Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category:

On Game Design – Cacklingly Evil Corporations! (CONTENT WARNINGS)

CONTENT WARNING: Cacklingly Evil Corporations do things that would be considered triggering, such as forced impregnation, human experimentation and trafficking, wilful use of deathtraps, and other creepy shit that would horrify normal people and cause them to get locked up.

Playing Stasis (a “dystopian sci-fi horror” adventure game that got no small amount of critical acclaim at the time it came out, and is apparently getting a sequel) has reminded me how much CacklinglyEvilCorps piss me off. Not because they’re so obviously evil. But because they’re stupid, badly written evil. Oh, and let’s not forget, often edgy evil too. Because, y’know, nothing says evil like [insert horrific thing because reasons here]!

We’ll come back to Cayne Corporation, and how thickly that got laid on, in a bit. But first, let’s talk about a pair of supposedly massively evil corps in movies: OCP and Weyland-Yutani. It may shock you to notice, but they’re not actually that evil. Doing bad things, yes. But in a way that makes sense. Let’s start with Weyland Yutani, as they appear in the first three Alien films.

At the beginning, they are just The Corporation. The Company Store. Sure, Ash goes murderous, and you have the directive “Crew Expendable” , but up to that point? We can tell they do mining or extraction of some kind, that they have contracts, and employees, and, at worst, they’re penny pinchers.

And then we come to the second film and… Nobody on the board knows, or claims to know, of any such thing happening. In fact, we get a little nuance, because Van Leeuwen, the CEO, mentions that Wey-Yu has quite a lucrative sideline in… Terraforming planets. Shake-And-Bake colonies. Their colonies are apparently safe enough for families to join up (With, of course, the exception of LV-426 and, y’know, all the other LV numbers that get mentioned in the media of the expanded universe), and, before Carter Burke and the assholes he works for stick their finger in? What we see is normal, everyday frontier town analogies. They do medicine. They technically own the Marine Corp… They have nuance, and are not just black and white.

Two different faces of the same corporation. Nuance!

While we’re on the subject of Carter Burke, his motivation? Profit. As it turns out, Xenomorphs have all sorts of applications, and not just in the CacklinglyEvilCorp section of Wey-Yu that is the Bioeweapons division. Wey-Yu, as a whole, isn’t really the villain, so much as an element of an otherwise normal, if penny pinching and exploitative corporation.

Alien 3, of course, throws large portions of that out the window. We never even see Wey-Yu as an organisation, except, of course, the CacklinglyEvilCorp portion toward the end. Even the folks who attract the Bioweapons crowd by alerting them to Ripley’s presence aren’t doing it because they’re cacklingly evil. They’re doing it because a) They consider Ripley a disruptive influence , and b) There’s a reward.

So… Wey-Yu: Not as cacklingly evil as you’d think. But what about OCP?

OCP are an interesting one, because they’re inept, and that’s where the dystopia comes from. They own the police, and their main reason for RoboCop programmes? Again, penny pinching. Their reason for putting all those dumb rules in RoboCop’s brain? Because what he was doing up to that point was considered Bad PR. Y’know, something an actual company would care about. But it’s not until the series hits its nadir that they relentlessly pursue and antagonise. RoboCops 1 and 2, they are, yes, an Evil Corporation. But they act in a very corporate fashion, which is why the parody works so well with them.

The head of OCP, wondering what the hell his HR department actually *does* all day.

But then we come back to Cayne Corporation. Cayne is one of many CacklinglyEvilCorps, from Armacham to Umbrella, and the main hallmark of the CacklinglyEvilCorp is that there is little, if any nuance. In the case of Cayne Corporation, let’s put together a rough timeline of the Groomlake, the setting of Stasis.

First up, way back when, the Eugenics Wars happened. This was apparently some attempt at creating Post-Humans that went horribly wrong.

Then we get the Groomlake. From the beginning, it’s involved in human trafficking and experimentation, and cloning. The head of the ship, Dr. Malan, seems to think he can do Post-Humans better than whatever idiots tried way back when, and hires as his top research staff some highly questionable folks, including a drug addicted serial killing doctor. Because, y’know, nobody bats an eyelid at such things.

The good doctor then encourages his other staff to do incredibly stupid things, including letting the serial killing doctor indulge his hobby, and mulch the experiments, which then turns into a semi-sentient fungus because reasons. This, in turn, affects the mass cloning (Which is at least partially using Dr. Malan’s hybrid babies, created by forced impregnation), and hydroponics, affecting some bees so one turns into a supermutant. Oh, and experimenting on employees, which often kills them.

He also cures and keeps hold of the protagonists’ daughter, for reasons.

Welp. I’m sure this will turn a profit for the Cayne Corporation, no two ways about it!

Nobody bats an eyelid at Cayne Corporation. Except to send a spy who will hopefully steal Dr. Malan’s research, in the name of profit.

The clones and hybrids start wearing people’s skin and taking their Personal Data Tags (Which are grafted to their spines because reasons), so as to get around the ship to murder people. The fungus starts mind controlling everyone. A nurse realises they’re involved in human trafficking, tries to get a family off ship, and is shot.

