If you stick around here long enough, you’ll find that Michael and I are pretty big on anniversaries and holidays. We have many personal anniversaries, we make up new ones all the time ;), and we celebrate them all. Today marks the 10th anniversary of the very very very first project we eeeeeeeevvvver made together. A website called ‘skinonskinonskin.’
It is basically a website of interactive loveletters. The site is still online, though it’s difficult if not impossible to view, and the site has several complex stories behind it and attached to it. But that’s for the archeologists now. For you, I have some of the images.
As part of Gamasutra’s “Road to the IGF” series, Eric Caoili asked some questions that allowed us to make at least a little bit of sense of our Independent Games Festival-nominated title The Graveyard. Have a read a let us know if we’re deluding ourselves.
We just received a magazine, which I believed is called Gameland with a spread about The Path. Thanks, Ilya! And next month, Igromania, possibly Russia’s biggest game magazine, is going to publish a preview. They had already posted an extensive article about the game on their website last year. We have also been approached by several Russian publishers who want to distribute the game in stores. I guess people like original PC games over there.
I find myself strangely fascinated by the recent trend of Achievements in games. For the uninitiated, achievements are a sort of titles that you get when you have done a particular thing in a videogame for the first time (like collect the Six Sacred Stones or run very fast into a wall, etc). So you don’t get a power-up or gold or points or extra lives or anything that influences the gameplay at all. Only the title. The reason for my fascination is that it seems like achievements can turn anything into a game!
We’re playing a bit with the concept in the design of The Path, and, depending on how we end up publishing the game, we might add more. Achievements are a very simple mechanic. They require hardly any design, are easy to implement and instantly provide the player with motivation and goals. These two, of course, being the Big Problem that needs to be solved in order to allow videogames to evolve from the toy-like things that they are today into the full-blown mature medium that we all know they can become.
Assassin’s Creed, at least the way I play it, seems to be largely structured around the concept of Achievements. It offers you a fully explorable living world which is a joy to simply walk around in. But, typically, as such, it runs the risk of becoming too ambient to keep the player motivated. Setting your own goals and having the discipline and patience to explore is not an easy thing to continue doing for the many hours that games like these take. But just before you get in trouble, you almost accidentally collect a flag. And the game tells you that it’s flag number 1 out of a hundred. Or you climb a large tower to enjoy the view and the game tells you there’s nine of these. Instant motivation. Simple. There’s more to Assassin’s Creed than this. It includes the traditional missions and combat and narrative progress. But I find these far less interesting.
Achievements can turn everything into a game. At least everything that is interactive. I’ve tried to imagine a way to add achievements to reading a novel or listening to music but I couldn’t get there. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Suggestions are welcome in the comments!
The absolutely wonderful thing about Achievements to me is that they don’t interfere with the narrative experience much. They are extremely lightweight in terms of meaning. So now we can concentrate on making our interaction design express the story rather than forcing the rigid challenge-effort-reward game structure to do so, or -possibly worse- forcing the narrative to comply with the demands of such a structure. Achievements offer designers an opportunity to finally start exploring the non-linear nature of the medium without losing the players.
For instance: would it hurt The Graveyard to add Achievements to it? Hardly. Achievement: you have walked to the bench without limping! Achievement: you have sat on the bench without getting up before the song ends! Achievement: you have turned around three times before sitting down! Achievement: 10 birds have greeted you while sitting on the bench. Etcetera. You would still get the atmosphere. You would still feel the protagonist’s melancholy. You’d still feel the weak Belgian sun on your shriveled skin. You wouldn’t be distracted from the narrative content at all. And your protagonist doesn’t need to become a hero who defeats the monster or solves the mystery. Achievements can open the door for games about all sorts of content.
I have played American McGee’s Grimm Episode 2 (Little Red Ridinghood -research, you know). And finished it in one go! This may not be big news to you but it’s a remarkable mile stone event for me. It’s been years since I have played a game all the way through. In fact, in most games I tend to not make it past the first puzzle. Because of a combination of lack of skill and lack of patience or tolerance. Call me weird, but I play games for amusement, for relaxation, for making my brain play around with ideas. I don’t play games to become frustrated or caught in the intricate spreadsheet that some clever game designer came up with.
American McGee gets the prize for having made a game that I can actually play. It’s not the greatest game in the world, but it is filled with smart design ideas to help not-so-skilled and not-so-patient players -like me- move on with the fun. It was an exhilarating experience to just be able to play all the way to the end of a game without being interrupted by some O B S T A C L E. I’m too old for that. And frankly, I think videogames as a medium are too old for that.
Take Little Big Planet: a wonderfully amusing experience. Especially when you play with multiple people. Very forgiving and fun. Losing isn’t all that sad and doesn’t happen often. You just play in and with the game. Until you hit the h a r d c o r e levels. Suddenly the game designer forgets about this whole idea of the player finally being able to have some whimsical fun in a videogame and the entire thing turns into a typical try-fail-repeat hardcore fiero trip. Totally misplaced in such a droll environment. What a disappointment!
[Initially] I didn’t feel like I was trying to figure out what Blow “meant” by the storyline. The written exposition ahead of each world, while overwrought and ponderous, acted as a tone-poem, setting a contemplative stage for the mechanics.
But I was forced to turn my attention from the game itself because of its difficulty.
When I hit the inevitable wall in Braid, I discovered that, despite being allowed to run roughshod through the game in order to experience and appreciate the narrative, such gameplay would keep me from reaching the story’s end. I was furious. Unlike most video games, Braid requires literal perfection. Every last jump must be made. Every single obstacle overcome.
Brice Morrison has published an interesting article about how Metacritic, while being fairly reliable for traditional videogames, seems to be consistently wrong about Nintendo games. Wrong in the sense that the professional criticism does not correlate with the audience appreciation.
The reason for this, as he points out, is that Nintendo is adding two values to their games that are simply not being evaluated by the games press, illustrated by the reviewer’s recurring apology/warning that “this is not a game!” Traditional game reviews look at a combination of aesthetics, design and length. But Nintendo adds to these accessability and peripheral benefit (i.e. the value of the product beyond its entertainment value). And it is exactly these two values that attract new customers to Nintendo’s products, which, as we know, has been the key to success.
This is something that has been a concern of ours ever since we’re on the path (pun intended) towards publishing a commercial game. While our games are nothing like Nintendo’s, we also lean heavily towards exactly the same values that their games add to the mix. We also want our work to be accessible: there is no competition in our games, no stress, no hard rules and the controls are easy. And we want to add “peripheral benefit” in the form of a meaningful artistic experience that we hope enriches the player’s life.
We already know that The Path is going to get low review scores. Simply because its main benefits fall outside of the range of things that game reviewers pay attention to, or can express in a score. We’ve been toying with the idea of asking the reviewers to simply give the game a score of zero. But I don’t know. It seems so arrogant. And I’m still hoping that some day, the games press will open up, or soften up. Perhaps Nintendo will come to the rescue.