When Vapourware Condenses: Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian

Too Human. Aliens: Colonial Marines. Duke Nukem Forever. All are famous for their promise, their hellishly delayed development times, and ultimately, their disappointment. This isn’t just endemic to games, either; just look at Chinese Democracy and Alien vs. Predator. The culmination of years of held breath, of stolen glimpses punctuating the overwhelming silence as teams worked hard behind closed doors. Each project fell into myth, almost; a growing, creeping sense of disbelief that the promised game would ever make its way to your expectant disk tray.

The allure of these games, the hope and the fear, overgrows and strangles our perceptions of the subject. “Surely they’re not still working on it”, we think. “When that thing was announced, so and so was president”. “I’ll believe that release date when it’s right there on the shelf next to all the season passes and worthless preowned copies of Battleborn.”

And yet, despite the signs of troubled formation, there’s always that hope, right? You can’t have greatness without ambition, and for a team of people to dedicate a decade of their careers to something, you’d certainly hope it was worth the time of every hand that touched it. Sadly that’s not often the case; consider the three key examples of Too Human, Colonial Marines, and DNF. One was widely regarded mediocre at very best, while the other two were so reviled that many questioned the sanity of Gearbox in pushing their tired, broken corpses up to the finish line.

From company so often bound for failure, two high-profile releases managed to break free of the cycle of delay and rub their elbows with the very greatest games of 2016… with a handful of asterisks each. Both long-awaited instalments of beloved Japanese series, both nudged back with a final apologetic delay for spit-and-polish, and both fully capable of taking your breath away. 2016 was something of a shitstorm, but at least the demoralisation was softened by the one-two punch of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian.

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Final Fantasy XV began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006, and surprisingly little of the game’s spine (at least the core narrative and play themes) seems to have altered since its reveal trailer in 2008.

Final Fantasy XV’s vast and beautiful world is a spellbinding place to inhabit, brimming with side quests, treasures, and monsters to hunt. Truly impressive, though, is its handling of its main cast – Prince Noctis and his companions Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis – as they sweep across the Americana-tinged countryside of Lucis. Every detail and mechanic surrounding the group’s dynamic successfully compounds and deepens their relationship. The incidental dialogue highlighted the companionship well – for some reason I find it especially memorable that Ignis turned to Prompto as we approached a waiting active volcano and checked that his beloved camera would be alright in the heat.

Beyond this, though, lies a wealth of mechanics to further carve and mould these relationships beyond the script. Camping together, choosing meals from Ignis’ repertoire, and leafing through the pictures Prompto has snapped during the day while your companions critique the shots; every time I set a campfire I relished not just the stream of experience from the day’s activities but the easy companionship of these friends around the fire.

Combat is a fresh cocktail of the old and new; the base is a grand departure in the form of explosively balletic action with hints of Final Fantasy’s familiar juggling of weapons, abilities, and status effects. You could be forgiven for laying eyes on Final Fantasy XV and initially confusing it for a straight-up action game, but the strategic elements elevate the experience from one that tests the reflexes to one that engages your mind, too. And even in the heat of the action, Final Fantasy XV emphasises the bond between you and your teammates: cooperative Link Strikes and Parries trigger when you attack enemies whilst yourself and an ally are in a certain position, and your friends are prone to lending you their advice as you approach a difficult encounter, which you can follow for valuable skill points.

In nearly every conceivable part of the game, Final Fantasy XV succeeds in exploring and examining platonic male relationships with a depth and deftness rarely seen in a medium whose primary preoccupation with the theme is limited to gruff banter and no-homo-brohugs. There’s a real affection between the men you guide through Lucis, and that emotional core is the game’s biggest achievement underlying its mechanical triumphs.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my recommendation of Final Fantasy XV be marked with some pretty big caveats. Firstly, despite the game’s fantastic underlying narrative of the developing relationship between the protagonists, the actual plotted story is obtuse, impenetrable through its incompletion, and tiresomely unoriginal.

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Despite the great group dynamic, Noctis is an unlikeable shit, his *ugh, whatever* affectation varying in minute degrees no matter how you choose to have him react to others. Aside from that, it irks me that all his boons were received by birthright: his powers, his friends, his fiancé, and of course his kingdom. He shows few redeeming features besides determination and a begrudging sense of duty until late in the game, when his preceding presence has already grated away any sympathy you may have otherwise held for his plight.

Finally, and perhaps most vexingly, the last few hours of story missions do away with everything about the game that charmed us with for the first 25 hours (if you’ve followed the story pretty doggedly). The inventively snappy combat, the breadth of the world, interaction with your squad, even colour itself; all gradually pruned and filed and clipped away for the last few chapters of the story. I realise it could be argued that there’s a certain narrative purpose behind these decisions given the progressing graveness of the story. However arguments for this being a collection of conscious creative decisions are undermined by game director Hajime Tabata’s pledge to “patch in more story” and “fix” (read: make bearable) the most offensive chapter.

