Tuesday, 13 May 2014

When Game Developers Drop The Ball: Incompatible Game Mechanics


My grandfather told me something a long time ago that never left me. I was sitting with him in the pub, him drinking his pint of bitter and I, at the tender age of 7, was eating my small packet of crisps and drinking a strong shandy due to the bartender owning a pub in the countryside where people give much less of a shit. We had been in silence for a lot of the time, when suddenly a stranger entered the pub and received a lot of unsubtle glances from the patrons of the pub, including my own grandad. The man, who was not remarkable in any memorable way walked through the bar area and sat down with his male companion in the corner of the pub away from our own table.

My grandfather stared at me from across the table, leaned in and told me that the man who had just entered was a queer and was a blight on the village. He went on to inform me that being in love with another man was a thing that only dirty bastards did and that if I ever thought of doing anything like it then I should be expected to be disowned by the family faster than I'd known what had hit me.

In the years that followed I came to the conclusion that my grandfather might not have been the wise sage that he had appeared back in those days, and in some ways was in fact quite an intellectually stagnant and irrational old and bitter fool. But even though our opinions on the gays have changed since that day, there is one element of his words that I can never disagree with.


What my grandfather was really rallying against, was not simply constrained to the idea that homosexuality was bad, but instead he found the idea of something going against its intended nature, irrevocably abhorrent. Men are supposed to fuck women and if any element of this procedure is changed, then the whole thing is a mess; structurally and functionally broken. This idea was one that was too great for him to fathom. He was a structured man, buried brow deep in routine and any changes to the systems and rules that he had established were not to even be approached with anything other than blind rage and an intent to make it stop immediately.

Flash forward a few years and I found myself playing Dark Souls, growing increasingly more confused as I tried to discover the location of the Four Kings. After finally giving up and checking a wiki, I discovered that the Four Kings could be found by jumping down a giant pit that appeared to lead to a fatal drop. All previous instances of falling off a ledge in the game had been presented as bad and incredibly annoying, usually leading to death and failure. Yet now here I was struck by how the game had so casually just changed its mind on the entire falling down holes rule as if it was some failing on my behalf. I experienced rage. I experienced hate towards the developers at the very thought that the rules which they had expressly established throughout the course of the game had now been reversed for reasons that I couldn't have possibly even begun to understand.

And it was then, I experienced empathy as I recalled the hatred that my grandad had shown towards those gay men and every following gay man. I understood his disgust at them, not for the people that they were, but what they represented to him. They were the exceptions to the rule, the ones who broke the established code of conduct. They were the pit of the Four Kings.

A comparison to a homophobic old man might be a strange one to make, but I feel that if you've ever met a homophobic old man, which I believe most people will have; then it is a very immediately striking image of just how angry a person can be. This in turn makes it easier for you to then conceptualise just how angry I get at developers who move the goal posts of their game mechanics.

I'm not saying that there can't be variation or lateral thinking in video games, but it is in the nature of games in their current form that they must adhere to strict rules. Maybe a day will come when the physics and AI in games is dynamic enough to allow for flexible solutions to issues you face in game. But as it stands this is not the case. Games by their current nature are as unnatural as it comes in terms of problem solving and no matter how open ended a game may appear, it will never be completely so.

Long ago, Tetris gave you a simple set of boundaries in which to complete a simple task; that being to make lines of blocks in order to advance and avoid failure. Modern games are just more complex versions of this. When you're given a task in Skyrim, Assassin's Creed or even GTA V, it doesn't matter how free you may feel; there are still underlying rules that must be obeyed in order to complete your goals. For instance, if you were asked to find the location of a person's house in real life, you would probably tackle the problem by asking someone who might know them or checking the internet for their address. Try this in Skyrim and you will find yourself immediately stuck by the fact that the people in this realm only answer to pre set questions, none of which may be the one you're looking for.

Games are binary. There can be at max, a handful of ways to achieve a task, and it is the games responsibility to inform you of the handful of ways, either by blatantly telling you them or illustrating them through the mechanics of the game. A good example of this would be the first see saw puzzle that you encounter in Half Life 2. The game has frequently demonstrated that it has a physics engine and that you can interact and pick up items. When you are unable to reach the platform above you and see only a balancing piece of wood and a few concrete slabs in front of you, all the information to find your solution is in front of you.

