Recently, I wrote an opinion piece for a well-known video game website, Polygon.
The article recounts my experience with a long-awaited game, The Last Guardian, and the parallels I drew between it and our bond with animals during a trying time in my life. It’s an analysis of the game’s design as much as it is a personal essay and investigation into the ways we all encounter animals in need. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
The Last Guardian doubles as an interactive metaphor for the discovery and rehabilitation of animals in situations of abuse or neglect. For being such a fantastical setting, it plays host to a cautionary tale that is grounded in reality. By offering us an extended glimpse into an abused animal’s perspective, The Last Guardian asks us to empathize: What does it mean to spend time in their environment? How are they a product of it, and how much can they change?
For the past few weeks, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had me doing things that no other video game has. It had me standing for 90% of a 45+ hour adventure because it was more compelling than sitting down. It taught me how to read my enemies’ behaviors, and to reconsider the meaningfulness of my sword (which, in terms of combat and puzzle-solving effectiveness, doesn’t change in a significant way throughout the majority of the game) more often than every other classic Zelda tools also at my disposal. By the end, it had me convinced that I was a significantly better swordsman than when I first gripped the blade referenced in its subtitle.
Every new idea requires a good explanation, but many of Skyward Sword‘s best ones got away without needing any. Without hand-holding exposition nor repetitive tutorials, this newest entry into the series draws attention to how its design sensibilities were subtle enough to have more than one user in mind. Though by contrast, they also draw attention to every moment that thought otherwise, leaning on tradition and variety when it least needed to. As I watched the first Zelda in half a decade struggling to soar to the top of most critics’ 2011 Game of the Year lists, deep down I think I knew why.
Crash Bandicoot is like taking a hike in the forest.
You’re on a dirt path for the most part, running across animals while leaves and flowers brush past you, with just enough light bleeding through the canopy up above. You feel like you’ve been funneled into something by the outdoors, a natural interior that envelopes your imagination, and with that comes a natural tension as well. The trees, the change in elevation, the twists and turns obscure your vision–the most important tool to playing a 3D platformer–leading every several steps towards discovery, and surprise.
You could only ever see a few meters ahead of you, and a few feet behind you (or the opposite, if a boulder/bear was chasing you). Occlusion is something that the thrill of most video games, especially platformers, thrive on. Our television sets become viewfinders, our hands moving them back and forth.
Whether or not the context of a larger world begins to make sense to us is only a side-effect to this layer of interactivity. Crash never asks you to envision that entire space–just what’s up ahead, or around the corner. You couldn’t plan too much ahead even if you wanted to, and the temptation of crashing into/onto a crate, than onto a skunk, then onto a platform and back onto the ground is a rhythm so satisfying in motion you’d rather just keep pressing buttons and moving forward.
The pacing of Crash games (at least those developed by Naughty Dog–I’ve never played the current generation Crash’s) were incremental and moment-to-moment, without completely ignoring the scope of its larger surroundings. Between levels you would leave the more claustrophobic forests and return to larger islands, indicating where you were in Crash’s world. From there the environment also became your interface as you’d pan between which level to play next. As unconcerned as this mode of presentation was with detail or hand-holding tutorials, it still seemed to get the job done.
Crash was pretty satisfying with so little to be said. It was focused, undistracted by duct-taped features creeping in, or a desperate excuse to leverage internet access. It was an ancient tiki island filled with secrets, and that’s how I found them.
Since my Learning to Play column at GameCareerGuide got going, two more installments have been published under it.
#2: Dinner Tables, “considers the design of a game project…and uses Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and more as inspiration.”, can be found here.
Most recently, #3: The Mixing Board goes between two large scale game projects from my time at CIA, comparing the team-dynamics between them to illustrate the up’s and down’s of collaboration. Read all about it!
I’m still mulling over what the fourth issue will discuss. Going back through the archives of my experiences in art school, which only ended a year ago, gets tougher with time. Your mind gets foggier, and aggressively dusting off the hardest lessons learned isn’t the most enjoyable thing to do for an entire article. I’ll get around to it as the spring moves on, unless Cleveland keeps the rain away for longer than a day.
7 . 6 . 2010 – I must confess: I wrote this piece with the intention of double-featuring it at Bitmob.com, a game blog developed and ran by industry journalists where helpings of its content is generated by users. Every week a number of posts are hand selected to be published to the front page, and this post was fortunate enough to be one of those last week. They did a nice job editing it and there’s a good amount of participation in the comments, so if you’re curious to read about how other people associate games with times of the year, please visit here.
