The Witness

December 25, 2016

The Witness (2016) is a game made by Jonathan Blow.

I hesitated when I wrote that first sentence, because I have a feeling that calling The Witness a “game” is not doing it justice. However, I don’t think we have a better name for what it is, so let’s call it a “game” from now on, realizing that the term “game” is expansive and that The Witness is located somewhere at the boundaries of that expanse.

On the surface, The Witness is a collection of line puzzles sprinkled over a nice-looking 3D environment, namely an island with several different biomes, such as a mountain, a desert, an orchard, a jungle, and a village. Some of the puzzles are placed in obvious series. By solving seven of these series of puzzles, you open up a final area where some difficult puzzles are found, which you solve to end the game.

Some people stated that without the 3D environment, The Witness could be a smartphone game, and they are right, up to a point. You can play The Witness as a collection of puzzles, and when you are done with those, finish the game. If that is what you are looking for, and you are not enticed to look beyond those line puzzles, then the game has little more to offer you than the average smartphone puzzle game.

Most of the puzzles are actually obnoxiously simple, and you solve them in mere seconds time. The ones that have you stuck for a while longer are almost always those that unexpectedly introduce a new element, or puzzles that are placed in the world by themselves, or puzzles in the island’s village. The puzzles that introduce a new element are rather clever in the sense that when you see a new element, you are probably not going to solve the puzzle at all, as you have no idea what the new element means. However, you also quickly realize that somewhere on the island there is a series of puzzles that explain this new element. And the wonderful thing about these “explanation puzzles” is that they do the explanation purely intuitively. There are no help texts in this game. The puzzles have been carefully constructed in such a way that almost everybody will intuitively grasp what they have to do to solve them, and thus add to their knowledge of the game.

For the few puzzles that provide a tough challenge: you actually do not have to solve any of them to be able to finish the game. If you say: “screw these difficult puzzles, I just want to see the ending” and you rush through the puzzles that are easy enough, you will get access to the final series of puzzles (you only need to solve about 50% of the puzzles to get there). Those final puzzles can get pretty difficult, but you can find solutions online, so you enter those solutions and then experience the final ending — which will be a huge disappointment. The ending just makes the camera traverse the island, out of your control, after which you get dumped at the start of the game, with all the puzzles reset. That’s it. That’s why you went through all that trouble. I can imagine someone writing a review that states “Some of the puzzles were fun, but they got quite tedious after a while. The puzzles near the end were more interesting and challenging, but probably too hard for the average player. The ending is stupid, and a slap in the face of all who went through the trouble of solving all these puzzles. 2 stars out of 5.” (I have seen reviews like this.)

But here is the thing: The Witness is not about the puzzles. The puzzles are just a mechanism. They provide something for you to do to get a sense of progression. But they are not the core of the game. There is so much more to experience in the world. There are so many ideas placed in this game, most of them “hidden in plain sight.” You may miss these ideas, but once you catch some of them, you start seeing more. Fortunately, the game has ways built in to intuitively point out the most obvious of these ideas to you. But they are just the start.

I can’t say more about this, as you have to experience these elements of The Witness for yourself. The whole point of the game is to allow you to discover them. The Witness is one of the few games of which I say: “Make sure that you do not read anything about it before you play it, this game is best played without foreknowledge, and should only be discussed with others after you finished it.”

Let me just say that the game contains a lot of clever tricks. Many of these appear to be no more than just “clever,” and I expect that some of them indeed are nothing more. But others have layers of depth to them. They raise questions, which the game sometimes — but not often — provides an answer for. To give you an idea, without spoiling anything, here are some of the questions that you may ask:

  • Why does the sun not move?
  • Why is there a single rain cloud in the sky?
  • Why does the player have a shadow but no hands?
  • What happened to the occupants of the village?
  • Why is the game called “The Witness”?

These questions are all directly related to what you see in the game. But they lead to deeper, philosophical questions, which the game shares viewpoints (not answers) on if you are willing to look for them. However, besides these deeper layers, there are also game elements that are just there to screw with the player. In some cases I got the feeling that Jonathan Blow included specific features just to raise a middle finger to a particular kind of game player. In this sense, The Witness not only contains a game, but also a meta-game, a meta-meta-game, and probably even a meta-meta-meta-game.

I realized that the experience that The Witness provided me with, in many ways resembled my first reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This book is quite good at making you understand intuitively the complex ideas that it discusses before bringing up the actual ideas themselves. It also has so many layers of depth, that when you are sensitive to these things, you make new discoveries every few pages, sometimes thinking “that’s clever,” other times thinking “that’s deep,” and yet other times thinking “what am I supposed to think about that?” The point is that you feel that Hofstadter placed each and every word in that book deliberately, and that you are always missing elements just because you glanced over them — even though you get the overall intentions of the book.

The difference between The Witness and Gödel, Escher, Bach is that Hofstadter makes the overall purpose of the book explicit in the final chapters, while Jonathan Blow never states in clear terms what he means with the game. In that sense, Gödel, Escher, Bach is a scientific work, while The Witness is more a spiritual work — even though it radiates the feeling that Jonathan Blow heavily prefers science to spirituality.

I can’t say more about The Witness without running the risk of spoiling anything. Let me just say that I think it is a game that should be played by everybody — even though not everybody will get out of it what I got out of it, it manages to use the medium “game” as a way to let the player discover new ideas, which is a rare thing indeed. Moreover, it has a highly accessible interface, so that young and old can play it, even if you have very little previous experience with games.

I stated before that games can be an art form, though they seldom rise to the level that you expect of high art. The Witness, however, does.

