Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Smoke & Mirrors: How BioShock Infinite Tricks You Into Liking Elizabeth

AI sidekicks in video games are pretty uniformly terrible. They get in your way, they're incredibly stupid, and they rarely add anything meaningful to the story. That's why escort missions in games are among the most hated, and why I wouldn't begrudge a player for assuming that BioShock Infinite would be little more than a ten-hour game about babysitting Elizabeth and making sure she doesn't run into any sharp corners.

I beat the game a couple days ago, and I'm happy to say that I never needed to babysit her or worry about her during combat. She's a wonderfully written character whose interaction with protagonist Booker DeWitt forms the core of BioShock Infinite's tale and is all the better for it. She's easy to care about and hard to forget. As far as AI partners in games go, Elizabeth is probably the best.

But the developers cheated to achieve that.

I started avoiding anything related to BioShock Infinite in 2010 after the first gameplay demo surfaced, so the last time I saw Elizabeth in a fight, she was an active participant, calling out for Booker to electrify a storm cloud or telekinetically throw a molten boulder of pots and pans. Elizabeth's powers looked painful to use.

"Hey, you don't look so good," Booker said as Elizabeth, slumped against cover, sputtered and coughed like a dying car.

"I'm OK," she responded, getting up slowly. "I just... I just need a moment."

Later in the demo, after using her powers to bring down a bridge, her nose begins to bleed.

That is not the Elizabeth in the game.

You don't combine powers anymore, and the extent of Elizabeth's use in combat is tossing you supplies and opening tears in the space-time continuum to pull in everything from cover, freight hooks, and automated turrets. She can pull in any of these at the press of a button, but only one at time. It doesn't even matter what Elizabeth is doing at the time; it's an instantaneous effect. I tested it by telling Elizabeth to bring in a freight hook while she was preoccupied picking a lock, and sure enough, in popped the freight hook without delay. It never really feels like Elizabeth has anything to do with the tears, and that's because she doesn't.

There's never an element of managing how much stress Elizabeth can take, or how often you can use her powers before her nose begins to bleed. Even the horses in Red Dead Redemption could only be spurred so many times before they'd either die from overexertion or buck you off. Keep a horse alive and it would become loyal to you. It's disappointing that BioShock Infinite chose to play it so safe by letting you treat Elizabeth like a tool rather than a person.

Yeah, I never needed to worry about her in combat in the final game, but that's because everybody just ignores her. Enemies literally don't even see her. They'll run right past Elizabeth to get to me.

And yes, Elizabeth saved me more than a few times by tossing me health or salts or ammo at the perfect time, but it's just another trick. She's not actually finding anything. I'd scavenge every body for money and supplies after a battle, tapping square like my life depended on it on every interactive thing I could find until I was sure I'd picked the environment clean and was ready to move on.

"Need some money?" Elizabeth would ask, tossing me a coin.

Where did she find that? I checked everything already.

In battle, it's the same way. I have a pretty chaotic fighting style in the game, running and jumping and charging and blasting and riding and flying as much as I possibly can, so I usually didn't notice what Elizabeth was doing. Then I decided to watch her.

Elizabeth would follow me around, moving from cover to cover and chasing me whenever I got on a skyhook. But she's never checking bodies and rifling through boxes for ammo. Some if/then statement in her programming decides that since I'm about to run out of shotgun bullets, she'll toss me more. I'm almost dead, so she'll call out my name and throw me a medkit. None of these things were in the environment, waiting for one of us to find them. She just conjures them out of thin air. Maybe she's pulling them from a tear to another dimension where they have infinite shotgun bullets. I have no idea.

BioShock Infinite wants you to notice Elizabeth. It tries its hardest to keep her in frame in natural ways even when the two of you are just idly exploring Columbia. The developers said that "she'll find a way to entertain herself," but in my experience, that usually just meant she'd pick a wall I was looking at to lean against with all the practiced aloofness of a hipster trying way too hard to achieve that "just woke up" look.

The game tries so hard to keep Elizabeth near you that I'd often turn around after examining some interesting poster or sign and find Elizabeth inches from my face.

I want to reiterate: I really liked BioShock Infinite, and I really liked Elizabeth. But the ways that developer Irrational Games cut corners to make Elizabeth as likable as she is also make it really easy to see the seams in her behavior and make her a little less believable as a person.

