Saturday, July 10, 2010

Justifying Systems

When I hear people describe something as "gamey", usually they're not paying a compliment. It's an odd way to bag on a game when you think about it, and I can't think of an analogy in any other medium, except maybe comics. Sometimes, such as in the upcoming Bulletstorm or last year's Borderlands, gamey qualities are designed into the experience. These are games where brightly colored messanges, numbers, or loot drops burst forth from enemy corpses, like a violent Peggle, in a manner that has no bearing on realism and is only comparable to what's been seen before in other games including slot machines and such. Hence, "gamey". These effects are there to heighten the sensory pleasures resulting from the basic actions available to the player.

In most cases, though, games described as "gamey" in the negative sense are the ones where insufficient effort went into integrating certain game systems with the aesthetics and fiction of the gameworld. When a game expects the player to blindly accept why something works a certain way, simply because that's how the thing works in other previous games, I think the game threatens to become gamey-in-a-bad-way. Something about the experience of such games feels grating on the senses, as for every instant you begin to feel immersed while playing, something about the design shoves you back from the brink and reminds you that you're just sitting there on your couch playing a game. I think one of the responsibilities of narrative design as a discipline is to find meaningful ways of justifying game systems within the gameworld, in order to avoid that gamey feeling where it's not supposed to belong, and I'd like to talk more about that here.

In Mass Effect 2, still my favorite game so far this year (next to Super Street Fighter IV), the game goes to extremely elaborate lengths to justify why you get to do the things you get to do at the beginning of pretty much every Western role-playing game, such as defining your character's appearance and proficiencies. The game opens with this completely wild and apocalyptic sci-fi explanation of how come a character introduced in the previous game now has to start over from scratch. It's the BioWare equivalent of the scene at the beginning of every Metroid game where Samus inevitably loses all her power-ups, or when Death shows up five minutes into a Castlevania to shake down the foppish hero for his cloak and rapier (I guess to fill us with latent righteous rage from all those times the big kids stole our lunch money and knocked the binders from our hands). But you know what? That opening scene in Mass Effect 2 worked really well overall. It showed you the people behind this game weren't asleep at the wheel, that they'd thought of a way to meet your expectations for story continuity as well as your expectations going into a new sci-fi role-playing game. They didn't just throw the conventional character-creation screen at you without any reason. Compare this with the approach taken by White Knight Chronicles 2, a Japanese role-playing game whose solution to story continuity is to prevent you from playing unless you've finished the previous game. Imagine if they checked for your past Harry Potter ticket stubs when standing in line to see the latest one.

Games sometimes go too far to justify everything about them. A friend and I would often debate whether Assassin's Creed was guilty of this, as an example. The heads-up display, interface, and even the loading screens of that game were heavily explained away in the sci-fi metastory of a guy stuck in an evil MRI device that tapped into latent memories of his dark-ages ancestors. I told him I liked what they were going for, while he felt the game was trying way too hard, to the point where aspects of the user interface became highly distracting to him while he was playing, because they felt so contrived. According to my friend, the game didn't need to justify why button prompt tips appeared onscreen or why you had a map -- these are things we as game players accept without question. And he's probably right. Even still, I felt Assassin's Creed had its heart in the right place trying to marry these types of interface conventions in a game set a thousand years ago. If the sci-fi elements of the story were handled more gracefully, for instance as a big metaworld reveal later in the game foreshadowed only by the interface, I think it could have all come together in an amazing way. We would have experienced the revelation that certain conventions we just accepted as game players were in fact connected to the story in a meaningful way. Instead, the game frontloads exposition about why you have a health bar and a map, which sags the pace of the story and distracts from what was interesting about the game -- namely, the cities you could run around in.

A game is not responsible to justify every little system or gameplay contrivance to the player, because as players we're willing to accept a lot of things at face value without any explanation. At the same time, I think we appreciate it when game systems are gracefully explained and justified. So, the narrative design process involves looking for opportunities to integrate aspects of game systems design into the gameworld in a way that makes sense and is interesting to the player without being disruptive.

