Friday, February 06, 2009

A Linear Discussion

So, I got a comment on my post about linearization that brought up some issues I'd like to discuss. These are issues of flow and narrative.

Oldschool RPGs tended to have a very specific kind of play style, and that play style was "play for an hour, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for two hours, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for five hours, realize you built..."

Of course, during the play you also tended to do a lot of random wandering around, essentially meaning that there was some downtime.

These days, all those "dead ends" have been polished off.

I say that's a bad move.

I say those dead ends are part of the enjoyment of the game for a substantial number of games. A game designer can't think of a player restarting the game as failure, because the player isn't actually starting from the beginning. The player is starting with a lot more knowledge than they originally possessed.

They have, in essence, just cleared level one of the "party building" game, and are now moving on to level two.

Perhaps it can be taken too far, sure, but there's a lot to be said for it. The best ten hours of Oblivion are the first ten hours, and I've played them more than a dozen times. That's where all the play density is.

Now, Greg's comment pointed out that it is often in everyone's best interests to prevent the player from make bad narrative decisions (such as, say, wandering off into the middle of nowhere instead of doing something cool).

I say this thinking is what is wrong with so many of today's games. There is an inherent arrogance in this kind of narrativist thinking, a kind of "play the game like I tell you" vibe. It's become so common that it's hard to see because we're in the thick of it.

The essence of my argument is that if you have to limit a player in order to insure they have the best experience, you're not designing a game. You're designing a movie.

Games, by their nature, have limits. You can't create a game where the player can do anything, because it would be (A) boring very quickly and (B) impossible to program. But limits come in a lot of different varieties.

Some limits make the game deeper. For example, in Daggerfall you can equip shoes, pants, a shirt, and a cloak (if I remember right). You can't equip eighteen pairs of shoes.

These limits make the gameplay denser, because they make you have to choose between the options you are faced with. If you have shoes that let you walk on water and shoes that give you an armor bonus, which will you wear? It really matters, unlike the choices between shoes that give you 2% better armor or shoes that give you 2% better mana regen. Why bother making a choice with such boring and inconsequential results?

These gameplay decisions allow (or prevent) you to express yourself as a player. I doubt any two people ever played Daggerfall and ended up with the same character. There are just so many ways to express your preferences and choose your path... even if the plot is linear. The limits on the gameplay are designed to make the gameplay deeper.

But there are other kinds of limits, and we're seeing them more and more these days. Every RPG these days features fewer components, fewer choices, more "carefully balanced" so that you can't possibly make a WRONG choice. We're seeing the glorification of time - your power level depends 99% on how long you spend grinding. Sure, you can spend all that time and end up with a shitty character, but only if you have the brain of an eight year old with severe head trauma. The path to normalcy is quite clear.

So the fact that old games had linear stories and some modern games don't is irrelevant. The amount of freedom and agency you get by being able to choose good or evil in the last ten minutes of the game pales in comparison to having to balance eight pieces of equipment for each of your four party members. That it can even be considered a step up shows that mainstream designers have a pathetic lack of understanding as to what a game is.

There is certainly room for games of physical skill, where you're jumping and aiming and so forth. In those games, it is less important to have this kind of deeper statistical gameplay.

But why is it that even Fallout 3 has shitty statistical gameplay? Even Fallout 3 is dumbed down to the point where you can't express yourself because the dominant strategies are so clear. This, the "paragon" of "open world games", with all the gameplay of a buried ET cartridge. Carefully dumbed down so you won't ever feel TOO challenged.

That's crap! It's crap! You don't PLAY modern games, you EXPERIENCE them. That's worthless! Why am I watching this 45-hour-long movie where I have to push buttons?

Is it any wonder that I've begun to hate RPGs in favor of action titles? Because action titles put that shitty complexity on top of a skill challenge, while RPGs just have the shitty complexity?

Give me back my paintbrush. Let me excel. Let me fail. I don't even care if your story is as linear and nonsensical as a marmoset fired from a cannon.