That is, unless her constant need to get her face as unsettlingly close to my face as she can without me noticing is canon.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Everything Wrong With Dead Space 3's Opening Hours

I just got to Chapter 4 in Dead Space 3, and I've got to tell you, even as someone who played through the first two games multiple times, played all the spin-off games, and watched both of the animated movies, some things just don't make sense to me. Let's start from the top.

And yes, there will be spoilers.

The Premise

This is the part that's bugging me the most. Dead Space 2 ended with Isaac and Ellie flying off into the sunset, heavily implying that the next game would have the two as a Bonnie and Clyde-style duo, hunting down Markers and bringing the fight to the Unitologists. Dead Space 3 is not that game.

It opens with a weird little prologue set 200 years before Isaac's time that doesn't make a lot of sense, but hey, maybe it'll make a lot of sense later, so I'll withhold judgment for now. Then it switches to Isaac, two months after the events of the last game, who's apparently retreated already from the Marker hunt and lost touch with Ellie. Oh, and he's behind on his rent. It sounds like EarthGov has been reduced to a single squad, Unitologists are now in charge, and both sides want Isaac. The EarthGov sqaud gets there first and drags Isaac along by telling him that Ellie needs his help. They give the Unitologists the slip, fly out to Ellie's location, find her, and she gives one of the EarthGov soldiers a slip of her tongue in front of Isaac. That's where I stopped playing for the night.

What is going on? This is nothing like what I would've imagined a sequel to Dead Space 2 to be. It feels like I'm playing Dead Space 4, the sequel to the Dead Space 3 that should've existed, the one where everything goes wrong for Isaac and Ellie, causing a disillusioned Isaac to retreat from the mission and the world at the end.

It feels like they skipped a game.

The biggest problem is with that two month timeframe. Think about everything that has to happen in the two months between the second game and this one: Isaac and Ellie have to embark upon and fail so miserably both a mission to destroy the Markers and a romantic relationship that he exiles himself. EarthGov needs to collapse and the Unitologists need to rise up in its place. Ellie has to get involved with the EarthGov soldier. Oh, and Isaac needs to get behind on his rent. In two months.

Now, I think it's safe to say that in general, Isaac is a pretty unlucky guy. But when it comes to money, he's the luckiest guy in the galaxy. He's constantly finding spare credits everywhere he goes. The guy trips over credits on his way to the bathroom. So how is he already behind on his rent? It's only been two months.

So yeah. I have no idea what's going on so far.

Everybody Sucks

This is the other big problem with the story so far: I don't care about anyone involved. Everybody from the prologue is dead, Isaac has nothing going on and just yells a lot, the EarthGov guys are all assholes, the new Unitologist supervillain has barely been introduced yet, and Ellie's too busy getting busy with one of the assholes.

Who am I supposed to be rooting for?

Dead Space opened with an emotional video log from Isaac's girlfriend, instantly establishing a sympathetic link for both of them. You got introduced to his crew, the interplay between their personalities, and the immediate danger they were in. Dead Space 2 opened inside Isaac's mind, showing how haunted he was from the events of the first game, how fragmented, once again establishing a sympathetic link for him before throwing him into more danger.

Dead Space 3 opens with someone I don't know or care about, then switches to Isaac, a guy I barely recognize anymore given the substantial story gap since we last left off. He's withdrawn from the very fight that I willingly jumped back into by buying the game. And now he's surrounded by dumb military brutes who only rope him in by invoking Ellie's name, whose relationship with Isaac (and by proxy, me) has been severed since the last game.

So again, who am I supposed to be rooting for?

Human Enemies

The first enemies Isaac fights in Dead Space 3 are just faceless dudes in armor taking potshots from behind chest-high walls. "Crouch behind cover by pressing R3," the game tells me. I'm sorry, but when did Dead Space become Generic Cover Shooter?

In January, Arthur Gies of Polygon sat down with Steve Papoutsis, executive producer of Dead Space 3, and asked him, "What's the basic gameplay foundation of Dead Space that you've needed to be careful to not screw up or not change too much?" Papoutsis answered, "It's really always been about strategic dismemberment."

OK, Steve, then why am I hiding behind cover and using a submachine gun to shoot dudes in the face? This is not why I come to Dead Space. Leave the chest-high walls and headshots for Gears of War and Mass Effect.

