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LPing is Hard

Hey, do you guys watch Game Grumps? I do. I love JonTron, I love Egoraptor, and I think their Let’s Play show is great so far. I’m especially loving their playthrough of Sonic 2006. I had no idea how bewildering the game is. It’s like every single level has at least one thing horribly, hilariously wrong with it.

Recently a lot of Game Grumps fans have become frustrated by the Sonic ’06 playthrough. I’ve noticed many comments on Youtube and the GameGrumps subreddit complaining about them missing obvious hints about where to go and what to do, and then getting stuck. Here’s an example from today…

In the episode they don’t know what to do when they get to the water. They know Silver (the character they’re playing as) has telekinetic powers, but they don’t know how to use that to get across a very long jump. They try lifting a crate and moving it across with them on top, but it wouldn’t go far enough, and the crates don’t float above the water, so they just die as soon as their power runs out.

When you first reach that point, Silver says “I think I can knock that structure down.” He says it once, without warning. He doesn’t repeat it unless you die and get to that point in the level again. This happened. I think it popped up a total of three times. What this means is that you’re supposed to throw a crate at the wooden structure-thing far ahead of you, which will knock it down so you can jump onto the platform.

So people on Youtube and Reddit tell them they’re idiots for not noticing it.

Here’s the thing. I used to get angry about stuff like this too. I used to get so frustrated whenever (say) Josh on Spoiler Warning made some stupid mistake or couldn’t tell where he was supposed to go even though it was obvious. It used to make my blood boil. “I know he’s a smart guy, how can he not see this shit?!”

Then I tried making my own LP, and I realized that it’s harder than it looks to us viewers. As a viewer, all you’re doing is watching and listening. Jon and Arin are watching, playing the game, having a conversation with a friend, and making sure they aren’t being too boring for the show. You have to divide your attention between your game, your friend, and your show. If you focus on the game, your show will be boring. If you focus on providing entertainment for your audience, then, well, you’ll make stupid mistakes in the game now and then, as Jon and Arin do.

This is harder than it sounds. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. I have, and I can attest that it requires a lot of practice to make your show anywhere near watchable while also not completely fucking up in the game. But if you’ve never done it, it’s impossible to tell from watching.

Now, as for this particular problem Jon and Arin ran into, let’s consider the following:

  • As I said before, Silver only makes the comment about “knocking down a structure” once. Well, once per life spent.
  • Most of the tips in Sonic ’06 are vague at best and flat-out useless at worst. And if we’re talking about what Sonic (or Silver, or any other player character) says out loud, well, I can’t tell you how many times he says something stupid and unhelpful. It’s no use!
  • This is the first time the game has ever required you to knock down any structure whatsoever.
  • The structure is pretty damn far away from the platform you’re on, and it doesn’t really stand out. Hell, I saw Silver’s “hint,” and I wasn’t even sure what they needed to do until they spent several minutes trying to figure it out.

So yeah, if anybody is willing to say this is completely Jon and Arin’s fault rather than the game having bad presentation and horrible design, then I’m not sure what to say to that.

As I said at the beginning, I’m a fan of the show, and I’ll admit that that probably affects my reaction to all this. But I’m also speaking as someone who’s tried his hand at LPing, and I can tell you it’s tough work to do well. It’s easy to think someone is an idiot because he made some stupid mistakes in his LP, but remember that playing a game for a co-commentator LP is very, very different from playing a game by yourself, for yourself.

Also, merry Christmas, I guess.


I Can Too Make Games

Okay, this has been garnering a lot of attention in the indie scene lately, but assuming you’re not a shut-in like me, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it yet, so…

Richard Perrin, indie game designer, made this video to convince more people who would love to start making games but are terrified of the alleged workload and learning curve behind it (people like me) to start trying. As well as giving tips and telling us that it isn’t as hard to start as we think it is, he lists various free game design tools that can be found on the Web. It’s an extremely useful video, and I’m glad I watched it.

However, the reason I saw it in the first place is because of a Gamasutra article written by Aleksander Adamkiewicz called “No, You Can’t Make Video Games.” It’s a strange article written by someone who seems to be very cynical about the creative process. Here’s one quote that perplexed me:

“The medium doesn’t need the noise of more 8bit platformers and sprite-based nostalgia-driven RPGs without other merit than ‘HEY GUYS, REMEMBER FINAL FANTASY!?’ Be honest Richard, you wouldn’t want to play these games, nobody would, even the creator wouldn’t.”