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ADDITIONAL (January 1, 2017): I got into a brief discussion on The Witness on VideoGameGeek. I gave a fairly lengthy interpretation of the game, including my personal answers to the questions stated above. In it, I refer to the excellent video made on the game by Joseph Anderson. For those who are interested in my comments, you can find them here. Note that my comments and the video mentioned both contain very heavy spoilers, and I urge you not to consult them unless you have already finished the game. I know this warning is given by many for almost any review/discussion, but it is really serious this time, as what the game offers you is the discovery of perspectives, and you cannot experience that discovery if you just listen to or read about someone else’s discoveries.


Project GAMR is live!

October 21, 2015

Occasionally I have written on these pages on my ideas on understanding players of games through analysis of their playstyles as expressed in all kinds of gameplay variables. These ideas have been the basis of research I have been doing with some of my PhD students.

One of the most visionary and challenging approaches to research in this area was construed by my PhD student Shoshannah Tekofsky — she aims to collect all kinds of data from hundreds of thousands of players of triple-A games, encompassing their demographics, personality, motivation, and psychological state, and combine this with data gathered from their actual game-playing, to gain insight in what drives game players, what they get out of games, and how their playstyle reflects their person. Her vision is that you can gather such data if you manage to really connect to players and offer them something that they value.

She has been working on this concept for over a year now, not just at our own university, but mainly at the famous MIT Media Lab, in close collaboration with people from Riot Games (League of Legends), DICE (Battlefield), and Blizzard (World of Warcraft). She calls it “Project GAMR”.

And today Project GAMR went live!

You can visit it at http://projectgamr.com. A Facebook page is found at https://www.facebook.com/projectgamr. Twitter handle is @ProjectGAMR (#ProjectGAMR).


You Are Now Banished To Programming Hell…

July 5, 2015

…And You Will Enjoy It.

SpaceChem is a game that I recently discovered. It is a wonderful puzzle game of fiendish difficulty. The game has you construct molecules by disassembling other molecules and reassembling them in a different form. The crux is that you cannot do that by hand; you have two “waldo’s” (which you can think of as graspers) which follow a line that you set out. You can place instructions along the line, and the waldo’s will execute them when they encounter them. Typical instructions are: unload a new molecule from a particular input, grab a molecule, rotate it, bond it with a neighboring molecule, and dump a molecule in an output. The game starts out with some easy puzzles to teach you the ropes, but quickly ramps up the difficulty and has you construct factories that deal with the greenhouse effect, fuse atoms to create new elements, and even construct laser defenses against Lovecraftian monsters.

For people who like programming, SpaceChem is a wonderful experience. It requires you to be inventive with a limited instruction set and limited space. It requires you to invent new mechanisms based on simple instructions. It requires you to envision what the solution you are constructing is actually doing without seeing it being executed. It requires you think outside the box. It requires you to come up with ways to use the simple instructions provided to implement common programming tools (SpaceChem has no counter, but it has a flip-flop: a split in the road which the waldo will alternate between the left and right side; with a bit of inventiveness, you can come up with a way to use flip-flops to count to specific numbers, i.e., implement a for-loop).

After playing several levels of SpaceChem, I was convinced that I should use it in my programming classes. Because the main problem I encounter there is that students are unable to think like programmers. They are used to looking up stuff in books, to argue a point, to produce statistical results, to understand what variance entails, and to use software. But they cannot imagine what it means to talk to a machine in a language of basic instructions, and use those instructions to tell the machine how it should solve a problem.

This is what SpaceChem requires you to do. The two waldo’s are stupid; they just follow the line and do exactly what the instructions along the line are saying. They will happily try to rotate a molecule that they are not holding. They will run in an endless loop if you have made one. They make molecules crash into each other if you have not made sure that that cannot happen. They are just doing what you told them to do. But the thing is, even with the very few instructions available, and the very limited space, you can make the waldo’s do grand jobs.

This is what programming is all about. The problem with programming a solution for a problem is that you get confronted with the whole problem at once. You will have to find ways to cut it into manageable chunks, see how those chunks interact, and implement the chunks using the limited toolset that you have. The power that a good programmer has is that he or she can take huge problems, and carve them up into pieces that are all logical, understandable, and possible to implement. SpaceChem provides this experience in an entertaining way.

I am not the only one who came up with the idea of using SpaceChem in programming class. I found that in the UK the game is actively used in high-school programming classes. If it indeed helps students understand what programming is, it is probably the first edutainment game that I have encountered that actually is both fun to play and has educational value.

Of course, I would not be surprised if the main reason that I like SpaceChem is that I like programming and can do a reasonable job of it. And it should be noted that what a programmer has to do is usually much easier than the jobs that you have to do in SpaceChem. Modern programming tools are far more powerful than the simple SpaceChem environment, and the artificial limitations that the game pushes in your face are at least 30 years out of date. Therefore I feel that the following statement is apt:

“SpaceChem does not make you think like a programmer — it makes you think like an assembly programmer.”

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8 out of 10 is pretty bad

January 4, 2015

The Summer of 2014 set the stage for a rather ugly controversy that is known as “GamerGate”. Whilst it was going on, I was tempted to write a blog-post about it, but managed to restrain myself. That is probably a good thing, because I think that each and every person who vented an opinion about it, is now regretting doing so, regardless of the side they found themselves on.

GamerGate got some legitimacy from the claim of certain proponents that it was about ethics in game journalism. Unfortunately, the message that it was supposed to put a spotlight on, was quickly drowned in a mist of puerile behaviors, borderline blackmail, smearing campaigns, and painfully obvious manipulations on both sides of the controversy. The net effect is that GamerGate faded out because at some point everybody involved was just hoping that ignoring it would make it go away and leave nothing more than a bad aftertaste. Which in some sense is too bad, as the need to deal with unethical practices in game journalism is as topical as it ever was.

