From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

20170607180220_1.jpg

Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

20170607172620_1.jpg

There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

Control Freak

download

I’ve been beating this drum for a while, now, but controls are one of the biggest things for me in a game.  One of the biggest indicators of whether I’ll enjoy it or not.  Which is a little unusual, in that controls are only one aspect of what makes a game great.  And yet, no matter how good the rest of the design is, if the controls aren’t there, I’m just not going to enjoy the game.

Video games are all about placing the player into whatever the game world is.  Maybe the world is just full of goons that need to be shot/beat/stealth romanced/whatever.  Maybe it’s full of block that need to be slid into place.  Maybe it’s just full of people who like to talk.  Whatever it is, the player’s ability to interact with that environment is what video games are built on.  That is the foundation for the house that is vidcons.  And the game controls are the mechanism for that interaction.

Which is not to say that just because a game has good controls, it’ll be a good game.  But generally, if they’ve got the attention to detail to make the game control smooth, keep any necessary menus streamlined, and, in general, ensure the interface is working right, they’ve got the attention to detail that would make the rest of the features work, as well.  Good controls are a sign that the developer has their heads on right, and that leads pretty naturally to a quality experience.

Bad controls don’t mean that a game is all out awful, either.  The Walking Dead still gets rave reviews, after all.  It does really drag down the quality when gameplay is given more than a cursory focus.  Your controls are the foundation for our gameplay, if they’re not working, nothing else is.  Poor control means all your well-designed battles turn to ash, all your platforming is worth than worthless, and there’s just not a good time to be had.  Poor controls creates a barrier between the player and your game, keeps them away from all the actions and good times they should be having.

Super Mario 64 (U).png

For a case study, just look at Super Mario 64.  The original version was deservedly one of the best games of its era, and even now has aged a lot better than it has any right to.  Nintendo created a thing of beauty when they had very little to go on for this type of game, and it shows.  Then look at Super Mario 64 DS.  Same game.  A bit of stuff added, but largely the same levels, same challenges, same all around build.  Except for one thing.  The controls.  The controls were never going to match up, what with having to use a pad in a game built for a stick, but they somehow got even looser than expected.  The game itself?  Largely average, and the drop in quality is all down to the poor controls.

And like it always does, even science is backing it up.  An Oxford study a few years back found that most of those angry, aggressive feelings after playing a game?  Well “If the structure of a game or the design of the controls thwarts enjoyment, it is this not the violent content that seems to drive feelings of aggression.”  It’s not fun when a game is working against you.  When the controls themselves set you up to fail.  And that can be the ruin of many a good game.

Movies in my Games? The Power of Video Game Cinematography

I used to hate when people would treat the creation of video games the same way as the creation of movies.  It used to pop up all the time in the schlock gamingsphere, because, well, back when the veil was still first being pulled back, that was all people had to compare it to.  It’s the only other primarily visual-creative industry of similar size and undertaking, games have a lot more similarity to movies than, say, sculpture, early on in the industry it was a lot of ex-film types really driving things, etc.  Still, that just led to a lot of oversimplifications and false equivalences.  So every time someone on the internet was like “hey, could you imagine if movies were like 90% fight scenes the way gaaaaaames are?” I just died a little inside.

Nowadays, I’m starting to wonder if game developers aren’t learning enough from the film industry.

So let’s talk cutscenes.  Some people don’t like ‘em, some people don’t mind them, some people might rightfully claim they’re overused or used poorly, but frankly, they’re just going to be a fact of life as long as games try to have a structured narrative and deliver events outside what’s strictly interactable to the player.  But some games make them suck.  Some games put you through a lot of straight boring cutscenes.  And you know what, it’s probably not the content itself.  I’m starting to think it’s really just the way the scenes are presented.  The cinematography.

429380100_640.jpg

I remember the first time I realized the impact cinematography could have on a game’s cutscenes.  It was Yakuza 2.  That game has a scene about 3/4s of the way through where they draw some of the major players together, sit them down around a table, and they just talk.  For a good 10-15 minutes.  No fighting, no action, not even any real twists or surprises given.  It’s just a bunch of dudes and dudettes making plans.  And it’s not boring.  It should be the most out of place thing in what’s otherwise a sandbox action game, it should be just a big delay in what’s otherwise a high-tension packed plot, but the developers keep it from being boring.

It’s all because of the cinematography.  The people sitting around talking may not be doing any real action, but the scene is still full of activity.  The camera’s always swooping, panning, and scrolling.  The characters fidget, nurse their cigarettes, and physically expressing themselves.  Even if that motion is not really leading anywhere, the scene is absolutely filled with it.  The scene incorporates a lot of elements you’d normally see in film, where the actors deliver a bit of nuance or, at the least, visual interest through simple actions while they talk, and the direction uses camera movements to instill a sense of action and energy where otherwise there is none.