Have you ever read anything more snobby?

His stance seems to be that if there’s a chance you might not succeed at first, then you’re definitely not cut out for it and you shouldn’t try. He clarifies at one point that he doesn’t want to stop people from trying, but that statement is contradicted by other things he says in his article.

This guy would make the worst teacher ever.

Another quote:

“Richard, I’m really not averse towards the “hands on” approach to learning, but fucking around in Unity will not make a game, and won’t make you a game designer. The same way fucking around in Photoshop will not make art, fucking around in iMovie will not make a movie, and fucking around with Word will not make a novel.”

I think there’s a clear misunderstanding here. Adamkiewicz thinks Perrin is telling everyone how they’re going to make the next Bioshock or Mass Effect, when Perrin’s really only explaining how people can get started. It’s like criticizing an artist for telling people to start painting by saying “fucking around with a brush isn’t going to make the Mona Lisa.”

Adamkiewicz mentions at one point that he “tried” making games awhile ago using RPG maker, and that his creations were allegedly bad. I’m sorry to hear that, but you make mistakes so that you can learn from them. Something tells me this guy is upset about his own failed attempts at game-making, and so he’s taking out his frustrations on this Perrin guy, who thinks people have the potential to make games.

And once people started calling him out, he had to backpedal, hence the update he posted saying “Guys, I’m not saying don’t try, and I’m not saying this, and I’m not saying that…”
Even though he basically did.

The article itself is rather unpleasant, but it’s refreshing to see the backlash to it. Various indie game designers on Twitter have called the Gamasutra article out on its bullshit, and Perrin has written his own response post on his blog.

In particular, I really like some of the things Sophie Houlden has said on her Twitter:

that “you can’t make games” article is such bullshit. the author should feel ashamed, especially if they care about games.

who the hell is he to say people can’t make games? everyone that makes awesome games started out shit. it’s called determination, fuckbrain.

saying not everyone can make games is a massive insult to those of us who have spent YEARS developing our skills. talent is a myth.

You know what? This is the exact kind of motivation I’ve needed for awhile now. I mean, yes, becoming a good game developer is going to take a long time, but nothing worth doing can be done easily.

I’m going to start making games.

After looking over the tools Perrin suggested, I’ve downloaded Construct, Ren’Py, and sfxr. I’m going to start by making a simple platformer on Construct. I honestly do not have a thorough idea of what I’m going to make, but I’m going to delve right in, open up a tutorial or two, and start learning.

I know how bad I am about sticking with things if I don’t make a schedule for myself, so I’m gonna make a deal. Starting tomorrow I will work on game-making stuff for at least one hour each day, and I will post an update about it here every two days. If I fail to deliver on this, please yell at me on my Twitter or something.

I’m going to start making games.


My Take On “Fun”

Here’s the latest episode of Errant Signal, from Chris Franklin. I’m a fan of his show, as I’ve said before, but I feel kind of ambivalent toward this video.

I actually had a debate with my brother Josh about this exact topic awhile ago. I’ve always been one to claim that Games Must Be Fun, and my brother argued that this mentality is holding gaming back as a narrative medium (basically the exact same point Chris starts arguing at around the 4 minute mark in his video).

One particular point Josh made was, “We don’t have the same expectation for movies.”

My response was, “Actually, yeah, I do.”

Josh: “Didn’t you say your favorite movie was Fight Club? You wouldn’t call that movie ‘fun,’ would you?”

Me: “I… I think I would.”

And I think that really exemplified the crux of the argument. It isn’t a problem with the mentality with which we approach games; it’s a problem with semantics. When I say that games must be fun, what I mean is that games must not be boring. And I stand by that point. If a game is boring, it has failed. The same goes for movies, books, TV shows, etc. It’s the cardinal sin for any medium of entertainment — if it’s boring, that means I’m not engaged and my time is being wasted.

I suppose you could say my definition of “fun” is basically synonymous with “satisfying.” If I say a game is fun, that means I felt satisfied with it after playing it.

The example Chris used for why this is a problem is with Dead Rising. He said gamers hated and complained about Dead Rising only featuring one save file, even though the game did that specifically to force you to make and live through tough decisions. My response would be that Dead Rising’s save feature arguably wouldn’t necessarily lower the ‘fun’ rating for the game if it did achieve its goal. It was designed to heighten tension, and tension can make a game more fun if done properly, at least for me.