Anonymous said...

"You don't PLAY modern games, you EXPERIENCE them. That's worthless!"

Okay, here's the thing. You know how nobody gets pissed off when someone says that 2+2=5, but people do get pissed off about creationism? The difference is that some people believe in creationism. Similarly, I've talked to a lot of gamers who really do seem to believe that providing a challenge is literally the only advantages the game medium has over books and movies.

Are you one of those people? I so don't want to go through the trouble of writing a refutation only to have you reply that of course you were being hyperbolic.

Craig Perko said...

No, books and movies can be challenging as well. The advantage of games as a medium is that they can offer you CHOICE.

When your game is set up like a modern RPG, however, your choices are either worthless, illusory, or dominated. You cannot express yourself as a player because your decision is largely between path A or path B, rather than the game allowing you to build your own path.

tensai said...

Something you might want to take a look at is a roguelike called POWDER. Some of the mechanics are kinda crude, but I think it might have some of the feel you're talking about.

Isaac said...

To play off your first point, roguelikes apparently took the design a character metagame and sped it up. I've never won a roguelike, but I prefer Crawl's varied and short tactical play over Angband's hundreds of levels.

Part of the problem is that modern games are too long for the amount of gameplay they contain. Picking on Dungeon Siege again as an example, your spatial choices are reduced to moving forward and back on the path. No point in exploring--there aren't even any dead ends. Just random crates hidden slightly off the path. The content is spread across 150 levels and the only way to experience most of it is to grind through the very repetitive combat.

If a game isn't fun to play twice was it really all that fun to play once?

Contrast this with Ultima V: Lazrus, which was Ultima 5 completely remade in the same engine. Even the combat is more interesting, advancement not being confined to the same +1% skill increments.

Craig Perko said...

I'll definitely look into it, then. Thanks!

And, Isaac, that's exactly the situation I'm talking about.

Textual Harassment said...

See, for me it would be: Play for 4 hours, realize I built my party wrong, quit forever. I just don't have the motivation to replay the same part of the game over. If it's a sandbox title I'll do it, but not in story-based titles.

Craig Perko said...

That's linked, though. Modern games are usually more strictly story-driven than older games specifically because the designers want to control your experience through every possible instant that you're playi^H^H^H^H^H pressing buttons.

Older games, even when they had linear stories, often had quite a lot of randomized encounters, slack, and vaguely open-world goodness.

Games like Oblivion still do this, which is why I can say that Oblivion's first ten hours are the best. Fallout 3 DOESN'T do this. Character generation takes an hour and then you're pretty well plopped into the middle of a very specific area with a very specific plot.

This kills the "restart joy".

There's something to be said for a linear plot that you are more or less railroaded into. But it really kills replay value and, usually, goes hand-in-hand with dumbed-down game mechanics.

Greg Tannahill said...

I think I'm still missing something fundamental in what you're saying.

I've got no fundamental problem with the idea of try, fail, learn from failure, try again. I'm not entirely sure why that failure should force you to break immersion and restart the game; can't the learning and the expectation of failure be built into the game and the story? Can't we "try again" on fresh challenges with continuity of identity?

I'm still not sure how you cite Chrono Trigger or games of that ilk as non-linear; possibly I misunderstand. In Chrono Trigger (and many other JRPGs) character progression is almost entirely linear, with the only "and/or" moments being whether you find particular items. Not finding the items is really a fail state; you've been quantifiably less successful than the guy who did find them. I really enjoy this kind of classic JRPG gameplay, although I've always said the bonus objectives should be clearly tagged in-game and shouldn't require reference to an FAQ. But it's still linear.

Some of your complaint seems to confuse a distaste for linearity with a desire to excel. You're possibly not angry at the linearity so much as at the fact you're not given the chance to overwhelm the game. I agree that games that chain you to a difficulty curve rather than giving you the ability to substantially outpace it are missing an opportunity. I like the moment of completely obliterating a challenge through preparation and skill as much as the next guy. But this isn't the same thing as non-linearity; it's just unchaining the "power" axis from the "progression" axis.

