The History of A-J Games: Part Seven

  • Reading time:18 mins read

To catch up on the story to date, you can view the archive here.

Did I say that things got better? Maybe eventually, but first we need to backtrack a bit. So far we’ve been looking at character games. Some of the characters are fictional; others are based on people I knew or who I didn’t know were fictional. Whatever the origin, these games are based more on objects than subjects. They didn’t start out as theories or experiments, or attempts to express a thought or feeling though the psychology of game design. Maybe in dropping these objects into the pond I drew some subjective ripples, but in principle my methods would have fit right in at THQ.

What we’re going to talk about now is another level of objective. You will have noticed my constant references to other people’s games — mostly professional, mostly derived from the Miyamoto-fed Japanese school.

It’s normal enough for one artist to look to another for inspiration; art is a form of communication, and nothing speaks to an artist like art. It’s also normal for a novice to model his or her work on something familiar. You can’t begin to speak your mind until you know the language, and you have some idea how to fit the pieces together to express ideas. An illustrator traces to get a sense of form; a musician may spend a lifetime interpreting other people’s music before he feels comfortable writing his own.

I guess what I’m doing is justifying creative laziness. I applaud the growth of new forms, and there will be a period of grasping before a form takes shape, but I always wonder why people will take an existing recording, loop it, and add a few riffs on top. If you drew inspiration from Abba or some Motown artist, great. Build on that. Then, erase your tracks.

There can only be so many Andy Warhols, making a statement about our perceptions and expectations of art. There is a place for collage and documentary, and cultural commentary. Generally, if someone is claiming a recognizable hunk of someone else’s work as his own, to me that speaks of a character flaw. It says that the derivative artist doesn’t give a shit about the original artist, about his or her own reputation, about the integrity of either the original or the derivative art, or about the intelligence of the intended audience.

Unless it is very well signaled I don’t really buy the tribute angle, and I have little patience for pastiche. I hate it when people quote from presumed authorities to make their own points in an argument. I cannot abide organized systems of belief or thought. If you can’t find your own thing to say, in your own words, I don’t want to hear from you.

So this chapter is about my own hypocrisy. I don’t know what parts to damn and what to excuse, so I’m laying out the whole problem now. I also have problems with absolute perspectives; as strict as I may sound, I know that nothing is ever that simple. There’s the principle, then there’s pragmatism. And sometimes to embrace the principle one has to spend a while fighting it.

Take piracy, in the modern lawyered-up creative sense. Is it wrong to copy someone’s work? Maybe; why are you copying it? And what’s the result? Did it do more harm, or more good? I think that copyright should expire after fifteen years, as you can’t control an idea once it gets into the DNA of public thought — but I also think that the original author should be able to enforce attribution. Organized chaos, if you will. Evolution with footnotes.

That doesn’t stop my own guilt when I indulge (as with the borrowed images in these posts), or temper my annoyance when someone builds on my work. I guess I should just get over it.

My least shameful tributes are those where I feel I built something original out of the borrowed material, however wholly I may have borrowed it. That isn’t to say that my divergence was deliberate. How much if art is really deliberate anyway? Anything that matters is usually an accident of technique or circumstance, and anything you try to do tends to end up obvious and meaningless. Why is that? Well, think about it. If you can’t even surprise yourself, how interesting do you think your ideas really are?

Nejillian Flux was supposed to be a carbon copy of Gradius, maybe with a bit of Life Force for variety. As it happens, RSD’s Game-Maker is a poor platform for scrolling shooters. They knew it, and improvements were on the radar, but they never quite happened. So I found some workarounds. Not good workarounds, but distinctive ones.

This was an early project. I can tell you how early because of an even earlier pastiche. When I was finishing up Linear Volume, I asked my client for a title. Linear Volume, he said; I went with it. I also mentioned my next project, a scrolling shooter based on Gradius. He told me to call it Nejillian Flux. It sounded good, so again I went with it.

To this point I had designed, I think, six games — three platformers, and three adventure-RPGs. Although I completed most of them, only one of those games — A-J’s Quest — had been very successful. I figured maybe it was time to try something new.

I hit three technical problems: scrolling, map size, and power-ups. The most fundamental of those is the scrolling, or rather the lack thereof. Game-Maker only supports a strange shifting-focus scrolling, where the camera always tries to place the character sprite 1/3 of the way from the opposite edge of the direction of the character’s motion. If the character is running right, the game wants to put 1/3 of the screen to the left of the sprite and 2/3 to the right. The same principle goes for all four cardinal directions, which in a game with free movement can cause the camera to lose all reason.

There are ways to work with this trait, but for a scrolling shooter it is fatal. The two common workarounds are to point the background gravity sideways, or to adjust the character motion so that it must always move in one direction. Neither really works, but if done well the player gets the general idea.

A related problem is in the engine’s strict map dimensions: exactly 100 pixels, square. That’s 6-1/4 by 10 screens, which may be fine for an overworld map. If you’re scrolling exclusively to the right, that means in less than 7 screens you will loop back to the start. Think of Eugene Jarvis’ Defender.

My solution was to double-decker the levels, and to hide a tunnel between the two stories. The player would keep looping until he or she found the passage, from which point the level became linear until the end. An eccentric choice, but it was the best I could think of at that time.