I’ve got to wonder about Final Fantasy XV’s development in relation to these glaring issues of storytelling and late-game woes that should by all rights have been ironed out by playtesting and common sense somewhere along its decade-long gestation. I would posit that vast parts of the game’s structure and story must have been scrapped and reworked, leaving little time to work on its lacking portions. I guess they didn’t want to disappoint everyone with yet another delay.

With the complexity of Final Fantasy XV, it’s relatively easy to explain both its long development and its shortcomings. The Last Guardian, however, is a much more streamlined and linear experience; which makes sense, considering Team Ico’s past work and Fumito Ueda’s well known design philosophy of “design through subtraction” that sees the removal of any superfluous elements in order to distil a desired feeling. The Last Guardian aims to be a single dish designed to please your taste buds in a specific way, while Final Fantasy XV offers a sprawling multi-course banquet. Even when you take the relatively diminutive team size into consideration, the scale of the project certainly doesn’t mesh with the time it took to produce the thing.

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The Last Guardian is a linear action-adventure game following an unnamed boy and gigantic feathered creature Trico as they attempt to escape a hauntingly quiet valley of treacherous crumbling architectural beauty. The player’s focus might be to escape, but in a much wider sense, the game’s focus is to develop and convey the relationship between Boy and beast, and that’s the real story of the game.

The game’s core mechanics lend themselves well to the central theme. Boy and Trico are brought and held together by the need for survival, and their reliance upon each other is constantly reinforced. The Boy’s physical weakness is compensated for by Trico’s brute strength, while Trico’s overwhelming size and animal intelligence is complemented by Boy’s nimble slightness and human intellect.

Underlying this vital reliance is the highly tactile nature of the game, grounding you in the world’s mystery and Trico’s presence. There’s a very real sense of physical presence and you clamber, grasp, and manhandle your way through The Last Guardian. This, of course, extends to Trico itself – a prominent mechanic involves riding and petting the beast at different positions on his body to encourage different behaviours.

Such effort to cement you so tangibly in the world wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t an appealing place to inhabit, but Team Ico has crafted an achingly beautiful place; a blank enigma for you to unwrap and examine as you traverse its abandoned majesty. The sense of awe and beauty is at once unique and recognisable to anyone that’s sunk into Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Teetering tower-like structures punch up towards the sky like solemn sentinels to the silent place, while inside their walls you’ll want to run your fingers over long-eroded glyphs that adorn the walls and explore outer courtyards in the slow process of reclamation by nature. The Last Guardian’s valley is a beguiling, brooding masterpiece of danger and contemplation. The faceless, possessed suits of armour that make up the game’s primary antagonists feel like the personification of that implied threat, dispassionate and deadly in their resistance to your trespass.

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Sound design is not to be underestimated, either, with a rich auditory landscape laid over the physical one. Your footsteps slap and echo through yawning halls, ancient mechanisms screech from untold ages of disuse, and omnipresent wind whistles through the bricks of the high towers.

All that work goes a decent way towards achieving the exact atmosphere that Team Ico want to achieve, but that effort is hobbled by fundamental missteps in the core game design. Chief amongst these issues is Trico itself. Despite the fantastic work evident in its characterisation through animation and lovable design, his responsiveness will test the limits of even the most patient players. This is an understandable decision, at least in the The Last Guardian’s opening chapters; Trico is a wild animal, and you’ve got to earn each other’s trust. Its unruly streak does go some way towards building Trico up as a believable creature with agency rather than a simple AI minion under your Beast Master-esque control. A more “realistic” Trico should lead to a more meaningful relationship, right? But the frustrations of such ponderous response times ultimately take you right out of the game and plant a kernel of resentment for the idiot animal, which runs in direct opposition to the game’s intent. Trico does steadily become more responsive for the first half of the game, but the long periods of bellowing at it to “please just fucking jump over there” never go away, right up to the last portions of the game.

Another fundamental issue – and one that may be far more embarrassing for Team Ico – is that the Boy controls like a dizzy infant on whatever drugs the kids are into these days. Movement feels enduringly imprecise and clumsy, past the point that would have appropriately conveyed the Boy’s inexperience and fragility. The camera is stiffly unhelpful, often preferring to take a firm interest in Trico’s (immaculately rendered) arsehole rather than providing a helpful view of the level. These issues could be forgiven in Shadow of the Colossus, where gaping landscapes and vast enemies required only broad strokes to wrangle successful accuracy from Wander’s movements. In the narrower, dense, more platform-heavy environments of The Last Guardian, those gripes stick out like a sore thumb and rudely overshadow your immersion.

