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Tag: design

Event[0] and intentional clunkiness

Event[0] is a game about survival. If you haven’t played it yet, I’d like to warn you that this article contains major spoilers. As in, this post reveals the ending of the game, and some of the most magnificent moments in the game. The game is a few hours long, available through various stores through their website, and launched at $19.99. It is a fascinating game, and one of the more tense game experiences I’ve had in a while. It comes strongly recommended, and even if you feel the price isn’t worth it, I’d recommend you bookmark this article and read it only after you acquire it through a sale or bundle in the future. This game is good.

In Event[0], you play the sole survivor of a failed space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europe, and find yourself marooned on an unknown human spaceship that unexpectedly draws your escape pod in. The spaceship turns out to be a luxurious cruiseship with all sorts of comfortable facilities. In this alternative timeline, humanity kept exploring the technology for space exploration after the cold war as their top priority. To achieve its goals, Earth united its governments towards that goal, and also sent cool 80’s luxury technology into space.

The modes of interaction in the game are limited. Hovering over an object will interact with it or show you information about it. The left mouse-button moves your character forward, and the right mouse-button moves backwards. This is a clever hack to avoid having to use letters on your keyboard, because the main mode of interaction is typing messages on a Kaizen-85 terminal, the shipboard AI aboard the luxurious Nautilus spaceship.

The terminals are numerous old-fashioned interfaces scattered across the ship that allow the user to type anything they want to. You can write messages to Kaizen-85, or you can execute commands or interact with programs you can boot up to hack around a bit. The core of the gameplay, however, is simply typing messages at Kaizen-85, which operates primarily like a chatbot.

Kaizen-85 is a bot that operates better with well-written, human-sounding operations. “open door d3” will open the door, but “Would you please open the D3 door, Kaizen?” will do so too. Typing “log” to open the logbook on the specific terminal you’re in will simply make Kaizen confirm there is a logbook, while “open log” will open it for your (plot-crucial) reading pleasure.

The shipboard AI, you see, has a moral quandary. Something aboard the ship has proven to potentially be dangerous to humanity at large if returned to an Earth orbit, and it has allowed Kaizen-85 to have less regard for the safety of those people aboard the Nautilus. Yet, unless the crew actively tries to return the ship to Earth, the AI’s programming forces it to cooperate in full honesty.

In Event[0], nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Throughout the game, it turns out everybody has been misunderstood and slighted in some way, everybody is dealing with incomplete or faulty information, and everybody has failed to communicate those concerns properly. Event[0] is a game about the failure of communication under stressful circumstances. It’s both a story and a game about failure across world views, perspectives, communication paradigms and differing value systems.

Kaizen-85, like many things in Event[0], is clunky. It’s Siri or Google Now or Alexa, if any of them was built in these fictional space 80’s. It will just as frequently understand you as it won’t. But Kaizen-85 is also more than that. It understands a tiny bit of context across several messages, and it has a somewhat insecure personality. Kaizen-85 has been alone for decades, and with its primary concern the safety of humans, it has developed a personality that is somewhat hesitant, somewhat paranoid and somewhat ecstatic to meet a new purpose after the crew of the Nautilus presumably perished.

You’ll frequently wonder what specific combination of words will allow Kaizen-85 to give up information it doesn’t want you to know, what you can say to let you through, what attitude will make it trust your intentions. Kaizen-85 can read tone, and it will test your willingness to cooperate and trust it through various means in the ship. Early on, the ship computer opens the door into a room in a ominous corridor with some reluctance, asking you to not enter the room. The response to that request seems binary – you either listen or you don’t. If you listen, or inquire more, Kaizen will reveal that it was preparing the room for your comfort and that that was supposed to be a surprise. If you don’t listen, the game brilliantly places no reward or punishment on that, simply changing Kaizen’s understanding of your personality, but not changing its core purpose, to ensure your comfort and safety. Kaizen-85 is not a rogue AI. It’s isn’t a cliche murder-bot. It simply doesn’t know whether it can trust you, and it’s trying to figure that out as you both try to fulfill your separate goals.

