Friday, November 15, 2019

Best Avoided

There are certain enemies in certain games that are a real pain to deal with.  Among those there a small select few that are downright panic inducing for some.  The first time I can remember it happening was when a friend of mine freaked out upon encountering a band of monks in the original Bard's Tale...needless to say it didn't end well for him.  I've heard people online claim that the psychic monkeys in System Shock 2 or headcrabs in Half-life 2 trigger a similar reaction, one of primal fear.  While I've never been all that upset by any particular type of video game enemy, there are a few that I have learned to dread.  Here's three in particular...

From Demon's Souls to Sekiro, Hidetaka Miyazaki has a knack for creating monsters the get under your skin (figuratively, and sometimes literally...).  The "winter lanterns" in Bloodborne can kill the player's character simply by holding line-of-sight with them for a short period of time.  Personally though, I feel like that enemy (troublesome as it may well be) is not nearly as bad as the croaking basilisks in Dark Souls.  Normally, when one dies in Dark Souls it's a slap on the wrist, but being struck down by a basilisk results in being cursed - a status effect that does not go away upon subsequent deaths.  It's a pretty big debuff and not easily removed although it does have a few minor perks as well.  Even so, in a game known for its punishing difficulty being cursed is the last thing most players want.

XCOM has earned a reputation for being quite challenging early on.  One of the most difficult parts of the game is the first terror mission involving chryssalids.  Believe it or not there was an even worse kind of enemy in XCOM: Terror from the Deep, the "tentaculat."  Basically a big floating brain with a beak and tentacles, the tentaculat bears a strong resemblance the the "grell" found in the table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  Gameplay-wise, they are tough and have a high movement rate, as well as the ability to move vertically or horizontally.  Their form of attack is identical to a chryssalid's zombification, complete with hatching a new tentaculat upon death.  I had a full squad of veteran aquanauts nearly wiped out  by just a couple of these things...bad times.

The last example comes from Dwarf Fortress (a game I've been playing quite a bit as of late).  No, it's not the werebeasts.  Yes, those things can destroy an entire fort if proper quarantine procedures are not put into effect, but the enemy that has caused me the most grief is those accursed "bogeymen."  Fast, hard to hit, and likely to ambush the player anytime they travel alone at nigh, I have lost more good adventures to these guys than I care to count.  Needless to say, I'm glad the next version of Dwarf Fortress will be giving them a much less ubiquitous roll in the the game.  Although, it's my understanding that they might be even more deadly...

Friday, November 8, 2019

Hammerspace

The title of this blogpost is a term derived cartoons.  Particularly, instances where a character produces an item or object far too large to have been concealed on their person.  Often times this would come in the form of a mallet pulled seemingly out of nowhere.  Where did that come from?  For all intents and purposes it was tucked into some kind of pocket dimension, accessible to a particular individual at a moment's notice.  The old table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons had a similar concept with the magical "bag-of-holding," essentially, a container that drastically downsizes anything places within.  Video games designers were quick to adapt the concept of hammerspace into their games, but I don't think they were ever (generally speaking) entirely comfortable with the concept.  Space Quest III's narration text, "You shove the ladder in your pocket."  Followed by the word "Ouch!" was the first instance I can recall a designer pushing back on the absurdity of it all, albeit for laughs.  So, why are game developers willing to turn a blind eye to something that is completely unrealistic on a fundamental level.

The simplest answer is they are not.  In fact, I get the impression that a lot of thought and energy has gone into trying eliminate hammerspace.  One of the most common solutions is an encumbrance system.  These weight limits were fairly ubiquitous in early table-top RPGs and (unsurprisingly) ended up being incorporated into a lot of CRPGs.  In more recent years, the concept has fallen out of fashion (Demon's Souls is the last game I've played that used it).  One of the problems with an encumbrance system is it still doesn't really reflect reality in that players can still haul way more stuff on their characters than would ever be humanly possible.  In some cases this would result in hilarity in games like Diablo and Dungeon Siege, causing a massive explosion of dropped equipment all over the screen when a player character was killed.  Another big problem with abstractly measuring weight is it doesn't account for bulk.  Some objects (say, for example, a big bag of fluffy cotton) aren't particularly heavy, but do take up a lot of physical space. 

