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August 5, 2013 10:01 PM   Subscribe

"What it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence." Frictional Games lead designer talks about acclaimed PS3 game The Last of Us: "The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but ... if this represents the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists."

Some spoilers, but nothing plot related.
posted by Sebmojo (105 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The maddening thing is that it doesn't have to represent the future of video game storytelling. We recently had a lovely discussion about Oregon Trail here on the blue...imagine if all the talent and skill and resources behind The Last of Us had tried to make a game more in the spirit of Oregon Trail? Would it have been any less exciting?
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:28 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Last of Us had a fantastic opening, and a bold, impressive ending.

It's just that everything in-between was so dreadfully dull, save for a couple bright spots. As much as the game wanted to be a dark, unflinching look at humanity in a hopeless situation, there were still too many flamethrowers and magic unlimited-ammo sniper galleries for it to mean anything. Maybe it's not a victim of the dreaded "L-D" word but it's still very much a victim of the worst excesses and crutches of contemporary triple-A video games.

It's not even that I don't like such things - I have Saints Row IV on pre-order and there are very few things to which I am looking forward to more - but seeing this decidedly average game with good production values held up as one of the year's best (and in some corners of the Internet, the greatest game of all time) doesn't quite sit well with me. Especially 'cuz Telltale's The Walking Dead series told a similar story twice as well with half the budget.

(Sorry, I'm still grouchy that I got this game on release day and ended up counting the percentage until I finished it so I could trade it in for games I actually wanted to play - Shin Megami Tensei IV is awesome, for the record.)
posted by HostBryan at 10:29 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Future of videogame storytelling are little twine games people make over the span of a weekend and share with each other. Twine and other free game engines are taking down the barriers so that anyone can create an enriching interactive experience, and are more important to interactive narratives than something like The Last of Us.

I mean this game was made probably in an afternoon, and look at the discussion that came out of it. So many people in the thread were talking about how they would change it or riff on the idea. And the great part is, they probably could. Depression Quest, is another great example.

A great percentage of us don't have access to a PS3 development kit, programming skills, or the 2-3 years of dedicated time to create something as sprawling and detailed as The Last of Us. But we have experiences, insight, ideas, and Things To Say that are more important than what shows up in a AAA game.

And, recently, I tried my hand at video game storytelling. Instead of focusing on gameplay the whole project was focused on telling a story using the level and how the player explores it. No cutscenes or text boxes to explain anything. It was the most personal thing I ever put out, and the reaction was incredible. Someone on youtube made a Lets Play of it, and it was fascinating to listen to him narrate his thought process while playing, and read the comments interpreting the meanings behind things I had in the game. (turns out, they thought most of the bugs/graphical glitches were *intentional* ). That simply wouldn't have happened if I spent 12 straight hours coding the collision detection code by hand.

Truth be told, I'm finding a lot of other interesting games that wouldn't normally exist without tools like Twine and Unity3D. I can't wait to see what's ahead.
posted by hellojed at 10:36 PM on August 5, 2013 [18 favorites]


Chris Franklin over at Errant Signal said a lot of the same things (super spoilers). I really like his characterization of TLOU as a video game that has bits of a big budget CGI movie scattered throughout and the rest of his critiques were also spot on.

The blog links to Franklin's relatively favorable review of Spec Ops which points out that FPS violence that is critical of FPS violence is still FPS violence. It also covers a lot more and it's really worth a watch (as are most of his videos).
posted by dubusadus at 10:37 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't highlight the female experience simulator as generating useful gameplay or discussion.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:40 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The female experience simulator thread is extremely eye opening if you take the time to read it.
posted by dubusadus at 10:41 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, my bad. I didn't read it.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:46 PM on August 5, 2013


Twine doesn't make games, it's an electronic 'choose your own adventure' engine.

And Last of Us looks really boring. It's great that they're weaving more of the story into the gameplay and doing less cutscenes, but I got all the entertainment (or lack thereof) I'll ever get out of it from watching ten minutes of the gameplay video. I wish game makers would work more on making games that make me say "omg this is the most fun I've had since grade school" and care less about creating the next big hollywood drama story on a console.
posted by mullingitover at 10:52 PM on August 5, 2013


I wish game makers would work more on making games that make me say "omg this is the most fun I've had since grade school" and care less about creating the next big hollywood drama story on a console.

Clearly there is a market for The Last of Us, because there are different kinds of gamers. I'm not sure what games have made you feel that way, but I can guarantee there have been plenty of great examples of that in the last 5 years: The exploratory, constructive lose-yourself time-sink of Minecraft. The "I am Batman" feeling of the Arkham Asylum/City games. The silly Italian dialogue mixed with stabbing incestuous plutocrats of Assassin's Creed 2. These may not be your games that made you feel that, but they're mine.

There's a lot of great games out there for everyone.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:01 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hazard that Animal Crossing is one of the most popular "AAA" handheld games out right now. My 14 year old has been grounded twice already for playing it after lights out. This is a kid with access to XCOM, Skyrim, Guild Wars 2, Team Fortress 2, and a few others. Maybe this game was mentioned, but yeah, Animal Crossing.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:08 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I find the "FPS violence that is critical of FPS violence is still FPS violence" critiques of Spec Ops to be really confusing, as were used in the linked article. That's the whole point of Spec Ops - you can't make a game that starts with the premise of "we're gonna make a game where violence is the only way the player interacts with the world" and then have it mesh with a narrative that doesn't address said violence. Spec Ops isn't not "giving up" by just making the character degrade and become more monstrous as the game progresses, it's how the game goes about making the exact same point as the article. Spec Ops raises the very same question: "Here. Here's a game where the ludonarrative and the story/character narrative match. Now, why can't we make action games that do more than just inflict pain and suffering on the game world?"

If anything, The Last Of Us still falls prey to the same critiques Spec Ops poses as the Uncharted series, just for different reasons. While Uncharted had a main character and narrative that were wildly divergent from the murdering of hundreds of people (who, if you really want to unpack an unaddressed issue, were all male - where's our female enemies that aren't catsuit-wearing assassins and the like?), The Last Of Us tries to address that with a main character that is explicitly stated to various degrees to be a bad person accustomed to inflicting violence and pain on others - and in fact, lowers the entire setting to that same level by showing how violent and depraved life in general in the post-apocalyptic world is.

However, this only addresses the surface critique, and does not avoid the central question that Spec Ops poses: Why can't we make action games that allow us to make a choice that is not violent? There's lots of little moments where The Last of Us falls down on this account, but the #1 moment that I can cite is at the very end -

[VERY GUARDED SPOILERS BUT STILL SPOILER-Y]

- where you have to shoot someone who is not a direct threat in order to progress to the ending. When I played that, I had a flashback to a very, very similar moment in Spec Ops, where you are surrounded by an angry crowd that will eventually stone you to death if you wait too long. The obvious solution, both from how past games have trained us and from a physical danger standpoint, is to simply shoot the offending characters, but Spec Ops provided an unobvious third way (the second way being simply standing there and being stoned to death because there's no "Negotiate and Deescalate" button) - if you shoot into the air, the crowd panics and disperses. I tried doing something similar in The Last Of Us, and the game didn't react. It was at that moment that I knew that Naughty Dog hadn't learned the lesson of Spec Ops, or hadn't had time to. Spec Ops wants us to think of a game that allows for that "Negotiate and Deescalate" button, or at least allows us to use the forced interaction method of Violence in a way that doesn't have to cause suffering. The Last of Us might address the ludonarrative dissonance, but it doesn't address the central problem of the design, as posed by this article as well.
posted by Punkey at 11:15 PM on August 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


I wish game makers would work more on making games that make me say "omg this is the most fun I've had since grade school" and care less about creating the next big hollywood drama story on a console.

I enjoyed Spec Ops: The Line, but I don't have a PS3 so I can't play The Last of Us. The whole game got at the feeling my sister had when she played some arcade light gun game and felt bad about killing people. I experianced Spec Ops more as a riff on Apocolypse Now.

The actual violence felt pretty weak, honestly, and was just a slightly worse version of Gears of Wars.

I'd like more brightly colored, fun games. Not for any moral reason, but just because playing the same grey and brown shooters honestly gets depressing, and I like action games. I'd prefer to reskin shooters as being more cartoony and yes, filled with demons and monsters and aliens.

Reading through the article:

Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through.

This has become SUCH a cliche, and I'd honestly like to find games that have another way to do environmental storytelling. And no, creepy graffiti does not count.

but yes, i'm a big proponent of 'story' generally being useless or detrimental to gaming
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:16 PM on August 5, 2013


I think one of the problems comes down to action games must imply that if you don't act quickly enough and in the correct button sequence (video game physical input) you'll get a negative action (video game emotional output). Now, the easiest and most well-known moment of crisis where your character is in danger and where you must act quickly, contesting an external force that represents what you the player doesn't want is . . . well, combat. It makes sense too, and it makes you fight against antagonists instead of environmental factors.

