Tuesday, March 30, 2010

EXP Podcast #71: Hostile Forces

For a medium designed to entertain and even calm, videogames can be surprisingly frustrating. Intense hostility can be elicited by games, be they single-player or multiplayer. This can result in high blood pressure, loud swearing, or even the destruction of property. Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer inspires the podcast this week with his post on angry gamers and a shattered six-axis. Join us this week while we discuss breaking controllers, 8 bit anger, the calming affects of transparency, diverting hostility, and adversarial gaming. We encourage you to read Chris's original article in the show notes and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion Starters:

- What games have really pissed you off? Have you destroyed anything because of a game?
- Why does it seem modern games evoke less animosity than their predecessors?
- How do we account for potential hostilities when designing single-player and multiplayer experiences.

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 36 min 26 sec
- "The Angry Gamer," by Chris Lepine via The Artful Gamer
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 29, 2010

Heavy Rain's Death Dilemma

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Heavy Rain.

Prior to the release of Heavy Rain, I was quite excited about the prospect of character death. I liked the idea that death in games could be re-imagined as more than a minor inconvenience, a temporary punishment. I have written about death in games on several occasions and return again now with Quantic Dream's creation. Heavy Rain is interesting not because it is an outlier, there are a few games that kill off lead characters, but because it displays quite clearly some of the serious barriers to the narrative success of in-game mortality.

Permanent player-character death in games is incredibly rare. Most of the time when it occurs, it takes place at the end of the game, capping off the entire experience. One occasion where a protagonist's death occurs mid-game, the nuclear explosion scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, still acts as the complete narrative conclusion to that aspect of the story. Sgt. Jackson is fated to die, he becomes a narrative tool to heighten the game's serious tone.

Heavy Rain is exciting because the character's life is in my hands. Whether or not one of the lead character's dies, the story continues. Like Fable 2, which incorporated "death" within the narrative and mechanics of the game, Heavy Rain promised to do the same. In many ways, Quantic Dream successfully created mortal characters whose deaths would not interrupt the story significantly. Yet for many players, the death of lead characters is unsatisfying.
There are four playable cast members in Heavy Rain, of which two can die as a direct result of player failure. Ethan and Shelby can only die at the end of the game, and Ethan's deaths are only indirectly the result of player mistakes. Jayden and Madison can die several ways, most directly connected to the player's decisions or indecision. Their deaths are the least satisfying specifically because of this player involvement.

Compelling personal death is hard to pull off because of the unique perception we as players have towards our avatars. As I discussed once before in The Tragedy of Videogame Heroism, "countless videogame heroes and heroines suffer the fate of the playable character. Story elements that players do not actually interact with are largely abandoned. The role of the videogame hero is to enact their agency upon the environment, not immerse themselves within it." When our protagonist dies, this connection to the game world is severed.

This Ernest Adams quote appeared in my previous post on player-character death and is once again appropriate:

"The main character is an extension of ourselves, a sort of prosthetic limb reaching into the game world. If he 'dies' before the end of the game, it's irritating, frustrating perhaps, but we know in our hearts that this was not the way things were Supposed to Be."
As avatars in the game world, player failure is punished, frequently by a game-over screen. Fable 2 removes this screen and punishes the player by giving their character a scar. Players still learn from their failures. There is no doubt Madison, in Heavy Rain's case, dies because the player makes a mistake - the red flashing button icon is a testament to that. However, we are to believe an equally valid story continues. What lessons, then, are we supposed to learn?

Mechanically speaking, there is no value in death in Heavy Rain. We do not reapply new knowledge to the same experience, we never try the encounter again. Only the basic lesson of "be more careful" can be brought over to the game's future trials. The narrative value is potentially weakened by the strange relationship we have with our protagonists. More often than not, PC death is noble. Death becomes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve success. The player is rewarded for the adventure.
Heavy Rain offers only tragic death. Madison is burned up in an apartment, murdered by a psychopath, or falls from a window to her death. Jayden is stabbed to death, or falls into an industrial slicer. None of these deaths are willing sacrifices to achieve a greater good. They are sudden consequences to circumstances not under the character's control.

