Game Design++

Everyone knows that a designer of games is a game designer.  In a professional capacity like in a studio, a designer creates content and features of a game and fine-tunes it. This is the usual requirement but of course there are vast deviancies, based on the job requirements, type of game and sometimes even the studio. But something that is a little harder to find in the game industry is the Game Manager, or Game Designer ++.

Let’s be clear, the Game Manager is not the producer. Management of a game is a task that goes above and beyond the duties of a designer, something that companies are a little uncomfortable about giving the task to a game designer in the  traditional sense. Game Manager is basically a product manager where the product is a game. Some companies make that clear with the job posting being tagged as a ‘Product Manager’, but there are some extra requirements of such role. Those include:

  1.  Play Games. Duh. You can’t manage something  that you know nothing about. Like good designers, the best managers played their games and played a lot of other games too. They should be aware of why players like or dislike a particular system. They should have a feel for the game and a sense of what would add to or detract from the experience. This can help out with and in the next two areas.
  2. Analytics. Live games are living products.Most top games now are free to play, which means they contain functioning in-app economies with sometimes millions of players. All of this activity generates a ton of data. An ideal game manager should be able to wade through that data, understand it and use it either reactively to solve problems or proactively to design and test new features. Depending on how responsibilities are divided, this may include skills like directly running SQL queries and other analysis. But most importantly it involves having the conceptual understanding of how to organize information and look at it to test and validate hypotheses.
  3. Vision and Taste. The game manager should have a vision in his or her head of what the game should be as a whole. And then they should have the taste to be able to look at a piece of art, read a design doc, or listen to a piece of music and know whether it’s right for the game. And if something is off, they should have some idea of how to tweak that element in order for it to better serve the vision of the product.
  4. Baseline Skills This is just a general bucket of things that managers  need to be really good. They need to be hardworking and relatively organized since they will likely need to ship products (new content, levels) every week. They also work with people who do all kinds of different jobs (design, engineering, art) so they are able to converse and collaborate with all of them, speak their language and understand their needs and limits.

As you probably might have figured out, these duties are more prevalent for games which has live services or are an ever-running product, so I doubt that you’d find a game manager for Uncharted. A lot of these are just extensions for what game designers do, and hence the title of this post.

Frustration in Games

I recently made and developed a game that frustrated players in some sort of way. But that was the point, I designed the game to frustrate players. You don’t have to be surprised, all games do not have to be a pleasant and uplifting experience. Some games are created for the sole purpose of letting the player fail repeatedly, and in the process get frustrated. And some of these games really work; even with frustrating events the game could have excellent game design and achieve commercial success.

One of the games that stand out in my memory is a mission from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, called “Demolition Man”. The player has to control a tiny remote controlled helicopter and guide it across a building, planting sticky bombs in designated areas. But the problem was that this was timed, so you had to be really quick about it.  The mission was so tough, that I spent hours strategizing and re-doing this one mission, but my 12 year old fingers just didn’t have the agility to press the correct keys at the correct time. That part was insanely frustrating to me, because I just didn’t have the physically ability in me to do that. My friend, who was playing the game separately at the same time, got his elder brother to do it for him. This made me think about how important your motor skills are and how long it takes for them to develop completely, but I digress. I later found out that “Demolition Man” was one of the toughest missions on Vice City and many people had complained about the difficulty on forums & discussion boards. Rockstar had in fact meant it to be tough, and have players spend time on it and not work around it by using cheat codes. They wanted players to suffer.

There is in fact a whole genre of such games that are intended for players to tear their hair out over. There are a bunch of gamers on Youtube and Twitch who make a living playing and reacting to games like this, because it’s actually pretty funny to watch.  Check out this video of a gamer going through I Wanna Be The Boshy, which is a spin-off of  I Wanna Be The Guy.

Some of the key attributes on games like this are death counters (it’s about showing how badly you suck at this) and misleading or innocent level design with untold consequences. I played this game, and it broke me in so many ways and caused me a great amount of stress. But I played it for quite a while before I actually rage quit. These games are intentionally designed to frustrate and get the best of a player, because some players like the sheer dopamine rush of winning at something that made you deserve it, or others can’t achieve.  Flappy bird came with a score for a reason, it doesn’t have a narrative. This is evidenced by the statement of one such game designer himself, Eugene Jarvis, who created old arcade titles Defender and Robotron. In an interview with Eurogamer he mentioned that he felt the most proud when he would visit arcades and inspect the coin-op cabinets of his games to see that it’s been kicked or punched. Watch the first minute or so of this video and watch how he passionately talks about hurting people to get the goods out of them.

It’s ok for designers to make levels that players could suck at. But there’s an art of doing that too. You can’t just create a bad game and expect players to keep playing it. There is goodness in bad. As a designer, you want to create experiences with the power to hold the interest of the player, no matter how many times they fail. The player should feel the need to find success in the game, and must strive to achieve it, and in this way bring up the playing time of the game, which in turn puts food in the belly of the game creators. Just like how sadness is a tool in sad movies, frustration is also a tool in good games, and a good designer knows how to use it wisely.