Nobody bats an eyelid. Sometime during this, the protagonist’s wife has been put into Dr. Malan’s programme. You remember, the one about trying to breed post humans, forcibly. Because reasons.

John (J) Maracheck, living Aliens reference and punching bag of Stasis, is one of the few survivors, along with Dr. Malan, Te’Ah the corporate spy, and John’s small child, who is still being cared for by Dr. Malan because reasons. After witnessing the after-effects of Dr. Malan’s fuckery, having to do horrifying things, he confronts Dr. Malan. Who then kills the child he’d been taking care of and cured, right in front of her dad, because reasons. Then everyone dies.

How much of this, do you think, could the Cayne Corporation actually call a profit on, even assuming their sole motive is profit? At what point, do you think, did anyone on any corporate board ever think “Yes, this is a good investment, and will surely not be a sinkhole of money and death?”

No, it’s villainy for the sake of villainy, stupidity pretending to be smart, and at least two fridgings because let’s hurt this guy who, against a corporation, probably wouldn’t matter in the god-damn slightest.

Meanwhile, a second game featuring the Cayne Corporation is in the works. I don’t have terribly high hopes, especially after seeing this screenshot.

Ohhh boy. I can’t wait to see how what looks like a neural whip is explained… *sigh*

Yeaaaaaahhhh… Because that makes all the fucking sense. Periodic reminder: The setpieces are in the writing, not the writing being around the setpieces. Forget this, and you have setpieces that end up being “because reasons”, and large swathes of your plot being the same.

On Game Design: Optional? (SPOILERS)

We’ve all seen games where there is “optional content that adds to the story.” Similarly, there are games where playing again introduces new things. But there are times when the execution of these features can harm perception of a game. For this mini-essay, I’m going to be picking on two games: Arkham Knight, and Zero Time Dilemma. In both cases, I’m going to be presenting a before and after seeing this. On the Arkham Knight front, we’re dealing with “optional content” , and for Zero Time Dilemma, it’s a second playthrough thing. Let’s start with that.

Zero Time Dilemma: Before

Omigod, how annoyed I was when Delta got revealed. “It was me all along, the pretend deaf, blind man in a wheelchair I don’t need, who’s been watching you and controlling your every move! All for the best of motives, of course, and all this pain and suffering you’ve personally experienced? Means jack shit because I, personally, didn’t do anything. It was all those other Deltas in other timelines!”

This man lies at the root of both the story... And the problems.

This man lies at the root of both the story… And the problems.

I was all ready for a rant about ableist writing. I was all ready for talking about how the reveal was poorly foreshadowed. Here, we have a deaf and blind man who’s ignored, who you have no clue about his existence before a certain scene involving twins being copy-pasted through time-space, and then it turns out it was all a cheap trick. Even when we get to the “After”, Delta is an asshole. But this rant? Technically unjustified.

Zero Time Dilemma: After

TW1

As a side note, the sound design in this scene is extremely gruesome. Kudos.

Because then I looked up signs for Delta’s existence. Oh, they’re there alright. But many of them are super ambiguous, and only a few am I kicking myself for missing (The Q-Team death shower, for example, has three puddles of flesh. Except Sean is a robot, and doesn’t have flesh. Then again, there’s no wires or electronics either.) Shadows on the camera that are actually Q/Delta/Zero and his wheelchair. That one scene where Sean and Eric look like they’re talking to the dog (via a cut between Eric and the dog, Gab), but are actually talking to Q/Delta.

There’s just one problem. A lot of these require a second playthrough, or even a third, if you’re even halfway good at Zero Escape games. I finished the game in one solid block, one night, all achievements. And that hurt my perception of this particular plot point, because, with ZTD, there are no other outcomes. It is a Visual Novel in the purest sense because you get all the Bad Ends along the way, and there is one, True End. So, for many, the question would be “Why go back?”

He's not looking *down* . There's your clue.

He’s not looking *down* . There’s your clue.

There’s your answer. You sort of have to to properly understand how you’ve been led by the nose. And there’s no incentive to when you think you’ve had a Not Twist pulled on you. It wasn’t. It’s just a lot of the foreshadowing was ambiguous enough that you thought it was.

Of course, it doesn’t stop Delta being an asshole, in any of the timelines he’s in. He’s not a hero for what he does. He’s not an antihero for what he does. He’s a villain who, in his world (and only in his world), technically won. We’ll leave aside the question of “Well, how the hell does Delta exist in all those timelines when he was only born in one and copied to one other?” , because the narrative does leave room for saying he was copied to a lot of timelines, not all of which we’d see.

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it's *perfectly fine*

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it’s *perfectly fine*

So what about Arkham Knight?

Arkham Knight: Before

Ohhh boy. Arkham Knight kicked up one hell of a stink, not only for its shoddy PC port, but for its treatment of women characters in the games. Of particular note would be Barbara Gordon, whose suicide raised many an angry cry of “FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE!” , and, in the DLC, Francine Langstrom, wife of the man who would become ManBat, who is just… Dead. Before the story even begins. Now, for those who don’t get what the cry of “FRIDGE!” means, it refers to a somewhat sexist piece of comics writing called “Women in Refrigerators”, where the death of a woman character is used purely to motivate the hero or otherwise affect him. If you guessed that the original, trope naming example was of a woman being hacked up and placed in a hero’s refrigerator, you’d win an imaginary cookie.

