added to the icon list. Similar are Mass Effect or Chronicles of Riddick Escape from Butcher Bay, wherein the dialogue tree options are single words or short phrases-- you choose the gist of what you want the character to express, and the author takes over from there.

But in any case, I agree that some version of the classic dialogue tree is the best we've got, and that probably finding ways to make it feel more natural is our best bet in the short-term.

I think dialogue trees probably feel least natural in games where the player character is a pure cipher-- in which the character is as close to being "me" as possible. So in Fallout 3, for instance, it feels limiting because the tree doesn't contain all the options that "I" would want to say in that situation. Conversely, in Escape from Butcher Bay, Riddick is an established character with a strong personality. It feels more natural for the dialogue tree to only contain options that "he" would say. (Commander Shephard in Mass Effect is in similar territory.) So, one valid approach when considering a design with dialogue might be to give the player an established persona to inhabit ("I am Jim. It has been demonstrated that Jim is very timid. He would NEVER just walk up to the cute girl and ask for her number!") as opposed to a true blank slate. This might open up more interesting possibilities in the end than the cipher route, depending on the broader design ("I played in such a way that Jim became much more confident over time, and by the end had totally different dialogue options available for that same cute girl.")

Alternately, the stranger in a strange land could be useful. Maybe the player character is a recent immigrant and hardly speaks any of the native language. You can only talk to people who know some bit of your own language (hence why every person in the game isn't a dialogue target) and then can only communicate using rudimentary phrases, pointing, and gestures. It's a familiar real-world paradigm for any player, and could again open up interesting avenues of play involving indirect communication.

Or maybe the problem could be externalized more literally: the player character is the only human left alive in a world filled with robots, and those robots only understand specific inputs depending on their preprogrammed role.

In any case, taking the dialogue tree as a mechanical constraint, perhaps strides could be made by making our chosen fictional context less perilous for dialogue ("I'm whoever I want, talking to whomever I want") and instead couching our limited dialogue systems in situations that complement them. I do wish more games allowed you to converse with characters in the world, and I hope we'll see more player-driven dialogue going on in games outside the traditional RPG space.



Warning: this segment contains spoilers for a very minor subplot in the Grand Theft Auto 4 downloadable content, The Ballad of Gay Tony.

In The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBGT from here on) you play as Luis Lopez, an ex-con and current manager/business partner at a string of nightclubs in Liberty City. It's established early and often that Luis is a promiscuous guy and not interested in commitment to any one woman. When you check your email in the game, you find multiple messages from "Margot," a girl that hooked up with Luis in the past and who has developed an unhealthy obsession with him.

Partway into the campaign, if you drive to a small icon on the map, you can meet Margot. In a cutscene, she expresses her obsession with Luis, and he explains that he's not interested, and that he thinks she's crazy. It's comic relief, but it turns fairly dark when Margot reveals she's taken a whole bottle of pills as a cry for help. You drop her off at the hospital and complete the mission. Still played for laughs.

At another icon, you meet Margot again, this time on the third-floor walkway of a shopping center on the pier. She again expresses her obsession, and another funny exchange goes on between the two characters. Then she steps over the railing and says that if she jumps, everybody will think Luis did it. The scene stays in the black humor zone, until Margot jumps from the railing, falls three stories, cracks her head on a flight of stairs and dies.

This is pretty surprising and unexpected! And there was nothing you could do to prevent it (except not to visit that nondescript little side-mission icon.) Help text pops up onscreen: "Everybody thinks you pushed her! Get out of there!" Civilians in the area start yelling that you pushed her, that you're a murderer. And your only option is to run until you're out of the danger zone, at which point the mission completes successfully.

And while there are a LOT of things the player can do in Liberty City, the entire premise for this side-mission exposes the boundaries of interactions that are possible in a GTA game. For one, you have no control in a cutscene. I'd have loved the ability to talk Margot down, or to jump out and grab her hand and keep her from falling. But, alright, Luis is Luis, not me, and drama is often based on the viewer being unable to avert terrible events, so there you have it. But then you're forced to flee the scene of a suicide that you're the primary witness to. Even if you wanted to, there's no "stop and explain" button. If I didn't know it would've resulted in a failure state, I would've wanted to just turn myself into the police. The scene is begging for an entire sequence wherein Luis is explaining himself to the arresting officer under a hot interrogation light; wherein he's on the stand at trial-- does his testimony outweigh that of the other witnesses that day? What about the forensic evidence? Can the medical examiner prove she was or wasn't pushed? Was she in psychotherapy at the time? Hospital records show she was suicidal-- she was taken to the ER due to an overdose of pills not more than a week or two earlier, and it was you that dropped her off. Isn't that worth something? What will the jury say?

Of all the situations in GTA that result in police sirens, Margot's subplot seems the most defensible-- you didn't shoot a cop, you didn't blow up a plane, hell, for once you didn't do ANYthing. But GTA doesn't support the player being innocent. And so, in raising more questions than it's capable of answering, Margot's sad, surprising little story is an interactive bridge too far. But if it could be supported with mechanics... man, wouldn't that be exciting?