I also ran into problems with the weapon upgrades. The engine does not allow for arbitrary character or control states, so you can’t simply pick up a weapon and use it. The only solution is to give any weapon pickups a hierarchy, and to limit their ammunition. So if you pick up a very powerful weapon, you may only have 20 shots. When you have expended those, you default to the next most powerful weapon for which you have ammo. If you want to use one of the lesser weapons, then first you have to blow through the greater ones.

Then there is the question as to what makes a tougher power-up, as Game-Maker is very black and white about power levels. If your weapon has a level of 150 and the monster is at level 100, then the weapon kills the monster. If the monster has a power of 151, then the weapon does nothing. So weak weapons are pointless, and powerful weapons are perfect. If you’re creative you can find some lateral solutions; in 1993, I was not that creative.

Game-Maker’s engine was always a point of contention and curiosity. With a little lateral thought, it was capable of many things. Its odd and often simplistic arrangement resulted in dozens of unlisted features, and encouraged creative problem solving. Its comfort zone, though, lay in top-down action adventure games. It had the inventory and the four-way scrolling of a Zelda or Crystalis, and it was much happier when one avoided things like gravity or nuanced control schemes.

There are three ways of approaching a set of limitations. You can fight them, you can work within and around them, or you can subvert them. If you fight them, generally you will lose and your work will suffer. If you subvert them, you can produce very clever tricks to wow your peers who know what you’re up against — but chances are the tricks will be glitchy, and will fail to impress anyone else. If you work within the limits, maybe the walls won’t be so obvious and your work will be able to stand on its own merits.

Link vs. Gannon was my first go at working with the engine. This was maybe two or three games before Nejillian Flux. It was clear to me that neither platformers nor RPGs worked to Game-Maker’s strengths, so I relented. If the engine was geared toward Zelda, as it appeared to be, I figured I might as well see how close it could get.

The NES Zelda games are amongst my favorite things ever; the first for the actual moment-to-moment design, and the second for its weird atmosphere and its bold deviation from the original. I loved the claustrophobic focus, but I also loved that sweeping adventure too large to record in every detail — so I combined the design and dungeons from the first game and the free-roaming world of the second. Points of interest were scattered around a huge area, broken up by fields, rivers, hills, and bridges.

I doubt I meant to finish the game, and indeed Link vs. Gannon is the first that I left incomplete. I just wanted to figure out what the engine would handle well. The frustration came early on, when I realized that I was fighting far more than I had planned.

I often think of Game-Maker, if it just had X feature then it would be complete enough and I could work with all of the other problems. When I was in high school, I really needed a better music format. At other times I needed text boxes, or more detailed control mapping, or more complex enemy logic. On reflection, I think the sorest omission is the ability to make pervasive changes to the gameworld.

Here’s what I mean by that. In Game-Maker’s engine, the character can interact with the background — change blocks, pick up objects, kill monsters, and increase abstract counters linked with things like keys and locks. If the player dies or leaves a level, all changes to that level are reset — yet all counters remain as they were. So if you have a level that contains a precious item, you can pick up the item, leave, return, and pick it up again. If you kill a boss then return, the boss is back. And so on.

For a game like Zelda, that is all about exploring, discovering precious tools, and making slow significant changes to the world, it is disconcerting when nothing the player does can stick.

There is a way around this issue, but it involves a bunch of busywork and a tangle of logical wires that are very easy to lose track of. I also didn’t hit on the solution for a very long time. If I did, then evidently I never felt it was worth the effort. And that was my ultimate decision with Link vs. Gannon; it wasn’t worth the energy to figure out how to make it work, or to draw custom background tiles, or to put real work into the level design. I filed the game away, and for a while I continued with my own projects.

Over the years, the counter-and-flag issue kept raising its head. If I tried to do something complex, it was the lack of flags. If I tried to do something simple, it was the counters that wouldn’t reset. One of my more successful games, curiously enough, was a very hard Pac-Man clone. I asked that anyone who enjoyed the game simply send me a postcard, saying “I like Pac!” I got maybe half a dozen cards over the years. Nejillian Flux also traveled a bit. For a while it seemed I couldn’t browse a shovelware CD or Russian shareware site without stumbling over the game.

The problems with Pac were twofold. First, there was no way to contrive it so that power pellets made the character immune to the enemies’ touch. I got around that by turning the pellets into projectiles that the character could spit out. More worrisome is that if the player died before eating all the dots, the counter would carry over but the background would not. In retrospect I’m sure I could have contrived a way to drain the counter at the start of a new life, but the solution I found was to give the player only a single life. One life, one hit point. To reach the end, you have to play a perfect game. Not the most elegant solution.

If it wasn’t the flags and counters, it was a lack of arbitrary character logic. Pac can’t eat ghosts, and Mario can’t stomp enemies. For kicks, one of my later projects involved transcribing the background tiles from Super Mario Bros. and the sprites from Super Mario 3, almost pixel for pixel out of a magazine, in attempt to find some way around the stomping issue.

Even more so than Link vs. Gannon, Jario! is barely a game. I didn’t bother to animate the sprites or design a real level; my whole concern was with trying to force an issue on which the engine wouldn’t bend. It was just as well; I never much liked Mario anyway.