Players are also, not given a chance to mourn their passing. Without an adjustment period, the severing of player agency from avatar can be jarring, enhancing the feeling the experience was unfair or useless. Heavy Rain does not include funeral scenes to dead characters, offering only somber moments at the graveyard to remember those who died. In the scene below, a reporter shrugs off Madison's death like any other. Perhaps her death would have been more powerful if the mourning process has been interactive, putting player agency into the mourning process.
Of course, one can argue most people do not like sad or depressing endings, which could explain why someone might dislike the "bad ending" of Heavy Rain. In which case, a happier ending cut scene may calm animosity towards player death. While possible, more interesting to me is the hostility we feel when our PC dies. Even if our anger is quickly followed by a melancholy acceptance of the story, the death of a protagonist is still a uniquely unsettling experience.

Successfully conveying the simple and meaningless death of a player-character in a game is tremendously difficult to accomplish. Our protagonists are separated from the world, imbued with our agency, enacting our wishes upon their environment. The undignified death of an avatar is incompatible with their specialized role within a game's universe. For some, Heavy Rain tells such a tale. Of course, one can argue most people do not like sad or depressing endings, which could explain why someone might dislike the "bad ending" of Heavy Rain. This is a barrier we must overcome. There are still powerful stories to be told of real world death, including those ignoble, sudden, and emotionally painful aspects of death.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Propping Myself Up

I have a role-playing problem. It's not the kind of problem that creates photos that earn me weird looks at work; it's actually the exact opposite. In a world that seems to be moving towards increasingly character-driven games, I rarely feel compelled to role-play.

This probably became apparent to folks who read my article criticizing Uncharted 2 for haphazardly modifying its rules in service to its plot. The Drake I played as clashed with the character the story wanted him to be. As many folks pointed out in comments, sometimes freedom and improvisation must be curtailed if the game's goal is to create a single narrative experience. It is not an actor's place to challenge every word in a script, so perhaps I should make more of an effort to work within a prescribed in-game role?

Over the past few months, I played a series of games in which I found myself role-playing more than usual. These games have almost no thematic or gameplay similarities, and my personal connection to them was not inspired by any particularly deep characters or interesting plots. However, they all shared a much more tangible aspect that helped me think of myself as an actor, rather than a director: props.

While there have always been alternatives to the game controller and mouse/keyboard setup, the past five years have seen a proliferation of plastic gadgets baubles clutter up homes. While many of these peripherals are written of as gimmicks, I have found that they help me connect with certain games in a way that makes me feel like I am performing a role rather than exploring a system.

I named Wii Fit Plus as one of my favorite games of 2009 and I stand by that choice because it was one of the few games that succeeded in shutting down my analytical mind. It's hard to carefully dissect a system when I am desperately flapping my arms in order to fly my chicken-avatar over a blimp. While the game is basically a Pilotwings clone, its use of props facilitates my suspension of disbelief and my willingness to take part in its absurdity. Intellectually, I know that flapping my arms does nothing except create the illusion of flight. The real input comes from the way my arms force my feet to rock back and forth on the Balance Board. Theoretically, I could just simply manipulate my heels and probably get a better score than when I do my best chicken impression, and the game would certainly control more precisely with an analog stick. However, maximizing the system is not the point: the chicken game, and the Wii in general, is a social role-playing experience.I have written before that Beatles: Rock Band is as much a "Beatles simulator" as it is a rhythm game. Playing the game allows me to temporarily assume the role of cultural legends. With a little help from prop instruments, I am able transcend what is essentially a game of "Simon Says" and briefly conceive of myself as a rock star playing in front sold out audiences. While it might be cheesy, the plastic guitar forces the players to physically approximate the actions they see on the screen. Even the most relaxed session of Rock Band necessitates a prop that gives the player a more clearly defined role than a controller could ever give them. Players have no choice: they must role-play as The Beatles at a basic level.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did offer some choice as to whether to use props to facilitate a performance. The in-game mobile phone is used as an interface to receive audio messages, puzzle hints, and plot details, and much of its sound and functionality is controlled via the Wii Remote. By default phone calls and voice mail is played somewhat quietly through the controller's built-in speaker. Although I had the option of increasing the speaker's volume or transferring it to my larger TV speakers, I chose to keep it in the controller. Soon, I found myself holding the controller up to my ear like a real phone, aping the movements of Harry Mason, the game's protagonist. When I was not using the Wii Remote as a phone, it became my flashlight and my only steadfast companion in that haunted town. The prop's physicality helped me empathize with Harry's situation: like him, I only had a few tools with which to fight through the nightmare.