A classic example of justifying game interface conventions is the original Command & Conquer, with its wonderful installation sequence on down to its robotic female battlefield announcer. Like any PC game of the time, you had to install this one to your hard drive before you could play. But you didn't merely install that game -- due to its amazing animated install sequence, you felt like you were tapping into a sophisticated battle control interface, like something out of the movie War Games. I always felt that Command & Conquer was a first-person game, where you happen to be looking through your character's eyes at his battle interface, and as a fan I was disappointed in how the series seemed to drift further and further away from this direction rather than embracing it.

Another of my favorite cases of this is from Super Mario 64. As the entire concept of controlling a character from a third-person perspective in 3D, plus having to control the camera, was quite new at this point, the game went out of its way to show you that the "camera" was in fact a little flying cameraman character trailing behind Mario the entire time. I think games that go to such lengths to be internally consistent have a tendency to be great.

The real downfall of this type of thinking is when it leads to the destruction of conventions that exist with good reason. When the fiction of the game trumps the game of the game, the result are some of those games that try to do such things as eliminate all interface at the expense of your ability to play. The most surprising example I can think of is The Getaway, a GTA-inspired PS2 game, which has no onscreen heads-up display whatsoever in the name of cinematic realism in spite of being structured like an open-world game. So, in order to navigate the city during your missions, you have to follow your vehicle's turn signals, since there's no minimap much less any sort of GPS. Problem is, your turn signals can be shattered during the game's numerous chase scenes, leaving you completely blind unless you happen to know your way around London for real. I'm pretty sure even the people who live in London don't know their way around that city. At any rate, when the fiction or presentation of a game starts to get in the way of basic usability, they've probably gone too far. The only HUD-free game I've ever played that handled it pretty well was Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

There's no formula to this stuff. It needs to be handled artfully on a case by case basis that suits the particular game. I'll continue to defend the original Halo as another outstanding example -- I've met a bunch of people who seem to resent the game's popularity and write Halo off as having merely been in the right place at the right time, but as far as I'm concerned it's probably the most influential game of the last 10 years. The Call of Duty series and just about every other shooter owes a debt to Halo for such common ideas as regenerating health and limited capacity for carrying weapons. These ideas in Halo were so well-thought-out that they felt like completely natural parts of the fiction. Much like Gordon Freeman's HEV suit in Half-Life, which was the reason you as a player felt capable of surviving through an insane situation that was killing everyone else around you, in Halo those recharging energy shields of yours are the ultimate key to your success. They're explained early on as an integral component of your one-of-a-kind armor through an excellent Robocop-style first-person diagnostics sequence that even fictionalizes the decision of whether to invert the controls for looking up and down. Five minutes into Halo, I felt completely absorbed in that world. When a game's tutorial can do that, it's off to a good start.

People don't naturally expect for game mechanics to be justified by the fiction and often don't notice or mind when this isn't done, unless it sticks out. Military shooters have appropriated Halo's regenerative health system but applied it to flesh-and-blood characters who we'd expect to die from one or two bullets, and yet nobody seems to mind too much. Regenerating health may not fit the aesthetics of modern military combat, but a a game mechanic, it works, so most of us think nothing of it. But I think there's a danger of stacking too many inexplicable conventions into a game, which causes the game to begin to lose its identity and feel like a bunch of patchwork ideas. Conversely, I think there's a great benefit to artfully ingraining the mechanics, systems, and feedback of the game into the fiction of what's going on in it. In Oddworld Stranger's Wrath, there's this fantastic crossbow weapon that supports different ammo types. Each ammo type is in fact a different little creature (live ammunition, get it?) with its own weird personality that affords what the ammo type does.

What are some of your own favorite or least favorite examples of games justifying their game systems through the fiction? Can you think of other cases where a game was either trying too hard to root its gameplay in the fiction, or didn't try hard enough?


  1. I laugh now whenever a first-person shooter starts out with some nonsense about calibrating sensors and having me look at lights on the ceiling and walls. When Halo did it, it was mildly clever. Now it's just insulting my intelligence.

    BioShock was hugely popular in large part because of one specific gaming convention it embraced and explained away with a storyline excuse. But if you saw that same storyline excuse used again, I imagine it wouldn't carry the same impact.