Games can be hard, they can be subtle, I can accept all of these things. At best I can blame myself for buying a product that I am simply not good enough to play. I don't have anyone to blame but myself and it doesn't fill me with anger but instead just disappointment. But what a game can't be is vague. When a game is vague and doesn't explain itself then it makes it not my fault but the fault of the developer. When a game is hard and I succeed then it is my win because I used my brain and skill to overcome the challenge. If a game is vague and I accidentally succeed simply because I tried every random option that I could think of, then that isn't my success. It is simply that I accidentally did the correct thing for random reasons that I could've easily not have done, in spite of how the game was designed.

This is the reason why I'm not a big fan of point and click adventure games back from the Tim Schafer days. I find that the broken logic that lends someone to have to jam every item with every other item in order to advance the story unsatisfying when I overcome it.

But on that note and after this lengthy intro, I want to look at some games which fall victim to this. I'm not looking at games that I think are terrible or even necessarily terribly designed overall. Some of these games are my favourite games ever. I'm simply looking at instances within these games when they go against the mechanics that they have put forward as the rules of play. Games which have moments in them that fly in the face of how the game is designed to play and take you on a little trip into moments that have driven me mad simply because the game's designers don't seem to be able to have a consistent idea about what type of game they're making.

HITMAN: CODENAME 47 – FIGHTING PABLO


So the controls are stiff, the main character is slow all hell and you die quicker than a medieval peasant wench accused of being a witch. But it's all good because this game doesn't require you to move fast. This is social stealth. The kind of stealth where you can whack on a new change of clothes and no one gives the slightest damn who you are because Hitman lives in the most superficial society ever where it's all about what you wear.

I'm about to complain about action segments in Hitman games. I know that this is a strange complaint given how the latest instalment of Absolution has finally made action quite a staple and workable addition to the series, although if I may say a completely unwanted and terrible addition, removing any originality that the series had. But Absolution has an entirely new engine and design team to make this work, with IO Interactive learning a lot about to do a shooter through their experiments with the Kane and Lynch series.

The earlier versions of the game however don't have this luxury of being built as a competent third person shooter, instead having the camera constantly stuck to 47's back, giving him very little visibility and movement when it came to evading enemies quickly. This is the reason why the game is designed to allow 47 to hide in plain sight. It means he doesn't need to evade enemies and sneak around at lightning speed. Hitman is an observation game, where the player walks around at their own pace, avoiding guard's at a distance and watching patrol movements for the perfect moment to walk briskly in as covertly as possible. If at any point you are noticed, every enemy in the area is immediately aware of your position and will hunt you relentlessly until you are dead.

If you are found out, it's best to restart because you will never have either enough ammo, which is sparse around the levels. Nor will you have the control over 47 to pull off any swift escapes.

Hitman's most effective melee attack is simply banging his spiky head into the face of his enemies

It is this fact which makes the missions set in the Columbian jungle of the first game even more confusing. The mission starts with you having to run around the jungle looking for a tribe, so that you may get directions to a secret drug facility. After having managed to kill the target in the area, a man who stays completely still on a bridge surrounded by guards, giving you no other choice than to shoot him loudly with a sniper; then you're finally able to leave the area...

...at which point you get attacked by a jaguar. Being a game not designed for straight up combat, as well as a game that has never introduced the idea of non human combatants before this, this jaguar will likely kill you. Being a game with no in mission checkpoints, this jaguar is doubly tedious as it means a lot of repeating this massive map of a world to get back here.

Once you've killed the jaguar, which yet again is an enemy designed to not be able to approach with any level of stealth, like the game is intended for; you then make your way to kill your target Pablo.

You sneak through his facility, avoiding guards and security checkpoints. You sneak to his office, silently incapacitating the two guards patrolling outside his office so you can make a quiet kill. You walk in through the door and it turns out the character is one big hilarious Tony Montana reference, who snorts a shit ton of blow and then continues to fire a machine gun wildly around the room.

This creates two issues. Firstly, it means that there is no other way to kill this target other than a full on gun fight, which given that this is primarily a stealth game which relies on silent melee kills most of the time, then you won't have a lot of ammo on you. You will also be fighting him using controls that are designed for a game that is primarily a slow stealth game, so your ability to avoid his machine gun fire will be mostly impossible.

