Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mario Kart = Mario Bros. on Wheels

According to an interview between Satoru Iwata and the creators Mario Kart, Super Mario Kart, the first in the series, didn’t start off as a Mario game at all. Super Mario Kart started as an attempt to create a racing game where two players could play at the same time. The prototype for this game featured a man in overalls, and about 3 months after testing the game, the staff decided it looked neat if the character was Mario racing around. And the rest is history. Today, the Mario Kart franchise features six games, each one home to a different Nintendo platform. Though each game is different the core Mario Kart experience remains the largely same. For the purposes of this essay, I will illustrate the structural similarities between the platforming game Super Mario Bros. and the Mario Kart games specifically Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Kart are all about racing. Mario races to the end of each level against the clock in Super Mario Bros., while kart driving characters (henceforth referred to as Karts) race to the end of each level against each other in Super Mario Kart. To successfully manage this race, Mario and Karts feature a set of tight, well tuned controlling mechanics complete with accelerator buttons. Holding the B button makes Mario run faster accelerating into his top speed. It is the same for the Karts except that the Karts generally use the A button. Like with any body of mass, both Mario and Karts gain momentum with increasing speeds. While Mario skids to a stop, the karts skid or drift around turns.

Mario overcomes obstacles with the use of his legendary jumping skills allowing him to hop up hills, leap over pits, and jump out of the way of danger when his momentum would have otherwise resulted in a collision. Analogously, Karts can also jump. The feather item from Super Mario Kart gives players the ability to spring over hazards, players, and even walls creating short cuts and possibilities out of thin air. This feather jump ability parallels Mario’s jump. Sadly, this item was not included in any future Mario Kart game. For the rest of the Mario Kart games (excluding Double Dash) players can hop. Hopping does everything Mario’s jump does, but on a smaller scale. By hopping into the air and then turning left or right, the player can sharply adjust their turning angle avoiding hazards at high speeds or narrowly adjusting one’s racing path. Also, hopping can be used to jump over cracks or other pitfalls. Unlike normal vehicles in more traditional racing games, go-karts are personal. Their small size and weight allows them to be scooted around by the driver. When run up against a wall, instead of reversing like in a normal vehicle, Karters can simply scoot or hop their Karts to adjust themselves.

In the Mario Bros. 2D platforming series Mario obtains a variety of powerups that are presented in context to Mario’s situation. If Mario is small, hitting the right question block will release a mushroom. If Mario is already big, then Mario will receive a fire flower powerup. Depending on the game, and the context of Mario’s state, different powerups will come up. Likewise, in all the Mario Kart games, players will receive different items depending on their rank in the race. Players at the top will receive single bananas, fake item boxes, and a green shell here and there while players at the bottom are more likely to get lightenings, golden mushrooms, spiny shells, stars, and other items that help them fight their way back to the top.

One of the highest levels of design in Super Mario Bros. is how the levels and the strategies needed to overcome its obstacles transform dynamically and uniquely with every one of Mario’s powerup transformations. When Mario is small, everything is dangerous. One hit will do him in. He also doesn’t even have the strength to bust through bricks. But when Mario is big, the player can afford to take a few risks, get hit by an enemy, and live to tell the tale. But what is most dynamic about being big Mario is, by destroying bricks, Mario is transforming the platforms on the level. For a platforming game, this is significant. If you don’t like the way you have to jump around a certain brick formation to get to the top, then use your jump and make your own formation. The fire flower powerup transforms the level in a different way. Using the fire projectiles from a distance gives Mario the ability to take out enemies from a far without endangering himself. When Mario had to jump over enemies before, now he can blast right through them. This powerup is limited in the number of fireballs Mario can launch at a time, and by the angle at which Mario throws them. Because the balls are angled down at about a 45 degree angle, enemies directly in front and above him are still a threat. In order to take out such enemies, Mario must climb ever higher to compensate. The only way Mario can get higher is by using his jump, the primary function of the game. In this way, the powerups allow players to overcome the same obstacles in the game in new ways while staying true to the core of the game. Thus what was present before is transformed.

In Super Mario Kart, each item is a powerup that transforms the level in new ways while staying focused on the primary mechanic: kart racing. The green shells fire in a straight line. Racers who attempt to hit their opponents to slow them down must first line up their shot. Doing this while racing around a track isn’t easy, but the player must also factor in how their opponent is racing. This alone emphasizes a knowledge and execution of racing, the primary function of the Mario Kart series. And it goes further. Green shells bounce back off of the walls that enclose the racing course. If you’re not careful, your green shell may come back to strike you. But, if you’re really good, you’ll use this knowledge to your advantage and ricochet your shells into your opponents.

Red shells home opponents, but this doesn’t take aiming off of the players hands. If players don’t launch these shells with caution, they can easily be nullified on walls or other obstacles before the homing path kicks in. Also, the homing feature of these shells also makes them predictable and easier to counter. Because the shell will travel along the course towards the closet target ahead of the player, it’s possible to turn in such a way as to make the shell run into a wall. Depending on the game, some red shells home better than others. Some are faster. Some can be out raced at top speed. Some jump over bumps and small gaps. Other fall and are never seen again. Knowing just how the red shell will operate is key. And if a player has a red shell coming in fast, avoiding it puts their racing skills to the test.

Bananas are a simple yet powerful item in Mario Kart. Running over one can cause a Kart to slip up and careen away. Slipping and sliding into a wall or off a cliff can be devastating depending on the level and the circumstances. Knowing where to best place a banana requires knowledge of the course and how your opponents race on any particular level. The best part about this item is that it stays on the track until something collides with it. Leaving behind a banana can turn a normal turn into a tricky turn or even a deadly one. Seeing a banana down the road can easily force a player to adjust their racing paths on the fly to avoid slipping out. Bananas also have stopping power against green and red shells. If someone is aiming for you, drop a banana or hold it behind your kart to thwart their efforts. This move is the easiest way to counter shell attacks or aggressive Karters that want to bump you from behind. Taking the risk to steer into a banana field can even provide protection from incoming attacks. Such strategies recycle bananas for use that continually feeds into the dynamics of the race: attacking, defending, and most importantly racing.

The final item I want to discuss is the mushroom powerup. This item gives the Kart a temporary boost in speed that isn’t effected by rough terrain like dirt and grass. This feature gives the player the ability to cut across what would otherwise be inefficient paths and sections of a course thus create short cuts and new paths. The sharp increase in speed also allows a light weight kart to bump heavier karts turning the tables on the weight balance for a small moment. Knocking others out of the way, or taking the less traveled path to victory are two ways the mushroom can transform track.

In Super Mario Bros. Mario can take a fatal hit from a humble goomba. Because platforming is all about jumping, and jumping involves Mario's physical space and momentum against the environment, it is only fitting that mismanaging ones physical space by running Mario against an enemy results in a penalty. It is even more fitting that jumping directly on top of most enemies conquers them. The margin between a hit or a miss is clearly defined within the game rules and the form the game has for all of the enemies and the environment. The tight controls coupled with a clear relationship of space for all the objects in the game create a very clean experience.

In the Mario Kart series, space is similarly defined. As I have mentioned previously, though the player steers a go-kart around, the hopping mechanic brings a level of self to the game. It is impossible to associate with the vehicle as opposed to the character in the vehicle, because the character driving the go-kart is so highly visible and because the hop is such a well integrated mechanic in the core gameplay. Picking a character in Mario Kart, or in any Mario game, is important because of how their individual character traits are reflected in the gameplay. Mario Kart keeps a close personal level of interaction by allowing karts to bump or ram each other like they would in go-kart racing. The bumping interacting creates depth through character weights. The terrifying koopa Bowser is the heaviest character in Mario Kart: Super Circuit. When bumping shoulder to shoulder with any other character in the game, Bowser stays on course while the other character is veered, at times, violently to the side. A relatively safe journey across a bridge can becomes deadly when Bowser is racing next to you. The bumping interaction makes every player aware of each other’s space in relation to the track.