We might not like it, but it's understandable why the action adventure genre uses combat as the primary contest you the player are engaging in. There are some exceptions to this like Mirror's Edge, but they're rare. If we don't want combat in our games as much, we need something else where victory and defeat balance on a knife's edge (and a controller's button-mashing), and where we feel a definite sense of reward or punishment if we don't play the game well enough. Oregon Trail is many things, but it's not an action adventure game, so it doesn't need combat as it's primary interaction.

So the question I ask to Metafilter is how else can we do this?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:30 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd also add another reason that combat and combat-like actions work so well in video games: they're manifestations of physical actions when you the player are physically interacting with the controller. You push down on the control pad with your left thumb: your character turns left. There's a simplicity and directness there that works much more innately than if you pressed left and it caused you to defend your client with a rousing speech.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:39 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lord Chancellor, you should play The Walking Dead. It presents a good few options on that front that apply to more directly action-oriented games. The big one is using branching storytelling and the lack of ability to go back and do something differently without restarting the whole game to give your decisions permanence, and then writing it so the player feels good or bad based on the story's reaction to your actions. Spec Ops' hidden "third options" is another way, designing in non-obvious solutions to conundrums posed by your game, but I would ask another question.

What are games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Skyrim but action-adventure games with a leveling system? How many degrees of difference are there, really, between The Last Of Us and Mass Effect when it comes to gameplay?

I think that there's really not that much between them as far as the actual play itself. The way forward could be simply tearing down the wall between the "RPG" and "action-adventure" genres. Games with the branching narrative component of something like The Walking Dead is combined with the character action-based choice mechanic from Spec Ops would allow for player choice to matter (and to make choices that aren't forced to be violent, like not shooting or even putting away your gun) without requiring explicit "Here are your choices on the Choice Wheel!" mechanics (like with Bioware games).
posted by Punkey at 11:44 PM on August 5, 2013


I find the "FPS violence that is critical of FPS violence is still FPS violence" critiques of Spec Ops to be really confusing

The critiques of Spec Ops refer back to Truffaut. TV Tropes has a brief overview.

Spec Ops isn't not "giving up" by just making the character degrade and become more monstrous as the game progresses, it's how the game goes about making the exact same point as the article

To which you could say that the game is structured like a typical FPS with victory conditions and mechanics that hinge on violence and killing. Total story and narrative add up to a few hours. Total time spent aiming for headshots and sprinting over walls and picking up ammunition and triggering environmental effects that end in satisfying deaths of the AI far exceeds that. Whatever message could be there is erased when you, the player, decides to survive.
posted by dubusadus at 11:44 PM on August 5, 2013


hellojed pretty much said what I would say regarding storytelling in games. There's so so so much potential for storytelling in games that's being pushed RIGHT NOW by indies, and not just by your household-names-indies like Jonathan Blow. There's a huge movement out there currently diversifying the meaning of "game" and telling stories I never would have expected to find in this medium - and using "interaction" in ever more surprising ways. Twine is a great example of a space that's doing this. Game jams are pretty fascinating, because there's a lot of people out there throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, and sometimes it's the most unexpected stuff that works. But I tend to compare these new games to flash fiction, short stories, and poetry, while our AAA games and larger indie productions would be the novels of the medium. The first will definitely inform the latter, but it'll be transformed into something a lot more familiar (and more "game-like") by the time it gets there.

ALL THAT SAID, this is a really good article. I agree with his final thoughts - that those elements that are used to fluff up the story, such as intel or his giraffe vignette example, are worthwhile systems of their own that can deliver an enjoyable experience regardless of the rest of the gameplay.

But I add the caveat that I think this is very dependent on taste. I absolutely adored Dear Esther, and I love Frictional's Amnesia, and I would totally play twenty hours of "The Road: The Game" with only two bullets and a lot of walking and sightseeing and occasionally hiding in burned out tree husks. But there are so many more people who would hate it and not even look at it unless it was The Road: The Action Game. I guess I have given up on AAA games catering to smaller crowds until enough indie games have proven financially successful on this ground.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:46 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


dubusadus, I understand the argument. I find the fact that it continues to be made rather confusing.

I know the game is structured like a typical action game, with win states that hinge entirely on violence - and so did Yaeger! That was the whole point of Spec Ops - that this is artificially limiting and kind of fucked up! The fact that the game not only puts you in situations where you are forced to kill but are only allowed to interact with the game world through violence is turned on its head by the game's explicit choice moments is not only used to put you, the player, in situations where any reasonable and right-thinking individual would obviously do something else, the game directly comments on it! The statements to the character - and the player - about how "none of this would have happened if you had just stopped" and how you chose to keep going, this is how Spec Ops points out that you, the player, spent all this time killing other human beings (other American soldiers, ostensibly people on your side, no less) instead of making a different choice. Spec Ops presents this landscape of chaos, pain, and death that you - the player, not the character - are the architect of by participating in the narrative, and then asks you, directly, "Why did you do this? Isn't all of this kind of fucked up?"
posted by Punkey at 11:52 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


How does that article not mention any of the Marathon games at all?

Is it also really claiming that Portal invented the idea of an omniscient narrator in a video game?
posted by Earthtopus at 11:57 PM on August 5, 2013


Punkey: "Spec Ops wants us to think of a game that allows for that "Negotiate and Deescalate" button, or at least allows us to use the forced interaction method of Violence in a way that doesn't have to cause suffering."

As a tangental point, I remember very vividly the first time I ever played GTA. As someone who played tons (and tons and tons) of RPGs and adventure games, I was excited for this open world game full of people and cars and parks and buildings oh my!

So the first thing I did is walk out to the sidewalk and Press X to Talk to the nearest NPC. Except there's no talk button. It's a punch button. And I was like "Oh my god I'm sorry I didn't mean to do that!" But there's no apology button either. Instead, I was chased down and beaten to death while he hurled angry slurs at me.

That's the first and last time I played GTA. My story of trying to play Red Dead Redemption last year is eerily similar. (No I did not mean to steal their horse - I thought it was my horse and if they would have just let me explain...).

I find these experiences wonderful, because it's so so easy to just get caught up in what you expect the game to let you do, and so hard to free your mind from learned behavior. My vivid memory of GTA has informed me a lot on the artificial restrictions we put in games.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:57 PM on August 5, 2013


I haven't played Spec Ops, much as I'd love to but the whole "if you carry on it's on you" point will come up against that rather annoying trait of curiosity. If I pay £20 for a game I will bloody well finish it. I wouldn't stop reading a book because on page 100 it says "if you continue to read me on page 200 you will cause the death of a character you have grown to like". I didn't write the book - the book is written and printed - that person on p.200 is a) fictional and b) dead in the narrative whether I read on or not.

I totally get their point and in comparison to bro-murder fests like the terrible Gears of War series it's interesting and clever and provokes dialogue but sorry, I totally didn't cause anyone's death. I am a witness to the creator's chosen storyline. I have some decisions available to me but in no way do I actually exercise choice except by removing the game from the drive or the book from my lap and hurling it out the window to satisfy the writer's decision to make a point that most non-sociopaths should already be well aware of.
posted by longbaugh at 12:03 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Lord Chancellor: If we don't want combat in our games as much, we need something else where victory and defeat balance on a knife's edge (and a controller's button-mashing), and where we feel a definite sense of reward or punishment if we don't play the game well enough.

I have spent the last several years thinking about this problem, on and off.

Burning Rangers is one example. Somewhere there is an interview with the designers that discussed how they wanted to make an action based videogame that was based around an environmental, impersonal threat instead of an intentional one, but I don't have it to hand. The game did have bosses, however, so I'm not sure if the plan was a success.

Inspired by BR, I have been trying to write a firefighting roguelike for some time now. (Also, my father was a firefighter, and a personal hero of mine.) Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to work on it.
posted by curious.jp at 12:12 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a write up on RPS about a badger sim that sounded very compelling. Plenty of knife's edge moments and no weapons (or people) in sight.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:15 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's so so so much potential for storytelling in games that's being pushed RIGHT NOW by indies, and not just by your household-names-indies like Jonathan Blow.

I'd rather see more innovative gameplay than more innovative storytelling. I've been playing a bunch of Angry Birds lately, and it seems like it has snappier mechanics and more fun graphics than many AAA games. Honestly, I would have liked to spent more time wandering Spec Ops' ruined Dubai. The best that game had going for it mechanically was shooting out windows full of sand to drop on enemy soldiers.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:15 AM on August 6, 2013


Honestly I'd settle for games with less fighting, not none. In my head I have a version of bioshock where Rapture had much fewer enemies, and you explored this lonely world, encovering its mysteries. The world would be decayed and dangerous, and you would need plasmids to over come envionmental challenges. And, yes, you would meet the occasional deranged splicer and have to resort to violence, but its scarcity would give it meaning the game lacks.