I never played Dead Rising, but while I generally despise games that don’t let me save freely and in at least two separate slots, I could see merit in Dead Rising’s approach. After all, I also generally hate games that don’t let you quicksave, but I think Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s lack of quicksaving really heightened the suspense and the horror. If I could have quicksaved, jumped out to see where the monster was and then jammed F9 just before it killed me, I think that would have effectively made the game less fun for me.

I think the problem stems from my and many others’ definition of fun being fundamentally different from Chris’s, Josh’s, and many others’ definition of fun. I guess the easy solution to this would be consulting the dictionary, but I don’t think that will actually change things.

Mind you, I’m not in any way trying to disqualify the validity of Chris’s video. I still think it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss. Semantic arguments are the absolute worst arguments to be part of, but they still need to happen now and again. That’s how language works.


Genre Names Are Weird

So, the latest Jimquisition is about the term “art games,” and why it is not a broken term and does not need to be done away with. He makes a good case, and I absolutely agree with him.

The main argument against the term is that calling some games “art games” implies that not all games are art, and that games not classified in that genre aren’t art. That isn’t really the case, as Jim points out.

It reminds me of a conversation I had at college a few years ago. I was sitting with some acquaintances who were talking enthusiastically about some fighting game. Eventually I said, “To be honest, I just don’t really like fighting games.”

I got a bunch of weird, surprised looks from them, but one person in particular seemed shocked. He said something like, “You don’t like any of them? Not even, like, Call of Duty?”

Then everyone gave him a weird look. One of us had to explain that the term “fighting game” doesn’t just refer to all games that involve fighting; they’re specifically games centered around a one-on-one brawl between two characters standing in an arena of sorts, probably with absurdly proportioned bodies and dressed in their underpants if they’re women.

Going off-track. Anyway, if what these people say is true, that calling some games “art games” implies that they’re the only games with any artistic merit, we’d also have to discredit “fighting games” as a term, because most games are about fighting.

I guess Jim’s video reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile: video game genres have weird names, and sometimes the way we classify them is strange and contradictory.

Some genres are defined by their mechanics or how you play them. Fighting games, as I said, are games that have one-on-one brawls between two characters etc. Strategy games are games about controlling a veritable army with troops and headquarters, and that’s kind of a broad term used for a specific genre again, since you could argue that there’s plenty of strategy to be found in a competitive Street Fighter 4 match. Tactical shooters are shooters that employ realistic elements like iron sights, low damage threshold, and accuracy reduction from movement, which seems to imply that unrealistic run-and-gun shooters don’t involve tactics (they often do).

Then there are genres that aren’t defined by mechanics, but by the emotions they’re meant to elicit. Survival horror, for instance, is meant to engender fear and survival instinct from the player. This can be achieved using any game mechanics the designer chooses, which is why Sweet Home, Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are all considered part of the same genre despite playing very differently from one another. There’s also the label of “party game,” which can refer to all sorts of games that are designed for casual multiplayer.

The other big argument against the label of Art Game is that it’s very vaguely defined. That also doesn’t really hold up, because there are other genre names we use that are also very difficult to provide a strict definition for.

The big one, of course, is the RPG, or Role-Playing Game. If you take it by its literal definition it means games that involve roleplaying. (That also requires us to choose a definition for “roleplaying,” because that can technically refer to any game in which you play a role, which would be basically every game ever.) In reality, it refers to games ranging from Diablo to Elder Scrolls to Final Fantasy to Mass Effect, which seem to have little in common with one another when you look at their actual mechanics.

Since the genre evolved from Dungeons & Dragons, ultimately it refers to any game that resembles D&D to any significant degree. Mass Effect doesn’t play anything like D&D, but it involves creating a character, and making choices that define your character’s personality (that’s that roleplaying we discussed earlier) and impact the world around you. Final Fantasy doesn’t have anything like that, but it does have turn-based combat built around commanding each member of party of adventurers. Diablo and Skyrim don’t have that, but they do have exploring, leveling-up, and looting epic gear.

I think the bottom line is that while genres can be hard to classify and sometimes the classifications sound strange or meaningless, that doesn’t discount them as labels. If we all know what I’m talking about when I say “fighting game” or “art game,” then the system is working. If a term becomes particularly outdated, it will probably die away overtime. (Remember how we all used to call first person shooters Doom clones?)

As a final point, I’d like to add that this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to video games. You can probably look up any number of music forums right now and find a heated debate about whether or not KoRn can be legitimately classified as a “metal” band.