Secondly, it will alert every guard in the area, who if they catch you, will also shoot at you. This gives you about 20 seconds to kill this boss, who due to his cocaine intake apparently has a mile long health bar, which isn't visible since enemies in this game have been established to die with one head shot, leaving you fighting an enemy with an unknown amount of health; further breaking the rules set by the game. So you are left to kill this mystery health boss, using shitty controls, limited ammo and with a time limit so that you may avoid the inbound army of guards on their way.

A poor Scarface reference isn't enough to get this frustrated over a game. This level throws random action encounters your way and the game just isn't designed mechanically for you to be able to handle these situations. What's more confusing is that this occurs on the level that has the largest map and so therefore involves the most walking in order to get back to your position where you died. All in all it's one of the worst designed missions that I've ever seen in a Hitman game and as much as I disliked Absolution, I'll take it's pointless but well designed combat over this mess any day.

MANHUNT – THE MANSION ASSAULT


I think it's a shame that when Manhunt came out, its violent content was all people noticed. Although it is way too over the top at points, I actually thought that Manhunt was a surprising little gem to come out of Rockstar games. A stealth game with a cool execution mechanic, set in a world where everyone was crazy and out to get you was something that I really thought lent the game some real challenge and atmosphere. The melee combat was super intense as you snuck behind an enemy holding out for just the last second when you could do a brutal execution on them and then running back to the shadows as the people hunting you screamed madly for you to come out to play.

The melee was great and the atmosphere was top notch. I was on the edge of my seat. The gunplay however was pretty bad. The lock on system was dodgy and would unbind from a character without any explanation. The cover system was way too clumsy, having the camera come in way too tight and making your visibility impossible for a quick getaway. Lastly the enemies were perfect shots and dealt serious damage, so if you were facing a lot of alert enemies then they would swamp and kill you. You were vulnerable in that game and were forced to take on the enemy one by one.

So of course the last mission is an insane hike through the heavily guarded gardens of your target's mansion armed only with guns and no way to take out the enemy quietly. This level was maddening. It took a ridiculous amount of trial and error and a hefty dose of luck before you could complete it and left you with no satisfaction afterwards because you knew that it was all chance that got you through.

Enemies took several shots to kill since you only had access to shotguns and they were all long range. The enemy's path finding was weird as well as they were programmed to only walk in certain areas, which meant that enemies may be chasing you down after hearing a shotgun fire from the other end of the level, but then be indifferent to checking out your luring taps on a wall just around the corner. It was a nightmare and was a low point for the game. It's another example of a stealth game wanting to mix up its mission structure but not designing the mechanics around their ideas.

FAR CRY 2 – ANY INSTANCE OF STEALTH


I'm still not sure what anyone was thinking when they advertised this game as a stealth game. The reason that Far Cry will always be forgiveable is that as the shooter that it is, it still functions. At no point was it a struggle to overcome any part of it without hurling grenades wildly towards the perfectly accurate enemies, cooped up behind a tree while shoving syringes into your arm as fast as you could and spraying a wave of bullets into anything that dared to venture within a 100 feet of you.

This was my experience of Far Cry 2. When I bought it, it was advertised as being a completely open ended strategy first person shooter. You have to kill the enemy and steal their collectibles, but you can approach it however you want. Maybe you could go in all guns blazing or maybe instead you sneak in under cover of night, taking out the guards one by one, before sneaking past the rest of the guards by using a well placed distraction of fire. Or maybe you could try to do the second idea, have the game screw up and then just switch to all guns blazing.

I've seen stealth games fail for a number of reasons. There are some that don't work because you have no way of silently dispatching your enemies. Sometimes the enemies all share a hive mind so they all become instantly alerted as soon as one of them is and other times it's simply the case that the parameters for knowing whether or not a guard has seen you is vague, making them easy to alert. In Far Cry 2's case, all of the above are the issue and much more. If the enemy so much as becomes suspicious that there might be the slightest sign of life in the area, they will hunt you down. And not only will they become suspicious, but they will come after you, guns blazing, no matter where you are in the vicinity. They will all know exactly where you are.

