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Video games

The importance of character creation

This may be an unpopular view, but I can count the gaming characters I have genuinely related with on both of my hands, it is a tiny number, a feeble landmark considering all the thousands of games I have played and enjoyed.

While I can share the moods of any given character, appreciate their tragedy or enjoy their success, the average video game story feels more like their narrative than mine, I am borrowing the moment from them, and I hand it back when the goal is reached.

Valeska the PSO android looks out over the crater sunset.

Me, myself and I

The exception to this rule are the characters that I have created, these are the personas I can identify with best as through time and emotional toil I’ve had a hand in their making. They share my personality entirely rather than me attempting to bash mine into a predefined character, they have my appearance preferences, they share my hair colour, eyes and sense of self, they even wear the clothes I desire (or sometimes the things I wouldn’t be caught dead in.)

But above all they cannot exist without me, the adventures we partake in are ours, they stop when turn the console off and they return when I resume. These characters exist only for me, while we explore the world of any game, many others will follow the paths I take, and many more will see the places, but few if any will decide as I do, move when I do, explore and run and enjoy the ride. So even if another plays them, their journey is not quite the same as my unique playthrough.

That’s not to say that looking back on an adventure played with a normal character can’t be a brilliant experience also. Sometimes it’s nice to escape from our own image, to walk a mile in someone elses shoes, and in that regard the majority of my favourite games have involved playing as another person, following their unique stories, watching the influences of the other characters around them. The key is to maintain a healthy balance between playing the character that you want to share your personality with, and the character who will invariably end up lending you theirs for a moment.

My oblivion assassin at the Imperial waterfront.

The free-world agenda

If I find myself playing a game when I am a rigid character I long for the ability to customize, all too often this means the ability to choose the correct gender, to mould a gruff male warrior into the being that represents me. An average game (despite its apparent excellence elsewhere) leaves me little room to be anything other than “him”. As a result very few video game characters meet with me eye-to-eye – certainly compared to the characters that I have made. I have admired the adventures of Jade and Alyx and many other magnificent men and women. I have appreciated their intelligence and personality, but bold – yet engaging – (female) characters such as these are still sadly the rarity not the norm.

As long as developers continue to dictate that “I” must play “he” in certain games there will be a minute distance between the games I like and the ones I love. This doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the narrative or even the fun of the characters or any of the many other hundreds of enjoyable components of a game – but it does highlight the contrast between who I am for that game and who I want to be, and it’s jarring.

Sadly even the biggest, most open gaming world is usually closed to females in this regard. The world may be enormous, beautiful and begging to be explored but it’s slightly hollow if the character you’re exploring it in is usually the same generic male persona.

Valeskaleneux, the Rainbow Six Vegas Senior Master Sergeant.

It’s in the best interest of everyone that more games blend the themes of character customization and story-led content. Bioware have shown us that how a game can work in duality, allowing for both male and female audiences, for personal traits and preferences, Bethesda have shown us that this element can work on an open landscape, and Valve’s Left 4 Dead along with Gearbox’s Borderlands has shown that including a playable female character even in the most percieved “male genre” does work.

The gaming characters I identify with most characters are the beings of my own creation, most people will never meet them, they will never gain the notoriety or credence of bigger, more popular personalities, but that’s okay, I know how unique they are, and that’s all that matters.

This post was part of Gamer Banter, a monthly video game discussion coordinated by Terry at Game Couch. If you’re interested in being part, please email him for details.

Other takes on this topic:

Silvercublogger: Will Sing Opera For Italian Food

Game Couch: Gabriel Knight

Aim for the Head: Friends Through The End

Extra Guy: Who I Identify With

Next Jen: I Rather Be Me

carocat.co.uk: A rushed love letter

Categories
Video games

Present day communication in games

I’m not too impressed with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories so far as too many drastic steps have been made to the original, creepy ghost town. The Silent Hill I knew has changed beyond all recognition.

It’s saving grace is the inclusion of the phone, arguably updating the original game’s major oversight; we are now a generation of gamers who are always online, but most present day games don’t always reflect this.

Digital natives

We are among the first generations of digital natives, with smart phones and always on internet access it’s becoming harder to remember what living without the internet, or mobile phone technology was like. To those even younger than ourselves to which our reliance of technology is all they have ever known, the widespread absence of communication technology in gaming must be jarring.

There are a few notable exceptions of course, for all the debate the series creates Grand Theft Auto – particularly Grand Theft Auto IV, managed to present this aspect of our lives well, our tendancy to browse, our reliance on phones to communicate with others used as a primary way to stay in touch with the games key contacts. For the context of GTA4 ignoring massive aspects of our lives like the internet was just not conceivable, but there are a great many reasons why these devices are left out of other games.

