Thoughts on video games
A collection of short articles on things I care enough to write about regarding games and art.
My interest in video games
Although I enjoy abstract games, mechanics, competition and tests of skill, my main interest in video games is immersion in fantasy and fiction; their unique ability to let you experience a virtual world or situation as a present agent and not just an outside spectator.
However, I feel like video games haven't gone as far as they could in that regard, particularly with narrative, which, usually, is either absent or completely static and detached from gameplay.
My ambition is to push forward the possibilities of interactive narrative in the medium. When I finish my current project, I plan to start working on a narrative game.
My first attempt at doing something on that front was with my first game Majotori. Majotori presents the fantasy of being tested on useless nerd trivia but being rewarded with the granting of a wish if you do well. It doesn't really do much, but it's a step. The interaction of the narrative is reactive; the ending of each of its short stories changes depending on your performance. The narrative consequences are directly tied to the gameplay without going through any abstraction.
Aiming for worth
As a developer and an artist, I feel a responsibility to make games that are worth making. I discard a lot of ideas, and even functional prototypes, because I believe they would end up being unremarkable, just a run-of-the-mill game.
It wouldn't be hard for me to make a generic 2D platformer, or a disingenuously emotive walking simulator. It would probably be more profitable than the games I actually do, better regarded even, as they would better fulfill expectations, but I feel like that would be somehow doing a disservice to the video game medium, or myself as an artist.
That doesn't mean that my games are particularly stellar, or even good; the results don't always match the expectations, but at least during the development phase I strongly believed in them and aimed at more than just making a game that would fit the current standard.
Even so, making games is often fun, and I can get carried away by the development itself. My conviction (or financial situation) is not so strong that I would discard a developed enough game just because I don't find it particularly remarkable, as long as it is good. You could say Shipped is unremarkable as a couch multiplayer game; there certainly wasn't any strong idea behind it beyond my desire, at the moment, to make a fun multiplayer game. The game, however, is actually fun, and while not groundbreaking in any way, it's original enough.
Improvisation and consequences
Video games are usually about learning and repetition, rarely about improvisation, which I think is far more interesting, particularly when a narrative is present. This also excludes the possibility of consequences.
Video games will present you with a situation, ask you to try to overcome it, and when you fail, just go back and ask you to try again. Failing and repeating is part of the design; you are rarely expected to overcome every challenge on your first try. Sometimes it's even encouraged (not purposely) by the design to fail on purpose; you wasted too much ammo or lost too many health points, better to just try again and aim to spend fewer resources. This hurts immersion and kills consequence. Of course, that's not a problem for a game such as Super Mario Bros., but it's a big deal for more narrative-driven games.
However, the usual video game fantasy seems to leave no alternative: You are the hero that will fight the forces of evil and save the kingdom, so that's the only possible outcome; you will win the fights and you will save the kingdom. Dying is a gameplay possibility, but not an acceptable one for the rest of the game because it would be an unsatisfactory dead end, so the game is forced to rewind and let you fight again, as many times are needed, until you fulfill your role and win. In older games, you might actually have been asked to restart the whole game from the beginning, which only makes it worse.
This could be solved by changing the formula to either avoid dead-ends or turn them into a satisfactory resolution, but few games seem interested in doing so, and players are so accustomed to it that they often reject the alternative.
The Fire Emblem saga presents an example of an alternative formula. Instead of controlling a single character, you control a small group of them, so even if some die, you can keep forward. New characters join your ranks throughout the game, so you don't run out of them. Key characters will "retire" instead of dying, so they can't be used in combat anymore, but they can still appear in cutscenes. It's a clever system that allows a high degree of improvisation and consequence.
But it didn't go all the way in. If you failed a mission, you got to try again, undoing the consequences of your previous attempt, such as characters' deaths, so failing completely was often more desirable than succeeding with losses. You could always just restart the mission, and it sorta felt like the games expected you to do so. All my friends certainly played by restarting each time someone died. I myself often did if I felt the losses were too heavy, for (justified) fear that I would get stuck, unable to progress through the rest of the game without my mightiest warriors.
This same problem usually manifests in most action-adventure games in the form of item hoarding. Spending a valuable item to survive, permanently losing it, seems less favorable than dying and trying again.