I'm not saying that fighting humans in Dead Space couldn't be awesome. Dead Space 2 had a fantastic scene where you fight humans by not fighting humans. Instead, you barely escape, then unleash Necromorphs on them. It's awesome. But let's say you wanted to have a scene where Isaac actually fights humans. Well, it should be a scene so brutal that it makes me cringe. Shooting another human's leg off from the knee down with a plasma cutter shouldn't kill him; it should leave him on the ground, screaming in agony and clutching what remains of his leg. Necromorphs don't react in pain when you cut off a limb, but humans should.

And yet, that's not what happens here. Blow a guy's leg off and he just dies immediately. It's boring and totally contradictory to what the series has "really always been about" in the words of its executive producer.

It's So Predictable

All right, stop me if you've heard this one before. You walk into a room and slowly make your way through it. On the floor, you find a lone Necromorph in pristine condition. Well, in as pristine condition as a Necromorph can get, anyway. When you get close to it, the Necromorph jumps up and attacks you! It was never actually dead! It was only pretending! Who could have possibly foreseen this? Oh noooooo!

Actually, you'd think Isaac Clarke would have foreseen this, having already gone through it twice before.

In the relatively short time I've spent with Dead Space 3 so far, the game already tried to pull that specific trick on me with three different Necromorphs in the same room. But I'm a Dead Space veteran, so that just doesn't work on me anymore. If I find a lone, pristine Necromorph on the ground, I shoot it from a distance. Chances are, it'll spring up and start charging at me, but I've already gotten a head start on dismantling him on my own terms.

Now they mix it up by hanging Necromorphs from the ceiling like bats, all balled up and ready to pounce. Except that that trick already doesn't work on me because the first time they do it, it's in a cut scene and now I know to look out for it.

The game needs to come up with new ways to scare me—and fast—because this just isn't working. I can walk into a room and tell just by the layout that enemies are going to jump out and from where. I'm prepared any time I solve a puzzle for the inevitable rush of enemies afterward. It's boring. And yes, I'm playing on hard, so it's not just a matter of not being scary because the enemies die too quickly.

The game just put me on a derelict, abandoned ship where some real nasty stuff went down though, so I'm hoping it'll start feeling more like Dead Space and get better from here, but these early hours have not been encouraging.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

How Jetpack Joyride Applies A Decade's Worth Of Game Psychology To Keep You Hooked

Here was my to-do list when I woke up today:

  1. Swim some laps at the gym.
  2. Take out the garbage and the recycling.
  3. Cut my hair, trim my beard.
  4. Take a shower.
  5. Shop for groceries.
  6. Go to work.

I have done exactly none of those things. Mind you, I'm not going to work because the community college I work for decided to close for snow today (it's not even snowing) but I don't have a good excuse for the other ones. I've just been playing too much Jetpack Joyride.

I initially dismissed Jetpack Joyride as yet another clone of The Helicopter Game, a one-note Flash game my friends and I used to play in high school instead of paying attention in class (until we figured out how to install Quake III Arena on the school laptops). It was incredibly simple—click to lift your chopper or release to let it fall to avoid hitting anything as you fly through a cave—but it was so addicting.

Considering that that game was made in 2003, I couldn't believe how many people have been getting so jazzed about Jetpack Joyride recently. It's the same game!

Actually, it's not. It takes the same premise and applies almost a decade's worth of game psychology to create something even more addicting.

The most significant change is how much easier it is. If you weren't paying attention when you started The Helicopter Game, you could die immediately by touching the bottom of the cave. You had to be on point at all times. Jetpack Joyride is more forgiving.

The hallway you fly through stays totally level the whole time, so you never need to worry about your path slithering up and down, narrowing and opening at random. In fact, you can run on the ground or rub your head against the ceiling all you want as long as long as there's not a laser or a missile in the way; you can get in vehicles that change the way you move and give you a buffer when you get hit; you can buy items that can give you everything from a head start to a second chance when you die.

Jetpack Joyride is a much easier game, encouraging you to keep playing because every run feels like it could be The One. But that's not all.

You can buy unlockable gadgets, borrowing from Call of Duty's addictive Perks system, to give you different abilities like a jump, quicker falling, a missile jammer, and a bouncy ball that deploys when you die to bounce you farther. You can customize your character by buying new outfits and jetpacks to make him your own.