If the success of games like Uncharted 2 is indication, the trend towards cinematic, character-driven, single-experience games will continue. The capacity for a player to accept structural inconsistency and gameplay limitations will stem largely from their ability to see themselves as performing a strictly defined role as opposed to fashioning a completely unique experience. Flagging Wii and rhythm game sales make the future of prop-driven games less certain, but the impending release of Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's PlayStation Move suggest that they will be around for some time.

Plot and character-driven games are the perfect venues for unique peripherals. Without a physical tool to facilitate role-playing, cinematic games easily become dull versions of good movies. Without a meaningful context in which to use them, peripheral-based games become the ludic equivalent to a Carrot Top routine. Together, the two styles create a role worth playing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

EXP Podcast #70: Silent Hill Sound Off!

It's easy for games to get lost in the crowded winter season, when huge games like Mass Effect and Call of Duty dominate dominate both sales charts and critical conversation. This week, we have an in-depth discussion about a game that has been quietly lurking in the shadows: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The most title recent in a long-running series, Shattered Memories re-imagines the first Silent Hill to provide both a unique gameplay and storytelling experience. In addition to upholding the sense of dread and horror from the previous games (seriously, try playing this with the lights off!), Shattered Memories has some narrative twists that set it apart from most other games.

Jorge and I made sure to keep the first half of our talk spoiler-free before getting down to specific plot points. Despite (or perhaps because of) its rough edges, we both highly recommend the game. Just don't blame us when you're huddled beneath the covers at night, afraid to turn the lights off. Finally, the in-game psychologist told us its healthy to share your feelings with others, so feel free to jump in with your comments.

Some discussion starters:

- For those of you who played the game, what did you think? Had you played other Silent Hill games before? How did your puzzles and stories differ from ours?

- The game claims "to play you" just as much as you play it. For those of you who played it, was this accurate? What other games "play" their players, and how do they do so?

- Is there room on the market for "double-A" games like Shattered Memories? Is this a meaningful distinction? How should we evaluate games with experimental concepts but less polish than blockbuster titles?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 44 min 23 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Sensationalist: Controlling Emotions in Heavy Rain

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

Warning: Very minor spoilers ahead!

In a recent GDC interview with G4, Quantic Dream's David Cage revealed that describing the experience of Heavy Rain to people over the last two years has been his personal nightmare. Each button on the PS3 controller corresponds to different actions at different times, so it is difficult to assess what is "done" with any consistency. Yet the game does explicitly seek to evoke a wide range of emotions from players with these controls. What players "do" or "should do" is have an emotional connection to the story through interactivity. My goal with this post is to explore this attempt at evocative player inputs.

I should start with a few caveats. There has been some debate about how suitable it is to call Heavy Rain a "game" at all. David Cage himself calls it an "interactive drama." The distinction, as I see it, is utterly pointless. If you thirst for more debate, I cede the floor to Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer who recently posted an excellent piece on the subject. I am also steering clear of plot criticisms, including the affect player death has on the experience. That being said, story elements will arise whose effectiveness you question. In which case, consider my arguments on controls indicative of what QD would have achieved with better storytelling.

In response to those who criticize Heavy Rain as a glorified collection of quick-time events, I side with Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting on this when he says "This is factually true, and experientially insignificant." Like all game interfaces, the input options are abstract symbols for what appears on screen. I take as my assumption the legitimacy of Heavy Rain's input design choices and go from there.
To begin with, there are a few important differences between the types of player interactions. A vast sum of the game is spent maneuvering characters about their day to day lives, participating leisurely in the mundane. Actions are contextual. Opening a door might require moving the thumb stick right. Alternatively, swiveling the thumb stick might turn a car's key in the ignition for example. Gentler tasks require slower actions, and sustained effort might require tapping on a button repeatedly. More difficult tasks, such as climbing a muddy hill, might require the player to hold down buttons in a particular order. Lastly, during particularly fast-paced scenes, quick button presses play out quick-time events.