There’s no question to me as to which game was more deserving of the wait; Final Fantasy XV might be marred by myriad shortcomings, but I get the overwhelming feeling that its issues are more a product of ambition than anything else. The Last Guardian, meanwhile, feels like it’s fallen by the wayside through a certain blinkering effect; stagnant portions of the game’s design allowed to seep into and impair the experience against better judgement. It would seem that the wider market reflects my lopsided opinion of these games, too; whilst Final Fantasy XV happily announces DLC plans and ongoing support, The Last Guardian recently endured a permanent price drop of $20.  All caveats aside Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are unquestionably worthwhile experiences that sit amongst the best games of 2016. They’re certainly more worthy additions to the world than Duke Nukem Forever an Aliens: Colonial Marines. But they both represent the pitfalls of long-term development in ways both shared and distinct.

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Crows Crows Crows Continues To Charm With “The Temple of No”

Crows Crows Crows is the English-based independent developer behind last year’s Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, also catchily known as DL,TT,aTTCE:AWH. A complimentary game, the Steam store trailer promised an action-packed heist romp. Upon loading into the game however, it becomes apparent that there’s only room enough for  one player at a time. The game’s backstage team have gone on strike thanks to terrible working conditions, and it’s up to you to press the switches behind the scenes directed by Simon Amstell’s voice while a fictional “player” makes their way through the game. Think The Stanley Parable, but more linear, yet lacking none of the charm or subversion.

Dr Langeskov wasn’t just a neat thumbing of the nose towards AAA game development, but a proof of concept of sorts for Crows Crows Crows: hearts full of whimsy, eyes set on the creation of “experimental games”. While Dr Langeskov’s Stanley Parable comparison is obvious, the game’s sharp wit and unique writing style certainly grabbed people’s attention and established the spirit of the studio.

Since then, Crows Crows Crows has been largely silent. There’s a weird puzzle game on their website, Report A.807, which consists of Police report details covering several burglaries around Europe. I almost didn’t stumble across the game myself; there’s a small folder icon labelled “A.807” right at the bottom of the screen that I’d predict most will either not see or outright disregard.

On Monday, Crows Crows Crows released another small complimentary game on itch.io. It’s an interactive story game made in Twine, and it’s called The Temple of No. As one amongst many delighted by Dr Langeskov, I soon set aside some time to play through it.

It’s only 10-15 minutes long, but The Temple of No is a delightful diversion for that duration. I’m not going to reveal anything else about the game; it’s a shot of simple joy that is best consumed unspoiled. Expect a slew of chuckles, a sea of personality, and a dozen tiny surprises. If nothing else, this game proves that Crows Crows Crows has the writing chops to charm and captivate its audience more than once.

Every way I look at it, Crows Crows Crows seems to be onto a winning strategy. They’re steadily drip-feeding us with tiny flashes of brilliance to remind us who they are and why we should care about them. For a small studio, that’s incredibly valuable. For the consumer, there’s a certain comfort in testing a studio’s output before eventually laying down money for their first proper release.

Not every indie developer can muster the resources to chase such a system. It definitely helps that the team’s made up of successful creatives like William Pugh and Jack de Quidt who’re doubtless in a much stronger position in terms of funding than the average small independent developer. Still, I have high hopes that this strategy might be as disruptive as The Stanley Parable was a few years back, with more developers following suit. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, go and enjoy The Temple of No. You’ve deserved it. Bring headphones and be ready to grin.

Burning Out: The Video Games Industry’s Crunch Problem

“Crunch time” is the name given to a practice that’s almost ubiquitously utilised in the video games industry. Almost every game that reaches shelves, physical or virtual, is a product of at least some work carried out under periods of crunch conditions. Essentially, crunch is mandatory unpaid overtime- most developers are salaried, meaning many aren’t compensated for their extra hard work. It’s a practice that’s employed to ensure deadlines are met, although the jury is still out on whether corporate-mandated deadlines are realistic or not.

Back in 2004, the EA Spouse scandal highlighted the issue to the general public: Erin Hoffman published an online journal under the pseudonym “EA Spouse” detailing her husband’s hellish working conditions. He was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for months, although this worsened to 12-plus hours a day, 7 days a week nearer to the game’s very final deadline. A few class action lawsuits against EA followed over lack of overtime pay, which EA settled for tens of millions of dollars each.

But, over a decade later, the majority of games developers have endured periods of crunch time: the 2015 survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) revealed that “crunch is still a problem: 62% indicated that their job involved crunch time; 58% said they were in crunch more than twice in the last two years; and 61% said that crunch time was expected in their workplace.” Furthermore, 44% of those that didn’t report engaging in crunch still said that they were required to work for extended work hours that weren’t labelled “crunch”. The majority of employees (31%) reported 50-59 hours per week, closely followed by those that reported 60-69 hours per week (30%).

All in all, it seems fair to say that crunch is still an omnipresent shadow over the games industry, although it’s fallen back into wider discussion due to an article published by ex-Microsoft DirectX developer and industry veteran Alex St. John. In response to Dean Takahashi’s article on VentureBeat featuring a crunch-focused interview with IGDA executive director Kate Edwards (the IGDA is launching an investigation into crunch practices in large companies), St. John published an article on VentureBeat himself in defence of crunch time.

