Less is More

Standing atop the bone-white skyscrapers of 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, staring out across the futuristic metropolis, it’s easy to convince yourself that the game should be an open-world, free-roaming platformer. Faith has the ability to climb, jump and run like the wind, why constrain that energy into the tight corridors that make up the game’s story levels? Playing the 2015 sequel Catalyst answers this question. Mirror’s Edge is a racing game, and races need courses. Without focused channels, Faith’s kinetic energy dissipates, you end up aimlessly wandering empty city blocks, often circling back and stopping to check a map. The best moments in Catalyst are found in the story missions, where Faith is placed back in tight channels and given a specific goal, that allows the game’s creators to structure and pace the challenges you face, to guide the player through their work.

ME6This is a common trap gamers fall into, thinking a game would be improved if only a certain feature or mode, usually cribbed from a popular game in a different genre, were added to the original model. It’s in our nature, we’re idealistic, attracted to shiny features and pretty graphics, and unaware of the cost and effort required to develop the features our imaginations create. Spiderman 2 would be awesome if you could drive the cars like in GTA. Thief would be great if you had a crossbow and a better sword. Assassins Creed would be better if you could fly. SWAT needs a Versus mode. Sometimes the developers themselves are at fault. Grand Theft Auto would be better with RTS gameplay. Tomb Raider would be better with an Onslaught mini-game. Arkham City would be better if you could drive the batmobile.

tombraider7

Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 tasks the player with dismantling an oppressive military regime with guerilla tactics and enough small arms to to overthrow an oppressive military regime, across the mountains and valleys of a pseudo-Nepal (Tibet? I confess ignorance). Combat is tense and crunchy, frenetic and bombastic as you dive for cover, take potshots around corners, and toss molotov cocktails to cover a hasty retreat and catch your breath for another assault. Far Cry 4 also has an awkwardly bolted-on co-op mode that completely unbalances this combat. Playing with a partner allows for unlimited respawns, and the open design of the outposts mean it’s almost impossible for the AI to mount an adequate defence to two attackers. Even playing on the hardest difficulty, it’s easy to steamroll through the game’s most challenging single-player encounters, and much of the tension and fun in the game is lost. The levels, AI, and mechanics of the game simply weren’t built and tuned with co-op in mind. Far Cry 4’s co-op is fun, but a minor diversion in an otherwise solid game.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Harvey Smith, creative director of Dishonored, pushed back against calls to add co-op to the sequel to 2012’s Dishonored. The original was story-based stealth action game, with levels designed as intricate playgrounds and enemies tuned to act as foils for the player’s cunning. Smith knew that adding in co-op would either be lackluster and broken, or require developers be pulled from developing the single-player portion to more fully develop and balance the addition. After years of overseeing various projects, he knew what Dishonored’s strengths were, and knew that adding in co-op would be ultimately unsatisfying and weaken the sequel.

Disohonored1

Roger Ebert once argued that games can never be art because the vision of the creator is always second to other factor. To the (very limited extent) that the intent of the creative director of a game is subject to the demands of players or marketing teams to awkwardly insert gimmicks, I have to reluctantly agree. We expect movie directors to filter the multiple demands of the studio, their producers, actors, audience, and editors, and produce a work that fufills their intentions for the film. We need to accept similar restraint in our demands of game makers. As games become more about experiences, gamers have to similarly trust the vision of those making the game to shape and constrain that experience.

Ready

The best scene in 2016’s Triple 9 follows a drug raid executed by a team of seasoned professionals. Director John Hillcoat shows the precision with which Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie sweep each room, announce each action, and move as a single unit, to convey the kind of skill and rehearsed confidence that only comes from years of rigorous, process-focussed training.

Forethought and restraint are not qualities that one would imagine would lead to an exciting video game, but they are the crucial elements that set Sierra’s SWAT 4 apart from many other, more banal, shooters.

SWAT 4 is a game of on-the-fly tactical planning interspersed with bursts of smoke and gunfire. The heart of the game is in breaching doorways, in drawing conclusions with limited information, weighing risks and rewards, and eventually leaving all that behind and stepping into the unknown. Every choke point, every corner, every shadow can be lethal, and must be approached with caution. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but with a good plan and good luck you and your teammates may survive long enough to reach the next danger. If you’re really good the hostages may survive too.