The sun’s heat reaches over to me as it blasts through the skylights on the other end of my room. It’s already mid-afternoon. I must have taken a nap, but I can’t be bothered figuring how long that’s been for. I’m awake and don’t even realize how much I’m sweating with all the humidity in the air. The taste in my mouth could be best described as a terrible sour hint of orange-juice. Thankfully, no one has eaten me.
It’s summertime, and for the oddest of reasons, zombies are on the brain. Well, not literally. You see, I’ve fallen into a strange and unintentional habit of consuming zombie-lore during massive heat-waves more than any other time of the year.
It all started in the summer of 2002 with the remake of Resident Evil 1 (also known as REBirth, or REMake) for the Nintendo GameCube. My best friend has always been an avid fan of the series, and I distinctly remember him purchasing his very own GameCube for REmake right around this time of year. All we knew was what it was going to look like, and that was enough to be sure the nightmarish memories it left on our childhood would be faithfully recreated as braver teenagers.
I actually had to hold onto the game for him because he was afraid of being distracted from final exams. I suppose knowing a re-make to one’s favorite game is merely a sheet of shrink-wrap away was about as exciting as things got for us back then. Who says younger gamers can’t have their priorities straight?
Not being of age to drive at this point, my older brother took me over to his house on a weekend our friends had set aside for a controller-passing pants-pissing good time. Yet, the most vivid image I have in my head from that entire day, where a television was the only light-source and the surround sound was cranked, is of a giant hot-orange fireball sliding off the horizon on the drive over.
Flash-forward half a decade later to the summer of 2007, when I had just moved into a new house with close friends for roommates. In an attempt to gain a better understanding my new surroundings, I stopped by a local bookstore and wound up purchasing a copy of World War Z. WWZ is a fictional story that recounts the events of a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives, via a journalist conducting interviews. It’s a chilling and thought-provoking set of stories that make subtle suggestions about our own societies, and I’d highly recommend that any zombie fans give it a try if you haven’t already.
I remember finishing the book on a balcony when a summer evening couldn’t have been any more pleasant, creating an interesting juxtaposition to the sort of note the book ended on. At the time, I didn’t realize how much of the narrative would stick with me until I got my mind and hands on Valve’s Left4Dead.
L4D actually came out in the chillier November of 2008, but it lasted me far into thawing out of the Spring 2009. It wasn’t so much playing the game though that makes me think of the temperature rising, as it was developing levels for it on a collaborative student project.
A considerable portion of our pre-production took place off-site, capturing reference photography at the local metro parks zoo. Walking throughout the place was surreal. Because we were only just seeing winter come to a close, there wasn’t any dense traffic coming through the parks yet. Large sections of it were under construction, leaving a number of areas in disarray, others completely closed off, and new paths formed to redirect people away from the more dangerous zones. It actually looked like the park had been quarantined and felt abandoned under the more uplifting morning sunlight.
Whenever I think of L4D, my mind always leaps back to that field-trip. At the same time, I can’t see myself ever forgetting how progressively hot it became back in our studio-lab, surrounded by ten foot tall windows facing the sun any moment it was up. To top it all off, Left4Dead2 and its brighter locales only served to further cement my growing paranoia of a zombie-apocalypse happening at any time now.
Enter the present day: rather than help my friend fight zombies, I’m a consulting a short film he’s producing involving them and the social injustice they’re a byproduct of. Just as I was wondering when I’d get my dosage of the walking-dead, it’s already gnawing at my feet.
The larger picture here is how we associate certain video games with certain times of the year in our past, and how that affects our experiences with them, or without them. Sometimes we can so clearly place the rooms we were in, the people we were in the company of, and the general mood our environment made an impression on. I’ll often find myself outside on these summer nights. The desolate streets of suburbia would have me fearing for my brains if a feasting zombie could shamble out from where flickering orange telephone-poles lamps cannot reach. For me, sometimes the summertime is creepier than it should be. Maybe it’s itchy and tasty too.
Have you had any stronger attachments to a game because of when and where you experienced it? If so, take this as an open invitation to share them here.
Playtesting any game design for the first time is unlike most other forms of critique: experiencing people experiencing your work for long periods of time. If it’s multiplayer, then you get the real treat of watching people affect each others’ experience back and forth. What sets games apart from other media in this regard is that traditional art-forms are less prone to collapsing in on themselves unintentionally (unless that’s the point). Of course, playtesting has its practical role of locating bugs, visual snafu’s, and optimizing performance, but all of this eventually funnels back into the player experience.