 

 

Cancelled Combos and What Not…

I spent a good amount of time in my teenage years playing God of War. The extremely liberating fights not only fed my unhealthy thirst for on-screen blood, but also probably woke the game designer in me. I played it for so many hours that I started seeing the beauty of the combat system, and then I played a lot more hours and I saw a few flaws in them, and then I played even more and came to the conclusion that it was still bloody good despite the flaws (I wasn’t really sure if those flaws were actually on purpose). Here are some of my observations and thoughts on this much debated topic.

Combat Phases
  • The combat system in God of War is primarily melee – melee. A crux of the engagement of the combat system lies in the player determining windows when he can attack, when he should block and when he should roll away to dodge attacks.
  • Given this system animation takes on a role beyond simple visual aesthetics. The animation in the interval between attack initiate and attack hit, serves as feedback for the player to determine and time his course of action.
  • Attack redirection is also a mechanic that is heavily animation dependent. Attack redirection occurs when Kratos blocks an attack during a specific window of time to return the attack.
  • In addition, certain attacks and moves render Kratos and enemies vulnerable or stunned for brief periods. These are also primarily indicated through animations.
  • The game also uses invincibility frames where Kratos becomes invulnerable after receiving damage for a brief period. These are also primarily indicated through animations.
COMBAT STYLE
  • In general, God of War is a responsive combat system. Yet, Kratos is certainly not a nimble character. His attacks tend to feel heavy.
  • This coexistence of heaviness and responsiveness is made possible through short attack sequences. Unlike a game like Arkham Asylum , Kratos rarely strings together rapid attacks. Each individual combo is usually no more than 3 attacks.
  • Furthermore, the attack sequences tend to be fairly diversified. Therefore, the element of engagement lies not in stringing combos but instead feeling a sense of autonomy as the player executes diverse moves.
  • Overall it seems like the combat style is meant to cater to a mid core audience, who aren’t necessarily playing for a deep combat experience.
Attack cancellation
  • Another key feature in combat is the ability to cancel an attack mid combo.
  • The feature creates a much stronger sense of timing as it allows players to simultaneously watch for incoming enemy attacks while in mid attack.
  • However, there is an interesting system of triangular, high risk – high reward that emerges from the cancellation feature.
  • Certain combos are simply not cancellable while most others remove the ability to cancel just before the last powerful strike in the combo sequence.

    (L1 + Square) is not cancellable

    (Square, Square, Triangle) is cancellable only before the final triangle.
  • This system puts the player in a mindset where he is surveying the battle scene to see whether it is safe to execute non cancellable combos

The upcoming God of War has Kratos using an axe and a shield, which basically means Sony Santa Monica is throwing whatever they had before outside the window and building something entirely new. I cant wait, and I can tell you that if they’ve put in half the thought they did for the previous versions, this is going to be a great experience.

 

UE4 AI Blueprint

personal project

I tried to familiarize myself with the Unreal Engine 4 and its blueprints by scripting my own AI and combat mechanics. I used the First Person template (which comes with the playable character and the gun) and added an enemy character with its own AI and decision system.  Even though I was going for a fun shooting level without any health or death, it eventually turned out to be a pretty creepy enemy who manages to find you eventually and shoot at you, somewhat like in the Terminator movies.

I made a behaviour tree for the AI (shown below) which consists of 2 phases: “Shoot” and “Search”. The enemy shoots at you at least once in 3 seconds if he can see you, and if he loses Line of Sight then he moves towards the position where he saw you last, and looks for you again. The enemy is a navmesh agent so he can move anywhere in the field freely, and I did the level design in such a way that it is easy to hide but the enemy seeks you out eventually, and consistently.

 

The Lost Magic of Adventure Games

Currently I’m working on a project which is based around Adventure Games, more specifically, a tool that lets people create adventure games. The biggest thing I’ve learnt so far is that not many know what exactly an adventure game is, and our target demographic (ages 12-14) have absolutely no clue. I myself didn’t when I started out with this project. I thought I knew, but I really didn’t. I assumed adventure games meant all games released nowadays, with a lot of events and an exciting story. Was Prince of Persia an adventure game? What about Zelda, that had to be an adventure game. There is a lot of exploration, and challenges, and a defining plotline in Zelda. But no, it is an adventure but its not an adventure game in the classical sense. These games are mostly classified as Action-Adventure games.

I shall clarify and define an adventure game, assuming the reader doesn’t know it yet. Wikipedia defines an adventure game as a video game in which the player assumes the role of a protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle solving. This is true, but this definition only contains part of the information that defines an adventure game. Some details about them include being two-dimensional games with heavy emphasis on plot, mostly point-and-clicks and sometimes you may need to use your keyboard. But these details aren’t the ones you’ll be familiar with because most statements would be scared of generalizing. Point is, slight deviations to these points are allowed. If you have too many deviations though it is suddenly not an adventure game anymore. Some of the greatest adventure games include Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, Zork, Grim Fandango, Machinarium, and most recently Broken Age.  If you haven’t heard of any of them then I don’t blame you, it’s maybe because adventure games are now dead.

