Category Archives: Game Design

An in-depth analysis of design choices and other elements common in video games.

Bad controls are a good trend

With the runaway success of Twitch Plays Pokémon, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in games that goes back a few years. The chaotic nature of thousands of people trying to play Pokémon is appealing because of how difficult it makes the game. In fact, the addition of the democracy system was very controversial among viewers with the general consensus being that it takes the fun out of the game. It seems that other video games have experimented with poor controls with entertaining results. Video games such as: Surgeon Simulator 2013QWOP and Octodad all have intentionally terrible controls yet are entertaining because of this design choice and not in spite of.

This should fetch a fine price on the black market. Image Credit: Steam Store.

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Minimalism in Games

If there’s one thing video games are lacking right now, it’s a notion of restraint. If you weren’t aware, Call of Duty: Ghosts released this week, and that’s about as over-the-top as a video game can get. Grand Theft Auto V, which is the biggest game this year (possibly ever) is sprawling with more gameplay features than you can shake a stick at. Assassin’s Creed IV does the same, swamping the player in collectibles and side-quests. Developers are caught up in an endless race to outdo each other by throwing in as much content as they can into their products. Games are less about being an expression, and more about being a time-sink.

So many games are throwing in multiplayer, an XP system, and trying to be open world. The biggest games this year, whether it’s Tomb Raider or Batman: Arkham Origins, don’t have a trace of inspired game design. Rather than making a game with a distinct vision, developers are throwing every previously established idea at a wall and seeing what sticks. There’s value in minimalism that few games seem to embrace.

It might be a while before any game gives so much with as little as Limbo.

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The ingredients of Horror

In the spirit of the holidays (with today being Halloween), it feels to appropriate to discuss the use of horror in video games. Specifically I want to answer the question: What makes a video game scary?

There are a lot of elements to fear in video games. The interactive nature of the medium makes fear such an effective form of entertainment. A game can scare players even after they’ve put down the controller. Unlike a movie or a book, a game can make a player experience fear directly and that’s what makes the genre so appealing  in games. After some careful pondering, I’ve determined that there are three crucial elements to making any game scary.

Where is your god now?

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Story versus Gameplay

A good story is one of the biggest marketing point of almost every video game, second only to pretty graphics. Consider how the majority of video game commercials advertise graphics and story while avoiding showing actual gameplay. There’s even a trend among First-Person-Shooters such as Halo and Call of Duty to use live-action trailers. Gameplay is by far the most important aspect of any game, yet it was seldom shown in the massive marketing campaigns of Mass Effect 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV. There’s a number of video games in which the story and the gameplay are at odds with each other. I previously argued that the trend of video games becoming linear and cinematic undermined the interactivity of the medium; this is still true however the disconnect between story and gameplay occurs across several genres, even open-world games. Read the rest of this entry

Console vs PC Gaming

It’s a classic debate that has occurred in living room couches and in front of desktop keyboards and given it’s prevalence among gaming forums it’s inevitable that sooner or later I would talk about it. It’s a very simple question: Which is better, Console gaming or PC gaming? For the purposes of this argument, Console gaming applies to all video games played from a home console ie: PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, etc. PC gaming applies to video games played on a computer after some sort of download or mandatory install, therefore Farmville does not count as PC gaming but Plants vs. Zombies does. I’m not so much going to say which I prefer but instead I’ll look at both arguments and see which one makes a better point.

PC games always have better graphics than their console counterparts, if your machine can run it.

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Religion & Video Games

At last we have come to the end of February, and the end of concept month. Over the last four weeks I’ve discussed: Violence, RacismRomance and Politics; and how each of these issues relates to video games. To close it out, this week’s topic is Religion. It may not seem evident right away, but many video games have used aspects of religion, at least as a concept to enhance the player’s experience.

Last week, I mentioned that Skyrim featured a civil war and that it allowed to the player to express a political viewpoint. I also mentioned that this war was essentially a religious war, being fought over ban on worshipping a particular deity. This isn’t the only example of religion in Skyrim. There are a set of side-quests that allow the player to interact with some of the gods, there are even temples that allow the player to pray and receive blessings from these same gods. It may not be as fleshed out as the politics, but Skyrim affords players the opportunity to make a small religious statement. This example, however, is looking at religion from a mythological perspective. It looks at the gods and creatures as if they were real, it’s a perspective that both of God of War and Devil May Cry use effectively. This is a cool thing for video games to draw inspiration from, but it leaves out the most interesting aspect of religion; faith.

“Do you have a moment to talk about Jesus?”

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Politics & Video Games

Politics is probably the last thing that most people have on their minds while playing a video game (that and the stock market maybe). This isn’t surprising after all most people play video games to get away from politics. The reason why I bring this up is because featuring politics is a very natural way to add depth to a video game’s story. In most instances, video games feature a bare-bones version of politics but the few games that don’t do this, are significantly deeper because they feature politics. Seeing as it is still the self-proclaimed concept month of February, I think it’s appropriate to discuss politics in video games.

