If you got here and wonder where have I been, I just move to ivangarde.wordpress.com
You are welcome to visit! 🙂
If you got here and wonder where have I been, I just move to ivangarde.wordpress.com
You are welcome to visit! 🙂
When I started my formal study about games and design, some years ago, one of the first things I heard and read about was games genres. I particularly remember a topic that arose amidst one of those discussions: In which genre do horror/terror games fit or are they a genre on their on?
Most of the horror/terror games I came across after that I could label as an action/adventure with scary elements and theme, but every now and then I had the luck of playing something truly innovative, games that make me agree to think of terror games as a separated genre.
One of those unique experiences happened when I played Fatal Frame, a game with some interesting directions. Now that I am studying game design in a deeper manner I’m returning to the nightmarish setting of the series to try to identify and explain which design decisions were those that made the experience so remarkable for me.
First of all, let’s separate the core mechanic, the action that the player is doing every moment in the game: Navigate through a 3D environment and take pictures. Yes, if you haven’t played any of the Fatal Frame games you now know that the main interaction with the game world is taking pictures, which means switching form 3rd person view to a framed 1st person vision in order to capture the framed image!
Pokémon Snap already has already toyed with photography back in the Nintendo 64 era but in a safari-esque manner, I don’t know if there were games before that with a similar core mechanic. But this time the cameras were in service of fear.
What kind of experience this core mechanic brings to the table? It demands the player to be aware of the surroundings, like a ghost hunter, trying to capture a picture of a supernatural phenomenon; it demands the player to pay attention all the time.
How to capitalize this feeling to create a meaningful experience? The answer lies in the level design, I once read that it’s in the level design that art, engineering and game design meet (I think it was in a article about Bioshock or in a 2K job posting, I’m pretty sure it involved Bioshock). It happens that this sentence is particularly true in Fatal Frame. The quiet atmosphere becomes an unnerving setting when you know that a ghost can appear out of nowhere at any time, the most used paths in a level often mislead the player’s eyes, creating spots where ghost appearances can be an even greater surprise and all the textures and shadows in the level make the player paranoid, like confusing a stain on the wall for a human presence. So we have an image-capturing mechanic coupled with a morbid setting where you always have the impression to be seeing something with the corner of your eyes, a place that demands you to be on your toes and all of the sudden a sinister figure appears, scares you but can’t gaze elsewhere, you have to turn your eyes to it. In the end you have to look for the scariest thing in the scenario. This unnerving expectation for the ghosts to appear is the emergent feeling from this “mechanic + level design” arrangement.
Since the core mechanic is about the player’s line of sight, some level features acquire a new dimension in Fatal Frame, for instance a window or any hole in the wall becomes the means to capture an important image, or even to be surprised by some dark figure through the other side. It’s a fine example of how a proper level design should serve the gameplay and not just compose a beautiful photography.
Fatal Frame has other mechanics as well, some more traditional to the action/adventure genre, like a progression hindered by the acquisition of further information and items, some puzzles or elements often used by the games in the survival horror category, such as a scarce supply of ammunition, which in this case is photography film. But there’s another aspect where the core mechanic is used to fright the player: the combat. Some ghosts charge into the player and the only way to fend the attack is to photograph
Now that we took a brief look of how the core mechanic and level design are able to produce fear and anxiety, a question remains: Why is this experience enjoyable? For this answer, let’s turn to anthropologist Roger Caillois and his studies in Les Jeux et les Hommes (Man, Play, and Games). One aspect of his study about the relationship of games and men starts with a model for organizing some forms of play, a classification with four fundamental categories:
Agón – Competitive Games, like counter-strike
Alea – A category where luck plays a heavy role, such as poker
Mimicry – Role-playing or make-believe games
Ilinx – An interesting category, in which play occur by inducing physical sensation of vertigo, like spinning around itself or a roller-coaster.
As Caillois explains, his last kind of play consist in those based on the pursuit of vertigo, an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception, to bring to himself an urgent sensation of panic.