St. John headlines the article, “Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude”. “Wage-slave” is a term that he uses often in the article. Already, he’s established his view of people that want better labour rights: they’re there just for the money, without passion or heart, and are not justified in their grievances.

In defence of crunch, St. John contrasts his background to that of other people in the tech industry. He grew up in rural Alaska “with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV”, and that he’s “still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of a porcelain toilets and fast food”. This humble upbringing grants St. John the perspective that he “can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work”.

The view that “pushing a mouse around” is the primary task of work is repeated in the article, as well as the notion that making games isn’t laudably difficult work. St. John continues, “They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”, how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management” and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….”

It’s a troubling notion indeed that such a prominent figure can be so dismissive of the mental and physical effort a team of people must pour into creative projects like video games. It strikes me as astoundingly disrespectful and reductive view that St. John holds regarding labour in the games industry; while sitting at a desk and moving a mouse isn’t physically demanding in and of itself, long periods of focused concentration for 12 hours or more, every day, 6 or 7 days a week, is going to cause immense stress on the mind and body.

What’s confusing about St. John’s perspective on this matter is the fact that, years ago, he famously “burnt out” himself while working for Microsoft on DirectX. Reportedly, he would “pass out at his keyboard”, turning up to meetings “with key marks on his face”. Work seemed to have a serious effect on his personal life. In 1997 he “succeeded in getting himself fired”, and “walked out of Microsoft feeling 100lbs lighter”. This is not life experience you’d expect from a man that’s advocating crunch and decrying detractors of the practice as “wage-slaves,” attempting to diminish their complaints because they’re not “trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families”.

Alex St. John’s stance on this issue is, perhaps, not as much of a conundrum as one might think. People stuck in terrible working conditions are often afraid to speak up because they’re “easily replaced”, but having grown wealthy off stock options and founding his own company he’s in a position to work as much as he wants without fear of being fired over unfair labour requirements. Crunch isn’t something St. John must endure as a matter of course any more; he benefits from those practices himself, and so he seeks to protect them, or so it seems to me. Hell, the man’s exploitative tendencies can be found on his personal website on a presentation with the monicker, “Recruiting, Training and Retaining GIANTS.” It’s a presentation that’s focused around squeezing as much work from your employees as possible, and having read through it I find it particularly objectionable. Amongst other things, St. John describes Autistic engineers as the “holy grail” of employees, and suggests that you work to retain not engineers themselves, but their “wives and girlfriends”. Read it yourself to see how responsible you think the proposed practices are.

A “workaholic” attitude isn’t enough to save you from the effects of overworking. Long-term mandatory unpaid overtime an inherently unfair practice unlikely to endear employees to their work. More than that, though, that amount of work is provably dangerous; even work that’s loved strains the mind and body. That’s not good for the product, and it’s not good for the people.

The silver lining in all this is that crunch is, once again, at the forefront of the conversation in response to St. John’s article. Hopefully the continued publicity on this issue, along with investigation by the IGDA, will help to bring about real change in the coming years.

What’s Going On With The Oculus Rift Launch?

Since its successful Kickstarter campaign way back in 2012, the Oculus Rift has become the frontrunner and face of the modern VR resurgence. Positive feedback has dripped to our screens over the last few years as the developmental kit was distributed to all the right places. And now, the general positivity surrounding the technology is backed up by word of critics overall praising the first modern VR headset to hit the market this year.

While the new platform presents a slew of new development challenges (like how to simply control movement without making people feel sick), the potential lack of good games right now is perhaps offset by Virtual Desktop, a potential killer app. The application is available on Steam, works for the Rift and the HTC Vive, and essentially simulates a massive cinema screen for non-VR games. It’s a really smart piece of software that I think really has the potential to justify the headsets for a lot more people.

Over the past 4 years, Oculus’ messaging has largely been very on-point. Founder Palmer Luckey has been an enthusiastic and likeable speaker, convincing many that Oculus has heart and vision behind the business.

Since the development of the Rift has stretched out, the Oculus’ messaging shifted to prioritise the philosophy of “getting the launch right”. It was a savvy and important move, made to placate sceptics, backers, and potential customers that might have worried about Oculus’ ability to stick the landing as the product approached real materialisation.

So why has the Oculus Rift launch gone like this?

The launch date of the Oculus Rift was set for 28th of March, with in-shop retail presence planned for April. Reports are revealing that many people that pre-ordered the set still don’t have their Rift, and have no indication as to the state of their order.

Most worryingly, Oculus Support don’t seem to know where the order are, either. Forbes’ Paul Tassi, a pre-orderer himself, wrote on the 31st that emails sent to Oculus Support yielded a reply that revealed they “don’t have shipping information available”. The reply goes on to recommend that pre-orderers “keep an eye on (their) inbox”, since “As your order is being prepared for shipment, you will begin receiving status updates on your order”. The launch date was supposed to be on the 28th of March, so why weren’t the orders being processed by then?