For the 2D platforming Mario games, the whole game is designed around the primary mechanic: jump. It is impossible to beat the game without jumping. In fact, it’s impossible to get through the first 10 seconds of Super Mario Bros. without jumping. That lonely goomba makes the importance of jumping very clear from the start. The way Super Mario Bros. is designed is to provide as many interesting situations for the jumping player, which includes using knowledge of jumping, ducking, standing still, sliding, walking, and running. Each of these control mechanics and elements are designed tightly together to support jumping. Understanding the intricacies and dynamics of these mechanics takes time and practice. Instead of forcing the player to jump, the player is encouraged with coins. Go ahead. Jump up and grab them. Some coins are easy to get, while other coins require some risk and skill to obtain. Collecting 100 coins rewards the player with an extra life. And the player who is attempting to beat the game knows that the more lives they have the better chances they have of beating the game. As the player continues to play through the game, they’ll get better at collecting coins, and subsequently, better at jumping; the core of the game. As players exercise their skills, they’re rewarded with more lives, which allows them to go father and practice getting coins and beating levels towards the end of the game where things get progressively harder. It’s a cycle that sustains, and rewards players over time.

Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart: Super Circuit are the only Mario Kart games that feature coins. Lying on the track of each course are many coins. Just like in Super Mario Bros. these coins encourage the player to play differently. This time, the player is encouraged to take different paths along the tracks. Each coin is positioned in a way to encourage good racing. In the same way that the designers of Super Mario Bros. never placed a single coin in a pit where players would have to fall to their doom to obtain, the coins in theses two Mario Kart games are placed in areas to encourage a deeper understanding of the tracks and racing mechanics. Having more coins increases the overall racing speed of the Kart. This alone encourages players to nab as many as possible. Coins are also used for a defense and a penalty for driving off course. With each bump between Karts, a coin is lost for each player. If a player has no coins and is bumped, they spin out as if hit from a shell. If the player drives off of the course, a Lakitu will pick them up and place them back on the track charging a few coins for his services. In these ways, by seeking and collecting coins, players become better racers with better chances of survival just like in Super Mario Bros.

Just like with Super Mario Bros. The accumulation of all the small elements in Super Mario Kart amass into a perfectly designed game. With perfect controls, well defined space, and a dedication to the primary function, both games have made their mark on history. Miyamoto commented in an interview with Satoru Iwata that the Mario games aren't too different from Zelda games. Structurally, many of Nintendo's greatest games are built the same way: A strict adherance to the primary function, tight controls, forms that fit their function, and a game world that is alive with transformations. Throw in Mario characters and classic Mario items, and it's no wonder Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Kart are so similar.

It's Mario Kart Week!

Mario Kart Wii has inspired me to write a few essays on Mario Kart. I've been a fan ever since Super Mario Kart came out on the SNES. As you can see, I own all 6 Mario Kart games. Like so many Nintendo games, a lot of people think they know what they're all about. Bright colors. Simple rules. Deep gameplay. Lots of fun. While all of these things are good, even some of Nintendo's best keep franchises have taken a hit in the quality and game design department. It's time to get to the bottom of Mario Kart and see if it is or ever was worth caring about.

Like I said, Mario Kart Wii has inspired me to write about the Mario Kart series, and why Mario Kart Wii may be the worst Mario Kart game of them all. How is that possible? What's so different about the games? It'll all be explained this week.

First up will be an essay on the core structure of the Mario Kart series and how Super Mario Kart/Mario Kart: Super Circuit are structurally similar to Super Mario Bros. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Design Trend: If one is good...

......Two is better.

Over the past five years or so, I've noticed a certain design trend in games particularly sequels. Many developers looked at established franchises and decided to double a core element of the game the sequel. In these cases, the gameplay doesn't necessarily allow for two player co-op play. Strange as that may be, let's look at a small list of games that have gone the way of the double.

  • Mario Kart Double Dash
  • Resident Evil 0
  • Pikmin 2
  • Castlevania Portrait of Ruin
  • Trauma Center: Second Opinion
  • Advance Wars: Dual Strike
  • Tekken Tag Tournament
  • Dead or Alive
  • Lunar Knights
  • Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae Ouendan 2 (Japan only)
  • Halo 2 (duel wielding)
Though there are plenty more to put on this list, some developers have gone further. If two is better...... then four is more (better).

  • Halo3 features a four player campaign mode, four player map editor, four player video watching, and up to four players on one console. Undoubtedly other FPSs will follow Halo's lead and incorporate similar features.
  • The Legend of Zelda Four Swords: Just when you thought this series only supported one player, now you have four. I'm sure The Legend of Zelda: Two Swords was out of the question.
  • Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Just like Four Swords, this game lets four players gather together to do everything from thwarting evil, writing letters to mom, to eating fruit.
What's most important to understand from these games and this design trend is that simply doubling up, or quadrupling up, elements of a game is a gimmick, a word that is tossed around frequently in the videogames space more so in the direction of Nintendo. A gimmick can be a good or bad thing depending on how well the designer incorporate the novelty into the core gameplay.

1.an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.
2.a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal: An offer that good must have a gimmick in it somewhere.
3.a hidden mechanical device by which a magician works a trick or a gambler controls a game of chance.

A developer working on a series or a franchise is expected to improve upon it. If the controls weren't good before, we expect them to improve the next time. As this process continues, sequels generally get more and more refined. But gamers crave and cry for something new. Though we respect and expect refinement, we demand fresh content and ideas.

For this reason, I believe all games need a gimmick. In other words, whether making another game in a series, or a new game in an established genre, if the designers start from the beginning with a strange, clever, or new idea in mind, they have a better chance of creating a more refined and unique game. If you've read my Zelda Phantom Hourglass Essays, you know that the gimmick of drawing on maps using the touch screen was fully incorporated into the core gameplay creating a rich experience that's shown best in the repeated visits to the Temple of the Ocean King.

With so many similar games being released these days, when you go to pick up another one, ask yourself this: "What's new about this game? What makes this game's gameplay unique and good? What's the gimmick of its gameplay?" And if it doesn't have one then.... "What's the point?"

Friday, April 25, 2008

2D vs 3D: Lost in Space

I started playing through Metroid Fusion for the GBA yesterday. Being a fan of Metroid games, I've developed what I call the "Metroid Eye." Essentially, this technique allows me to play through Metroid games effortlessly while seemingly stumbling across every secret as if powered by serendipity. After playing so many Metroid games, I've internalize the creator's style which includes how the level design unfolds, how the abilities and challenges progress through counterpoint, boss types and attack patterns, and where they choose to hide powerups. The Metroid series is notorious for hiding powerups.

Some powerups are easily obtainable usually consisting of the abilities that are essential for progressing through the game. The developers make sure that these powerups are as easy to get as possible. Others, however, can be hidden behind rocks or other structures that must be blasted away to reveal their location. Others still can't be flushed out with randomly aimed firepower. There are walls that appear to be solid, but actually have a small tunnels running through them that the player can access. There may be nothing to clue the player into these hidden passageways except a small fish that swims back and forth out of the hole. In Metroid games, the enemies are organically placed within an environment to both threaten the player and to give a natural cover for certain secrets. What is most interesting about using the denizens to cover up a secret is, they also reveal the secret. Once you have the Metroid eye, it's like hiding a secret behind a bullseye.

Playing Metroid reminds me of how developers used to use the flat 2D perspective of their games to hide things. In Super Mario World, there's a hidden switch in the Forest of Illusion, where players must swim through a solid wall to find the hidden area. In this case, the fish hint at the secret by swimming through the wall. In Final Fantasy 6, there are specific moments when players can walk through the dark walls that surrounded a home only to find a secret room where treasure was stashed. Players also had to walk through walls to get to Setzers air ship. And for those of us who bravely ventured into Cyan's past to obtain his ultimate weapon, there is a section on the train where one must circumnavigate an obstacle by walking slighting into and through the walls. That puzzle had me stuck for what seemed like hours when I was a kid. But after conquering it, I never looked at 2D the say way again.

With all 2D games there is a certain level of 3D interpretation. Even with a game like pong, we assume that the ball and paddle are sliding on top of and across the black space. It's only natural. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who actually thinks the ball is being drawn repeatedly through the progression of converted black space to white space in small quantifiable bits (pixels). We're all human, not computers, and as humans we've been conditioned to perceive the world a certain way. Our eyes work together to create 3D space in our minds from two 2D images. Our perception of the 3D world is interpreted in our minds, but we also created 3D where there may be none. When we see a painting, we can interpret the light and dark areas as light and shadow created in a 3D space. Likewise, when we see Mario slide out from under some bricks because he was too large to walk under that space, we don't think he's melding with the bricks. We simply think that he was too big to fit and now he's being squeezed out.