One way to simulate both weight and volume is with inventory tetris.  It can be found in games like Betrayal at Krondor, Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space.  Again, it isn't a popular solution among gamers though it is perhaps a bit closer to reality.  The problem with such a system is instances where an object is very small but incredibly dense, such as a bar of gold.  Oddly enough, the original XCOM (released way back in 1994) had a system that accounted for both space and weight - calculating burden against the strength of the carrier and adjusting movement rates accordingly.  Even so, the system had its quirks.  Armor (or lack there of) was not factored into weight restrictions and a 80 item limit on missions was the result of programming limitations rather than some kind of lift capacity on the in-game air transport craft.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see why a lot of game developers give into the temptation of hammerspace.  Managing inventory is a tedious task and in loot-driven games can be an outright punishment in that it forces players to leave valuable booty behind.  That is unless a core aspect of the fun is logistical planning.  Darkest Dungeon, Astroneer and most recently Death Stranding are built around making important decisions based on limited inventory capacity.  In an interesting case of reverse cross-media influence the table-top RPG Torchbearer uses an inventory slot system very similar to what was invented in video games.  Another instance where this sort of restraint can be interesting is in the case of equipment definingly the character's role.  Some FPS games let the player carry all the guns, but others such as those in the Halo series force the player to decide on a class (made up of two guns) and stick to it.  An alternative approach might be to make encumbrance restrictions adjustable in the options menu, or perhaps tied to the difficulty setting.  Regardless, the takeaway here is developers that don't want hammerspace need to integrate the limitation in a positive way rather than a negative one.

A great example of how not to do it is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Weapons degrade as they are used, and certain weapons are more effective against certain types of enemies.  This incentivises the player to carry a lot of (and a wide variety of) weapons.  However the game places a strict cap on the number of weapons Link can carry.  It should be noted that the number is (even at its lowest) still more than what is realistic.  Instead of this neither-here-nor-there system, a much more enjoyable approach would be to tie weapon usage into some kind of progression system.  Want the player to use more variety?  Give an EXP boost based on cooldown timers, or number of times used.  Want players to haul around fewer weapons?  Provide a stat boost (speed, damage, stamina, health, etc.) if they carry below a certain limit.

In truth, I don't mind hammerspace as a concept.  The "Tain" in the Myth series or "Dite" in Metal Gear Survive hint at the storytelling potential of having an in-fiction pocket dimension.  Alas, the vast majority of the time hammerspace it just hit points of a different color - concepts overused by developers because they lack the creativity to come up with an innovative alternative.     

Friday, November 1, 2019

One Straw too Many

Aside from the Homeworld series Warcraft and Starcraft were some of my favorite RTS games growing up.  For whatever reason I never got into Diablo (although my brother did).  I also never played World of Warcraft because, as I have stated in the past, I'm not a fan of MMORPGs.  As one might guess, I haven't been very interested in Blizzard's more recent releases either; Hearthstone?...pass.  Overwatch?...No, thanks.  Even Starcraft II failed to get my attention since so much design focus was placed on the E-sports side of things.  Still, I always held onto a glimmer of hope that the studio would return to the aspects of their games that interested me the most.  Sadly, ever since Blizzard was bought out by Activision, I feel like whatever talent the studio had remaining simply disappeared.

It's something that really began to show at the last Blizzcon with Wyatt Chung's rhetorical question, "Do you guys not have phones?"  In other words, their focus had become totally fixed on mobile platforms, microtransactions and tapping into the Chinese marketplace.  My understanding is that China is an especially lucrative place for video game companies, not just in terms of new player potential but a lack of stigma when it comes to loot boxes and pay-to-win gameplay elements.  Those things, along with free-to-play or fee-to-pay games, have become a plague on the industry.  The fun and interesting parts games are inevitably eroded away by more repetitive, more obfuscated, and more addictive gameplay whenever these revenue models are utilized.  It has reached the point now where playing live-service games is about as enjoyable as chain smoking.  Honestly, I don't see why that kind of electronic entertainment should be tolerated any more than regular casinos.  Taking the most unhealthy parts of video games and magnifying them to make a quick buck is as devious as all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas...yet, despite all the awfulness associated with this industry trend, Blizzard keeps marching toward that golden grail of gambling in video games...piling those straws on that camel's back.  That is until just recently, when a big chunk of wood got chucked on top.