There have been some criticisms levied at Heavy Rain for its interactive tedium, particularly the game's slow start. It does seem a bit ludicrous to brush someone's teeth with the thumb stick. Some of these early scenes, however, can be quite emotionally affecting. During the game's early moments, Ethan has a mock sword fight with one of his children. The battle prompts the player to parry and strike to win. You might, however, resist all your gaming knowledge and intentionally lose, ignoring the on screen instructions, to be a better father. As such, Heavy Rain conveys "failure" as a legitimate narrative outcome. More importantly for this scene, player input defines the emotional weight of the on-screen father-son relationship.

Additionally, the game's basic interactions are designed to contrast with the game's high tension moments. Theoretically, partaking in Ethan's daily routine of caring for his son emphasizes his normality. Fixing your son something to eat before bed time is a far cry from the heroics of champions traditionally found in videogames. Therefor, we should empathize with him more easily. To some extent, this interactive banality also maps the human body across situations. We are reminded that the same limbs, or controller inputs in this case, we use to kick a ball might, in the right situation, save a life. The realism this conveys stresses the emotional level non-normative scenarios evoke.
When tied to narrative outcomes, implementing the now normalized controller movements correctly suddenly becomes very important. In one dramatic scene, Ethan is giving CPR to his son Shaun. There were numerous moments when I, and Ethan by extension, had messed up basic everyday things, like carrying groceries. So, when a life depended on success, the possibility of failure was almost palpable. My only thought was "not now. Don't mess up now." The sense of tension and worry was far more powerful because my input mirrored routine interactions practiced earlier in the game.

This same relationship plays out on many occasions. When FBI agent Jaden is reeling under the effects of Triptocaine (or ARI?) withdrawal, button options vibrate violently and blur. Players are met with the same disorientation Jaden is feeling, making success that much more difficult. Complex actions require complex button sequences as well, mimicking the concentration and contortion required to pull something off. At one point, I was holding down the left trigger with my lip.

Similarly, when Madison is being assaulted with a bat, the appropriate button to dodge is actually attached to the object. Interpreting and acting upon this button display requires quick thinking. By contextualizing interface placement and adjusting its appearance based on character emotions, Heavy Rain creates stronger sensations of anxiety and tension. Our interactions with the game become colored by the emotions of the players, the actions on screen, and our own building distress.
Some have criticized the game for this behavior, suggesting this design choice breaks immersion, requiring the player to think only of the controller. I do concede there is some preparatory controller memorization during some scenes. However, I equate such behavior to a goalkeeper mentally concentrating on their body, muscles, and inevitable movement seconds before a penalty kick. It is unfortunate, in this case, we concentrate so heavily on a controller, but the reason is the same. We mentally prepare ourselves to act correctly and efficiently during moments of high anxiety, which Heavy Rain successfully creates.

There is one scene that is particularly evocative, which also collects input options successfully. One of Ethan's trials to save his son involves chopping off his own finger. Ethan may collect various items to prepare himself for the amputation. If they so choose, players follow Ethan, moving the six-axis controller to pull a knife out of the wall, rotating the thumb stick to heat up an improvised cauterizing iron, or slowly moving the stick up and down to regulate breathing and slow Ethan's heart rate.

If players do this, they partake in a ritual of sorts. While it calms Ethan, it actually builds up tension for the player, asking them to imagine themselves in the same scenario. Each mundane task carries greater weight because each step brings players closer to the horrendous act. The scene creates a sense of determination, resolve, and disgust.
Even if the only interaction the player indulges in is sawing through finger bone, the controller movement approximates and emphasizes the actual act. Players are encouraged to ponder the dilemma, stew within the emotions it creates, and face the grotesque challenge. Despite its digital nature, the sequence of events is incredibly cringe worthy. This scene epitomizes Heavy Rain's attempt at developing emotions with their game mechanics.

For many people, Heavy Rain fails to evoke anything but frustration and disappointment. The way players interact with the game is partially to blame. It is not always clear why certain actions are mapped to certain inputs, or why that mapping changes during a scene. Undoubtedly, the interactive tedium also confounds the emotions players are supposed to feel during high tension situations. While the game is not perfect, it does tread an innovative path with its controls. David Cage intended to make an emotionally dramatic interactive experience. Regardless of its success, the attempt is an intriguing and commendable addition to emotional and sensational gaming.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Sensationalist: A Melodramatic Fantasy

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

I listened to both the Giant Bomb and Gamers With Jobs podcasts week and both shows had some of their hosts describing their experience with Final Fantasy XIII. Inevitably, the question of "Should I play it?" came from the cast members who were still apprehensive. The answer was basically another series of questions: "Do you really like the Final Fantasy series? Do you have time to invest at least ten hours before the whole battle system is unlocked? How do you feel about the characters?"

