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Fez: An unparalleled giant of game design.

There’s a point I get to in every game called “judgment time.” In some games (like Mario), it’s pretty early. “What makes up this game? Jumpin’ on stuff, gettin’ high on shrooms, SAVE THE PRINCESS YEAH!” Other games, like Okami, take time. “Hmm, now I can go to this place that I couldn’t before… how does this weapon change how I’m able to fight things…? What, a plot twist?!” You get the picture.

At judgment time, I look at what the game has to offer me and figure that it’s not going to change all that much during the course of the rest of the game. In The Last Story, which I “reviewed” in another post, it took me all of about four seconds to realize that I was going to hate myself for playing the rest of the game. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long to know. Same with Megaman X7. Yeesh.

Fez screwed with me, though. Playing Fez was like falling in love: just when I thought I had seen all there was to see about the game, it threw something else at me, something unexpected and beautiful. Had I chosen to get everything in the game (which I unfortunately elected not to do), it would have taken many weeks, perhaps even months of careful searching and playing. Even through to its multiple ends, the game leaves you with more than you began with, as well as some delicious food for thought.

This pixely little guy goes to pixely places, and you just wish you could be there too,

This pixely little guy goes to pixely places, and you just wish you could be there, too.

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The New Fairytale

I’m sorry for not writing before now! Two reasons: first, my computer is kaput. Not your problem, I know, but it did kind of put a damper on my blogging abilities. Second (related to first as well), I’m playing through the game FEZ, and I’m working on kind of a big post about it. However, I realized that I was not nearly deep enough into the game to do it justice, and my save file had just been erased. So, the past week has been comprised of relearning and redoing everything I already did, and finishing up that game. Look for the awesome post Monday! It’s going to be magnificent. Anyway!

With the recent release of GTA V I thought it’d be a good time to discuss the positive impact video games have on our children.

No, really.

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Why Mario is the greatest video game character of all time.

I tire, frankly, of doing serious posts all the time. Yeah, J-RPGs are dead, mobile games are like digital dementors except that they’re better at sucking your soul out, and as I grumpily tell these young gamers to get off my lawn while I’m enjoying the nostalgia, I reflect on my younger days… I came home every day and enjoyed the hell out of some video games. I come home every day now and enjoy the hell out of completely different video games, and usually there’s beer involved now (another big plus!). So I’m going to stop bitching for a while, if it’s all the same to you!

Okay, maybe not about Zynga. Screw you, Zynga.

Okay, maybe not about Zynga. Screw you, Zynga.

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A rare find, perhaps?

So, yes. I’m a horrible person, so on and so forth. I haven’t been updating, even though I came and said I would. The main reason for this is because I am woefully without internet at my current place of residence! Unfortunate, to be sure. But that’s okay. I’m sitting here in the music university, surrounded by one love, writing about another. Who could ask for more?

Except, of course, internet in my house. That’d be good.

One of my professors (a Texan who speaks flawless Italian. They exist??) mentioned offhand that German internet sucks. Since he probably has more experience with it than I do, that doesn’t bode well for me! Hopefully I’m the exception to the rule… or else, how will I surf Facebook and make meaningful blog posts about the nature of video games??

Anyhow.  If I had previously turned you on to the idea of the Humble Bundle, you hopefully bought the most recent one that came out. It was a little bit geared towards mobile-gaming again, but it still had a couple gems in it that I’m playing, have played, or am looking forward to playing. But I won’t talk about that now, for the reason that it’s irrelevant (as you can no longer buy it). Sorry! I hope that you made your purchase in good time, and I’ll be sure to make another post when the next one comes out. Naturally, I want you, dear reader(s?), to take advantage of the artful awesomeness that is indie gaming.

But for now, today’s blog post is about a gem that I found recently. This game is certainly not NEW, by any sense of the word (except the astronomical sense. Everything created by man is extremely new in the grand scheme of time), but it is both extremely interesting and a little bit fun, too. The game I am speaking of, of course, is Zelda 2.

What… what is going on?

It’s… side-scrolling. It’s a side-scrolling Zelda game! WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? Well, 1987, to be exact. A couple years before I was born, but then again, I am so saturated with old games that one would have thought I’d have played this to death. But, (obviously, due to the surprised tone of my earlier sentences) I hadn’t discovered it until only a couple weeks ago. Sure, it’s an old game, but in the grand scheme of the Zelda franchise (and video games in general), it illustrates a very important concept.

