Thursday, April 9, 2015

Exploring Freeware Horror #1 -Euthanasia

So I basically forgot that I even have a blog, as I have very little free time to spend writing this sort of thing. I think this is my first post in a year and a half, so apologies if anyone was eagerly awaiting it (I don't think anyone really was).

I'm going to do a small series of posts on different games, and I'll try to keep them a bit short, but knowing me I'll probably fail at that. Mainly, I want to make observations about the games from a horror game design perspective, and use what I see as examples of different topics in design that are worth discussing.

I try to routinely track down new games to play, and I decided to look in the direction of freeware indie horror titles thanks to this list and a few others. My goal is to explore as wide a range of gameplay experiences as possible for my own design edification, but I figured that it would be kind of fun to share this stuff with the world and give a bit of an evaluation of the game.

#1 - Euthanasia





Sound Design

This game does a pretty solid job of setting an ambient soundscape. I consistently jumped when I heard a creature, and that has a lot to do with the ambient sounds helping build tension and the audio having some really solid kick when creatures start coming into play. I think this game plays really heavily on the benefits of absence when building horror tension, as the placid chill of the soundscape pays off with unexpected shock.
I can't show you sound in a screenshot, but trust me, it's there.

Sound is the most visceral way to hit someone in a horror game, and really requires varying levels to be effective. A game that is constantly shocking you with loud noises isn't going to do very well. Euthanasia hits this one well, frequently sending chills up my spine with the eerie noises that pierced the quiet. From near silence to piecing shrieks, low droning hums rising in pitch before getting startled by the slamming of a door, the audio is extremely effective at getting you blood pumping and your mind racing.

The one thing that's humorous, however, is the shameless use of zombie moans from Resident Evil 1 and other sources, some of which may actually have origins even older than the games they were taken from (since early RE games had pretty heinous use of stock sounds). The design of the sound is well executed though, so I'll let this one slide.


Due to the limitations of an engine like FPS Creator (as well as likely a creative choice), the game doesn't feature any flashlights or visual aids outside the environmental ambiance. Recent horror games have had a very strong focus on carrying light sources, and obviously our upcoming game Grave is no exception, featuring largely light-based combat and weaponry. A game like Euthanasia, however, uses the absence of these elements to really great effect.

Implements like flashlights give you a funneled view, only giving you a solid look at things that are close to the center of the frame. When used properly, this can create a sensation of claustrophobia or discomfort, as you start to worry about what might be just outside of your "Cone of Comfort."
The area outside of the flashlight's radius is the unknown, while the light zone inherently feels more "safe"
The difficulty with elements like this, however, is that they tend to give you control over what you see and what you don't see. A person armed with a flashlight is never fully in the dark, and seeing what you need to see is generally as simple as looking that direction, particularly if the game is first person. The Cone of Comfort is like a protective ward, preventing you from feeling fully vulnerable. You'll quickly be able to see and react to what might be in the shadows if you just look.
Darkness is a good thing in horror.
A game where you do NOT have a flashlight introduces types of scares that you can't fully prepare yourself for. Walking into a dark corridor that you can't see clearly is a special type of horror, because you have to actively take actions that could put you in danger. This hits on a really visceral, fundamental type of fear, as well. The realization that something horrible was just nearby and you didn't even realize it can hit really hard, really fast. I had quite a few moments in Euthanasia where I was walking towards something that made me very uncomfortable, and I kept itching to press that flashlight button. Not having it definitely contributed to my discomfort, and I think more games need to observe this.

Fast Moving Enemies

This is one thing that many indie games have excelled at, including Afraid of Monsters and Cry of Fear. It's really not that complicated; enemies run at you in a fevered frenzy and are generally faster than even you are, sometimes at alarming speeds.
It is genuinely unnerving to see these things running towards you.
Several times you encounter creatures who are disturbingly quick and chasing you, and this gives you little time to react. This element hits on both a visceral level and a subconscious one, as you're both afraid of getting harmed and extremely unnerved that something could move in such an unnatural manner.