You've probably noticed that I've been using the word "buy" a lot. That's right. I haven't even gotten to the coins yet. Oh god, the coins.

You'll buy everything in the game with coins that you can earn as you play or buy with real money. That's how the game keeps you hooked, how it maintains persistence, how it gets you to play "just one more." You're always so close to buying the next thing that you absolutely need to have and it's just so easy to start another run that you'd may as well play just one more.

Well, that one didn't count because I died in the first 100m. That's hardly a run. Just one more.

The game even borrows the Xbox 360's Achievements by having persistent awards and a rotating set of three missions for you to complete, like collecting a certain amount of coins in one run, dying a specific distance in, or high-fiving the scientists that run along the ground.

You'll want to complete missions, you see, because they unlock stars that will level you up so you can earn more coins to buy more gadgets to make earning coins easier so you can buy more gadgets to make completing missions easier. Get it?

And once you've beaten all the missions, you can erase your mission progress and start over! That's right; you can "Prestige," just like you can in Call of Duty.

It's insane how much has changed over the last decade in what is ostensibly the same game. Now there's even a slot machine. Collect spin tokens as you play and you'll get to spin the wheels.

Imagine that: the game even manages to find a way to use the psychology of gambling to keep you hooked.

It's a beautiful system, really. You win just often enough at the slots that it's almost always worth using your spin token instead of cashing it in for a measly 50 coins. I mean, really, 50 coins? Please. I can make back 50 coins in 15 seconds in another run if this spin doesn't go my way. May as well try for the big money.

It's such a significant part of the experience that the game's ESRB rating actually warns you about the "simulated gambling," and for good reason. In a free-to-play game like this where there's literally no limit to the amount of real money you can spend, that's a prudent warning.

For the most part, the game lulls you into a trance. That's how I can waste half a day on it and not even notice. But I also haven't spent a dime on it.

That's probably because none of the unlocks appeal to me enough, and they're all well in the range of a few days of occasional play. It's a mindset that's almost impossible to break after an entire lifetime of conditioning by games that demand I earn rewards by investing more time and energy, not money. Practice, they tell me. Be patient.

You don't just buy the Master Sword for $2.99. You work for it. You toil. You play for hours and hours before you even get to see it.

Well, in Jetpack Joyride, you do.

Jetpack Joyride applies almost a decade's worth of game psychology to create something even more addicting.

Then again, my reluctance could also be due to the game's technical shortcomings. I'm playing it on the Vita, and it's a workable port, but that's about it.

The biggest problem is that it just looks kind of crummy on the Vita's beautiful OLED screen. There's a distinct lack of crispness and vibrance that I've come to expect from Vita games like Rayman Origins or Gravity Rush. Those games leave me in a constant state of awe. Jetpack Joyride actually hurts my eyes.

That's not an exaggeration. It's the effect that movies have when they slowly pan the camera and everything blurs. Jetpack Joyride is in constant motion, so it always looks blurry and it gives me a headache after a while.

It's hard to feel compelled to pour money into a game that I can't stand to look at for long periods of time.

There's a gadget called "X-Ray Specs" in the game that let you see which vehicle is inside the random pickups along the way, as well as through scientists' clothes and other little novelties. On Vita, if you have the X-Ray Specs equipped, whenever a vehicle pickup appears onscreen, the game takes a huge performance hit and brings the frame rate to a crawl.

In a game like this, the slightest hiccup can mean instant death, so I've had to stop using the Specs altogether.

The best thing I can say about the Vita port is that it smartly lets you use the rear touch screen to play so you don't have to obscure the action with your fingers. A lot of games on Vita are hard to play when they require any kind of precision on that rear touch screen because it's hard to know where your fingers are, but that doesn't matter here. The whole game is controlled with one input, so it doesn't really matter which part of the screen you're touching.

So yeah, it works, but it's definitely not a showpiece title for the system.

But what it does do is latch its hooks into you so you'll want to play it whenever you have a few minutes of spare time. It's quick to load, quick to play, and quick to close. It's in and out of your life in an instant. It doesn't ask you to think or strategize, only react. It is the definition of consumable content.

It takes a mindless Flash game and layers on lessons learned over a decade of gaming to create a monster that earned 35 million downloads before being released on Android or PlayStation devices. It's really quite impressive.

