Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Game Invader : Discovery and Exploration in Videogames

(this article appeared originally in my 'Game Invader' Column for the New Indian Express.)

For me, it began with Indiana Jones.

More specifically, the videogame 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' for the venerable ATARI 2600 system which was the first game I played which featured an inventory, multiple screens, and characters you could interact with (all standard features in modern adventure games, but this was 1982 ! )

For someone who cut his gamer teeth on single-screen worlds of Defender, Pac-Man and Space Invaders, this was a new proposition altogether. There were several different screens - a market, and caves, and a temple, and a mesa field! You could buy treasure maps and guns from sinister sheikhs! A pickpocket would steal your stuff if you weren't careful. There was a raving lunatic in the marketplace. My mind reeled, and we played it to death.

Exploring trees, caves and marketplaces was as exciting in Raiders of The Lost Ark twenty years ago as it is in Oblivion today. Believe me, in twenty years, Oblivion screenshots will look just as ridiculous.

Today, I understand why 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was so exciting to me – I'm the kind of gamer who enjoys the exploration of worlds. I, like millions of other gamers, am happiest when travelling vast, expansive fantasy lands, meeting interesting characters, battling mythical beasts and being in a great story. 'Raiders' was the first game to give me a taste of the reasons I would list Baldur's Gate 2, and Fallout among my all-time favourites.

The amazing following enjoyed by games like the Grand Theft Auto series and the role-playing genre in general is largely due to this sort of appeal. Wandering through a free-roaming virtual city performing interesting, or even incredible feats offers a vicarious pleasure that connects with the very basic sense of wonder and adventure present in all of us.

Whole genres of gaming such as adventure and role-playing are founded on this very basic appeal. Action games such as Halo and Half-Life have also benefited greatly by creating richly detailed universes with great stories to embellish their top-notch gameplay. Even gamers whose chief pleasure is blowing things to smithereens seem to enjoy doing it in environments that they can explore as well!

In any modern role-playing game, in addition to adventuring and participating in thrilling battles, players also have to indulge in seemingly mundane activities such as shopping, repairing their worn-out equipment, eating, drinking, gossiping and finding places to rest. Far from boring us to death, these features actually add to the sense of immersion in the gameworld.

Richly detailed gaming environments fuel this sense of discovery. The exploratory gameplay involved in checking out every nook and corner of the gameworld for hidden surprises and delightful . . er . . ah . . . delights is used extensively by games like GTA and the Zelda series to draw gamers in further, engrossing them for several additional hours. There isn't a gamer who has played these titles who hasn't been rewarded with some precious bauble for taking the trouble to peek behind a rock, or explore an inocuous looking back alley.

Interestingly, virtual gameworlds seem to delight us in equal measure when they offer us settings far removed from reality (Oblivion, Mass Effect), or closely resembling it (GTA). While getting to know a virtual universe, it seems to matter little whether it's science fiction (Star Wars) , fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons), or close to reality (GTA again) – we love playing about in them all. We also seem to equally enjoy saving worlds, or exploiting them for fun and profit. As long as they're fun to discover, the game developers are getting our money.

Thanks to videogames, we don't have to be Indiana Jones to travel to exotic worlds and kick ass.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Game Invader : Idiotic game design decisions

Mass Effect's MAKO. Grrrrrrrrrrr. And no, that's not the engine noise.

If you've driven the MAKO in Bioware's Mass Effect, you're probably aware that it's an annoying, frustrating part of the game that mostly distracts from the core gameplay.

Most of the gamers who played Mass Effect are fans of Bioware and their brand of gripping storytelling, great characters and tense, tactical battles. The last thing they'd want to be doing is driving a crappy-handling armoured vehicle and indulging in pointless rail shooting sequences that interuupt the gameplay they shelled out sixty dollars for. And yet, for some reason, Bioware thought it was a good idea to force them to do exactly that.

Time after time, we see inexplicable features and minigames like this finding their way into the games we love, making us love them a bit less. Jumping puzzles in Half-Life. Monkey Combat in Monkey Island 4.

The excuse usually trotted out is 'genre blending'. Introducing aspects from different genres into a game to give gamers more value for money. Nonsense!