The engagement from interpreting 2D games this way is something that I don't think gamers get from 3D games. When you render a room in 3D, furnish it, and add realistic physics, what's left to interpret? The room would be just like your own room. Furthermore, two problems are inherently added to 3D games: perspective and volume.

With a 2D room, all the information is set directly before the player. Everything the player must consider is within sight and neatly arranged (assuming the perspective isn't zoomed in or scrollable). Even if this player gets stuck, he/she can rule out possibilities by systematically checking the area of the room.

In a 3D room however, the player can only look at a small area at a time. Whether the game is in first person or third person, you can't see behind you. Getting the whole "picture" of the room requires changing the perspective. This alone substitutes the interpretation found in 2D games for memorization and spacial reasoning. With every change in perspective, the room is slightly different and the player sees the world in a slightly different way. And if the player wants to systematically explore a 3D area, the added vertical dimension multiplies the amount of work the player would have to do.

Ultimately, I've found that 3D games tend to hide and conceal things like in real life: simply behind something, out of the way, or obstructed from view somehow. And if you're human (something I still assume by the way), you've probably lost something in your house at some point in your life. And I bet searching for that item was not fun. It can be very frustrating the number of ways to inadequately look around desk. Because it exists in 3D space, it's easy to miss something because you didn't get all the way to the ground to look under it, or you didn't stand high enough on your toes to look over it. Sometimes, there's just too many places an object can be in a 3D world.

At this point in the discussion, it's necessary to highlight a few games that work well with 2D and 3D elements. Perhaps the true key to designing 3D games is still in the 2nd dimension.

  • Echo Chrome actually plays off of 2D interpretation. Though the game world in in 3D, by changing the perspective from a fixed viewpoint, the player is actually changing the way the game appears and functions in 2D. Switching back and forth from 3D manipulation and clever 2D interpretation is the heart of the game.

  • Smash Brothers Series: These games are rendered with 3D graphics, but play entirely on a 2D plane. The games also features many animations and attacks where the characters appear to phase into the 3D plane. If you look closely, all the rolls and ground dodges play with 3D. Though the fighting interacts on a 2D plane, the hitboxes are drawn in 3D. This makes for truly analog attacks and moves in a 2D fighter. Basically, as Link's sword swings around to hit Mario in front of him, the sword strike is actually swinging around in 3D space to hit the target. This goes a long way in understanding the game because it gives a clean form to the function of 2D attacks. In Brawl, Assist trophies like Andross and Nintendogs also present strange moments where players have to convert 3D space into 2D space.

  • Super Mario Galaxy: This game is the greatest 3D game ever made considering how it presents 3D space in the game, and how players interact in 3D space. It is so well designed even kids can pick up the game and make their way through Battlerock Barrage, an intense level with high flying projectile dodging action. Those with a keen eye will realize that Galaxy plays like a 2D game. A small blank planetoid creates an infinite plane that Mario can run along. It's only when he jumps from planetoid to planetoid that the game progresses. Sound familiar? Small simple planes where only jumping allows players to progress? Sounds like Super Mario Brothers to me and all subsequent Mario platformers. Couple the amazing design with the ability to feel your way through 3D space by shooting off star bits that function like fingers stretching into the game world while dynamically interacting with any multiple gravities present, and the game simply conquers all other 3D games.
To continue this topic, it would be interesting to compare the 2D Metroids to the 3D ones. I don't find it surprising that many of the 3D Metroid's powerups are hidden in 2D gameplay sections. Using 2D is a very versatile, powerful, and most importantly clean perspective. Perhaps if I ever get around to my Metroid study.... Until then, what if 3D games hid stuff like this.....

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sigma vs. Dragon Sword

1up's Shane Bettenhausen gave Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the Nintendo DS a favorable score because of of the game's tight controls, sharp visuals, and distinguished unique feel unique to the handheld machine. This DS game received an 83.1% average score on gamerankings.com while its "older brother" console counterpart, Ninja Gaiden: Black/Sigma, received a 94.0% score.

Comparing the two games was inevitable. Some have created expectations that are different and often times lower for handheld games These gamers believe that handheld games are inherently less deep and complex with shorter overall gameplay experiences, which are better suited for playing in small bursts. I don't believe any of these conditions are inherent to handheld games. The principles of game design can be applied to any game. The better we understand these principles, the more it becomes obvious that games are games no matter what system they're on.

Itagaki and the developers at Tecmo/Team Ninja set Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword up nicely to be compared to Sigma because the majority of animations, enemies, bosses, and locations are the same between the two games. Having beaten Ninja Gaiden: Sigma, jumping into Dragon Sword was like picking up right where I left off. As you can see, the two games appear to be nearly identical.

The bottom line: Ninja Gaiden Sigma is better for its combat and presentation, while Dragon Sword is the cleaner game due to the dual screen support and touch screen controls.

  • Sigma has a strong sense of space in regard to enemy and player positioning within the fighting environment. The hitboxes for attacks are discernible making near hits and dodges accurate and exciting. The environments have vertical height and solid boundaries that allow Ryu Hayabusa (the player) to throw enemies into walls, wall kick, and run along extending the variety to every battle.
  • Dragon Sword's battles are cramped because everything has to fit on the touch screen. While a small screen isn't an issue in itself, the developers decided to display the game at a particular zoom level that shows off the animation in the game. This means the more detail you see in the character and enemy models, the less room there is on the screen for anything else. The player to enemy interaction through the creation and then violation of personal space is significantly lessened in Dragon Sword. In this game, attacking and moving are more closely integrated together blending spacing, attacking, and defending into a single often blurry action. Also, because the backgrounds are 2D, interpreting them as 3D space and then maneuvering around them using a 2D input can be quite difficult. This is why Dragon sword features so little "vertical geometry."
  • Sigma has an exciting combat balance. The player is equipped with all the blocks, dodges, projectiles, attacks, grabs, and shield breakers they need to handle any situation. This makes battles furious. Decapitations, ground stabs, ultimate techniques, and ninpos give the battle a pace that accelerates as players encounter and take out each enemy. Each of these special moves can dispense with most enemies in one shot. The draw back in using them is in their set up and execution. Throw in a impressive assortment of weapons (DRAGON SWORD/PLAMSA SABRE MK II/TRUE DRAGON SWORD/NUNCHUKUS/VIGOORIAN FLAILS/LUNAR/DRAGON CLAW & TIGER FANG/DABILAHRO/KITETSU/WAR HAMMER/WOODEN SWORD/UNLABORED FLAWLESSNESS/DARK DRAGON BLADE) that feature pages of different moves that have all been flawlessly animated, and you have a great foundation for a battle system.
  • Dragon Sword only has one weapon. And the move list for attacks are paltry at best. It's not the DS's fault, and it's not due to the limitations of the touch screen. I think there wasn't a need to include more moves given the limited visual fidelity coupled with the lack of a strong sense of space. In other words, why have a ton of attack animations when you can hardly tell the difference between then. Furthermore, the enemies wouldn't respond to the move differences which would ultimately give the different moves the same function essentially turning them into the same move. What is most disappointing is that Dragon Sword doesn't have strong combat interplay to create a sense of acceleration. Enemies come in small groups and have little to counter Ryu's ninja assault. Simply slashing away not only puts up an offense, but a defense as well as Ryu automatically blocks when the stylus is on him. The combat strategies are so powerful and apparent, that there's little to learn. Furthermore, if the enemies don't challenge the player, then the freedom that is created only restricts the gameplay experience.
  • In Sigma, using ultimate techniques (UTs) and ninpo came at a price. Though UTs made Ryu invincible for a short period of time, the combo of moves have a limited range often only hitting a few enemies at a time. Pulling off a successful UT in the heat of battle requires planning and strategy. Ninpo, though spamable, safe, and powerful, are limited in the number of times they can be used.
  • In Dragon Sword, the basic level UT unleashes a flurry of attacks and homing energy scythes that seek out enemies practically doing the work for the player. Because these scythes stun the enemies, the player has an easy opportunity to do it again. And again. And again. I assume that making homing projectiles for the UTs was a way to remedy the DS screens limited scope while also making the game easier to pick up and play. Likewise, Some Ninpo spells home the enemies or bosses. These moves are so effective it's possible to beat some bosses in under 30 seconds without even aiming at them. Finally, the arrows have unlimited ammo. Now it's possible to shoot down bosses from a distance without engaging it at all with sword attacks. The way these moves are designed in Dragon Sword limit the already stunted combat design.