Actually, I'm not alluding to Blizzard laying off a bunch of employees despite record profits.  No, that was a big stick, but "log" I'm referring to here is the banning of Blitzchung by Activision/Blizzard/PRC for taking a pro Hong Kong stance.  It's one thing to be selfish and money grubbing, but quite another to be complacent in denying people basic human rights.  Upsettingly, this isn't even an issue unique Blizzard or the video game industry.  In fact, quite a few American companies such as Apple, Disney and Google (the providers of this very blog hosting service!) have been guilt of disturbingly similar behavior.  I've seen a lot of people trying to frame this as a free speech issue, but I fail to see what's controversial about being for human rights or opposed to hate speech for that matter...It's not taking a political stance so much as having an ounce of moral integrity.  Something a lot of the head honchos and these companies (and the NBA) seem to lack.  It's particularly duplicitous coming from places like Disney, who stylize themselves as being progressive.

Another thing I've seen some people online try to do is claim that this is actually just racism against Chinese people.  While I'm sure that is a motivating factor for some, I don't understand how it invalidates calling out American companies and the Chinese government on their human rights abuses.  Just to be clear, if we were to consider this form of whataboutism valid then it could be used to dismiss any criticism of any institution.  Don't like the way Spain is handling Catalan?  You're just racist toward Spaniards.  Don't like Brexit?  You just hate the Britons.  Don't like the way the American government handles...well...anything recently?  You're just prejudiced against fat, orange men with bad hair - You get the idea.

The camel's back is broken and this has been a long time coming.  Blizzcon is just around the corner and I hope protestors make things truly awful for all those executives and Blizzard and Activision.  I also hope that in the future things become awful for any corporate executive that doesn't have the moral fiber to put fundamental human rights before profit margins.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Monday, October 21, 2019

Exhuming the Past

Retro-style graphics are certainly a popular choice among indie game studios.  I have to admit, I have a soft spot for pixel art.  It tends to bring back memories of playing games on my Apple IIc.  Nostalgia aside, there is a good reason to utilize older visual styles in that they tend to be less resource intensive than high-res textures and massive poliginal count 3D objects.  That said, there is one style that might be better left buried.

The original Sony Playstation had some great games and, thanks to its CD-ROM drive, high quality music/sound for the time.  What it didn't have though, was enough memory.  Textures, in particular, were very blocky with a tendency to warp when viewed from certain directions.  The lack of filtering and low polygonal models didn't help things either...even so, there are a few surprisingly nice looking games.  Just last month, I posted some animated GIFs from Vagrant Story that still hold up surprisingly well.  Another game that uses the limited processing power of the PSX to its advantage is the first Silent Hill.  The short draw distance introduces clastrophic aspects of horror by blanketing the player's surroundings in fog or darkness.  The monsters that emerge from the gloom are also murky and shrouded, giving off vague impressions rather than particular details.  It ends up working extremely well in this case because the player's brain is forced to fill in the gaps (a key aspect of the horror genre).

Perhaps influenced by the original Silent Hill, a number of more recent indie horror games have tried to emulate the visual style.  Inspired by a post on the 4Chan message board and made into a game for the Haunted PS1 Summer-Spooks Gamejam in less than 30 days, Lost in the Backrooms is one such example.  Currently, it's available for download over at itch.io for free.  Overall, it isn't a bad game (especially considering the constraints under which it was made), but Lost in the Backrooms does end up feeling a lot like the "Blair Witch" except with a bunch of empty halls instead of a forest.

Another obscurity is Paratopic.  Once again, it's an indie horror title.  The look is very PSX era aside from better draw distances.  There's also a story of sorts (albeit told in a very convoluted manner).  Perhaps that, too, is in the spirit of the original Silent Hill.  There are more examples I could go into: Back in 1995, Vaccine, Banned Memories, Devil Daggers, Garden Variety, Prototype Mansion and Dusk.  However, I think people familiar with the visuals of those games will understand what I'm getting at.  No Gouraud Shading, low-poly rendering and little to no filtering on blocky textures, are the hallmarks here.

Getting back to my original point, the presentation in these games is very...grimy.  The 3D objects are too jagged to have the impressionist vibe of Overland.  Simultaneously, the textures are too muddy and unfiltered to give off the clean simplicity of Grown Home.  I understand that what I'm saying here is highly subjective.  By all means, if PSX era graphics are your prefered aesthetic don't let me ruin your enjoyment.  Some people still like CRT monitors and vinyl record players after all...I, for one though, would be happy if this particular mold-ridden corpse of game presentation was not brought back from the dead in a big way.