So most of my tributes were a bust. That can be a problem when you have a fixed idea of what you want to do. When you follow the tides of intuition, things tend to just work. You take what comes and you look for something unusual to build on. When you’ve a specific goal and method in mind, anything can trip you up — and since that’s not where your head is you won’t be prepared to roll with the problems and compromise. As time went on I softened in my preconceptions as to what I wanted from a game, as to what a game was, and as to how to achieve that.

About thirteen years after my last Game-Maker project, I unearthed the software as part of a series for an indie game blog. I was surprised how good the design tools still were. If anything, they were more fun to use than most of the games they produced — clear, intuitive, instantly rewarding. I knew the engine’s limits, and I was curious how well it would serve to make a contemporary indie game. In my articles I had mentioned the engine’s strengths; as a test, I chose to replicate The Legend of Zelda as exactly as possible.

I ripped the original sprites and background tiles, then enlarged them by 25% in Photoshop to fit Game-Maker’s standard. It turned out that despite the difference in scale one Game-Maker screen had the same number of tiles as an NES screen — so I recreated the maps as closely as I could, block by block. I found tricks to allow Link to burn bushes and touch an Armos to bring it to life (and maybe find a secret passage). I gave the Octorocks complex behaviors and allowed the Leevers to burrow, immune to the player’s protests.

The only real problem remaining with Overworld was the counter/flag issue. I used a web of level nodes to ensure that Link would only find the wooden sword the first time into the cave, but I knew that after just a few choices the game would soon get much too complex to keep track of that way.

I stopped after filling the world map; I figured I made my point. The dimensions are different from the original Zelda overworld — taller, narrower, and a little smaller overall — so I made do, compressing some locations and expanding or moving others. I figured if I ever continued with the game I could split the overworld across two maps; maybe connect them with bridges across a river.

Although the game was never a serious effort, and indeed took no more than a few hours from me, my mind began to swim with the new techniques I found while bending and cajoling RSD’s engine — the screen-by-screen level design; the complex monster behaviors; the constrained color palette; multi-stage attacks; new monster birthing techniques; and in particular, using monster counter-buffers to alter the level geometry. Those techniques, and their very buggy repercussions, would become the basis for Builder, my first new Game-Maker game in half a lifetime.

Builder was a web of secrets, accessible only to a player who surrendered to and explored the engine’s glitches. A big part of the design involved ensuring that the game’s secrets remained secret until the player hit the right triggers, which on the lowest level I controlled with level nodes and paths. Finally a Game-Maker game responded meaningfully to the player’s actions, and in the most profound sense it did it behind the scenes.

Between these new tricks and my success with Builder, I was ripe with enthusiasm. It had been ages since I had worked on any game, never mind this old engine. I had the notion that I would pull out all my old unfinished Game-Maker games (nine, including Overworld) and wrap them up with style. I would put a cap on that whole thread of my life. No one would ever play them or care, but I would feel a sense of closure.

After perusing then discarding the obvious candidates (The Return of A-J, Sign of the Hedgehog 2) I turned to the best of my tributes, one that had lain neglected since 1994. Rōdïp was the unripe fruit of a competition with another Game-Maker user, a fellow whom I had met through a long distance dial-up board. Both he and I set about designing Blaster Master tributes; his was nearly as literal as Overworld, and my game took on a life of its own.

The vehicle looked similar to the one in Blaster Master, and on paper it had similar abilities — and the background tiles in the first level were similar to the tiles in one room of Blaster Master‘s final level. My vehicle controlled very differently, though — indeed better than nearly any pre-Builder character. The moves and attacks all had their own interesting flavor. The monsters were original and memorable. The level design needed work, but it involved some big, brave ideas. The game had spirit. I wondered why I ever put the game aside; it wasn’t much, but it was good.

It was also fully planned. Maybe I’d just had an Alfred Hitchcock moment and grown bored the moment I knew how the game would pan out. I had blocked the whole thing out — all of the levels, all of the bosses, the environments, the upgrade sequence, and the web connecting it all. All the game lacked was content and polish. So, slowly I added content and I polished it. Maybe I’m still doing it. I haven’t touched the game in months. Right now it just needs a final level, a transition level, and five or six bosses. I also need to complete a water level. I’d say it’s 80% done. I think I’ve just had other things on my mind.

The real trick to Rōdïp is its structure. It’s a free-roaming action-adventure; you beat bosses, earn upgrades, and revisit old areas to climb that wall or destroy that barrier with your new powers. This means affecting your environment, which means setting flags, which Game-Maker won’t abide without a headache.

Well, I survived the headache. The game has only a few items to account and maybe 18 unique areas, but it needs 80 nodes to track the changes and who knows how many links to hold it all together. If I weren’t intent on copying someone else’s idea of a game structure, I wouldn’t have bothered — but I did, and it works.

I’m building up to a point here. Hang with me.

Continuity notes:

After Nejillian Flux, The next game I designed was Explorer Jacko — you remember, the insertion game with all of the Star Control and Trek references. The ship that Jacko steals, early on? Why, the Nejillian Flux of course.

Also, some of the elements in Link vs. Gannon would later be incorporated into Linear Volume and Explorer Jacko. This is why in effect you will see Tektites bouncing around the fields of Motavia.