Looking at some violent video game news online in Fahrenheit.

The survival horror case study

This brings me back to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In life we pump the computing equivalent of gigabytes worth of information into our minds daily, through watching TV, browsing the internet; in truth even by playing a game we add to this total. Most games do not reflect this; as the thrills of adventure in or this case horror rely on a lack of information, the steady drip, drip, drip of slow perfectly paced moments of story and realisation. It does not suit the context of most games to have the constant deus ex machina in the form of a mobile phone in arm’s reach. How different would the outcome of the original Silent Hill been if Harry was able to look up call the police, look up Silent Hill online, or simply gain comfort from knowing he was contactable by still being tied to the outside world inexplicably?

Shattered Memories does at least try to answer some of these questions. I was able to attempt the actions that I would have tried in a normal situation; attempt to call the police, then attempt to call home. Although the method of of communication in Silent Hill is still pretty linear it does at least attempt to open up the world a little more. The inclusion of the phone does mean that Silent Hill is a little busier than I’d like, with more people dotting it’s streets, with Cybil the police officer, and other notable characters contactable at a moments notice. If anything the phone helped to tie up the game events more; allowing for a GPS system that marks Harry’s location, and a phone reception indicator that was able to point out quite obviously the stranger moments of the game where Harry is disconnected from the outside world.

Trying to dial 911 for help.

Video games often deal with wilder themes than most other mediums, such as the supernatural and spiritual, and as such we tend to take the stranger moments of video games on board without giving it a second thought. A modern device is a great way to give the weirder elements of the Silent Hill some credence, this is continued with newer elements such as the smartphone’s camera confirming elements that the naked eye can’t see.

And despite the lack of communication, electronic devices can still play a huge role in games. Radios and phones are used extensively in survival horrors such as Silent Hill to make a very tangible link to the enemies fought thus proving their physical existence. Although characters like Harry can’t always benefit from the intended use of communication devices they are still his first port of call. Even then video game settings often represent a desperate hour of need, the breakdown of society or isolation for single player games, in which case relying on older methods of communication such as the radio suits the tone of the game.

Shattered Memories has shown that including a greater emphasis on our media-savvy minds doesn’t necessarily mean a detrimental effect to gameplay. While the psychological moments of the game are well-touted the braver steps towards the inclusivity of technology hasn’t made as much of an impact. So why don’t more games do this, and it is simply a matter of time before most games do?

Harry looks at the school poster mentioning that electronic devices are banned.

Will games ever catch up?

While lots of games have some way for multiple characters to communicate, it’s rare for games to look at how switched on we all are, the real life impact of all the time we spend at a screen in one setting or another. FPSs ironically perhaps present this best, using in-game military connections to maintain cross-character links, this combined with the fact that in-game communication is such a given, often without explanation we as gamers tend to look over this theme entirely.

The internet is such a huge part of our lives and most modern day settings are going to find our always online “life in front of a screen” mentality harder and harder to ignore. I’d like to see more games make a half-decent attempt acknowledging some of the most open communication channels we as a civilization have ever had.

If you can please take a moment to point out more of the fabulous games that do.

Categories
Video games

The Spoiler Problem

Rather a big game came out this week, and it occurred to me that I am more at risk of having the narrative of Mass Effect 2 spoiled for me than I ever was with the original.

This is because the excitement of a new game creates ripples online, with all most gamers eager to share their personal experiences in a greater number of ways. What is most interesting about spoilers is the choices we all make about what to share, and what to keep secret; I know it as the spoiler moral compass. As you’d expect this post contains no spoilers.

Different viewpoints

As gamers we have differing opinions about what a spoiler is, I would describe the definition of a spoiler as anything that reveals a significant detail about anything narratively interesting. To some this means keeping the ending of a game quiet, to others it means keeping as much of the story of the game as unknown to others as possible, including pictures, descriptions or even hints to particular events.

This is because some people are happier to discuss game elements than others. Some prefer to read as much information as possible about a particular game before it comes out, others choose to read very little, it’s in this way that information that is out in the public domain can still be a spoiler to a certain amount of the gaming community – those preferring their first experience with a game to be that be completely new, out of the box, a complete unknown. This is now even harder to do than ever before.

So how do we each develop a moral compass about spoiling games? Usually it comes out of the process of having a game that we’ve particularly enjoying spoiled by another, an avoidance strategy to stop it happening to ourselves or someone else. As a result some gamers become as defensive of game plot, bosses or events as developers, keen to improve the chances of other player’s experience.