Yeaaaah... Not lookin' good...

Yeaaaah… Not lookin’ good…

It’s not the only example of writing perceived as shoddy in Arkham Knight, and not the only shitty character treatment. Poison Ivy, despite being a Chekhov’s Immune Person, spends most of the game in jail. She doesn’t, to my knowledge, plead with Batman to be let out, and, until a pivotal scene, she doesn’t mention how her plants, the supposed core of her character, will also die if Scarecrow releases his fear toxin. After this pivotal scene, she sacrifices herself for Gotham. These treatments were bad enough that even male writers, such as myself, Evan Narcisse (Kotaku) , and Elijah Beahm (Gameskinny) noticed.

Of course, things could get missed. And they do. But does it make it any better?

Arkham Knight: After

In the case of Barbara Gordon, the words “It gets better later!” have been used often, in one form or another. Barbara didn’t really die, it was a Fear Toxin hallucination. She saves her dad, Batman, and distracts Scarecrow, throwing herself off a building because she knows the Bat will save her. She helps in one of the final fights, hacking an army of drones.

"It gets better."

“It gets better.”

But, as AnnotatedDC (Among many others) points out, this doesn’t change the fact that she spends the majority of the game either a captive (Damselled) or with Batman and Gordon both being manipulated into distrusting each other, leading to this “It gets better later!”, by said fake suicide, which, sorry to say, “Gets Better” crowd, still makes it a Fridging. Similarly, Francine Langstrom, if you go back to the Langstrom lab after doing the Manbat quest, has vanished, leaving a message behind in blood that deeply implies she has become a (Wo)ManBat also. Batman is still emotionally affected into doing the thing. Batman still does the thing. And, to make things even more fun, this is an example of something you most likely will miss, because you’re given no reason to go back there that I’m aware of.

Oh, and Poison Ivy may not have actually died, because there’s a plant where she fell. That one you at least have a chance of spotting without knowing that it’s there… But it’s extremely ambiguous whether that’s a good sign, or a monument to the sacrifice that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the writing of that arc any better. Nor does it make her design in Arkham Knight any less sexualised. People have seriously said to me that the design in Arkham Knight is less sexualised than The Animated Series. Here’s the two side by side for comparison. One of them is slightly better.

One is a Victoria's Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let's not forget the crossbow.

One is a Victoria’s Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let’s not forget the crossbow.

Catwoman, who you may have noticed wasn’t talked about until now, does, genuinely, get somewhat better. She’s freed somewhere around the halfway point, and, providing you get all the Riddler Trophies, gets her own back on Mr. Edward Nygma. Of course, you only get the “freed” part unless you do get all the Riddler Trophies (And not even that until you do a certain proportion), and, while the trophies are easier to get, and in smaller numbers than Origins, it’s still a collectathon task that not every Arkham Knight player has done.

So, Arkham Knight: Not quite as badly written as folks say, does have its high points… But still not great.

It’s important, when designing a game, to be aware that tying your story to optional content, or a second playthrough, may not necessarily be a good thing, because if it’s something important to that story, like Dr. Mrs. Langstrom not actually being dead, then perception of your game can become somewhat negative.

Let’s Talk “Tough”

Okay, so this past month has seen, seemingly, the unwelcome return of “Oh, but this is challenging!” to the Mad Welshman’s hearing. And I’m getting rather sick of the phrase, because it often disguises just plain bad design. So let’s talk about some common pitfalls here.

It Gets Better Much Later!

"It's okay, it'll get better later!" "Well, that's a shame, because it's dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I'm tired."

“It’s okay, it’ll get better later!”
“Well, that’s a shame, because it’s dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I’m tired.”

This is what we, in the criticising/design end of things, like to call a “Difficulty curve problem” or an “Interest curve problem.” If you are having to tell me that the game gets better later to keep me playing now, then something has gone wrong. And usually, it’s not understanding what makes a challenging fight challenging, or an area/encounter interesting.

A challenging encounter is one where you are given time to understand the rules of engagement, but will still get your shit wrecked if you don’t have the skill. The Asylum Demon from Dark Souls is a good example of this, as you can run away quite effectively for some time (In fact, the fight is optional the first time through.) He swings. He butt stomps. He telegraphs. That last bit is important. Equally important, even though it doesn’t seem it, is that you know what effect you’re having.

An uncomfortable encounter would be one where there are wrinkles that you would be unaware of until the fight is underway, causing problems down the line. A good example of this would be from the Persona series, where a specific encounter, Nyx/Night Queen, will charm your healer, who then… Heals said encounter up to full health. Because it’s relatively pattern based, it can be planned for and countered, but it’s an unpleasant surprise that can lead to a slow death and frustration the first time round. Hope you saved!