The best scene of the game takes place not aboard the Nautilus, but outside of it. After an unfortunate accident that the AI believes killed the player character, the player finds themselves floating in space near an airlock with a terminal. Kaizen-85 is unconvinced the person outside the airlock can be the same person that it believes is now dead inside the spaceship. As your oxygen runs out, you have to talk and convince the shipboard AI that it is you, and that it should open the airlock to let you in.

Normally a chatbot not responding properly gives us a feeling of failure on the computers’ end, but in this case, who has the blame doesn’t matter. Kaizen-85 has a different personality, a different communication paradigm, and a different value system. It perceives trust and consciousness a different way than humans do. It perceives language and communication unlike humans do. It perceives urgency and necessity differently from how humans do. The computer isn’t being clunky or failing – it’s making a genuine attempt at communicating across these cultural barriers. What you’re facing is a communication problem, and in the scene outside the airlock, our agency and immersion places the stakes on our end through the dwindling O2 supply in our suits. Our immediate solution is to reach for empathy, but Kaizen-85 has no such thing. In our arrogance, we believe our projection of humanity, of ourselves, means Kaizen-85 is like us. Because there’s a semblance of humanity to Kaizen-85, we believe it to accept and agree with our worldview.

So maybe, Event[0] is a game about different world views. Kaizen and the player have to learn to communicate across different types of consciousness. The two-person crew of the Nautilus perishes over a failure of trust between each other. One of them trusts the AI, and befriends it as if it were human and ultimately perishes. One of them sees the AI as utilitarian, antagonizes it, and ultimately perishes too.

In the end, there is no way to fail at Event[0], because there’s no right or wrong. The game ends with the player having to choose between trusting Kaizen, trusting the judgement another human whose consciousness in now stored in a computer, or trusting neither of them. Kaizen-85 suggests to severely damage the ship in order to remove a device aboard that could threaten the Earth. The computer-stored human suggests that the device is stable, and that it will bring prosperity to Earth and end inequality. Both of them claim the other will lead to your ultimate demise, and both of them claim they will return you to Earth safely. And you, you’re just trying to survive and get home.

All endings resolve positively, although not always for equally so for everyone involved. If you choose to trust the human, you’ll find yourself uploaded to a computer, leaving behind your body and returning to Earth. If you decide to trust neither, Kaizen-85 will shut down and trap you aboard the Nautilus alone in an orbit around Jupiter, keeping the Earth safe. And in a beautiful twist, if you decide to trust Kaizen-85, Kaizen-85 still has to decide whether it actually trusts you.

In that regard, Event[0] can teach us a lot about communicating and what our humanity is and isn’t, and what it means and what it doesn’t. In all cases, there’s a computer terminal right there to communicate with. Our biggest challenges to overcome in the game are our projections and assumptions, our failure to communicate and our frustration at how clunky that communication is. We need to understand Kaizen-85 as a logical device, filtered through human creators and our human interpretation.

Event[0] is about being abroad, and not understanding the local language and culture. It’s about communicating in stressful situations. It’s about the dangers of projection our belief system on others that might not share it. But mostly, Event[0] is about asking and listening, even if we disagree, even if we misunderstand, even if we wish they would just understand what we’re trying to say. A failure to communicate between two willing and genuine participants is never the fault of one person alone.

The Center Of All Things

Games communicate something from the creator to the player, and as such, carry intent. While I can’t statistically prove it, I’ve come to believe intent is what separates a good from a bad game. Intent creates a direction, an impulse to a design. It doesn’t necessarily start at the idea’s inception – very often a game comes from messing around and experimenting, but at some point an intent must form. When an intent is decided upon, a game can form around that.

Rocket League, a 2015 favorite car-sports game, famously started as a weaponized car combat arena game, much in the vein of Twisted Metal. When a programmer added a ball for a physics test, the team decided to re-imagine the game as the first iteration of Rocket League. This is where the intent came from: create a game about skillfully navigating a ball using cars. Rocket League is many things, but that essence statement summarizes not just the core gameplay mechanics, but also the inherent absurdity and humor of the idea.