Even if you wanted to take them out without alerting them, it'd be almost impossible since the enemies seem to also be able to hear silenced weapons and there is no instant kill melee attack, which although cheap, is vital in a stealth game. If you can't take out the enemy from range quickly and if you can't kill them up close silently, then even suggesting that there is a stealth element to your game is pretty pointless.

I'm guessing it was just there to make the gameplay look varied, but Far Cry 2 will always be the worst stealth game ever devised, regardless of how good of a shooter it also is. Many will disagree and think it was an immersive and fun experience. But If you were like me and attempted to play the game as a stealthy character, then the game failed spectacularly.

MAX PAYNE – ESCAPING THE COLLAPSING UNDERGROUND MILITARY BASE


This has been a very stealth heavy list so far, so I'm going to now talk about game which is about as unstealthy as it gets. The best way to attack any situation in this game was wildly flinging yourself around the room in a slow mo dive and any attempts at being still or even thinking weren't advised. Just hold down the fire button and go mental was the primary design philosophy here and the game was all the better for it.

However, Max Payne did have its slower moments. Moments when you were left alone to take a breather and interact with the environment. Anything that was interactive gave way to Max giving a bad ass monologue full of metaphors about a weird porn tape that he'd find or a depraved answering machine message and it all added to the game's dirty atmosphere. Aside from shooting the game also had moments where post killing everything in the building you were in, sometimes the building, in what I imagine was an act of suicide at all the horror it had been host to, decided to fall down around Max. This led on to cool action sequences where Max would have to run through room full of exploding gas canisters and very vague areas of insta-kill fire, which were annoying but manageable with careful judgement.

But the part that really annoyed me is two instances. One is early on in the game where you are in a docking area full of shipment containers and you have to make your way over a closed bridge. Running around you find no buttons or telephones, which have up until now been the usual way to advance the action. What you're looking for however, isn't any object that is visibly interactive. Instead if you go to the corner of the level, there is a tiny yellow sign, written in very low res text that says “Use chocks when vehicle is not in motion”. Across a fence there is a truck with chocks underneath its wheels. When you go to shoot the chocks the truck will roll and smash the bridge allowing you to cross.

For a game that had set itself up as shoot to kill anything that stands in your way, the last thing I thought to do was to read the numerous signs on the wall, all of which are in such horribly low resolution that half the time I just assumed I wouldn't be able to read them and would simply be scene setting, dull shipment information. I have witnessed many times in games how terribly the ability to destroy environments is. Destructible environments are a really cool addition to gameplay and can mix the action up a lot. The problem is that due to the constraints of the game, not all of the environment can be destructible or else the thing would be horribly unbalanced. After all, why fight enemies when you could dig yourself a tunnel to the end of the map.

This is why in old games they had to combat this issue of only having specific items being destructible by making them stand out in ludicrous ways. It's why every exploding barrel in every game is always bright red and sitting among heaps of enemies. It's to tell you to shoot it, or placed so that you will accidentally shoot it and so know that they do in fact explode. Putting a small sign up in a corner is not an alternative to this and although a very subtle and neat piece of environmental story telling, is not a good idea in this case.

The game has not taught me to read or solve puzzles. It has taught me to shoot and then chucks me this one off mechanic of destroying chocks, that it will never once use again, among the flurry of bullets and death that I'd been bringing for the previous few hours. It's a juxtaposition that doesn't work all that well and was a terrible addition.

So obviously they do it again a few hours later but this time in an even more confusing way. This time you're in an underground military facility when the whole place gets too depressed and decides to self destruct like Aladin's cave of wonders, with Max tucked away inside. So Max runs away and if you survive long enough you'll find yourself in an airlock with the building crumbling around you. With less than a minute to escape and the airlock shit tight you need to find a way to escape.

The first course of action is to shoot the glass in front of you, which when you do has no animation of it smashing, so you assume it's bullet proof. You then try to dive through it, just in case it's already been blown out but even though your body goes above it, you remain in the airlock. You then fuck around for 30 more seconds until you die.

But it turns out the answer is simple and that you died in vain because you're too stupid. You just have shoot one of the proximity mines outside of the airlock. Yeah you know the mines, that are beyond the glass that is still in its frame but when you tried smashing it before hand, didn't show any sign of smashing. And when you tried to jump through it didn't let you through. So I'm guessing the bullet just materialises on the other side as you clip your gun through it.