The problem with game journalists is that, in general, they are not held to the standards that newspaper journalists have to uphold. In particular, most game journalists heavily rely on game publishers for their income, and therefore are practically unable to give fair reviews of games. Every person who calls himself a gamer knows that it is pointless to check out game reviews if you want to know whether a game is good or not. If a professional game reviewer rates a triple-A game “8 out of 10”, you may expect that it is a pretty bad game, as actually good games get at least “9.5 out of 10”.

If you want to see for yourself how this works out, go to metacritic and check out the reviews for the PC version of Bioware’s new game Dragon Age: Inquisition. Average score of professional reviewers: 8.5. Average score of players: 5.8.

I think the players produce the correct score here. I consider myself a fan of the Dragon Age series, and enjoyed the previous games in the series very much. I think this new release is clichéd and dull. It is objectively unstable and hard to control. It has replaced the enjoyable tactics and fascinating party interaction of the previous games with endless fetch quests and tedious resource collection. I am not saying that it is a total failure. It can still be a fun experience, depending on what you look for in a game. But it is severely flawed. Which leads to the mixed reviews that the players gave it, with about equal amounts of love and hate.

So how is it possible that most professional game reviewers heap so much praise on the game? A cynical person (and yes, I am a cynical person) might suspect that the money that flows from the pockets of publisher Electronic Arts towards game reviewers has something to do with it. I am not saying that game reviewers regularly receive payoffs, but the sites they post their reviews on, and which pay their salaries, usually are heavily depended on advertising by game publishers. Moreover, the game publishers provide them with early access to new games, which they need to be able to provide reviews before games get released, which is when most people want to check them out. So they have a strong incentive to remain on the publishers’ friendly side.

A less cynical person might believe that it is simply the case that most game reviewers belong to the class of people who love this game. But even if a professional game reviewer loves the game, then it is still his job to tell the readers whether or not the game has the merits that the readers are looking for. These reviewers are not hobbyists who vent their own, personal opinions. Even if they adore the game, their review should still be along the lines of “I personally love Inquisition, despite its clunky controls and stability issues. Know that, if you liked the previous games in the series because of the quality of storytelling and deep quests, you are probably going to be disappointed with this new one. 7 out of 10.” Just heaping loads of praise on a game while ignoring the glaring issues that it has is plain unprofessional.

By the way, if you read some of the reviews, you might notice that many of them say how much better Inquisition is than the previous game in the series, Dragon Age II. While I personally liked Dragon Age II a lot, it is widely criticised by players, who, we find on metacritic, on average rate it 4.4. However, the professional reviews on metacritic average 8.2 for Dragon Age II. So, while at the time evidently they extolled the game (rating it almost as high as Inquisition now), today they look back on it as “a pretty bad game”. Which illustrates once more the point I make above.

The inescapable conclusion that must be drawn about reviewers that rated Inquisition “9 out of 10” or more is that they are unprofessional, either because they are unable to provide readers with trustworthy information, or because they engage in unethical behavior.

Considering the amount of money that is nowadays spent on games, game reviewers should be held to higher standards than many of them uphold. In my opinion, the steps to achieve such should come from the reviewers themselves. Because if you leave it to the public, the next GamerGate is around the corner. And nobody wants to experience that again.


Refinement of point salads

May 25, 2014

About a decade ago, prof. Hiroyuki Iida of the Japan Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (JAIST) proposed a Theory of Game Refinement. This theory describes the elements that a game must have to be “refined,” which translates roughly to “entertaining to play for experts.” The theory states that the three main pillars of game refinement are:
(1) Complexity (noble uncertainty): discovery of new tactics should be possible;
(2) Fairness (draw ratio): opponents should match in playing strength; and
(3) Refinement (see-saw game): the outcome of the game should remain uncertain for an ‘optimal’ length of time.

The last pillar evidently is considered the most important one, as the whole theory is named after it. Indeed it is, as the other two pillars more or less follow automatically from it. To see why, you have to understand what the third pillar actually says. The refinement pillar states that a game has an optimal playtime length, and that the outcome of the game remains undetermined for most of that time. The optimal playtime length depends on the game itself. For instance, we may assume (since professional matches gravitated to these numbers) that the optimal length of a game of Chess is 3 to 4 hours, while the optimal length of a game of Soccer is 1.5 hours. A game is refined if victory remains within reach of each of the opponents until close to the end of the playtime.

The complexity pillar follows from the refinement pillar, as a game that is not sufficiently complex that players may devise new tactics is simply boring, and the optimal playtime length approaches zero. I call this ‘meaningful play’: the game must constantly offer the possibility to make interesting decisions. So-called ‘roll-and-move’ games, wherein you roll a die and move a pawn the number of spaces shown on the die, then do what is printed on the final space, do not have interesting decisions at all. In contrast, in Chess, in particular in the mid-game, all moves progress the plans of a player and fundamentally change the state of the game in a way that players must respond to intelligently.

The fairness pillar follows from both the refinement pillar and the complexity pillar: if one of the opponents is inherently much stronger than the others, a game which is built on meaningful decisions will be decided long before the optimal playtime length is reached. As adults usually have tactical insights while small children do not, a game between parents and their children can only be fair if tactics play no role. The reason that ‘roll-and-move’ games are common pass-times for adults with kids, is that the ‘roll-and-move’ mechanism completely levels the playing field as far as tactical insights are concerned. Naturally, such games are inherently boring to anyone with an ounce of tactical sense, which unfortunately has led to the misconception held by many adults that board games are boring and only meant for very young children.

