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Category Archives: Game design

[Here is one extra post for 2011. Regular updates are not returning.]

Much has been said about the legitimisation of video games as a medium. From countless debates about whether games are art, to just trying to get an uninterested parent/roommate/significant other to see how the latest thing from E3 is so totally amazing and will change everything forever. But one aspect seems missing in gaming culture – the attention paid to the people who make the games themselves.

With movies we care when we hear about the latest from Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan, or with TV shows from Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams. But we don’t care when we just hear Warner Bros. are making a new movie or NBC are making a new show. So why does video game culture focus so much on Sony or Square-Enix instead of the actual people, like the creative leads designing their latest games?

Sure, there’s the occasional figurehead like Shigeru Miyamoto or Peter Molyneux but they tend to gain attention more for PR celebrity than design substance. Not to mention the amount of attention paid to Assassin’s Creed producer Jade Raymond.

Anyway, here’s a convenient list of examples demonstrating why, if you take video games seriously, you should care about the people who actually makes them.

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Stories in games can be good. They should be good. But this list isn’t about the whole – grand scale, interwoven plot threads or dramatic storytelling – this list just about the words that carry the tale.

It’s also worth mentioning this isn’t too definite a top 5 and might be more of a list of games with writing that I personally liked. With that bit of criticism nullification swiftly out of the way, let’s get on with the list!

5. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2 was praised for it’s funny, charming, Whedon-esque dialogue. Unfortunately, as is the nature of the polished “summer blockbuster” style, it doesn’t provoke much thought or emotional response. It does provide enjoyable exposition and likeable characters, however.

This exchange between Nathan Drake and a female companion is mainly what earned it a place on the list:

“So, on a scale on one to ten – how scared were you that I was gonna die?”
“Yeah, why?”
“A four?”
“You were at least an eight.”
“An eight?”
“You were a total eight.”
“An eight? Those Guardian things were an eight.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Yeah, those were terrifying.”
“Then what’s a ten?”
“…Clowns over my death?”
“I, I hate clowns.”
“I hate clowns.”
“Oh my word. You thought I was dead.”
“No, you thought I was gone.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I had you all along.”
“I saw you shed tears. You shed a bunch of ’em.”
“It was raining.”
“No it was not.”
“You were unconscious and it was raining.”
“It was totally sunny out and you were bawling.”
“It wasn’t sunny and you were unconscious.”
“Whatever, I kept your tears in a jar. I have proof.”
“…I’ll give you a five, how’s that?”

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“This game is just unfair! I’m not even sure you can get past this part.”
“What? That bit was easy! There’s no challenge in this game at all.”

Challenge is a tricky term to discuss in video games. We probably all recognise exchanges like the one above, which demonstrate the relative subjectivity of the matter. Balance and difficulty present a complex riddle for game designers.

One of the important factors involved is the “punishment” for failure. Usually the player character will die and be sent back to the last checkpoint. The player then has to replay up to where they were originally.

It’s tempting to say no one likes doing that, but that would be ignoring the fondness for ultra-difficult NES era games and the slightly-more-than-cult following of Demon’s Souls.

But most have probably seen the human reaction when someone watching a game being played loses interest as soon as the player dies and is reset to an earlier position, like you rewound a few minutes of a film they were watching.

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Video games present us with a wealth of futuristic and fantastical technology, some more practical than others. The potential for this tech in the real world could be limitless. Scientists and engineers: These are your future goals!

Things you may expect that didn’t make the list: The gravity gun from Half-Life 2, the Portal Gun from Portal, Metal Gear Solid‘s Stealth Camouflage and…The Portal Gun again.

6. Pokéballs

These hand-held spheres can capture, contain and release Pokémon of any size or weight at the whim of the user. How do they work? Nobody knows!

Does it cryogenically freeze the Pokémon? Does it shrink them? Do they have a little apartment in there with a tiny couch and very-mini-fridge?
Do Pokéballs work on inorganic matter? That would explain how trainers can carry a bicycle in their backpacks.

Either way, think of the real world implications of the mysterious transport devices for zookeepers or for shifting furniture!

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[The following is an incomplete transcript from a Sega meeting in late 1999. The producer went on to work on several other projects.]

18:00 – The meeting begins

Good evening, gentlemen. I’m just a humble PR guy with a producer credit, and I’ve been asked to sit in on this mandatory game design meeting by the folks upstairs. We were happy with your success on Sonic Adventure last year and are interested in what you’re bringing to the table for the sequel:

I might contribute an idea or two, but for the most part, just pretend I’m not here!