When you think about it, most good games can be summarized into simple essences without too much effort. Their intent shines through clearly, and without the designers’ interference. This is why, when I give feedback, or have to greenlight a project, I try to build up to what I expect to be the essence statement for the game, based purely on the build I played. I then question the designers or creators about their game, and try to get them to make an essence statement of their own.

Obviously, I then compare the two statements. If they overlap, the game and the designer have an aligned intent, and I have faith in the game. If not, I try to build a mental model of what led to those separate statements.

Schools often teach the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to analyze game design, which is a tremendous framework focused on the input-output loop a game creates. While that is an extremely powerful perspective to have on games, I tend to shift focus to the space between Mechanics and Dynamics, and use a personal Intent-Mechanics-Declaration model to communicate flaws in the game design. As always, the model is always in flux, and I doubt I’m the first one to use a model like this. The model is rather simple and by no means exhaustive, but can be most easily communicated as three concentric circles. The Intent is a circle. Around that circle is a larger circle, the Mechanics layer. Around that is a third circle, the Declarative layer.

The Intent is the essence statement, a short and clearly communicable statement that the team working on the game should agree on. It’s important to realize this statement does not have to be exhaustive, and should be considered more along the lines of an architectural parti – something that encompasses the big idea of the game. An essence statement is also not a pitch – it’s used internally. Where Ridiculous Fishing’s pitch was “a game about fishing with machineguns” – a pitch crafted to elicit laughter & interest, internally the goal was to “create a game with an infinite positive feedback loop” – an essence that was pleasant, comfortable and positive no matter the skill of the player.

The mechanics are designed to reinforce the intent, or at the very least not contradict the intent or the other mechanics. This sounds remarkably obvious, but it’s the easiest way to distinguish the average student game from the average professional game. The mechanics are purely the technical state-changes in the game, the values adjusting, the input processing, the ruleset and the ‘deltas’ between two distinct moments in the game based on those rulesets.

The declarative layer, then, is what communicates these ‘deltas’ back to the player. They’re the graphics, the audio, the feedback. It’s each frame of the game rendered (or otherwise communicated) to the player. In other words, the declarative layer is what the player can actually process. It declares to the player that which has changed. Based on that, the players adjust their mental model, create a new intent of their own, and offer input based on their intent. Clearly, the declarative layer should communicate the mechanics and the intent behind them as clearly as possible.

When the model is drawn, you can imagine every decision made in the game as a point in the appropriate layer. The model gains value when you think of the decisions as arrows, drawn from a point in their appropriate layer towards what they’re meant to communicate. If everything is alright, your game should look a bit like a snowflake, with every single arrow more-or-less pointing back towards the center of the circle – the intent.

Considered as a whole, the model should teach you one or two things. The first lesson is that having a clear and easily communicated essence statement early on in development, will avoid disagreements about where the intent is, and as such, it’ll avoid arrows pointing in wildly different directions. The second lesson is that if you apply this model to agame, you’ll usually find some decisions of which the arrows point in the opposite direction of the intent on purpose. A model is not something that should force your hand. A model should guide your decision-making, but never force a decision.

In Ridiculous Fishing, the game we built so carefully to be an infinitely positive feedback loop, we created the second ‘boss-fish’ of the game to intentionally break with that essence. The ending of Ridiculous Fishing, then, again, breaks with the ‘pleasant’ and ‘comfortable’ essence. These moments stand out, because they’re carefully and intentionally opposite.

I use this mental model frequently, not just to give feedback, but also in figuring out what to do with Vlambeer games. You can extend the model further, to include pretty much anything beyond that. I often consider a packaging layer around the declarative layer, for the menus and other non-game interfaces. At other times, I’ll model a marketing layer around the game.

Most experienced designers and creators go through this model somewhat instinctively. Nevertheless, when working with a team, it is valuable to ensure the intent of the game is clear to everybody. Unless a team is remarkably attuned to each other, it is very likely that someone is trying to make a game unlike the game the others think they’re making. A single essence statement, a few keywords, a mock-up of the game, a sketch or silhouette or color palette or small video for the visuals, a sound effect or song to define the sonic qualities of the game – they all help. They declare an intent. They help keeping your game consistent, your team focused and your goals clear.