SWAT2

The game stacks the odds against you from the start. Wounding shots are rare, and your enemies are trigger-happy. You can’t fire on sight, because killing a surrendering man in cold blood is frowned upon by society. A civilian dying ends the mission. Whether you were the shooter or not, you are at fault. You’re not above the law, you are the law, and the weight of the lives of everyone trapped in the dingy alleys and basements that make up the levels rests on your shoulders. You’re not there to win a match, you’re there to get everyone home alive. Your tools include the usual arsenal of pistols, machine guns, and rifles by necessity, but non-lethal tasers, bean bag shells, or pepper-spray paint balls are often your best choice.

Coordination and constant communication are essential to completing a mission and VOIP is an absolute necessity when playing multiplayer (the only way to play SWAT 4).  Missions can be played solo, but covering your friend’s back while they sweep under doorways for signs of hostiles is much more visceral. Practice develops shorthands and routines, a shared language and stories of missions that went right or horrendously wrong. SWAT 4 is a cooperative RTS in a FPS’s guise.

SWAT3

Despite a creaking engine, OS compatibility issues, and terrible net code, SWAT 4 is still played and loved in corners of the internet today. The original requirement for Gamespy to find public servers has been replaced by a fan-made server browser, dedicated fans still host servers open for anyone to drop into, and publish enough fan-made maps to fill any player’s appetite.

Although still satisfied with this rare gem, SWAT 4’s dedicated following has cried out for a sequel in forums and blog posts for years. Ready Or Not, announced this week by developers Void Interactive, is not the first project to hear this cry, but it perhaps shows the most promise. Void seem to have drunk the SWAT 4 Kool-Aid, and grok what did and didn’t make the original special. Their development blog hypes features like incremental leaning and cautious door opening that sound mundane to the uninitiated, but mean the difference between life and a chaotic, bloody death in practice. Their mandatory gallery of static renderings is full of the tools familiar to any SWAT 4 veteran: sting-ball grenades, door jams, multi-tool lock picks. Most of all, their trailer shows doors being bashed in. They know SWAT.

Void Interactive are pandering to a very specific audience, but they know the lingo well. High-res, pre-rendered trailers are a dime a dozen these days, but as a SWAT 4 evangelist longing for an official sequel that I know will never come, I am very, very ready for this spiritual successor.

Artistry in Cities: Skylines

I am not good at Cities: Skylines. Oh, I can build a town that brings new citizens flocking in droves. I can balance the budget and alleviate traffic jams and periodically drop a stadium in an empty lot to bring prestige and fame to my quaint ‘burb. But I’ve come to realize that by focussing on these tasks I’ve been playing the game wrong, or perhaps even the wrong game.

440px-fosbury_flop_englishThe Olympic high-jump competition was, for centuries, a mixture of various styles of getting a human body over a suspended bar, until athlete Dick Fosbury introduced the Fosbury flop in 1968, a method of jumping that arcs the body backwards in flight to gain precious extra inches. That extra height quickly made the flop the only way to excel in high jumping, and pretty much the only method used in competition today.

Video games see similar revolutionary discoveries, shared and discussed in forums and on Youtube. Speedrun videos let runners optimize routes in various games (see Mirror’s Edge) until the difference between a world record run and an abysmal failure comes down to a matter of frames. Getting a winning time in Mario without taking advantage of certain peculiarities of the game is impossible. Games are more than races though, and have become complex enough to allow real talent to grow and be recognized by other players.

Disohonored1

Dishonoured was at first glance a slow, plot-based stealth game that rewarded patience and role-playing Corvo as a reluctant but honour-bound killer. After watching experienced players fly through ‘high-chaos’ runs of the game’s missions, it’s hard not to agree that the game is best enjoyed in a mana-fuelled, blood-soaked, rage. The proper, most fun way to play Dishonoured, the one that the developers clearly had in mind when placing assets and coding enemy behaviours, is as a high-velocity psychopath, taking full advantage of the game’s many mechanics and subtleties.