Even someone hinting what is likely to happen to a game or character ruins the “as intended” concept, for every game be it the most personal single player journey to the largest multi-player experience, the difficulty remains how to keep “the secret” as something we can each piece together ourselves, so we can all enjoy that beautiful epiphany moment independently.

So we do largely depend on one another to contain ourselves, to leave those tiny morsels of details for others to appreciate, and despite the massive temptation to throw ourselves into debate it’s important that we continue to have those moral struggles about whether to share or hide plot or gameplay information.

My version of Shepard, the female version based on my original Mass Effect character.

Time and location

The age of the game in question is also an interesting premise, older games that have passed a gamer by are usually fair game when it comes to spoilers, the deciding factor of which is a combination of whether the game in question existed in this generation or the last, or even before, and that respective games influence. After all in the eyes of a new player, does a massive story spoiler from a game that’s ten years old have any less impact than a game released one week ago?

Even if nothing is narratively is spoiled by these discussions, there is always the risk that positive or negative associations about a game are being noted by the person yet to play, with their opinion of the game effected beforehand, for better or worse.

While some developers put limits on what can be openly discussed by gaming magazines or websites there are no such limits on the public domain. Once a game has reached it release date it often becomes fair game out on the world wide web. The problem being that even with a growing number of worldwide simulatenous releases, there will always be a region of the world who gets a particular game after everyone else, and even if this is not the case, timezones and distances add to the problem.

What I often see as a gamer in Europe is players from other parts of the world openly discussing a game which was out weeks, maybe even month ago (for them), the Pandora’s box has opened and much of the information that was candid has now been exposed to the most amount of people possible from that region. This period of time seems to last in direct correlation to the games initial release date, and then another factors such as the time it would take an average gamer to complete, plus an extra amount of time for slow completions, as such I would argue that regions including Europe and Australia (among others) are most as risk to the open dialogue that begins once a portion of the community finishes a game and takes time to reflect.

A larger view of the Illusive Man smoking in front of a gaseous planet.

Expanding web and social networks

Back in the old days of the web it was easy to stay clear of information that compromised a game. Websites or forums where games are discussed almost always have a moral codes surrounding spoilers. These days with the rise of the ability to make impulse broadcasts about game thoughts and progress on social networks like twitter, it’s even harder to avoid snippets of information that could ruin a particular moment.

The changing face of the web is the biggest risk for the gamer. Every corner of our favourite gaming websites are a minefield for spoilers, some handle this better than others, clearly marking any content that may effect their readership, but this is an editorial decision on the part of the website or publication, which in turn boils down to a personal decision by the moderator, editor or contributor about what may or may not be spoiler content. Morally and editorially it’s almost as difficult as trying to decide what may offend someone, difficult to predict and hard to imagine the consequence until it’s far too late; another game ruined, or weakened, by the inadvertent slip of the spoiler moral compass.

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Video games

Quick Time Events: A gaming menace

Following on from a previous post about how to improve the gaming experience. If I could choose one mechanic to remove from our pasttime it would be Quick Time Events.

If you have a moment, I’d like to make the case for why they’re a bad idea not only from a user experience perspective but also how they have a negative influence on gameplay and mood.

How it all started

Concept art from Dragon's Lair.

Dragon’s Lair is widely regarded to have one of the first instances of Quick Time Events. With required button combinations needed to be pressed in order to aid Dirk the Daring to his goal – rescuing the voluptuous Princess Daphne. It was a revolutionary idea at the time, and one fit for an extraordinary game.

Fast forward over 25 years however and QTEs are in a vast array of games from an increasing amount of genres. What was once a new and exciting idea has become an gaming mainstay, and I believe it is quickly becoming an unwelcome one.

The timed button controls suited a game like Dragon’s Lair because it was born out of the arcade scene and this new method of control suited the environment of it’s conception. Quick bursts of play, with continuous repetition to reveal more of the game to overcome problems by trial and error, and in doing so allowing others to observe and win using collaborative observation and completion.

In this sense, this age-old use of the QTE has evolved into something else entirely, a secondary and more dangerous use, a ruse to help make the cinematic moments of games more interactive or a moment to increase the tension of a particular scene. Now its not just about controlling adventure games anymore but FPSs (Call of Duty 3’s one on one button mash) Action games (Resident Evil 5’s QTE filled cutscenes) and just about everything in between. The questions I keep asking myself is how long before every game genre makes use of them, and where will developers draw the line?