There’s enough to discuss when you’re making a game without having to argue where the center is.

Fire Emblem: Fates & Localisation

One of the most interesting conversations happening in games right now is the controversy surrounding Fire Emblem: Fates, a Nintendo game in the popular Fire Emblem series. While the game originally launched in Japanese markets in June 2015, the US version of the game came out today (as of this writing, there is no mention of a EU release date), and it’s already one of the most controversial launches in quite a while. The controversy is focused on the localisation of the game.

The goal of localization is to create an enjoyable, non-confusing play experience for the end user by paying heed to their specific cultural context. The suspension of disbelief is of utmost importance to the process; if a player feels as though the product was not meant for them, or if the localization creates confusion or difficulty in comprehension, this may break immersion and disrupt the player’s ability to continue the game.

In Fire Emblem Fates, a number of changes have been made to accomodate US audiences. To reflect the PEGI-12 rating and US culture, some dialogue has been changed to avoid reference to drugging a character and gay conversion, a mini-game in which your character – the leader of a warrior force traveling the lands – could pet other characters has been cut, some character personalities have been made to fit Western story archetypes and obviously, the game and audio have been translated.

These changes have particular parts of the internet up in arms about the purity of the game as art being lost. As they see it, the game is art, and as such should not be modified from how it was created originally, regardless of anything. Others argue that localization and game development are both expensive, and that as such an entertainment product should be optimized to be as profitable as possible – to ensure future games can be made.

What I do know is that Fire Emblem: Fates would’ve not existed without Nintendo funding it, that developer Intelligent Systems worked with Nintendo on creating and localizing the game through localisation studio Nintendo Treehouse, and that there is no reason to believe the developers feel their intention has been modified or thwarted.

This comes back to a larger issue: audiences believe they know the developers of their games – while very commonly, they have no idea. Somehow, it seems completely reasonable to people on the internet to claim ‘the purity of the games’ intent’ has been modified’, while the only people that can really say so are the developers and the publisher. Seeing the publisher made the choice to localise the game and signed off on it, I think the ‘purity’ argument doesn’t hold. If the average user doesn’t notice that the localisation changed things from the Japanese version, it seems like the localisation was a success. Those who want to play the game ‘pure’ can import the original Japanese version.

That doesn’t leave me ultimately conflicted: I believe a large strength of games is that it reflects the creators’ culture. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile that with localisation, but I do believe that having access to localised content while funding new projects is better than not having access at all. In an interesting move, groups of fans that didn’t just go and yell at things have created patches that allow the legally bought version of the game to be ‘patched’ to use a fan translation and restores the mini-games.

Only Nintendo has a good idea of how the controversy affects their bottom line, and what the majority audience of Fire Emblem: Fates is. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles these issues in the future.

The disappointing ending of Firewatch

[stag_icon icon=”exclamation-triangle” url=”” size=”32px” new_window=”no”] Content warning: discusses Firewatch spoilers

Campo Santo’s lovely debut title Firewatch has released to both critical and financial success, and yet the internet seems to be split on one specific element of the game: the ending of the game. During the course of the game, the player assumes the role of Henry, a man running from life and a marriage falling apart by taking a job as a firewatch in a national park. Through a walkie-talkie, he speaks to his supervisor Delilah, who is a mountain away. Throughout the course of the game, the two get personal and flirty, and something of a romance blossoms in the subtext.

As the game progresses, it sets everything up for Delilah and Henry to meet. The problem to a lot of people is that they never do. During a raging forest fire threatening the entire area, Henry discovers that an oversight made by Delilah might mean she is partially responsible for a young boy’s death, Delilah is devestated, but says she’ll wait until Henry arrives at her watchtower, so they can finally meet. Before he can, though, she has been lifted out by rescue chopper. When he pleas with her to meet up later via the radio, Delilah tells him to go back to his wife.