Euthanasia has deliberately misleading environment elements, and the game's general calm does a good job of helping your imagination run wild. There are multiple times in Euthanasia where a dead body or form in the environment is specifically designed to look like the monsters you fight, and this simple tactic does a lot to keep you on edge.
The thing on the right is visible all the way down the hall and looks like an enemy. It's actually just a corpse. The real enemy is waiting to give you unexpected bowel movements when you get close.

The use of these striking elements in gameplay is in stark contrast to what you see in the majority of big budget horror games, where the presence of dead bodies and blood tends to be a form of "environmental texture," essentially blending into the background and escaping your conscious awareness. After you have seen your 40th body in Dead Space, it's really hard to see them as anything narrative-driven or worthy of note, even if they will occasionally be hiding a jump scare.
"Wow, that blood sure does look nice with the floor texture! Oh yeah, another body..."
Games operate in this strange region of cognitive responses that activates artificial filtering mechanisms. Human beings do this with everything, but because the world is completely artificial, the player of a game has to take subtle cues from the environment and context to rapidly define the game's boundaries. This is most evident when you watch the difference in play styles between experienced gamers and occasional or casual players. Games are typically filled with lots of "noise," such as audio or visual effects, environmental details and accents that don't really serve any functional purpose in the game world. People who are used to this concept will quickly figure out what is and is not threatening, what signals item locations and what doesn't. Conversely, less seasoned players tend to take things at face value, and this can routinely lead to frustration. If you've ever watched a less savvy friend trying over and over to open a door that is only meant as an environment decoration, you've seen this in action.

This type of filtering is unavoidable and will always vary by player. What is really interesting though, is that much of what large games do to illicit "horror" experiences in players gets sorted into the wrong side of this filter for an experienced player. Dead bodies aren't jarring in a game where they are simply part of the background. We've already seen tons of blood before. However, if a game can do something surprising, such as resurrect bodies as Crimson Head zombies in the Resident Evil remake, suddenly the player has to emphasize that element in their mental model of the universe. It's not simple "texture" anymore, it's important and potentially life-threatening.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who needed a new pair of pants after realizing that "Crimson Heads" were a thing in the REmake.
Euthanasia proves the point that you don't need elaborate mechanics to keep the interaction with the environment intense. Visual misdirection is a phenomenal way to get this kind of feeling on the cheap, and the game does a good job of keeping your heckles up when you enter a room, walk down a corridor, or glance at what looks like a figure standing near the door.



This isn't something I generally want to ding games too heavily for, but I have to give fair warning. I wasn't able to get past level 2 in my first session, as the loading screen hung up. I finally did get past it with a patch which hilariously didn't fix the issue, but includes save files for the start of each level, effectively allowing me to bypass the load screen. This happened a couple times but didn't actually cause me to lose content, only time. I'd reach a loading screen, get hung up, and have to load from the save after restarting the game. This DID mean that I wasn't able to fully experience the difficulty progression, as I could waste ammo and still know I'd have a renewed stockpile from the checkpoint.
I'm pretty familiar with this screen as the loading bar takes a vacation at the end and never comes back.
There were other issues as well, such as a finicky jump mechanic combined with pits of death, leading to failed jumps and general disappointment, as well as enemies dying in an looping animation state or dying while standing. most of these were fairly slight, but they were also fairly regular.

I wish I hadn't had these issues because it took me out of the experience a few times, when I was really getting into it. I know this was done in a limited tool (FPSC) without much capacity for bug-fixing, but It's a shame to see these rough edges temper the experience.


