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Doing it wrong

Posted by Ad on October 28, 2010

I saw a YouTube comment a while back, in which someone stated having grown up on the modern RPGs but felt the older ones (snes-era, according to the video commented on) were just… better. The graphics were 2d, no voice acting, low-resolution sprites, menu-driven combat in many of the games, static monster sprites in many of the games, etc.. So why are these games “better”?

I’ve been thinking of what makes for a good game, what about a game that makes it enjoyable. in board games, I’m pretty sure it’s the opportunity to screw things up for other players. Quarto, chinese checkers, rummy, even games as  simple as four/five-in-a-row have that. More advanced games like Illuminati is also about screwing things up for other players (tho often through threats diplomacy). One of the games that has seen the most play among our gaming group would be Blokus. For this very reason. Our Uno games tend to be competitive. Our adapted rules to other games make them more competitive. More opportunities to screw things up for other players.
So what about video games, esp. single-player RPG games? I had a short list in my head, a list of the most important features of a game, but have forgotten some of them. Oh well. Here’s what I do remember:

1. Controls. If the controls are sluggish, the game sucks. If thinking about a direction causes the character to spurt head-first in that direction, the game will be annoying. If the character won’t even move until you shove the stick as far as it goes, the game will be annoying. Some RPGs have a run button. Some don’t. And don’t get me started on menu-driven combat.

2. Exploration. Not applicable to all kinds of games, but my favorite part of a Civ game is when most of the map is blank and I can just head in whatever direction I want, see what’s there. Many RPGs have a huge world, whether or not you ever get to see a world map. Aquaria is a great example of games based around exploration. If new areas aren’t interesting enough, exploration isn’t a reward enough to keep ppl playing. if there are no new areas, your game is small, and it better have a good focus on other important elements… like investigating a mystery… Oh wait, that’s also a form of exploration.

3. Story. Yes, you kind’a need a story to justify the gameplay. No, you really don’t need much. Mario and Zelda are just going to rescue the damsel in distress by defeating the bad guy, right? That’s actually a pretty deep story for a game, it has TWO objectives (albeit accomplished at the same time the same way). Then there are stories that are long and/or thick, but still not very deep. And then there’s the worst kind, the ones that stop the game to tell a story you either already know or don’t really care about. I mean, at the start of Monkey Island 1, what would we need to know about Guybrush Threepwood besides that he wants to become a pirate?

4. Icons. A guy in a green tunic and a silly green hat? Red cap, mustache, red and blue clothing? Yellow/orange space armor with big shoulder thingies? A blue hedgehog with red boots? Classic video game heroes. As tech advanced, we got more complicated appearances for the characters, but this didn’t make them better. The good ones are iconic for their simplicity, they’re archetypes and their appearance somehow reflects this. More recent successful characters would have to include Master Chief. Why? Archetype with an easily identified appearance. Kratos? Sackboy? Whether or not the characters themselves are iconic, something in the game must be. The design of Portal and the archetype GLaDOS represents? The design of the world of BioSchock? The design of the world of Aquaria?

5. Mythology. Related to icons. By this I don’t mean a creation myth, gods and giants, and the source of life, magic, and everything. I just mean a set of rules that the world design abides by. Maybe numbers, shapes, colors, locations, maybe these things represent something, making things identified through their association with whatever is referenced in their design? If the bad guy has horns, and we all know it, other characters with horns will be perceived as bad guys, right? How about the color red, or black? How about a pitchfork? Goat legs? Silly tail? Red or black eyes? If we establish this as the face of evil, all these attributes will be associated with evil. Goatherders, farmers, and emo kids beware. How about pale skin, fangs, and cape? How about suit and tie? How about the blue water people, the brown mountain people, and the green forest people? All identified as iconic in the Zelda series, but the mythology goes deeper than that, as evidenced with a few characters in Twilight Princess, where mere colored dots under some characters’ eyes identify them as tied to one of these peoples/locations, depending on their color.

6. Freedom. Tied to controls and exploration. Sequence-breaking was one of the main features of the Metroid series, at least before being constrained to a 3d gameplay and/or a more story-driven gameplay. This freedom has been enjoyed by lots of gamers. Is it weird that a game which unintentionally includes abilities to skip entire sections of the game is so enjoyable because of such an oversight on the designers’ part? Maybe. I don’t care, I just like being able to go places. Linear exploration is like sitting in a bus, whereas freedom is having your own car. In keeping with that analogy, Aquaria had a car, and I want cars in more games. And stories that take cars into account, plz… or at least doesn’t get in the way.

7. Direction, parallel of freedom. As much fun as a sandbox game can be, without a clear story the freedom comes off as lazy game design. Huge world, somewhere something to do that moves the story forward, but no incentive to go there and not a lot of clues pointing that way either. Either make the story as free as the world, or don’t make the world so free. As much as invisible walls and seemingly arbitrary restrictions bother me, I’m more bothered by being far from my objectives because the game never told me where I was supposed to go. I would of course prefer to be able to go anywhere, and the story would adapt, give me the story of where I am, not of where I should be, plz.

8. What else… NO GRINDING! Okay so I played through game X last year, now I wanna play it again. I don’t want to have to run around area X for an hour, again, to level up so I can beat the boss. How about we do away with all this exp crap and just let ppl play on skill and knowledge? Battles back in the day were limited by tech, but they weren’t limited by loading times and long attack animations, so the grinding was a lot faster then. Still annoying when you play the old games, but nowhere near the wait it takes to grind in modern games.

That’s all I can think of atm, but I’m sure there’s more to it than this. I’ll probably revise this at some point, post a new version. These are my thoughts today. The main problem with newer games is that they’re still doing what the old games are doing, except prettier and slower. I don’t think Metroid: Other M’s story, or most modern games’ for that matter, is half as bad as some of the direction and tech behind it makes it look like. We’re years ahead of the snes, why are we still designing games as if they’re nothing but a graphical 3d upgrade of those games? With the interactive nature of video games, why are the stories still so linear?

Games like Civ and Illuminati end up as a modular story that’s based in the game mechanics. I don’t see why RPGs, shooters, and others couldn’t do the same. Anybody know anybody who does this?

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2 Responses to “Doing it wrong”

  1. Ectogemia said

    Sounds like you need to play more indie games. I lost interest in most new, “commercial” games around the middle of the PS2 era. Go to gametunnel.com for some top PC indie game lists.

    Some games that come to mind that you may be interested in are the Avernum and Nethergate and Geneforge games that Jeff Vogel (Spidweb Software) has been making for the past 20 years. They’re graphically archaic and musically absent but drenched in fantastic gameplay with palpable difficulty and elusive solutions to problems. I think the site is spidweb.com. These are the types of games you either love or hate; if you enjoy your game being a bit of a novel by the same vein as Baldur’s Gate or Planescape, you’d love these. I’ve played through the Avernum games, and I thought they were awesome. Maybe you could give one of Jeff Vogel’s games a shot and see if it is what you were looking for??

  2. Ad said

    I know the Avernum games, I’ve played 1-4 and before then the Exile series (of which the first three Avernums are remakes of). While they’re cool, they could be better. They get the #2 point right, #6 and #7 ok, and while the story is a bit too text-based for my liking the games have a cool story and a cool world. The controls are, because of the turn-based nature, rather limited, and the games require a little too much grinding imo. Wouldn’t hurt to have more fleshed-out characters, either.

    Maybe it’s just that standing and waiting for my turn to attack isn’t my kind of gameplay, and monsters waiting for their turn to attack feels a bit too silly for my taste.

    I know innovation is in the indie market, they just need to get more exposure. And mac ports. 😡

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