And to anyone who’s curious, the Diablo 3 post is coming. It’s… taking awhile.


Voice Acting

The stream today has been cancelled. I know, I just ruined your day. I’m sorry. Don’t blame me; blame the construction workers stomping all over the roof of my house. I’m working tomorrow, so we’re shooting for Saturday, 5 PM Central Standard Time.

So I figured that since we’re not streaming Morrowind, I’ll write a post tangentially related to Morrowind instead — specifically, the inclusion of voice acting in dialogue.

I’ve heard arguments surrounding the fact that most RPGs these days have all the dialogue fully voice acted. Some people say it’s unnecessary and detrimental, since it’s a big money sink and limits the freedom that the dialogue writers have.

The thing is, I agree that it costs a lot of time and money, and it is important to cut corners where you can, but after playing Morrowind I have to say that I’m glad games these days have voice acting. There’s something terribly off-putting about the lack of voices in Morrowind. But strangely enough, I’m never bothered by this in other old games like Final Fantasy VI. Why is that?

Here’s my theory…

Whether it be an isometric game like Final Fantasy or a sidescroller like Cave Story, 2D games are generally not meant to perfectly resemble reality. It’s fairly obvious that this is not how the world would actually look if this were real; it’s just there to visually represent the scene.

It’s an abstract and somewhat arbitrary representation, like the tabletop grid you use for D&D. I generally don’t lose my suspension of disbelief when I notice that the little figurines aren’t talking, and I don’t expect the cartoony sprites in Final Fantasy to talk or emote either.

The recent indie rhythm game Sequence had fully voiced dialogue, and it felt strange and almost out-of-place to me. It was quality voice acting, don’t get me wrong, but since the characters were essentially cardboard cut-outs, it just seemed unnecessary.

Morrowind, on the other hand, is obviously meant to mimic what the scene would look like if this were real. Everything is built in its proper size, and characters [are supposed to] move and emote as if they were actual people. Yes, it’s a fantasy world, but it’s constructed and presented to look real, horribly grotesque faces notwithstanding.

As such, it’s very jarring when you go to talk to an NPC and he just stares at you blankly while you read a text wall. It’s reminiscent of the Uncanny Valley. It doesn’t feel right, and it serves to remind you that this is all fake and that you’re in a video game.

Making everything voice-acted gets expensive and restrictive when you’re dealing with a huge game like Skyrim. But the way I see it, it’s not just a nice touch. It’s not just an improvement. When you’re dealing with a 3D game in this style, it’s a necessity, and should be regarded as such.

I’m certainly not criticizing Morrowind for not having voice acting. It wasn’t the norm to have everything voiced at the time of release, and I understand that. But in this day and age, it’s just something you have to have, and for good reason.


2011: NGD’s GOTY

I sure do love me some acronyms.

You know, for awhile I was all but certain Deus Ex: Human Revolution was going to win the prize for my Game of the Year (the value of that prize being somewhere in the negative zone). I loved that damn game. I even said it was better than the original Deus Ex.

But looking back on it, I think I may have jumped the gun. DX:HR had far more refined and functional gameplay than DX1, especially in the stealth department. I still stand by that statement. It also had a fun hacking minigame and a shockingly interesting and intuitive persuasion system. But on the whole, I just feel like it wasn’t quite as memorable as DX1. HR does pose some very interesting questions surrounding the concept of transhumanism, but DX1 had a myriad of ethical dilemmas and a wonderfully complex web of conspiracies, and I still rate the ending as the best ending of any game ever, and a perfect example of how to do the whole Big Ending Choice trope correctly.

I think the reason I loved DX:HR so much was because it’s such a perfect fit for me that I sometimes wonder if Eidos Montreal made the game specifically for me. It’s a stealth/shooter RPG set in a cyberpunk dystopia where you get to jump abnormally high, backstab unsuspecting guards, and wear a badass coat. I honestly can’t imagine anything that would be more appealing to me personally, except maybe if it also featured space pirates or ninjas. But it seems like nobody else liked the game quite as much as I did, and I guess that’s fair enough. Maybe it wasn’t that amazing.

But hey, you know what was kind of amazing? Bastion. A brilliant independent action-RPG with a virtually unprecedented art style and method of storytelling, one that presents a thoroughly fleshed-out world and an engaging, sometimes heart-wrenching narrative while rarely interrupting the flow of gameplay. This game took a lot of risks and played with a lot of big ideas, and it’s refreshing to see how well it sold and how much acclaim it received.