  • Ninja Gaiden: Sigma is a game with a lot of clutter in its design. I commented before on how BioShock functions like an RPG by lending to an "attack-attack-heal" strategy due to its heal button, and Sigma suffers from the same problem. The menus based RPG style design with Sigma's item management adds to the general upkeep and clutter of the game.
  • In Dragon Sword, the gameplay has been streamlined. There are no more healing items to use, or any other kind of item. In this game, players survive by the skill of their sword and nothing else. This feature focused the gameplay on combat with little to distract the player. Though having unlimited arrows was a large contributing factor for Dragon Swords low difficulty, it nice not to have to search around for refills on ammunition.
  • The puzzles in Sigma were little more than fetch quests, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. By keeping the puzzles to a minimum, the game can stay focused on the combat. Unfortunately, the poorly designed level-puzzles still distracted from the heart of the game occupying the players time and thoughts with repetitive navigation especially though needlessly complex stages.
  • Each level in Dragon Sword is fairly straightforward. The levels are designed with few turns and even fewer dead ends. Picking the wrong path sets the player back 30 seconds at the worst. With the map permanently displayed on the DS top screen, navigation is easy. At a glance, the possible routes can be seen, giving the player all the important information they need to complete the level with little stress.
  • The combat in Sigma suffered greatly because of its unruly and difficult camera. It's hard to fight what you can see. And in this game, there can be several gun wielding enemies far across the room, high above in sniping towards, or just out of sight behind you and off camera. Managing a hoard of ninja enemies, Ryu Hayabusa, and the camera in life or death battles is unnecessary. Furthermore, because of the wild nature of the camera, interpreting 3D space becomes more difficult. How far targets are to Ryu, how close projectiles are, or how to dodge attacks can become very frustrating.
  • In Dragon Sword the camera is tame. By using the touch screen to attack enemies with sword slashes or projectiles, everything on the screen can be interacted with accurately and intuitively. Enemies off the screen may be annoying like in Sigma. But as soon as they're visible, they can be taken out. Depending on the arrangement of enemies, hidden, off camera, the combat in Dragon Sword feels and functions like a 2D side scroller, 2D isometric, or a full 3D game. This kind of dynamic intuitive flexibility brings a level of clean design to Dragon Sword that Sigma just can't match.
Understanding the similarities and differences between these two games is a great way to not only understand differences in a console game and a DS game, but it gives us a chance to clear our thoughts and really see what the essence of a Ninja Gaiden game is. The jump form the PS3 to the DS is a huge one, yet many of my experiences between the games are the same. Personally, I'm a staunch supporter of clean game design and deep combat systems. However, at the end of the day, I'm leaning towards Sigma for my Gaiden of choice.

Monday, April 21, 2008

An Issue with Creativity

Many are exciting about the potential in the upcoming PS3 game Little Big Planet. Graphics, style, and coop aside, this game features a rich level editor and an innovative system of posting and sharing these levels with the world. The developers of LBP are essentially putting us (the players) to work for ourselves. While this is interesting in itself, being powered by the creative energies of the world comes with a unique issue.

Like in Halo's forge, many will be daunted by the task at hand and opt out of making something of their own. After all, there's nothing quite like the discouraging feeling of wanting to creating something but having no ideas when all the necessary tools are laid out generously in front of you.

There will be others who will attempt to create something, and the result often times ends ends up being something that looks and plays like garbage. Let's face it. Creativity is hard to come by. And in the case of games with editors, being able to pull off a creative idea is a rare moment in history. But we take our chances by playing the numbers game. If the games we play sell millions, surely there is at least one person out there that will give the world something truly wonderful.

Sharing such content is important for such games. To help illustrate this point, I posted a video (see the top of sidebar) of a song transposed from one of Jason Mraz's songs. The Japanese import game Daigasso! Band-Brothers has a extremely flexible music editor. Only those with a fairly strong background in music theory/notation can make sense of things. I spent somewhere between 5 and 10 hours putting in all the notes after listening very carefully to the song so many times I lost count. And now that it is finished, the only way I can share my accomplishment with the world is through youtube. This ambitious DS game came out long before the DS was online, so sharing is limited to local lan transactions. What are the chances that I'll find a fellow Japanese DS game importing Jason Mraz Daigasso Band Brothers fan on the street? Not very likely.

Sharing is caring. And it's also the lifeblood of creativity. It allows for one spark to set off another. Let's hope the darks days are over. Enjoy the music.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

If Teaching was a Game pt. 2

Testing is a big part of teaching. Between quizzes, tests, essays, midterms, finals, recitals, exhibitions, and tournaments, most students put their learning to the test in some form or fashion.

It is important that tests are organized so that they cover a limited amount of material at one time. This is especially true for quizzes. In my Japanese class with Professor Schneider, we were given quizzes every day. First vocab, then grammar, then kanji. Then the cycle would repeat until the chapter test. Unfortunately, our grammar quizzes used to be unfocused.

On the quize= Schneider would ask us to create a grammatically correct sentence, which would obviously test our understand of the different types of grammar we were required to know. However, on these quizzes, we were also required to use some of the latest vocabulary. I explained to my professor that if we were to have a grammar quiz, that it would be best to make sure the quiz tested grammar and only grammar. After all, it was hard enough studying for a grammar quiz without doubling up and studying for vocab as well. After the simple suggestions, the correct was made and the stress of taking the grammar quizzes was greatly reduced.

In the three years of taking Japanese with Professor Schneider, I have come to enjoy the formatting of the chapter tests as well. Each test is broken down into sections: listening, vocab, kanji, grammar, reading comprehension, writing, and speaking. In the time leading up to the test, Schneider went over specific drills to better prepare us for the test. Isolating the required material in this way not only makes it clear on what to focus on for the test taker, but it provides an easy way for each student to evaluate which sections they have trouble with.

Videogames are all about teaching the player what he/she needs to know to play the game. Beyond tutorial modes, good games incorporate learning steps into their level design and test them one at at time. The first level of of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island is called "Make Eggs, Throw Eggs." This level is designed to easy the player into the game and to teach them how to make and throw eggs, a very important skill that is integral to the game.

Zelda bosses require a combination of skills. Some of these skills come from the use of new items acquired from the dungeon. In order for the player to dispose of the boss, they must pay attention to audio and visual cues and put together multiple concepts in their heads. How did you know to shoot the boss in the eye with your arrows? Most players might say that it was the first thing they thought of and it just happened to work. But the critical-gamer with a critical-eye notices that all the arrow specific switches in the game were eyeballs mounted on the walls. It's only logical to the player that eyes must be shot with arrows. Realizing this and then dispensing with the boss accordingly is an excellent example of how the game teaches players to figure things out for themselves. The game still teaches the player exactly what to do, but it's not as overt as a strategy guide.

Some teachers have a warped sense how to teach and test. There are times when students feel lost on certain questions. When they ask the teacher about it, all they get in return is "figure it out." Figuring it is the students job. However, I see no need in tricking the students by constructing a test that requires learning that extends far beyond the scope of the teaching. In other words, some questions are "super questions" not because they require more knowledge than rest of the problems on the test, but because of how the question combines multiple concepts in an unprecedented way (for the student of course).

I never understood why math teachers did this so much. The homework they assign covers a range of problems with increasing difficulty. This allows the student to ease into the concepts by slowly ramping things up as they complete their homework. So successfully completing the homework should successfully prepare the student for the test right? Apparently, not always. Some teachers like to throw in problems that combine the hardest levels of multiple concepts creating a super problem the likes of which the students have never seen before. It's not good form to throw in such a problem on a test unless it's a bonus question. "Just think about it" or "figure it out" doesn't seem to forgive the fact that the weeks of straight pitches from the teacher wasn't sufficient to prepare the students for the curve balls on the test.