This seems like a long way from the kind of reverence the series got in the late 1990s. In 1997 (and perhaps even today) the answer to the question "Should I play Final Fantasy VII?" was commonly "Do you own a PlayStation? If not, get one and then play it."

I think that melodrama is one of the major reasons why so many folks, including myself, have such strong emotional ties to the game. As Michael has written, melodrama at its most basic level is using music to heighten the impact of a story. Final Fantasy VII, devoid of the benefits and pitfalls of voice acting, uses its music to convey its story on an emotional level. The overworld map music is a prime example of how Final Fantasy VII uses music to communicate its themes while also retaining its importance to a huge number of players.

Before I go any further, I will offer a disclaimer: I am no music critic. Possessing only the scantest bits of formal musical knowledge, I aim only to fumble through and describe the sentiments and feelings of the music. For more refined and (let's face it) qualified analysis, I heartily recommend visiting Dan Bruno or Ben Abraham.

Distilled to its most basic structure, Final Fantasy VII's convoluted plot is one that stresses mutuality. It is a story in which the entire planet is threatened with destruction and the solution to this threat is the interconnectedness of life itself. Regardless of allegiance, belief, or geographical location, each character in the story is invested in stopping Sephiroth. In a story that would probably please Al Gore, all the planet's inhabitants, and even The Planet itself, unite to face a challenge to their collective existence.

The game's overworld music constantly reminds the player of their mission and reinforces the theme of unity:

Unlike many other Final Fantasy overworld tunes, the song has a slow buildup. While the overarching melody is introduced in the first ten seconds, the subsequent measures mirror the ambivalent, apprehensive state in which the player finds themselves upon hearing the song for the first time. The initial hours of Final Fantasy VII take place in Midgar, a huge industrial metropolis whose grand scale and internal politics make it feel like a world unto itself. After a dramatic escape, the concept that Midgar is but a small part of the world is daunting. Even more frightening is that the evil encountered within the city gates is not contained within them, and in fact has already spread across the world.

At the one minute mark, the melody is formally introduced in a relatively straightforward, as if to ensure that that we remember its basic form. Cloud, as well as the player, has a basic idea of what must be done, but the scope of the mission and the size of the world is still shocking for someone who spent spent so much time in the city looking at the small picture.

At about 1:55, the song goes on a bit of a tangent: while it retains the hints of the melody in the background, sharp keyboard strokes allude to one of gaming's most beloved characters: Aeris.

Aeris represents the countless individual sacrifices made throughout the struggle, and those haunting keystrokes speak to the frailty of one individual against an overwhelming force. After her sacrifice, Aeirs lives on through her friends as well and the many anonymous people that join in the communal struggle against Sephiroth.

At 2:40, the world map music provides a grand reintroduction to the original melody. This time, the full orchestra is brought in to reveal the narrative's broad scope and the myriad of people all fighting towards a single end. Over the course of the game, Cloud and company traverse the entire world exploring everything from Gothic mansions to beach resorts. Every corner of the map contains people whose lives were touched by the growing threat. Whether soaring over mountains with a would-be astronaut or visiting the salt of earth at an old mining camp, Final Fantasy VII's world is full of unique people with a common goal. Their diversity of experiences and the grandeur of their mission is mirrored in the music's crescendo, and their shared existence is echoed in its familiar melody.

However, victory is not assured The song retreats from its bombastic statement at 3:50 to remind us of the planet's tenuous state. At 4:10, a slow, ominous rhythm kicks in to warn us of the creeping, mysterious evil working its way across the globe. Sephiroth might not always be present, but the sense of doom he spreads is a constant undercurrent that provokes a sense of urgency, even in times of relative peace. The threat will not yield or rest, and so neither must Cloud.

At 5:15, the melodic forces of hope, grandeur, and destruction collide. The outcome is neither triumphant nor tragic; it is more inquisitive than anything. Strains of the original melody trail off, as if they are possibilities rather than eventualities. Success for Cloud and the player hinges on their ability to marshal all of the world's energy to complete the task at hand. Despite its magnificent variety, the world and its inhabitants are ultimately a vast network with a single future. Success is uncertain, and it relies on facing the danger together.