Cities: Skylines, released in 2015, hides a similar potential for sheer artistry beneath its city management exterior. Youtubers have created a world-building sub-culture, sharing videos of intricate architecture, beautiful landscaping, and set design to create convincingly detailed worlds. The goal is not to win the game as defined by Colossal Order, but to use it as both brush and canvas for their creativity. Watching a dedicated Cities:Skylines player paint an island and its inhabitants into existence, the mix of jealousy and admiration one feels must be similar to that felt by a bronze medallist watching Dick Fosbury win gold. It’s as though we’re not even playing the same game. They have discovered a depth to Cities: Skylines that you weren’t aware was even possible. While you focus on budgets and population density, they’re playing the game to its fullest. Their dedication and inventiveness deserves applause, for best appreciating what what Colossal Order made possible, even if it took years to do so.

CBC Thinks Justin Trudeau Is Just Dreamy

There’s an argument to be made that the CBC provides a valuable service to Canadians that justifies its billion-dollar annual cost. Canada is a geographically vast country with many isolated communities, and for many the CBC is the only easily-accessible source of news or entertainment. But surely the value of the content provided by the CBC should be factored into this argument. A strict adherence to journalistic integrity and ethics, and a commitment to always serve the public interest is what distinguishes Canada’s state broadcaster from the fatuous, idol-worshipping propaganda we see in foreign dictatorships, right?

Justin Trudeau recently visited Saskatchewan to promote his carbon tax, and stopped in at a Regina firehall for speeches and a staged photo-op. The local CBC branch was immediately smitten by photos of Justin half-heartedly donning a fireman’s jacket. Fair enough, for the heart wants what it wants. Not content to doodle in their trapper-keepers though (JT + CBC = <3), or maybe limit their Tiger-Beat fawning to an opinion piece, CBC Saskatchewan published a full news story to keep Canadians informed that “things got … steamy — at least on Twitter.

What’s slightly more embarrassing than the idea that this ‘news’ article was even considered in the first place is how far the author had to search to find corroborating opinions on Twitter to validate their premise. Without someone, somewhere, making a comment about Trudeau’s looks, the author wouldn’t be able to call this mash note ‘journalism’, and so they scoured Twitter’s feed just long enough to find sufficient evidence to adhere to CBC’s double sourcing guidelines. 3 accounts with about 1200 followers apiece, (only one of which it would appear actually belongs to a Canadian) represent ‘Social Media’ in the author’s opinion.

Thank you CBC. It’s good to know that you have Canadian’s backs when it comes to reporting on events that shape our lives in turbulent times.

Just be glad to know that the CBC is not a cheap date. Sweet talk and shiny gifts are nice, but at the end of the day nothing says ‘he loves you’ like cold hard cash.

Why A State-Run News Media Is A Bad Idea

Questioning the source of news stories is always a healthy practice, a beneficial cynicism we develop through years of experience. We understand that news programs aren’t produced by Samaritans with hearts of gold, but usually by corporations, for financial gain. That story at the top of the Camel Cigarettes News Hour, revealing that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend Camels Cigarettes for their smooth flavour and low tar probably isn’t Pulitzer material, and we’d be silly to think otherwise. Ulterior motives abound and should be scrutinized.

downloadIn Canada, one of our largest news organizations, the CBC, is funded not by a private corporation but largely by the government. That doesn’t make their motives any less deserving of scrutiny though. Even though an entity says it has your best interests at heart, it may not be telling the whole truth.

Consider the apparently pressing issue of incompetent financial investors. CBC raised the alarm in February that many bank employees, paid to give financial advice to customers, might bad at their jobs. Hidden cameras and flashy stacks of cash (and non-sequitur b-roll footage of babies on rocking horses) were deployed because that’s what news-y shows do, and otherwise the viewer might not believe that people might be bad at their jobs. The CBC introduced a dramatic problem that threatens the elderly, single mothers, and even you! But what can stop this villainous evil? Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Children

CBC then escalated the story in April, with concealed-identity interviews showcasing dark silhouettes and blurred faces dropping bombshells such as ‘Banks like profits’. With its foot in the door, the CBC ramped up its sales pitch. The only sure-fire, fast-acting, guaranteed effective cure to the scourge of financial investors? “Calling on the industry’s regulators across the country to implement something called a statutory best interest standard.”

bmo-insiderLest anyone think this was the CBC’s idea, they quickly published a follow-up news item citing polls that crow “89 per cent want the titles used by people selling financial investments to be regulated“! “It’s time for governments to stop discussing, debating and delaying, and start taking concrete action.” All the cool kids want regulations! You should too! Your friends and neighbours are doing it. You don’t want to be the last person on your block to demand government regulation, do you?