The story continues in Part Eight

Phantom Fingers: The Series — Part Five: Myths and Legends

  • Reading time:1 mins read

It is 1981. Somewhere between testing and mass release, interest in Nintendo’s Space Invaders clone Radar Scope had cooled. It’s not that the game was poor. It’s just that six months earlier Pac-Man had changed the arcade landscape, and in the narrowing landscape for Invaders clones there was only room for excellence. Do we order Radar Scope, or do we order Galaga? Easy choice.

Enter the slacker art school kid who was only ever hired as a favor to his family. Shigeru Miyamoto was told to recoup losses by designing another game for the returned Radar Scope hardware, preferably aimed at US audiences. Inspired by Pac-Man, Miyamoto took pretty much all of Iwatani’s new ideas of scenario, character, empathy, and play narrative, and pretty much built a whole game on them without the traditional clutter.

( Continue reading at Game Set Watch )

The Jagged Edge of Perception

  • Reading time:3 mins read

by [redacted]

In real life, the edges of perception are where everything starts to kick in. Across that threshold is where our minds and our emotions run away with themselves, struggling to fill in the missing details and so make sense of the world. This is the realm of the uncanny, where objects materialize out of blind spots and scare the wits out of us, where spirits and monsters threaten to live, where optical illusions and magic tricks make us question what we know of the world. It’s these moments that suggest to us that there’s more to life than we’ve been led to understand. How we respond to that notion depends partially on our own personalities, and partially on the context.

Likewise, even in the closed system of a videogame there is only so much that a designer can draw, and only so many variables that a designer can define. Even in the simplest games it’s tough to account for everything and simple for the player to find a thread to pick away at — say, a seam in the geometry or a weird bit of physics. And then the more possibilities that you suggest, the more that the mind will begin to drift and wonder what else is out there, what else is possible.

Technical limitations also play a role, in that they draw a certain line over which the world cannot possibly exist. When the game presses up against those limitations, as in a late-era console game — your Streets of Rage III, your Silent Hill — you get a certain crackly pressure. Subconsciously you can feel the game straining to make its case, due to the mismatch of the game’s idea of reality and the reality imposed on the game by the hardware.

The NES is a fun object lesson, as from the moment it hit US shores it was outdated, its games bending the rules all over the place just to exist. On its own the NES isn’t all that much stronger than, say, a Colecovision. Every new feature that came along — horizontal scrolling, vertical scrolling, cutscenes — meant more custom memory chips. By the early ’90s the average NES cartridge was practically a console in itself; the NES itself acted more as a copy-editor, checking to make sure the input made sense then passing it along to the TV screen. So for most of its life, just about every game for the system has an unnerving glitchiness just under the skin, threatening to break loose and disrupt its carefully argued reality. Sometimes, as in Metroid, those glitches become as much a part of the game as the intended rules, suggesting untold depths that perhaps nobody has ever explored before.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by [name redacted]

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see.

Where is Zar? Zar is gone.

  • Reading time:2 mins read

Classic screenwriting (both film and TV) does take on something of a middle school essay structure, doesn’t it. Tell the audience what you’re going to do, do it, tell the audience what you just did. I guess with a new medium it’s seen as necessary. Then when people get more comfortable with the grammar, you can stop patronizing them and get down to business.

What’s weird about videogames is that mainstream games at least have kind of gone the other way. Now you buy a top-shelf console game, you won’t even be allowed to play it properly for the first half hour. Unless it’s Zelda. Then you might have to wait three or four hours before you get started. Whereas in 1987… plop. There you are. Make sense of it the best you can.

Is there a good reason in there to assume the audience has, on average, grown less sophisticated over the last twenty years? And Wii Fit aside (which is kind of a different issue), is there much evidence that patronizing the audience leads to greater sales? Generally the only people who buy videogames are people who buy videogames (which is where Iwata comes into the discussion, and then leaves by the back door). And generally they only get to play them after they’ve made a purchase.

It’s one thing to make a game accessible. Not to overburden the player with complications right from the start. That’s just good design.
The hand-holding that’s been going on, the last ten years though — that’s something else. Something insidiously banal. It’s not just that the art hasn’t been progressing since 1998; it’s been moving backward.

The Process

  • Reading time:9 mins read

Following some earlier points, a forum I frequent saw some discussion on the apparent deification of the Doctor over the last few series of Doctor Who. Someone strongly objected to what he saw as Davies’ “all-powerful, all-knowing, ‘he’s a Time Lord, he can do anything’ approach to the Doctor”. Thing is, that’s not really what’s going on.

Generally Davies tries to undermine that concept, and show that it’s just bravado. Both in and out of the fiction, that myth is just the way that people perceive him, and the image he tries to project.

There’s a long discussion of this on one of the Moffat commentaries, amongst Davies, Tennant, and Moffat himself. They talk about how, for all of the facade he puts on, all the mythology that springs up around him, some of which he encourages, there’s nothing really special about the Doctor. His only real asset is that he can (usually) talk his way into anything.

“He’s almost a charlatan,” Moffat said, “in a good way. He poses as this god-like figure, but he’s just a bloke under there.”

Man and Myth

So much of the new series is about people’s perceptions of the Doctor, counterposed with the reality of the Doctor. This is precisely what “The Girl in the Fireplace” is about. Look at the way Reinette mythologized the Doctor in her own mind, and turned him into this huge figure from her childhood, a man of magic and awe. And there he was, just bumbling around, doing his thing as best as he could. Occasionally showing off. Occasionally acting like a complete ass.