As I said before, most video games that feature politics, have a stripped down version; it’s usually framed as a quest/mission. This is true for pretty much every role-playing-game. In most examples, political beliefs and morals are irrelevant as far as the player is concerned.The Mass Effect games do have  bit of politics in each installment, however most of the trilogy is spent fighting bad guys and flirting with sexy aliens (or humans). Unfortunately, the Mass Effect Trilogy, a franchise that is all about choice and consequence, misses the opportunity to allow the player to express themselves politically. There are moments in the trilogy (specifically in the first and third game) that resemble political issues but they are examined through a moral lens and not a political one. If a gun control debate, like the one currently going on in the US was brought up in Mass Effect, supporting gun control would probably be “Paragon” and opposing it would be “Renegade”. This doesn’t add any political themes to the game, it’s merely more content for the player to sift through.

To be fair, the Council would probably be more concerned about reporter security than gun control.

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Romance & Video Games

While most couples in the real world are probably busy sending each other chocolates or tacky Hallmark cards, I wonder how the numerous video game couples would spend their valentine’s day. I also wonder how Valentine’s Day would play in a video game. In a game like Mass Effect, you would probably have to talk down the florist by either persuading or threatening them to lower the price of roses. In a game like Final Fantasy, you would probably have to collect X amount of item A, which only drops from Monster B, which can only be found at location C (yeah you get the idea). After pondering this for a bit, it’s dawned on me that romance is rarely done well in video games. Seeing as it’s still the concept-themed month of February, and in honor of Saint Valentine, let’s talk about video games and romance.

For the sake of clarity let me define romance as follows: Romance is the event (either or developing or ongoing) in which two people form an emotional connection (ie: Love), either through a genuine bond or because the writer says so. Romance in video games is often reduced to a simplistic quest for a reward such as character insight, emotional support or the obligatory sex-scene (or all three if it’s Mass Effect). I hate to break it to you all, but romance in the real world does not work this way (what a shock). I haven’t been in a relationship myself, but I think it’s safe to assume that the relationship itself is its own reward. In video games, there’s always a point where the romance stops; where the romance is paused so that the main story can continue. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow the romance to be ongoing or to naturally develop like it would in real life. This ultimately results in romances that are always separate from the narrative. It’s very rare for the romance to mesh with the narrative.

In a franchise otherwise devoid of good writing, the romance between the Master Chief and Cortana in the Halo games is one of the few relationships done well in a video game.

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Racism & Video Games

This past Saturday a twitter war broke out relating to probably the most sensitive issue, not just in gaming but in all media in general: Racism. If you haven’t been following I’ll give you the quick version. Gearbox released Borderlands 2 last September, like it’s predecessor it features of all sorts of quirky and fun characters, one of which is an unstable 13-year-old girl named Tiny Tina, who uses a vocabulary similar to “ghetto” African-Americans. This apparently made some certain players uncomfortable and one player in particular sent out this tweet. This resulted in several other tweets between Gearbox and various players. So, keeping in line with the theme of discussing larger concepts for the month of February, this week’s topic is going to be about the relationship between racism and video games.

To be fair, I would question the mental stability of anyone who has the word badonkadonk in their vocabulary.

I can’t help but feel frustrated by this news. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Tiny Tina’s “ghetto” vocabulary is invoking racial stereotypes, but not to show that she’s a racist character, but to show her naïvety. A mentally unstable thirteen-year-old girl probably lacks the wisdom to see past a racial stereotype. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume Tina thinks “ghetto” talk is cool; hence it’s easy to conclude she’s a naïve character. What bothers me even more is not just that most of the people who complained about Tina’s dialogue were white but that this event shows that regardless of context, video games aren’t “allowed” to use any racial stereotype. This is further reinforced by the fact that Anthony Burch (who wrote Tina’s dialogue) actually offered to change her character in response. Even though it’s a legitimate part of Tina’s character, the very person who knows the character best is being apologetic in the face of criticism. Burch isn’t at fault here; anything he says ultimately reflects Gearbox so he has reason not to say the wrong thing. This type of attitude however, reflects a deeper problem within the industry.

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Violence & Video Games

All throughout the month of February I’m going to examine specific aspects of video games as a medium. (Yes, I know it’s not February yet, shoot me.) This week I’m going to talk about how video games portray violence. First let me address what everyone thinks about when they see ‘Violence” and “Video Games’ in the same sentence. Video games do not cause violent behavior; there is no scientific evidence that supports otherwise despite what a certain US Senator may think. And let me be clear that when I say violence, I mean violent crimes: murder, assault, arson, etc. Now that that’s out-of-the-way let’s begin.

The overwhelming majority of video games feature violence, at least in some capacity; some games are far worse offenders than others. Games like God of War, Gears of War, and any military shooter (I’m looking at you Call of Duty) market violence as a selling point of the product, whether it’s through the context of the military or just wanting to see blood and gore. I don’t think I need to go into detail about why video games are so violent…but I will anyways. Violence is fun when you know it’s not real. Whether it’s beating up bad guys in Batman: Arkham City, killing zombies in Left 4 Dead, or slaying dragons in Skyrim, violence is a release. There’s nothing wrong about any of the three games I just mentioned, the problem is the unbalanced portrayal of violence in video games, which is far worse than any other medium.

Nothing says anger management like ripping off a guy’s head with your bare hands.

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