Compare that to something like the Elder Scrolls, where plot developments are largely given to you by means of a single Bethesdaface yakking at you with a single expression on his face, filling your screen.  While you could deliver the same dialogue in exactly the same way, the amount of engagement, what you’d really need, is completely different.  Hell, just compare Metal Gear Solid to itself.  Kojima’s a former film dude, he knows the rules of cinematography, and that really shows in the cutscenes.  But then they decide that’s enough work for them, and go to the codec screens to talk to you about the Lolly who Lays Low, and then you just sit on one hand and down your drink with the other while the game Speak-and-Spells to you.  Not the best way to deliver that espionage action.

Yakuza_5_body_2.jpg

I’ve been playing through Yakuza 5, and it’s clear that whoever handles cinematography for the series has not lost his touch.  Yakuza has a lot of plot just delivered through dialogue, you guys.  Even more so than already texty series like Mass Effect.  And if this game handled dialogue the way Mass Effect does, by just having a few static camera angles read to you, it would be interminable.  Would really drain the impact of the scene, if, when they’re dropping those plotbombs on you, nobody had any real reaction, and the camera wasn’t imparting any real import to them.  But with the cinematography they show, especially in these dialogue-heavy scenes, they’re able to capture your interest and keep your attention going right on the points they want to.  The Yakuza series has some of the best cinematography in gaming, and that is one thing I really wish more games would pick up.  It’s a thing of beauty, and this cinematography lets them pull of the type of stories that would be horribly suited to the medium otherwise.

The Survival Horror Balancing Act

Ever since survival horror became a thing, video games and horror have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Like cheese and wine.  Like me and everyone else’s girlfriends.  The inherent nature of video games lends a lot of tools that really compliment the necessary design for good horror.  The immersion.  The unpredictability.  The lack of story compression.  It’s ironic that a genre once defined by its mimicry of film elements has so quickly developed into something all its own.

slus-21244-game-ss-3

I played Fatal Frame 3 recently.  It scared me.  Well, until the last few chapters at least.  And in a totally manly way, that reflects no weakness on my part, of course.  It also made me wonder at how long it’s been since I’ve actually felt that kind of tension from a game.  Most of the big publishers have been going for more of an action horror ever since RE4 rocked the world, with even Shinji Mikami’s efforts to bring survival horror back to its base in Evil Within seeming to hew too close to the action side.  The action horror just doesn’t bring the same level of stress so necessary to horror.  The indies have been filling the gaps, but personally, I don’t think I’ve come across an indie game that quite gets the survival horror mix right.

Horror is not an easy thing to deliver.  I’ve tried.  That work will never see the light of day.  And horror in video game form requires a very specific mix of elements that seems to be increasingly difficult to get right as the medium goes on.

RE-002_bmp_jpgcopy.0.jpg

The big thing at the center of video game horror is stress.  Which is kind of counter intuitive with most games, as stressing out the player is a sign you’re doing something wrong.  In survival horror, though, that’s central to the experience.  A lot of it should come from having some sort of empathy with your central character who’s in this situation so above them, hence why your character’s are always pretty weak and generic rather than being a true doom murderhead like me, but what’s unique about video games is that a lot of this stress gets imposed directly onto the player as well.  Necessary resources are always scarce, controls are deliberately clumsy, and viewpoints are pretty limited.  You end up having the player fight with the mechanics as much as the character fights with the terrors facing them.  Having your character comparatively weak to the enemies they’re facing is a big one, but you, the player, are weakened as well.  Taken outside its context, this would make for an absolutely horrible time, but because the goal of these games are not to be fun, but to fill your pants with dread, they get to use that as part of the experience they’re building.

The stress has to be very carefully managed, however.  That’s part of why the good survival horror games are so slow, and work entirely at the player’s pace, because it’s easier to manage the necessary stress that way.  You want a slow buildup there.  Time to realize that the next room may have a whole bunch of enemies and you’re down to your last healing energy drink.  You need to be able to suffer from the poor controls and camera angles without being overwhelmed.  You need to be pressed to the limit, ever fearing that last nudge that will push you over, but then taken back some so that being at the edge doesn’t grow stale.  And you need to be very, very careful not to push the stress too far.  It is so easy for that level of stress to rise from the tension necessary in good horror to frustration, killing the mood of the game.  A death is a pretty common trigger for that, not only breaking the immersion but providing a relief to the pending fear in the form of anger as the player now has to deal with the punishment that comes with the failure state.  Survival horror has a very thin line that it has to walk in order to be effective, and good designers both guide and push the player along it, keeping them at just the level of stress necessary.

Jamesvspatient

Most of the modern games I’ve played seem to have lost that balance entirely.  Usually it’s on the side of not building enough tension in the first place.  Now that the genre’s making way for action horror, most of the stress built is instantly relieved just by blasting away at your foe.  The big problem is not just that you can kill your enemies, but you can kill them comfortably.  Fighting them doesn’t have as much pressure when you’re carrying an arsenal and every fight is not this whole new struggle.  And not only does the pressure not get built up in the first place, you get immediate relief by overcoming it, so things don’t get built from conflict to conflict.  Also, it’s a little hard to be scared on behalf of your character when your character is such a badass.