Why they don’t work

I believe QTE events take the player out of the experience of the game rather than immersing them further. Before QTEs you would instinctly follow a control scheme to complete a goal. With them you’re constantly following directions from the screen, and doing so isn’t fun like similar examples (such as rhythm action games) but tense affairs as you wait for the next moment of QTE to hit.

On a narrative level they often break the forth wall, distancing you from the story on the screen by reminding you you’re playing a game often doing the exact opposite of the intended purpose. Above all Quick Time Events promote reaction speed rather than honest skill. From a design perspective QTEs change the point of eye focus from the entirety of the cut scene to the position of the button flashes, the actual story is often pushed temporarily to the peripherary vision.

Ultimately when QTEs are failed they are a signal to the gamer that they are a failure, unable to prevent a negative outcome or in many cases the death of their character. If you mistime a jump in Tomb Raider due to a genuine mistake there is at least an element of logic and more importantly a way to improve. When Lara’s death occurs because of a flippant button press outside of your control it seems more unreasonable.

A black suited man attacks Ryo, press Y to attack.

This creates a sticking point that are a distraction from the momentum of the rest of the game, and such quick failure turn around at the touch of the button increases the frustration of the regular gamer at worse, but they must be even more of a burden to more casual gamers, as they find it even more difficult to make rapid fire decisions between controller and screen.

The progression of QTE’s often follows the progress of the game – with more complicated and frequent patterns occurring nearer the end of a game. This means that they can frequently create spikes of difficulty as the QTE frequency becomes more difficult than the game itself. Even a game that uses them well struggles to find the balance between not enough and too many. If QTEs are made too rare within one game the difficulty often increases as the player struggles with each instance. If they’re too common, then the moment for the player to pause, relax and enjoy during the cutscene has gone entirely.

QTEs are frequently squeezed in to just about every part of a game. Any moments of gameplay are fair game, no moment is safe and its now become harder to take a break or put the controller down, particulary when paired with another gaming bugbear of mine – the inability to pause or skip cutscenes.

The alarming rise of Quick Time Events mean that in order to evolve the idea even more complicated button combinations have emerged including the “shake the controller to survive” scenario This leads to a watering down of what was initially quite a good idea – in moderation. The window of time in which “to succeed” becomes smaller, and varies with every game as mastering button combinations on one game will not protect you from another’s usage.

Come to think of it how many gamers do you know that actually enjoy the premise of QTEs? After all isn’t a game about enjoyment at the game of the day? When did something that so few people can actually properly engage with become not only commonplace but a practice that’s actively encouraged?

My reactions are pretty good, but I will often struggle with the most generic usage of the QTE, so it begs the question of who they are really serving, the gamer or the developer? That’s a tricky conclusion, but there are instances where Quick Time Events can work well.

Why they continue to be used

A man holds Ryo in a grip, press X to escape.

Ultimately QTEs are a way to force players to sit through cutscenes, this is backed up by the fact that a lot of QTE events often cannot be skipped – even if the player has previously played that area of the game.

They are also trying to address the criticism that certain games have become too cinematic with an overuse of FMVs with little or no gamer participation. I would argue that this is a potential arguement for more in-game cinematic sequences and skippable story.

And while I have been quite negative about QTEs so far, one of the advantages of them is they can assist the player by helping them to avoid tricky moments of combat or adding extra optional bonuses that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Placing the buttons to press in game can be rewarding if ample warning if given, such as the modern Tomb Raiders use of grapple hook buttons on usable areas.

Quick Time Events primarily add a degree of spontaneity to games, a factor that mixes up gameplay while supposedly making things more exciting. I would argue that it does it doesn’t quite manage this, and leads to more annoying, unintended outcomes. If QTEs must continue to be used there are some best practice methods that I would urge development companies to follow.

How they can work

  • Allow players to avoid combat

    QTEs are extremely useful for dodging tricky situations. At moments where combat or action is overwhelming they can be a brief moment of respite – but only if the QTEs are easier than what you were originally trying to avoid. The first Shenmue game balanced this perfectly, and as a result is widely regarded for popularising the concept.

  • Make them skippable as part of cutscenes

    Often if a cutscene has QTEs in it then it becomes immediately unskippable. There are some notable exceptions; Resident Evil 5 would allow you to keep certain QTEs that have been played before, but others remain mandatory. Ultimately if a game has cutscenes that are skippable then the QTEs should be too, ideally there should be some logic in place on the retry portion of the QTE to determine that you’ve already completed a previous section and let you retry only the one you’re stuck on.