Next time you play Jetpack Joyride—given those numbers, chances are pretty good that you've played it—think about why you're playing it and what makes it successful. Think about what would happen if you stripped away all those extra layers until all that's left is the core of the game. Think about why you've spent money on it if you have or what it would take to get you to spend money it if you haven't.

And then think about how the lessons of a game like Jetpack Joyride have been coming back around to influence the traditional games it originally borrowed from.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

This Is Also Far Cry 3's Co-op


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This Is Far Cry 3's Co-op


Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Later Levels In Rayman Origins Are Too Hard And It's Breaking My Heart

Playing Rayman Origins is sublime. It's so full of joy and whimsy that it's tough not to be seduced by its charm. There's some "pure glee" part of my brain that its able to tap into effortlessly every time I play. It's just fun.

But goddamn, the last stretch of levels is way too hard.

Rayman is all about precision platforming. Did you tap X to jump or did you hold it? How long did you hold it? Were you holding the run button? Letting off a hair too soon or too late can mean having to restart an entire level. The level design often asks you to take literal leaps of faith that the designers have mapped out a safe route through hell so that all you have to do is keep running to the right and jumping when needed, knowing there will be something there for you to land on.

When you pull it off, it's exhilarating. If feels like you can out-jump and out-pace anything the game throws at you, like nothing can touch you, like you're invincible. But one wrong move, one little slip, one zig when you meant to zag, and it's back to the start. And it is so easy to slip up.

It's not a huge problem in the early levels that strike a good balance between wanting you to move forward quickly and demanding perfection, but in these last few levels I've been playing, right near the end of the game, it's getting maddening, and believe me when I tell you: Rayman's whimsy is not nearly as charming the 30th time through the same level.

The demands are getting less forgiving, and it's getting less fun as a result.

The boss fights are worse because there's not even the thrill of sprinting at full speed through an entire level. They're single-screen, contained fights all about memorization and pattern recognition. It's trial-and-error design in the worst way; I get a little bit further each time, learning the next phase of the fight before inevitably dying and retrying. Again and again.

Listen, I like a good challenge. I've beaten Dark Souls four times now, and that's a game all about fiercely punishing you for making a single error, forcing you to memorize every inch of its world and its inhabitants.

But Rayman Origins is not Dark Souls. So far, I've loved Rayman because it's so colorful and cheerful and fun. I've had a blast with it until now, and I don't want it to end on a sour note because it randomly decided to ramp up the difficulty like crazy and now I have to play each level over and over until I stop wanting to play at all.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

what is delicious is six years old today, and that's pretty rad.

I've had this site for six years now. Man, that feels like a long time. Just look at this thing. It's gone through so many iterations and weird changes as I find new ways to refine the look and feel of the site and my writing that make me embarrassed for what came before. It's a totally different site than it used to be.

I mean, honestly, just look at the original layout template I built the site from. The whole site used to look like that. You can still see those foundations, but I've been slowly replacing almost every single piece of that template with something new of my own. That template was made for a different era of Internet, and it's absolutely insane how far the web in general has come in six short years. When I look at sites like Polygon, Kotaku, and Giant Bomb now, it's hard not to feel like a dinosaur with my classic two-column blog. I have some cool features here and there, but ultimately, I'm not a web developer. I dabble, I mess, I make due.

So my writing is where some of my biggest changes have come. I started out really sloppy, and I still feel that way sometimes when I read the work of more talented writers like Kirk Hamilton or Mark Serrels, but I'm still proud of everything I write. For instance, my review of Dark Souls is probably the best review I've ever written, and people really responded to it. Same with my examination of how broken Xbox Live Indie Games is, where I interviewed the games who made Super Meat Boy, the guys running the Summer Uprising community promotion, and a couple other developers.

I wouldn't have written anything nearly that good when this blog started.

So I don't know where this all goes from here. I never really know what the next change is for the site; it just kind of happens. There are some things I'd like to do, like put in real pages for each category instead of just having it display all reviews in descending chronological like it does right now, but it's the kind of non-essential feature that I'll just have to get to when I get to. I'm not getting paid for this. I don't have ads on the site and I never will.

But it'll be cool to revisit the site a year from now and see what it looks like, see where I am. That's why I used to like doing these yearly check-ins. They're self-indulgent to be sure, but they're fun to look back on.