I had an awesome experience with my first (and so far only) playthrough of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The game works similarly to Fire Emblem, but includes "Ironman mode" which limits you to a single save file that is overwritten every turn. If you make a mistake, there's no going back. A character can't be resurrected. Missions can be failed and the game keeps going, carrying the negative consequences. The simple story works in its favor: You need to defend earth from an alien invasion. I wouldn't feel like the story ended up unresolved if aliens won and the game was over for good; the actual narrative was what happened in the field. "Easy" was the perfect difficulty; challenging enough to make me lose some missions (and a lot of men) but not that hard I couldn't end up triumphing in the end. I had a blast.
Not all games can follow this formula, but often there's so little thought into it they don't even follow their own formula. The whole point of Telltale's The Walking Dead was that you had to make choices and the story always moved forward, reacting to those choices. It was designed for that experience from the ground up, and they still added QTE sections where if you failed you died and had to repeat them until you got them right.
I think the "game over" is a design flaw for narrative games that we should strive to overcome.
I tackled this problem with Majotori by having multiple main characters and making failure a valid branch of every story. Sometimes winning actually ends a character's story earlier, having reached a happy ending, while losing continues the story on a different path.
Focusing on what games are about
My least favorite part about Super Mario World is the boo mansions. This is because the main challenge of those levels is usually some kind of obtuse puzzle that has nothing to do with what the rest of the game is about. Whether you enjoy those levels or not, Super Mario World is a platforming game, not a puzzle game; you shouldn't get stuck because you can't find a hidden door.
While variety and changes of pace are good and well, games should be aware of what they are about and limit their gameplay to ways that enhance or at the very least don't clash with that core. This is often not the case, sometimes to ludicrous degrees.
Video games are not necessarily about a particular kind of gameplay, but an idea. A game that is about adventure will usually include combat, exploration, and puzzles, because the mix of those elements is what creates the feeling of adventure. That doesn't mean it makes sense to add any random system or minigame, like adventure games often do. Also, by not being about a core gameplay mechanic, its individual mechanics are usually not that good, partly by design; if a system is too deep it might conflict with or overshadow the rest.
When designing games, I make an active effort to stay on point and don't add any element without good reason.
It is ironic that games, particularly big-budget action-adventure games, feel the need to gamify themselves. Seems like most of those games must have some combination of crafting, skill trees, armor upgrades, and hidden collectibles shoehorned in. This usually worsens the experience, adding padding and not letting the game focus on its strengths, turning it into a generic game for a generic audience. Understandable from a financial perspective, but a disservice to the video game themselves.
It's often not just an unnecessary addition, but a detriment to what other parts of the game are trying to accomplish. "Let's get out of here! Quick!" shouts a character, yet you ignore them, for there are 15 cabinets and drawers in the room you must first open to find a collectible and 2 cases of ammo.
Your average gamer regards video games as a collection of content to be consumed; unsurprisingly since games themselves often present themselves as such, even when they shouldn't. A Super Mario game is in fact a collection of levels to be beaten, but a game with an interactive narrative shouldn't be a collection of narrative pieces to be consumed. A game with choice shouldn't encourage its players to try and get everything, for choice is only meaningful if there is sacrifice; choosing an option means not choosing the rest.
Gamers are so used to the idea that they should be able to consume everything a game has to offer that they won't only rebel against the alternative, they will demand that the game provides a handy checklist. This is not surprising when games themselves present this way so often that you must assume that the lack of a checklist is not a deliberate choice but a design flaw.
A fitting example are the korok seeds in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In this open-world adventure game, there are almost a thousand korok seeds hidden all around the map. They are a small reward for acting on silly implied activities, like picking up a rock laying by itself right at the top of a hill, or diving through a circle formed by lilypads in a pond. They are everywhere, and they are fun to find on your way, the reward being little more than an acknowledgment that you noticed a weird pattern.
It's obvious that you are not supposed to find all of them; the reward for doing so is actually a golden turd, like if the developers were mocking you for it, but that won't stop a gamer, trained by hundred previous games, from deciding it's something they must do, and complaining that it's a tedious task, particularly without the presence of a checklist. With the DLC, Nintendo craved and added an item that vibrates when you are close to a korok, to make it easier to find all of them.