Final Fantasy VII is a story about how, even in a complex world, people are fundamentally connected to one another. This is a powerful lesson, and often comes as a profound revelation as people transition into adulthood. The game remains important not only because of its technical and gameplay accomplishments, but because it told a story that coincided with the coming of age of a generation players who now find themselves in a world that is both profoundly troubled and increasingly interconnected.

Final Fantasy VII's story is melodramatic in the best way. Time is often cruel towards games; graphics, game mechanics, and storytelling devices are easily worn down over the years. By crafting a musical version of its story, Final Fantasy VII uses melodrama to insulate it from the ravages of time. Just as John Williams' score helps Star Wars retain its impact, Nobuo Uematsu has given us music that that both burnishes and perpetuates Final Fantasy VII's popularity. The music encompasses the game's themes and provides players with an anthem that simultaneously appeals to their individual and shared experiences.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

EXP Podcast #69: The Finish Line

This past weekend concluded the 2010 San Francisco Game Developers Conference, which brought together developers from around the world to discuss all aspects of the games industry. Numerous talks were held covering a wide range of subject. One particularly interesting talk, embedded above, was by Chris Hecker, who called on designers to "finish" their games. Fittingly, we called on game developer Krystian Majewski, creator of the IGF Award nominated Trauma, to offer his professional wisdom. Join us this week while we discuss missing deadlines, game depth, charismatic marketers, and the importance of wacky ideas. As always, we encourage you to leave your comments below.

Discussion Starters:

- How percentage of games would you actually call "finished" according to Hecker's definition?
- Should indie developers have different responsibilities than AAA devs?
- Is there a place for weird and unfinished games in a health games industry?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 38 min 05 sec
- "Please Finish Your Game," by Chris Hecker, via ChrisHecker.com
- See Game Design Reviews for more information about Trauma and Krystian Majewski
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 15, 2010

Easing Up

At this year's Game Developer's Conference, Sid Meier gave a keynote titled "Psychology of Game Design: Everything you Know is Wrong." While I disagree with the vast majority of what Sid had to say, one of his statements did pique my interest. "I once gave a talk on how games should be split into four different difficulty levels." Meier said. "I was wrong. Now, Civilization V has nine difficulty levels."

Nine might sound a little preposterous. What could possibly be different to justify nine separate ranks of difficulty? Most often, changes in difficultly affect a few specific and easily predicted game elements. This is unsatisfactory. Meier might be on to something. While there is no game mode magic number, tiers of difficulty should still be far more varied and much more transparent than they are.

Different modes of difficulty exist, understandably, to account for the numerous levels of player experience. An easy task for a gamer veteran could be extremely arduous for someone new to the medium. Accordingly, we adjust how forgiving the game is for these inexperienced players.

When we talk about difficulty, we are really talking about one aspect of pacing. Players should progress at just the right speed. Depending on the feelings designers are trying to evoke, players should feel challenged but also empowered to overcome these challenges fairly. They should also be learning, and applying their knowledge to the obstacles ahead. Good narratives, be they story or mechanically based, should feel rhythmic and natural.
Difficulty is subservient to pacing. Take a look at Super Meat Boy or its Meat Boy predecessor. These games are brutally difficult. Surpassing a level is a personal feat of epic proportions. Regardless, the pacing is superb. When Meat Boy dies, he starts at the beginning of the level. But all the levels are incredibly short, never longer than thirty seconds. He also respawns incredibly quickly, letting the player kill off her Meat Boy hundreds of times in just minutes.

For the Meat Boy games, one difficulty is fine. But for longer titles, particularly story driven affairs, more is better. As it stands, there are usually three to four ranks - easy, medium, and hard, and occasionally hardest. Medium is the norm, what players familiar with games usually select. Hard is an extra challenge for the most experienced player. Hardest is mostly for those so enamored with the game, they will play through it twice. Which means of the four levels of difficulty, only one is meant for anyone with a skill level below the gamer average. That does not seem exactly fair, does it?