And we, as adult viewers, see both sides. We know that the Doctor is just this guy, doing the best he can, yet we also know him as a figure of myth and legend who brings us monsters and death, because that’s what he chases and that’s what we tune in for — but then he does his best to put it right, and usually succeeds.

It’s not that he’s innately special; he just operates on a different plane from what most people see as normal life. Specifically, he lives the life of the protagonist to a long-running TV fantasy adventure. In that, he sees things that most people don’t see, and does things that most people don’t do. And to be credulous and put ourselves in the weekly companion role, that allows him to introduce us to fear and wonder, and just maybe expand our perspectives, with the assurance that everything will be all right in the end. Roughly. Usually.

So basically the new series is just being postmodern, and aware of itself as a modern myth. And it toys with that. (See “Love & Monsters”, that Clive guy in “Rose”.) Granted, in execution it’s gotten a bit lazy of late… But going by the commentary, everyone still seems to be working on the same wavelength they were in 2005.

Jesus Guises

Of course, “Forest of the Dead” plays a lot with the notion of an all-powerful Doctor, from River Song’s tale of the man Tennant becomes to his apparently new ability to enter the TARDIS by snapping his fingers. As far as River Song is concerned, though, that’s her mythologizing him again. It’s just her own personal impression of the man. Assuming she’s referring to a particular event, and knowing how the Doctor does things, you can imagine the sort of circumstance in which a whole army would run from him. As much as she talks it up, the actual event was probably some bizarre and desperate slight of hand on the Doctor’s part. Yet it sounds impressive if you don’t know the details! As things do.

Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz, but he’s just a schmuck behind a curtain.

The snap is a little different. I halfway expected that to be revealed as Donna opening the door for him, but no. Then again, you know. TARDIS. It likes him. If anything is truly special, it’s his box. With a little thought, given the Doctor’s bond with the TARDIS, the snapping really isn’t that remarkable. It’s a bit of a parlor trick, really. Consider that Rose flew the thing just by staring into its console and wishing.

Then there’s that ridiculous floaty denoument from last year, which a lot of people point to. That’s not a good example either. It really, really wasn’t executed well, but that’s supposed to be about the power of humanity and hope and faith (to contrast with the Master’s message of despair), with the Doctor as just a focal point of all of those emotions. It’s only in encouraging everyone to believe in him, in becoming a legend, that he gained his power — which is sort of the concept I’ve been talking about, except made clumsily explicit and practical.


The encyclopedic knowledge business is getting tiresome, however. “Silence in the Library” is probably the worst offender yet, on this front. As “Midnight” shows, often it’s dramatically better not to have a clue what you’re facing.

The problem, as I see it, in the Doctor already knowing what he’s facing most of the time is that it removes a sense of discovery and danger and wonder from the proceedings, and all the emotions and ideas those might conjure up, and skips right to the business of solving things — a process that the new series (rightly) considers so obligatory as to use all of these shortcuts (sonic, psychic paper) to speed it along.

It’s meaningless to hear someone name something fictional, then watch him fiddle together some random fictional nonsense to defeat it. What really gets the head and heart going is something like The Empty Child, where — although there are hints along the way, and the Doctor may have more or less figured it out by halfway through episode two — the threat largely remains undefined until the end of the story, leaving the protagonists to react the best they can to their immediate circumstances.

Which isn’t to say that every story need be a mystery; it’s just that having bottomless resources is boring, especially when all you’re conjuring up and babbling about is fictional fact. Show, don’t tell! If the Doctor has seen it all before and can defuse any situation by pulling random convenient facts out of his hat, that basically tells us that what is happening right now doesn’t actually matter; that the show is just a sequence of doors and keys, and the Doctor already has most of the keys on file. So why are we watching it?

Keys are for Doors; Heads are for Thinking

You can do a certain amount of this with a smirk and call it postmodern, but you have to be deliberate and do it well — as in “Rose” or “Aliens of London”. “Doomsday” treads a bit close, but gets away with it on the basis of sheer chutzpah. Lately, I think the handwaving has just become a smug excuse.

It’s a similar feeling to what I get with post-NES era Nintendo games — Zelda, Mario, Metroid. It’s all about hunting for the correct key to pass the appropriate tile, and moving on to the next section. Interpretation, picking away at the cracks, the sense of endless possibility you get in something like the original Zelda or Metroid — all gone, in the face of cold, arbitrary mechanics. Which ties into the whole modern fallacy of the Videogame, that assumes that doing things, simply pressing buttons, is and should be rewarding in and of itself.

Mind, this isn’t a crippling problem with the show — yet. As I said, though, it is getting a bit tiresome. And I think this year in particular, it’s starting to undermine the storytelling. As with the dismissal of killer shadows as “Vashta Nerada — the piranhas of the air!” God, what’s more interesting: shadows that can KILL you, or some kind of gestalt entity with a pretentious name, that the Doctor conveniently knows how to detect and whose canned history he can spin off at a drop of his bottomless hat?

Finding and Doing

So basically, yeah. I see the things that people are complaining about. I just think the explanation is a bit off. The Doctor isn’t particularly powerful; he’s just arrogant. The sonic screwdriver and psychic paper and occasional ironic doodad like anti-plastic work in the favor of efficient storytelling. Take away his ability to quickly solve problems and the story will become cluttered with meaningless procedure.