Fuck that part of the game. I did a lot of these when I was quite young and went back to confirm that these moments were as frustrating as I remember. They all are and I'm only glad that I played them when my brain was too stupid and empty to realise that I could just turn off the damn console and never play again. I'm only glad I was that stupid as I got to play the rest of the fun game that bookmarked this out of nowhere, nonsensical puzzle. At least the chocks were destructible. This glass stands prouder and stronger than the non destructible environments that comprise the rest of the game and yet this particular part is completely breakable. Well thank God game. Thank God that you were to mix up the gameplay by including a bit that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Really keeping me on my toes.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – THE ACCURACY/SPEED PARADOX


I still don't understand the design philosophy behind Sonic the Hedgehog. I've been told it's a really fun series, but I just can't fathom how anyone thinks these games are well made. I'm not just talking about the new and universally accepted terrible 3D iterations of the series. I'll go so far as to say that I think Sonic as a whole is a badly designed mess. But don't hate me just yet because I have reasons, which I will go to say now.

Starting from the first game Sonic always seemed like an incompatible combination of platforming ideas. As soon as Green Hill zone begins, you find yourself being led down long winding paths that almost play themselves. Your input as the player is to simply hold the directional buttons right, allowing Sonic to speed on through the level. This is actually pretty fun and so you assume the game is about going as fast as possible. Then during the second stage of Green Hill zone, you will continue on this system of speeding ahead to the end of the level for as long as no obstructions prevent you from doing so. It will be at this point that you will fall down a hole.

I thought this was weird at first since the game had seemed to suggest that I should go as fast as possible through the level and not pay any caution to where I was going. So this time I play the game up until that point, slow down, jump over the hole and speed on again. But the next hole I come to is made up of 3 small platforms that I must jump over in order to clear the hole. The game now requires you to be accurate as you jump over the small gaps, but since the game is designed with Sonic going full pelt in mind, this is a problem because Sonic is floaty as all hell and is very hard to accurately move onto the platforms. So you fall down the hole.

From this point on, you are always aware that at any point now there may be a hole or enemy that will kill you. But for the majority of the time, the level design suggests that you should be going as fast as possible
and try and hit all the cool running lines that the designers have set out for you.

This causes a weird paradox where the game is telling you to be as fast as you can, but also to be aware of obstacles that you might witness as you speed helplessly towards them. Any obstacles that you might meet will also be made twice as hard by the fact that Sonic is not a game designed to do accurate and subtle movements. Sonic is designed for grand scale free running and tactful platforming and boss fights are not in this game's ability.

A loop the loop does not imply slowing down

This extends to the much more confused mess that is the 3D iterations. The levels branch off into multiple paths, have poorly sign posted routes and hoards of unavoidable enemies that stand in your way. It's only through the inclusion of multiple characters that these choices make any sense as when you're playing Tails or Knuckles or someone who doesn't move at the blistering pace that Sonic does, then you are able and happy to slow down and tackle these issues. But Sonic is terrible to handle in any controlled way and whenever you come across one of these obstacles that breaks up the free running, you ask yourself why the developer is trying so hard to ruin the only fun aspect of the game.

The hub areas are a mess as well. Taking place down tight corridor streets in cramped cities that Sonic speeds through at an uncontrollable pace, causing you to have no idea where you're going half the time. You also have to often talk to pedestrians who require you to stand in very specific spots to interact with them, which given that Sonic moves 10 feet with the lightest touch of the controls, makes the game an absolute nightmare to interact with any of the NPCs. Not that I even understand why I have to talk to any of the boring townsfolk in the game anyway, as they add nothing to the game that a simple stage selection menu would've improved on massively.

This is less of a problem with actually progressing in the game and more of an example where a game doesn't seem to know what it wants to be and so has been designed in a horrible way to achieve most of its goals. Its mechanics simply aren't designed well for the game that it is.

ANY TANK CONTROLLED SURVIVAL HORROR GAME THAT REQUIRES COMBAT


Very rarely does a poorly designed gameplay mechanic work in a game's favour. If Crash Bandicoot's jump had a delay then it'd be a bad platformer but make the controls in a horror game worse and the game simply becomes scarier.