Related to the above, this is another topic that I feel is a bit unfair to bring up with an indie title, but is still no less important. There are many, many situations where the environment can be used to exploit the behavior of enemies in Euthanasia. They frequently get stuck on objects, sometimes don't know what to do when you shift elevation, and will walk in place, allowing free blows. This can be one of the hardest things to stomp out, and we've certainly had our share of it in Grave to deal with. The problem here is that you only get one chance to build a cohesive, credible, frightening world for the player. Once something happens that spoils that illusion, it's VERY hard to come back from.
This guy is actually stuck, in the middle of the hallway, walking against an invisible collision error. Like a boss.
In our games, we've found that it can be beneficial to somewhat "cheat" in situations that create challenges for the AI, by simplifying the pathfinding system or level layouts to accommodate the AI better, by introducing long range attacks for creatures if they can't get to you, or even by creating behavior that allows them to teleport to new locations when they can't get to you.

This isn't always possible, but one thing that is worth noting is the impact of animation and "implied" purpose. Everyone knows that a character walking into a wall is bugging out, and that can be immediately immersion killing. However, setting up an AI fallback for when the creature can't move can do a lot to prevent this from seeming accidental. If a creature, for example, has a random possibility that it will occasionally stop moving and start shrieking and flailing as if having a seizure or experiencing its own internal demons, this can be an incredibly unnerving process to watch, particularly if the player sees this as some sort of character trait in the monster. Getting enemies to run away can be challenging with certain pathfinding solutions, but can be used to help a creature move out of a bad spot, or to provide a tension building moment of confusion as the player has to figure out where the creature has gone. Games like Euthanasia have gaping holes where techniques like this could have been used to make up for its shortcomings. That being said, a game made in FPS Creator definitely has more challenges with AI and some of this may not have been feasible.

Scripted Jump Scares Only Work Once

Euthanasia relies entirely on reactions to linear, scripted gameplay segments. These present no variation and really lose their bite once you've been exposed to them once, which is sad.

Some of them are truly great scares; I walked through a doorway as a loud ambient hum was rising only to get charged by a huge beast from out of a dimly lit corner. It was really effective, because there had been several similar corners preceding it that had featured no threat, and the mental model I had built was telling me that those corners didn't contain monsters. It had the double benefit of using the rising audio as a distraction, with a creepy painting above the doorway drawing my attention and blinding me to the attack I was about the experience.

Do you see him? BECAUSE I DIDN'T! The first time, anyway...
Here's the problem, though. I died. Once dead, I proceeded to move forward with the exact same gameplay and experienced the section over again, only this time turned to the corner where the creature was and immediately began unloading with my most powerful weapon. The game is built around actual threats to your life and safety, but oddly enough, the least scary thing you can do is die.

This, like many of Euthanasia's flaws, isn't specific to the game in question. In fact, most "traditional" horror games have this flaw, as do many other games that have a generic approach to progression and death; it's just not that fun or satisfying to redo something after failing. This problem is exacerbated in horror because the genre thrives on unpredictability. You have to be afraid of the unexpected to maintain tension.
What shooters look like without the magic
In game design, the fundamental interaction with a game system is usually loosely broken down into a chart like the one above, which maps out the interaction. These "user experience loops" can be from a really big picture (Start level > Move to end > Defeat boss), or the very small scale (Aim down sights > fire > Reload), and they tend to give you an idea of what the actual series of steps are for the player in your game.  This is important because, as much as you might HOPE that players will interact with your game in a certain way, there's no guarantee until you've stress tested it. If your game resets your ammo at the end of each level, for example, the section of the loop above, "find items," might be invalidated and functionally removed from the player's behavior. The same could happen if players find that it's easier to simply run past enemies instead of shooting them; the interaction is no longer what you intended, and possibly the best part of your loop gets removed.

The core problem with jump scares is that, when graphed as part of an experience loop, it looks something like this:
A good idea of how much gets cut out of a jump scare after the first time through.
there's a large set of steps that gets completely cut out once the player already knows what to expect. This is a good example of what can happen if you don't factor in death and retries when planning out the experience loop. This is one area where Amnesia excels, as does any game with a procedural element to the scares. Euthanasia is not so lucky.