A bad encounter is one where nothing is telegraphed, or there’s something for which you have no counter beyond memorisation and/or flawless execution. An example of this would be Mind Flayers from the original Eye of the Beholder, whose awesome powers are represented by… An invisible ranged attack that can cause an all party paralyse, aka “Might as well be a game over.” Not even a late game enemy needs something like this.

Interest, unfortunately, is much harder to gauge. Even an engagingly written Wall-O-Text(TM) is going to turn some people off, whereas a five minute cutscene might have people sitting on the edge of their seats. But there are some things that aren’t recommended, and I’ll go into some of them a little further on.

The Last Place You’ll Look

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

This one can especially be a problem for exploration games, like Metroidvanias, but some people just don’t get that many players will do anything, anything rather than look somewhere they’ve been discouraged to. This is one where I’m not going to name names, but give a possibility, to show you what sort of things you really want to avoid.

The first, and best, would be the Heat Suit in the Lava Place. Okay, so on the one hand, props for thematic placement… But I’m not talking about the edge of such a place. Oh, no. We’re talking at the edges of your health requirements. We’re talking a case of “If you have X health powerups, and pass the obstacles along the way well (or flawlessly) while taking the damage over time from over heat, you’ll be able to get the Heat Suit, which stops that damage over time effect.” A perfect example of this was provided by one of my twitter followers, where, in La Mulana, the Ice Cape (Which reduces lava damage) is at the end of the Inferno Cavern (Which not only has lava, but fireballs that will often knock you into the lava.)

Don’t do this. Don’t ever do this. First off, what the heck is it doing all the way there? How did the normal schmoes get it, before everything went to hell? How did it get there? How will anybody know? And this applies to a lot of things, because players can be easily discouraged. Let’s say there’s something that jams your minimap. Let’s say knowing where you are is kind of important. Players won’t want to explore that jammed area until they know how to deal with it. If the thing you need to deal with it is in that area, then congratulations, you have basically created an old-school game maze, a piece of artificial padding that’s been despised since… Well, a long damn time.

While we’re on the subject…

The Maze. Because.

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you'll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you’ll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

That “Because” is kind of important. Putting a maze in your level design for no good reason is going to annoy people. Especially if it’s a teleporter maze, where there’s no frame of reference. Especially if you can’t leave some sort of breadcrumb trail. Especially if you can’t pick those “breadcrumbs” back up again, and need them.

Realms of the Haunting, for all that it had a strong, interesting early game, suffers really badly from this in the latter half. At least two hedge mazes, at least two cave mazes, and a couple of maze puzzles. That game suffered because of that. Yours doesn’t have to. Yes, there have been clever mazes (And clever pseudo-mazes.) That doesn’t change the fact that often, it’s a lazy puzzle.

The Random Chance of Instant Death

This one mostly applies to RPGs, but there’s an analogue in some strategy games. Essentially, sometimes, monsters in games have a random chance, if they hit you, of straight up killing you. Often, this goes along with random encounters, or scripted, yet invisible encounters. So you walk into a fight and… Oh, bad luck, hope you saved before that fight!

Yeah, nobody’s going to ever claim that was fair. Or much of a challenge on either side. Either the insta-death doesn’t proc, and the monster wastes its life trying to kill you, or it does, and you’ve got nothing left but to reload an earlier save. I could point to an absolute multitude of early RPGs that do this, including… Er… Most of the CRPGs of the 80s and 90s.

Thing is, this applies to pretty much any game where you can be dicked out of a victory by nothing more than chance. Need to roll seventeen sixes on 20 d6 to win a game? That’s bad. On a related note, you have the…

Gotcha PowerUp

Oh, that extra life looks really tempting, doesn’t it? Shame that if you try and get it, you’re going to die. Well, chalk that up to learning a lesson abo- What, you thought you didn’t have to go through that tough segment it’s at the end of again? Ahaha no. Go directly to checkpoint, do not pass go, and do not collect your extra life. To make it worse, sometimes it’s not an extra life. Sometimes, it’s not even a real power up. When you just can’t reach it, ever, that’s lacklustre design. When you can, but can’t get anywhere without dying? You’ve been Gotcha’d, and it’s bad design.

Gotcha Enemies/FUCKING BATS/Gotcha Spikes

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

There is a reason Castlevania bats have mostly gone out of fashion… Because everybody knows they’re difficulty padding. For those who don’t know why bats (or birds, or spiders, or medusa heads) are considered such a bane, let’s consider a jump. If you are skilled, you will make that jump. Okay, that’s fair.

Now add knockback on a hit from an enemy or obstacle. Put that enemy in the middle, and make sure it dies in one hit. Okay, now it’s challenging, because there’s a timing element too.

Now replace that enemy you know with bats. There is never one bat. They either move toward some point on you (Often below or above your weapon’s hitbox), or they move in a predetermined fashion across the screen from a random point. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten pissed off at the fifth time you’ve been knocked into that pit, and very possibly died.

Another variant of this is the Gotcha Enemy, the one that is either on your target platform in an obstacle course, or appears just as you’re about to land. Unlike the other examples, it can’t be killed in one hit. So you’re going to get knocked back unless you have some other resource to deal with it… You know, into that pit. Which kills you.