Students are a reflection of what is covered in class. Learning is about building libraries of information as well as building thought processes and ways of thinking. Good game designers work very hard on the audio and visual details in their games so that the player is most likely to succeed. Game designers understand that every blip and every bit matters. If teachers had such a thoroughly designed curriculum, I believe there would be fewer teachers that make excuses about their students poor test results.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

ANd-OR: Oh, the Possibilities

I stumbled across a site featuring the work of a handful of innovators in Switzerland. They have a small list of playable projects, some of which can be downloaded to your DS (if your DS is equipped for homebrew games) Their site: www.and-or.ch.

If you've kept a keen eye on the "games I'm playing" section of my blog, you would have noticed that I added Wardive to the queue. What's unique about Wardive, is that it uses the DS's wifi capabilities to scan the air around the player. Based on the number, and strength of the local wireless lan hotspots, different numbers, and strengths of enemies appear.

The game itself is nothing more than pointing and clicking on the enemies using the DS touch screen, but the concept and the technology behind it is worth mentioning. Combining real world factors and digital world rules together is a new type of gameplay experience that I hope to create in future games. But I won't get into that now. We're knee deep in GuitaRPG.

Monday, April 14, 2008

GuitaRPG Update

I fixed a bug in the record function. Now the system will play back the right notes in the rhythm that was actually played instead of making up its own song.

I added a tempo keeper or metronome. I'm trying to design the whole game to have a rhythm or a beat. This continuous beat would make a transition between otherwise disjointed sections of the game. It won't be as overt as a ticking metronome, but more internalized like a heartbeat.

I created a music recognizer. This little tool recognizes if a certain progression of notes in a specific order are played. It works hand in hand with the metronome to keep the player playing the right notes on the right beats.

Music, however, isn't always about fixed rhythms and note patterns. Even when playing the same thing repeatedly, there is an acceptable level of variation. The same notes can be played with a slight change in the rhythm, or the same rhythm can be played with changes to the notes. This dual layered quality of music recognition makes up the foundation of the musical identification (music ID) system I'm designing for GuitaRPG.

Ideally, the game will be able to recognize note or rhythmic similarities from what the player plays. Think of it like musical Uno; instead of colors and numbers, it's notes and rhythm. GuitaRPG will have a small library of musical IDs, but the game will also be able to recognize patterns from examples the player has played previously. For example, if the player plays the beginning of the Mario theme, then that section can be identified and stored in the game. It's even possible for the game to calculate how "Mario" a players style is.

Currently, I'm working on the intro-tutorial section of the GuitaRPG. Rhythm Tengoku and PaRappa the Rapper have heavily influenced my design of this section. I'll have a new demo out soon, and with it a new podcast.

It's all very exciting. Stay tunned.

Friday, April 11, 2008

If Teaching was a Game

No I'm not talking about Professor Layton. I'm talking about the thing that most people think is going on inside the walls of public schools and even Universities. A semi old issue of Time magazine contains an article entitled "How To Make Better Teachers." The article addresses several angles on the issue including paying teacher more for better performance and how to go about evaluating performance in the first place. It's true. Teachers don't get paid enough for the work they do, and they're not valued enough for the impact they have on the future of our nation.

My mother is a teacher. She has been all of my life not only to her elementary students, but to my family as well. She, along with several other select few, has impacted my life in an enormous way. If you sit down and think about it, teaching is very similar to parenting. Rules are set. Structures are created. Boundaries are exercised. Consequences and punishments are issued. Results are measured. Goals are reached. And if you think even further, both teaching and parenting sound like a game. I have met many that still think of teaching as if it were as simple as some kind of authority standing before a group of individuals spewing out information that the students would then be responsible for come test time. And what may be worse, some still think learning exists in an abstract, uncontrollable, and independent space that can only be entered by each individual because each person is unique and learns differently.

It is difficult to approach analyzing teaching because the teaching spectrum is scattered and is only becoming less controlled as the universe moves towards chaos. Teachers often assume that their students have internalized certain fundamental mechanics and proceed accordingly. Were we ever taught how to memorize information, or did we just starting doing it and we were either good or bad at it? Teachers have to assume a lot of their students. So instead of writing about one teacher, I'm starting a small series writing about several experiences with teachers good and bad that highlight aspects of game design we should all be familiar with by now.

Dr. Deforest, my piano teacher for about 3 years, had a very unobtrusive style of teaching that put the focus squarely on me. Just assume that as some point in my adolescence, I was bitter about taking piano lessons even though I've always loved the piano. Dr. Deforest knew that without my corporation and without a correct attitude on my part, there would be no teaching or learning to happen between us. I remember that first bitter day of our lessons. Dr. Deforest had given me a song to practice which I did so diligently. But upon playing it for him at my lesson, Dr. Deforest said something along the lines of "you didn't practice it did you?" So instead of answering my teacher, I stop playing and sat there. And he sat there as well. For nearly an hour, we just sat there not saying or doing anything until the lesson was over. And when time was up, he cheerfully told me to continue working on the piece and that he'll see me next week.

At the time, I was more than familiar with the radical teaching styles of many of great teachers who are often depicted on television. I've seen the episodes where teachers patiently wait on their stubborn students. Needless to say, it's always different and more interesting in real life. So, from that fateful first lesson, I had a clear understanding of my new teacher, and from then onward, I worked hard at the piano. Dr. Deforest challenged me with difficult musical selections always taking great care to find songs that match my personal styles. He was always encouraging and straight with me. Even after recital performances he let me know what he thought of my playing: "What happened to the first song?" He's is the kind of teacher who knows that learning only goes as far as the student is willing to go on any particular day. Finding the right pacing and rhythm is worth sacrificing a few lessons here or there.

Games have wonderful ways of setting the pace. Between tutorials, practice modes, free roaming modes, difficulty settings, and sections without any major consequences, games can supply tools and create scenarios that the player can access in order to match their playing to their internal pace. We don't normally think of goofing off in Vice city, or running our characters in circles for small periods of time as productive. However, our brains are constantly adjusting our attitudes and actions based on how much stress it can handle at any given time. The best games are structured so cleanly and communicate the game system so well, that the player always feels like it was their fault they lost.

Is anyone surprised that games have secretly been teaching us all along?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Open Discourse 2: Let's Talk Yomi

To figure out how I was going to approach this project, I did a test run interview with a Draglade player known as Ragnell. As a highly ranked player on the Draglade leaderboards and a top ranked player from a online Draglade community, Ragnell was an ideal participant. This particular interview accompanied several versus matches via Nintendo's wifi connection. Because he lives in New York and the Draglade servers aren't the smoothest, the gameplay was inconsistent to say the least. Despite this fact, I still got a feel for his play style and high level battles in Draglade.

If you've gotten to this point wondering what Draglade is, don't feel bad. Draglade is a fighting game for the Nintendo DS from Atlus. Without getting too much into the structure of the game, it plays like a combination of Street Fighter and Smash Brothers. It is, so far, the best Fighting game on the Nintendo DS and is interesting enough to be included with the rest of the heavy weight console fighters in this Open Discourse.

The game shines in its balance and variety. Supporting only four characters in online battles (one for speed, strength, melee combat, and a balance type) the designers made things easy for themselves. With each character players can customize a deck of six projectiles or special moves called bullets. Also, each player has a super move consisting of a string of musical weapon strikes that are completely customizable in rhythm and note values. I've fought a battle with my Mario theme versus the Zelda theme. It was epic to say the least.

I wanted to know what Ragnell thought of the game. And he supplied details of the online community, overpowered moves in the game, glitches, and other tips all of which I'll include in the Discourse. After the easy questions, I asked more game design oriented questions. I asked Ragnell what he would change about the game and why. I wanted to know if Ragnell felt that any part of the game was unnecessary. I wanted him to step aside and consider Draglade form a critical point of view instead of just from a player's or a fan's.

I've been slowly collecting topics and issues and interesting questions that would be ideal for an Open Discourse on Fighting Games to address. The first topic will be all about yomi. Are yomi layers the essence of fighting games? If yomi layers can be created with as few moves and other game elements as possible, does a fighter really need anything else?