Certain genres of gameplay heavily reward trail and error, training players to learn new experiences and improve their skill set. The problem in horror is that this is effectively the antithesis of what you want the player to experience; you want them vulnerable, not prepared. The more time you spend getting them acclimated to the experience, the less likely they are to get scared, as they build confidence and skill in confronting the game's challenges. The longer someone spends retrying a difficult section of gameplay, the more likely they are to stress test it and push the boundaries of what is possible. Most players will attempt multiple variations of a strategy after repeated deaths, until they find a chink in the armor of this otherwise frightening encounter. Once they've acquired that knowledge, it is very unlikely that you will be able to engage them the same level of interaction.

Zombies opening doors as you walk up can be unexpected and creepy, but not if they do it the same way every time (also, this game has lots of pinups for some reason)
On a deeper level, death is actually quite a let-down in a scary situation. Without getting too philosophical, death is the complete end of the experience, in both games and life. The stress and tension come from the anticipation of the event. Once it's actually happened, it has "revealed" itself to you, and it is likely to be easier than you thought. This is particularly highlighted in games like Euthanasia; even if you lost progress, you now know exactly what to do to avoid that particular pitfall, and returning after the death is an exercise in subtle course-correction instead of discovery.

In modern horror, we're starting to realize that the sweet spot for players is where the anxiety is high but the actual risks are substantially lower. Euthanasia, like many, many horror games, is a victim of the incorrect assumption that death is the scariest thing that can happen, when "perceived threat" is probably much closer to the truth.

The "Gun" Problem

This is hardly unique to Euthanasia, but is worth addressing since the game is actually in the minority as an indie horror title that includes a full arsenal of guns to play with. Guns are inherently at odds with horror. Horror is best when the audience feels vulnerable, whether it's a game, film or scary story by the campfire. There's a reason that none of the best horror films (The Sixth Sense, Alien, Jacob's Ladder, The Exorcist, etc) feature much in the way of weaponry. Even popular slasher movies typically have an angle that prevents weapons from being effective, such as Freddy Krueger existing only in dreams or Jason being an unstoppable juggernaut.
If he can't be hurt, what are you supposed to do to get away?
Think back to the first Nightmare on Elm Street, and one of the first things Freddy does is cut off his own fingers. This self flagellating is extremely purposeful; it says that he is invulnerable, that anything you might do to defend yourself would be useless. This hits on a gut level, because human beings like to feel as if they're in control. The more control you take away, the more likely you are to produce an emotional response.

Horror games, particularly those of the AAA variety, have long struggled with this issue. Players expect to be scared, while simultaneously having an arsenal of increasingly effective weapons to use against the undead hordes. The two ideas aren't very compatible; either you're scared, or you're slowly becoming more empowered as you go. Very rarely do those things go hand in hand. Worse yet, making the guns weaker doesn't increase tension in most cases; it just make the game more frustrating.
Remember that scene in The Blair Witch Project where they grabbed a gun and shot Rustin Parr in the face, then left safely? That was the scariest part.
So, what's wrong with guns? There's a lot that could be said about this, and the great Thomas Grip of Frictional Games had a fantastic GDC talk on building fear in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. His summary is great, so I suggest checking it out. I have a couple things I want to add to it.

One issue with guns in a horror game is that they tip the balance in favor of the player at a structural level. Regardless of enemy behavior patterns, weapon damage and ammo availability, guns give you a spatial advantage against your opponents. The weakest gun can still whittle away enemies at a range that they can't effectively strike you, and this creates a form of a protective barrier through distance. The more movement options you have, the more skewed in your favor this becomes. This imbalance is especially true in Euthanasia, where all the enemies are close range fighters. The issue wouldn't really be fixed by adding ranged attacks from enemies either, as the more distance you cover during combat, the less you can take advantage of the fear that personal space invasion illicits. Zombies vomiting on you from across the room aren't quite as scary as zombies biting your face off.
This guy is way more intense up close than he would be at a distance, possibly lobbing an infinite supply of femurs at you.
The second, and possibly more substantial issue with guns (and weapons generally) is that they give you a way to completely eliminate a threat from the environment. Dan Pinchbeck has described this as the process of simplifying complex environments by removing agents until there is essentially no challenge remaining, then moving on. This works well for a sense of completion but poorly for a sense of tension. Euthanasia tries to offset this, as many games do, by spawning more enemies during backtracking or at unpredictable times. However, the very existence of and need for guns is reiterated in these situations, as you get the chance to engage in more combat and a further "simplification" process. The only real risk is if you run out of ammo, but this is a pretty fuzzy limitation, and skilled players will generally be able to game the ammo stockpile and have more than enough to work with. I made a short video talking about this and other issues a while back.