While I have not seen the Theory of Refinement applied explicitly to modern board games, it seems to me that most designers of modern board games take the theory to heart implicitly. Modern board games are supposed to have an optimal playtime length, which is usually printed on the side of the game box. Typical playtime lengths are between 1 hour and 2.5 hours. While I have found that often these claimed lengths are a bit on the optimistic side, you know that you can finish one or two of these games in an evening and are supposed to be entertained most of that time. There are some older games (I am talking decades, not centuries, here) which have playtime lengths which are rather unpredictable, or which have long, drawn-out endgames in which everybody already knows who is walking away with the victory. However, in the games published in the last decade you seldom see that anymore.

Modern game developers usually keep grips on the length of the game by introducing a mechanism that progresses the game towards the end with a steady pace. Examples of such mechanisms are: having a limited number of turns, having a board that fills up, having a draw pile of cards that gets depleted, or having a limited amount of available resources that get used up. These mechanisms tend to work well.

After setting both a lower and an upper limit to playtime length, the problem that game developers then have to solve is how to keep the outcome of the game uncertain for almost all of that time. A recent solution to this problem, which many popular game developers apply, is a rather ugly one: victory is determined by points, and you get a LOT of points during the game, for a high variety of activities. This is usually coupled with a complete lack of insight in how many points each player scored and/or the awarding of a large number of end-game bonus points. Recently the term ‘point salad’ was coined for such games.

The consequence of a ‘point salad’ design is that every move that a player makes seems to be a tactical one as it scores points, but that no players (except perhaps those who have played the game a lot) will know who is ahead until the end of the game. This might seem to satisfy the refinement requirement that the game’s outcome is undetermined for most of the playtime, but I would argue that it does not. The reason is as follows. In every game, either tactics have no influence on the game’s outcome, or the tactically best player will win the most. If tactics have no influence, decisions are not meaningful, and the game is not refined. If the tactically best player usually wins, it means that it is known which of the myriad of point-scoring actions in a point salad game is the most beneficial, and only for the tactically weak players the outcome of the game is unknown until the final tally.

Naturally, there are nuances in this argumentation. If a point salad game is so well-balanced that no dominant strategies exist naturally, a tactical fight between strong players of such a game might be interesting and entertaining. Strategies are very hard to balance, though, and it is common that, within a relatively short time after publication of a point salad game, players have identified the one or two dominant strategies of the game, i.e., the strategies which allow the collection of just enough extra points to lead to victory. It still means that every player at the end of the game has so many points that the ending scores are pretty close, but the knowledgeable player knows that the final ranking was inevitable.

Still, despite the rampant criticism on the point salad mechanism, point salad games tend to be quite popular and sell well. I can explain the popularity as the result of the many colorful components of such games, the fact that they usually are not overly competitive or punishing (if you cannot do action A for 7 points, you do action B for 3 points now and 4 points later), and the fact that players can easily socialize with each other around the game table rather than sit in silence burning their brains.

From that perspective, as an activity, point salad games can be entertaining. But as games they seldom are refined.


A plea for patience

June 7, 2013

I see three big reasons why you should not buy the newest video games:

(1) Games that are newly released are usually expensive and see a price drop within months after their first release.
(2) Games are often rushed out to meet an arbitrary deadline and contain numerous bugs that get fixed using patches during the first months after their first release.
(3) Many games that are hyped up before their first release turn out to be big turds in the first week after having entered the market.

Now I found that BioWare got me a fourth reason (as if I needed another one).

About a year ago in this blog I ranted about Mass Effect 3: that it did not reach the level of quality of Mass Effect 2, that the multi-player zones in the single-player game were boring, that there was insufficient diversity in enemies, that the focus on interaction with team mates was lost, and that it had an incredibly stupid out-of-the-blue ending.

In the last weeks I took another character through the Mass Effect series, and now I had some of the Mass Effect 3 DLC installed (some of which was published earlier this year). My conclusion: while I still prefer Mass Effect 2 over Mass Effect 3, most of my issues with Mass Effect 3 have evaporated.

Let me explain.

When BioWare got overwhelmed with a tsunami of complaints about the stupid ending to Mass Effect 3, they quickly released a free Extended Cut DLC, which padded the ending and lessened some of the problems that people had with it. While that DLC helped the game because it provided some closure, it did not help with the ending just being stupid, or with the overall feeling that Mass Effect 3 was just less “personal” than Mass Effect 2.

Since then three big DLCs were released: Omega, Leviathan, and Citadel.

Omega is forgettable from a storyline perspective. It does add some variety and some new enemies, however, which helps when players get bored with the samey enemies that they meet in the main storyline.

Leviathan is a great addition to the game. Not because of its storyline, which is OK but not great. Not because of the fights and tactics, because they are hardly any different from the main game. No, what makes it great is its expansion of the game’s lore. The climax of Leviathan provides, in a very personal way, deep insight into the origin of the main game villains, the Reapers. And what is so great about this insight is that in an extensive way, it sets up the ending of the game. The main reason that the game’s ending was considered stupid was that it came out of nowhere. With the Leviathan expansion, it is foreshadowed and can even be foreseen. Suddenly, the story becomes whole again.