Sirlin.net has an excellent definition and examples of Yomi. But, I'd like to supplement Sirlin's article with an example that I think everyone can relate to. Presenting the yomi layers of Striped Shirt versus Jacked Boy in "Shoulder Tapping."

Ah the infamous tap the wrong shoulder technique. Notice how Striped Shirt turns the wrong way. He has been successfully tricked.

Oh my, the classic opposite turn counter. Stripped Shirt didn't fall for it this time.

What's this? The cunning same shoulder approach counters the classic opposite turn counter! It's as if Striped Shirt countered himself.
My word! The cunning same shoulder approach is beaten by simply turning around in an ordinary fashion. This brings us right back to the beginning where the infamous tap the wrong shoulder technique would come in handy.

It is cycles like this that fighting games thrive on. Go on, try it with your friends. Because there's always a counter for each move the interplay will move in a cycle making the fun and the mix ups endless.

So for this Open Discourse, I want to know where the yomi is in other fighters, how they feel about it, and if such fighters need anything else. If you play a fighter, feel free to contribute via this blog or by email.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Design Challenge #5 Novint Falcon

Behold the Novint Falcon! You can find out all about this nifty peripheral in the video. And you can read about it at the Level Up blog here.

The device is quite expensive, and in order for a gameplay prioritizing gamer such as myself to deem the product worthy of purchase, games that implement the unique features of the Novint Falcon must be created. I don't think a more visceral force feedback experience slapped on to an FPS is enough. And let's face it, the PC market is saturated with FPSs, RTSs, and RPGs of various types. Without reworking these genres from the ground up to use the Novint Falcon, these genres are likely to poorly implement the technology much like the motion controls in the Sixaxis controller for the PS3. I can't help but think that all the software that utilizes this controller will use it as as nothing more than a glorified rumble pack. Perhaps it's time for the PC market to revisit some of their less popular genres, like puzzle games. Where's my Wii Sports of the Novint Falcon?

Skepticism aside, I've played with a similar device while it was still being developed in a college lab many years ago. It is an amazing device in and of itself that provides a little glimpse into a future seen in many scifi films. So, along with all the other design challenges and projects that I've been wrestling with, I've decided to add this one into the mix.

Design Challenge: What kind of game or mechanic, would you develop to take full advantage of the Novint Falcon keeping in mind all of our favorite philosophies of Classical game design? Or how would you retool the popular PC genres (FPS, RTS, RPG) to take advantage of the new technology?

I'm already thinking of a Trauma Center style game where players get to reach inside human bodies and use the delicate 3d controller to perform surgeries. It's a messy job, but someone has to do it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

If Sheet Music Was A Game

For everyone who thinks critical-analyzing videogames is only useful in the realm of gaming, I've started this small series of posts about finding the "game" in life. This is not to say that I'm taking life lightly, much to the contrary. A Videogame is essentially a group of functions with a goal. The function relies on the interaction between the game and the player. In order for the game to indoctrinate players into the rules and nuances of the game world, designers utilize the power of "form fits function" along with many other design philosophies.

In the same way, anything that relies on interacting with people are designed with such philosophies in mind. In order for most Americans to successfully use a microwave, there has to be a limited number of buttons and functions that are grouped and color coded in such a way as to facilitate use. Public education is like a game. High school is a system with a set of rules designed to educate students. When designing around people, every small detail matters. I remember when the tiles in my high school hallway were rearranged to separate the walking and standing areas in order to decrease traffic and subsequently late students. Like I said, everything matters.

Ideally in any interactive system, everything must be carefully designed and refined so that it works for the varying types of people within the target user base. And what has function can be analyzed. Performing a functional analysis is very similar to formulating a New Classical critical essay on a videogame. Analyzing how the form and elements of the system supports the primary function is key.

So I'm starting off with something small. When I think about the form that GuitaRPG will take at different points in the game, I can't help but think of sheet music. And when I think of sheet music, I can't help but remember how complex and difficult it is to read. It's not just me either. When I spoke with my piano instructor who is also the head of the music department at SMU, he commented on how unnecessarily difficult reading music is for musicians, and how some people are experimenting with new ways to notate music.

So if Sheet Music was a Game....
  • Primary Function: To be read smoothly by a musician so that he/she can play a piece accurately.
  • Secondary Function: To contain all the notations necessary to play a piece of music as the original author or transcriber intended.
Click the images to enlarge.
  1. The Notation Form doesn't match their Function: In both blue boxes, there are notes that are written on specific lines. In Mario these notes are E, C, D, and B. In Hammock, though the notes fall on the same lines, the notes are Bflat, Eflat, and Bflat again. Having such a discrepancy in the basic level of interpretation would be detrimental in any videogame. Just imagine if in Super Mario Brothers, the coins were randomly solid, or even more terrifying, the mushrooms randomly killed you. The form of any system must be consistent with its function.
  2. The Key Signature makes you work for yourself: The key signature sets up the key of a song or a section of music which tells the player which notes will be sharp or flat. Because some key signatures have numerous sharps or flats (see image) the writers don't trouble themselves correctly notating each note that is sharp or flat. Basically, the player has to memorize the order of sharps or flat, and keep that information hovering in their mind so that when they see what looks like a normal note, they automatically augment it or diminish it. What's the point of reading music on the page when you have to keep such things straight in your head? Ironically, the Mario Theme sheet music is free of this particular issue.
  3. The Fine Line of Clutter: Each staff in music is made up of five lines. Piano music in particular is written with two staffs at a time. Not only does each line and each space represent a different note between the two otherwise identical staffs, but the white areas in the middle and the areas above and below the double staffs can also contain notes. As you can see in box 3, the notes in the middle section have tiny little lines that essentially extend the five lines of the bottom staff. I have never been able to accurately and easily distinguish notes in such arrangements. Since the beginning of my music training, I've always had to squint, lean forward, and count the lines one by one. This set up is too cramped. It's too easy to mistake one note for another.
  4. Little bits of additional detail: In addition to the level of fine detail created from the notes and staff lines, marks can also be given to each note. In both bubbles at 4 there are small notations for sharps, flats, naturals (which turn a note back to normal), and staccato. With every level of fine detail, reading music smoothly becomes harder and more stressful.
  5. Incongruous Time: Generally in sheet music, each measure represents an equal amount of time. Because there are moments where a single measure can contain several notes with complex notations, the amount of space needed for the measure may increase. The four measure underlined at number 5 all represent the same time. But judging from the size of each, it would seem that the bottom two measures are longer. Though it is obvious to any experience musician that the measure size doesn't correspond to time, the form the measure create gives this impression.
Sheet music is a wonderful resource for recording music in print, thus satisfying what I have defined as the secondary function. However its form detracts significantly from its primary function. To fix many of these problems, I would turn to digital mediums that are much more flexible than print.

Games like Guitar Hero have a form of notation that intuitively fits its function. By color coding the notes, making the note circles large and easily discerned at high speeds, arranging the staff continuously without breaks, angling the staff so that the future notes can be seen ahead of time, marking the staff with measure lines, moving the staff at the correct tempo, and having a fixed line at the bottom of the screen where notes must be played create a notation system that trumps sheet music for its individual purpose. It's no wonder Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and other music rhythm games have been so successful.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Open Discourse

Fighting games have been on my mind as of late. Some are good. Some are bad. All are similar enough to be classified in the fighting genre. Like all competitive games (I presume), there are websites completely devoted to each game that include information about everything from high level techniques to future tournaments. The problem is, all of these sites are like scattered autonomous islands.

I'm interested in the fighting genre as a whole, yet there isn't any organized or consolidated source to turn to. Let's face it. Books aren't exactly being written and published about the current state of fighting games. The occasional gaming book worth reading that makes it to Barnes & Noble isn't enough.

I dream of a day, or more specifically a website, that can attract authorities from around all strata of gamers and game designers to intelligently tackle current issues. I do realize it is hard enough to ask people to be civil and intelligent while debating anything let alone something as off the academic radar as videogames. But a dream's a dream.