Of course building a game which engages your attention like that is harder. Its much easier just to spawn x new enemies and call it a day.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:25 AM on August 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I haven't played Spec Ops, much as I'd love to but the whole "if you carry on it's on you" point will come up against that rather annoying trait of curiosity. If I pay £20 for a game I will bloody well finish it. I wouldn't stop reading a book because on page 100 it says "if you continue to read me on page 200 you will cause the death of a character you have grown to like". I didn't write the book - the book is written and printed - that person on p.200 is a) fictional and b) dead in the narrative whether I read on or not.

I believe this is exactly what Haneke does in his Funny Games remake. I guess it all boils down to whether you think the work is complete as written or as experienced.
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:28 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, the game can comment as much as it wants but it's still limited by its rail mechanics. It's the same with ironic racism or ironic sexism. Saints Row is great fun. It pokes at a lot of tropes and issues in the GTA franchise, in popular FPS shooters, at consumer culture, and so on and so forth. But the game is still forcing you to make those decisions, to engage in those acts. It's expressing those very same cultural values and tropes inside of a multi-million dollar production. It's just winking at you while you do it.

Honestly, I would have liked to spent more time wandering Spec Ops' ruined Dubai.

That was actually something I thought that Spec Ops or The Last of Us could have done more. There are stories beyond the CGI cutscenes but they're kept lurking in the background. Take out one of the hundreds of shooty bits and replace it with a story, one that you, the player character, can choose to explore instead of being forced into one engagement after another.

It's possible to critique the shooter genre without making a manshooter. Viscera Cleanup Detail comes to mind. And while it's technically an FPS, you don't do any shooting. Demetri Martin's joke also comes to mind.
posted by dubusadus at 12:29 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Spec Ops presents this landscape of chaos, pain, and death that you - the player, not the character - are the architect of by participating in the narrative, and then asks you, directly, "Why did you do this? Isn't all of this kind of fucked up?"

Try Save the Date! (Small spoiler) I think it starts out similar to Spec Ops in trying to communicate a message to the player, but comes to a wildly different conclusion.

There was a write up on RPS about a badger sim that sounded very compelling. Plenty of knife's edge moments and no weapons (or people) in sight.

Do you mean Shelter? It's also a very graphically beautiful game.
posted by FJT at 12:30 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]



Honestly I'd settle for games with less fighting, not none. In my head I have a version of bioshock where Rapture had much fewer enemies, and you explored this lonely world, encovering its mysteries. The world would be decayed and dangerous, and you would need plasmids to over come envionmental challenges. And, yes, you would meet the occasional deranged splicer and have to resort to violence, but its scarcity would give it meaning the game lacks.


Reminds me of Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery.

I'm going to sound like a psychopath, but violence in games should be FUN. Its okay to make a comment on humanity and gaming once in a while, and Spec Ops worked as a modern riff on Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. But so many other action games with fun mechanics (like Gears of War) drag me down because they have a grey and brown world. Either make a point, or make violent action games with bright cartoonish blood sprays and laser swords and aliens and demons and monsters.

Basically, graphics are getting more 'realistic' but the mechanics haven't changed. And since I like the old mechanics, I think we need more stylzed graphics. Platinum Games gets it, and the upcoming Sunset Overdrive does too.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:35 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Plenty of knife's edge moments and no weapons (or people) in sight.

Oh yes, and if you want a game with knife edge moments and with "realistic" violence in the sense you kill people with the machinery of bureaucracy, then maybe you should take a look at Papers, Please, which is going to be released in a couple of days!
posted by FJT at 12:37 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


I wanna check out that Badger sim. Papers Please Just got a full release.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:38 AM on August 6, 2013


Doh, beat me to it and I thought it was out.

Cart Life, as well
posted by Ad hominem at 12:39 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Charlemagne, thanks for the Sunset Overdrive trailer. Hadn't heard of it but I can always get behind more stylized graphics and blue skies in games.
posted by 23 at 12:57 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not realizing this for the first time or anything, but it's still kind of weird how I consider myself a gamer (as in, I will intentionally play video games for fun), and yet I haven't played any AAA action games in 5 years, which is when I ended up playing Mass Effect 1, and before that I hadn't played AAA action games since before there were hyper-realistic AAA shooters. And I found even Mass Effect strained, embarrassing, and weirdly transparent.

Me, I stick to JRPGs, with their totally codified, gross, and retrograde gender dynamics. Well, shit. I've got the PSP port of Lunar: SS sitting in my PSP half-played, and I have to fight acute distaste whenever I fire it up.

A couple years ago I played Aquaria, which I recently shilled for on MetaFilter. That game really stayed with me. Yeah, in most ways it's a very traditional action-adventure game. The majority of gameplay is swimming around and shooting a fuck-ton of sea creatures to harvest fish oil or sushi or whatever.

But the most captivating part of the game for me involved getting to the edge of the known world and finding that it goes on, that there's new stuff, scary stuff, cool stuff, and weird stuff beyond the areas I've explored. And it was cool to control a character who actually develops a motivation during the game, however basic. And the main character is female! And even though she finds a male counterpart, she repeatedly has to save him, and not just for selfish reasons, but because she genuinely seems to care for him as a human being!

Simple pleasures are so rare.

I did start playing Swords & Sworcery a while back. The overall presentation is tedious and twee, but I really, really like walking around in the game's environments.
posted by Nomyte at 1:23 AM on August 6, 2013


...we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

Seriously. I tried playing both Half Life 2 and Team Fortress for a few nights, but I just can't take the constant sweaty fear. There are other emotions, try them.
posted by DU at 2:43 AM on August 6, 2013


can we just get more games like portal?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:56 AM on August 6, 2013


Go play Quantum Conundrum! Even less violence than Portal, and with John de Lancie thrown in for narration goodness. It was directed by Kim Swift (creator of Narbacular Drop) and it is terrific.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:02 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


hot damn! that looks fun!! thanks!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:14 AM on August 6, 2013


However, this only addresses the surface critique, and does not avoid the central question that Spec Ops poses: Why can't we make action games that allow us to make a choice that is not violent?

I think a better question is: why should we feel forced to?

In defense of violent video games, I think they serve a very necessary purpose in the human psyche, and that we actually lose something when we try to take it away.

Violent video games are a simulation of combat that often acts as a substitute for the real thing. How many times have you heard someone have a frustrating day at work, only to say "I'm going to go play some videogames/kill some zombies/what have you?" It releases violent aggression in not only a socially acceptable, but also non-harmful way. No pixels were harmed in the making of this video game. It takes the place of fistfights in a back alley. It serves as an outlet for the violent surges of testosterone that come with puberty.

The stereotype of the nerd or geek who goes home and plays video games is often in counter to the bully or jock who does not - who gets his aggression out on a football field, the other simulated combat that we endorse and approve of.

I know a lot of veterans who are tired of killing, but spend their days playing first person shooters. Why? Because it's a good way to get out the desire for violence without hurting anyone else. And no - you do not have to be fundamentally damaged to enjoy violence. That is a lie Americans and others tell themselves so that they can convince themselves that the people who engage in violence are just different, inhuman, capable of more than they are. Everyone contains within themselves the seeds of violence, and the seeds for feeling physically good when they do it. Violence brings adrenaline, which brings the same "rush" as a rollercoaster.
posted by corb at 3:19 AM on August 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


I wish game makers would work more on making games that make me say "omg this is the most fun I've had since grade school" and care less about creating the next big hollywood drama story on a console.
It's not even that; it's that game designers have this inferiority complex where they want to be "art", which when unpacked really just means "appealing to the upper classes". This means cargo-cult stuff like trying to be abstract/meta/socially relevant in ways that will resonate with educated bohemians.

It's not the "personal vision" connotation of "art", and it's really not even the "propaganda" connotation. It's kitsch.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:26 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


But the most captivating part of the game for me involved getting to the edge of the known world and finding that it goes on, that there's new stuff, scary stuff, cool stuff, and weird stuff beyond the areas I've explored.

I think, for me, video games will always come secondary to pen and paper RPGs for this reason. Nothing breaks my suspension of disbelief like artificial and arbitrary walls. I finally got around to finishing Fallout : New Vegas and it's associated DLCs last month and decided to go a-wandering straight into the walls surrounding my sandbox. It drives me nuts that I can't just keep going. Far Cry 3 made sense in somes respects as the islands were in the arse-end of nowhere. State of Decay made sense in that the area you happened to be in had been put under quarantine by the military but in real life, I could climb those mountains or find a path or blow a hole through the walls to escape outside of my limited play area.