    Sometimes it's better for devs to show a bit of restraint and just let a gamey thing be gamey. Trying to cover it up (and failing) just makes me feel like the magician messed up and I'm getting a peek behind the curtain. And that's a lot worse for immersion than a generally accepted gamey construct.

  2. Dead Space's user interface was slick, and appropriately futuristic looking, and even though I doubt showing a person's relative healthiness on their back is helpful to them, it was a fresh and novel idea.

  3. The obvious is Dead Space. I am a fan of limited HUD without hindering the translation of information and at the same time giving it a "realistic" feel. But at the same time it is easy to get to far away and it becomes ridiculous as your attempts to make the game hud-less in a way breaks immersion. Such as Dead Spaces health bar on the back of his spine bordered closely to break immersion and sense of realistic purpose.

    I think Mirror's Edge with its absolute complete lack of HUD and relying on the player interfacing with the character to see things no normal person would in red and show that they are intractable important objects is one of the better ways to handle it. At the same time I have been immersed into world with ridiculous mechanics and huds that were never explained like in System Shock and KOTOR.

    With that in mind I think justifying mechanics and hud are somewhat secondary to immersing the player into the universe and good characters, story, with dialog is far more important to a player buying into the world. Beyond Good and Evil is another example of this where it's a insane and totally fictional world, but at the same time easy to buy into it with its likable characters and story. If you can make players buy into your mechanics and systems as being "realistic" that's only a bonus.

  4. Trine, which I just picked up from the Steam sale, seems a perfect example for this discussion. A brand new I.P. A 2D platformer with a bit of a "perks" system. And essential for such a game to exist nowadays, it has a fully voiced story with characters that say more than whoopie or its-a-me! The gameplay, the fun and challenge, revolves around your ability to shift between the three characters and use their unique abilities to solve each puzzling road block in a level. Trine introduces you to each charatcer by letting you play them in succession, see what makes each one special, and then the fiction brings them together as bound souls, with one spirit at a time embodying the physical world.

    The thing is, I don't believe Trine or any game for that matter needs to do this; the only time games break their illusion is when a gameplay mechanic is frustratingly broken. Integrating the "game" into the story is just a way for developers to exercise their creativity, and show what added touches they were able to consider in building an all around quality experience.

  5. one of my Favorite games, Final Fantasy XI: Online, isn't a very good example, but it is a less obvious one to mention. The mechanics of the game are rather standard as far as RPG's go and everyone joining the game already pretty much has an idea of what is going on with auto-attacks, spells, weapon skills and so forth. The other odd mechanics in the game such as job switching, subjob, conquest, beseiged, campaign, ballista, chocobo racing, teleportation, and so much more are worked into the game's very deep lore and world. Everytime a new mechanic or system is introduced to the game either via patch or expansion, there will always be a new npc to tell you exactly what it does and it is always usually linked back to the 3 nations or other organizations in the game lore. A lot of times, they make you quest for these game changing mechanics.

    Again this isn't the best example of systems and mechanic's justified, but for a genre that carries a stigma for having less quality than offline games, the MMO, it does it's own lore and story much better than others, (Aion).

  6. Uncharted 2 not trying hard enough:

    i) Sequences where the player has infinite ammo in a handgun. For me that is a little too immersion breaking. Concessions can be made for health systems, imagining the Hollywood equivalent (bullets conveniently missing yet landing in the vicinity) but changing the rules without explaining it is too 'gamey'

    ii) in contrast to the first game which had many short cut scenes to make the plot always present in the gameplay, the second game has long sequences with generic enemies like the train section which isn't relevant to the plot and tells no story of its own then the plot characters appear out of nowhere. It's too 'gamey' in the sense that it is unintegrated relative to what they did in the previous game. There's a similar problem in hollywood with action sequels called 'sequelitus' where the movie becomes too big, jumping from set piece to set piece without stopping to push the characters or plot which ultimately leads to a feeling of hollowness. In that sense story driven games like Uncharted can become too 'gamey' if the plot or character development isn't flowing through the gameplay.