What concept, you inquire? Well… the concept of a franchise! The concept of putting a number 2 next to the title of that game you released a while back, and hoping people will buy it and enjoy it just like they did the first one. There is a reason the Zelda franchise was so successful! And… well, it wasn’t this game. Just from looking at one screencap, you can immediately tell that this game is entirely different from every single other Zelda game in existence (with the slight exception of one part of the first dungeon in Link’s Awakening, where you get knocked off by the boss into a pit-type thing that is in fact side-scroll-y). It’s got experience bars, it’s platforming, it’s a very great deal more action-y and less puzzle-y than most Zelda games we’re aware of.

So, why does it exist? Knowing what we know now about the Zelda franchise, why didn’t they make a game that improved upon the concepts of the first game, offered a different storyline, and more cool features for the player to take advantage of? That’s what EVERY SINGLE OTHER Zelda game is! Why make this one such an anomaly? (Okay, that’s one too many rhetorical questions.) The answer is, naturally, because there were no rules and strategies to this sort of “franchise” thing. The world of console gaming was just starting to come into being, and the idea of putting out multiple games and relying on the brand of a fictional character was somewhat… foreign! It’s not just the matter of sticking your quarters in a machine anymore; it’s the idea of playing a whole other game, from start to finish, just because you liked the first one.

Now, if that were your goal… how would you go about it? Would you, say, make a game that is in most respects quite similar to the first game, but fluffed up a little bit, with more bells and whistles? Of course not! In the eye of the game developer, it would be foolish to put out such a similar product, and kind of seems like selling out, too. That mindset is all well and good, (and this game we’re talking about is produced FROM that mindset,) but as we now know, that’s not what video gamers desire! I know that when I play a Zelda game, I know what I want, and I know that I’ll find it within. There’s going to be a gradually increasing level of difficulty, lots of puzzles, tons of special items, princesses, Gorons and Zoras, something about the Triforce and the Master Sword… and it’s all going to be in top-down goodness. That’s a Zelda game. That’s the Zelda franchise.

And so, we have this game, different in style, and certainly less famous and less successful, all because it wanted to offer a totally different experience with the characters you know and love. Everyone knows, however, that characters don’t make a game franchise, because we’ve all played Super Mario Bros. 2. Turnips? Magic potions? Hearts???  (By the way, in case you didn’t know, Super Mario Bros. 2 was not originally Mario at all. Check it out here.) It’s a good game, but it’s an anomaly.

So, finally, what I’m getting at with this whole thing. The idea of a video game franchise is more than simple characters and worlds. It’s also gameplay! We have these great worlds that are developed, with cool characters, and interesting plotlines. However, when we play these franchise games, we expect them to behave a certain way! Metroids are ALWAYS frozen with ice missiles! Latikus ALWAYS drop spike balls. You ALWAYS get the Master Sword somehow. It’s the way the game works. You can’t just go fooling around with them willy-nilly. (By the way, willy-nilly is a totally awesome word. Use it in conversation sometime. But not willy-nilly!)

Having said all that, aren’t there good examples of games that HAVE been changed drastically within franchises that have also been successful?

Absolutely. Games and their franchises change with the capabilities of their systems. The ones that are successful, however, move the concept of their games to a new system, utilizing the capabilities of said system fully while preserving the idea behind the older games. Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the best games Nintendo has ever released. Super Mario 64 is another. Argue with me if you like, but… maybe you should just trust me on this one.  These games are both in 3D, which is an entirely different feeling for both franchises: Zelda’s top-down was equally as iconic by this time as Mario’s side-scrolling excitement. And, certainly, the idea of playing a musical instrument (actually controlling it with your controller, I mean… not Oracle of Seasons/Ages style)… was a game-changer (pun absolutely intended). Same deal with Mario: you now had health, and the world was way more free-form, even quest-oriented. There were little races and challenges and strange things that none of the other games before 64 ever had. And yet… Ocarina of Time? It’s a flippin’ PUZZLE game. You spent hours in the Water Temple not FIGHTING crap (except for those Tekteks. Screw those guys), but solving puzzles! You pushed blocks, shot fire-arrows, used small keys, hookshotted the hell out of targets and vines alike, and made your way through dungeons not by brawn, but by brains. It was a Zelda game, through and through. That idea was preserved. And NO ONE can dare to say that Super Mario 64 is not a platformer. Perhaps it was a little more forgiving with lives than the earlier Mario games, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t spend hours timing jumps right and trying to run without falling off one edge or another. The feeling of Mario was there, even if it looked a little bit different. Super Mario Galaxy and Skyward Sword (or Twilight Princess, too), took the games in a different direction. But c’mon. They’re still Mario and Zelda. You’ll always know a little bit what to expect.