Some customers have tweeted today that they received update emails from Oculus, stating that pre-ordered units were delayed due to a “component shortage”, promising an order update on April 12. That’s in 10 days’ time. In response to this information, Paul Tassi tweeted “Surprise, I have not gotten this Oculus “sorry about your order” email everyone else is getting.”

For people staring at the TBA on their order tracker, not only are they awaiting their Rift unit, they’re also wondering about the roughly $600, or $500, that might or might not leave their bank account at any moment. It’s not helped by the frustration that Oculus have managed to supply the press and Kickstarter backers with their Rift headsets.

This whole launch ordeal must be very troubling for Oculus and its supporters. As the first release in an opening market, Oculus needed to impress the early adopters and tastemakers throwing hundreds of pounds at their kit. This can’t be helped by the state of the competition, either. The HTC Vive, backed by Valve, is by all accounts a more technically impressive piece of kit with a noticeably larger FOV. While it’s more expensive than the Rift, people willing to shell out the premium experience that VR companies are selling might be willing to throw a couple hundred extra dollars or pounds to get what’s purportedly the very best. Furthermore, the Playstation VR is considerably cheaper and has the backing of Sony, which might be reflected in its games support. The Rift’s middle-of-the-pack pricing and performance has the potential to prove its undoing in the market.

With such a sceptical market, Oculus needed to pull off the Rift right on the first time. I think they were right to market the first kit at the early adopting, tech-savvy crowd to drum up confidence in their product’s viability. It’s just so strange that they’ve fumbled the launch in such a spectacular fashion.

Image credits- Oculus

The Alison Rapp Situation

Yesterday, Alison Rapp of Nintendo Treehouse, was fired from her job following a hateful harassment campaign seemingly spearheaded by Gamer Gate supporters.

It’s the current headlining event of the ongoing Video Game Culture War, as it’s being called; although labelling this event as an act of warfare might lend undue legitimacy to what’s essentially thousands of children throwing a misinformed, illogical, and uneducated tantrum.

There were several alterations made localise the English version of Fire Emblem Fates for the West. “Skinship” was removed, which is a mini-game that occurs when you invite a character back to your room to spend time with them and gain support bonuses from them. In the Japanese version you pet them on the face using the touch screen, but this was removed in the English version of the game. Other decisions include leaving out the Japanese audio track, and altering other sections of the game perceived as problematic to Western audiences. A lot of people were displeased about the localisation of this game. So displeased, in fact, that they decided to grab their pitchforks, light their torches and attempt, in earnest, to ruin a woman.

The harassment of Rapp came about several months ago, when alterations in Fire Emblem Fates’ Western release became apparent. Criticism of the changes decried the changes as an act of “censorship”, with people wanting a more “authentic” version of the game in English. Rapp, as an employee of the Treehouse -Nintendo of America’s product development division that were responsible for the localisation of the English version of Fates- came under fire from people that blamed her for the modified or missing sections of the game. This is despite the fact that she worked not in the localisation department, but in marketing as a spokesperson for the game; the decisions for what parts of the game should remain intact were never made by her. She was simply the most visible employee related to the game’s Western release.

The constant witch-hunt that characterises reactionary Gamer Gate culture had found a new target, and so began the cycle of harassment that’s sadly too often seen nowadays. Research on Rapp turned up evidence of her personal views on Feminism as well as details of her personal life, as well as her open criticism of the harassment of women that was perpetrated by Gamer Gaters in the fever-pitch stages of the movement. People used these findings to justify calling her names like “Feminazi” and “SJW”, which are insults that always make you seem very rational and clever.

Amongst the discoveries about Rapp’s personal life was an academic essay she wrote in 2012 in defence of the Japanese culture around sexualising girls that much of the West would label underage. The work focuses on the nuanced societal contexts around pornography laws in Japan, and the legitimacy of International pressure on Japan for it. This led to her critics including white supremacist site the Daily Stormer, to label Rapp as a paedophile, or a paedophile supporter. This is in spite of the nature of localisation that the Treehouse had performed on Fire Emblem Fates; it seems to me that people had become so focused on demonising and discrediting Rapp that they forgot she was arguing about the cultural legitimacy of content pertaining to elements they wanted in the game for authenticity’s sake.

Throughout this whole debacle, Nintendo remained quiet. The company offered no comment or support as one of their employees endured what must have been an extremely scary ordeal. Instead, they quietly moved Rapp away from the spotlight, and ultimately decided to terminate her job yesterday. Rapp tweeted in announcement of the occasion: “Today, the decision is made: I am no longer a good, safe representative of Nintendo, and my employment has been terminated.”

Nintendo denied that the harassment campaign was related to Alison Rapp’s termination in a statement provided to IGN. They stated that Rapp was fired not as a result of her “being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media”, rather for “violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture”. They go on to say that they “firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race, or personal beliefs”, which I’m sure Alison found very reassuring and helpful.