Loss of Progress

Challenge in games is a weird thing. Especially when I tend to find a lot of games too challenging to be fun, even on normal difficulty.

The thing is that the moment-to-moment challenge itself isn't the issue. I enjoy difficult problems and things that I actually have to try hard to figure out, or build skill to overcome. The problem is with loss of progress as punishment, and the drudgery of retrying the exact same sequence over and over again.

Recently, for instance, I've been playing Left 4 Dead 2 in singleplayer mode. Granted, this isn't the central focus of the game (that's co-op or versus.) But friends aren't often playing when I am, and I prefer not to play with random jokers. And I just enjoy singleplayer games-- I like having that time to myself, just me, the gameworld, and the experience. So I pick the Singleplayer menu option and away I go. And I can't clear a single campaign on normal difficulty.

It's not because any one part is too hard on its own. I wouldn't want the enemies to be wimpier or myself to be hardier, as the experience would feel pointless then. And though I do die too often, I think I could clear most chapters after a few retries. But the design of the game's systems actively discourages me from retrying by stealing away a criminal amount of progress if my character dies.

So, part one. Many co-op focused games are made significantly more punishing in singleplayer mode in that the AI is unable to revive you the way another player can. This is true of Left 4 Dead, it was true of Gears of War. Survivability of a multi-human party is increased due simply to the developers being unwilling or unable to account for AI partners reviving the player when killed (either by using defibrillator paddles or freeing them from a spawn closet.) When you're dead, you're dead. Sorry. So the single player is just that much more fragile, and backed up by AI characters that are generally less capable in some ways than a human player.

Part two: each chapter is probably 20 minutes long or more on average, meaning you can die at the end of a level and lose fully 20 minutes of your life. The level restarts in the saferoom and you're staring down 20 minutes of rote retread of the exact same environments and scripted sequences you already cleared, just to get back to the point where you failed. And if you fail again, you're back to square one in every regard. When the player fails in your game, you want them to instinctively feel the desire to jump up and try again. Saying "the last 20 minutes of your life have been erased. Do it over" does not engender this response.

So, mitigation. Maybe each chapter has a mid-mission checkpoint. Or, hell, I'm playing alone, let me save wherever I want. Or maybe when my party is wiped out, all four of us respawn in the saferoom without the level being reset: you're back to basic equipment, but all those hordes you cleared and scripted gates you opened are still in their completed state. It becomes a corpse run across empty ground instead of a full instance reset, which is much more palatable. There's a penalty, but the penalty isn't "do all that over again."

In many games, failing and restarting discrete challenges makes sense-- a racing game or fighting game or puzzle game, where each stage is micro and retryable in a few minutes, or even GTA4 wherein each mission is relatively short, generally has mid-mission saves, and lets the player instantly retry from the last checkpoint on failure via the cell phone. In games that have a more fluid sense of progression this is much less the case.

I don't mean to rag on L4D2 so hard. It's just my current example of a phenomenon I've completely outgrown: a game turning into a joyless then frustrating slog because of lost progress on failure. Even in the core action space, we live in a post-GTA-hospital, post-Vita-Chamber world. It should be as challenging as you want it to be to make material progress, but forcing me to go through the motions when I die, redoing challenges I've already proven I can overcome just to try again, shows an outright lack of respect for the player's valuable time.

It's not to say that loss of progress can't be available to the player as a challenge mechanic: BioShock has an option to turn off Vita-Chambers, and Rock Band offers No Fail Mode if that's what you're looking for. I love games with robust options menus. Let me turn "restart chapter on death" on or off to fit my own playstyle. Plenty of games disable achievements or unlockables when difficulty modifiers are applied; so be it.

Of course, these are pretty pedestrian observations about a fairly specific genre. What about unlimited time rewind? Prince of Persia Sands of Time only seemed to limit rewind as a form of challenge. Halo 3 seemingly saves the state of the game continuously, allowing you to revisit and fly around "footage" of your play session after the fact. Doesn't this imply that the design could reasonably allow for the player to choose to rewind only as far as they want to on failure? Braid supported this, opening up the game's challenge to be entirely based on the player's ability to reason out a solution to move forward, not to restart the level to retry that one tricky jump again, as you had to in the game it takes as its inspiration, Super Mario Bros.

And of course, zooming out further, what about games that have no explicit failure state, where reverting to an earlier state to retry a "challenge" is outside of the player's expectations entirely? Games like The Sims or Animal Crossing, where small failures or setbacks within the interactive frame are generally deemed acceptable by players, because they can always be undone through further play? I'd love to see more games unask the question of checkpoints, quicksaving and loss of progress by removing death and failure from the experience entirely, instead of searching for less abrasive ways to tell the player "you have failed."


Those turned out longer than I'd expected.