Honorable mention goes to Portal 2 and Skyrim. They were both great, if for very different reasons, but I think Bastion deserves the pedestal today.


Sequelitis – Mega Man X

Hey, remember Egoraptor? The guy who made Metal Gear Awesome? Well, it turns out he has a lot of valuable insight about game design.

In this case he’s talking about Mega Man X, and why it evidently makes him scream in ecstasy.

It probably seems odd that I approve so much of a video where he complains about tutorial prompts, since I’ve railed against the idea that teaching the player is a bad thing. But he makes a very strong point: if a game is good enough, and straightforward enough, it doesn’t need to tell you anything for you to learn.

Here’s my ranking system for conveyance of a game’s mechanics, from worst to best.

Worst: Don’t convey your mechanics at all, so that the player is forced to read a manual or look up a guide. This used to happen a lot. Ultima IV is probably the worst offender I’ve ever seen. A close second might be Minecraft, since that game doesn’t even ship with a manual.

Let me make my stance clear on this one, in case I haven’t already: This should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be done, ever. It was understandable back in the archaic days of the 80s and 90s, but in this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for making the player read a manual.

Better, but still not good: Frontload your game with flow-breaking text prompts and/or tutorial sections. We’ve seen controlled tutorials in a lot of action games, like Assassin’s Creed or Magicka. We’ve also been hit with a lot of text walls in recent RPGs and strategy games, like Fallout: New Vegas and Frozen Synapse.

This is definitely better than relying on a manual, but getting hit in the head with bricks of text or having to spend several minutes proving your competence before you can get to the fun can get tedious. I suppose I’m willing to accept it if it’s in a very complex game; I can’t imagine how one would ever figure out how to play Civilization 4 without the game explaining itself thoroughly.

Even better: Point the player in the right direction with indicators and prompts that don’t break game flow. This is probably the most common method used these days. Whether it’s a tiny little window in the corner that says “Press X to crouch!” or a glowing arrow on the top of the screen that shows you where to go for your objective, little touches like that can prevent the player from getting lost without getting in his way.

This method works well, but it’s still not the best answer.

Ideal: Use the level design to convey the game mechanics without telling the player one word. If you’re clever and careful enough, you can insure that the player will learn how to play your game all on his own. And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, scroll up and watch that video.

This is extremely hard to pull off properly. The only games I can think of that have succeeded are Mega Man X, Portal and LIMBO. Hell, even Portal told you that you press E to pick up objects.

The reason this probably can’t work in most games is because games often have complex control schemes. Mega Man X wasn’t hard to learn on your own because it only had five buttons of input (left, right, jump, attack, dash). And as Egoraptor pointed out, most of the game is spent simply jumping, shooting and dashing.

For the sake of contrast, let’s look at Assassin’s Creed. You have two control sticks; one for moving and one for rotating the camera. You have four buttons of input, and when you hold the right trigger all four of them change. You also press separate D-pad buttons to switch weapons.

On top of that, the game is absolutely loaded with subtle game mechanics that will completely screw you over if you’re not aware of them beforehand. The beggars, the guards, the ladies that carry pots and who will drop their pots if you push them, the muggers, the haystacks, the benches, the climbing, the blending, etc. I can’t imagine how the game could teach you about all of this without at least resorting to little side text prompts. The player would likely spend hours failing, desynchronizing and re-attempting sequences over and over because he can’t quite get to grips with all the different elements at play.

Egoraptor says that games are more tutorialized because developers think we’re all morons, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think it has a lot more to do with games evolving and becoming more complicated and intricate.

Still though, he made a lot of really great points, and I can’t help but look at Mega Man X in a very different light now that I notice the subtleties of it. This is apparently the second episode of a new show of his, and if you’re reading this, Egoraptor, then you’ve got my attention.


Let’s Make Longer Games!

Okay, so we all agree that games were better back in the glory days when my mom gave me free food and I didn’t have to work for a living. Right? Good. But why is that? Is it because giant polygons look better than photorealism? Is it because games back then had obtuse interfaces? Is it because Bobby Kotick is secretly Satan in disguise?

No. It’s because games are shorter.

Let’s face it — the most important thing about a game isn’t whether it’s fun, or engaging, or thought-provoking, or immersive. It’s all about the length. The most important determinant in a game’s quality is how long it takes to reach the end credits. It’s simple logic, really; a game is supposed to take you away from reality, so if a game takes you away for longer, that means it’s better at being a game.