So we see these games, how they change, how they stay the same, and we ask ourselves: SHOULD it be that way? What if every Zelda game had a different gameplay style, a different goal, a different set of mechanics governing your experience? Would those games still be good? The answer is unequivocally yes. The only thing is, instead of making these games “Zelda” or “Mario,” why not call them by another name? That way, we don’t have the problems of brand name expectations, and we can work within a much freer framework for what we can do and what we want to do as game developers! Let’s have a look at the result: Chibi Knight!

 

Click to play CHIBI KNIGHT, The Zelda 2 Knockoff.

 

If you decide to play it (and you really should), you’ll find that it’s fun, cool, addictive, engaging, and altogether very well-made! It’s also exactly the same style of gameplay as Zelda 2. So, after all this, I’ve come to this conclusion: the failure (not really FAILURE, by the way. It was successful in its original run, but it failed to stand the test of time like some other Zelda games we know) of Zelda 2 wasn’t because of its actual gameplay… it’s no longer a popular Zelda game because it was just too different. I guess the moral of the story here is “Be careful what you call Zelda.”

Also, in case you were wondering HOW MUCH Chibi Knight is like Zelda 2 (and how obvious the relation is)… Here’s the opening screen from Zelda 2:

Hm. I don’t see the resemblance at all.

Happy gaming, see you next time!

 

~Another Gamer

 

You must bring balance to the force…

Balance is very important. It’s the only thing that keeps the universe in order. Yin vs. Yang. Good vs. Evil. Microsoft vs. Apple. You get the picture. But in video games, it’s you against the baddies, and only one of you is going to get out alive (or in the case of Poke’mon, un-fainted…?). And when push comes to shove, balance in video games is about how much power you have  versus how tough the enemies are. Balance is yet another important aspect of video games that constantly frustrates developers, and can truly make or break a game’s playability. And in the world of making video games, it is special because each game’s balance is unique; whatever you start with is going to take some serious tweaking to be viable, no matter how much experience in the industry you have! And if your game’s balance sucks, the first bits of feedback you’ll get are: “1/5, too hard” or “1/5, too easy.” Critics. I swear.

This has got to be the most underrated game in existence.

There are many things that go into making the balance of a game good. It seems all mystical and stuff, but in reality it’s just a collection of numbers.  I mean, you say “Okay, your magic missile does… *rolls dice* FOUR damage.” Four is a number! (And while we’re stating the obvious, the sky is blue.) These numbers, when working in conjunction with each other, make up your games balance. The main things I’ve found that really affect how your game is balanced are: your survivability, your damage, and the health of enemies. If you die too quickly, then your game will be spent hiding behind a wall to avoid being hit. No fun. If it’s too high, then you’re just going to run through the levels, blasting everything that comes your way. More fun! But still, not engaging enough to make you want to play it all the way through. Same thing with your damage. And, of course, the health of enemies is the biggest thing that makes a difference, because it not only affects how the game feels, but gives you lots of options for different enemies with different health. So you can have big, bad, tough enemies, and little, annoying, squishy ones. Yay!

This is all very abstract and math-y, so let’s look at some examples! World of Warcraft is popular, and we could say its balance is pretty good. But really, is it? 90% of the time, you’re facing one enemy at a time, whittling down their health until they’re a bloody heap of loot at your feet. And no one feels powerful just facing one enemy at a time. But then, you get to what’s lovingly known as “Endgame Content,” where you have somewhere between 10 and 25 guys beating the living crap of one guy. Now, if you think to yourself: hang on, I spent this entire game 1-on-1 with regular enemies, and you’re trying to make me feel MORE powerful by making it 25-on-1? Real smart, Blizzard. But here’s the thing that changes all that and makes you feel pretty cool and powerful and like you’re doing something with your life (okay, maybe not that last one).  When you have that team of 25 people, you’re free to totally let loose with your powers, because (wait for it!), your survivability changes completely! All of a sudden, instead of worrying about dying, you now have healers and things covering your butt and keeping you from death, which you are unfortunately NOT blessed with in regular 1-on-1 combat. Whoa, Blizzard, it’s like you do this whole balance thing pretty well!