Guns give the player agency, and this is something many indie horror titles lack. I appreciate the effort Euthanasia makes to keep the game scary while still having weapons. Yet I can't help but feel that the presence of this arsenal is more based around convenience than any real necessity. Games with guns have more happening in them than games without them, and if you don't have guns you need something else to fill the gap.


WTF is that?!
I really just have this section because I'm a fan of Sergio Leone, but I figure I can use it as a "wrap up" for what I think can be taken away from Euthanasia. On the whole, it's an interesting experience that doesn't offer anything too terribly unique, but that still uses its elements well to produce a sometimes chilling, sometimes repetitive experience with horror psychology. I was genuinely unsettled through much of the experience, and there are several moments that are quite jarring.

It's definitely worth a play, but keep in mind that it will likely not be finishable in one sitting without a reset. I think the strongest takeaway is that, when compared directly with other unsettling indie horror games (Erie, Paranormal, Slender, Imscared and others), the weaponry and combat in Euthanasia do more than a little to hold it back. I don't think this suggests that we should eliminate weapons from horror games, but we need to keep in mind that firepower is constantly a friction force against fear.

When I get to Cry of Fear, I'll discuss some of the ways that it succeeds where Euthanasia fails in creating tense combat scenarios. The two games have a lot of overlap in intention, so it will serve as an interesting comparison.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Chatterbox Video Game Radio

I was recently a guest on an episode of ChatterBox Video Game Radio. Thanks to Ara and Alon for having me on. I enjoyed the discussion, despite not having played The Last of Us at the time!

You can check out the rest of ChatterBox from their main page:

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Defining Games - My Talk at IGDA Phoenix - June 2013

Here's the discussion of games and their "definition" that I did in June for the IGDA Phoenix chapter. I'd originally planned it as a discussion about futuring and forecasting for "games," but I realized while I was writing it that there were a few other complications to the issue; primarily, by what definition do we consider something a "game?" Extending off of that, what changes about our expectations for the future based on how we define the intention of a game?

The discussion was interesting, and it was cool to get feedback from others on how they viewed games in a broader sense. There were many take-aways that I found really interesting, and I may bring them up in more depth in a future blog. The one that really got me interested, though, was the discussion of comparing mediums. I'm going to use the recently released Bioshock Infinite as an example in a few cases, not because I want to single it out, but because it has often been described as the only equivalent of a "AAA Art Game." To many, Bioshock Infinite represents a high achievement in video game narrative, so it makes sense to use it as a bit of a "benchmark" for game narrative quality, as it relates to other narrative mediums.

Games as a Storytelling Medium
A lot of people consider games to be a storytelling (or perhaps, more accurately, a "narrative"-driven) medium. For one reason or another, storytelling always seems to become a primary topic when debating the validity of games as an art form or as an expressive medium. Even though most would agree this is not a mandatory component of games, the current trends in AAA game development, and even a large number of indie games, base their core assumption on the idea that progression through a game is also progression through a narrative. If this is so, which is definitely debatable, there are a few problems with how games currently implement narrative.