The limitations of technology, design and man hours clearly prevents me from wandering through a full size representation of my home town, going through office buildings and shops, searching people's homes for vital food and medicines to keep me and my cohorts alive but there are no such limitations on the shared imagination of me and a bunch of other geeks donig that very thing. I'm a huge video game fan and have probably wasted (?) tens of thousands of hours over the past 30+ years playing games of various sorts but recently I'm steering away entirely from the hand-holding, railroading of digital gaming and back into the arms of telling stories with those around me, creating a living narrative between us and exploring whatever the hell we want to explore with no technological limitations.

I can set a PnP RPG in the world of Fallout New Vegas and my players would know what exists and what is scary ("There are three deathclaws milling around near the construction site. One of them sniffs the air and turns towards you. Roll initiative.") but if we wanted to leave the Mojave we could just go. I'm doing whatever I can do at the moment to spread the joy of PnP RPGs and the fun of shared storytelling. One of the benefits is the choices my players can make are not limited to one or two scripted dialogue trees. I don't have to pay anyone tens of thousands of dollars to re-record lines of dialogue if my players come up with a different plan to the one I'd considered, I just need to remember which silly voice and name I used for the 46 year old German mercenary they met in the Souk.

The only limitations are the pre-existing agreements or game rules in place between player and director (note the theatrical terms...) as to what can be done in the world the characters inhabit and this freedom allows players to explore their version of our shared world in any way they want. Fancy playing several sessions about driving camels across the Empty Quarter? Fuck yeah - let me just skim the Rub' al Khali wikipedia article, read some books by Thesinger and St John Phiby and I'll run that for you no problems. There's plenty of adventure that can be had without murder. Whatever floats your boat be it romance, exploration, survival, intrigue or any combination of story you choose.

Best of all there's a significant "bro" deficit in the PnP RPG world too so in case the nemesis of your moustachioed swashbuckling Renaissance musketeer does get stabbed and killed in a drawn out, touch-and-go smallsword duel his last words won't be "FUCK YOU AWP WALLHACK FAG".
posted by longbaugh at 4:11 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not even that; it's that game designers have this inferiority complex where they want to be "art", which when unpacked really just means "appealing to the upper classes". This means cargo-cult stuff like trying to be abstract/meta/socially relevant in ways that will resonate with educated bohemians.

It's not the "personal vision" connotation of "art", and it's really not even the "propaganda" connotation. It's kitsch.


That could not have been put more smugly.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:13 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


It just occurred to me that as a dude, violent FPS games are the "default" for AAA status for the same reason it's easier to freestyle rap lyrics about violence, death, and destroying your opponent. Men have the capacity to be amazingly violent, horrific creatures and we express that darkness in the video game world with aplomb (can I kill this? what about this? hey, this seems to suffer before it dies, LOL!) in much the same way it's easier to extemporaneously rhyme about butt-sexing your opponent's mother than praising the universe so you and me could write a verse, but for the grace of god I ain't in a hearse and I've still got a purse what's the worst that could happen spittin' positive or waxing politic?
posted by lordaych at 4:16 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not even that; it's that game designers have this inferiority complex where they want to be "art", which when unpacked really just means "appealing to the upper classes". This means cargo-cult stuff like trying to be abstract/meta/socially relevant in ways that will resonate with educated bohemians.

It's not the "personal vision" connotation of "art", and it's really not even the "propaganda" connotation. It's kitsch.


That's entirely unfair. The people who make the games that have a broader artistic vision beyond "shoot all these people" do it because they genuinely think that you can express things in video games that you can't express in other mediums. Papers Please and Cart Life are exceedingly well done pieces of social criticism that could only exist as games, and Journey is as good a piece of art as I've seen in the last half-decade. These games are all personal vision, and no bohemian pretension.
posted by gkhan at 4:32 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Neat ways to justify violence" makes a lot of sense, actually. Indie developers have always been more creative, but this is practically all AAA publishers know how to do.

I actually had this come to mind while playing Fallout 3 and New Vegas lately. Fantastic games (albeit glitchy messes), but absolutely loaded with blowing people's heads off and splattering blood everywhere.

The last AAA game I played that had a great story and wasn't so focused on "killing dudes" was LA Noire. And even then, you still had gunfights. At least you were a cop and the fights were with gangsters or criminals who shot at you first. The bulk of gameplay and the story though involved conversations, moving from place to place, and asking questions.

Instead, if you look at AAA titles (sports and driving games excepted), gameplay usually consists of two basic mechanics: fetch quests (get ye three flasks from hence) and stay alive while we throw waves of bad dudes at you quests (go kill Jim and survive attacks by Jim's friends).

Even great games like Red Dead Redemption boil down to these two main mechanics.

Is this what we're doomed to when it comes to full AAA titles? How many games like LA Noire will get made in the future?
posted by Old Man McKay at 5:19 AM on August 6, 2013


When game theorists talk about how games function, one interesting concept comes up over and over again: fundamentally, a game is about a world. The mechanics of how you interact with that world matter, but ultimately it's the ways in which that world changes for you that establishes the game that you're playing.

This is true of the simplest card games, where the world is defined by all the unknown cards in the deck, or of freeze tag, where the world is a set of boundaries within which people keep shifting places. It's true of Tetris, whose world quickly becomes overgrown and inhospitable unless you treat it with perfect consideration, and it's true of Tic-Tac-Toe, where every move shifts the balance of power.

The Last Of Us gives you maybe ten, fifteen minutes of an excellent world. Your escape from the town, in which everything is dissolving around you, is legitimately gripping—more so because you have almost no method for causing violence, so you're subject to the whims of the madness that surrounds you. But then it succumbs to the problem almost every storytelling game does, which is: whoops! I've gotta give you gameplay! Then it settles for giving you generic fight-or-flight gameplay that does basically nothing, for all it kind of weaves a story into it.

(That's better than BioShock Infinite, which almost immediately snatched its world away from you and turned it into a bloodbath. What a goddamn waste.)

Thing is, I'm not opposed to violence in video games. But violence is by necessity a non-constructive behavior. It "removes an obstacle." And there's only so much you can do with that as a designer before you've exhausted all the possible violent things you can do. Shoot one bad guy? Check. Shoot ten bad guys? Alright. Climb onto bad guys Shadow of the Colossus style and meditate on the nature of choice and cruelty? Even that kind of gameplay has its limits. When a game is defined by who you're cutting out of it, your world has to either be extremely clever or extraordinarily limited.

That's not to say rah rah rah, no violence! But it means that violence is always going to be a relatively lesser mechanic. A game whose only mechanics involve violence is stuck in something of a rut; a game in which violence leads to something else gives you some kind of tool for affecting your world, but you hold onto the outlet for mindless aggression that, yes, kicks a whole lot of ass.

I always wanted, for instance, a GTA or Saint's Row game where the property you purchase does more than give you residual kickbacks and lowered prices. I'd love a GTA game whose city is a big strategic chessboard, full of other people out to take control and who'll respond to your investments with story-generating moves of their own. They hire thugs, slander you in the press, whatever. You could get rid of the shitty scripted story in one of those games, make the narrative something that shifts along with the world, and have a game where violence is always an option, but tactical nonviolence is also a possibility.

You could even weave in some Wire-style anti-utopian cynicism in there, because games are great at simulating environments, showing how pieces affect each other, showing how everybody gets trapped in their respective roles. That's basically what Tetris is already. But game developers, at least the big-name ones, don't give a shit. They want to make the mindless games of their childhood with a bigger budget and better control schemes; any attempt at thought in their games is just a way to fob off the critics. (BioShock Infinite I'm looking at you. You are such a fucking stupid game don't even pretend that you're trying to be thought-provoking.)

That is the future of video game storytelling: games whose stories are a generated part of their worlds, so that you get recurring themes and stages and characters but it never happens the same way twice. This isn't even anything new: in a sense, Super Mario Bros. did this, with its multiple paths through a world, multiple routes to the ending. Just take that and make it a little bit more variable, a little bit more narrative, and now you have a class of story that simply can't exist outside of a game.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:43 AM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Adventure games did this all twenty years ago. Still are, but mostly in Japanese.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:56 AM on August 6, 2013


"The last AAA game I played that had a great story and wasn't so focused on "killing dudes" was LA Noire. And even then, you still had gunfights. At least you were a cop and the fights were with gangsters or criminals who shot at you first. The bulk of gameplay and the story though involved conversations, moving from place to place, and asking questions."

I'm playing through LA Noire now, and it's funny that the main criticism I have of it, is that you can't win a gunfight by disarming the bad guys. You could do that in Red Dead Redemption. I'd like to play a cop that only kills when he absolutely has to, but the game won't let me.

I'd like to see a GTA game where you play as either a cop, a loner or a criminal (that's an insider) and all three represent different experiences and game play.
posted by oddman at 6:06 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel I should point out that it's technically possible to beat Fallout: New Vegas without killing anyone or anything. I say technically because you kind of have killed someone but he's still alive when the game ends.