Let’s find another example. This other, totally unknown and unpopular Blizzard game, Diablo 2, has in my opinion some of the best balance choices of any game ever, and I’ll tell you why (as if you doubted that I would). In Diablo 2 there are 5 types of enemies: Regular enemies, Boss enemies, Champion enemies, Quest enemies, and Final Boss enemies. (Yes, these categories have been arbitrarily created by me, but I’m writing the blog here, so suck it up!) Now the regular enemies, from the very beginning of the game, can be torn through like bloody evil tinfoil. They come in huge packs which eventually threaten your existence, but only if you’re really not paying attention. This is great because it makes you feel like you’re this awesome superhero, who vanquishes little annoying lizard-things with relative ease. Boss enemies are much tougher versions of normal enemies with special powers. Beating on them takes a while, but boy, does it feel good when they die. In that situation, your survivability’s down, your damage is up (because it’s focused on one enemy), and the enemy’s health is increased. But the balance feels right, even though it’s different than normal. Champion enemies are groups of slightly-less-than-boss-level enemies. Yet a different feeling of balance! Now come the fun ones: Quest enemies and Final Bosses. These are exceedingly tough enemies, and truth be told I think this is where the balance of the game breaks down a little bit. It’s rough to be constantly beating on an enemy with little or no indication that you’re really getting anywhere. Eventually, however, you finish them off, and it’s both well-rewarded with gear/uprgades, and with plot progression. And how those fights are balanced really makes the difference as to whether or not you feel like you really DID something, even if it took you a long time.

Interesting side note about that: Boss names are randomly generated, but their health bars are the length of their name. So if you have a Diablo 2 boss named “Ted,” then each hit feels like you’re taking away about a pixel of his health. But if you have a boss named “Angerfist, the Pustulant Harbinger of Doom and Destroyer of World-Eating Zombie Dragons,” then each hit makes it look like you’re taking away like 3 letters of  his needlessly lengthy name! It’s an interesting Diablo 2 kind of thing. Unfortunately, Diablo himself has a very short name, and boatloads of health, so you’re really working for that next pixel of damage, and generally dying a lot in the process.

It all makes sense, really. And if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that Blizzard can take two games with essentially the same style of gameplay (one hero versus many baddies), and yet can make satisfying gameplay out of 1-on-1 and “1-on-wow, that’s a lot of enemies.” You get the feeling how unique balance is? And truth be told, there’s one aspect of it that’s really more important than how easy or difficult the game is. That aspect is how the game FEELS. Balance, in its very essence, is about feeling. It’s about how powerful you feel when you’re mowing down armies of enemies, or how helpless you feel against that final boss. It gives games variety within their own combat system, and it keeps you engaged as you figure out how to fight tougher enemies, or gloriously shoot down hordes of weaker ones (I don’t know if you can tell, but I love killing those weaker enemies. It’s a better stress-reliever than yoga!).

On a slightly more interactive note: to illustrate my point about balance, there’s a specific kind of game genre called “Bullet Hell.” These games have a pretty fun balance typically characterized (I bet you’d never guess this from the name) by a LOW survivability.  Check out one of my favorites here. Dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge, folks.

That's a lot of green bullets. Also, for extra bonuses, the closer they get to you without hitting you, the better. Hooray.

So that’s that. Think about it the next time you play a game like Ratchet and Clank, or Ninja Gaiden, or Mass Effect. How does it feel? I don’t mean to sound like your resident video gamer Freudian shrink, but seriously. You’ll realize that not only did the game designers really make an awesome gameplay experience for you, your character is really effective at blowing stuff up, and it feels good. 😀

~Another Gamer

P.S. So… tell me about your mother.

Levels… so many levels…

I’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of video games, that make them interesting, engaging, brilliant, and, quite frankly, make them art. I’ve written about their music, their gameplay, the innovativeness, and lots of other things that are all wrapped up into the whole of awesomeness that is a good video game. But what I really think bears talking about today is the level design of games in the past, and games today. They’re like night and day, but most people don’t realize this because they’re too busy killing Covenant/Zombies/Foreign Armies/Reapers/Whatever You Happen To Be Shooting At. Read the rest of this entry