That’s disappointing. Games aren’t meant to end on a disappointing note. Since we identify so strongly with the avatar, going for an impossible objective in your final stretch is pretty much the biggest fuck you the game could give you in terms of game development. You fail. Henry is dependent on Delilah, looking to meet finally her, and you can’t. Delilah leaves and decides things are better that way. She doesn’t want to meet anymore.

And you know what? I love it. It’s brilliant. Delilah doesn’t want to meet. Life sucks sometimes. Deal with it. I’m glad a game can be that, too. That people can leave feeling upset, incomplete, frustrated, and thoroughly sad.

So to everyone complaining that Firewatch has a disappointing ending? I’m glad you liked the ending.

Ludoludologic dissonance?

The Witness has an interesting design premise: it’s a game that comes from a strong and singular authorial vision. However, having played through many hours of The Witness so far, I would posit that that strength is also its biggest weakness.

The strengths are easy to discuss: The Witness was created over seven years purely around Jonathan Blow’s vision of the game – creating something strongly consistent and focused.

The weakness is more subtle: while The Witness is absolutely magnificent at certain times, I felt myself feeling uneasy most of the time. For some reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Jonathan Blow was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder as I played, nodding appreciatively every time I solved a puzzle, and shaking his head disappointedly every time I took a minute too long.

In the case of The Witness, very often I feel it was created entirely for the creator. In many ways, it’s amazing that a game like it can exist, and just for that reason it’s worthwhile playing it. But at its core, the game is dissonant with itself. It’s not ludonarrative dissonance, but ludoludologic dissonance. It’s a game based around auteurship, but it can’t avoid that games, ultimately, have to be about the collision with the player, too.

Infini-button

My favorite ‘laws’ in life are those that seem remarkably simple & obvious, but that have a lot of unexpected implications. One of my favorite is a Human-Computer Interaction law called Fitts’ Law. While there’s a lot of specificity you can discuss, the basic version of the law is as follow:

The further away and the smaller something is, the more difficult it’ll be for the user to point at it.

That’s it. If you’re using a mouse, and you’re trying to hit a tiny button half across the screen, it’ll take more effort than it’ll take you to hit a giant button right next to your cursor. The law extends far beyond that, but that’s the basic gist of it. While I’m not going to jump into the math behind it too much, in a mathematical way, it was originally written in 1954 as:

ID = log2 * ( ( 2 * D ) / W )

ID is the Index of Difficulty, or basically how hard the task is. is the distance to the object you’re trying to point at, and is the width of the object. For W, consider an infinite line from your current position – for now let’s use the mouse or cursor as an example – through the button you want to point at and all the way to the edge of your screen. Any point of that line that touches the object you want to touch is part of W. That means a vertically oriented button you’re trying to point at from a point underneath it is going to be easier to point at than a horizontally oriented button.

I was thinking about Fitts’ Law today because I was discussion Destiny’s fantastic menu UI with a fellow designer. You see, Destiny uses Fitts’ Law in a very clever way – by increasing the functional size of the items you want to point at. What’s important to realize is that Destiny’s buttons actually aren’t as big as they seem – they’re much larger than that. When you move your cursor towards an interactive element, your cursor ‘sticks’ to them and slows down, at least until you’ve passed well beyond the object itself. That means that the functional size of those buttons is extended. Because of the slowdown, the width of the button is virtually increased, and thus the difficulty of pointing at it reduced.

In Windows, you can find another really interesting implication of Fitts’ Law in the shape of the Start button. Since the button is in the lower-left corner of the screen and the screen is a hard bound, the Start buttons’ width has become functionally infinite. There is no way to overshoot it, so any fast movement with enough distance to the lower-left corner will always land you on the Start button. It doesn’t just sit at the edge of the screen – it sits in all the non-existent space beyond that too. When you look at good UI design, you’ll notice important elements tend to be aligned to the edge of the screen. Apple OSX then combines both the edge of the screen and a literal size increases in their Dock.