But let’s say it doesn’t kill you. This gives us an example of the Gotcha spikes! You fall, and, holy of holies, there’s a platform, you’re not going to die!

Except you are, because you can’t control your movement while being knocked back, and you need to go right, not left to land on it. Everywhere else is spikes. For extra dickmovery, let’s imagine that platform is actually where you need to go to complete the level.

You’d think this was me making things up. But no, these are things that have happened in older games before. Mostly in the Mega Man and Castlevania series, both of which are well known for their equivalents of FUCKING BATS (Which, in Castlevania’s case, is where the term came from.)

Read My Mind.

This one is particularly bad with adventure games and RPGs, because it’s long been accepted that both genres can have puzzles, and maybe should have puzzles… But the art of designing a puzzle is a tricky one, because not only do you have to know the solution before you write it, you have to think really hard about whether you would, in the situation your character is in, arrive at that solution too. We even have a name for it, based on a game by Jane Jensen (Who normally writes much better puzzles, to be perfectly fair): Cat Hair Moustache. Of course, this includes a multitude of sins, including bad signposting, bad logic, and lack of clarity.

Gobliiins, by Coktelvision, has entertaining animations, endearing characters, and only got better with the addition of music and cheesy VA. However, it suffered from all three of these problems, and it was only made worse by a health bar system that would lose you the game if you screwed up enough. Hey, maybe punching/magicking/using this thing would he- Oh, wait, no, it dropped our health bar because it was secretly full of snakes/spiders/a possibly undead gribbley. One of those things, by the way, was an integral part of a puzzle, but if not handled in exactly the correct way, would give you a game over quite quickly.

Some of the hidden rules behind Gobliiins you learn quite quickly (Never ask Dwayne to use a stick shaped object on anything but the thing he’s meant to, or he will bash himself on the head.) Others, you can never be certain of.

And so it becomes a game of trial and error, because there is only one solution (Sometimes two), and sometimes, it involves moon logic (Such as opening a cupboard by throwing a dart at a picture of its owner) or just guessing which one is right (Which apples are safe to make big and carry to fill a gap in a bridge?)

I’m Not Going To Tell You

Sometimes, you don’t actually have the information you need to make a solid decision. This one comes in several varieties, but the core question in each of them is “Should I, as my character, know what I don’t know?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you have correctly identified the game padding its difficulty. Unfortunately, part of the problem here is that, a lot of the time, you don’t know it’s there to be important. For example, ally kills in Disgaea bar you from the best ending, but the criteria for it? It’s somewhat picky.

Now, I want to be completely fair here, and mention that, in one particular case, it’s because of factors outside the developer’s control. Specifically, copyrighting of sanity meters. That’s right, that whole “Your vision gets fucked up when looking at a creepy thing” comes from designers having to get around paying extra money because they can’t give you a number to tell you how scared you are.

Checkpoint: Failed

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I'm talking about. But there's lots of them out there, even today.

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I’m talking about. But there’s lots of them out there, even today.

Hoo boy. This is a really common one. From the multi-stage boss without a checkpoint, to the one button runners without a checkpoint, ignoring checkpoints if your game is already challenging (or just plain difficult) takes it to a whole other level of fuck you. Let’s take the one button runner example. There is a game, that I will not name, which has a cool soundtrack, some great customisation, acknowledges that colour blindness is a thing, and has some cool set pieces within its limited repertoire. But none of this is very useful, because, since not a single level has checkpoints. In game, I’m hearing the same thirty seconds to a minute (On a particularly bad day, 15 seconds) over and over again, I’m not seeing most of the set pieces, and due to this, I have a playtime of… An hour, gained in ten minute dribs and drabs once in a blue moon, since I bought it two months ago. I have beaten two levels. Is it because I’m bad at the game? No, it’s because a one-button runner is already a challenging genre, and having not a single checkpoint in a five to ten minute level requiring quick input and pattern memorisation pushes it from “Challenging” to “No, fuck you.”

Things To Keep In Mind

A clever designer can make these things not seem so bad. Well, most of them. Hidden stats, for example, are pretty much “flavour” in many racing games, and you don’t need to know the hidden stats to play Pokemon. Sometimes, they’re limitations. But they can nearly all be taken out of your game, if you make one, with just a little forethought.

Ask questions as you design.

Ask folks to test your game, and watch folks playing your game. They will surprise you.

Look at older games, and learn from their mistakes.

Don’t blame me for any complaints if you don’t.

Digging Into Lore: Games Can Be Quietly Disturbing Sometimes

I should make this clear from the outset: This is not a blame-n-shame article. This is more an examination of how the Rule of Cool (And other factors) can sometimes create unintentionally screwed up things. It should also be made clear that I absolutely adore Pokemon, Monster Hunter, and Wipeout. They’re awesome series, with some awesome mechanics, and some fun stories.

But when you look at some stuff that’s accumulated over the years, they’re not the happy, shiny places you first think they are.

There are dragons hiding in the lore. And I don’t really think many of them are, per se, intentional. Rather, they’re the result of years of flavour text just building up and creating a bit of a fustercluck that makes the worlds of these games… A tadge darker. So let’s discuss that a bit. Starting with the Monster Hunter series.