Back in the 70’s when small buds of video games started blooming, the only choice one had were adventure games. The started out with text adventures (Zork being the most notable one) which were basically long essays on a small Apple or IBM screen with which you perform actions using a combination of a verb and a noun. The computer in those games wouldn’t understand most of your inputs, so you essentially end up second guessing what the designer intended to do next. And if you’re stuck, then you’re stuck. People built maps on paper to find solutions and wrote combinations of words which they changed one by one, hoping the next input worked. You would think that those were frustrating times, and that makes sense because no one would play that game today. But text adventures were wildly popular back in the day, and it always left gamers asking for more. For them, it was a new dimension of storytelling, an interactive book that blew everyone’s mind. Text Adventures were wildly descriptive of a scene and they pegged the way for future adventure games.

Mystery House

Eventually someone discovered how to implement vector graphics in an adventure game. It was extremely primal compared to Space Invaders and Pacman and other arcade games at that time, but it was a visual anyway. A game called Mystery House achieved this, and this had a severe impact on the genre. Written and Programmed by a husband and wife in their kitchen over a period of 6 months, the game paved the way for multiple graphical adventure games and eventually Sierra On-Line. Sierra and LucasArts were the biggest producers of Adventure games for years to come, possibly the golden age of adventure games.

Adventure games developed in this era were deep in logical thinking and puzzle solving. Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer were pioneers in this field and their works are cited and adored even today. Story and setting were extremely important, and worked around it were hundreds of puzzles and interesting interactions.  Players derived the most joy of solving these puzzles and working out clues, a far throw from player’s these days who play for that glorious headshot of a moving target.

But good things never last. They say Grim Fandango was the closing ceremony in this glorious era of adventure games. Designed by Schafer for LucasArts, Grim Fandango was critically acclaimed and won game of the year in 1998. But a certain Half-Life, released in the same year, provided all the taking points and the popularity points too; it broke all existing records in terms of video game sales. When you know the title of “Game of the Year” isn’t attracting people to buy the game, you know the genre is dying. And yes, perhaps, Half-Life did kill adventure games.

What could be the reason that it died out? Some say that people just lost patience; they just don’t get the instant gratification like you get when you shoot an alien from a first person POV. They argue that puzzles could be implemented well in action-adventure games too. Many people were tired of “pixel-hunting”, a thing that was very common in old adventure games where people didn’t know what part of the scene was interactable so they just went about clicking every spot on the screen until something happened. All these may be true to some extent, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that these games had its own magic, its own simple-to-use games with welcoming worlds, where your decisions and your genius ideas can solve the day. You need a smarter breed of writers and designers to make games such as these, and the game industry isn’t exactly revered for its fabulous literature works.

Adventure games have had multiple mini-renaissances throughout the last decade. I think of Telltale studios as new age adventure games, weaving branching narratives with simple interactions. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine also hasn’t stopped production, with Broken Age their last, well documented, adventure game project. None of these games has competed financially with the giant AAA games that are published at the same time, but they have thematically still held on to their strengths and they do that well and they make their loyal followers happy. New audiences are more exposed to advertisements and pop-culture of action-adventures and console games than adventure games, and many miss out entirely. There are rays of hope though, like Schafer’s successful Kickstarter campaign for Broken Age. The older generation of gamers don’t play adventure games much nowadays because of the lack of games, but once they do, a newer generation would latch on to it too, which maybe will help generate some belief in studios to invest in artist and game designers of adventure games to do what they do best. It isn’t happening anytime soon, but I believe it is certainly on the horizon; the next adventure.

The Art of Storytelling in Sports

a closer look at narratives in sports games

Apparently there are two types of video gamers, those who detest the concept of sports games (like,why do you even play it on a console when you can play it in real life?) like FIFA and Madden and have absolutely no interest in it, and those who really love sports games and the ability to control all their favorite real life players.  Its just extremes, there’s no middle ground. Interestingly, I’ve found that most of the sports games lovers are also fans of teams and players outside video games. It even works vice-versa, people who picked up sports games and liked it enough to continue the game, also started picking up a bit of the real events broadcasted on TV. That is a very interesting trend, something that I’ve pondered on for a while. Based on that (and a lot of questions that I’ve thrown around) I’ve come to an interesting hypothesis to explain this general trend.  The reason why most non-sports fans avoid sports games is because they failed to pick up a narrative thread in the sport, and just see it is a bunch of people coming together on a field, running around and following a set of rules, and at the end of the day  one team goes home as winners because a number on a scoreboard says so. If you’re reading this and can relate to that last statement, then you’re probably one of the people who couldn’t quite pick up the magic of sport.