It's always interesting to me to look at which games give the option of a Pacifist Run (TV Tropes link). The games themselves are wildly different in storytelling goals and methods.

Last game I played was FarCry 3, picked it up during the summer sale. In the story gave you exactly one choice: Keep killing or stop killing. I thought it was interesting that the only explicit choice you got in the narrative was the implicit choice you get when playing games.

That said, I have some issues with it in retrospect, while it seems like it was trying to do some interesting things with the story and with subverting the tropes it was using, it could also have been a lazily written game with some interesting stylistic choices. The fact that it's hard to tell the difference means it failed on it's own terms. Honestly, for me, Blood Dragon was all around a better game, which I was not expecting at all.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:16 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


imagine if all the talent and skill and resources behind The Last of Us had tried to make a game more in the spirit of Oregon Trail?

It would be pretty much just like King of Dragon Pass with unnecessary 3D animation/voice acting?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:36 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


games whose stories are a generated part of their worlds, so that you get recurring themes and stages and characters but it never happens the same way twice

Real life has that. The stories that emerge for most of us are quite dull. A lot of the ones that aren't dull are horrible.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:03 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess there's no option for withdrawing your military forces, working to repair the civic infrastructure, remove foreign exploitation, and encourage a participatory structure wherein schools and hospital workers are well paid, and corrupt officials sent out of the country or jailed.

Nah. Bring on the flamethrowers.
posted by mule98J at 7:08 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have mentioned this previously but I recently re-played GTA IV with the express purpose of avoiding killing anyone outside of missions. It took six months to do it with multiple re-starts (kill a pedestrian accidentally with the boat-like handling? Re-start!) and at the end, based only on the deaths caused during missions I had slaughtered several hundred people.

Last night I finished up The Lost And The Damned, the first GTA IV DLC (yeah, I'm slow) and one of the final missions involved being attacked by five carloads of armed thugs. I clambered onto the roof of a garage and proceeded to use pipe bombs and the M4 to wipe them out. After I slaughtered the first and second carloads with judiciously applied violence I questioned the mentality of the the remaining artificial thugs. I just killed eight of their colleagues and friends with great ease and without taking a single round. Surely they can see the wreckage and bodies as they pull up. Don't they have families? Why are they making me do this?

I had the high ground, a fully automatic weapon with lots of ammo and explosives. They could never have prevailed. Send ten cars, or twenty even and I would have ended the lives of each and every person. I could have stayed up there for hours dispatching the mafiosi without a problem and because the mission was heavily scripted there was no police present at what was at that point one of the largest firefights of the game. It took me out of the game and really disappointed me.

Video games just can't get close to reality with the resources we have available right now. Games might look close to reality, they might even have perfect driving physics or be able to simulate the journey of a 9x19mm Parabellum round through the soft tissue of an enemy accurately mapping a texture for the arterial spray as it exits but so long as we have unrealistic AI, railroaded plot and the invisible, solid walls they are going to be extremely limiting. Until then, the resources I need to tell a compelling story and give the players all the agency they need are a £20 rule book and a few free hours of a weekend*.


*and three or four adults able to find the time to be available whilst having lives. This is much harder than you might think.
posted by longbaugh at 7:33 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess there's no option for withdrawing your military forces, working to repair the civic infrastructure, remove foreign exploitation, and encourage a participatory structure wherein schools and hospital workers are well paid, and corrupt officials sent out of the country or jailed.

Sounds like you want Tropico.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:38 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


"we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists."

I think of this as sort of what Austin Grossman's excellent novel YOU is about.
posted by escabeche at 8:08 AM on August 6, 2013


@Sebmojo

I don't think it's smug, except maybe in some kind of bizarre reverse-smugness way. What I'm saying is that games can stand on their own feet and by their own terms. Twisting yourself in knots to appeal to the kind of people who read Lethem, Franzen, Chabon, etc. will just end up causing a work that's at best repetitious and at worst a kitschy, probably short-lived lifestyle accessory (not to insult Portal, but remember how quickly "the cake is a lie" became unfashionable?)

Making things that appeal to a small, rarefied set of people with "correct" tastes and opinions just seems kind of anti-populist to me.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:36 AM on August 6, 2013


(Not that I'm saying everything has to be Blezynskiesque blah, either)
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:39 AM on August 6, 2013


I have played Walking Dead and think it's a great game, but it's an adventure game whose primary game play interactions are about interacting with the environment. When you do have moments of visceral passion it's because you're fighting/killing zombies, even in that game.

What are games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Skyrim but action-adventure games with a leveling system? How many degrees of difference are there, really, between The Last Of Us and Mass Effect when it comes to gameplay?

I think the whole "violence is how you interact with the world" is present in most games beyond the action adventure is part of the problem. How can you play a RPG like Skyrim and not have the majority of the do-or-die moments about killing people and things? We need those do-or-die moments for the visceral passion they give rise to, but . . . that means something always has to die.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:59 AM on August 6, 2013


I fully recognize violent video games as potentially healthy outlets for violent feelings, but am I the only human being that just feels overwhelmingly guilty when responsible for the digital death of virtual people? Like, I never found Looney Tunes funny: animal tries to hurt other animal, other animal viciously tortures first animal, rinse and repeat for sixty years. I enjoy Tarantino-style revenge violence where it's fun and creative and everybody kinda gets what they deserve in the most outlandish way possible, but I could never bring myself to pull even a symbolic trigger and do that myself without feeling really, really terrible.
posted by Mooseli at 9:06 AM on August 6, 2013


I fully recognize violent video games as potentially healthy outlets for violent feelings, but am I the only human being that just feels overwhelmingly guilty when responsible for the digital death of virtual people? Like, I never found Looney Tunes funny: animal tries to hurt other animal, other animal viciously tortures first animal, rinse and repeat for sixty years. I enjoy Tarantino-style revenge violence where it's fun and creative and everybody kinda gets what they deserve in the most outlandish way possible, but I could never bring myself to pull even a symbolic trigger and do that myself without feeling really, really terrible.


I play a lot of games and like fighting but I have to have a reason/story for killing. If it's bad guys that are trying to kill me I'm mostly fine. I feel bad though if I have to kill things that seem more innocent. I love the Assassins Creed games as they at least allow you to play sneaky a lot of the time and not have to kill every soldier. I hated the hunting part though. lol I never got into GTA even though I loved the driving part. There was just too much possibility for killing people that I just felt didn't deserve to die. I'd feel guilty when I'd accidentally run over someone, which happened a lot.
posted by Jalliah at 9:26 AM on August 6, 2013


I have mentioned this previously but I recently re-played GTA IV with the express purpose of avoiding killing anyone outside of missions. It took six months to do it with multiple re-starts (kill a pedestrian accidentally with the boat-like handling? Re-start!) and at the end, based only on the deaths caused during missions I had slaughtered several hundred people.

Last night I finished up The Lost And The Damned, the first GTA IV DLC (yeah, I'm slow) and one of the final missions involved being attacked by five carloads of armed thugs. I clambered onto the roof of a garage and proceeded to use pipe bombs and the M4 to wipe them out. After I slaughtered the first and second carloads with judiciously applied violence I questioned the mentality of the the remaining artificial thugs. I just killed eight of their colleagues and friends with great ease and without taking a single round. Surely they can see the wreckage and bodies as they pull up. Don't they have families? Why are they making me do this?


That's one of the most frustrating thing about the current generation of shooters that want to throw dozens of faceless enemies at you in each mission but still want the main character to be get all soulful about the hard choices he's making or whatever. There's just too many enemies to make any sense on any level. No real people would act like that. Hell, in Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us, I found myself wondering what sort of economy was supporting these giant hordes who live in the middle of nowhere and apparently shoot anyone they see.

If game designers honestly don't have any ideas for how to interact with the worlds they've created beyond shooting hundreds upon hundreds of dudes, the least they could do would be to make the killing of so many people have some sort of impact on the world and to tie the slaughter into the rest of their carefully-created world somehow. I forget what game it was (maybe Far Cry 2?), but some shooter had a mechanic whereby as you killed enemies and caused mayhem, the basic enemies would start to fear you and run away rather than try to fight. It didn't work perfectly, but at least it made the world seem slightly more dynamic, and also had the bonus of making the late game more fun because you didn't have to mow down every single patrol that crossed your path.
posted by Copronymus at 10:16 AM on August 6, 2013


There are these games, with lots of crafted story content and lore that seem to limit people in what they can do and how they go about doing it. And then there's Planetside 2, a game with a small amount (probably no more than about 10 pages) of lore and an incredibly large persistent play area with one single goal and somehow it spawns countless little stories, tall tales, and easter eggs (intentional or imagined).

Er, and I mean, there are three (soon to be four), seven thousand meters square, persistent continents that are constantly being fought over. It doesn't sound like something without much story and focusing so heavily on pure combat would have much of a dedicated fan base that was there both for the combat and for that delightful little (occasionally NSFW) culture that slowly grows around the in-game fights.