Getting critical feedback on design work is a tough pill to swallow the first few doses. However, I’ve found it helpful (in both the fine and applied art) to recognize that critiques are of the work, and not of the maker. With that aside, onto specifics.
When should I playtest my level?
The earlier you’ve built playtesting into your regiment, more than often the better. This is a pretty difficult question to answer, and yet it’s very necessary to ask because determining what is helpful for you to at each stage in development gives you a better read of how players are behaving and why. Keep track of the revisions you make, because any significant one can change the flow of traffic and/or action dramatically. Making a number of large changes at once isn’t a bad idea, just as long as you know why you’re making them.
There’s also something to say for playtesting too early on in creating your level. In a game like Team Fortress, gameplay will begin at the dynamic between character classes, which is then morphed and redirected by the environment/s designed for them. For example: if you make a functioning map that’s essentially a large box, completely flat, and lacking a play oriented goal, it becomes useless to playtest because you can nearly guarantee how players are going to operate. If there’s not much to it, then there’s not much to “test”. The point of playtesting is to put a hypothetical design through the ringer of players and see if a theoretical idea is well implemented or not. Make sure there is some substance worth testing before anything else, even if it’s early on.
One extreme not working isn’t solved by another, however. Playtesting can focus your efforts in sections at a time. As I wrote about way earlier in this series, the relationship between your gameplay mode in conjunction with the geography is a crucial decision to make at first, but this doesn’t mean you need to wait until absolutely everything is in place.
After playtesting Arc Mountain over the past year, I found that my game mode and architecture evolved alongside one another over time. From Capture the Flag, to Arena, to King of The Hill now, each time I’ve had to make significant revisions to the buildings to accommodate the pacing for each mode. Even the small deviations King of The Hill makes from Arena gave players much to desire from the flow of each team’s fortress/spawning area. On another note, I only got to playtest the placement of ammunition and health packs just months ago. For such a long time, the map wasn’t as eager to figure out how pick-up items fell into the design before the bulk of the geometry and elements of cover did. It’s a lot of back and forth any way you slice it.
What are the resources needed to playtest, and where can I get them?
People, and computers. In some cases, you may even consider a brief Q&A sheet for those who can’t stick around to give you immediate feedback after testing. Though, from personal experiences and ones I’ve observed via peers, survey forms of any kind only work if they’re given to people who make up your target audience — fans of a game are the ones who’ll spend time thinking about and discussing new additions to it.
The next set of questions is who do you ask to help test, and how do you ask them? Playing with people face-to-face is a rather optimal situation because you can observe people’s reactions and emotions as they play in your environment. If you happen to have friends in the area who enjoy gaming, the game you’re developing content for, or are interested to help at all, you might want to get their opinions. Getting some food and making a LAN party out of it is a really nice way to get feedback and have an enjoyable experience all at once, too.
There’s also remote testing, which occurs more frequently than local happenings for a game like Team Fortress 2. TF2Maps.net is probably the best place to go for this because it’s a one-stop shop: they’ll host your map on their server for others to download at their discretion, they host playtest days on their Team Fortress 2 servers every week (sign-ups required before hand), and they have an incredibly large community behind it already willing to give people feedback and share advice in a number of ways. Convenience is the big plus here: they provide a set of free services and tools to gather dozens of people at once who share a common enthusiasm. It’s a great platform for other players to give your design a shot and stress test the hell out of it, in the hopes you’ll continue to refine it. You’re not guaranteed to always get the most useful or glowing feedback, or necessarily get into a testing slot (they tend to fill fast), but it’s really helpful to participate.
What should I be looking to get out of playtesting?
Not everything is quite ready at every play test session, so one approach is to inform your playtesters about what you’re looking for feedback on specifically. Is it the layout? The capture times for goals? The distance between checkpoints? Being proactive in what specific characteristic/s you want attention drawn to will help focus the feedback, thus focusing your next goal as the creator. Make sure your playtesters know what your intentions are for their experience, because their fresh take can provide insight as to what makes that sort of experience work better, and how your map is addressing its concerns.
You’ll probably know when to put the whole package to the test and see how it feels as a full experience from front to back, but most important is that enough people are engaging in it and telling you what they think. This only further enables you towards making the right decisions for the map, level, or game play mechanic you’ve probably had in mind for awhile now.
(To close Pt.5 of this series, I’ll be making screenshots available of each revision Arc Mountain underwent between game-modes, and why.)