The Monster Hunter games haven’t really had storylines, per se, until relatively recently (Monster Hunter Tri, or 3rd Generation, onwards.) But they have had conversations, and quests, and characters, and locations, and all of those kind of add up. Let’s start with something seemingly innocuous: Felynes and Melynxes.

No, we’re not going to talk about their fur colours, or the fact that one species is known for stealing your things, and one for swarming you if even slightly provoked. Instead, we’re going to talk about where you see them… Or, more accurately, where you don’t see them, for the most part.

Both Felynes and Melynxes, while having societies of their own, with many of the same variations as humans have (There are, apparently, vegetarian Felynes, for example), occasionally try to integrate into Human society, where they become… Chefs. Merchants. Labourers and farmers. Mercenaries. Chamberlains and servants.

Beginning to notice a theme here? Noticing what’s missing here? Yes, that’s right. Not village elders. Not Quest Liasons. Not trainers. In short, no positions of authority. They are, in short, Second Class Citizens. And there’s support for this view within the early games too, as sometimes… You’re tasked with hunting them, or fighting them for sport. Less so in later games, but… Lynians in general, it seems (Felynes, Melynxes, Shakalakas, and Uruki), seem to get the short end of the stick. Not always (Felyne mercenaries, for example, receive quite a large hazard pay stipend from the Hunter’s Guild for hauling downed Hunters back from dangerous areas), but… Often enough that, when you look a little, the world of Monster Hunter suddenly seems to deserve those major key tunes a little less.

This, of course, is a good point to mention why this is: Because, originally, they were monsters. Felynes as buddies didn’t really happen until MH2, and the same applies to many of their roles. Felynes were mostly peaceful, unless they got aggroed, and Melynxes stole your stuff. If you wanted to get that stuff back, you went to… Er… A Felyne village. So, again unintentionally, it appears Felynes and Melynxes are kinda shitty sometimes too.

Pokemon, similarly, is more than a little disturbing when you actually look at it. Intention wise, it’s meant to be based on conventions of Shounen: Japanese boy’s comics, where going from strength to strength to strength is a theme, and where the message is “You can kick righteous ass and achieve your goals, if you work hard at it.”

But many folks have noticed, and commented on the contradictions and oddities, built up over the years. Kids are quite happily exposed to various Pokemon, despite them being… Well, incredibly dangerous creatures. There are pokemon who kill humans with sleep. Pokemon who can fry you, electrocute you, cut you to ribbons, or pound you to a pulp. And yet, they’re our best buddies in the whole world. Except when they’re not, usually both for plot reasons, and because the Evil Team of the day is messing things up somehow.

Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald is a perfect example of this. Yeah, let’s awaken these ancient pokemon and… Whups, we just caused an ecological disaster. But don’t worry, Pokemon Trainer Insert Name Here, Student of Professor TreeName, is here to save the day! With friendship, and awesome monster fights!

Finally, when those monsters are caught, and befriended, these Legendary Creatures of Myth? Well, they’ll join a few battles, but it’s more than likely they won’t join our Young Hero(ine) in the Final Battle. No, it’s more likely they’ll be languishing in a digital realm, put in a digital box on a computer somewhere, presumably loaned to Pokemon’s (then) arch-rival, Digimon.

Again, it’s a good time to mention some (not all, but some) of the “Why” behind this. First off, it was a kid’s franchise that happened to hit it off with adults. It was designed as much to sell things as it was to entertain, and, as with many kids shows, “Common Sense” or “World Cohesion” was about as low on the agenda as “Must Have Lots of Sex And Swearing And Gore.” It’s consumerist as hell, and it’s quite easy to see. High Literatchoor It Ain’t.

Now, both of these examples have been JRPG franchises, and, to be fair, there’s a lot that’s interesting in terms of unintentional “What The Fuck?” within JRPG franchises, at least in part because of the culture. But there’s a home grown, British series that has amused me in this respect as well: The Wipeout Series. No, not the obstacle course thing. The future racing games for the Playstation consoles.

Y’see, when Formula Fusion (A future racing game created by many ex Studio Liverpool/Psygnosis devs) was getting Kickstarted, one comment in particular made me smile.

“Firstly, the game will be more real… And dirty.”

This is, so far, proving to be true, and I like this. But it’s by no means the whole story, in a sense. Because that futuristic cleanliness… Hid all manner of grimness. Let’s start with a throwaway comment in Wipeout Pulse that still makes me grind my teeth, to this day, from Talon’s Junction (The first track in the game.)

“After the Gray Goo incident in the Brecon Beacons…”

What? WHAT?!? For those who don’t know, Gray Goo is a catastrophic scenario in which self-replicating nanomachines replicate out of control, destroying all matter in the nearby vicinity as they breed and breed and breed using any available matter. Including people.