It is there though. For example: the Terran Republic is the big semi/completely-facist entity that tried to rule the new world like an Empire. So the players got to thinking, if there is an empire, there must be an emperor (not named as such, but he is in the fluff). And if there is an emperor, would there be a princess? And so this lunatic, run-away train of faulty logic on rusty rails finally reached its conclusion: The princess must live in Her Crown ergo, the Terran Republic must ALWAYS own The Crown.

So we had months and months of gigantic, knock down, drag out fights between at least 100 players (up to almost 300 at times) on the most defensible, least important resource-wise piece of crap territory in the game for no reason other than that one of the factions had invented some story or other to justify it. And it was hilarious.

And we of the Sovereignty, when we finally figured out why the Republic was doing this, generally ended the fights spamming in /yell chat, "We're sorry Terrans, your Princess is in another castle". Sadly, there were some balancing passes that hit The Crown pretty hard. While it is now actually important to hold it is one of the easiest bases to siege, quite the change from its previous iteration.

Anyway, to bring it this all back to the subject at hand: sometimes an 'immature' game with a single, unadulteratedly violent goal can spawn stories and lore quite beyond the reach of all but the most fevered imaginations.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:38 AM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I got the impression that the violence was in part a monkey-brain thing- it was not so much that lousy designers cannot make a fun game without violence, it is also that these are a means-unto-an-end the way that people also like porn (with equal often lamented un-realism). Game designers, by and large, are also in the business of making violence porn, much like how romance dominates book sales.

Of course you get a game like Saints Row, which is only possible to get through if you believe that everyone is a self aware video game character on their own mission (buy milk, guard bank) and for them a death has no more impact on them than your player deaths do.
posted by Phalene at 10:56 AM on August 6, 2013


I have played Walking Dead and think it's a great game, but it's an adventure game whose primary game play interactions are about interacting with the environment. When you do have moments of visceral passion it's because you're fighting/killing zombies, even in that game.

I didn't get to play this game since I generally don't play console games beyond little DS games and I never play violent games, not because I'm against them or anything, but because I can't devote time to anything beyond Animal Crossing.

But I watched a friend play Walking Dead and I have never experienced a video game that was so watchable. I sat there for hours even though I wasn't even the player. It was violent, but not desensitizing, it was genuinely horrific and tragic. I also loved the great variety of characters that you had to care about from the passive to the aggressive. I hope this sort of game is more common in the future.
posted by melissam at 11:02 AM on August 6, 2013


I think that there's really not that much between them as far as the actual play itself. The way forward could be simply tearing down the wall between the "RPG" and "action-adventure" genres.

You can't find an action-adventure game nowadays without rpg elements, a currency, new abilities and/or items, can you? I'd say a lot of genres including sports got rpgfied (technical term) ie an infusion of statistics, in the last decade.
posted by ersatz at 11:17 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


hellojed, you didn't do "The Ruins of Machi Itcza," did you?
posted by Eideteker at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2013


Coming in as a now occasional player, can I ask the thread, the following question, mirrored by a lot of my friends and peers.

- I liked the story, the deer, the giraffes in the TLoU but I dreaded the combat and switched it to easy ASAP so I would get it over it
- I loved Braid
- I tried playing many other well reviewed games recently (Dishonored, Bioshock,...) but was turned off by the same old combat that I've been plowing through since Tomb Raider, MGS & Doom

What else is there out there that's worth trying out?
And more importantly, what is a good source out there to find games to try out that I might like?
posted by Riton at 11:29 AM on August 6, 2013


"It's not even that; it's that game designers have this inferiority complex where they want to be "art", which when unpacked really just means "appealing to the upper classes". This means cargo-cult stuff like trying to be abstract/meta/socially relevant in ways that will resonate with educated bohemians."

I really disagree. I think accusations of pretention are damaging no matter if it's towards games or film or books or modern art. It paints anyone who enjoys or creates these kinds of works as some boogeyman of inaunthentic hipsterdom, instead of people who, you know, actually love this stuff and want more of it.

"Making things that appeal to a small, rarefied set of people with "correct" tastes and opinions just seems kind of anti-populist to me."

Flip this on its head. Mainstream games - and gamers - are incredibly restrictive on their definition of game (see flippant comment above: "twine doesn't make games"). To enjoy games, you have to have the "correct" tastes - i.e., agree that games are about "fun" and games that are not "fun" are not games, and there must be goals, and if you talk to the average gamer then it needs action and it better not have too many cutscenes.

Indie games are just expanding the definition of games to be more inclusive, and giving people who have different (not "correct") tastes something to enjoy as well.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm puzzled by people knocking the violence in TLOU as lazy or unimaginative. It's actually quite clever in its implementation.

For one thing, its not just some mindless maniac bullet hell like in CoD or Bioshock Infinite. The player character, though grizzled and tough, is still as physically frail as any other human. Getting shot doesn't just make your screen flash to alert you to your next target, for instance -- it makes Joel stagger and stumble backward, frighteningly vulnerable. Since out-of-control firefights so often go pear-shaped (ending in his/your grisly, visceral death), stealth and and careful strategic maneuvering become primary tools, and firing a weapon becomes a considerable decision fraught with tension.

This is intensified by the brilliant crafting system, where meager supplies found in the world are jury-rigged into vital materiel. Sure, you can go hog-wild, crafting Molotovs and nail bombs with glee. But that means less to spare for medical supplies to bind up wounds, smoke bombs for concealment, or emergency shivs to escape the clutches of a monstrous Clicker. Unlike other games where ammo and power-ups are just lying around (in varying quantities) to enable the constant action, in TLOU crafting is yet another strategic decision -- meticulously gathering resources from sprawling, believable environments and employing them judiciously according to the situation.

And as for the actions you're forced into at the endgame, well, it was never intended to be an RPG with branching decision paths. You're supposed to be acting out the story of a specific character with a history and motivations of his own. It's why the game is presented in cinematic third person with occasional cutscenes instead of from a more immersive and blank-slate first-person point of view, like with Gordon Freeman. While the gameplay affords you agency in how to navigate desperate circumstances, you're ultimately supposed to be experiencing the gameplay in order to identify and empathize with the protagonist, making the conclusion more emotionally resonant. Even if you disagree with his decisions, you've "been in his shoes" and interacting with his world long enough that you can at least understand him, and it, on a deep level.

Which is ultimately what good art is about -- imparting beautiful vistas, believable characters, gripping plot twists, and challenging perspectives -- but melded with and reinforced by the engaging and enacting capabilities of games.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:38 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


We really need to get a MeFi PnP RPG group going on IRC or something.
posted by Samizdata at 2:10 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


In defense of violent video games, I think they serve a very necessary purpose in the human psyche, and that we actually lose something when we try to take it away.

Exactly. They let me blow off steam and release stress. I think that unlike most of this thread its not that I want less violence. I just want violence that's more stylized and less contextulized. The more we try and add stories and plots and backgrounds to games the more the violence becomes problematic. We should want to play games because they're fun, and we should commit violence in games becausethat's what the game demands, not because of an artificial plot.

OR
In Angry Birds Space, I'm killing pigs by exposing them to hard vacumn so they freeze. If this was done in a realistic, Dead Space kind of way it would be horrible, but done in a cartoony way it lets me focus on the physics and the feel of the violence.


I actually had this come to mind while playing Fallout 3 and New Vegas lately. Fantastic games (albeit glitchy messes), but absolutely loaded with blowing people's heads off and splattering blood everywhere.


I'm pretty sure you can play New Vegas without killing anybody; with a high Speech skill even the final boss can be talked down (I think). And if you go off plot games like Just Cause 2 and GTA and Saints Row become tourist simulators.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:52 PM on August 6, 2013


Yup, you can beat New Vegas without killing a single creature or person.
posted by Justinian at 6:16 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can also murder everyone and get awesome achievements for eating the flesh of your enemies. And friends. And strangers. And pets.

I know which is more fun.
posted by Justinian at 6:24 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


@SVR

I'm not talking about inauthenticity. I don't doubt that "people of quality" sincerely want games that appeal to them. Nor am I talking about pretense; I'm sure games can be actually be made that don't offend their sensibilities and express the ideas they want expressed.
Flip this on its head.

I'm trying but I can't easily place the swells in the shoes of the masses who play games. As for the Twine thing, well, flip that: You're a game designer. You spent maybe four years of your life getting a degree in computer science, or graphic design, or something, and you're joined in your efforts by other equally trained people, sculptors and artists and writers, and you get together and spend probably another four years developing an engine, making the art and the models and the sounds, writing and revising the story, composing the music, all of this in inhumane crunch-time conditions. Not long after this, someone comes in with this little bit of fluff that was made in about half a day with no training, a CYOA and sometimes not even that, just a collection of hyperlinks, and they call it equal or superior to the thing you spent nearly a decade on. I know some game designers are probably special enough to not feel resentful, but if I were one, it wouldn't be me.