What story can be told by a sport, you may ask? A simple play can contain a hundred tiny emotions, of the player making the play, the player from the opposing team defending the play, of all of their teammates, their managers and coaches, referees and most importantly the roaring, screaming, hissing crowd.  Every move a player makes and action the player performs is a small part in a big story, and what actually matters is how the story is told, because thats what gets your story across and makes people fall in love with the title. Some games do it better than others, and some of the visual rules used in film making hold true while some others can be thrown out of the box. I’ll go over five key points which I feel are the best storytellers in these games. These are a mix of what the current set of games are already doing and my suggestion on things I’d like seen explored or improved upon.

  1. Main camera
    The first and probably most obvious one is the main game camera that is on the field/stadium/court at all times. A good studio should be able to perfectly capture the right elements when you point the camera. Zoom out too far and you lose emphasis on the player with the ball, zoom in too much and you lose emphasis on the game. It has to be just right.  Some games allow you to customize the style of your camera based on your comfort, but I argue that it shouldn’t be allowed so easily. If we analyse the same basketball match through a dynamic camera and a long shot camera,to an inexperienced eye it will appear too fast paced in the first instance and too slow in the second one, when its the exact same game! How about changing the camera in the middle of a game, like if you zoom into an athlete diving for a touchdown? What if the camera was from a first person POV? Does it go black when you get tackled to the ground and lose consciousness? I’ve never seen that in a game but I’d surely like to experiment with such stuff.
  2. Other Cameras
    A very important part of storytelling in sports is depicting emotions, be it positive or negative. For me, a sports video game should capture some (if not all) the tiny details of people screaming, players praying, coaches whispering orders to their assistants, random unnecessary  comments on the field,booing spectators, chanting spectators and those bird’s eye view of the stadiums. Each of them tell tiny parts of a story, which only seem powerful when woven together in a big experience. In FIFA, when someone scores a goal, the camera follows the scorer for a bit (allowing the game player to choose a celebration ) and then later switches camera to other reactions. Instead of concentrating on different angles of the ball going in, there should be a mini-movie documenting, perhaps the bench players rising up together in celebration or this kid in the crowd who just started jumping all over as the goal was scored, or even this defender who was just beaten by the scorer, seen in slow motion as his eyes closes and his head looks to the sky in frustration. These are powerful indicators of emotions running through the game.
  3.   Commentary
    Such a powerful tool commentary is, not just in real sports broadcasts but also in the game. Commentary can help mould a plot, describing everything the game player cant perceive or is unable to put into words. Commentary should have the right timing and it definitely should not be repetitive, that is the worst deal breaker. I understand that AI can only do so much and you obviously cant have real commentators coming in to recording studios and record a thousand sample lines, but the game should read the mood of the match, the audience and the players and comment on that, underline facts (statistics for sports is like what background is for a story) and yes, be very expressive about it. Commentating is an art in itself, and there are some voices like Pat Summerall & Andy Gray that somehow render more weight to the feeling.


  4.  Player ControlsPlayers holding an Xbox or PlayStation controller must also feel vibrations and controls that potray a mood, and not just be as uniform as the rest of the game. Just like some games use Camera Shakes when an attacker is in a promising position, we can also use vibration to signify an oncoming event to signify nervousness or hunger to score. Athletes on a hot streak  should be easier to control and run with, and can probably do more than players not in form. Tiny details like this drag the video game player into the story and maintains immersion.
  5. External Narratives
    This is the sort of story that is most common in games nowadays, and which is most widely addressed. By external narratives I mean stories that are outside the playing field, that are written by paid writers and have content and branching narratives and what not. A prime example of this is the RPG-ish Neighbourhood in NBA 2K,  Longshot  in Madden and Journey  in FIFA. These games do a good job actually, outlining the growth of a hopeful player from a nobody to a superstar, and they throw in a bunch of elements to give it a good mix, and make it realistic, imitating those which athletes face in real life. These go far beyond a regular career mode which all sports game have.

In conclusion, I would like to re-assert that all of the above is my hypothesis based on my observations and experiences. Many people would argue that the entire essay is moot, as they may feel that story should be left out of sports entirely. I could be (and most likely I am) wrong about some of them as it all boils down to personal preference at the end of the day. I would love to discuss these topics in detail and figure out more stuff that could solidify my case and help me rewrite this piece.

Hopscotch Rhyme!

Hopscotch Rhyme was an attempted improvement to the regular Hopscotch game, which I did for my Game Design class.

Ruleset:

Hopscotch Rhyme is an adaptation of the regular Hopscotch, but it can be played by more than one player at the same time; whereas in Hopscotch only one player is in action at once. Hopscotch Rhyme has a slightly modified layout design when compared to the regular one (as shown in figure), so that it is symmetrical to both people playing it.

Before Game starts:

A certain layout as shown in the diagram has to be drawn on the ground,with chalk or sticks. The dimensions of the box has to be 2 feet * 2 feet, and there is not much room for inaccuracy as the size is crucial for gameplay experience. This particular layout is for 2 players (It can also be played with two teams of equal number of people in a relay mode). For ease of communication let’s call them player A and B. Both players position themselves on opposite ends of the layout facing each other, as shown in the diagram. The player who starts first is decided by mutual consent,coin toss or by any other random event. This does not have too much bearing on who wins the game, it is just so that someone can start the rhymes.