In short, a state-run media has gone out of its way to find a problem that not many people cared about, scare its viewers, and insist that it alone holds the solution, government regulation! What is the price of this miracle cure it’s selling? More laws, greater influence over the private sector, committees, studies, reports, debates, and new positions to oversee the whole works, employing government workers for centuries to come. All to fix a problem that could be addressed with Yelp reviews.

Private corporations are flawed, but at least we’ve developed a healthy skepticism for their tricks. Government has become so ubiquitous that we have a blindspot to the power we’ve granted it to feed us news, and the conflicts of interest that can create.

Rethinking Net Neutrality In The Age Of Trump

The topic of ‘Net Neutrality’ laws sits in the middle of a debate over which is worse: big business or big government. Internet access is a vital commodity, and exclusively provided by private, for-profit companies. With the established wired and wireless networks spanning North America, bandwidth is a vast, but not unlimited resource. The question posed is who should decide how this limited resource is distributed, and by what mechanism. The ‘for it’ side argues that private companies could artificially limit bandwidth for their own gain (profit) and should be regulated by government to distribute it according to the government’s definition of ‘fair’. The ‘against it’ side argues that private companies should be allowed to distribute bandwidth according to market demand, and that allowing governments to impose regulations on private companies is inefficient and a target for political coercion.

For years it was easy to cast each player in this debate in black and white caricature, government as good and business as evil. In the United States, Barack Obama’s administration was seen as principled and noble, treated with reverence by the press and defended passionately by the left. How could a government headed by a such an affable, jeans-wearing, bike-riding, smooth-dancing aw-shucks herald of civil rights and human dignity be distrusted? Obama was a champion for minorities of all categories, he fought for healthcare and the middle class, they said. Anyone who opposed such a benevolent and kind institution must surely be paranoid, unreasonable, or just on ‘the wrong side of history’.

Then, November came. Barack Obama was unexpectedly replaced not by the left-wing, media darling Hillary Clinton as so many predicted, but by Donald Trump, who had been portrayed for a year as unhinged, unstable, and unbecoming of the position. Republicans took a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. The drum-beat accusations of fascist, nazi-pandering, totalitarian, rights-trampling evilness migrated from Clinton’s campaign speeches into the teleprompters and opinion columns of the media, and from there to the popular wisdom of the left. It became cool to worry about concentration camps and military raids, and to tweet of fighting back against totalitarianism.

Now advocates for Net Neutrality on the left are forced to confront a contradiction: Is access to the internet a fundamental right, the protection of which should be entrusted to the enormous and arbitrary powers of government, or is the government a malicious, dictatorial regime that must be #Resisted? Should such a critical resource as internet access be entrusted to an institution helmed by one so demonized as Donald Trump? This is a conundrum which could be foreseen as easily as it can be avoided: Don’t give government any more responsibilities than absolutely necessary. You don’t have to worry about it abusing power it doesn’t have.

The future is unpredictable, and laws outlive the political climate in which they were created. This has to be considered when deciding how much regulatory power to grant governments. Once in place, regulations are hard to rescind, and often only get worse over time. Without taxpayer funding and a police force to back them, private companies rise and fall entirely at the mercy of their customers, and rather than every four years, your ballot is cast every time you open your wallet or take your business elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether people’s newfound distrust in government causes any to revisit their  opinion on the wisdom of Net Neutrality. Politics makes strange bedfellows, so with any luck Trump’s election will introduce some to the benefits of limited government.

 

Dwarf Fortress

When I first played Dwarf Fortress, I bounced off it like a timid bunny rabbit, crossing a busy highway just a little too slowly.

It was late 2005, or 2006, back before the game had a z-axis and you just dug eastward into a flat cliff. I was in university, and procrastinating. This was before the game had vampires, or farms, or a military, or graphics. First you found a river, then a lava stream. I didn’t make it to either. The maze of keyboard shortcuts you need to memorize to make any headway sent me packing after about 10 minutes. This hasn’t improved in the decade since.