Citadel, finally, is absolutely wonderful. Citadel focuses on the player’s interaction with the team mates. It has a very light, almost zany story, which turns Shepard into a sort-of one-lining action hero movie star, who remains completely unfazed in the face of even the worst peril, and makes a joke about everything. The companions all get their spotlight, joke around, and help Shepard in their own personal way. And after all the action is over, Shepard celebrates with them, which leads to many small interactions, most funny, and all of them touching. It is true that during the main game the companions are still mostly just fight support, but this DLC gives them life in a way that makes up for much of the faults of the main game in this respect.

Besides these three (or at least the last two of them), any player of the game should also install the first-day release DLC which contains Javik the Prothean party member. He is a strong addition to the storyline, especially considering the Leviathan DLC (and my femShep who was without a relationship had a surprising and brilliantly funny moment with him in Citadel).

So, in my view, Mass Effect 3 has finally become a worthy sequel to its illustrious predecessors. The problem is, of course, that the big mass of players who already completed the game in the first months after its original release, were confronted by the inferior, unfinished mess that the game once was, got annoyed by it, and will probably never experience the game as it should be.

Which gives me another reason not to buy newly released games anymore: it looks like even big studios now release games in an unfinished state, and only complete it months after it got into the market. You can count on them releasing another version of their game, including all DLC, 6-12 months after the first release, for a price lower than the cost of the original. That’s the game that you want, right there.

So, if you want an expensive, buggy, unfinished game, you should buy it immediately at its release. If you prefer a cheap, streamlined, finished game, you just wait a couple of months. Just exhibit some patience, okay?


Substance over form

May 16, 2013

Stefan Feld has been appointed headmaster of the Uwe Rosenberg School of Crappy Game Design.

Let me rephrase that: in recent years, several concepts have become popular in the design of modern board games that I believe lead to weak designs. Two noteworthy and popular designers who apply these concepts are Uwe Rosenberg and Stefan Feld, but they are definitely not alone.

Before I am going to discuss these inferior concepts, I need to give an explanation of what I think makes a good game. In my opinion a good game is a game that has tactical and strategical depth following from a parsimonious ruleset. To put it in simpler terms: A good game is easy to learn and still offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. It follows that a good game has little randomness (because much randomness makes choice less relevant) and has interaction with opponents (because without, a lack of randomness would allow straightforward calculation of the best moves). In this vein, Go approaches perfection in game design: with only four rules it can be taught in 5 minutes, but it offers a lifetime of tactical and strategic exploration.

Now, besides offering some challenge, modern board games also must be fun, or at least interesting, to play. And fun can be incorporated through different means, for instance by adding a captivating and visually good-looking theme, or by offering players a lot of diversity in choices. So-called ‘Ameritrash’ games usually have overly complex rulesets and a lot of randomness, but are so theme-heavy that they may become a lot of fun to play if the theme appeals to you (for me personally, Battlestar Galactica is the core example of a game that sins against all my mantras for good game design and is still an enormous amount of fun to play).

In recent years, I have observed a trend in modern board game design that has become highly popular but which I think is detrimental to the design of good games. This trend really took off with Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola, which is why I attribute it to him. Let’s call it the Rosenberg Style. The Rosenberg Style has the following features:

  • The game looks good, with a rainbow of colored wooden or cardboard bits, to provide an instant ‘Wow’ factor leading to quick sales.
  • The game has a crapload of cards, where each card represents a different rule, so that players believe that it has a lot of diversity (alternatively, for ‘cards’ read ‘action spaces’).
  • The game has a myriad of different ways to score points.
  • The game obfuscates the final score, so that all players will always have the feeling that they “just might win”.

The Rosenberg Style might lead to interesting games. Agricola, for instance, is a game that I enjoy. I don’t think it is a great design, but because of the tension that the game provides between scoring and (basically) eating victory points, combined with the fierce battle between players over the scarce resources, provides a nice challenge.

However, more often than not it leads to games that are simply inferior. Rosenberg’s latest, Ora & Labora is just terrible. There are so many ways to score points in that game, and you will score so many points during it (which are only calculated at the very end), that you never have any idea who is ahead. The game comes with hundreds of cards, all of which will be played during the game, each card representing a different building with different ways of using it. You can use all the cards on the table, even those in front of other players, which are very hard to see, and of which even the exact positioning matters. It comes with several hundreds of little two-sided cardboard chits, of which each player has dozens of different ones in their resource pool, and which have a tendency to accidentally fall over to their other side, which has a big impact on the game. The game just handles badly. Even if it would be a good game otherwise, its physical attributes alone make the design just a plain awful.

The weird thing, to me, is that Ora & Labora is quite popular, to the point that many people call it superior to Agricola. I have been wondering why that is, and I have concluded that Ora & Labora is more an activity than a game, and what many people look for in a game is something to do rather than a challenge to overcome. Because the scoring of Ora & Labora is more or less invisible, there is no need to worry about it. Because you have so many possibilities, there is always something that you can do. If you can’t quickly find an action to perform, you take some resources — that’s never bad. If you want particular resources that don’t seem to be available, you take some action — those are never bad. Or you construct a building — there are several points right there. If you want, you can set a strategy at the start or during the game — “this time I will try to make lots of whiskey and beer and get points by turning them into relics!” And if that doesn’t pan out, you just change to another strategy on the fly. It is not a bad thing that a game allows switching strategies, but in Ora & Labora you can do it because it does not seem to matter.

To be frank, I believe that in Ora & Labora strategies actually do matter, and that there are definitely ways to play the game that are superior to other ways. But to get to that level of thinking, you must have played the game so often that you know all the cards, and you can follow them on the table. It will probably take at least half-a-dozen plays to get some ideas in that direction, and several dozens to reach the minimal level of knowledge needed to be a strong competitor. But Ora & Labora got rave reviews from the outset, from people who played it once or twice. Why? Because it is an activity. You do stuff. It does not matter if you really know what you are doing. You always have choices, you always score points, you have a feeling that you are in control because you have lots of resources, and at the end someone wins. Maybe with 300 points, but as you had 285 points, you did quite well, didn’t you?