 

Gameplay:

The person who starts has the responsibility to act or, for the purpose of this game, the ‘onus’. Let’s say player A has won the coin toss and now has the onus. Now the game starts when A asks B a question, regarding a nursery rhyme, any nursery rhyme. As soon as the question is asked, two things happen:

  1. Both A and B start a regular game of Hopscotch, where they have to throw the marker in the box, jump one-legged to the respective box, retrieve the marker and jump back to start position.
  2. Since B has been asked a question, the onus is on them. They have to answer the question by reciting the entire nursery rhyme (usually four stanzas) back to A. Once the poem has been recited, B can ask A a rhyme question in turn. Until they ask the question, the onus will remain on B, but as soon as they do ask, the onus is on A to answer.

Each player has to throw the marker to the boxes in order from 9 to 1 (the numbers are inverted for player B). At several points during the game, the players will have to cross paths with each other. This involves being very clever with switching boxes efficiently, as the boxes aren’t really big enough to hold two players comfortably.

Conclusion:

In case any player falls out of the boxes due to being crowded out, they lose the game. If both players fall out at the same time, the player who has the onus loses the game. This gives the player waiting for the onus a big advantage, and he can use the box space to his advantage, as long as it is fair play.

 

PLAYTESTING!

 

Finally I playtested it out, and it went better than I thought it would. I used the classic juggling balls, but squished out so that they don’t roll around much and I used tapes to mark edges of the boundaries. I had Himanshu,Ketul and Won Jae test it out and they picked it up pretty quickly after one failed run. The concept of nursery rhymes weirded them out initially, but they got used to it as they started playing. They also seemed pretty immersed. Initially they worked collaboratively, trying to make space for the other guy to pass by without any trouble, but once I reminded them that the person who’s reciting has a disadvantage, they started getting competitive.

After a while, I started noticing a few minor problems. For one, I had started out with the rule that if the players fall out, the player without the onus wins and the game is over. But this kept happening regularly and in short intervals, so we frequently had to restart the game. Also, people soon started taking a long time to come up with a nursery rhyme to ask questions about. Another interesting flashpoints were the ones were people had to squeeze past each other and eventually ended up falling over. Several times I had to step in to determine if it was a fair fall, ie, if the person who didn’t have the onus on him forced a fall. The balance in how much the non-onus person can do/should do for the singing person to pass by peacefully is interesting, and it was quite like what constitutes a foul in football (also known as soccer in several savage parts of the world). I had to establish that pushing, pulling and basically anything to do with the hands was forbidden. But you’re allowed to stand your ground if you wish, and also use your strength to hold your stand.

I think the game played out very close to what I wanted, it was engaging, very easily manageable (resource and time-wise), just like the original Hopscotch. On the flipside, I was having second thoughts about nursery rhymes. I had initially contended with using trivia or any topical questions being the back and forth, but it usually is a one word or a one sentence answer so the pace of exchange would have been too fast. Reciting the nursery rhyme while hopping would have taken longer, and hence gives plenty of time for the onus to settle on a person. But nursery rhymes aren’t something people are still in touch with (I wish I could have tested with 10 year olds) so that problem crept up repeatedly, to the point where Ketul even pulled up a list of rhymes on his phone. So I decided to tweak a couple of things.

 

IMPROVED PLAYTESTING!

 

After the first iteration, I changed the end state so that people don’t lose so easily. Now, if you lose out during a clash, for whatever reason, you just have to go back to your Start position and rethrow the marker from where you left off. So, just a temporary set back. This worked well for the flow of the game.

Regarding the rhymes, I made it kind of open ended by including all songs. So if u frame a question for any song, you can sing or recite the song,a minimum of four verses/stanzas. As long as someone doesn’t try to break the game by pulling out a question for the most unheard of songs (luckily/unluckily that didn’t happen during the playtest). This change actually showed up the most curious trend, people who were more musically inclined were smoother in their transitions between questions and answers, and could come up with a song easily. Once I’d cleared the air about fair crossovers, the game proceeded really well and smoothly without my interventions, and I can fairly term it a success.

The improved game solved the older problems described above, and when compared to the original Hopscotch, it can potentially to be termed as an upgrade. I believe I have partially if not fully solved some of the main problems I saw in the regular hopscotch. Instead of one player watching at all times, now both can play it simultaneously. Also there’s a slight element of luck, with the player who starts and how easily compatible people are with singing/reciting; it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game though. This game’s design can be scaled up to include 3 and more people too with new layouts.

Why I like multiple protagonists in video games

Ever played a game where you’re steadily progressing through the levels, making a connection with your character and then suddenly, BAM! Out of nowhere your protagonist just became an NPC and you have a new character to learn about and explore the world with. Did you like it? Did you like it or did you see no possible reason as to why the developers would forge this into a game you were just beginning to like? In most cases, how you liked it depends on how well multiple characters have been designed for and used by you, the player, in the game.