Rapp admitted on Twitter that she had carried out some moonlighting under a pseudonym (Nintendo has a strict policy on their representatives in non-sanctioned appearances; localiser Chris Pranger was terminated following an appearance on Part-Time Gamers Podcast and talking candidly about work), claiming that she was working anonymously to avoid people connecting the dots between her side-work and Nintendo, while she earned some extra cash to help with student loans. She also tweeted that “Moonlighting is actually accepted at Nintendo. It’s policy”. That’s a claim that has the potential to throw a spanner in Nintendo’s carefully-worded rationale.

The concluding section of this post features a lot of conjecture on my part, although it’s the story that makes the most sense to me given the information I’ve found. Feel free to form your own opinions based around what information you’d care to gather if you feel like I haven’t presented enough to support my closing statements.

Nintendo is a company whose mascot features so few discernible character traits that he could barely be considered offensive to anyone (aside from the Italian stereotype thing). It seems most likely to me that Nintendo fired Alison Rapp because she is a person that’s outspoken about her views, Nintendo’s suits wanted to distance the company from someone with views that some people on the internet take umbrage with. Someone dug through Rapp’s past with such an obsession that they could concretely link her to anonymous work not even related to games. Nintendo used that information to axe her in stead of their real grievance: she’s a high-profile figure in social media that doesn’t fit into their modus operandi: risk-less, inoffensive and above all tightly controlled messaging. So afraid they were of alienating any small portion of their audience, no matter how vile their actions and tactics are, that they grabbed whatever reason they could find to get rid of her.

Image credits- mynintendonews.com

What’s The Best Way to Make A Deadman Game?

With Hitman back in the spotlight (albeit in experimental episodic format- review coming in the near future for my impressions on the intro pack), I’m reminded of much how I love disguises as a game mechanic. I’ve written before on how I adore that sort of brazen stealth that not only offers the thrill of the kill, but the added glee of audaciously walking amongst your would-be witnesses.

While thinking about how this might be expanded upon, I immediately thought of the character Deadman from DC Comics. He’s towards the lesser-known end of the spectrum of comic book heroes, although he has enjoyed the occasional moment in the spotlight like in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Dead Reckoning” and parts in well known series like Kingdom Come, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day.

If you don’t know Deadman and aren’t of the wikipedia inclination right now, I’ll sum him up for you: Boston Brand was a circus performer until he hit that well-known career roadblock: being murdered. His spirit is kept on the Earthly plane by the Hindu deity Rama Kushna, giving him the usual benefits of being dead- invisibility, intangibility and blatant disregard for gravity. Deadman can possess any living being, controlling their actions and sometimes accessing their memories as well as superpowers if they’re a metahuman. That’s a power set that could really push forward disguises as a gameplay mechanic through the method of body swapping as well as adding the voyeuristic element of undetectably flying around the area to plan your move.

Another game that played with ghostly possession was Ghost Trick for the Nintendo DS, in which you could possess corpses and rewind to up to 4 minutes before their death, rearranging objects in the environment in order to change events and save their life.

What I envision looks more like a Hitman game, though, with open-ended levels packed with NPCs that you can assume control of. Since Deadman can physically go anywhere, invisibly passing through walls with ease, the challenge should some from engineering events and possessing the right people to achieve whatever goals that level calls for- extract a vital object or person, learn some important information, save innocents in danger. All things that Deadman needs to use a proxy body to interact with the world to achieve.

In traditional storylines, Deadman is either trying to solve a mystery like the identity of his murderer, or aiding spirits that have unfinished business on the Earthly plane in order to serve Rama Kushna’s goal of maintaining the balance of justice. Either setup would accommodate a series of open-ended levels rife with multiple paths of progression as well as side objectives for an opportunistic do-gooder like Deadman to help people out. I’m imagining a series of events that keep tying back to a central antagonistic individual or organisation, like the Daredevil or Jessica Jones Netflix TV series where events consistently tie in with the respective shenanigans of the Kingpin or Killgrave.

While possessing an NPC, your physical abilities should be limited by the capabilities of their body. Maybe you want to use someone to infiltrate a building to retrieve some vital object (perhaps evidence to prove someone’s innocence) and spot an open window a few floors up. There might be an NPC amongst a group of people practicing parkour. You can use their skill for manoeuvring urban environments to clamber up to that window and get in. The advantage of getting that person into the building rather than, say, just possessing a guard, would be that if things go south you’re in the body of a person that’s physically capable of escaping more smoothly. If you manage to grab the mission-critical object you’re not easily able to chuck it between NPCs and hop-scotch between possessing people on you way out of there; the player should be forced to find a clean way out, or else the challenge disappears. Not to mention the ramifications of leaving a poor innocent person in a heavily guarded building.