In my late teens, I was the kind of gamer who played games with the goal of 100%ing them, so I get the mentality, and I reject it, for it didn't bring me any value beyond appeasing that part of our lizard brains that gets satisfaction for ticking all the checkboxes, and actually ruined my perception of video games.
As a developer, I reject this mentality. With Majotori, I took care of not encouraging attempting to read every possible route, and actively made it difficult by adding some randomness in a few of them. Some players complained and asked for a checklist.
I will reiterate that there are games where completionism makes perfect sense and might even be the whole point, though it's usually arcade-style games. pureya is such a game. Collectibles are part of the core loop of the game, offering a purpose to the endless stream of minigames, and a reward for maximizing marble collection. Even then, focusing on 100%ing the game turns it into a slow grind, since gameplay becomes an unwanted obstacle to progression.
I have a particular interest in games that are just a few minutes long. The shortest, worthwhile experience they could be. Games that, being 5-15 minutes long, feel complete and full-fledged, not just part of what could be a longer, better game. Games that leave an impression in a single session.
I think there aren't enough video games like this. Even with the excessive amount of game jams that exist, games that are worth playing and self-contained are rarely produced.
I've tried making a few and would be happy trying again. At a time I was obsessed with the idea, but eventually decided my time is best invested developing games that aim higher. Coming up with a good enough concept for a short game is extremely hard.
My first half-attempt at a short game was with Majorariatto Museum. I hide a surprising mystery game into what was presented as a virtual museum. While I didn't design it with the sole intention of making the smallest possible game, I did want it to be finished in a single short session, and for it to be a satisfying experience.
My first attempt at a full short game was with The one who pulls out the sword will be crowned king. That game was entirely designed to be the shortest, most satisfying experience I could craft based on its premise.
Pineapple on pizza, the game I'm currently developing, was also designed from the beginning to be a short game.
The drawbacks of genres
Video game genres are often not used as a general category with similarities, but as a complete template of elements and mechanics. This creates expectations and inertia that stilt innovation and stop improvements. Sometimes, even clearly undesirable traits such as grinding in an RPG are brushed off as part of its genre.
There are some notable examples that show this tendency, such as the limited lives system. That system made sense in arcade games, but as games started to be developed for home consoles and the expectation that you should restart the whole game from the beginning if you died a few times vanished, it stopped making sense. However, it took Nintendo more than 25 years and about a dozen games to finally remove the lives system from the main Super Mario games with Super Mario Odyssey, even though the system was clearly outdated and unnecessary decades prior.
I can still remember complaints and criticism when Halo popularized the auto-health recovery system for FPS games, as it was not the familiar, and thus perceived by most as superior, system of healing by finding first-aid kits.
I see this tendency affecting most amateur indie developers; they pick their favored template and try to implement all its usual features, without understanding why they are there or if they should even be there, and thus implementing or combining them poorly.
When designing games, I never make assumptions based on previous existing games. I ask the reason for each and every system to be present, and take the time to understand how and why it works. Even the most basic stuff such as moving the main character. Do you really need to move the main character? Does it add something of value? The answer was "no" for both Majotori and The one who pulls out the sword will be crowned king. Someone once actually suggested to me that "it would be cool" if, in Majotori, you controlled a character moving around a city, talking to people. It would certainly better fill the expectation of what a video game should be like, but, in essence, it would be adding busy work.
I actually struggle when prompted to choose the genre of my games when uploading them to the stores, and I think that's a good sign.
Avoiding the game of numbers
When crafting systems and mechanics, particularly the ones related to combat and similar simulations, it is hard to avoid it becoming a game of numbers and optimization.
Think of a fantasy game where you can go to a store and buy your battle equipment. The fantasy of it feels exciting, and in real life there might be multiple reasons to pick certain weapons or pieces of armor. In games, however, one of the swords just does more damage than the others, so you pick that one. The fantasy boils down to numbers; there is an optimal choice to be made. This is unsurprising, as the underlying system will be unavoidably based on numbers. How else would you represent abstract attributes such as health or strength?
A lot of games don't even make an effort and just offer you equipment with increasingly big numbers that you change to with little to no thought. Others make it even worse by trying to obfuscate it with a variety of stat numbers that go up or down for every weapon, but ultimately can be crunched to a single damage-per-second number, it's just more tedious to do. Others do better by having different equipment be useful for different strategies but ultimately can't escape being boiled down to numbers, one way or another.