Take away his ability to quickly identify problems, though, and stories may become far richer. Allow him to dismiss any scenario by identifying it off the bat, and unless the writer really knows what he’s doing, the entire story is in danger of collapsing into meaningless procedure.

I’m reminded of an old review of the Dreamcast version of Ecco the Dolphin (narrated by Tom Baker, don’t you know). It’s a beautiful, atmospheric game with a clever story by David Brin. I’ve described it more than once as an underwater Shenmue. The problem is that it’s just about imposible to play. You can know exactly what you have to do (and it’s usually not that tricky to figure out), and still you need to fight with the game for half an hour, trying and dying and trying and dying and waiting for the game to reload each time, to get through a simple hazard.

I think it was an IGN review that praised the game’s difficulty, saying it was the perfect balance — you always know what you need to do, and the challenge just comes in doing it!

… What? Just, what? I mean, granted, IGN. These guys probably give extra points to a game that comes in a bigger box because it looks more impressive on the shelf. But what?!

Meaning comes from extended and nuanced exploration of a topic. Yet you have to balance the reward of any insight against the frustration involved in realizing it. You don’t want to labor too much in the exploration or in the solution; smack your hand too long on anything, and you will lose grip on the threads you’re grasping, along with any sense of perspective you might have been developing. What you want is to cover as much ground and see as many sides of the issue as you can, collecting strands and weaving them together until you’ve completed the picture as well as you may.

In all things, logic should be always a method; not an impediment, not an answer. When process becomes a barrier to development, or is mistaken for development itself, there is an inherent flaw in the system.

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be.

The Wii that Wasn’t

  • Reading time:6 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start.

Tools of the Trade

  • Reading time:6 mins read

Let’s look at the items in the original Zelda.


  • Wooden Sword -> White Sword -> Magical Sword
  • Shield -> Magical Shield

You don’t even need a sword, yet if you want to you can keep trading up for better stuff. You can buy a better shield anywhere; the trick is finding the cheapest price. All posturing aside, it is helpful to have some kind of a sword, and you can claim a weak one right in the first screen. It is interesting that the key word is “helpful”, though, not “necessary”. If you want to avoid it, there’s nothing stopping you.


  • Heart Containers
  • Triforce

There are only so many heart containers, and every time you find one you get an automatic and immediate benefit: another whole heart on the life meter. And the triforce pieces are really just there to check off the dungeons as complete, to give you a reason to delve all the way and beat the boss rather than just rummage around until you find a treasure then skedaddle.

Secondary Inventory

  • Raft
  • Ladder
  • Blue Ring -> Red Ring
  • Power Bracelet
  • Magic Book
  • Magic Key

All “automatic” items, which you don’t need to explicitly use. Only three of them (ladder, raft, power bracelet) really increase the player’s range or abilities, and I don’t think the power bracelet is ever necessary; it’s mostly just useful for opening the warp tunnels. As with the swords and shield, you never need to upgrade your armor, though hey, you’ve got the option. There are enough keys in the game that the magic key is never necessary; it’s just a convenience. And the magic book is an accessory that enhances another item that you don’t even need.

Furthermore, you buy the blue ring in a store and you randomly find the power bracelet in the overworld. You only need to use the raft once. That leaves the ladder as the only really significant upgrade here, and you get it really early on.

Primary Inventory

  • Blue Candle-> Red Candle
  • Bombs
  • Food
  • Letter -> Blue Potion -> Red Potion
  • Boomerang -> Magical Boomerang
  • Bow/Arrow -> Silver Arrow
  • Recorder
  • Magic Wand

So more important stuff here. You need candles to light the way and burn stuff. Bombs are maybe the most vital item in the game. You need a bow and (some kind of) arrow to beat two bosses. The recorder has its uses. That’s about it, though: candles, bombs, bow and arrow, and recorder. A blue candle, you can buy in almost any shop; the only advantage to the upgrade is that, like the magic key, you can use it indiscriminately. Enemies drop bombs all over, and you can buy them in stores as soon as you’ve the rupees. There are bomb bag upgrades, though once more they’re just an issue of convenience. You find the bow in the first dungeon, and can buy arrows anywhere. I think you need the silver arrow to beat Ganon, but it’s also hidden in Death Mountain, right before the final battle, so.

That only really leaves the recorder as a special and unique item that takes a while to find and is critical to finishing the game. You can buy the food anywhere, and only really need it once. You find the letter for the old women in the overworld, then buy all the potion you want — yet it, like so many other items, is just there for convenience. Enemies drop both boomerangs, and they’re only there to make life easier for the player. The magic wand only exists to be awesome.

The Bare Minimum

So going back through, what do we really need?

  • Bombs
  • Blue Candle
  • Bow/Arrow -> Silver Arrow
  • Raft
  • Ladder
  • Recorder

You can buy half of these in any store. You will have half of them by the time you finish the first dungeon. You find the raft in the third dungeon (which you can enter and complete at any time), and all that really does is grant you access to the fourth dungeon. There you find the ladder, and that opens up almost the entire game. We’ll ignore the silver arrow for the above reasons. That just leaves the recorder; you need it both to beat a boss and to enter another dungeon, and you need to go through a few steps before you can find it. So it’s the only really inaccessible and significant tool in the entire game.