The very first multi character game I remember playing was this DragonBall Z game on the GameBoy called Buu’s Fury. Initially you start off playing as Goku, getting to know the environment and experimenting with his special energy blasts. Half an hour later, the ‘chapter’ ends and then suddenly you take control of Gohan, in a totally separate story arc. Goku had to contest in an intergalactic wrestlemania whereas Gohan has to find an efficient way of keeping his superpowers secret from his girlfriend, school and the entire city.  Gohan has far lesser experience points than Goku and totally different special abilities. As chapters proceed, we are also introduced to new characters in Goten, Trunks and Vegeta. Each character has their own personalities, ambitions and unique Chi blasts. The only common thing is that they all punch when you press a button and go blonde when you press a different button., which is basically what Dragon Ball Z is all about. We eventually reach a point in the game when we can switch between all 5 characters as many times as we like, experiment with their unique story arcs, and also choose to proceed with the main game story which has their stories intertwining. Sometimes the same story is told in different perspectives. The game also gives you choices with which character you want the story to proceed with or who you would like to fight a monster with. Even after I finished the game, I leveled up all five characters to the maximum allowable Level 200. I wasn’t sure why.

Looking back to that point I can probably reason out why that happened. Playing with one character gave me one story, one target and one character to bond with and explore the world. But playing with five characters, somehow my brain was fooled into thinking it was all that, but times five! Even with more or less the same world and the same blond hair, my mind wouldn’t rest until I had completed objectives for all of those characters. I’m not sure if the designers meant to do that or just wanted to give those picky players the freedom to use their choice of characters, but it definitely worked with me.

I’m aware there have been games with much more meaningful stories with different protagonists since Buu’s Fury (Rockstar Games has probably now probably discovered a niche in such games). LA Noire not only puts you in a new character’s shoes but also cast’s light on the previously controllable Cole Phelps, and makes you wonder whether if he really was a protagonist after all. Another title worth mentioning is StarBreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which not only lets you play more than one character, but also at the same time! That game won awards for innovation not just because of its unprecedented gameplay style but also for how impactful each character was to the story, making it a nice touch that we’re allowed to play with both brothers.

A decade after Buu’s Fury, I got my hands on Rockstar’s Magnum Opus, Grand Theft Auto 5. That game completely pushed the boundaries of playing multiple protagonists, and not only did it offer consequential choices for players but also unsurpassed gameplay possibilities.  Missions and heists in the real world are rarely one person jobs, and team members do different tasks at the same time. The designers recognised a great potential to put this in an already established sandbox environment, and what resulted was one of the best selling games of all time. And with good reason too. There were some great scenes in the game, like the tower scene where Michael rappels down the side of the building attached to a helicopter piloted by Trevor, while Franklin keeps guard with a sniper rifle; at any point in the scene you could have controlled any of them, which would have shaped the outcome of the heist, and you’re doing three different things. It was really fun to play and it felt pretty damn cool too.

Personally, I feel that in this eighth generation console gaming era, the more studios that make narrative heavy titles start embracing multi-protagonist experiences and give gamers different viewpoints of the same experience, the more success and critical acclaim they’ll find. Of course this isn’t a general trend and fantastic experiences can be made without the need for this. But finally, it all depends upon what kind of game you make and how good a designer you are to weave this feature in your product.

The Saboteur – Review

The saboteur is an action adventure video game developed by pandemic studios and published by electronic arts in 2009. Set in 1942, it follows the story of Sean Devlin, a Scottish mechanic, who’s forced to flee Italy and come to Paris where he fights German Nazis assisted by a British spy. Critical reception of the game showed mostly positive reviews and it was praised for its art style and story setting descriptions.

The game opens with a bit of throwback in the narrative. Sean goes head to head to against German officer Kurt Dierker in the Grand Prix and just as he’s about to win the race, he is unfairly shot down by the Aryan supremacist Dierker who goes on to win the race. Infuriated, Sean and his best friend Jules sneak into the factory to sabotage Dierker’s car, but they are caught and tortured by Dierker, who proceeds to kill Jules in front of Sean. Sean escapes the factory and is forced to flee Italy, vowing revenge on Kurt Dierker.

Fast forward three months and Sean finds himself living in Nazi occupied Paris, where he is approached by the local resistance leader to join the fightback and help with killing gestapo officers and sabotage their operations. As plots thicken and enemies intensify, Sean is forced to adapt to his new family and city and ultimately avenge Jules death by killing Dierker.