People say that game developers can’t make games as long as they could back in the old days, but I don’t agree with that. There are some simple design techniques you can use to ensure maximum game length for the player. This means you can put a label on the back of the box saying “Over 7000 hours of gameplay!” and you’ll inevitably make more sales. The player gets to play more, you get more money. Win-win, right?

Slowness

This is an incredibly simple technique, and it really pays off. You don’t have to make the environments bigger or more expansive; just make the player character slower. If you let the player breeze through the levels he’ll be done in no time and won’t be satisfied, so slow him down to a snail’s pace and let him hold the right arrow key and watch as he inches along.

It also helps if you slow down the enemy movements. Take Fallout, for instance. In each turn you get to watch each and every enemy mosey around the battlefield, one-by-one. Players don’t want flow. They want to spend five minutes watching radscorpions crawl around in a dark cave.

Obscene Difficulty

The NES era was the best era for games. Games like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden are some of the longest games we’ve ever had. But if you record how long it takes to get from beginning to end without dying, those games aren’t very long at all. The reason they last you so long is because you inevitably die every three steps.

This is a brilliant way to add more hours to a game’s length, and there are so many wonderful ways it can be achieved. If you’re making a platformer, move each platform as far apart as you can without it being completely out-of-reach. Make the player have to stand so close to the edge that he looks like he’s not even standing on solid ground. If you’re making a shooter, make the enemies so precise and deal so much damage that you have to know what’s coming and where before you even walk in the room. This way the player will be forced to replay the same room over and over until he knows every intricate detail. Because that’s fun. That’s what gaming is all about.

Repetition

Repetitive gameplay is the best kind of gameplay because it’s easy to produce in bulk. It’s as easy as ctrl+c, ctrl+v. If a certain encounter or scene is fun, the most logical thing to do is to repeat it several times. You can tweak each encounter slightly and the player might not even notice.

This is a very obvious design technique, and yet so many developers these days completely forget about it. Portal was a pretty cool concept, but it wasn’t a real game because it was only a few hours long. If it featured more slightly different renditions of the same few puzzles it would have been far better.

Lives Systems

Super Meat Boy was a recent game that did well with the Obscene Difficulty, but one thing it forgot to incorporate was a lives system (except for the warp zones, which were brilliant in every tangible way). By adding an arbitrary lives system that kicks the player out of the game after they die one too many times, you end up eating a lot more of the player’s time by forcing them to replay the same content over and over. This is a fantastic way to extend a game’s length.

Fin

The bottom line is, if a game isn’t boring or frustrating, it could probably stand to be a bit longer. Games need to eat up more time. After all, it’s not like we have jobs or social lives to attend to. We gamers need to work for our fun, and games don’t feel quite enough like work. Not as much as they used to.


Tomb Raider

Roughly three weeks ago on an episode of The Big Picture, Bob talked about sexism in gaming and why feminists have such an issue with it.

Now, I’ve had issues with many of the things MovieBob has said in the past. (PC gaming is dead and anybody who says otherwise is in denial, the Hitman franchise is nothing but “flash-in-the-pan,” the entire first person shooter genre is bad for the games industry because of Call of Duty, Metroid: Other M wasn’t a pile of shit, etc.)

But I really like this video of his. He makes great points, and I think he did an effective job at summarizing why pandering, hyper-sexualized female characters are detrimental to games and stories in general.

To summarize: He basically stated that the main problem with female characters posing to look sexy for the camera is that it prevents any sense of meaningful characterization in their poses. While you can generally learn all about the personality and disposition of a male character by looking at a picture of him, with female characters all you can tell is that she’s supposed to look hot.

With that in mind, I want to take a look at Lara Croft.

What, exactly, does this picture tell us about Lara Croft’s personality or disposition? We can assume she knows how to use guns, but other than that, what is she doing beyond posing for some hypothetical camera? Nothing, really. This ultimately looks like the cover of a magazine, where Lara has been told to pose in such a way to make her look as enticing as possible.

This is how Lara Croft has been for a good long while. Supposedly she was originally written to be a sort of female equivalent of Indiana Jones, but it didn’t take long for her to become reduced to eye candy. The Tomb Raider series has basically become infamous for this, and it’s very unfortunate, considering the fact that she’s one of gaming’s only major female icons.