I’d also like there to be an element of roleplaying to the possession-disguise system. Like in Hitman and the original gameplay concept for Splinter Cell: Conviction, you should only act in ways that don’t draw attention to your character and don’t draw heat from suspicious NPCs. So long as there’s no hint of the stupid hat-tugging “act cool” system from Hitman: Absolution. Because that was a design decision that betrayed a misunderstanding of the whole allure of disguise in Hitman games.

There should be some limitations on Deadman’s possession powers to preserve the sense of challenge and difficulty. There should be NPCs (for instance, guards) that can’t be possessed, since the antagonists may know that Deadman is on their trail and might take magical or technological precautions against his powers. Another stipulation might be that you can’t possess people that are within sight of others. This could be explained away due to the sudden and obvious change in body language as well as having that person suddenly walk away mid-conversation potentially arousing suspicion. These limitations could be used to force you to find creative ways of infiltrating an area rather than simply possessing whoever’s closest to your objective.

There might even be a section of the game that locks Deadman into mortal bodies, only able to jump from body to body through touch and unable to fly around freely in spirit form and inhibiting your ability invisibly to scout out areas. This shouldn’t be for the whole game, though, for fear of gameplay becoming too similar to Hitman.

I can envision a number of potential mission scenarios and tasks for you to carry out. You might have to break an innocent person out of jail by setting up an escape through a number of people in the prison grounds. You might unlock a few crucial doors with one prison officer, shut down surveillance cameras or otherwise distract the officer in charge of surveillance, or cause a riot by possessing an inmate and drawing the bulk of the prison workforce to the ruckus. There are lots of potential objectives ranging from extracting a person or item to learning key snippets of information and stepping in to save innocents from harm for side objectives. The key here is diversity of settings, objectives, and progression opportunities.

The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced that ghostly possession could be both a gripping central game mechanic and an intriguing advancement of disguise and social stealth gameplay. Deadman is a really interesting character with not only a cool power set, but also a supporting cast, motivations and established themes that could translate to an absorbing narrative and an engrossing world to play in. What if you need to possess someone to achieve a noble goal, but forcing that person away from their day for a while leads to personal disaster? And what about the morality of taking control of a person’s body at all? I’d love a Deadman game to tackle those questions, and maybe introduce a slightly lesser-known and read character to some people.

Image credits: dccomics.com

Victory Over the Hardcore: The Valuable Proper Use of Difficulty in Games

Punishing difficulty has been a part of games since the heyday of arcades, often a method of eking out more money from consumers to keep plugging at their favourite games without starting over. Then games consoles were introduced to homes, a luxury expensive for many, meaning games had to last to feel like a worthwhile product. Difficulty was the easiest way to make games feel longer with data storage at the time limiting the scope of the game. Making games difficult was the easiest way to keep people playing for longer for better product satisfaction.

Nowadays, many people have no problem polishing off most major video game releases, especially with their tailorable difficulty options. Games known for being difficult are kind of lumped together in a niche under the umbrella term of “hardcore”. Dark Souls, ARMA, Super Meat Boy, Ikaruga, and Darkest Dungeon are all games which thrive on their hardcore status, each requiring a mixture of skill, precision, strategy, and determination to prevail.

Going into a difficult game gives you a kind of mentality; you steel yourself, and start to adopt the way you look at the challenges the game throws at you: the environment, the enemies, your inventory. It draws you into the experience, and gives you an appreciation for the world. But it’s very, very important to maintain the fine balance between a dangerous environment and unfair odds. This is part of why when difficulty feels forced, unfair, or artificial, it’s so frustrating; we want to immerse ourselves in a world, a character, and a purpose. When the world breaks character and obstructs our character’s purpose in the name of challenge, that immersion is broken and it’s difficult to placate an embittered player. Despite the positive uses for punishing difficulty, not all difficult games are good, and not all good games are difficult; it’s all about how the game makes use of its challenge.

Immersion-breaking difficulty is widely known as “artificial”, because the tasks the game throws at you aren’t intrinsically any more difficult; the system is stacked against you, and it feels like the game is breaking character to make itself harder. Imagine a section in which you need to dodge obstacles to progress, but the speed of the oncoming objects is such that you basically have to guess when to dodge, and in which direction. This is artificial challenge because you can’t overcome it with skill, only a mixture of luck and tenacity, and can be found in the final boss to Super Meat Boy- a game whose challenge is otherwise fair.

Late in some games, the challenge can feel artificial in cases where the developers just buff the enemies’ health while your damage tolerance and output remain the same. Not only does this stretch out late game encounters to potentially tiring lengths, it can also kill the sense of momentum of combat that the game has established which can be very jarring. Imagine learning over the course of an FPS that it takes about half a magazine of ammunition to kill a certain enemy class, but towards the late game they can suddenly soak up three-quarters to a whole magazine to do the same job. It’d throw you off-balance, reminding you that you’re in a game where NPCs’ stats can be buffed at the will of the designers.