The game reintroduces mechanics of several popular third person adventure games like the driving and running from grand theft auto, the wall strafing and parkour from Assassins creed, and the weapon handling system from Bioshock. This gives players the freedom to play and experiment with a variety of activities, which do inevitably creep up in missions that you can’t avoid doing if you want to progress through the game. Various game-play elements are also introduced only to be repeated in later missions with the difficulty ramped up, or with some sort of twist. These include (and not limited to) sniping, stealth movement, bombing, racing, shooting and item customization. A majority of the game play experience is Sean trying to escape high level alarms, either by patient stealth or by brute force. Another aspect of the experience is the noticeably increasing difficulty of the enemy guards, who just get tougher and tougher as the game progresses. They would be impossible to kill if you haven’t upgraded your weapons by visiting specific ammunition depots. Navigation around different districts of Paris is made simple with a rotating map (with highlighted paths to whatever destination required) which is at the bottom of the screen. All of these factors combined with the narrative course make for a compelling and entertaining experience.

The visual and aesthetic design of the game is one of its most engaging and unique aspects. Since Sean’s missions are set in Paris and its suburbs, the areas can be clearly divided into those districts which are under German occupancy and those which are not. The goal by the end of the game is to free the entire city of Nazi control. The entire game is set in a neo-noir environment, where the only colors are the red or blue arm bands that differentiate the German guards and the French Revolutionaries. By ridding the area of Germans, you restore color to that part of the city; the idea being that Sean’s anti-Nazi Heroics inspire the citizens to stand their own and fight back. So when you are being chased by SS Police Vans and Tanks you get more assistance from the city if you lead them to a colorful area and start a fightback.

The gray/black tone of the game interspersed with moments of vibrant color is a sparkling idea and also a refreshing change from most other action-adventure games which are charged with lots of explosions, graphics and the whole shebang. It also makes sense in the bigger picture of the game as adds to the flow, which keeps itself pretty steady. This is because at any point of the game, you have one primary objective and several secondary objectives, which gives the player a sense of freedom to decide what to do currently and virtually throws monotonous out of the window.

Other minor aspects of the game are also notably mentionable. The sounds and music keep up with the theme of the game and are well thought-out. Tracks can only be heard while you’re driving some automobile, but they are very catchy and also have the Jazz-era vibe, which make you look forward to the next time you get into a car. Fonts used in the Game’s User Interface as well as the objects in the world are delicious to look and interact with. They have also invested a lot of time in the voice actors, as several different accurately delivered European accents waft through the game (they do make sure that everyone speaks English though).  Tiny details such as these go a long way into the total entertainment.

If the game has any criticism, it would be about the run and jump mechanic. It is the same key control that we’re used to on other games, but The Saboteur makes it a tad harder, requiring us to jump-run at a very precise point to successfully pull it off. This is frustrating because a regular gamer is used to the intelligent jump-sense in the game which allows a bandwidth of time to press the space bar to trigger the jump accurately. I was stuck at a point of the game where Sean had to leap across a flight of stairs which were on fire, in which timing was crucial. After a good ten minutes I did manage to nail it and was extremely cautious for the rest of the duration of the game.

Overall, this game is an artwork on wheels, as supported by the ratings received by IGN and GameSpot. If you’re a Europe-aficionado or even someone who’s keen on world War 2 history like I am then you definitely must not miss this game. Or, you know, like Sean says, “Just ignore the Mick with the bomb”.

Analysis of Almost Famous

Almost Famous is a comedy-drama film released in 2000 telling the story of William
Miller and his travels with the fictional rock band Stillwater. Almost Famous has a story
that follows the Hero’s Journey outline (for the most part), even though it may not appear
so at first glance. Let us analyze the archetypes of the story and how they fit into the
journey.
The hero of the story is a young adolescent William Miller, who is used to living a very
restrictive and guided lifestyle and whose mom may be guilty of “helicoptering” over
him. This is brought to light by the rebellious older sister Anita (“This is a house of
lies!”), who openly rebuked her mom’s repeated berating of Anita’s choice in music,
boys and habits. This finally forced her out of the house, but not before she passed on her
entire music collection to William. From the hero’s journey perspective, this was a mini-
“Threshold Crossing” for the hero, as his life changed after he started listening to classic
rock.
Elaine Miller, the mother of William Miller, is the threshold guardian. She was a major
influence on William’s background and how he was brought up and she did not like the
idea of William leaving with the band for Los Angeles, initially refusing the idea flat out.
“As long as I know, this is just a hobby”, she says while dropping William off at the
Black Sabbath concert. William eventually gets past this obstacle.

A few years after Anita walks out, we see William meeting his mentor, Philip Seymour
Hoffman’s rock journalist character Lester Bangs, at a record store. Lester acts as a
herald to his new world and offers him counsel for much into the story. Lester gives
William his call for adventure in the form of his assignment of writing a piece on Black
Sabbath. We notice that there is no refusal or hesitation on the part of the hero at any
point, as he’s fully aware of the path he’s ready to pursue. When he goes to the concert,
he meets a bouncer who refuses several times to let him go to cross to his threshold,
making him a threshold guardian of some sort. When he eventually gains entry
backstage, that is the moment where he truly crosses the Threshold; one can tell that there
was no turning back for him at that point. He also meets several other characters in the
story at that point. One of them is Penny Lane, a “Band-Aid” as she calls herself. Band-
Aids are different from groupies as in “they’re there for the music”. Penny Lane is a bit
of a Temptress in Hero’s Journey nomenclature, as she charms William into coming
along with the band to Los Angeles. Later on, when he asks to go home, she replies with
“You are home”. He also meets the band members of Stillwater, who can be classified as
shapeshifters, due to their love-hate relation with William. (Curiously, this was also
predicted by William’s mentor Lester Bangs, who prophetically asked him to guard
himself from fake friends as Rock and Roll was full of them.) Some of the band
members, like drummer Ed, band manager Dick and manager’s manager Dennis also
provide Comic Relief and could be classified as tricksters. Once William gets the Rolling
Stones gig, his journey has well and truly begun.
On the road, William faces many tests and encounters. His mother repeatedly calls him at
various points to check on him and to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble. Many times it
is quite evident that William is holding himself back as he imagines his mother’s reaction
to him being involved in something scandalous. After promising his mother that he would
be home in time for graduation, he failed to get to San Diego before the day of the
ceremony and Elaine went alone to the event. Elaine then starts to realize that her son
may be slipping away from her hands, and even has a mini-emotional breakdown in one
of the class she teaches, screaming “Rock stars have kidnaped my son!”
The biggest problem William faces (and which is also the backbone of the movie) is his
repeated attempt to interview the lead guitarist of Stillwater, Russell Hammond, which he
finds to be surprisingly difficult due to Russell’s unpredictable behavior. He also faces a
problem of his growing love for Penny, which she never reciprocates in the same way.
Penny wants the attention of Russell, who thinks of Penny as nothing more than a fling.
This is evident when he allows Penny and the other Band-Aids to be traded off in a game
of Poker.
Midway through the movie, William and Russell find themselves at a house party full of
teenagers where Russell drops acid and William makes himself responsible for taking
care of the now-heavily drugged Russell. He later proceeds to climb on to the roof of the
house and proclaim “I am a golden god!” before jumping off the roof into the swimming
pool. Next morning, while being escorted out of the house by Dick, Russell mistakes
William for being a cop and yells at him.
William faces his biggest ordeal when Penny overdoses on Quaaludes after being rejected
by Russell in New York. William’s own love for Penny made him follow her when she
left the restaurant in tears, and luckily for her his presence of mind saved her life. In this
case, he receives a reward for the ordeal when Penny thanks him and reveals her real
name for the first time, something that no one else is aware of. She lets him take her to
the airport and catch a flight back home to San Diego.
Soon after, he faces a near death situation, quite literally. This occurs when the plane
carrying William and the band members faces severe turbulence, which made it seem like
the plane was surely about to crash. This results in everyone on board bringing their
personal issues with each other out in the open. William at that point confesses his love
for Penny and admits how hurt he was with the way Russell treated Penny. That was the
lowest point for the band and there was palpable tension among the passengers of that
flight.
William was told by his mentor, Lester to be “honest and unmerciful” earlier, so this
applied to his Rolling Stones piece on Stillwater. He was further given license to do so by
Russel at the airport when he leaves the band to go to the Rolling Stones office. He
chooses to do so instead of protecting the interests of the band and its public image.
Another factor that highlighted Russell as a shapeshifter was the fact that even though he
gave William the permission to write freely on his article for Rolling Stones, he later
proceeded to refute the fact-checker about the authenticity of the article. At the end of the
movie, after an emotional encounter with William, he changes his stance again and calls
up Rolling Stone to confirm William’s initial article.
As for William the hero, he has his near-death experience (as per the Hero’s Journey
format) when he submits his article on Stillwater and later is informed that his story has
been rejected by the band. The band members (specially lead singer Jeff Beebe) were
vary of their public image and had expressed so multiple times throughout the movie.

The fear of being portrayed for what they actually were on the very prestigious Rolling
Stone magazine overcame them, and it prompted Russell to dismiss the fact checker’s
claims. This depresses William to such an extent where he spends the remaining amount
of his time locked up in his bedroom, burnt out and yet, transformed by his experience.
His road back starts with Penny tricking Russell to visit William, and Russell apologizes
to William and finally agrees to an interview, while William reconnects the guitarist with
himself and his passion for music. This also results in Russell giving the confirmation to
Rolling Stone for his piece and Stillwater getting to be on the cover of Rolling Stones
magazine, which was the lifelong dream of the band members.
The closing scenes of the movie shows closure for everyone. In the Hero’s Journey
depiction, this was the restoration of the worlds/mastering of the two worlds. William sits
down to breakfast with Anita and his mother, who have reconciled. Russell, Jeff and the
other band members are also getting along, ditching the plane for their old bus Doris.
Lastly, Penny is seen at an airport ticket counter, getting her wish to live in Morocco.
To summarize, Almost Famous is not a movie that fits the Hero’s Journey framework
very easily, but there are several interesting character archetypes and events that suit the
structure, and hence make it suitable for this assignment. This would explain the positive
reviews this movie has received and why it stood the test of time.