I believe that critics should work to obtain more influence in the gaming community and become authorities in whatever area they specialize in. As far as trying to become an authority myself, I can only do so much. Fighting games are notorious for being so deep that it takes many hours of study to become familiar with the basics. My power time for Brawl is nearing 200 hours on my save file alone, and I'm barely getting a feel for the competitive level play. I'm just now starting to memorize patterns and strategic set ups that involve crunching multi-variable formulas on the fly. In addition to the active metal acuity I'm developing, I'm slowly memorizing an encyclopedia of data about the game. This in itself is more work than many put into any one course in college. Staying competitive in a fighting game is like making a six year commitment of study and practice. This is why it's so important to come together.

So perhaps I'll start small. Hijacking an idea from Corvus Elrod's Blogs of the Round Table, I want to create a space for people to tackle the topics where anyone can contribute in anyway they can. I'll have the particulars ironed out soon, but what I do know is that the information will be organized into another mind map. Imagine the BioShock Discourse but more conversational. I think I'll call this new space "Open Discourse."

This week is all about the elements and structures of design that we depend on or could use to improve our everyday lives outside of Hyrule, Kanto, the Mushroom Kingdom, etc.

GuitART Styles

I'm trying to find an art style for the game that I can produce a lot of images in quickly. I do pen and ink, charcoal, and water colors of still life very well I think. I have a sample of something I tried for the game art at the top, and the next three are examples of pictures done in each medium respectively.

I have a particular affinity to still life, hands, and the idea of the "awesome in the ordinary." I'm really tired of all the "super cool," "super macho," and "super sexy" characters that overpopulate our media. And I'm quite sick of the mass media concept of an adventure which include an excess of explosions, guns, magic, and jumping out of fast moving vehicles. I believe real stories and real characters can be so utterly silent and happen so quickly that it takes a bit of redefining and slowing down to remember them.

So hows this for a set of main characters? Since I first got my N.E.S. as a child and played Super Mario Brothers 3 with my brother, heros, in my mind, come in pairs. If you have ever read any of my writing, it's obvious that I only write from my own experiences. This tends to make all of my main characters me. So it's no surprise to me that the main characters of GuitaRPG will be two characters that resemble my brother and me (and maybe my sister somewhere down the line). When was the last time you saw a pair of Black main characters in your games? Let alone ones with normal hair cuts, and normal clothes. I'm even keeping our glasses. I want to communicate to the player, or the onlooker, that the material in this game isn't created from a stretch of the imagination. Though it may be packaged in an unconventional way, it's all stuff from my life. I don't think I could tell a story using real music without being real in this regard as well.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Money Matters? The Value of a Rupee

After finishing a monster of an essay on The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass’ psychoanalytically charged story, I’m on the brink of wrapping up my research for this game, which, through careful study and attention, has become one of my favorite Zelda games seconded only to the narrative and gameplay powerhouse, Majora’s Mask.

At the bottom of my Phantom Hourglass Methodological Toolkit (a fancy term for my notes) I still have the bullet point outline left over for an essay I have not written. It would be a shame for such unpopped kernels to go without seeing the light of day, or without being run under the friction of one’s thoughts from someone out there.

So I’ve decided to try something new and post a “bullet point essay,” which will be little more than a short collection of my thoughts, questions, and notes.

Money Matters? The Value of a Rupee.

Thesis/Topic: To examine the value system in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. What values does the game put on actions and items? How is money handled compared to other games in the series? What kind of culture or value system does the game’s structures and elements reflect?

  • There are no wallet sizes: Players start off with deep pockets from the outset. This tells the player that there are no limits for how much they can hold, which basically says “the sky is the limits” for any of your economic ventures.
  • Commodification of Treasure and Ship Parts: Players can have their wares appraised. The collected treasure has no functional value in the game other than exchanging it for money.
  • Yelling into the DS mic to reduce the cannon price: Negotiating? Haggling? Or simply being a craze consumer whose desire for lower prices manifests in shouting in the game and in real life as well.
  • The American Dream: Several characters seeking fortune have set off on their own and started their own “businesses.” Romano, the Goron, and the boat game man have all set up games to earn revenue. Though these actions are reflective of rugged individualism, who are they marketing too?…the occasional young adventurer in green that, more likely than not, will walk away with more money than when he arrived? Such actions make these characters the epitome of risky, or foolish, entrepreneurial ventures. This is not to mention the characters that have abandoned their families and sold everything they owned like Romano’s dad and the Wayfarer. Some treasure hunters have died on their adventures, while others still comb the seas searching for common items that can turn a profit when sold back at their homelands.
  • Real “meta” economy: Each Phantom Hourglass game pack attributes a different value for the in game treasures. Players wanting to become filthy rich can trade items around with their friends to maximize their earnings. Players can also trade items anonymously and discretely by battling online or offline. The random swapping of items is like playing the stock market. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But it’s easier to wait and see. It’s not hard to think of a situation where battling others opens up new economic opportunities.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

I hope you’ve enjoyed The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass more after reading any of my essays. It is worth buying a DS for.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Link: He Speaks Like No Child

Everyone has a firm grasp on the general story in the Zelda series: A young boy ventures forth lead by the tip of his sword and his sense of duty. With the help of people he meets along the way and by using unique items he acquires, this boy is able to overcome every obstacle in his way up and through the final battle with the embodiment of the opposite of our main characters very being; evil. Upon winning this battle, the adventure is over and life for our hero returns to normal. But this is simply a template for any adventure. And Zelda being an adventure game, has hardly deviated from this formula. Though many have claimed that the formula needs to be abandoned or dramatically reinvented, I feel that there is nothing wrong with its place in the Zelda series.

In the grand spectrum of literature, there are too many stories to count that share the same formula. And without being unnecessarily reductive, some literary critics categorize stories as being either a tragedy, romance, comedy, or a satire. Even within the same style and formula, thousands of different stories can exist. Likewise, even if Link rose up to battle Gannon in every Zelda game (which he doesn’t) how he gets there and the experiences along the way would greatly differentiate each game.

The critical-gamer is interested in observing how the story unfolds for the player from the beginning of a game to the end, but goes beyond describing and analyzing individual plot elements and details in themselves and seeks to draw a connection between the story elements and the gameplay. The critical-gamer seeks to discover if the story elements hinder or enhance the play experience and how the balance is created.

In the case of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, our faithful main character Link sets sail on the open seas acquiring items and aid from friends to build enough strength to defeat his adversary in order to save his friend Tetra, who we all know as Zelda. Although the formula may seem quite banal, what unfolds in this adventure is psychological exploration of a world of the “lack” as psychoanalyst Lacan would say. As the main character teeters on the edge of adolescence and innocence, he comes face to face to a world where the grown ups have lived a life without something very important to them. Stuck in state of arrested development, many of the characters that populate the game world have ruined their lives devoting their time and energy in pursuit of their goal many times at the sacrifice of their families. This searching isn’t the only apparent psychological trait in the game. The world is littered with doppelgangers and a peculiar attraction to death that makes of the death work. These rich and apparently hidden story elements enhance the gameplay experience by using the game’s mechanics and structures to place the player in a role that can interact and eventually help these characters without becoming one of them sufficiently accentuating Link’s role as the main character.

First, I’ll establish the main character and perspective of the player. The player takes control of Link, and aside from a few small cooperative segments on Goron and Dee Ess Island where the player controls a small rolling Goron, Link is the only way for players to interact with the game world. Everything from swinging a sword, buying wares, retrieving items, and visiting characters are available for the player to shape the game world. True to Zelda form, Link never speaks a word. This feature brings the level of interaction closer to the player as everything he/she does is what Link does. In other words, by not saying anything, words can never be put in the players mouth. As if sending a direct message to those who still yearn for Link to utter more than a stifled gasp every now and then, Zauz the blacksmith says this: “People talk just as loudly with their hearts. But because people have mouths, they don’t pay attention to their hearts.” For the Zelda designers, actions speak louder than words, especially when an entire adventure has been carefully crafted to respond to the language of the player’s actions.

Early on in the game Link joins up with a few companions; Linebeck and Celia. Linebeck is everything Link isn’t: grown, a boat owner, cowardly, self centered, evasive, and ultimately childish. These traits make Linebeck the perfect foil for Link. And to increase the level of interplay between these two characters, Celia acts as Link’s voice.

Linebeck: "Kid, adventuring with you gave me a taste of what its like to be a hero. But here we part. It's all up to you now. I'll just be back here mopping the deck."
Celia: "Hey, what got into you Linebeck? Why so serious all of a sudden?”
Linebeck: "Take care of the kid. You [Celia] look out for him got it?"