  • Use in moderation and in the proper context

    Both of these points follow the other. QTE’s work in moderation if the action that you are performing matches the context of the game. It it in some instances logical for a button press to mean the avoidance of danger or an optional benefit, but QTEs will frequently be squeezed into any scenario. If you find yourself asking why you’re having to finish a QTE to do something then the designer has failed.

  • Simple button combinations

    Ideally QTEs should remain a single button press or direction on the d-pad, at worst a combination of two buttons which are next to one another. Other actions such as shaking the controller should be avoided if at all possible

  • Bigger margins of error

    This is a huge problem. There needs to be bigger and better time limits for the correct button combination to be entered. QTEs should be more forgiving in every instance giving gamers the best possible chance to succeed.

  • Make QTEs completely optional

    If QTEs must continue to exist then hopefully more developers will acknowledge the annoyance surrounding their use and provide an option in-game to turn them off from the offset, this would allow the player to view the cutscenes as intended without disruption. Alternatively QTEs could be used for additional or optional content providing a rewards for those that tackle them.

So, in my perfect world we’d have a QTE amnesty, but I do appreciate there are games that do use this mechanic well. I’m just struggling to think of any at this point in time. Care to suggest any?

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Video games

Violent video games for all ages

It turns out that any violent video games sold to underage kids in the UK has not been technically illegal due a loophole in the 1984 Video Recordings Act.

So for just over twenty-five years a lot of the negativity that gaming has courted in this country since the “video nasty” era of the 1980s has been upstaged by an even bigger blunder over legislation.

Won’t someone think of the children?!?

The revelation that the UK’s 1984 Video Recordings Act is fundamentally flawed raises considerable concerns for the future of video game classification.

Technically speaking right now any child could walk into a games shop and buy any 18 rated game or DVD they desire – with no current formal repercussions for the retailer. I don’t expect a flurry of underage gamers mostly because most decent game shops wouldn’t allow it, but I do hope this will help to ignite debate about the way games are sold in this country again.

Put it this way every single game that the BBFC has ever reviewed for a mature release into this country is affected – that’s a massive back-catalogue.

It puts the furore made over every single violent game released in doubt – and makes any changes made to any violent game on “accessibility to children” grounds ever so slightly absurd, comedic infact. I cannot help but laugh.

Imagine if this had happened in the States, specifically at the time when Hot Coffee in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas reared its ugly head. How differently could things have been if a legal blunder as big as this meant that the mature rating giving to that game in retrospect was not only technically redundant then, but had been for the last twenty-five years.

My Fable baby is covered with the red 18 rating.

A little context to the 1984 Recordings Act

Retailers, consumers and parents have been saying for years that our current games rating system is inherently flawed, difficult to enforce and hard to understand.

We currently operate on a two tier system – violent videogames intended for the over 18s are rated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which also handles other legally enforceable ratings such as 12 and 15.

Everything else is classified using the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system which works on a code of conduct model and serves as an advisory scheme to help parents make decisions on what games are suitable for their child using iconography.

Ironically it is the planned movement from the BBFC system to a new legally enforceable PEGI system that uncovered this serious loophole, and it will continue to exist for the next three months until emergency legislation can be passed to plug it up.

How did this happen? Basically when compiling the Act the Conservative government of 1983 failed to inform the correct European Authority of the intention to make it law, so parts of the Act never became law, subsequently it wasn’t checked by numerous Labour governments.

A Mario Kart winning picture, Peach and Mario's faces are covered by an 18 rating.

This raises some huge questions

By my reckoning the BBFC have been responsible for classifying games since 1985 – why was this not noticed just one year after the newly passed act came into power? And even worse not noticed again by the government in 1993 and 1994 when the law was reviewed?

It has taken until 2009 – when a potential new ratings system is being pencilled in to protect children from violent media that they could undoubtedly access anyway. How does replacing one unenforceable system with another make our games system any more tenable?

I’m convinced no one really cares, and that’s a crying shame – because before this loophole even existed the games rating system was already broken, and it’s a problem you’ll find absolutely everywhere regardless. It’s because games are deemed something suitable for children and not a emerging and varied medium – like film – capable of displaying the very best and very very worst of what we are.

Parents buy unsuitable games for their children regardless of the ratings, they cannot be told at point of sale and they certainly won’t pay attention to governments especially with bureaucracy like this fresh in their minds.

It’s a hilarious day to be a gamer, sing the blunder from the rooftops – when the next Rockstar game comes around the UK government won’t have a leg to stand on.