Otherwise, to have all the basic tools, all you need to do is run into level three and grab the raft; use it to enter level four and get the ladder; then buy bombs, a blue candle, and an arrow, and grab the bow from level one. Once you work your way through and find the recorder, you are completely equipped to finish the game.

That’s kind of amazing, really.

As for access:

The entire overworld (save two screens) is accessible from the start. The first three dungeons are immediately and fully accessible. You can enter the fifth and sixth, though without a ladder can’t go far. You enter the eighth by burning a pretty obvious bush, that, should you go exploring, you’ll probably try to burn the first time you see it. If you want, you can beat it right up front — though it’ll be hard.

Burning and bombing are the player’s two main overworld activities. You burn your way into dungeon eight, so you bomb your way (again from a blatantly obvious location) into dungeon nine. You just can’t enter until you have all the triforce pieces, and fair enough.

Four, you need the raft to enter. Which you can claim immediately. Seven, you need the recorder to enter.

So basically, once you have the ladder the only thing aside from the final level that you’re missing out on is duneon seven — again, the recorder.

So again: almost total access within two steps. The only things hindering your progress are danger and a lack of knowledge. There’s practically nothing scripted to hold the player back.

To Put It Numerically:

Collectibles aside and including the armory, there are 26 total inventory items
of those, 8 are required
of those, 5 are freely available from the start
of those, 3 are in shops

of the items that are not freely available:
1 requires only two steps to claim
1 is not necessary until the final battle, and is located near that battle

Again, that only leaves the recorder.

Counting another way:

You start with 1 item
8 items are available in shops
7 items are just lying around to find
10 items are buried in dungeons

Of the items buried in dungeons:
5 are merely upgrades to other items

Of the remaining, distinctive items that are buried in dungeons:
4 are necessary to finish the game

Of those necessary items buried in dungeons:
2 are primary inventory items (that you can use)
2 are secondary (automatic) items
2 (one primary and one secondary) are freely available from the start of the game

Of the remaining necessary items buried in dungeons which are not freely available:
1 can be claimed quickly
1 takes several steps to acquire

A very old story

  • Reading time:4 mins read

I keep harping on this, yet the original Zelda really isn’t that sequenced. There are certain barriers you can’t get past without certain items, yet you find most of those items early on — and you can at least explore most regions and dungeons to a certain extent, whatever equipment you have. You can beat the entire game without a sword, if you want. You don’t require half the items the game offers; they’re just convenient to have. Most of the things you do require, you can buy in a shop.

What Wind Waker kind of does is try to pull the design back in that direction, only more so — yet it doesn’t completely have the confidence to break with the sequencing and hand-holding. Which, for such an otherwise free-spirited design, is kind of frustrating. It’s like it’s taunting you with excellence. This is almost such a great game. It just needed more encouragement. Or a rewrite.

You know that business at the start where you’re picking up weapons and items all over? Imagine if the entire game were kind of like that, until you found the Master Sword. Instead of necessarily having specific “treasures”, each with its own specialized use (grapple versus hookshot, for instance), you’d mostly just find and hang onto whatever objects seemed convenient to the task at hand, or looked like they’d be useful down the road. If you found really special, “permanent” items, they’d mostly just serve as a shortcut for tasks you could perform otherwise only with a bit more effort and inconvenience. Kind of like how paths open to earlier areas in Metroid games, to allow you to cut back and forth instead of taking the long route every time.

I like that Link is a real character, for once, with his own life, ideas, likes, dislikes, and priorities, that the player and the quest are just intruding on. I like the way it treats all the previous Zelda games as, literally, a legend; a relic of an unthinkable time, that doesn’t really matter to anyone anymore. I like the implication that Link actually failed at one point, by not appearing when he was needed. Someone suggested once that Wind Waker is sort of the follow-up to Majora’s Mask, in that the historical Link went off somewhere and never came back, without growing up to save Hyrule as he was supposed to. That’s pretty interesting.

And, again, I like that nobody except Ganon really cares. Hyrule is gone; life goes on.

The world has a certain coherence and thought put into it, strictly for its own sake, that the main series rarely has. It’s very much a reinvention of the franchise, in the form of a storybook; an acknowledgment that the same story will keep repeating, even if nobody believes in it anymore. Somewhere out there, maybe in the real world, there is a Link and there is a Zelda, even if they don’t know it. There is a Hyrule, buried somewhere, if you know where to look. This is pretty good stuff.

Mechanically, the game feels smooth and cozy to play. For a while, anyway, there is a real sense of adventure and discovery; that anything could be out there. The fact that you can pick up and use all manner of stuff even if it’s not an “important” item adds to the sense of improvisation. The game puts a lot of work into this feeling. It also undermines most of that work, but we’ve had that discussion.

The entire game is sort of jaded about the idea of a Zelda-like quest. (In theory; it becomes credulous as hell, in practice.) Yeah, we’ve seen this all before; tell us a new one. Isn’t the whole thing a little twee? I mean, look at this green outfit. Who on Earth would wear something like that? Yet it’s also joyful and energetic, almost driving home the message that although, yeah, this story has been told countless times before, what matters isn’t the broad structure and gestures; it’s the individual lives that are affected, and what it feels like for them to take part in that story.

It’s a very postmodern take on the series, and pretty sophisticated. Again, though, it just doesn’t go all the way — which keeps the game from really making its point as solidly as it might.