…Sorry to interrupt you, I just want to start by saying we’ve looked through this first “level” you’ve designed. With our classic mascot Sonic The Hedgehog jumping out of a helicopter, zooming through a city fighting new robots, skidding down San Francisco inspired streets on a sort of impromptu metal snowboard and running away from a giant truck.

Yeah, that’s all fine. I get that you’re trying to make it faster and more action oriented than the first Sonic Adventure. But all that variance and fun is probably going to stretch the budget a little bit. We need to dial it back a bit.

I mean we certainly aren’t paying for you to program a working camera system!

18:31 – The hook

Look, this is all well and good but we need a hook for this game. To really make people buy the marketing and the game. Hold on! I’ve had an idea! The world is a dark and gritty place filled with children who buy dark and gritty revamps of crap! Let’s make Sonic dark and gritty!

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Watching this video about Kangaroo Rats made me wonder about ecosystems in gaming. Have games ever constructed an environment where such different creatures display interesting behaviours?

This is the level of fleshed out detail that would be ideal for a fantasy game, anything with an original world or even a real world game.

I have heard many a good thing about Beyond Good & Evil along these lines, and I have no idea how well the Playstation 3 title Africa did it.

Naturally, the game that has the most potential for an ecosystem…System – is Pokémon. Imagine being able to see every single creature in the wild, whether in the grass or the water or the air.

All those useless details in the Pokédex could be programmed for part of a complex behaviour system, ecology and interaction.

For example, let’s take some Pokédex entries, from Bulbapedia, about everybody’s least favourite forest-dweller – Pikachu.

  • This intelligent Pokémon roasts hard berries with electricity to make them tender enough to eat.
  • It raises its tail to check its surroundings. The tail is sometimes struck by lightning in this pose.
  • When it is angered, it immediately discharges the energy stored in the pouches in its cheeks.
  • Whenever Pikachu comes across something new, it blasts it with a jolt of electricity. If you come across a blackened berry, it’s evidence that this Pokémon mistook the intensity of its charge.
  • This Pokémon has electricity-storing pouches on its cheeks. These appear to become electrically charged during the night while Pikachu sleeps. It occasionally discharges electricity when it is dozy after waking up.
  • It occasionally uses an electric shock to recharge a fellow Pikachu that is in a weakened state.

Now imagine if you could actually observe these complex reactionary behaviours in-game – with each of the 150 or so Pokémon. It would really make the whole world feel unique and alive. (Maybe if they do a console game with Bioware)

Have you encountered any games with interesting ecosystems?

The plot device wife

Video games evolved beyond the fairytale ‘rescue the princess’, perhaps an attempt to tell more intelligent stories. The problem is that this evolution consists of using ‘loved ones’ as the new ubiquitous carrot on the stick for the protagonist. Usually in the form of wives.

We’re told they’re married. We don’t tend to know anything about this womacguffin or her relationship with the hero. We’re just told ‘wife’ and are expected to infer that as an instant explanation for why the hero loves her so much and is willing to stab Cthulu in the face to “get her back”.

Alan Wake was guilty of this too, despite actually giving Alice some traits and even showing her together with Alan in normality. She still just became another princess to rescue. While on the other hand Red Dead Redemption arguably sidestepped this problem.

Now, mainstream video games admittedly aren’t perfect for portraying complex romantic relationships. Unless you’re really into dating sims. But would it hurt to write a spouse as something other than motivation?


Halo 2 is the obvious and classic example of this, but I believe there are much worse offenders. Usually from the “We haven’t released the first game nor have we seen how its been received critically or commercially – but we’re doing a trilogy!” crowd.

That means you, Assassin’s Creed and Gears of War. Both with stories that leave more unexplained and unsatisfied than a season of Lost.

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Everyone who played Red Dead Redemption has their favourite little moments, be it stepping out onto the plains in Mexico to the tune of Far Away by Jose Gonzalez, or that ending. I’ve talked about the game pretty often too.

There was one thing I haven’t seen anybody mention though. Something that provoked an emotional reaction in me. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if anyone else noticed or even cared. Maybe it was one of those new-fangled personal “interpretation” things.

As you likely know, the whole game is about the end of the Wild West. It’s the historical setting, it’s reflected in the story of John Marston and many characters comment on it.