Instead of lamenting the fact that gamers won't just shut up and learn to enjoy cartoony Facebook-level Angry Birds stuff or talking simulators, it might be better to ask why the other resonates with them. Of course, the risk there is that it will mysteriously and unexpectedly turn out that the reason they don't share your tastes is that they're bad people.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:10 PM on August 6, 2013


LogicalDash: Adventure games did this all twenty years ago. Still are, but mostly in Japanese.

You appear to have some particular games in mind. Could you share them?
posted by 23 at 7:39 PM on August 6, 2013


It's why the game is presented in cinematic third person with occasional cutscenes instead of from a more immersive and blank-slate first-person point of view, like with Gordon Freeman.

I think this is one of the reasons why the era of the first-person military shooter is on its way out. Game designers are increasingly interested in the role-playing nature of games, and shooting at everything that moves isn't always a great way to do that.

I've actually gotten to the point that I can't really play games where I'm gunning down hundreds of faceless humans. Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I'm going a little bit crazy, but its tough when you, say, face the DataDyne guards in the first level of Perfect Dark, a game I loved unreservedly when it first came out. They're not part of some evil conspiracy, or bad people: they're a bunch of underpaid security guards who didn't really expect to be slaughtered by an agent from another corporation.

Not that third-person games don't have that problem too. Someone upthread mentioned the body count in GTA IV and how it doesn't match up with Nico's protests that he hates violence and killing. It still works, even for the most part, as he's forced into some gun battle or another by shadowy figures in the underworld and various intelligence groups.

Then he falls in with the McCrearys, and gleefully slaughters dozens of cops as he tries to escape a bank robbery gone bad.

That doesn't work. Nico yells at them to go home, he doesn't want to hurt them--but the only time he's yelling that is as he's firing his rifle on full auto. There's no way to sneak out of the area, to find a sewer grate and escape or something like that. That, and the mission is hard, the first time in the game that I didn't get through on the second or third try. It's a moment that totally takes you out of the game, out of the character. I eventually finished the mission, and played a few more after that, and then put the game away more or less completely.

Red Dead, on the other hand, seemed to do the "reluctant killer" theme a lot better--and one of the things that helped was that you didn't have to hang out with your other murderous friends between missions, and you could always go off into the mountains for days at a time and explore and go hunting. (It was a fantastic tourism simulator. Made me wish I lived in the modernizing old west at points.)

But why do I have to be a reluctant killer at all? Why can't my character in the game be a disgraced cop in 1970s NYC / Liberty City, forced out during the Knapp Commission but possibly innocent of all charges? (I'd say why's he gotta be a he, but we all know.) And he starts operating as a private eye, leaning on his remaining connections on the force. Maybe he's actually been set up to take a fall and he's really innocent. Maybe he's corrupt. But the backstory's never spelled out and it could actually be up to the player to decide.

Anyway, I don't think the military shooter--or the first person shooter in general--really has too much juice left. It's been 20 years since Doom, 17 since Quake, 10 since the first Call of Duty. There's not much there there, anymore. I'd hoped Halo 4 would have more exploration elements, since it had a bunch of Metroid Prime folk on its team, but it's the same old Halo and, storywise, a step back from what Bungie did with ODST and Reach. The whole point of Call of Duty is to be the same but slightly different, a sports game for the shooter crowd. Maybe Half-Life 3 gets announced in 49 days, maybe not.

It doesn't matter. The FPS is in the same position that the 2d platformer was in 1995 or so--by far the dominant game type of its current generation, and the dominant game type of the next generation for the first year or so. But there wasn't really a whole lot going on in terms of new ideas in the platformer, and so once developers started to understand the possibilities of the PlayStation and the N64, the 2d genre disappeared in favor of the occasional 3d platformer (but really, aside from Mario 64 and Tomb Raider there wasn't a lot else going on in the late 90s), but really it was the 3d JRPG that began to shine. The rise of survival horror. Decent attempts at stealth games! The platformer faded away and, even with the rise of indie games the past few years, hasn't made that strong a comeback, because there's still only so much you can do with the genre.

If you've read down this far, I apologize. But I think that, soon in the new generation of consoles--and already in the PC/Mac world--there's going to be a blossoming of experimentation into new genres, some of which we can't even foresee yet. The focus on combining gameplay with story is going to continue, but equating gunplay with gameplay probably won't.

(P.S. I'm really interested to see what comes out of the Shadowrun Returns editor. The included campaign is pretty shooty, but it doesn't seem like all the campaigns have to be.)
posted by thecaddy at 9:26 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


This, of course, alludes to you:
I think you're making a lot of assumptions here. Half your assumptions are true: at work I'll spend about 3 years each on a massive AAA shooter and know exactly what goes into that complicated process. I also make Twine games in my free time. About 1/5 of my coworkers are actively involved in some indie project or another - iphone games, game jams, quick unity games, boardgames. etc. We do presentations at work about experimental games we find. Hell, Lemarchand, the lead designer at Naughty Dog (whose game is the origin of this discussion!) has been a huge advocate of art games and bringing those games to AAA developers' attentions. We were all indies once, making games before we started getting paid to make games.

My point is that it's not a "us vs. them" kind of thing - there's huge crossover in these communities. There's a fundamental disconnect when people try to pit The Game Industry vs. The Indies. (It would be more appropriate to pit "Games Must Be Fun" against the "Games Are Anything Interactive" crowds).

I've seen a ton of frustration from indies toward the mainstream, and I think a lot of it is valid, and the result is they are making the games they want to see - and proving to the industry there's a market for those kinds of games. A person making a CYOA game in half a day is working on a TOTALLY different playing field than a group of 80 professionals working for 3 years on a mainstream shooter that needs to earn back its costs. We know that, just like I know that my favorite student film was working on a totally different playing field than Transformers 3 (give you one guess which I thought was superior).

I guess my point is that I don't see this smug superiority complex as an endemic part of the indie game community. Frustration, yes. Dissatisfaction, totally. "I am better than you"? Not really - a couple vocal indies who make everyone roll their eyes don't make up a whole community nor define a movement.

(I'm not really sure what your last two sentences are referring to - there's a few too many ways I could read them)
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 9:49 PM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]



My point is that it's not a "us vs. them" kind of thing - there's huge crossover in these communities. There's a fundamental disconnect when people try to pit The Game Industry vs. The Indies. (It would be more appropriate to pit "Games Must Be Fun" against the "Games Are Anything Interactive" crowds).


Exactly! I just want good gameplay; it doesn't matter if it comes from Phil Fish or CliffyB.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:54 PM on August 6, 2013


- I liked the story, the deer, the giraffes in the TLoU but I dreaded the combat and switched it to easy ASAP so I would get it over it
- I loved Braid
- I tried playing many other well reviewed games recently (Dishonored, Bioshock,...) but was turned off by the same old combat that I've been plowing through since Tomb Raider, MGS & Doom

What else is there out there that's worth trying out?


Try Fez and World of Goo. Skyrim had a great environment, but the story and combat will disappoint you.
posted by ersatz at 4:01 AM on August 7, 2013


I guess my point is that I don't see this smug superiority complex as an endemic part of the indie game community.
It doesn't have to be. Due to the realities of social position, it's in the context. Sure, no one goes so far as to say "those horrible gamers, why can't they like games about talking, with good Brooklynite-approved morals", but you don't have to. It's already attached.

People are making non-RPS-approved games, but that's because it's a non-RPS-approved audience.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:40 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the mid-eighties, Will Wright was designing his first game, which was a pretty genre-typical shooter called Raid on Bungeling Bay. The core gameplay offered by the title isn't too different from anything we'd see in a modern combat sandbox today, except not extruded to three dimensions. However, one of the innovative features that Wright built into the game (the fact that the enemy could improve their defenses through a factory simulation he wrote) ended up fascinating him more than shoot-em-up mechanics, and Wright would go on to design the landmark non-violent game: SimCity.

I'm watching The Story of Film right now (highly recommended, also TCM is going to be showing it starting in September alongside special presentations of key films mentioned in each episode), and in the silent movie era when film was still transitioning from Vaudeville and serious Theater to being its own medium someone had to invent turning your back to the screen! It wasn't considered good practice to have actors not facing the viewer, so when a director did that for the first time (intentionally) it was revolutionary, and opened up a whole new word in the language of film. The jump-cut, actors looking at the camera, double exposure, dolly shots, the long take (stuff that even basic commercials for hemorrhoid cream utilize with no fanfare today) all had to be discovered and perfected.
posted by codacorolla at 8:39 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I learned about that Will Wright anecdote from the amazing essay "Nurturing Lateral Leaps in Game Design" (Google Books link).