Ambition and Compulsory Design in Animal Crossing

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

The thing about portables – and not everybody cottons to this – is that people use them differently from other game systems. You cradle them in your hands, within your personal space. You drag them around with you, pull them out of your pocket like a dime novel, then snap them closed when you step off the bus. Where console and PC games ask you to set aside blocks of your time, portables fill the cracks in your day.

All of these situational dynamics, and the psychology lurking behind them, inform the basic checklist for a portable game.

( Continue reading at Game Career Guide )

Rainbow Six’s Upton Talks Landscaping Game Worlds

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

The final session of the final day of last week’s GDC 2007 was a cross-disciplinary take on level design. Brian Upton, a senior designer for SCEA and the lead designer for Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, called on theme park design, landscaping, and city planning as parallels for level design, explaining that they all work under the same principles.

The main concern with all of these disciplines is human psychology – an understanding of how people orient themselves within, organize, and think about the space around them. Since theme park designers, landscapists, and city planners have been doing their job a heck of a lot longer than game designers, Upton suggested looking to these older fields not only for technique but for terminology with which we might describe and define level design.

( Continue reading at GamaSutra )

Aonuma’s Reflections On Zelda

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

Check out the comments section on the original article. Seriously.

On Thursday Aonuma candidly, and with self-effacing humor, spoke of his period of aimlessness and mistakes that began with the release of The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker, the way in which they reflected the Japanese industry as a whole, and how they led to Nintendo’s shift of focus over the last few years.

( Continue reading at GamaSutra )

Boundary Scout

  • Reading time:5 mins read

My brother has been hounding me about how to recreate that crazy mysterious glitchy feeling from old NES games, and this whole time I’ve been telling him that I figure it’s impossible. But uh, I guess not!

Apparently the trick is to actually focus on making it seem mysterious and glitchy!

Well, the focus here is on the glitchiness — mostly because I think that would be a cool-n-subversive way of doing things. I think the real point is in the kind of thoughts and emotions and behavior that those glitches trigger in people who are prone to pick at them. I think all of those qualities are very close to the ideal purpose and potential of videogames in general.

It’s that feeling of breaking through the boundaries of an established system — of the suggestion of unknown yet possibly grand potential hidden somewhere beyond the mundane, that you — as a free agent and very clever person — are specially qualified to unlock.

The way a person might break through the boundaries could be mechanical or emotional or intellectual. Some of the best touches in some of the best games borrow from this principle. See the scanning in Metroid Prime, how it comes directly out of the themes at hand, then ties everything together, hinting at a sort of order and coherence and reality to the entire Metroid series and everything in it that you never really suspected before. Yet it never shoves the stuff down your throat; it’s just there for you to put together on your own — much like all of the abstract stuff in the original Zelda and Metroid and whatnot, except deliberate and intellectual rather than incidental and material.

And then there’s Riven.

I think my point with the overt fake-bugginess was to exaggerate and glorify the whole pointless search process that we go through — poking the edges of the scenery, seeing what’s possible within the world, experimenting, and only rarely being rewarded with anything for our effort. And when we are rewarded it feels cloying and false, like those dumb treasure chests that have to be at the end of every single cul de sac in every single dungeon, to overtly reward you for going down and simultaneously make you feel obligated to go down every one.

It’s working on the suggestion that maybe this behavior has a real purpose behind it after all, that sometimes — just sometimes — there’s something magical and special and completely unprecedented to find. And the point to that is to bring into light that whole behavior, that whole mindset — which, again, I think is implicitly what videogames are made to suggest, yet which I don’t feel is often really addressed for all (or even much) of its potential.

I think this mode can be addressed in less gimmicky ways, even if the gimmick is maybe one of the clearest ways to illustrate it. The problem is that a videogame has to work on a couple of levels at once. It needs to have a completely workable status quo, that feels solid, that the player is convinced is meant to be solid, for the player’s subversion of that status quo to mean anything. There’s a lot of psychology here; the player shouldn’t know immediately whether he’s supposed to be able to do what he’s doing, and that it has been accounted for; just that, for whatever reason, he’s able to.

Beyond the psychology and the multiple layers to keep track of, the game of course has to be designed and programmed as well as possible, to avoid unintentional exploits. So there’s a certain level of virtuosity required here.

Maybe I’m overstepping the line a bit, in defining the importance of these characteristics. The basic nature of a videogame lies in the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld; the basic potential lies in the narrative ability of that causal relationship (what it means for the player to act, given the established boundaries of the gameworld). The natural mode of player action is to explore those rules and challenge them. I suppose it doesn’t follow that the player need subvert a status quo as-such; it’s just, this is a good way to illustrate that mode of player interaction and its narrative and emotional potential.

The player should feel free; that he is at all times in control over his immedate decisionmaking, and that through his decisions he is just perhaps blazing into unknown territory, doing something nobody else has done, having a unique and visceral personal experience that’s entirely generated by his own free will. Half-Life 2 is great at making the player feel clever and subversive for doing exactly what the game is expecting.

I think it’s a misdiagnosis of this quality that has led to this sandbox nonsense (most recently reined in and made less inane by Dead Rising), and sense that players want “freedom” in their games.

I’ll get back to this. Will post what I’ve got now.

The Crying Game

  • Reading time:14 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework.