Posts Tagged ‘ARG’

I was recently debating whether or not to buy Dead Space 3. While I had enjoyed the past two games, and many critics were lauding the third installation, many of the fans were outraged. The game had included a system of micro-transactions through which one can upgrade their weapons, armor, and overall get a leg up on the game. In addition, many fans were frustrated the series had strayed from its survival-horror roots. After reading all the outrage, I began to doubt whether or not to purchase the game, a game I had been looking forward to. I find impossibly hard games fun and honestly had more fun playing Dead Space 2 then the first game, yet I faltered, unsure of what to do. To this day I still haven’t made up my mind.

Thus, as I write my final journal entry, I aim to look at what first drew me into the magic circle of Mark of the Ninja, and what has kept me playing. To do this, I am going to analyze the concept of play, and how it pertains to my gaming experience. Salen and Zimmerman break down play into several types, but the one I’m going to focus on is Pleasure. Some concepts (Social Play) don’t apply, as the game is single-player lone-wolf, and concepts of Meaning, Narrative, and Simulation are not what keeps me playing a game. I loved the story of Ninja Gaiden, I never finished it.

So then, onto pleasure. Pleasure is made up of varying components. The autotelic part of a game (something pursued for its own sake, such as a score), the flow of the game, the Entratainment, Challenge, and Goals. To be perfectly honest, what first drew me to the game was the Experience; the core mechanic of stealth and the visual/auditory interaction system I went on about at length in my first entry. So as to the first seduction, getting me to step into the game’s magic circle, it was predestined by the types of games I liked. However, what’s more interesting is what inspired me to keep playing the game.

One thing to be said about the game, it flows nicely. All areas are not only contained in a single space, but there are multiple ways to get to most areas. To this extent, not only does the game flow well, but it gives a system of Entratainment, or the concept of entertaining and trapping the player. This begins the complicated ladder, held in place with flow. The autotelic score is the Goal, the enemies getting in the way of that Goal present a Challenge, which lead to Entratainment. The rush one feels of success (usually complimented with entertaining Narrative), is a welcome relief after the tension of trying to overcome the challenge, and the occasional frustration of dying and having to go back. Yet what keeps you playing this is the flow, or the smooth ability to go forward, and back, and the various ways in which one can accomplish those things. Even the major objectives, one can decide to kill or steal from the target. The reason we swallow this ladder, and the reason we WANT to continue playing along with the game, is the concept of how smoothly the game interacts with us, and how we can use the environment, with the natural flow, to overcome the Challenges, to get to the Goals, to receive an autotelic reward, feeding into the system of Entratainment. From this, one could actually draw the most important part of Play, might be choice. However, that is a massive concept that I plan on writing about in a later post, look for it.

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Changing the Gameplay and Narratives in Bioshock

Posted: February 18, 2013 by phinnthehuman in Uncategorized
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Times below in parenthesis refer to times in the video above. Video starts at 0:00:54

This portion of my playthrough of Bioshock focused on the Fisherman’s Wharf and Arcadia levels. I had finished with the hospital and introduction levels, and was now getting into the meat of the game. Big Daddy fights came more frequently, and I received my first gift from the little sister I saved last time I played (23:43). I was rewarded for my previous choice, and incentivized to continue saving the Little Sisters.

Gameplay Mechanics

This session utilized a new gameplay mechanic: taking pictures of enemies to give me bonuses against them (22:49). This significantly changed the way I had been playing the game so far (kill enemies as soon as I saw them) and forced me to adapt my strategies. I was only forced to take a couple of pictures of a type of enemy, and then I was free to neglect the camera tool if I wanted to. The benefits of taking pictures of enemies (combat bonuses and new powerups) greatly outweighed the costs (possibly taking damage while trying to use the camera), so I continued to use it. The notion of taking pictures of enemies on the battlefield while they are trying to kill you is somewhat ridiculous, yet I was compelled to do it (1:27:15). In this way, Bioshock kept the core mechanic of the game (killing enemies and gaining powerups) interesting by twisting both of them and forcing me to try different combat strategies, such as sneaking up on enemies to snap pictures or stunning them and then taking out my camera while they were immobilized.

The hacking mechanic, which easily gets boring after a few times, was also changed a little. Not only did the hacking challenges start getting harder, but I received a powerup that healed me and gave me energy (Eve) every time I successfully hacked something. By tweaking the incentives and difficulty level of the hacking minigames, Bioshock stopped me from getting lazy and bored of the mechanic.

Embedded and Emergent Narratives

Bioshock does a very good job of blurring the line between Embedded Narratives (pre-existing elements of play, such as cutscenes) and Emergent Narratives (interactive elements of play). In the climactic scene of the Wharf level (58:45-1:01:00), I was stuck on the second floor of a building while my ally was outside. I had activated a button that would allow him to reunite with his family, when suddenly the building was put into lockdown mode and an evil voice told me that I couldn’t do anything to help him. My ally was attacked by multiple enemies, one of which tried to hit me through the glass. I exited the room as soon as I could to go outside and continue the story, killing these enemies as I went. The transition from the emergent narrative of me entering the room and pressing the button to the embedded narrative of me watching my ally get attacked BACK to the emergent narrative of me killing his attackers and progressing the plot was seamless. I was able to move and try and shoot the glass while he was being attacked, as a sort of interactive cutscene, and it felt like I was still playing. Bioshock uses this kind of mechanic repeatedly throughout the game, and it allows amazing things to happen that would otherwise be impossible, yet doesn’t make me feel like I’m not involved in the narrative. I never sat back took my hands off the keyboard, waiting for the scene to play out. Rather, I acted like  a normal in-game character would – I tried to get a better view through the glass to see what was going on so I could help my friend. By being unable to control events for a few seconds, I was somehow drawn deeper into Rapture, instead of remembering that I was just sitting in a chair.

On the topic of rules, Plants vs. Zombies offers no shortage of material to talk about. Despite being (as discussed a bit in my previous entry) a pretty accessible game with a low barrier of entry, I could fill up many a blog post were I to cover all the rules involved in playing the game. Plants vs. Zombies is essentially all about rules and forcing you to continually learn new rules and how to best work within them. The game is divided into levels and sublevels with each new level introducing some major change, like a change in the environment. The sublevels increase in difficulty within a level and frequently the player is rewarded a new sublevel/level completion plant they must learn to use to complete the coming levels. This screenshot is recycled from my last post, but early levels of the game look something like this:

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Basic strategy: Sun-producing plants in the back where they’ll be protected, line of defense near the front but if you place them a couple rows back it’ll take longer for zombies to reach them which exposes them to more shots before they reach the nuts, middle ground covered with solid shooters (I have a frozen pea shooter in every row because they further slow down zombies.)

So you start out with some basic operational and constituative rules here. Operational stuff would be like: Before starting the game, select which plants you want to use, filling up as many slots as you have available. (You can purchase additional slots later on.) Use suns dropped from the sky in daytime or given by sun-producing plants to purchase plants (which each have different prices and regeneration rates) during the game. Plant different types of defensive, offensive, sun-producing, and specialty plants on your lawn to guard your house against zombies. I guess constituative rules would be things like: The structure of the game is divided into Adventure mode levels and sublevels, standalone minigames, survival mode, and series of puzzles divided into levels. The game is played on an area 6 by 9 squares. Pretty straightforward. The game walks you through the initial stuff tutorial-style.  Once you acquire a plant/encounter a zombie you can view its entry in your almanac.

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“The dolphin is also a zombie.”

Thing about Plants vs. Zombies though is the game doesn’t want you getting too complacent. It’s constantly introducing you to new stuff each level. These new challenges/changes of interest come in different forms: adding new plants with special abilities to your arsenal, throwing a new kind of zombie your way, or changing something about the playing field/environment. Here’s a shot of a much later level that takes place on your roof. This introduces some interesting obstacles. First of all, in order to plant on your roof, you first have to buy pots to place on the tiles so essentially you have to create your own usable field. Because of the angle of the roof, you’ll also need to use new catapult shooters instead of your typical peashooters.  Finally, you have to watch out for new zombie types like bungee zombies that strike from above and steal an object from your field or ladder zombies that use a ladder to climb over your wall of defensive nuts and leave the ladder behind for other zombies to climb up. Essentially, Plants vs. Zombies just keeps introducing you to variations on that initial basic game you play in the first levels by switching up the original rules.

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My nut wall is off and my catapult ranks are incomplete because at this point I’m still trying to catch up with extending my field by placing pots.

All this analysis of gameplay rules makes me wonder about the planning process of games. Like ok, a lot of how the Plants vs. Zombies experience evolves for the player is pretty logical. We’ve got a game that has zombies you defend against/attack and plants you use to do so. So as the game progresses let’s introduce more plants and more zombie types. Let’s also change up the environment between levels so players have to adapt their strategy and they’ll have to use new plant types. Plants vs. Zombies also has a lot of minigames and puzzles which I enjoy and the neat thing about them is they’re all a fun subversion of the rules you’re accustomed to in normal Adventure mode. Each minigame seems clearly the product of one of the game creators thinking, “Well what if instead of this, ____?” Zombotany answers the question, “What if the zombies had plant heads that gave them the same attack/defense capabilities the player has?” I, Zombie answers, “What if the player played from the perspective of zombies instead?” Slot Machine answers, “What if we restricted the player’s agency by eliminating the ability to select plants or to buy them at will and instead left that all up to the chance of a slot machine?” Anyway I think that’s cool how they incorporated these kind of what-if rule subversion scenarios into the game.

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I decided to play Plants vs. Zombies for my play journal because of all the types of games I’ve played, I think the sort of game Plants vs. Zombies is (going by a vague notion rather than a specific definition) is probably a type of game I have spent little to no time thinking extensively about. Expansive, elaborate games with an interesting plot, an immersive environment, well-developed worldbuilding, solid character dynamics, a unique aesthetic, and engaging gameplay – those types of games I’d say I’ve probably spent a considerable amount of time thinking about. Plants vs. Zombies is not that type of game. There is no plot involved, no immersive environment to explore, no particular characters. The art’s nice and the designs are cute, but not exceptionally stunning. The gameplay’s complexity and difficulty increase as you progress through the Adventure mode’s levels, but on the whole it’s pretty straightforward. However, none of this really detracts from how fun the game is for me. I found myself easily and immediately accepting the game’s invitation of “Next Level?” after each round without growing bored. This led me to think a little about not just what constitutes a game, but what constitutes a good game? How does a comparatively simple game like Plants vs. Zombies compare to much more sophisticated games?Image

As far as what constitutes a game in general, I took a look at how Plants vs. Zombies stacks up compared with the formal elements of play outlined by Huizinga. Plants vs. Zombies is certainly a voluntary activity. It’s even more “voluntary” (in the sense that you can start playing and stop playing whenever you want) than most games I’d usually play. I tend to play a lot of games where you run into points where saving and quitting is impossible or extremely inconvenient, so once I start a dungeon or mission or something I need to at least play through to its conclusion. Since I tend to take my time in playing that could potentially take me a while. Levels in Adventure mode or the Minigames of Plants vs. Zombies are pretty short. You can also pause, restart, or leave a round whenever you want without consequences. You can technically just up and quit any game at any point, shut off the console and leave, but usually you’ll feel a much more significant loss of progress. I found that the way Plants vs. Zombies is set up makes it really convenient as a quick distraction or break from work. When starting out, I would play a couple rounds at a time between doing readings or homework without the game consuming too much of my work time or making me feel pressured to continue playing. On the other hand, when I decided to go ahead and play for a solid hour or more I got easily caught up in how addictive the game can be. Part of why Plants vs. Zombies is fun and can be easy to get caught up in is because of how bizarre it is, how clearly distinct from real ordinary life as Huizinga requires of games.  I mean it’s a game where you defend your house from hordes of various types of zombies using a bunch of smiling plants that pop out miniature suns, shoot projectiles, and explode. It’s pretty silly. It’s fun.

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Regarding limits and order, Plants vs. Zombies definitely involves many sets of rules and maintains an internal and specific sense of order within the game. Like I said, the game has a bizarre premise so playing the game requires you to operate in a world where you understand things like, “I need to collect all these little suns to buy plants”, “walnuts take a long time to regenerate so you should keep track of when you plant them”, and “disco zombies periodically start dancing to summon 4 additional zombies so you should prioritize eliminating them.” More rules are constantly added to your understanding of the game as you progress and unlock more items, terrains, and zombies. It all progresses in a pretty intuitive way though. I suppose I’ll talk more about the gameplay next post probably. The only element of Huzinga’s definition of play I thought did not match up with Plants vs. Zombies much at all was the concept of the game building a specific gamer culture around itself that stressed differentiation between “us” and “others.” I know people talk about the game and share different strategies for it in some places online but I have yet to encounter any exclusive culture for it. I mean, Plants vs. Zombies, like Angry Birds, or Tetris, or Bejeweled is extremely accessible. Anybody can play it. Once I saw a 3 or 4 year old play it on an ipad on a plane. I find that kind of nice though. I think the accessibility of it adds to my enjoyment of this particular game.

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Horror and Tension in Bioshock

Posted: February 3, 2013 by phinnthehuman in Uncategorized
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This is the first time I’ve played through Bioshock. Like many of my peers, I am familiar with the premise of the game, and I’ve seen people play it before. That said, the game exceeded my expectations completely and in light of our readings and discussions in class, sucking me in and messing with my mind after barely an hour of play.

At the beginning of the game, I was given very limited information about what was going on. The first moment I felt “trapped” in an elevator, with a mutant human cutting its way in and screaming at me, I felt a very human emotion of despair. As I would continue to play, this would happen multiple times. In terms of Johan Huzinga’s “magic circle,” I believed in the “magic” of this game after just 10 minutes. I felt powerless, but in the best kind of way and only for a brief moment. That brief moment set the tone for the next hour, and started off my experience on a strong, ominous note.

The horror elements of this game are pervasive and relentless. As soon as I had the freedom to move around as I wished, I was practically forced to notice the seedy and demented nature of the areas I moved through. The climax of this experience was during the Medical Pavilion level. I entered a room (pictured below) with three portraits of women on the wall, a bloody table with roses on it, and a cursive note on the ground reading “ABOVE ALL, DO NO HARM – J-Steinman.” From then on, I found notes, journal entries, and ex-patients of the doctor who would attack me. His writings compared the mingling of ugly people amongst the beautiful with the mingling of the criminal amongst the lawful. This kind of perverse and fascinating logic served to improve my experience playing the game, adding another dimension of insanity and terror to the already-horrific level.

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The musings of a demented Doctor Steinman

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The beauty of Bioshock is in the nature of the gameplay. Roger Caillois writes that “An outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play. Constant and unpredictable definitions of the situation are necessary…” which Bioshock captures perfectly. In the scene where I was trapped in the elevator, I felt afraid and believed the mutant would break in and attack me, but it ran away at the last second. Later, a Big Daddy walked past my semiconscious body, and I knew that I could not stop it. By teasing the player with the knowledge that they could die during these scenes but NOT killing them, the game establishes a level of tension that increases as gameplay develops. The game stay fresh and unpredictable, and I was unable to keep my wits about me as I continued to survive the psychological horrors of Rapture. The Ilinx elements of the game kept me unstabilized and panicked during the conflict scenes, and I died multiple times to not being able to think clearly. I can’t wait to keep playing.

In Mark of the Ninja, players make choices influenced by the stimuli provided by the game. The objective of the game is to sneak through various facilities, in order to accomplish tasks such as rescuing individuals, gathering information, and killing baddies. The game has an interesting visual feedback system, in which sound produces blue auras with defined radii.

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In addition, the game was designed for touchscreens, and even on the computer it has several elements of swiping (such as killing enemies).

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However, the game, while feeding some controls and commands to their users, there are many things note explicitly stated by the game, such as bonus levels, and the bonus score one receives for not killing any guards.

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From all this, one might presume that the game would fall under Salen and Zimmerman’s Mode 3 of interactivity: “overt participation like… using the joystick to maneuver Ms. Pac-Man. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience” (Salen and Zimmerman, 60). However, at the same time, the visual representations of sound, lines of sight, and mutable objects puts the game in a gray area between another Mode of Interactivity, Mode 2: “Functional, structural interactions with the material components of the systems (whether real or virtual)” (Salen and Zimmerman, 59). The unique visual interaction creates a system of currency for the game, reinforced by the points the player receives for completing actions such as hiding bodies, distracting guards, and hiding as guards pass by.

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While the game could be lumped into Mode 3 along with most other games, the unique visual representation in the game makes it very different from other stealth games like Thief, Dishonored, and Splinter Cell. In these games, the player reacts to faint feedback, such as enemies looking around, perceived lines of sight, and alarm sounds when they are set off. In these senses, Mode 3 is the obvious choice of category here, as, with the exception of an alarm, most of the input comes from the player interpreting enemy actions (examples include looking around, saying things like, “what was that?”). However, at the end of the day, these things are auditory signal interpreted by the player. In addition, occasionally players want to cause the guard to look around, to make a distraction so they can slip by, escape, or incapacitate the enemy. In addition, the score is not visually represented when actions are taken, such as penalties for setting off an alarm or bonuses for avoiding an enemy. These auditory signals, which can be wanted or unwanted, creates a weak system of feedback. Yet, with Mark of the Ninja, there is an auditory and a visual system of currency to inform players of their progress. The visual feedback of sound produced, guards line of sight, light and darkness, and interactive elements of the playing space, give rise to structured player interactions based on the visual currency of the screen and points given or lost. Therefore, Mark of the Ninja, as a game, exceeds the typical Mode 3 Interaction of stealth games, and becomes a combination of commands chosen by players interpreting vague stimuli, and players reacting and responding to direct visual cues from the game.