They killed the Brecon Beacons in a game. In Pulse, part of the HD era of the Wipeout series (When it looked its cleanest, as opposed to 2097, when it was at its grimmest, visually), the Brecon Beacons are gone because somebody didn’t keep an eye on things. And the game is filled with grim corporate shenanigans, such as isolated enclaves of the super rich. It’s a far cry from the first game, which… Actually, it sort of isn’t, because Pierre Belmondo’s dream of being free from fossil fuels, and flying through the skies leads to at least partial economic collapse and the like. Wipeout 3, definitely a lighter game visually, sets the scene for Wipeout Fusion, a game that divided the fans for being grimdark lore wise (And combat heavy for the series gameplay wise), and that in-universe darkness? Never actually went away. It just looked cleaner.

As noted, however, it does take some examination, and some games were never intended for a critical examination. Pokemon was intended as a franchise. Monster Hunter only gained a story most of the way through its (Current) lifetime. The Wipeout series went back and fore on the need for world lore throughout the series. But they are creative works, and as such, the moment they get out there, someone’s going to critically examine them. If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have a need for an official Zelda timeline. In the world of comics, IDW Transformers (Among many others) might never have existed if people didn’t critically examine a franchise that, originally, was to sell awesome toys. So, like these game worlds, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

RPG Worlds Can Do More

Some say that games are a limited creation, only able to replicate certain experiences. Indeed, this was a core argument behind the “Games cannot be art” statement: They were believed (Although contradictory evidence has existed since the early days) unable to speak to experience, or make statements, or do many of the things art can do. Indeed, as time has gone by, we’ve had to invent new genres to talk about new games, and not a year goes by without me looking at something and saying “Ah, that’s pretty innovative!”… And meaning it. Unlike many times I’ve heard the word (That’s no doubt an article for another day…)

But games do have a limiting factor, and it’s a limiting factor that doesn’t promise to go away: The creativity of its makers. I’m going to pick on DnD games in this case, because there are interesting facets of Dungeons and Dragons universes past and present that RPGs, as my chosen example, just don’t replicate. And it’s not that it’s impossible… Tell a particularly stubborn or creative game designer something is impossible, or even “hard to make entertaining”, and there is a strong possibility that you will find, some time later, that they’ve proven you wrong. Pacifist games. World Simulations. Multiple path murder mysteries… I could find you examples of these, and quite a few more out there ones. There’s a game about the dangers of assuming simulations can give clues to historical events (Opera Omnia, by Increpare). There’s at least two games about jobs of crushing futility (Papers Please and Cart Life). There are procedurally generated murder mysteries (A small, but fun example is The Inquisitor, from ProcJam 2014). But let’s get back to DnD. Specifically, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and (briefly) Forgotten Realms.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

There are two Dark Sun games, two Ravenloft games, and several Forgotten Realms games, but each setting has elements that games struggle to replicate. Let’s start with the most interesting one, Ravenloft. Ravenloft was TSR’s attempt at horror, and one of its core supplement series are Van Richten’s Guides. Van Richten’s Guides, much like Trollpak, many 90s RPGs, and countless race supplements have done (or at least attempted), attempted to make monsters we normally fought as fodder interesting, unique, and, because horror monsters have to be more powerful than the protagonists in some fashion, harder to dismiss as Just Another Kill. It explores it from the perspective of a premiere monster hunter, all the ways they could be wrong, all the ways they have been wrong, and what it cost. They’re pretty good reads, and, for good or for ill, are also good examples of how tabletop RPGs deal with making threats interesting.

And then you play the two games and… It’s set pieces, a series of fights and puzzles. They’re limited, not only by the technology of the time (The Ravenloft games, and the one FR game using the same engine, Menzoberranzan, were notoriously picky to run for the time, and are still technically tile based, first person view games), but by game design thinking of the time. RPGs must have a BOSS MONSTER… So for the first game, they picked the most iconic, Strahd Von Zarovich, Darklord of Barovia… A character who can never actually be defeated, due to the way Ravenloft works. And the means of defeating him is, of course, a McGuffin. Along the way, you can cure a werewolf of his affliction. Sounds like an average day for the adventurer, right? Oh, and they make it horrific by having endlessly respawning monsters.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

What results is a tiresome slog. But, within their limitations, they try to be atmospheric, in the sound design, the speeches by (rare) scared peasants, gypsies, and, of course, Strahd’s Vampiric Monologue… But what it amounts to is a Dungeon Bash By Any Other Name, complete with Helpful, But Oddly Powerless Deity that gives you the knowledge that you need the McGuffin of Vague Holiness, the Potion of Protection From Arbitrary Obstacle (Obtained by making sure you collect every coin in a certain dungeon, and giving them to the local Vistani Wise Woman), and, of course, the RPG equivalent of an 80s Training Montage (Grinding on monsters until you have the right level to safely proceed in the story. Not helped by the fact that some monsters drain experience levels. Have fuuuun!)

Now let’s compare that to the experience in tabletop. Strahd as a direct enemy is usually right out. He has Cursed Plot Armour (No really, he’s cursed to forever make the same mistakes, to never outright be killed, all for the giggles of cosmic entities who hate everything nice and fluffy). On top of that, he’s somewhat boring, precisely because of this. It’s a common problem with making Ravenloft a campaign setting: As soon as you actually involve the Big Bads, or the players try to get out of Dodge, it’s a rapid downward spiral. And, due to the way DnD works, eventually you will.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten's Guides had interesting ideas.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten’s Guides had interesting ideas.