Still, for months I’d read stories of how amazing this game was, once you buckled down and learned to speak its language, stories of grand adventures and elephant raids. Its promise haunted me. So, I broke down, unpacked the latest zip, and gave it another shot.

Bounce.

It wasn’t until about 2 or 3 cycles of this that I finally grokked Dwarf Fortress. First you have to overcome the interface. Then you have to learn its intricate network of industries. Then you have to learn the dozens of ways that dwarves can die. Then you have to relearn all of the above when a new version drops and upends everything you’ve learned before. Eventually you learn to enjoy the learning. I’ve since played Dwarf Fortress for hundreds of hours, without exaggeration, and I’m still learning. The game scratches the city-management itch like make other games, but the magic is discovering the intricacies of how all the little systems interact, all the nooks and crannies.

Since those early days, the game has grown. It gained a third axis, and always new systems. It became a game of legend, and spawned imitators who have risen and fallen in its wake. Gnomoria, A Game Of Dwarves, Clockwork Empires and countless others sought to bottle and sell the strange melange of freedom and punishment, of role play and micro management, of Sim City and NetHack. Each has fallen short in their own unique way, while Dwarf Fortress continues on in disaffected nonchalance.

Its hard to judge Dwarf Fortress harshly for any failings. It’s not finished, and creator Tarn Adams makes no promise about it being done, or welcoming, any time soon. This is his project, and he’s beholden to no one to make it in any way other than that which suits him. This uncompromising ethic is Dwarf Fortress’ curse and its blessing, the secret to its charms. Adams’ vision is of Dwarf Fortress as a narrative generation machine, capable of  simulating worlds and adventures as detailed as they are epic. Given what it accomplishes already I have no doubt he will achieve this.

As it stands, Dwarf Fortress is best considered a collection of systems that tests the player’s ability to survive. Shepard your dwarves through their first winter? Great. The first goblin attack? Wonderful. The unnamed horrors that lurk below your engraved-marble floors? Splendid. Lovely. You’ll never win of course, as there’s no ‘win’ state, but don’t you feel special for surviving for so long? Until you didn’t. But you will always know why you lost, and the lessons you learn will serve you well in the next game. And the game after that. And so on.

You’ll build castles, cathedrals, forges, intricate traps and vast military machines to crush your foes. Your dwarves will grow and die, wage war, and carve their story into the of the mountain you call home, and it will be your home because you laid out every room and hallway by hand. Your fortress will start small and end grand, in bloody ruins and smoking rubble, and you will serve as witness to its history.

The game still doesn’t have graphics. Or a sensible UI. A tutorial. A story campaign. An ending. Balanced AI. Those are just window dressing anyways, what matters is the simulation, the stories it tells you. But it does have fans, dedicated fans who have patched in some of the above, out of love for the game and its creator. Their wikis and mods and plugins and forums are built by people who shared the same struggles, who overcame them together, and who want to pass their wisdom and enthusiasm for the game on to you.

Recommending someone play Dwarf Fortress is like recommending someone try heroine. It’s irresponsible. Best case scenario, they bounce off as well. Worst case scenario, they persist, and spend hundreds of hours playing a delightful game that they could otherwise spend outside. It only rewards as much as you are willing to give it, and that kind of investment isn’t for everyone. I’m grateful, ashamed and proud that it is for me.

In Your Face

You are Lara Croft. Archeology student turned reluctant heroine, your adventures have carried you across the globe and deep into its crust, into an ancient tomb, thousands of years old. Dodging traps and enemies, risking life and limb, you finally stumble into its most sacred chamber, a shrine constructed by a forgotten people, built to house a tome of profound wisdom, whose dusty pages may hold a Rosetta Stone-like key to better understanding the mysteries of humankind’s origins. Time seems to stand still as you approach a glowing marble dias, this far from the outside world the only sound is the dry crackle of a flickering candle. Hesitantly, your fingers tremble as you reach to open the cover of this priceless artifact, this wondrous discovery that has laid buried for aeons.

NEW SKILL MASTERED: FAST HEALER!

Um… yay?