It is my firm opinion that in a game choices should matter. I loathe roll-and-move games (like Monopoly) because there are no real choices to be made. The Rosenberg Style often (but not always) leads to games where choices do not matter much as they are balanced to provide every player with about the same amount of points, regardless of what they do. The main saving grace of these games is that they hide the fact that choices do not matter under a thick layer of diversity and colorful components. (I should point out here that I think that Rosenberg’s own games that use this style tend to be more interesting than those of most of his colleagues.)

I think that one reason that we see so many new games using the Rosenberg Style these days, is that it is relatively easy to design games this way. You have a game with a board that allows players to get resources, and buildings that convert resources. You give it ten types of resources and create 200 buildings, all along the line of “The Smithy turns 2 Iron and 3 Gold into a Horseshoe and 7 Nails”. You allow players to construct those buildings using resources, and use them with workers. Each building is worth points, some resources are worth points, and quite a few buildings allow turning resources into points. At the end you add up all the points. And there’s your mechanism.

The main trick, where the designer is concerned, is to devise a good theme to give those buildings interesting-sounding names and convince the publisher that they should hire a good illustrator and invest in nicely-colored wooden bits. You might think that the building design is pretty tough to keep balanced, but it is not really that hard, because of three reasons: (a) it is usually relatively easy to come up with some rules of thumb to decide what the building should cost to construct; (b) as you allow every player to use every building, any player can make use of an overly strong building; and (c) you want a little bit of unbalance (though not too much), so that players feel that they need to fight over some buildings.

Rosenberg Style games are often forgettable, in the sense that people rave about them when they come out, but no longer play them two years later. Ora & Labora is already on its way out. And why not? These games are similar to action movies that hinge on special effects: once you have seen them, they no longer hold interest, and the effects are dated in a few measly years.

My main annoyance with Rosenberg Style games is their brief popularity. I do not play games on my own. I need others to play with me. And if these others are keen to switch from one Rosenberg Style game to another, I never get the chance to really explore a game that deserves exploration. Fortunately, in the groups where I play there are enough people who want more from their games than just an activity. But even they get swayed now and again.

That’s fine in a sense: I can be entertained by “just an activity” too. As long as I get to experience games designed on substance rather than form with some regularity, I’m good.


Faith in games

December 26, 2012

The Penny Arcade website presents a show called Extra Credits, which is about the construction and analysis of video games. While this show was off to a strong start, later episodes have lost the initial qualities now the creators have had to delve into topics on which they can hardly be called experts. The Christmas 2012 episode, on Faith in Games, is a low point of their careers. I am not going to list all the faults of this episode, as many of the commenters manage to pinpoint its inaccuracies adequately (especially concerning the origins of science, scientific progress, the comparisons of science and religion, and the out-of-context quoting of Einstein). Instead, I want to knock down the whole premise of this episode, which is “while video games deal with the lore and mechanics of religion, they do not explore the heart of religion, which is faith.”

What is faith? Faith is the conviction that something is the truth despite a lack of evidence. Religious faith is the belief in a deity without any objective proof that that deity actually exists. The key word here is “objective” — “Faith” is inherently a subjective principle, as the belief which it supports cannot be transferred to others by objective means. I will not further explore what my ideas on beliefs in real life are, as it is not the topic under discussion, and I already wrote an extensive dialogue about it elsewhere. I want to discuss whether or not the concept of faith is found in video games.

From my perspective, faith is actually a very common concept in games. It is one of the basic driving forces behind a great chunk of all games’ story lines. Do you remember this story? For centuries the country has suffered under the tyranny of its rulers. The people live in poverty and fear. But the old prophecies speak of a hero from far-away lands, who will free the country of its oppressors. You are that hero.

I do not know which game that reminds you of, but there are many for which this is the basic premise. A land in need. Old prophecies that predict the coming of a savior. The player fulfilling the hero’s role. Usually in this story line the player explores the country, fights evil forces, meets adversity, and acquires new and advanced powers which allow him to fulfill his destiny. You can make some obvious comparisons with the New Testament, but apart from the prophecies such a story line more or less copies the standardized Hero’s Journey, which is at the core of 80% of all stories told.

Where is the concept of “faith” in all these stories? It is in the prophecies. They are really common in such games — either in the form of books, scrolls, a priest class, or mystic sages that guide the hero on his quest. Game developers need a way to progress the story, and usually that is by something like “to defeat the dragon, you need the sword of Whatchammacallit, which is hidden deep in the dungeon of Sumthingorother.” How does the player know that the sword is there? Because it is in the “sacred books,” or the “wise mystic” told him. Really, most of the time, that is the driving force behind games.

And the player believes the old books and mystic sages. Why? One reason is that he has no choice: the game does not allow him to say “You know what, forget about gathering the Seven Orbs of InsertNameHere, I will just attack the castle with my bare hands.” The most important reason, however, is that it is a premise of all these games that the prophecies in them are meant to represent truth. They are just a cheap storytelling device to impart upon the player a sense of destiny and some knowledge that nobody within the game could have.

So, from a meta-gaming perspective, the player knows that the prophecies are true within the confines of the game. This means that the player’s character rightfully has faith in such prophecies. The player knows that the deities that created these prophecies — the game developers — do exist. Within the confines of the game world, the hero character may not know this truth. But he has no mind of his own. The game can hardly require the player to forget about this meta-gaming knowledge while controlling the hero’s actions.