It’s my belief that Ilinx is very present in today’s games, but frequently overlooked. Would adrenaline-pumping moments in online multiplayer games a facet of Ilinx in a play clearly identified as Ágon? Such affirmations require more study but I think it would be safer to classify fear-inducing elements as Ilinx. Playing to be scared is playing to lose the control of one’s nerves, to momentarily feel unsafe and in panic, same feelings of being in a roller-coaster, excluding the vertigo, but wouldn’t the vertigo be in service of the aforementioned feelings?
Those reasons and feelings can be applied not only to scary games, but to scary movies or scary attractions in a carnival as well, and that’s not a novelty. Losing and regaining control of your own heartbeat is pleasure-inducing indeed. Whether is the moment of losing or the moment of regaining we can’t say for sure, but that’s certainly fun!
Fatal frame is an example of how a different core mechanic can not only bring intense moments, but can almost create a game category on its own. Most games today share a few core mechanics, be it for engine or marketing restrictions, but it’s always important to keep looking for new directions. That’s the beauty of this job, there’s so much to be done and experimented!
Just a quick post to say that my last entry in GameCareerGuide.com design contests was featured again, not a winner this time but a honorable mention! Take a look at the challenge and the other winners
You can see my entry with a few more words and a ugly mockup for a HUD in the post below also 🙂
The theme for this month’s design contest at GameCareerGuide is quite interesting: To create a fun and meaningful communication system in a MMO for friendly characters who can’t understand each other. You can find the whole assignment here.
My firts thoughts were something about a town crier and the inexistence of global chat, to add a layer of delay in the information travel in order to create estrategic opportunities for surprise attacks or a well defined information network. It was bit away from de the theme because people were still talking to each other, just he range of the communication had changed, so I scraped this idea and haven’t took it any further. I had reall forgotten about the contest when all of he sudden, I caught myself thinking how cool would be playing a Zerg in a ficticious World of Starcraft. But Zergs don’t tak! Zergs don’t shout “LFG!”, so I decided to come up with some communication systemfor them and take part in the contest.
The following text is the original idea, which had around 300 word cut to fit the contest restrictions, so, without further ado, here’s the verbose version of:
The Zerg communication in World of Starcraft
Instinct, pheromones and survival of the fittest
I know many gamers crave for a World of Starcraft, I for one would like to see it, specially if Blizzard make the zergs a playable race. I believe World of Starcraft (WoS) dispenses further introductions, but for the contextualization I’m thinking in a MMO with three distinct factions with lots of open world PvP. The players gain levels normally but also have a PvP associated level, somewhat like the old honor (or renown, I can’t remember) system that used to exist in WoW.
It would be strange to see all the zerg characters chatting to each other so this would be a great case of study for an alternative yet meaningful communication system, starting with the premise that zergs don’t talk or have any kind of grammar.
This communication system should impact the gameplay by enforcing some specific characteristics of the zerg play style in the original starcraft, which I believe is amassing the largest army as fast as possible and striking with one big swarm. The communication system should enforce the feeling of being part of a hive, of safety in numbers, the feeling of riding a furious cloud of hungry grasshoppers.
The “chatless” communication system I thought about is based on 3 mechanics:
Instinct or The Hive Mind – This mechanic manifests itself as automatic information in the game HUD exclusive to the zerg faction:
Pheromones – While the instinct mechanic deals with information automatically and continuously updated, the pheromones deal with communication activated by the player itself.
Survival of the Fittest – This mechanic intertwines the communication system with the level progression system, a cornerstone of many MMOs. The higher the level and specially, the PvP level of a character, the more effective his/her pheromones are. A swarm call reaches a larger range as well as the “danger” warning, targets are strongly marked by high level zergs. A subtle reward for attaining new ranks that can also create an “alpha male” behavior among the swarm, like a rudimentary leadership.
