more FC3 prattle; some amateur rumination on game design

I’m having one of those days where I’m super-stressed out because of work and I’d like nothing more than to sink some quality brain-time into a post, but I’m having trouble thinking of anything to talk about other than “ZOMG Far Cry 3 is amazing.”

I sunk a fair amount of time in it last night –

  • first, taking care of some busywork (i.e., doing some Path of the Hunter missions in order to max out certain crafting paths – I can’t remember all the ones I’ve finished, but I know as of last night I’ve at least got the biggest wallet, the biggest syringe kit and maybe the biggest ammo pouch, which were the 3 most important things on my to-do list);
  • second, trying a few of the assassination missions (which are a bit contrived and probably not something I’ll keep pursuing – I haven’t found any tangible rewards beyond money and XP, unlike the Hunting missions which are the only ways to get certain crafting material);
  • third, getting distracted from the first and second tasks above by checking out some happened-upon ruins and picking up some relics (which aren’t necessarily all that rewarding, either, but these ruins scratch that Skyrim itch of pure exploration for exploration’s sake, which is something I’ll get to in a bit); and then
  • finally, diving into some actual story missions.  I’ve posted some screenshots from those missions below – I’m not sure if they constitute spoilers, since there aren’t any map locations or enemies, but they do show places that you can’t see on the actual island.  I’m close to the end of Chapter 5 – Buck’s sent me on something of a treasure hunt.

Buck (the character) is a disgusting, vile human being (who’s acted phenomenally well, by the way), and I certainly hope he gets what’s coming to him at the end of this particular mission arc, but these missions are among the most fun I’ve had in the game.  You’re off in these hidden underground ruins, looking for a mystical object; you’ll start off by doing some relatively painless first-person platforming, then you’ll encounter a group of enemies who are trying to open a locked door; you’ll dispatch those enemies, open the door they couldn’t unlock… and then it’s just you and these places, no enemies in sight (save for a few snakes and komodo dragons here and there), exploring without consequence, free from external pressure.  Even if the ruins themselves are extremely linear, and even if the “puzzles” barely qualify to be identified as such, it’s still a rush.  (They feel like extremely simplified (but gorgeous) versions of the catacombs in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, now that I think about it.)

I love that this stuff is in the game.  I love that while this is a big-budget, AAA first person shooter, that the game has the balls to take the shooting out of the equation entirely (even if it can’t remove your guns from your field of vision, as in the screenshots above).  I love that just as much as how much I love how truly dynamic this world actually is – how you can spend 10 minutes silently sneaking around an outpost, tagging enemies, plotting your attack, only to have a fucking grizzly bear run into camp and maul everything to death.

*     *     *     *     *

In my post the other day I attempted to make the case that there’s too much killing in games.  Or, rather – that most games require the elimination of enemies (whether by gunfire, swordplay, magic, jumping on a turtle’s head, etc.) in order to achieve a win-state; that this has become, more or less, the default concept in contemporary game design.   There are certainly notable examples where this is not the case (PortalJourney, and Fez come to mind), but those examples are few and far between, and they certainly don’t sell nearly as well.   

After that post, I had an enlightening Twitter conversation with @WGP_Josh, and we hypothesized about how awesome a combat-free Tomb Raider or Uncharted would be.  I’m guessing that a lot of  game designers – well, rather, game publishers – are frightened by the silence of pure exploration, and so they feel that it’s necessary that in between the truly free-form stuff like puzzle solving and narrative development there’s gotta be a lot of BANG and BOOM and rag-doll physics and basically anything that can justify a multiplayer suite.

I’ve been thinking about this problem ever since.  I know nothing about game design, and so I have no idea what comes first – the narrative?  the art?  the main character?  the marketing budget?  the gameplay hook?  the desired player experience?   I feel, in my gut, that those last two are probably the most important, but I truly don’t know.

If I were to design a game, I think I’d probably focus on that last bit – the desired player experience – and then try to figure out what sort of action the player would have to do in order to best achieve that experience.*  But I’d also want to make sure there was a compelling reason for the player to want to continue, and so I’d develop some sort of narrative thrust, however basic, to keep the player engaged.   Weirdly, I think art and sound come last in this equation.  I mean, I’m a graphics whore through and through, and I’d want my game to look and sound great, but I do think you need to keep the player engaged first by making sure the game’s primary action is compelling.

And here’s where the problem lies.  What is that primary action?  What is the hook?  What is the way from Point A to Point B – even if it’s the player, not the level designer, who ultimately determines that path?  Judging from the vast majority of the games that have been released over the last 10 years, it seems that the easiest answer is “combat.”  When those games then actually focus on the combat and make sure it’s something special in and of itself – i.e., Bulletstorm, the Rocksteady Batman games, even (dare I say) Gears of War – well, that works.  But then there’s something like Portal, which removes combat from the game completely, and yet is still incredibly gripping and absorbing and engaging.

I sincerely hope that someday I can find out the answers to these questions first-hand.

*     *     *     *     *

Also: check out this amazing behind-the-scenes piece about Double Fine from Polygon.  And this interesting piece from Chris Dahlen over at Unwinnable about the undeserved anonymity of game design.

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*And when I think about my favorite games of the last 10 years, and I think about my favorite bits in each of those games, I realize that they all have several things in common.  And then I really start thinking about learning how to code.

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