Committing to the story as a primary goal
Most current AAA games have this problem, despite otherwise "good" intentions. In all other narrative-driven mediums, the elements of the medium are used to promote the themes, subtexts, and primary goals of the narrative. Yet we seem to have trouble with identifying these elements and their effect on the narrative in games.
In books, we use the written word to create a clear mental picture that effectively communicates by utilizing the implicit meanings of specific words. Literature is one of the oldest mediums of expression, yet if you compare modern literature to that of only 100 or 200 years ago, it's clear that we have become more keenly aware of how word selection affects interpretation. More modern authors like David Foster Wallace have taken this a step further, manipulating the written word very heavily as an exercise in communicating emotional, political or philosophical ideas (Check out Brief Interviews with hideous Men to see an excellent example of prose manipulated in a variety of interesting ways). The important takeaway from the evolution of the written word is that it's not the message of the words, but the implicit or inferred meaning of words as they apply in context, that really produces impact. Moreover, this still depends on the audience and is not a guarantee that all communication will be exact. The more complex the message, the harder it will be to ensure understanding across a wide range of people.

Film (television as well) has an entirely different set of challenges from written word, but has learned to utilize the core elements of the medium to communicate messages in a wholly different, yet no less valid, sense. Film relies heavily on nonverbal communication, and cinematographers know that tiny decisions of editing, lighting and camera placement can drastically affect the audience's perception of the film, even if the audience is not "film literate." that is because certain structural elements of film have an implicit psychological association in the viewer's mind. Low angle shots make a viewer feel intimidated, rapid cuts make them feel anxious, darkness in the frame makes them feel frightened. These concepts can be very simple or very elaborate,  but the average film in 2013 is based around a fundamental understanding of these narrative "tools." Filmmakers have realized that every aspect of film creation contributes to this "communication" with the audience, and has to be factored in when portraying a narrative that is meant to convey meaning. Often in visual medium, you'll find that there are no "wasted scenes," each dialogue is meant for a specific purpose and every light is placed to illuminate with intent.

The Problem For Games
In games, the relationship between structure and narrative is much more muddled than in other, more mature forms like film, television and literature (mature as in "older, more developed," not that it contains adult content). Games, despite their tremendous advancements over the past 40 years, still have issues with content, mechanics and whether or not these elements are intended to serve the narrative. Many outspoken game developers have expressed their own perspectives on game narratives and "meaning," including Jonathan Blow, Clint Hocking, Ken Levine, Amy Hennig and many others. Opinions appear to vary widely, but what is most interesting about this discussion is that they disagree entirely on the symbiosis required between a game's narrative and its "challenge component."

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2012, a panel was held discussing the role of games in art and culture. Ken Levine, Creative Director of Irrational Games (developer of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite), responded to a question about mechanics; "There's a basic weirdness about making first-person shooters," Levine stated. "I think there's a degree of math that people do in their heads," referring to the idea that players are expected to kill hundreds of people in an action game as they progress through the story, which he feels is similar to films like Indiana Jones. "There is generally a skill component," says Levine, "and lots of games have different ways of approaching that."

At its face, this is a fairly reasonable assessment. Games traditionally, since the days of Go or Chess, are defined by some kind of challenge to overcome. Even Solitaire, perhaps the first formal "single-player" game, has the necessity of challenge. The problem, though, is that neither Chess nor Go, nor most of the other traditional, non-digital games, contain narrative. For that matter, they don't contain worlds, exploration, characters (other than the players) are many of the other elements that are present in videogames or even other media. "Games," as they have been defined traditionally, aren't an art form and do not contain artistic or terribly communicative elements. Soccer is not a story, it is an experience to be had. The "narrative" unfolds as a struggle between opposing sides, emerging from the actions taken. Does this say something about the role that videogames should play in culture, or as a storytelling medium? Is there something about games that precludes them from being a storytelling medium, or should we accept that games simply possess dual, opposing purposes, with gameplay and story being separate? Will we always have to do "mental math" to accept mass murder as a component of an otherwise unconnected story in a game, if we want to see a narrative within this medium?

The "Game" Problem
Some of the questions about games are easier to answer than others. One thing worth factoring in is that the classical definition of "game" may actually be a bit misleading when applied to current videogames. Brian Moriarty made an excellent point in his 2011 Apology for Roger Ebert, that if Chess or sports are not considered art, it is remiss of us to expect digital games to earn this honor. This seems fair, and certainly all modern videogames owe their systems of play, in one way or another, to some of these classic forms. Whether simulation of a sport, a mental challenge or game of chance, much of what we see in modern games can be traced back to far more primitive ancestors.