But the setting takes a great effort to keep things interesting. Yes, McGuffins are still involved, to some extent or another, but they most often take the form of symbolic weaknesses. Certain things nearly always work, such as a stake to the heart and decapitation in the case of vampires, but other things depend on the vampire. In fact, a big part of a monster hunt in Ravenloft is recognising the monster for what it is. People are disappearing in the area? Not good enough. That could be quite a few things. There’s investigation, both in the sense of becoming aware of the type of threat, and investigating how to defeat it, with real consequences for fucking up. And, competently told, this story is suspenseful, can be heartbreaking and entertaining, and has the potential for an interesting game. There’s lots of variation possible there, too. For example, curing a werewolf of his affliction could, due to the way it works, take a small campaign and still fail, whether due to the person not wanting to be cured, or not having correctly gone through all the steps, and, even when things are done right, it involves an immense effort of will on the part of the afflicted. Keep in mind, even failure can be made interesting if you do it right.

Meanwhile, back in the computer game world, Strahd patiently sits in his castle and waits equally patiently for you to jack him up. He’s mentioned as the owner of all he surveys (Which, as an aside, gets around the vampire weakness of not being able to enter a home. He owns all the homes in Barovia), but… He’s a glorified boss monster.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they're a monster with some ranged attacks.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they’re a monster with some ranged attacks.

Dark Sun, also, is an interesting setting. Magic is harmful to the world’s well being, relying on life force to flourish. Water and metal are scarce, and survival is considered more important than trust. Even in the desert, there’s a flourishing (and lethal) ecosystem, and unwise magic or decisions can make an area barren forever. There are entire cultures, with their society dictated by the world they live in, but when you get to the computer games… Again, due to a limitation of beliefs and mechanics of the time, it’s… Once again, mostly a series of fights and puzzles. The closest you come to any of this interesting stuff is that defilers aren’t allowed as characters, only enemies (But become less effective as enemies in the second game’s fights as less and less foliage becomes available as fuel), a few sidequests where you can be betrayed, or help a village or person survive (Occasionally involving water, which you’ll otherwise never use), and the fact that the endgame is easier (Although still a massive, painful battle) if you’re not a dick. Oh, and sometimes weapons break, if they’re not steel.

You could have a Thri’Kreen (Mantis person) in your party, and never be aware of their customs, their culture, their language, or their psychology (It’s interesting stuff, and the book you want to read there is “Thri-Kreen of Athas”, from 2E AD&D… TSR #2437). By the end of the game, you’ve got metal plate armour for everyone who can use it, steel weapons for everyone who can use them, and you’re quite happily roaming through scorching deserts with all this on, giving nary a single fuck about the consequences. Equally, the plant life, the ecology… They’re just monsters to beat up.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

Seriously, for all that both settings got silly, the computer games really don’t give you much of a clue as to how much effort went into each setting. Even Forgotten Realms, a world where the gods literally depend on belief for their survival, and can act directly in the world, in a setting with enough computer games to fill a small bookshelf (If you so chose), don’t really give you as much support between the setting and mechanics as you may like. Yes, not even Baldur’s Gate 2, widely considered to be the best Forgotten Realms computer game around. There’s an excellent and informative VideoBrains talk on the subject of religion in games by Jenni Goodchild here, and even though Dragon Age is the main example, it applies equally well to Forgotten Realms.

Now, you may be saying that size, or complexity, is an issue here. And in a sense, you’d be right. Previously, this was the case. But it’s much less of a problem now, and size, or complexity, aren’t the main issues here. The main issue is one of how well games sync up with the things they’re trying to talk about or portray. We talk about The Last of Us because of how it deals with survival, and relationships, and responsibility. We talk about Bioshock because of how it deals with choice, and the degradation of ideals. We talk about Analogue: A Hate Story because of, again, relationships… But also how the known past can be misleading, and about societal expectations, toxic or otherwise. These games, while they are by no means perfect, are held up as games that do the job they aimed for particularly well. We don’t have as many problems with authorial intent in these examples as otherwise, because it’s more often the case that the game laser focuses on these specific issues.

Sometimes, you just want to make or play a dungeon bash, and that’s cool. Done well, it’s entertaining, and it’s all good. But that is by no means the only kind of game you can make, and I think it’s time that more people realised that. I wouldn’t mind seeing an Eberron game about being an Inquisitive. Or a Dark Sun game about a tribe’s survival, or the ecosystem of the world. I wouldn’t mind, in short, seeing more games that explore their settings. And I pick on RPGs, because, very often, we’re too focused on The Hero’s Journey, or on pretty numbers going up and Big Bads. There are games out there that do more… And there can be more. While this article picked somewhat on licensed RPGs (For the simple reason that licensed media often vary widely in quality), it’s true of pretty much any setting or genre… How you show an aspect of your setting is important. And you can completely miss aspects that people might find more interesting than you’ve actually shown.