I often struggle with this when thinking about possible mechanics for related games, and dislike it when, as a player, I'm forced to waste time comparing numbers to find the superior equipment.
Ads and artistic integrity
I've been vocal about my refusal to engage in monetization models such as ads or in-game-transactions in my games, even if doing so would earn me more money.
It is a simple question of artistic integrity, which is something I value. Ads are a detriment to a game; they plainly make the game worse. No one would ever put ads into their game if they weren't paid for it*. By adding ads, you are choosing to make your game objectively worse in order to earn more money. It usually doesn't even stop at just a needless obtrusion but forces the game to be designed about ads in order to make them work.
*I'm only talking about overlay or otherwise external ads. I have no problem with billboards in racing games, for example, as they are placed to add realism by mimicking their real counterparts, and would be there even if the advertised product was fake.
This is a valid approach if you approach games as a business first, but then you are admitting to value money over the integrity of the game. It is also excusable if the realities of the market force you to either make games supported by ads or don't make them at all. As I'm not in that kind of situation, and I value games, I don't even consider putting ads into them.
Something similar can be argued about in-game-transactions. Even if it didn't really harm the game experience, the fact that you are adding an external element such as a store inside your game feels wrong to me. I would excuse their presence in games such as live multiplayer games, as those games usually require externalities anyway and might be benefited from that kind of model.
I go as far as finding that adding links to social media and stuff like that in the main menu of the game dirties it, because it is something external, something you add for reasons other than the benefit of the game itself. If, hypothetically, you were to produce a "clean" version of your game to expose in a museum, you would remove those links. You only ever add them in the first place if the game is being released on a platform that is expected to be connected to the internet and have a web browser that would automatically open them.
I feel the same way about artists that add their signatures on top of their drawings. They are dirtying the drawings; their signatures are not part of what they are depicting. If one appreciated the drawing, a clean version without the signature would be desirable.
I feel somewhat conflicted about credits appearing in-game (say, during an intro cinematic). They are an outside element, and one might see the value in a clean version, yet, when done properly, they fuse with the game's presentation in an artistic way. However, presenting the credits as part of the main experience (and not just hidden in a submenu) is so culturally ingrained, and only offensive in a very nitpicky way, if at all, that I have conceded this battle. Personally, I even find them cool, so I have inserted them myself into my own games.
There's this widely shared idea that a work being deep is a valid excuse for it to be purposely nonsensical, overly complex, or otherwise hard to understand. It's often impossible to tell if such works are actually deep, or random nonsense, or plain bad storytelling, as it can always be claimed that one is "not getting it", and any random detail can be interpreted as symbolism. It's even considered a superior and sophisticated method of communication as it's "not spoon-feeding you". Imagine UIs made without regard for UX being praised for not hand-holding the user.
While I agree that there's a balance to be had between deepness and accessibility, and not everything can or should be explained, if you are trying to convey an idea, it should be your objective to convey it as clearly as possible. Incomprehensibility should be considered a flaw, or at the very least the price to pay to achieve something that would otherwise be lost.
Translation of names and titles
Names, and particularly titles, have an aesthetic and uniqueness to them. I struggle with the idea of them needing to be translated, altering that aesthetic and uniqueness. That's why I tend to use made-up words or short titles that require no translation.
Usually, the longer the title, the more it loses its aesthetic in favor of its literal meaning. "Clannad" is a title that needs no translation, even if you don't know what it means. The meaning is pretty much irrelevant over its brand-like aesthetic; changing it would be hurtful. Compare that to "Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!", a title that is a complete, long sentence describing the gist of the story, that to anyone unfamiliar with Japanese would look like a string of non-sensical, unmemorable words. It would obviously need to be translated and not much would be lost by it.
A harder problem arises when characters or place names have literal meanings. If a character is named "John" in its original English, you don't translate it to "Juan" in its Spanish adaptation; you respect the original name. However, what do you do when his surname is "Snow" and its meaning is relevant to the story? You need to either keep it as is to preserve the aesthetic and uniqueness of the original name, worsening the adaptation, or change it to "Nieve", which changes the character's name but allows its meaning to be adapted. That hurts me, and I would probably rather lose its meaning or worsen the adaptation than change the name.