However, considering the vast expansion of the digital "videogame" over the past few decades, it would be extremely shortsighted to claim that every video game essentially boils down to a re-creation of a "Go" or "Chess" experience. In fact, it's hard to argue with much certainty that modern videogames heavily resemble much of anything that has existed before them. Arguments can be made about how well executed the stories are in a game, but the fact remains that games can at least somewhat approximate experiences that can be found in film, television or novels, with the added element of interaction. In some cases, these elements can even be interwoven with the play mechanics, making the gameplay propel a narrative as a primary component of the experience. Regardless of the value of these creations, it is hard to deny that this is being done, and to a degree of success.

Bioshock Infinite may not be equal in depth to an Ingmar Bergman film. Yet, we can see it attempt some things that give credibility to the idea of its story not as a film, but as an interactive narrative. The game seeks to create a bond between Booker and Elizabeth not through story, but through play. Like Bioshock before it, many of the twists intersperse themselves with the act of play, asking you to question the otherwise established notions of interacting with first person shooters, such as death, choice and determinism. More broadly, massively multiplayer games immerse players in a world and mythology, with players spending hundreds of hours steeped in the content in a way that could not be accomplished through linear media. Some games go even further. However, it is clear, at least to a limited degree, that there is some scope of potential for narrative that is greater in an interactive form than in pre-authored, linear media. If all games are purely mechanical or skill-driven exercises, akin to those of the past, how are these elements possible? Is the term "game" really accurate for the interaction of people, the exploration of a space or the discovery of story through nonlinear means? Do Chess, Go or Soccer really have the same breadth of potential experiences as that which we call the modern "videogame," or are we simply adhering to out-of-date terminology due to the origin of the electronic game?

The idea that videogames are largely different from what has always been referred to as a "game" presents a lot of interesting questions and potential hurdles, and it is hardly the only significant element of the discussion. What is clear is that games have contained elements of story, narrative, pacing, characterization, and scripting, and to say this has been completely ineffective would be false. For that reason, it follows that the question is not "can videogames tell stories," but rather, "how might videogames tell stories better?" What might games do to better serve the narrative in their design?

There are many games that are important to consider when evaluating the roles of narrative and gameplay in virtual experiences. It's impossible to go into them all, but there are two that I think are especially distinct and worthy of mention.

Journey is an award-winning game that transcends a lot of the typical definitions of games. Although many elements of the game are familiar for gamers and provide a frame of reference, one of the primary elements that it changes is that of the challenge-based gameplay model. Despite having elements of a platformer, there is no actual platforming; the game is about loose exploration. Although there are threatening creatures, there is no death. It's story is largely implicit, but is this a requirement of its presentation?

Would it be possible to scale this type of interaction to a large, more story focused game, while de-emphasizing challenge elements? Bioshock Infinite removes death as a severe consequence, but still presents it as an outcome of combative experiences. What if Irrational's next title were to move towards Journey, loosely including but not emphasizing the importance of the more traditional "game" elements?

Shadow of the Colossus
Like Journey, it is clear that Shadow of the Colossus contains less focus on story than games like Bioshock Infinite or Final Fantasy. However, also like Journey this is not necessarily a requirement of its structure, more of a byproduct of the decisions made around its aesthetic and tone. The important thing to note about this game, from my perspective, is that it is a combat-focused game that uses this element extremely sparingly. The conflicts themselves involve very little fighting, relying heavily on reacting and discovering your enemy's weak point. A conflict may last between thirty and forty minutes with only one creature being defeated at the end (also, might I add, without the necessity for death or retrying).

More striking than its use of combat, is the use of traveling and the absence of challenge as a pacing mechanism. Shadow of the Colossus could easily have provided smaller, supplementary combat moments to keep the game "challenging" during the journeys, perhaps with smaller, more easily dispatched enemies to keep the pace. The decision not to do so, however, was so effective that few would question its validity.