Now let’s look at the new Lara Croft.

This is a wallpaper for the new Tomb Raider reboot (or prequel, I forget which) coming out in 2012. Crystal Dynamics has sought to reinvent the character, and depict her in a different light. This light looks far more interesting.

The dirt, cuts and bruises imply she’s been through a lot of pain, but her facial expression implies that she’s confident and ready to push onward. Brave. Strong. This image is inspiring. Lara looks like a really strong, compelling character.

Let’s look at another wallpaper.

Incidentally: Damn, this shot looks really good. And it looks much better in its non-resized form. We haven’t quite hit photorealism yet, but we’re getting close.

This pose shows desperation. Lara is injured, but she’s doing everything she can to survive. She’s pushing onward in the face of death. Also note that the crashed ship in the background and the debris strewn across the ground imply the damage that’s been done and the situation she’s in. This is powerful visual storytelling. It tells us everything we need to know without using one word.

Neither of these shots, nor any of the other images from the new game, are using her as eye candy. She looks like a real character now. A person with motivations and ambitions. Somebody we can relate to.

I have no idea how good the gameplay and story might be in this new Tomb Raider installment, but just from what we can see about Lara Croft, I’m very excited about this. Color me interested, Square-Enix.


Unfair Leveling RPGs: Addendum

It seems like I really ruffled some feathers with that whole unfair RPGs post, so I feel I should make something clear: I don’t think any of the games I mentioned suck, much less suck exclusively because of their balance issues. In fact, every single one of those games is awesome in its own way.

System Shock 2 was an intense and daunting adventure through the bowels of a malevolent AI and a viral hivemind. Fallout: New Vegas was an atmospheric trudge through an old Western themed wasteland. Mass Effect 2 was an epic space opera filled with ethical dilemmas and intriguing lore. And Alpha Protocol was a morally ambiguous spy story spiced with conspiracies, interrogations, casual sex, and all the other features commonly associated with good old-fashioned spy movies.

I still rate Alpha Protocol as one of my favorite games despite its horrendous balance issues, because I just loved its approach to storytelling. What you have to understand is that while I do tend to criticize games pretty heavily, that doesn’t mean I think they’re crap. No game is perfect. And I still think every game I mentioned has some serious balance issues that should be addressed.

And I just feel like clarifying that I don’t get angry whenever I’m not using the best build possible. I only get angry when I see a build which there is no logical reason to use. This doesn’t apply to games where the “weaker” build also has drastically changed gameplay that might be more fun to some people.

For example, in System Shock 2 there isn’t really any difference in gameplay between using a laser gun and a regular gun, except for the fact that with a laser gun you’re doing less damage. So System Shock 2 fails the leveling system.

The statement I made about some of Mass Effect 2’s classes being nonviable really only applies to Insanity mode. Which is why it made sense to me, because I played the game on Insanity. That was just my second playthrough, though. My first was on Normal mode, and I was a vanguard. And I enjoyed it. Vanguard might technically be the worst class, but it’s also a lot of fun if you ask me, since there’s much more emphasis on movement.

So I guess the bottom line with Mass Effect 2 is that if you’re not going to play on the hardest difficulty setting, then the balance issues won’t really be a problem for you. It’s still a flaw, but it’s not nearly as terrible as I made it sound in my previous post.

As for New Vegas, it should also get a pass because using guns feels very, very different from using melee. I actually consider using guns or energy weapons to be the “proper” way of playing New Vegas, since that’s ultimately the only way you’ll get a decent challenge, and it fits best with the whole Western vibe the game exudes.

I’m just bothered by how ridiculously overpowered the melee is. I understand that it’s virtually impossible to perfectly balance melee and ranged combat, but surely they could have done better than this. I’m not kidding when I say that using a melee or unarmed build feels like playing with the cheats turned on. It’s absurd. Maybe if they’d done just a bit more QA testing they could have noticed and tweaked the stats just a bit.

Using a Guns or Energy Weapons build is not impossible, it’s not excruciatingly hard, and it’s not unfun. I used guns on my first playthrough and I got a kick out of them. But it’s ludicrously less effective than punching everyone to death. I’m not saying playing with guns is too hard — I’m saying that playing with melee is too easy.

I’m sure I’ll be told that I’m not allowed to complain about a game being too easy. There seems to be a prevailing notion among gamers these days that balance only matters in PvP. I think that notion is completely false. Gameplay matters. Challenge matters. Balance matters.