This is how faith is found in many games: knowledge, imparted by old books or revelations, which the hero is supposed to accept as truth, only because of the “mystic origins” of this knowledge. And the hero readily places his trust in this knowledge, because his controller — the player — is convinced that the knowledge represents clues on how to continue the game. This conviction arises from the implicit understanding that the game developers want him to accept this knowledge in the game as truth.

Granted, while very common, this is not an interesting incarnation of faith in games. Faith becomes interesting when it leads to conflicts, doubts, and uncertainty. How can such interesting aspects of faith be implemented in games? They cannot readily be part of the personal player experience, as the player has all this meta-gaming knowledge that cannot easily be removed from the in-game hero’s actions.

One way would be to observe the evolution of faith in others. Quite a few games do this: we may observe characters choosing actions based on faith, or losing faith when the player shows them the light. Usually, such implementations of faith are not very interesting. They could easily be replaced by any other driving force, like a lust for revenge, a need to protect a family, the adherence to a code, or simple curiosity and a need for exploration.

It would be much more interesting to let the player interactively experience faith. And actually, as interactivity is the only advantage that games have over other art forms, if a game desires to convey some insight into faith, interactive experience is how it should try to do it. Very few games manage to do this. A major example is found in the game Planescape: Torment, in which the character Dak’kon has a strong belief in the mystic knowledge imparted by the Circle of Zerthimon. He can teach the player about the circle, and the player is quite willing to accept the mystic origins of the circle as by exploring it, he can gain new powers. (Slight spoiler follows until the end of the paragraph) Interestingly, later in the game the player may find out that the circle was actually constructed by a previous incarnation of himself, with the sole purpose to bind Dak’kon in servitude to himself unto death. Thus, Dak’kon’s faith was actually misplaced — and consequently, the player who followed him in this also had his faith misplaced.

Now, few players will view the lessons in faith that Planescape: Torment brings as more than just storytelling. But it is definitely possible to see them as a commentary on faith in real life. I would welcome more games that dare to diverge from the beaten path in this regard. I have envisioned a game in which the player who follows the mystic insights that the game brings is actually led to his doom, while the player who decides to dump all the visions of those mystics by the wayside finds victory in the end. However, without the game actually telling the player that he should ignore the mystics, this would be seen by players as cheating — the basic tenets of storytelling in games require mystics to speak truth.

In short, while many games are drenched in faith, almost all implementations of it are really simplistic, as the player has no need to doubt the in-game truth behind them. There is no need to ask the question “But what if faith in these prophecies is misplaced?” As such, faith as used in most games is just not interesting. Perhaps that is why the Extra Credits crew did not even recognize it.

Addendum (January 20, 2013): The Extra Credits team posted a video response to the reactions they got in the comments section as their next episode. By Jove, don’t these people realize how condescending and sometimes even insulting they are? They are blatantly redefining what they mean with the term “faith” (and getting it wrong once again), and tell their audience that if you did not get it the first time it was entirely your fault as you were not smart enough to grasp their clever misdirections. I will not delve deeper into this, as, again, there are plenty of discussions in the comments that do that sufficiently well. In the end, I can only conclude that either the Extra Credit team does now know the difference between an axiom and faith, or has no idea of what the scientific method entails. I expect the answer is “both.”


Mr. Worf is not amused

December 11, 2012

Recently I had in-depth discussions with several students on the subject of good game design, and in particular on the question why it seems that games were much better designed ten years ago than they are now. The general impression was that nowadays games are designed to be way too easy. Or rather, using game designer terminology, too user-friendly.

To be clear, I think that games need to be user-friendly in terms of their controls (I made an extensive blog about games that made user-unfriendliness of controls a gameplay-element, and I had some choice words to say on the subject). However, many of the big commercial games have become “user-friendly” in their challenges, i.e., they reduce the challenge level to a point that even novice users have an easy time getting through a game. They compensate for that by offering flashy effects, driving the player along by promises of even more flashy effects if he continues playing.

A recent example of a game that fails miserably in the challenge department is the recently released Dishonored. I had been looking forward to this game, as I thought that it captured the spirit of one of my favorite games of all time: Thief 2: The Metal Age. It promised the same setting, the same style, the same kind of gameplay elements as its classic predecessor, but vastly upgraded graphics. I discovered that, indeed, it was the spiritual successor of Thief 2 — except that it wasn’t nearly as much fun. My question is: is that because of bad game design?

The Thief games are stealth games: you play a character who has to sneak through a sprawling city, performing deeds of theft, espionage, and sabotage. But the player character is very weak; he cannot hold his own against even one guard. He has to rely on staying undetected, accomplishing his goals by subterfuge and clever use of the environment. The games can be played on several levels of difficulty, mainly distinguished by the health that the player character has, and the toughness of his objectives, which may range from “being allowed to kill” to “nobody should die”, and “stealing a handful of baubles” to “clearing out the mansion”. The higher difficulty levels are a great but fun challenge, forcing the player to make frugal use of his meager resources.

Dishonored starts out as Thief: the player character must sneak through an area, peeping through keyholes, incapacitating an unaware guard here and there, and picking up a few coins along the way. However, the player realizes quickly that he is actually a formidable opponent for the guards: even if they attack him in large groups, armed with muskets, the player has no problem dispatching them with his sword without getting more than a scratch — and even those scratches are easily healed. The player might feel a bit disappointed in that, but may then realize that at least the game recognizes the fact that he hasn’t killed anybody in a level, so he might as well set his own challenge not to become too violent.