You also seem to be saying that character progression choices in MMOs are largely meaningless, and I'm not sure that's right. In MMOs that are reasonably competent (and I'm certainly including WoW), your choices fulfill two important roles: they allow you to tailor your character to your game style, optimising for solo play, grouping, PvP or whatever. And they present a skill challenge - there are builds that are more powerful, and builds that are less powerful, and you're being asked to find the better builds. That can be a simple or a complex challenge depending on the game; it's naturally a better game if it's a complex (but fair) challenge.

Lastly, I did a post a while back on Meaningful Choices which I really stand by. You might have read it prior to starting this debate, but if you haven't you should definitely go read it and comment.

Thanks for the engaging debate, feel free to follow up with more posts.

Craig Perko said...

It's true that Chronotrigger is on the more linear side of my examples, but it's not as linear as today's games. Not only are the added pieces of equipment more powerful and allow you to do more different kinds of things, but you can also fill your party with whichever characters you prefer. Both of these are missing from most modern RPGs, where the difference between two items is that one simply does more damage than the other, and the difference between two characters is that one has big tits and the other one has funky armor.

I don't know of any MMORPG that allows you to specialize in solo play. In fact, every MMORPG pretty much staples you to a team from level 10 on.

It may be I'm simply too harsh on them, but whenever I play one, it's painfully clear what path I should be taking - the optimum path for whatever my team role is. There's no room for innovation or cleverness.

See, I'm not looking to simply win the game by a lot. I'm looking to express myself through play. If I want to try to tackle the game with nothing but magicians, the game should at least let me try. I want some freedom.

GregT said...

Hmm. I understand your point better now, I just don't agree. I find no real difference in this respect between modern titles such as Mass Effect and older titles in the vein you suggest. I still think Chrono Trigger's a bad example as even in changing party members you're not mixing up your play style, you're just substituting which animations get played when you deal damage.

WoW and City of Heroes both allow you to specialise for solo play; probably others that I don't play also. You'll still have to enter groups from time to time, just as specialising for stealth/theft play in Fallout won't immunise you against occasional combat. They don't support solo well, but they do allow you to spec for it, just as, again, Fallout will allow you to build a whole bunch of character archetypes that will work in theory but not in practice.

I, personally, felt that I was given more opportunity to roleplay and express myself through play in Mass Effect than in any game from yesteryear. The World Ends With You had more meaningful choices to make in its pin selection mechanic than anything put out prior to the PS1 (and that's before you get into the difficulty customisation minigame). I hated Fable 2 but I wouldn't for a moment suggest it didn't give you a whole mess of ways in which to approach its gameplay (they were just all very silly ways).

Craig Perko said...

Well, I argue that CT's characters are actually quite distinct. Not only do they do radically different kinds and patterns of damage, they combine in very different ways. But it's pretty linear, all told.

Until you compare it to, say, Fable 2.

Fable 2 allows you to choose your own path, but the paths don't allow you to make any choices. For example, you can choose to be a wizard. But there is no complexity in being a wizard, really. It's mostly just a matter of picking your favorite two spells. Similarly, being an archer is just deciding where to trade off between range, reload speed, and stopping power.

Compare this to CT, where choosing and equipping your party allows you to choose common attack patterns, set up good combinations, take into account how fast the active timers refresh, weigh whether to be immune to the enemy's special or whether to have MP costs at 75% off...

Now, I'm a big fan of Mass Effect, aside from the fact that the gameplay and the world were pretty much unconnected. And I would certainly agree that it gives you roughly as much freedom as CT. But not, in my opinion, significantly more.

Most of the choices you make in Mass Effect are simply trading off a few points and percentages. I don't view such choices as expressive. To use your own terms, they are strictly skill challenges, not expressive challenges.

In regards to expressive challenges, it seems to be roughly on par with CT.

Is my position clear?

Greg Tannahill said...

I think so! I hope to see it further developed in more of these interesting posts!