But despite the talk of oncoming civilisation, the game really succeeds at making you feel like you’re in the old classic Wild West. The animals, the sort-of-lawlessness, the weapons and the accents. Most important to me though – was the setting.

From the Mexican architecture and vistas (as seen in Fistful of Dollars) to the dusty little towns like Armadillo (pictured above) that perfectly matched everything we ever saw in the movies. Tumbleweed and all.

Then you show up in Blackwater in the third act. You ride your horse into town for the first time in-game. There’s no cinematic fanfare, no special music, no in-game commentary.

You just cross from dirt to paved streets. The clippity-clop of horseshoes suddenly has a different sound. You’re surrounded by brick buildings in perfectly straight streets. There’s pavements, lampposts, uniformed police officers, telephone lines and a car.

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Is this a real photo of the Korengal valley in winter or a screenshot from the new Medal of Honor?

It always bothered me whenever games journalists or gamers lamented the cancellation of Six Days in Fallujah. Or when they discussed how the new Medal of Honor could have said something profound and taught us about the war in Afghanistan – after the controversy of Taliban character models in the multiplayer.

I wondered. Did you see the gameplay footage? Have you played any military shooters lately?

I mean, you do realise that real war isn’t aiming through an EOTech sight and shooting heads with an assault rifle on full auto from ten yards away? Right?

So, just in case it actually needs to be said:

(You don’t have to be a military expert, but you can read a book or two.)

Snake shows off his usual trigger discipline while methodically examining his new (and detailed) rifle.

It genuinely worries me that Metal Gear Solid 4 (You know, the one with the magical nanomachines and the unmanned bipedal tanks that moo) has more realistic use of weaponry and military accuracy than most of these shooters.

It similarly worries me that the totally off-the-rails, anime-styled, strategy JRPG Valkyria Chronicles explored the responsibility of command and realities of war better than most shooters this side of Brothers In Arms.

Those gray pixels to the right are an enemy very far away.

You do get games like the cripplingly flawed ArmA 2 (a self-titled ‘military simulator’) that actually features realistically long-range combat, the possibility of one stray bullet ending you, the use of vehicles, calling in airstrikes and actually operating in a squad or platoon.

Naturally, this game gets totally ignored by game journalists. Being that it’s PC exclusive and didn’t review well – that is to be expected.

To be clear – unrealistic war games are fine and a lot of real soldiers enjoy them too. But it is possible to make a realistic, intelligent and respectful war game. One that can inform us non-combatants about the reality of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Yes, that's Nero with a gravity gun arm.

It’s surprising that no “stylish action” games (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, etc.) has utilised a mechanic akin to the gravity gun of Half-Life 2 fame.

There’s always debris and assorted objects around either in the ruined environments or left over from the combat. It could add to combo meters and help make the battles even more fluid and stylish. And the extra demands of physics engines aren’t unreasonable for games like that.

For the sake of example, let’s take Nero (Photoshopped above) from Devil May Cry 4.  Nero has a demonic arm known as the Devil Bringer. Bear with me on this.
Using the Devil Bringer usually involves the appearance of a larger spectral version of the arm. The spectral arm can stretch, offering long range capability. This allows Nero to grab enemies from afar and to use the arm like a grappling hook. So, Nero is perfect for picking up random objects to hurl at enemies.

Now how it would work needs to be considered. It could be exactly like the gravity gun and suddenly switch to first person mode. But that might be a little jarring, and Devil May Cry likes its fixed camera angles. So, instead, it could just be a crosshair used to select what you want to pick up, as well as the enemy you want to throw it at.

So as not to break up the timing, the game would go into very slow motion, Modern Warfare style, whenever you activate the gravity-gun-style mechanic. Naturally, getting hit by an enemy would cancel you out of this. This would all need to be balanced perfectly to give players just enough time to select their makeshift weapon and the enemy they want to hit with it.

One drawback is the likelihood of it slowing down the gameplay too much. In a series based around constant slashing and perfect reflexes, slowing down and giving the player time to breathe mid-combo might just be a little too out of sync with their design. Although it might work in real time with an automatic lock-on based on simple directional controls, similar to aiming Dante’s guns in Devil May Cry 3.

Whether it would fit with that particular series or not, it’s just surprising not to see that kind of idea attempted in a modern action game. I think it could be pretty fun.

(Click here for previous game mechanic idea!)