Is it possible to take a similar stance in a shooter, focusing primarily on non-combative and exploratory elements as a way to punctuate the combat when it occurs? What if, in Bioshock Infinite, the majority of the game had been about noncombative elements, where you progressed through the city of Columbia with the rising fear of combat breaking out, or you and Elizabeth being discovered? What if the beach sequence had been extended to represent the tone of a large bulk of the game? What would it be like to learn about Columbia's inner social turmoils by viewing real people engaged in tense daily struggles as they slowly mount? Would breaking into firefights feel more uncomfortable, if you had been slowly developing a relationship with Columbia as a somewhat peaceful, perhaps even slightly happy place? What would that do for the game's narrative? What if the "mental math" the player did actually produced a rising horror, instead of comfort, as they realize how much they have done to cause chaos and ruin something that might have been better without their involvement? How could this support the eventual twist of the story? Most of all, does this kind of thing actually have to be a gameplay choice, or could the designer selectively determine where to insert violence as a way of creating an emotional response in the player?

Defining "Games"
There's no definitive answer to the way that games "should" be. The main thing that we should consider, however, is that the term "game" is currently being used to define a lot of incredibly disparate forms of entertainment. It is also important to note that, in many cases, this label may actually be a limiting factor. I really want to play a Bioshock without emphasis on the challenge component, and I'm certain I am not alone.

Additional Reading/Viewing:
My thoughts don't exist in a vacuum, and as such there are several interesting sources to refer to for more discussion of these topics. I highly recommend you check out the following:

Jonathan Blow: Conflicts in Game Design
Chris Crawford: The Mystique of the Loop

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Grave - Open World Horror Experience

Grave focuses on creating an open-world horror experience for multiple players, and the current build is available to play on The game is currently heavily influenced by a roguelike experience, with a lot of procedural elements for spawning items and enemies. We're expanding the concept of the game as we have time to do so, and hope to see where we can take the concept.

We have worked on Grave intermittently since the Global Gamejam 2013, attempting to balance it with our regular worklives. Grave is currently being judged at Indiecade 2013, and we hope that the game does well! I'll post an update on this as we find out more.

You can find and download the game here:

UDK Tutorials

Here's a collection of some of my UDK tutorials. There are a few more that I did for UAT a while back that should be posted soon, including more DX11 tutorials.

DK DirectX 11 Tutorial: Bokeh Depth of Field

UDK Post-Process Tutorial: Eye Adapatation

 UDK Kismet Tutorial: Intermediate - Building a Horseshoes Mini-Game

Photoshop Texturing tutorials Parts 1 and 2

These are the first two parts of my texturing tutorial that I did for UAT while I was working at the Learning Enhancement Center. I hope to get the other two parts up soon.

Photoshop Game Texturing Tutorial Part 1 - Normal Maps, AO and XNormal

Photoshop Game Texturing Tutorial Part 2 - Painting Base Color Layers and Details

Greetings to the Blog-O-Sphere

after a good chunk of deliberation, I've decided to jump into the blogging scene. The goal of this blog is to be a repository of the things that I do, what I think about and anything I find interesting. Hopefully, a few of you out there will find this stuff interesting as well.

I'm going to start by consolidating the highlights of some of the things I've done over the past few years, such as talks, games and tutorials. After that, it's a bit of what strikes me.

As a game designer, I spend a lot of my personal time thinking about games and the ways that they communicate, so I expect a good chunk of that in my blog. I'm not interested in writing "reviews" in the traditional sense, but I do like to talk about games and what they accomplish via their mechanics and structure.

I try to keep myself generally literate, so the things I talk about won't always be confined to games. Like any good creative medium, a discussion of games benefits from a broader context. Movies, books, history and politics are all relevant in one way or another, so expect a little bit of that interspersed.

If you find these topics interesting, I'd love to hear your opinions. Post some comments and we might have a discussion about it. I look forward to giving this whole "blogging" thing a shot.