So far, a lot of the indies I’ve played seem to take it too far in the opposite direction, going for an even longer game than standard survival horror, and not building enough tension up in the first place.  I know I’m going to have to hand in my keys to the internet for saying so, but this was my big problem with Amnesia.  You play that game for so much time without much happening, that any sort of threat the intro and mystery builds up just fades with time.  A lot of indie horrors focus on the more puzzle/adventure aspect that comes in with the genre, and you do want to give them that, as well as give them time to absorb the story and get the suspense built up.  But suspense and fear come from two different sources of tension, and any attempts to induce one will fall flat if efforts up to now were largely towards building up the other.

I’m sure there are still some good examples of classic, solid, fearful survival horror out there.  I just personally haven’t played any that have come out since the PS2 era.  And there’s a reason for that.  It’s just so hard to get the balance for horror quite right.  It takes a lot of personality put into the game, a lot of preparation for the player’s actions, and a lot of manipulation of the player without letting them onto it.  It seems to become a much rarer form that those who do undertake this endeavor do so well.

A New Eden Intermission

Hey!  It’s the holidays!  At least in America, everyone’s taking a break for Thanksgiving weekend.  Including me.  So I thought I’d give the characters in my learning to draw experiment a rest as well, and just post a bit of concept material for the story.

I’m a fair bit ahead of where we’ve gotten through the posts in New Eden, and it’s time for me to introduce a new character.  I’m having a lot of difficulty settling on a design.  I’ve sketched out a few possibilities, and thought I’d show the most likely one here.

DSCN0354

If you’ve been following along as I’ve been posting, you may have noticed I’m not really all that great at body proportions.  This design is my attempt to get more practice in that area.  He’s based on Greek statuary, which were built with a very specific set of proportion.  I don’t think I’ve got it exactly right here, but hey, that’s what the practice is for.  I’m not completely enthralled with this design.  I still think it’s got just a little too much going on, and the toga bottom and sash going up the side of the body throw a lot of the balance off.  Still, I thought I’d throw this design to the mercy of the internet as I work on improving it.  So hey, if you have any feedback on it, now’s the time.

Better Art Beats Better Graphics

evolution-of-mario

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to draw better.  I picked up some basic erasers, a cheap sketchpad, and three grades of pencils.  Essentially, I had could produce one shade of light tones, one shade of middle tones, and one shade of dark tones with the tools that I had.  I stuck with those tools for a while, building up my skills.   I largely ignored any sense of color variation and shading, and just used the light pencil for basic sketching and detailing, the mid-pencil for tracing over my sketch lines and making them more visible, and the dark pencil for areas that were supposed to be black.  My drawings remained pretty rudimentary, limited by both my selection of pencils and my uses of them.

One Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a set of shading pencils as a gift.  Ten pencils of progressing gradients from 2H (relatively light) to 8B (really, really dark).  At first, I had no idea what to do with them.  I had no idea how to properly work shading into my pictures, and just drawing minorly different shades of lines didn’t seem that useful to me.  I kept experimenting, though, and once I learned how to properly use them in my drawings, well… I essentially went from drawing like this:

Death and Bunny

to drawing like this:

Unto the Breach

in a relatively short amount of time.  Those pencils not only gave me different shades to work with, they allowed me to use different techniques, to truly advance my artistic skills.  Sure, I could have just used them as I did my old pencils, and my pictures would have been a slight bit better, but it wasn’t until I started using them to do something new that I truly reached the next generation of my work.

The recent launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 has given me cause to reflect on that.  Just like I was when I received those new pencils, game designer should now have access to more tools to create their art than ever before.  Yet, if they just keep doing the same things with them, like if I had just used those new pencils for drawing lines, the eighth generation of consoles will be totally wasted.

Graphics get a lot of play when talking about, well, pretty much any console advancement, for solid reasons.  Evaluating a game’s worth solely by its graphics is about as dumb as evaluating an actor’s skill solely by how good he looks.  After all, I’m not the world’s greatest actor, am I?  However, there’s no denying that graphics have a universal appeal and can be markedly impressive.

Thing is, graphics are only as impressive as the work that they are used to produce.  The PS4 may be able to show 16 million colors at once, but if all of them are brown your game’s just going to look like a piece of crap.  Good graphics cannot stand alone; if you want to make a game’s visuals truly engaging, art style is key.  Graphical power is just a tool, like a pencil, to adequately display your art.

You could have the best graphics in the world, yet if your settings aren’t vibrant, your characters aren’t visually interested, and your cutscenes aren’t expressive, what is it even work.  A bland, drab landscape is never going to be interesting, no matter how high you turn up the fidelity.

Graphical power is just one more tool in the artist’s workstation.  In and of itself, it’s next to worthless.  It’s only once you learn to use it, once you’re able to add to your designs rather than simply doing what you’ve always done in higher resolution, that you’re truly creating better visuals.

As proof, I’m going to take a page out of Mental Gaming‘s book and show you some landscapes.  All of these are from games on non-HD consoles, yet the artistry on display on these makes them much more visually interesting than anything you’re likely to find in Battlefield Duty 8: Call of Honor 2 or whatever.

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Baten Kaitos Origins

Baten Kaitos Origins

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X

Okami

Okami

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com