Rock Band offers an interesting ideal, despite having only four levels of difficulty. Easy and medium use three fret buttons - green, red and yellow. When compared to the same song, the latter is significantly harder, with a higher note count and increased complexity. Moving to hard is an even greater leap with the addition of the blue fret button. Again, moving to Extreme does it again with an extra orange button.
Rock Band is a useful example because, although the basic idea is the same, the play experience is so drastically different between difficulties. It is absolutely reasonable for someone who has never played a videogame in their life to play Rock Band on easy. At the same time, higher levels on extreme are nearly impossible for even the most experienced player. Also, progression through the campaign on each difficulty is well paced enough to encourage players to move between ranks.

What would such variance look like in a traditional game? It would have to fundamentally change how the game is played. So in New Super Mario Bros. Wii for example, the easiest mode might remove player collisions, allowing players to stack up on each other. Or, perhaps a first-person shooter of your choosing would give the newest players infinite ammo, or provide more cover objects during difficult scenes. As it stands, most FPS games just make enemies easier to kill and slightly increase player health.
But that would change gameplay completely you might say. So what? Understandably, vast changes require careful implementation and playtesting. That aside, what should we be so concerned about? Both console versions of Dragon Age: Origins and Red Faction Guerrilla create distinctive play experiences on easy, and are better for it. Their stories are better paced, opening the adventure to more players.

If the pacing ever becomes too fast, a player can easily upgrade to a higher difficulty. It should also be feasible for any game to naturally usher a new player into its harder levels. This upgrade should be completely transparent. Players should know exactly what "slightly harder" actually means. "Only for the most hardcore l33t players" is just not descriptive enough. I commend Heavy Rain for so explicitly tying the game's difficulty to familiarity with the PS3 controller..

For the most part, game difficulty rankings are not representative of many potential players. They are primarily designed for those already playing the game, offering minor adjustments to keep frustrated players appeased. They actually offer an opportunity to teach and provide a variety of play styles, becoming more inclusive of the non-gamer community in the process. Seizing that opportunity is worthwhile, no matter the difficulty.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Walk, Don't Run

In last week's article, I argued that, when comparing video games to staged theater, game players should assume the role of both the director and actor of the performance. Whereas theater generally distributes interpretive and performative duties across a number of people, game players are responsible for both a performance's original vision and its subsequent reinterpretations.

Those who stage a play do so within the boundaries of an overarching structure laid out out by the playwright. The script, with it's dialogue and stage directions, forms the theoretical limits of the piece. For games, we can substitute the playwright for the developer, and the script for the game's rules. Just as certain scripts specify distinct dialogue queues, character movement, and set design, some games have more prescriptive limits than others. However, when different in-game rules function as contradictory stage directions, it serves to undermine the trust of even the most enthusiastic players.

Like many scripts, video games often front-load their stage direction at the beginning of scenes. Players, assuming the role of the director/actor, experiment with the constraints of the scenario. For example, in Uncharged 2, we could consider the stage directions to be the rules governing how Drake moves, how the environment works, and the way NPCs factor into the gameplay dynamics. The player is given the beginning and the end of the scene and is then left to enact a performance: completing a level.

Unfortunately, certain scenes in Uncharted 2 employ extra, contradictory stage direction that overrides the game's overarching rules. Take the Tibetan village scene that Jorge discussed: I was one of the people frustrated by the mandatory walking imposed in that scenario. Not being able to run was not annoying in and of itself, but the fact that the scene contradicted the game's meta-rules created a dissonant effect.

The established rules (stage directions) based on all the previous situations were that, in a three dimensional environment in which Drake is on foot, the player (in the role of the actor/director) can choose the speed at which Drake moves. This scene breaks that agreement without any explanation.

Rule contradictions pop up in other parts of the game as well. During the scene in which Drake must align mirrors to reflect sunlight around a room, there is a point in which he is hanging off the side of a ledge. Instead of being able to shimmy back and forth, climb up, or jump off, all control is removed save for the aiming and shooting controls. This was likely done to funnel the player into the puzzle's solution, but the act of such a dramatic rule change was jarring and confusing.

Similarly, the game sets out the basic rule that guns have a limited amount of consumable ammo. However, when the player performs the Yeti scene, this stage direction is forgotten and Drake somehow possess a magical pistol with infinite ammo. Again, this rule change was more confusing than anything: I initially started scrounging for bullets after I emptied my first clip because I had already internalized the rule that guns need ammo. It was not until I desperately tried to re-load an empty gun that I realized that, in this specific scene, the established stage direction for guns should be disregarded.

