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updates, ramblings and musings from dr syntax and his minions...

Published on February 6, 2013 in Games. 1 Comment

Toiling away through the dark and peculiar hours of the night, we think about a lot of things to do with life, the universe, and everything. Plus other stuff too. Lately we’ve been giving a lot of thought to the different ways games can deliver a narrative and we’ve been giving the pleasure of our attention to episodic content and the various ways it has been used in existing games.

One of the first examples of an episodic format in games was in the Half-Life series, which aimed to released additional chapters of the life of Gordon Freeman built on the same engine as Half-Life 2. The idea was that, as the engine and the difficult technical work was complete, creating enough content for a new chapter should be a fairly trivial job compared to building a new game from scratch. Valve originally claimed it would be a matter of months between episodes.

The developers worked hard, but Valve’s trademark ambition meant it ended up being more like a year and a half between episodes. The fans enjoyed what was put out, though, and everyone was wondering how long they would have to wait for the next chapter. Episode Three, however, is missing in action, with no word from Valve if they’re even working on it, more than five years later.

Obviously, Valve’s promises of quick episodic content ended up falling a bit short, but the idea was popular with other game developers, with other companies picking up the format. Probably the most successful example of a developer who mostly works in episodic content is Telltale Games, who have almost single-handedly revived the adventure game genre.

Telltale have worked with lots of different franchises and several different flavours of the adventure game format (usually puzzle heavy), but their recent interpretation of “The Walking Dead” really stands out as an exceptional way of delivering a narrative. The game takes place over five episodes, with each episode having its own self-contained series of events while still providing an overall narrative for the whole season. The game keeps the mechanics fairly simple so that the player isn’t distracted while focusing on current events and whatever is currently motivating the protagonist. This works really well, immersing the player in the role of Lee Everett and keeping the action flowing at a decent pace.

The main selling point of The Walking Dead is giving the player tough moral choices and then making the player deal with the consequences of these actions for the rest of the season, so they can really see how his or her actions affect the game world and the protagonist’s relationship with the other characters. Unlike many games, the choices don’t boil down to simple good/evil decisions – instead, the player has to make decisions like how to ration out a limited food supply, how much you want to explain to the eight year old girl in your care or even who to try and save in a dangerous situation when there isn’t enough time to help everybody.

Another game that dabbles in episodic content is LA Noire, which features “cases,” where the player, a detective, must investigate the evidence left behind after a crime and find out the truth. This neatly cuts up the game into discrete chunks and also allows Rockstar to sell extra cases as downloadable content and have them fit into the existing game narrative. None of the cases usually take too long to play through so this also has the added advantage of giving the player a natural stopping point when playing, much like the end of an episode in a TV drama. As each episode is fairly self-contained, the player doesn’t necessarily need to know much about the previous episode to follow what’s going on, so the story can be experiences as a casual pace.

All of the above games let the player play the games at their own pace, taking in the story as quickly or as slowly as they like. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft take a different approach: all players inhabit the same world and the world itself changes for all players simultaneously as story events happen.

For example, if a character in Warcraft dies in the ongoing plot, then he will be completely removed from the world, even for players who only start playing after this event. Often, big events will happen that can dramatically alter the state of the world itself, with terrain moving around or towns changing hands according to player interaction. Because the game is played entirely online, this gives Blizzard a lot of power in molding the game world as they see fit and knowing that all the players will always be on the same page. It also lets them create a real sense of a changing world over time, helping the world to feel less static and more alive.

So that’s four methods of delivering episode content from the screen to a player’s face. What episodes have you been playing recently? Have you come across any particularly interesting ways of telling a story?

Published on November 22, 2012 in Games, Random. 0 Comments

(or ‘The Power of Bubble Witch Saga Compels Me! The Power of Bubble Witch Saga Compels Me!’ Seriously… Help!)

In the past, my game-playing habits have been described as similar to how you read a good book. Every now and again, I immerse myself in a game for a few days (okay… a few weeks – stop peering over my shoulder, Bride of Mungo!) exploring every inch of a game world and then resuming my footloose and fancy free status for a while before I find my next big title to binge on.

Sure, that’s kind of an addiction. But only in a completionist sense – like when there’s just a few Chilli Heatwave Doritos left in the bag and, even though you’re full, leaving them until tomorrow seems like the most ridiculous thing in the universe. (Please Note: Other brands of savoury snack are available) Sorry, what was I saying? Ah yes.

My habits seemed to have changed. I’ve stopped binging but started grazing with Casual games my new snack fodder. Bubble Witch Saga in particular.

So why is such an old-fashioned gamer so compelled to keep bursting bubbles? It’s tricky to put into words, isn’t it! Some of the most compelling and addictive games are the ones that sound really weird and actually not particularly fun when you’re trying to describe them. But they are!

I think this is why a lot of the discussion of games has gone to ideas with a more narrative bent – they’re easier to talk about (after all, we’ve had thousands of years practice telling stories to one another). For the record, I am a huge, huge fan of narrative in games and the potential of story worlds, emergent storytelling yadda yadda yadda. But I think there can often be a danger of liking a ‘narratively bold’ game as a concept just by having read about it -but without ever actually having played it.

I used to play Diamond Dash quite a bit too. Why did I move to Bubble Witch Saga? Well, honestly, it’s probably because I find the satisfied meows of the witches’ cats quite pleasing and I can tell how well I’m doing because ghosts and spiders appear more frequently.

There’s a modicum of skill involved but mostly I’m like a lab-rat that’s learned to press the button to get the treat. And, even if that implies some sort of sinister overlord in a white coat masterminding your experience, there’s also something kind of comforting, pleasing and pacifying about knowing what you’re getting.