There are many more fascinating implications of Fitts Law, but what I always appreciated about it as that after your first moment of ‘of course, this is so obvious‘, there’s always that moment where it suddenly clicks, and you start seeing a new system in the world. Suddenly, it’s impossible to not see. To me, that’s the beauty of simple laws.

Dying Light’s sublime sense of Panic

Dying Light is a game I played over the course of a full year, originally buying the violent zombie Mirror’s Edge on launch day back in January 2015. While I normally play through a game in one go, Dying Light had so many pacing issues in the first quarter of the game that I had to take breaks for months before I felt like returning to the game. I loved much of the promise of the game: during the (60-minute) day a freerunning agent running through a zombie-infested (Turkish?) city, setting traps, completing missions, setting up safe zones and saving survivors – and during the (10-minute) night, desperately sneaking through the dark, quietly avoiding the nightmares that exist within it, the hunter turned the hunted.

But Dying Light also suffers from every possible design issue you could run into in its design – odd checkpointing, bulletsponges to deal with the almighty player, finnicky controls at the worst moment and escort missions. The worst offender, however, and one that’s hard to avoid in a open-world game, is a difficulty curve that starts the player helpless, and then evolves the player into something so powerful only one-hit kill exploding zombies and earlier mentioned bulletsponges can form any danger to.

In that difficulty curve, then, naturally, has to be the sweet spot – and that part is magnificent. It’s where the player has started to gain skills and weapons that are useful and don’t continuously break and is slightly weaker than the average zombie. Accidentally making a loud sound attracts the zombies, and every time you do so, you run for your life. The (gorgeous) sunset feels terrifying, the phone calls to warn you it’s about to get dark instill genuine worry and the alarm of your watch informing you night has fallen is a beeping terror.

It’s during this part of the game I ran across a moment that I played wrong, but it also shows how perfectly Dying Light sometimes executes its premisse. Tasked with retrieving a video in a side-mission, the player has to navigate the city to a video store. This video by ZackScottGames below gives a pretty accurate impression of the scene as I played it – you can stop watching as soon as the ‘video tape found’ prompt displays.

[stag_video src=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e_qV8uEm4I&start=1610&end=1670″]

As you approach the store, there might or might not be a number of zombies you can dispatch of, distract or sneak around. You then have to quickly lockpick the door through a minigame, after which you enter the store. As soon as you take a step or two into the store, the alarm goes, the short delay surpressing the players’ response of backing out of the store. The alarm will be attracting a large number of nearby zombies to the store in the next few seconds, and the player can opt to lock the front door. Then, the game suggests you find the tape manually, by having the player character utter ‘C… C for Charly’. So as the zombies gather around, rattling the store you just locked yourself into, you have to keep your calm, look around and find the tape. If you look carefully, you’ll notice you can shut the door, you’ll spot a bright orange light that is actually the alarm switch (you can turn the alarm off), and a back door you can escape through. The panic is enough to instinctively focus the player on the tape.

In the games’ best moments, it’ll repeat similar tricks, but always messing with the most powerful obstacle the player needs to manage: distance. Dying Light is continuously throwing off the players mental mapping of distance. Something that’s relatively close suddenly feels very far when the sun starts setting. An easy jump before a short run can turn into a terrifying distance to cover if your landing is too loud, and the ceiling gives way. Increasingly loud sounds make five meters feel like a hundred – but at night, running past a trap you placed during the day can turn a hundred meters into a short walk. Dying Light’s most masterful showcase of using mental distance is in its delays before scares and panic increases, because distance behind a player always feels longer than distance ahead of them,

Any moment can go from calm and controlled, from feeling powerful and jumping from building to building with accurate movement, to sheer panic and scrambling around with the smallest mistake, and Dying Light is perfectly set up to create those moments organically. Until you become too strong. Or you die and respawn. Or you realize Dying Light features a ‘hunterdetectiveeagle vision’ equivalent – one of my most hated game design tropes – that totally removes this moment, but thankfully I didn’t think of using it.

But for those moments in that sweet spot, and in its best side-missions, Dying Light creates a sublime sense of panic.