This can be countered with adaptive difficulty systems, like in Skyrim where enclosed areas are scaled to your character as you enter them, populating them with higher-level enemy types as you grow in power yourself. This way, you can come across underpowered and overpowered enemies in the open world, but quests can tailor themselves to your character’s strength. I’m also a fan of games like Fallout 4 and Dragon’s Dogma, where open worlds have areas populated with enemies that might take out an under-levelled character with a single hit in the early game, but can be tackled or even crushed later on. This gives you a real sense of satisfaction when you return to an area you’ve feared for hours but can now breeze through. The difficulty of the original encounter sticks in your mind, and throws down a gauntlet to your avatar, and by extension you.

Another style of difficulty that lots of people find frustrating is a steep difficulty curve that means the player has to spend some time repetitively grinding to buff their stats enough to match or at the very least brute-force their way past a difficult boss (this is mostly concerning the JRPG genre, but can be applicable to RPGs in general). However this can be used to persuade a player to engage with the game world, seeking out side quests to gain levels and learn a little bit about the world as they go. I don’t mind this so much, but it understandably leaves a lot of people cold, especially if repetitively grinding enemies in the world is the only option. That can kill the pace of a good narrative- you’ve been doing okay up until now, so why throw up a wall as we reach the natural mini-climax of a section with a boss?

The impact of this can be lessened in a number of ways. The boss or section in question absolutely must be escapable for struggling players. Locking a player into a scenario for which they are under levelled is only going to make them scream as they throw themselves up against a brick wall again and again. When they decide that they’re not yet ready to beat the section, they need to be able to quickly and easily backtrack to a location ripe for the grind. When they get there, they should know, or be easily be able to find out, readily available options to get themselves levelled up to scratch. These options need to be varied, and ideally offer their own small narrative threads to satisfy the player’s need for narrative payoff while their main story progress is halted. Lastly, the combat (or whatever mechanics you’re using to grind XP) needs to be intrinsically enjoyable, or else being forced to go through it for a little while is going to grate; subpar battle systems might be ignored when you’re following a good story, but the lack of substantial narrative payoff can sully your experience when you’re only experiencing combat for a grind. Even non-gameplay factors need to be considered, like repetitive battle music or lengthy loading or transition times that can get on your player’s nerves.

Some games are challenging because of a poor design or an oversight from the developers. Poor control over your character’s movement, unclear jump distance and landing detection in platformers, and hitboxes that extend beyond your avatar’s bodily bounds are examples of poor game design that can make a game frustratingly difficult to play through. In the case of adventure games, puzzles may be unintuitive or require dreaded pixel hunting. This more often encourages recklessly clicking the screen rather than actually engaging with environmental details, which I can only assume is the intention.

While many games opt to provide multiple difficulty options for players, I’m personally a fan of games which simply are the difficulty that they are, for instance Dark Souls. This forces a developer to really look at how they teach a player the mechanics and rules of the game. There aren’t any menu options to reduce difficulty, so the player knows that there’s an alternative approach to adopt if they get stuck. And the game world feels more cohesive to me if I know I’m playing through the “true” version of the game, rather than one version of the game that’s arbitrarily harder or easier than another. I understand that developers want their game to be enjoyed by a range of consumers with different skill levels, but I admire those games that take risks to adhere to the vision of a world and how we should interact with it.

The Souls series is, to me, a paragon of how to make a game challenging without sacrificing fairness. The game world, NPCs, and player character all follow the rules of the game without deviation. You control your avatar with an absolute sense of space within the game world; swing your sword, and a small clip registers as a hit. Likewise with enemies’ attacks on your person. It’s this dedication to inch-perfect precision in both Souls’ design and expectation of its players that the game builds its unshakeable sense of place. Dangers can always be seen early enough if you’re cautious and keen-eyed, and even the most relentless of aggressors have weaknesses to exploit if you can keep a cool head and observe them. The game never breaks its own rules, so it feels fair when you die, and often you respawn with a good idea of what you did wrong.

Difficulty is not only useful for providing that all-important sensation of satisfaction, but also in helping us relate to our avatar and the world they inhabit. Our avatar’s epic tasks of heroism become ours when we work a little bit harder for them; we can relate to our avatar’s struggle because victories are hard-won for us, too. When it’s firm but fair, a challenging game raises the stakes and makes us more invested in the world, the characters, and the story being told. That’s not to say that games that are easy to complete don’t have their own form of difficulty; just try keeping everyone alive in your first run of Until Dawn, or getting 100% of the collectables in Yoshi’s Wooly World. Ask anyone about their early hours of Minecraft, and you’ll no doubt trigger a flood of tales about the improvised shelter in the terrifying first night, and fending off creepers from their delicate first hovel. But tying a game’s progression to a demanding challenge can do wonderful things for the immersive quality of a game, and handling that challenge should be one of the factors at the forefront of the developers’ mind when they design the experience.

Image credits- kotaku.com