  7. One cool example is the way you acquire weapons and accessories in MGS4. It's totally integrated into the main story of the game.

  8. There's a new Parasite Eve game coming out, and here's a quote from a preview:

    "Aya is the main focus of this game. Due to her special powers, she still has the body of a woman in her 20s, although in terms of age she should actually be 35 years old. Motomu Toriyama, the scenario director, feels that it is rare to be able to focus on a woman in her mid 30s in a game and is taking the opportunity to properly depict the thinking and lifestyle of a cool woman"

    One direction I can see this going is that videogames now have the freedom to go in completely ridiculous directions, so long as the game can justify such silliness with the claim that "IT'S BECAUSE OF SPECIAL POWERS."

    So is there a tendency for abuse here?

  9. I'm one of those bothered by the whole regenerating health thing when it's not supported by the game's fiction. I get why designers like it -- it keeps players from being "stuck" at a checkpoint with too little health. But it doesn't make any sense when you think about it.

    It's fine in Halo, where you're wearing a futuristic piece of armor with energy shields. But in Call of Duty, what, I'm the only special forces soldier with crazy mutant regenerative powers in an otherwise realistic military simulation? I liked how Mass Effect 1 did it, with a shield that regenerated, but also a persistent health bar underneath that required first aid packs to refill. But in Mass Effect 2, both your health and energy regenerate! Huh? In that case, why even differentiate between the two health bars?

  10. Cryostasis did a great job of having heat sources replace health-packs. Because the primary enemy in that game (besides the mutated crew of the marooned icebreaker) is the ever-present cold. Constantly searching for light, fire or steam made me feel that I really was constantly freezing to death. However, I took issue with the fact that the warmth-bar (health-bar) shrunk from monsters attacking you. This means that putting out your hands to a fire miraculously healed wounds inflicted with weapons.

    This is a case of the game simplifying what the player has to worry about, at the expense of my suspension of disbelief that I was in that icebreaker. Now there are time travel puzzle-mechanics in that game, but those felt as if they were part of the game world. On the other hand, heat warming up the player as well as healing wounds distanced me from the game.

    Cryostasis is an amazing game, but it's health-bar is a double edged sword. It draws you closer to the game-setting after running around, freezing and then warming yourself up, but distances you when you "heal" yourself right after killing a monster. I really wish that game had separate bars for your character's warmth, and for standard health, healed by health-packs, which would be easily justified in game, because your on a ship.

    Nice post Greg, have you played Cryostasis?

  11. Interestingly, ME2 suffered from being “gamey” because of BioWare’s obsessive desire to copy the shooting mechanics of GoW et al. ME2 is supposed to be an epic space opera but between almost each and every serious story segment you’d go into “super-obvious shooting gallery” mode complete with abrupt music change signaling start/stop of “GoW clone mode”. (…Back in my day we had to figure out for ourselves if all the bad guys were dead!)

    Probably the biggest issue with ME2’s system was the totally contrived cover system where every single environment has a ludicrous amount of easily accessible cover all perfectly placed for a quick health regeneration moment (safety first!). I really hated this about ME2 because it was so joltingly “gamey” and banal. I mean who built these ruins with all this perfectly placed cover??? Alien indeed!

    Compare this to ME1. Remember the mission in ME1 where you hunt down Fist at Chora’s Den? You enter and suddenly you’re attacked and have little cover and have to quickly subdue the enemies. It was a great combat section because it was realistic. If this was ME2, you’d have had 5 sticky cover points available upon entering all positioned perfectly to hide behind, as if the enemy set them up out of mercy!

    The bottom line: ME2’s combat was “gamey” because it existed to serve itself rather than the overall setting and story of ME2. BioWare allowed their desire to copy other games’ shooting mechanics clash with creating environments logically consistent with the ME universe. Consequently, the game split into two separate games: ME2 the space opera and ME2 the galactic shooting gallery.

    Did no one else notice this? Anyway, I love you Greg! Thanks for the fantastic blog.

    (Note: I realize I’m part of the 0.0001% minority that preferred ME1 to ME2 in no small part due to ME2’s “dumbed-down-ness” & “gamey-ness”.)