This communication system opens other design spaces, for instance, the other factions could have weapons that mess with the zergs instincts or fake “danger” pheromones to create traps. The zergs on the other hand, could have a class with heightened senses, like a tracker, expert in finding the prey.
After a long hiatus I finally uploaded my Demo Reel, It’s on youtibe and you can find it here, under the Portfolio section, the video, credits and some lowsy ilustrations.
I have also updated this blog with some personal information and my Résumé, I hate to talk about myself, I think it sounds a bit pedantic or pretentious when I try talk about my qualities, but I have to do it if I hope to get new jobs. At least I upload some photos I like.
For some reason my girlfriend got Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts for PS2 (yeah, it’s still alive) and we thought we could give it a shot this weekend. I guess I should avoid games about killing the wild life, but I’ve already tried Deer Hunter to praise the national industry and found quite amusing this kind of stalk and hunt gameplay. So there I was hunting lions at the Tanzania’s savanna, got my first prey in target and with a shot I have my first kill, with that I am presented with some information, among them: “Trophy value: 104”. YAY 104! Wait, what does that means? If the game instead presented “Trophy value: Square root of Pi” it would have meant the same for me. In a game where the main objective is to hunt the bigger trophies in a way that makes them the most valuable (keeping the carcass integrity, for instance) is 104 good or bad? Did I just killed a big and healthy lion or old skinny one? What’s a good and what’s a bad score for hunting an animal?
It may be a detail, but there’s a important lesson here: If you’re going to have a rating system in your design, let your player know in advance what a good a rate is. It’s very disappointing to get to end of level and read “You scored 104…OUT OF 10000”. Game designers don’t use a standardized rating system so the payer should know how the rating system works, at least it’s length. It’s like if I said that this blog is worth a pineapple in my fruit-based rating system for blogs.
Some games attempt for a solution using an alphabet based rating system, “Well I got a C, let me try again so I can have an A” you might say, so you keep playing the game until you discover there is a S rating that’s, contrary to what you know about the alphabet, better than A! Why? Does S means Super? So if there’s a S that’s better than A, is there another rating better than S? Then you find that’s the answer is…yes, there’s a X rating! – I’m looking at you, Sonic Riders! Even a good surprise for me, The Red Star, does that. I’m not against an arbitrary rating system, but please, let your player know what’s the system’s maximums and minimums, or does uncover the length of the rating system makes part of the gameplay?
Furthermore, if you’re going to rate your player for any given activity, let the player know why he’s getting that grade. It’s quite common to rate the player after completing a level, but seldom it’s explained what parameters are taken in account for this. In Mario Kart Wii you get a grade at the end of the championship (4 races), but even if you win every race you don’t get the highest grade, it still puzzles me what Mario Kart takes into account for this, if just the lap times or the interaction with the other racers. If I knew what it takes to improve my grade I would be more motivated to play the championship once again.
It’s true that one of the advantages of videogames over boardgames is that not all mechanisms are evident for the players, and the subjectivity of some of those features may be part of the design, but what I’m trying to say here is that the rates and scores must MEAN SOMETHING for the players efforts and the player may want to know if he’s far or near from a game’s top score (if there’s one), it will often engage him more in the experience if he can also evaluate his performance, therefore feel more at home in the system you designed! If you played California Games at Sega’s 16bit console you know how well can a grade be presented.
Last month I took part in a game design contest sponsored by the gamecareerguide.com. This kind of contest use to be common in the 3D artistic production area, but for game design I just found that one. The theme was to design a experimental game concept that plays with the notion of time.
The reason I’m touching this subject again is that one of the entries, Cut/Insert/A day in the life was featured as one of the three best!! Yay! You can check the result here. Also, congratulations to other winners!
The ironic part is that the concept I submitted is really something narrative-centred, those that know me in person knows that I’m always running away from defining games as a sort of narrative, like some scholars here in Brazil have been doing.
I still think games are not narratives, but narratives can be used as a game concept, specially if you like to twist tales, but this is a subject for another post.