Don't get me wrong, there are games that do just this, and do it brilliantly. The Zelda games have been blending elements of adventure, role-playing and action into a delectable package for years. Games like Shenmue and Sid Meier's Pirates! are also shining examples where gameplay from different genres are used to add to the core gameplay, instead of detracting from it.

However, these are titles where the gameplay has been conceived with genre-blending in mind. It's quite different from shoehorning elements into a game with the misguided intentions of 'adding' something to the experience. Plus, unless you're a Shigeru Myamoto, Sid Meier or Yu Suzuki, it isn't easy.

Let's face it – action gamers want action. Racing gamers want to race. Role-players want story, character development and number-crunching stats. Adventure loyalists want clues and mysteries. That's the reason they spend hard-earned coin on the games that they want to play.

So it's stupid to force features on them that they don't want. Adding silly minigames or tacked-on features don't attract new audiences, but certainly annoy, and ultimately alienate the core market. Whether such suggestions come from ill-informed marketing suits or overambitious game designers is anybody's guess, but it's inarguably a cartload of bovine manure.

Which is why the great designers avoid it. Imagine if Sid Meier had said “Hey guys – let's add a fighting minigame to resolve combat in Civilization IV!”. Or if Bungie had tried to add some puzzle solving into Halo 3. Those great games would certainly have been diminished, not enhanced by such meddling, and the designers probably knew that.

The FPS genre has probably understood this best in recent years. Which is why it's probably the most thriving and vibrant of all – with the most quality titles coming out in the recent past. Games like Half Life 2, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and even Bioshock, for all their storytelling skills, are shooters at heart. It's the gunplay that counts, the action that makes gamers rave and crave.
And think about the horrors! Baldur's Gate 3 with platform jumping elements to attract Daxter fans! God of War 3 with a checkers minigame to appeal to board game fans! Forza Motorsport 3 with a lame-ass storyline! The mind shudders with fear.

I'm not against attempting to broaden the scope of games – I just believe it should only be attempted by the most skilled and visionary of designers. Er . . except Peter Molyneux, that is.

On being negative

Someone said this to me : " Life is too short to be negative".

But, by assuming that life is too short, isn't she being negative? And hence violating her own advice?

I helpfully pointed it out, but my efforts weren't well received.Luckily, she's too far away to slap me in disgust.

Long distance is teh_pWnage.

If Hitler had been killed off early . . .

I've actually read two separate books in which the authors have opined that the world would probably have been a lot worse if Der Fuhrer has been nipped in the bud. Strange indeed.

The first one is 'Making History' by Stephen Fry, in which the author steps back in time, and prevents Hitler from being born. This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing an even more dangerous and evil man to become the leader of the Nazi party - and much hilarity ensues.

The second is a very different book - the superbly retro-classic OMAC (One Man Army Corps) miniseries by John Byrne, in which the most badass superhero ever (trust me, I've read everything) has the same bright idea as Mr.Fry, and promptly wades into ole Adolf's heavily guarded residence, takes out a Rambo-esque number of vehicles, installations and infantry units before cheerily frying Hitler to a crisp. Many years later, OMAC regrets his actions, as the world that ensues after this becomes one of those sterile, fun-less utopias seen in disturbing movies starring Jude Law.

So maybe the old rascal served some purpose? A scary thought.

The Gods have appeared before us, and they have favoured us with five sets of divine brilliance.

Wasn't it the kind of sporting display that makes you glad to be alive and a witness to it?

Bud Collins has called it the greatest tennis match ever played. He should know.

I watched it from my living room, thousands of miles away from where it was happening, and yet I was a part of it. As was every single person who was privileged enough to witness two great champions produce a once-in-a-lifetime reminder of what pure sport is supposed to be.

This was a day I felt sorrow for those among us who don't watch sports – those misguided mortals who would rather watch a movie or step out for a nice dinner. Sunday's final was perhaps the finest example of the kind of rivetting experience that only sport can deliver.

Blasted thing went on till almost 2 am (in India), and the afterglow lasted for almost another hour. Brilliant. Nadal vs. Federer was inarguably a shining instance of teh_pWnage.