But just who is Link anyway? To the people in the game world, Link is nothing but kid: “Young people,” Oshu; “pretty brave for being so short,“ Linebeck; “Young man” the mom from Mercay; “little guy” Fuzo from cannon island; “sea shrimp” Eddo the cannon man; “Hey kid!” Romano. Even the bar man serving milk on Mercay Island thinks Link is a “tad too short” to be drinking milk. Milk was perfectly fine for Link in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Super Smash Brothers Melee. Restricting link now from drinking milk makes it clear how the world views Link. As a kid who is also a rising hero for the supposedly second time, many characters in Phantom Hourglass talk down to Link because of his age and appearance.

Link enters this mysterious world through the fog after somewhat foolishly attempting to rescue his friend Tetra. From the outset of the adventure both the player and Link are clear about their objective: get Tetra back. The framework of the adventure is also the theme of majority of the character’s dilemmas: loss. In Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Lacan describes how humans experience an extreme sense of lacking after they realize they are separate entities from their mothers. This happens at an early age, and to fill this gapping lack in their lives, people take on language. And from there, a multitude of behaviors can emerge that are ultimately an effort to fill the gap and return to that state of complete care and oneness. Link has a lack, but he lacks the language, making him the perfect pivotal perspective for the game to relate and tell the rest of the story. Everything is directly related to Link’s character and the players actions. Playing the game from the main character’s perspective, makes the player constantly aware of the difference between Link and everyone else.

Several characters in the game search for a way to fill their lack as a kind of condensation, or when one substitutes a person or object for something else they desire. The Wayfarer searched for the romantic life of a seaman, and yet couldn’t reel in Neptoona, the legendary fish of the seas. Beyond the search for this fish that he has long given up on, the Wayfarer now searches for a more elusive type fish; a mermaid. This man has sold everything he owned to buy objects that he believes will attract a mermaid. Now that he only has his tales from his more successfully wayfaring days, he’s depressed and he’s and stuck. When the player informs the wayfarer that a mermaid is nearby and interested in the Wayfarer’s stories, the Wayfarer has a difficult time believing Link: “Ahh….I’m a fool to believe such a wild tale. How could you toy with the hopes of my romantic, wayfaring heart?!” Aside from the Wayfarer, the treasure hunters search the seas for common treasures that are rare back where they originated from. Romanos’ dad searched for adventure and was lost, and soon his son follows in is footsteps. A Goron on Goron Island pines after Linebeck’s Ship from a far perhaps to an unhealthy degree, and searches for a way to get one of his own.The wives on Molida Island have lost their husbands while they’re out at sea fishing for a living. However, by the end of the game, the seas have been thoroughly combed by the player and there husbands are no where to be found: "My husband left on a fishing trip and hasn’t returned"

Immune to deficiencies of the inhabitants of the watery world of Phantom Hourglass, Link helps anyone he can by doing what he does best: adventuring and being a kid. It is ironic that Link is one of the more mature, focused, and clear minded characters. And it is even more ironic that Link is one of a few character that takes up arms to become a hero. There is not a character that changes more throughout the game than Linebeck. From self centered, awkward, snappy, somewhat quixotic treasure hunter, Linebeck couldn’t help but change. Link’s purity and courage must have rubbed off on him. At first he underestimates link: “The temple is dangerous. No place for err.. a kid like you.” Later, Linebeck expresses his gratitude by writing Link a letter even though they see each other in person quite often. Soon, Linebeck comes around and even compliments Link face to face: “well you're sort of a good guy Link. Wow. That was out of character for me wasn't it!" During the epic final battle, Linebeck even takes up the sword in order to aid his captured friends. Linebeck’s character is so interesting and complex, he could be the subject for his own essay. I won’t go into too much detail about him here, but just know he is a refreshing deviation on the main-character-hero formula.

But there is still more to this world and these characters that is worth pointing. Within the game world there is a mysterious fascination with death. Skeletons of over-adventurous treasure hunters litter the floors of many dungeons throughout the game. Not only do these bones serve as a reminder of what could have happened to Linebeck and even Link, they also talk. The spirits of the dead are chatty and quick to offer advise to the living. They might mention things about their past life, secrets that they uncovered in their travels, or, as a way of preventing more deaths like theirs, they warn you of imminent dangers. On the Island of the Dead, Link talks to the ghosts of four knights and the ghost of King Cobble himself. Furthermore, Kayo, Astrid’s apprentice, had died and Link speaks to his ghost for tips. Many of these characters were drawn to perilous situations, exhibiting somewhat reckless behavior that classic behavior of Freud’s concept of the Death Drive. But it’s not death that many of these characters seek. It’s life. All of the troubled characters in the game are trying to find the life that has meaning for them. And for some, it’s the after life that is the biggest mystery of all. Romano’s dad sacrificed his family and his old life to pursue adventure:

Mom: "He used to talk about how he had visited that island. My husband...was once content to be a fisherman until he left this place. He sought uncharted lands. At least that's what he said when he finally left. He refused to work, instead ruining his boat by braving the northern fog repeatedly! The last time we saw him was over a year ago... My son... that boy hasn't worked in a long time either. He's peeved at his dad, I think."

Romanos: "All this endless babbling about living with a lust for adventure. Can that put food on the table? Can that make your family happy? Going your own way... is no way to survive in life. My way's a lot better. Staying home, eating cheese, that's the life!”

Dad's letter: "To my son, Romanos. If you're reading these words, you have found my true hideaway...Which means you also have developed a desire to find your own way in life...Know that I'm truly sorry for putting you and your mother through so much...I'm well aware that I'm the world's worst father, leaving you both behind...There's so much about the ways of the world I don't understand. Such as why the Ghost Ship appears and steals people. Where do its victims go? I have decided to dedicate my life to finding out the answers. If I fail to return, please take care of your mother. And please forgive me. In closing, one more thing...Embrace your wayfaring ways, my son!"

What drives these characters is the same thing that drives many of us. We have questions, and sometimes finding the answers at all costs becomes more important than living a life without knowing. Phantom Hourglass is a game in a world filled with people that can’t help but make up and define their own lives by what they believe. It’s a world where each individual has to make up their own minds. The player isn’t excluded from these choices either. They player has to decide whether or not to believe in Astrid’s fortunetelling, Kayo’s ideas on fate, the wayfaring life at sea, romance of the sea, what’s really at the bottom of the Anouki and Yook prejudices, or anything else in the game. Balancing the thin line between youthful innocence and the maturing effect of being a hero, Link’s characters exists at the perfect distance away from all of the issues the game raises. All of the “yes or no” questions that are presented in the game don’t have any significant consequences one way or the other. And the way the responses are phrased comically limits the player into participating in the role of the inconsequential kid that the world of Phantom Hourglass constantly tries to put Link in. The differences between Link and the world creates a level of introspection as the player is constantly reminded that he/she is different and that he/she must make decisions on their own.

The player is faced with a choice in what to believe in on many levels of Phantom Hourglass’ story that extends to the frame work itself. Players have to decide for themselves if the Wayfarer and Jolene’s sister dressed up as a Mermaid is a sufficient reality for either of them. We all know she’s not a real mermaid, but the Wayfarer believes it. We know that Jolene doesn’t have adequate pirating skills if she can’t even take out Link in a sword fight. Yet, she makes bold claims about returning for a rematch, and she refuses to give up on finding Linebeck. We know that McNey the famous explorer is dead because we found his pile of bones. Beyond this, the whole adventure is set up in such a way that the players have to either take it or leave it. Apparently, on my 35+ hour adventure to save Tetra, I was only gone for 10 minutes. One of my shipmates says: “It was probably a bad dream.” Was it all a dream? All of these questions still linger with me when I think about Phantom Hourglass. I hope by now, especially for critical-fans of the Zelda series, you realize that the greatest part of an adventure is the adventure. It’s not the beginning or the ending, but how you get there. Likewise, getting there and how that changes you is where the story lies. No dialog trees. No voice acting. For the Zelda series and Nintendo, function creates the ultimate role playing, and actions speak louder than words. Clearly there was a lot to say about a kid trying to get his friend back that speaks like no child.