But by the second level, the player has acquired some cool powers. He can teleport over short and longer distances. He can look through walls, seeing guards and treasure on the other side. He can possess animals. He can even slow down time. Okay, he has to pay for those powers by using runes, but the most powerful powers (teleporting and X-ray vision) are incredibly cheap — both to acquire and to use — and make the game even on the very hard difficulty level a doddle.

But there is still the choice aspect, isn’t there? The player has the freedom to go wherever he wants, accomplishing his goals in the manner he chooses. Well, yes, but decision making is not really involved. It might seem like choice has a role to play on the surface, but after a short while the player will realize that the game has been designed to make his decisions inconsequential in achieving his goals. If he finds a door, he can go through it or not. If he goes through it, he will find himself in the place where he needs to be. If he does not, again he will find himself in the place where he needs to be. Planning is unnecessary, if the player just acts in whatever fashion, the game will make sure that he ends up near his goal. Of course, if the player approaches the game without a plan he may not complete some of the side-quests, which give him an extra power, or a bit more treasure. But the player has no needs for those powers or the cash. The game is showering him with powers and treasure anyway.

Dishonored, even on the very hard difficulty level, is designed for casual players. Players who want to complete the game in 5 to 10 hours, in which they experience everything the game has to offer: a story, a boatload of cool weapons and powers, and lots of visual effects. They should not get stuck, they should not need to read a manual, they should not even need to think.

When in the second level I acquired X-ray vision, I wondered why the programmers went through the trouble of implementing the ability to look through keyholes, because I had only used it two or three times on the first level and from then on had no reason at all to do so anymore. Later I realized that that first level, taking about one hour to finish, was actually about 10% of the game. So, in game terms, the power to be a Peeping Tom was actually useful in a substantial part of the game. The fact that it got replaced by X-ray vision was just to give the player a new power, which made the game even easier than it was before, allowing the player to experience a new cool effect, and to speed up the game even more. Because casual players get bored if the game lasts too long or does not offer something new every 15 minutes or so.

Do I think that Dishonored is a badly designed game? No, in fact I think the opposite. I admire the designers for the way that they manage to give the player the impression that he is playing a game, while in fact it is the game that plays the player. I do not mean this sarcastically, I truly think that they have been able to create a game that accomplishes the rather challenging goals that they set for themselves. The result is a game that even the most casual player can pick up, have an entertaining few hours with, and finish. After which he will pick up another game and forget about Dishonored. Because you may remember an Indonesian Rijsttafel that you enjoyed, but you will forget about a Happy Meal.

I believe that the ability to create games that can stand the test of time is now outside the reach of triple-A game developers. Their games need huge investments, which cannot be recovered if these games mainly appeal to experienced players. They have to reach an audience as wide as possible, which includes everybody and his grandmother. My conclusion therefore is that Dishonored has excellent game design, which, unfortunately, means that it accomplishes its indirect goal of not being a memorable game.


Quantum mechanics

July 13, 2012

Quantum Conundrum is a recently-published game that is presented as a puzzle game in Portal style: first person perspective, zany but monotone environment, with extraordinary physical mechanics that allow for original puzzle construction. While generally the game has received positive reviews, in my opinion it fails to deliver. Moreover, it fails to deliver because of serious design mistakes, which are extra deplorable because the game certainly had the potential to be actually good.

Quantum Conundrum‘s puzzles revolve around dimension switching: the game sports five different dimensions, which the player can switch between by the press of a button. The trick to solving puzzles is using these dimensions to your advantage, such as picking up a light object, throwing it at a window, and then quickly switching to another dimension to make it sufficiently heavy to smash the window. And indeed, especially in the first half of the game the player will encounter multiple fun puzzles which require some original thinking about the five dimensions.

The game mainly fails in two areas. Firstly, its controls are abominable. Often the player has to switch really quickly between two or more dimensions. However, as the game is controlled by mouse and keyboard, the buttons to switch dimensions are not easy to locate. The further you get into the game, the faster and the more often dimension switches must take place. Split-second changes between dimensions are a necessity to survive. I found no keyboard configuration that allowed me to do that, so I constantly had to remap keys to ensure that the needed dimensions were under my finger-tips. Basically, this game must be played with a console controller. Which is strange, as at present it is only released for PCs. I know you can buy a console controller that works with PCs, but it should not be a requirement to do so unless that is explicitly listed as a requirement (which it is not).

Secondly, the game is not what it pretends to be. It is presented as a puzzle game, and that is what it is for the first half. But after the three-hour mark, it turns into a very awkward platformer that demands fast reflexes, precise targeting, and quite a bit of luck. The puzzles are all really easy — usually it is immediately clear what you have to do to solve a room; the problem is in executing the steps to solve it. Near the end of the game the puzzles are actually insultingly simple as far as intellect is concerned, but devilishly hard to complete for anyone who has not wired his reflexes directly into the keyboard.

There is more to complain about, such as the lack of a good saving system, the bland jokes, and the boring environment, but these could be forgiven if the game at least delivered what it promised. If I have to give an explanation for the positive reviews I have seen, it is that the reviewers mainly played the first half of the game before putting their impression into words.

The ultimate result is that Quantum Conundrum is presented as lighthearted casual fun for players who like to tax their intelligence a bit, but ends up being an exercise in frustration. Frankly, I am amazed that after 30 years of experience with video game design, there are still game developers who think that making it hard to control a game is a suitable approach to making the game interesting. If you are a game developer and you believe that, then please hammer this into your skull: hard controls only lead to frustration, and frustration is not fun! Frustration only leads to annoyance, high-blood pressure, vows to never buy another game from that designer, and angry blogging.