User interfaces in games must walk a fine and thankless line, balancing giving the player enough information that they’re not confused and lost in a new world, and staying out of sight enough to not distract the player from more pertinent in-world information, like where they’re driving, and who’s shooting at them.

jc13
Not Pretty

Games began as text-based affairs, and adopted 2D and 3D graphics and on-screen graphical elements over time. Now they’re predominately solely graphics-based, the best-known and best-selling descending from a lineage that began with Wolfenstein, Doom, and to a lesser but much more profound degree, System Shock (but more on that masterpiece later). Gamers are accustomed to on-screen crosshairs, health meters, and ammo counters lurking in the corners of their vision. As processing power has increased, gameplay has grown more complex, and world markers, crouch indicators, XP tallies, notifications and more have been thrown into the mix.

wc13
Pretty

The problem is that graphics have grown better and better over time as well, to the point where flashy, non-diagetic displays can ugly up a beautiful scene, get between the player and the world they’re exploring, and generally pull them out of the immediate experience. These improvements also mean that there are much better ways to convey information though, like texture or animation changes to indicate the degrading health of the player’s avatar, in-world ammunition displays or maps, or a reliance on physical iron sights for aiming. The ability to completely disable UI elements is becoming a standard option in games, as in Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4. This not only lets the player better appreciate the beauty that the games are capable of rendering, it also forces them to pay more attention to their surroundings, and adds extra challenge, like removing training wheels from a bike.

fc13
Pretty

As reliable and well-worn as on-screen prompts have become, better graphics in games demands more thoughtful and subtle use of UI to feed the player everything they need to know, including a rethinking of just how much UI is needed in the first place. A picture already tells a thousand words, there’s no need to break into the game’s narrative just to add a half-dozen more.

Far Cry 4

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s a moment in Far Cry 4 where the player must progress through a Kryatic ritual of self enlightenment. You burn incense, spin a prayer wheel, and make an offering of flower petals at a small, dignified shrine. This being an Ubisoft game though, each canned animation of your character carrying out these tasks is accompanied by a karma meter filling slowly at the top of your screen. No joke, the last step takes you from 75% karma to a full 100% karma, and the mission can then proceed to the fun bit, holding off a military invasion with machine guns and molotov cocktails.

It amuses me greatly to picture a design team standing around a white board discussing whether lighting a candle in solemn reflection should earn the player 25 karma points or 30. What colour bar best represents the player’s progression towards inner peace?

Far Cry 4 is immensely fun. Its sprawling steppes are full of encampments to assault, animals to hunt, and towers to climb. This far into the Far Cry series Ubisoft knows what they are doing when it comes to first person combat, vehicles, and hiding collectibles across all of creation. They know that camp assaults were the best part of their previous game, and so they’ve made them easy repayable in 4. They know how to make guns feel meaty and satisfying, and how to make encounters with wild animals terrifying and tense. They just don’t know how to handle more subtle concepts well.

Far Cry 2, the first of this mold, took place in the humid jungles and arid deserts of Africa. Far Cry 3 travelled to the south pacific, to allow for a brighter colour palate and more water-based exploration. Far Cry 4 backpacks to a faux Tibetan landscape, because the wing suit is amazing and combat is more fun when there’s a vertical component, with enemies spread up and down a mountainside.

With each migration, a fresh coat of location-specific veneer is applied over the basic game mechanics. Far Cry 2 had malaria pills to prevent the player from growing listless and bored, and conflict diamonds as currency. Far Cry 3’s skill system was tracked through the main character’s culturally-relevant tattoos. Far Cry 4 groups player skills into 2 libraries represented by a tiger and an elephant, and tracks XP in the form of karma points, earned by murdering hundreds and hundreds of people. With each iteration, the pretence grows thinner and thinner.

Make no mistake, Far Cry 4’s combat is glorious and boisterous, its world is detailed and beautiful, and Ubisoft have spared no expense in making Kryat a theme park of excitement and heroism. They are experts at open-world first-person shooting. It’s when they sometimes try to apply these talents to more esoteric concepts like religious observance that they fall flat on their face. Like a ’72 station wagon, a thin veneer is always quick to crack. Gamers know what XP and skill points are, there’s no need to play game-mechanic dress-up with every new franchise instalment.