I can rationale other forms of game or entertainment in general as more challenging (and therefore more worthwhile?) but then don’t I go back to the same trusty authors, film-makers, bands and restaurants for something the same but different all the time as well?

I don’t really want to share my scores. I don’t want to challenge my friends to try and beat me. But, if it’s been a rubbish day in our laboratory and those corpses just ain’t re-animating, I want to get some positive feedback for vaguely clicking at something for a bit and some polished UI going ‘ting’ at me in a satisfactory manner. So, that’s my little love letter to casual games.

Also, I’m addicted to coffee.

Published on September 26, 2012 in Games, Random. 0 Comments

… or ‘Can Game Concepts Just Be Plain Old Weird And No One Really Cares As Long As The Gameplay Is Good?

Perusing the internet in search of yet more ways to trigger FBI flagging software (one day I’ll meet my beloved Agent Scully … sigh…) I lurked upon this article at Pixels or Death about the dreamlike qualities of divisive oddball survival horror game ‘Deadly Premonition‘ – one of my most favouritest games ever.

For anyone who hasn’t played Deadly Premonition, it’s an unashamed homage to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, centring around an offbeat FBI agent investigating a young woman’s murder in a scenic town. Due to acknowledged flaws in gameplay but captivating scenarios and character dynamics, the game’s reviews ranged from 2 out of 10 on some sites to being Game of the Year on others.

The game features playable overt dream sequences, combat scenes that may all be all your character’s delirium as well as a general Lynchian dream-like quality throughout that allows for your character’s imaginary friend, receiving telepathic messages from cups of coffee and the general oddball behaviour of the townsfolk.

But while Deadly Premonition might have a vast open world story that incorporates dream logic, many narratively ‘simpler’ games are also share a dreamlike quality. Games like Limbo (pictured above) often get drawn into the ‘games as art’ debate – but, expressionist artwork aside, is there really much difference between the boy searching for his sister and overweight Brooklyn plumber Super Mario travelling from left to right to rescue the Princess? We don’t really care whether any of it makes real sense because finding your sister or rescuing a princess seems like a nice/fun thing to do!

Obviously not everyone likes David Lynch stories, often because his use of dream logic (or random weird stuff) is too disruptive for some tastes. But, on the flipside of that, does narrative ruin the inherent dream logic of games? As game narratives grow more complex, by adding more details and rules not just to the gameplay systems but to the reality of the gameplay world, are we actually making the worlds less realistic and plausible? As the level of realism goes up, does our suspension of disbelief go down?

Just as comic books can use the time and space between panels to let the reader’s mind make leaps of logic, perhaps dreams (and therefore the more ‘surreal’ games) seem all the more vivid, profound and memorable because they don’t even bother to try and make sense.

Or maybe, as this cartoon strip detailing how Pac-Man is as if ‘Kafka wrote a Lovecraft story‘ brilliantly shows, the joy is in letting people interpret things how they want to and leave something to the imagination. Even those of us who think about these things too much :D

Published on June 18, 2012 in Games, Reviews. 0 Comments

Like henchmen and reality TV contestants (like those on ‘Come Hench With Me‘), it’s easy to see some web games as a bit disposable simply because there are so many different flavours to choose to from. My lab full of re-arranged body parts should prove I’m a fan of variety, but as my pet leeches tell me, it’s always nice when you find something you can latch on to.

Which brings us to ‘Pursuit of Hat‘.

My therapist tells me my addiction to this game since last year is due to my unresolved issues of being abandoned by a hat when I was just a tiny spawn. But I think it’s something more. (Plus, while they told me it was just a strong breeze that separated us, years later found my hat’s journal, outlining its intended exodus).

The cartoon innocence of the game’s sunny art style belies the somewhat sinister action of chewing your own limbs off to reach or launch and puzzle your way across levels in pursuit of…well, do I really have to explain what you’re in pursuit of?

As you’d imagine, I’ve seen plenty of mouthless characters in my time (whether naturally occurring or just merely stitched shut) but there’s something benevolent and almost sage-like in this creature’s design that intrigues me – turning all the hat-chasing into some kind of Zen activity. After all, It’s important to have something to silence the screams.

So please do divulge your own current web favourites. What has recently caught your web-wandering eye? With its slick animation, mellow music and that lovely sound effect when your head comes off for you to roll around, my whole lab finds Pursuit of Hat adorable but with that abstract edge which, to us, makes this particular pursuit far from trivial. Dismemberment has never been so much fun!

Published on March 7, 2012 in Games, News. 2 Comments

Summoning games to life in the lab is hungry work which is why we devoted our energy into Unclean Canteen, a new game hosted on something called ‘Facebook‘ (I think it’s based on a movie). As the overworked apprentice to East Pavlovia’s former star chef Boris Stroganov, it’s up to you to stop his restaurant from becoming a three-course disaster.

Through a series of gross and engrossing mini-games, Boris challenges you to whack rats, make suspect sausages and prevent maggot-infested foods reaching the customers. Our plan is to keep updating and adding new content to Unclean Canteen, offering up new grimy gameplay at every opportunity.

And here’s where you come in: If you’ve got a fun idea for a mini-game that you want to see brought to life at Boris’ dodgy diner then we want to hear it! You get to choose what your next duty is – how many jobs let you do that!

So have a play of our existing duties to get the gist and then leave a note below or on Unclean Canteen’s Facebook page briefly describing your idea. The simpler the better!

(And please remember, while we do love a bit of dirtiness, this is still a family establishment ;))

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