This is a more scholarly look at the current dichotomy between formulaic AAA titles and innovative Independent titles which considers the role that game design tools have to play in the state of the industry. At large scales, the money and the process of game design means that you have highly specialized teams working in relative isolation to accomplish tasks (for example: you have character animators in Skyrim who are professionally trained 3D artists with vague to no knowledge of engine programming, or game design, or architecture, or TES lore) - quite different from the one man operation that lead Wright down the blind alley of Raid and the eventual realization which would essentially create the genre of city-builder.

The ultimate argument of this essay is that what really makes for innovative games are cheap and powerful tools, and supportive communities. As an object example, he cites the way that two student games went into making Portal, which was a rare example of a genre-defining release from a major studio (whereas most major studios typically traffic in an established genre that they got their start in, e.g. Bethesda and open world games, ID and FPS shooters). There are tons of student games, most of which are bad, released for free every year on the Internet. Valve was able to find two that were amazing, and tap the talent behind them for a major title release. The more power you give to small scale teams (and especially single person development) the more crazy ideas you'll see flying out, some of which will actually stick to the wall.
posted by codacorolla at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this is one of the reasons why the era of the first-person military shooter is on its way out

For values of "on its way out" which must take into account that the fastest selling games of all time are and remain in the first-person military shooter genre. And have sold the most copies in the last 25 years (since Super Mario days).

Well, except for the Sims. But I try not to think about The Sims.
posted by Justinian at 1:32 PM on August 7, 2013


Dark Souls. Hard as balls, but astonishingly deep and satisfying.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:45 PM on August 7, 2013


Samizdata: "We really need to get a MeFi PnP RPG group going on IRC or something."

BTW, the good thing about IRC is you don't have to hear me talk like my characters.

A friend once introduced me to Larry Niven (yes, the author) at a party as "This is my friend, [real first name]. He's a dwarf."

Oh, DWARVEN FIGHTER-CLERICS 4 LYFE!
posted by Samizdata at 3:00 PM on August 7, 2013


Dark Souls isn't hard! It was just tedious! That's not the same! Arrrrrgh.

My lawn. Off it. Get.
posted by Justinian at 6:43 PM on August 7, 2013


Dark Souls isn't hard! It was just tedious! That's not the same! Arrrrrgh.

My lawn. Off it. Get.


You can finish Dark Souls with a level one character and minimal gear changes. That's the opposite of tedious. Unless you're bad at it, in which case I can see your point.
posted by codacorolla at 9:00 PM on August 7, 2013


Dark Souls is only tedious if you consider mediation tedious. You know how in Skyrim you walk up that mountain to meet the Dragon Priests? And it really doesn't take much effort? Dark Souls is walking up that mountain in real time. Its fighting through the 36 Chambers of Shaolin. Its spiritual purification, and its also a great game.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:06 PM on August 7, 2013


Yuck. You don't actually need to be any good to beat it, only willing to grind, grind, grind. That's the opposite of what I look for in a game.
posted by Justinian at 12:02 AM on August 8, 2013


Though to be fair I have a hard time thinking of the last game I consider to have been difficult, so...
posted by Justinian at 12:06 AM on August 8, 2013


Yuck. You don't actually need to be any good to beat it, only willing to grind, grind, grind. That's the opposite of what I look for in a game.

This isn't true in the slightest. It doesn't even have a passing resemblance to truth. If you're grinding to beat Dark Souls then you're doing something horribly wrong.
posted by codacorolla at 8:55 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just played the entire game not 3 months ago. If you're a good player you don't have to grind. But I don't see how you can deny that poorer players can still beat it through grinding.

Died with 30 souls? No problem. Kill rats for half an hour in the sewers for souls. That's basically the definition of grinding!
posted by Justinian at 10:34 AM on August 8, 2013


You can beat Mario by closing your eyes and hitting random buttons on the joystick, that doesn't mean that winning the game is random.

Grinding for stats is absolutely an edge case in Dark Soul's gameplay, and you might not think it's suitably hard, but to call its gameplay grinding is ridiculous.
posted by codacorolla at 11:01 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apart from that, grinding will only take you so far. You can max health if you want to, but without learning the game systems and effective combat techniques you're still going to get demolished by most of the bosses.
posted by codacorolla at 12:08 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Codacorolla: Look at any Dark Souls wiki. There are pages and pages of information on grinding souls, grinding humanity (I meant humanity above, not souls, obviously), grinding shards, grinding chunks, grinding anything you can think of.
posted by Justinian at 12:58 PM on August 8, 2013


Except that the only way 'grinding' helps you is that it gets you better at playing the game. All the stats in the world don't make a difference if you can't parry, dodge, or fight correctly.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:24 PM on August 8, 2013


You'll hit harder and take more hits to be killed. Yeah, you need to achieve some minimum level of basic non-incompetence. But you don't have to get good. Just not awful.

To be truly difficult a game needs to make it impossible to progress if you aren't good at it.
posted by Justinian at 12:12 AM on August 9, 2013



To be truly difficult a game needs to make it impossible to progress if you aren't good at it.


To even get to the point in Dark Souls where you're consistantly grinding takes time.
You talk about 'grinding rats souls in the sewers'.

To do that you need to:
Beat the Asylum Demon
Beat the torturous lead-up to the Taurus Demon, which took me 6 hours for about 10 minutes of gameplay
Beat the Taurus Demon
Either have the Master Key or beat the other demon that trips people up
Find the sewers

And if you've done all that, you're good at the game. And if you grind in the sewers, you're grinding in the most visually unpleasent and confusing part of the game outside of the Blighttown Swamps, so its like the game's judging you.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:20 AM on August 9, 2013


I think we've had this discussion before. I don't consider myself all that great at Dark Souls. I just think the vast majority of people are very, very, very terrible at games.
posted by Justinian at 12:22 AM on August 9, 2013


FWIW, to calibrate: I thought Civ IV on Deity was pretty tough. Civ V on deity is of medium difficulty. Spellbreaker was damn near impossible. Mass Effect 2-3 were trivial even on the hardest difficulty. Dragon Age 1 was trivial on Nightmare. Dragon Age 2 was medium on Nightmare and I think is a good standard for what the basic difficulty should be for games. IE easy mode should be easier than DA2 nightmare, hard mode should be somewhat harder.
posted by Justinian at 12:26 AM on August 9, 2013


Difficulty isn't a monolithic thing. Civ on ANY difficulty would be impossible me, since I'm horrible at planning ahead. I don't have the reflexes for some twitch games, either. Dark Souls fools you into thinking its a twitch game, but its also about patience and timing. If you play lots of strategy games and RPGs it makes sense that you'd try and figure out the optimal strategy for beating Dark Souls as a whole, instead of existing in the moment of gameplay.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:45 AM on August 9, 2013


Sure: I played for a while to understand the gameplay and the stats and then started over to build a new character from scratch and put the points in the skills which best suited my gameplay. Which meant pumping strength and vitality with some into endurance.
posted by Justinian at 12:54 AM on August 9, 2013


I think you had a similar discussion in this thread Justinian. Isn't it possible for Dark Souls to be tedious and difficult though? Sure, you're used to the particular type of challenge it throws up, and the punishment for failure is long, but repeatedly exclaiming it's so easy just sounds like a weight lifter laughing at how puny everyone else is.

What in particular made the difficulty in Spellbreaker better than the difficulty of learning boss strategies, say?
posted by lucidium at 3:00 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting question. One difference that occurs immediately is that you actually had to solve the puzzles. With DS you could just keeping playing the boss fights over and over and over and eventually, presuming competence, you'd win through... well not luck exactly... but not necessarily skill either. Kind of like how the odds of me hitting a major league fastball are practically non-existent. But if I took a thousand swings at one I'd get at least a couple hits because every so often even a blind squirrel can find an acorn.

Of course that's true of virtually any game so... hmmmm. I will have to think on it more.

I guess another thing is that, as I said, if the fight was too difficult for you you could leave and come back later when you were more powerful, which rewards grinding. Even if grinding isn't required. In a puzzle or strategy game that's not generally an option.
posted by Justinian at 11:21 AM on August 9, 2013


That's a good point - I call games like Super Meat Boy "die-a-lots" because I feel like a large part of the gameplay involves that sort of war of attrition. That said, if an imaginary level presents three potentially lethal choke points, skill makes the difference between your chances being 0.1 x 0.1 x 0.1 and 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5. Playing with a thousand in one chance to win would be tedious, but screwing up seven or so times still feels like my fault.

It's obviously more abstract, but I see solving the "puzzle" of game mechanics in a similar way to solving puzzles in IF. You could just retry until you win by chance in the same way you could just spam every potential word permutation.

It is true that many games now explicitly push the "option" of grinding, but I don't think that the fact that you can grind makes the actual challenge easier any more than the fact that you could try a thousand times makes hitting a 100mph ball easier.
posted by lucidium at 4:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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