This obviously isn't always the case. Bad controls in any game can only go so far before making it unplayable. But horror games and more specifically Japanese horror games from their first baby steps into 3D land and over a decade after that, nearly always had horrible tank controls. The combat was clunky with the camera not lining up with the character, giving your controls a weird orientation, whilst being to far out to give you a good depth perception of how far away or close the enemy was. Not only that, but their insistence that you can only turn on the spot made dodging around your enemies and being agile, a dream that we would have to wait for the great Resident Evil 4 to rectify.

But strangely with this clunky control also came a sense of vulnerability. I slag off the way these characters controlled and yet in a fight their miles more competent then I'd ever been. At least they stand up straight and swing their weapon around like an idiot rather than fall on the floor and shit themselves like an idiot. However, vulnerability can only go far until you're just plain old indefensible. The horror came from the fact that you might not last the fight against the unknowable evil that was intent on killing you. Seeing the malformed apparitions of your subconscious stumble their way out of the fog in Silent Hill 2 was terrifying because you weren't sure if you were going to survive the onslaught. Any more than a few enemies though and you knew you definitely weren't going to survive the attack and this is where terrifying turns to annoying.

Yes, it turns out reliving your own death over and over again isn't so much soul crushing as it is just plain frustrating. You try your best to wield the controls, but it seems that you hit a skill ceiling very quickly, which can't get much better due to the fact that it was never really you holding you back, just terrible animation. It gets worse in the original Resident Evils, which was never a series that grabbed me in its early format, mostly because it obstinately held on to the same flawed combat mechanic for over a decade without a care in the world.

Swinging a plank of wood around in Silent Hill 2 is all well and good because it's a bit of wood and it doesn't need to be accurate. But Resident Evil mostly uses guns and it's a very important aspect to guns that they need to be aimed. So giving me a character that turns in 45 degree allotments to adjust their targeting, as well as the fact that my eye is not staring down the barrel and instead in some fixed area among the rafters of the roof above my avatar and it becomes ever more confusing how anyone didn't see this was a terrible design from the start.

But Resident Evil and many other games like it refused to drop this completely incompatible design of gunplay, that flew right in the face of its central idea, which was that of survival. Games up to as recent as Deadly Premonition kept these tank controls but at least they had the decency to stick the camera at least halfway close to the gun for a change.

But anyway, I've gone on long enough and so I'll conclude here. I hope you enjoyed my insights into these individual game's specific game design flaws, that fly in the face of their previously established mechanics and/or general logic. These games are in no way bad, but some moments in them are. I hope you are able to empathise or even remember sharing some of these moments that frustrated the hell out of me.




9 comments:

  1. Sonic the hedgehog section made me laugh but also weep with recognition.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful depiction of the frustrations of gaming.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My motto, expect frustratingly ignoble defeat and never be disappointed!

    ReplyDelete
  4. As motto's go, that's rubbish. Good stuff, Mr B

    ReplyDelete
  5. Your talent for laughing at the ridiculous continues to amuse, mr B

    ReplyDelete
  6. About sonic - I recall that in sonic on the GBA (Sonic Advance I believe). It was in fact 100% possible to get through all of the first level by simply holding Right from the start - and you ended the level with just about 120 rings.

    I did it many times to farm up rings for buying stupid shit for the chao garden. Which linked to the chao garden on Sonic Adventure 2 Battle on the gamecube.

    Now I can't speak for other 3d Sonic games but the sonic/shadow levels of SA2B flowed pretty well in terms of speed imo after you got the hang of things and enemies were there to be quickly dodged or bounced between.
    The tails/eggman and the knuckles/rogue sections were a load of shite though.

    ReplyDelete
  7. No posts for months,

    What's happening cynics?!?!?!?!?!?

    ReplyDelete
  8. The fifth most popular game on Facebook is FishVille which is made by Zynga. FishVille has approximately 24,000,000 active users per month. Togel Singapore

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ubisoft created Splinter Cell: Conviction, where Sam is back and seeking revenge on his daughters' killer. He is also investigating a conspiracy plotted against the president of the United States. Gamers can expect this exclusive Xbox 360 game to be released on February 23, 2010. Bandar Q

    ReplyDelete