The theatrical equivalent would be like performing Glengarry Glen Ross and abruptly coming to a stage direction that said "The two characters never pause, stutter, or interrupt each other" even thought the script still contained Mamet's unique writing quirks. This stage direction would undermine previous directions and established characters, just as sudden rule changes undermine scenes in Uncharted 2.

Of course, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and there are times in which it makes sense to contradict established rules. It is much easier to accept modifications to overarching rules if they are diegetically justified. Uncharted 2 shows us how this can be done during the scene where Drake helps carry a wounded man to safety. The player is placed in a three-dimensional environment, on foot, surrounded by hostile NPCs, which suggests that they should be able to run, jump and shoot as normal. However, the scene-specific stage direction of having to carry someone logically prevents the player from directing/acting as they normally would.

Diegetic band-aids could have easily been applied to the aforementioned village, temple, and Yeti examples. An injury could have justified Drake's inhibited movement (although this would not explain why he could still leap off of ledges). The paralyzing ledge in the temple could have been transformed into a normal ledge that triggered an audio or visual hint from Drake to point the player in the right direction. During the yeti battle, there could have been a crate of ammo lying around, functioning as a de facto source of infinite ammo. Its appearance as a crate would suggest scarcity (even if such scarcity was an illusion), and forcing the player to make periodic mad dashes for ammo would have added another a layer of gameplay sophistication to the scene.

Just as a playwright uses stage directions to define the parameters of their work, a game developer uses rules to define the boundaries in which players must fashion their experiences. The guidelines found in a single game simultaneously immerse some players while chafing others, and the developer can do relatively little about personal taste. Despite this, it is possible to at least provide a solid foundation on which the player constructs their performance, should they choose to play the game.

By forcing the player to walk after telling them they can run, games flirt with abandoning that which separates them from other media: player freedom. Unless the point of the experience is to present some Takahashi-esque "non-game," we should be wary of mixed messages within our stage directions.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

EXP Podcast #68: Naked Ambition

As games evolve, more mainstream titles are incorporating elements of nudity. This raises the question of nudity's importance. In one sense, its value is derived from what it represents in terms of the story or the characters. Nudity is also useful for examining wider societal issues and cultural norms. But what if we had to assign nudity an actual economic worth? Does $3 sound about right?

This week, we discuss G. Christopher Williams' article about nudity in The Saboteur. The game represents an intersection of monetized, optional, and artistic nudity, and is an interesting case study for how mainstream games deal with exposed flesh. We share our thoughts on the game's approach to bare bodies and then trade ideas about what the future holds for digital nudity. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments (clothing optional).

Some discussion starters:

- What are the implication of having monetized nudity?

- Do you think there is a difference between cutscene and interactive examples of nudity from a moral/ethical point of view?

- Can you think of any games in which nudity was essential to the complete experience? Are there games in which nudity ultimately weakened the overall experience?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 30 min 09 sec
- "The Value of Nudity: Considering the Saboteur," by G. Christopher Williams, via PopMatters
- "In the Nude for Games," by Jorge
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Gamer's Dilemma

As if just for me, James Madigan of The Psychology of Video Games, and frequent contributor to GameSetWatch, has written The Glitcher's Dilemma, an astute analysis of the social dilemma, or "prisoner's dilemma" as it relates to videogames. The prisoner's dilemma is a popular scenario in political science and numerous other disciplines that I find incredibly interesting. By expanding James' approach and problematizing the prisoner's dilemma from a political science perspective, I think we can glean some design lessons that may help to minimize poor in-game behavior in the future.

I recommend readers take a look at the original article as it offers some interesting analysis I will try not to repeat here. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this scenario, however, I will follow James' lead with this description of the prisoner's dilemma from psychologist Robyn Dawes:

"Two men rob a bank. They are apprehended, but in order to obtain a conviction the district attorney needs confessions. He succeeds by proposing to each robber separately that if he confesses and his accomplice does not, he will go free and his accomplice will be sent to jail for ten years; if both confess, both will be sent to jail for five years, and if neither confesses, both will be sent to jail for one year on charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Further, the district attorney informs each man that he is proposing the same deal to his accomplice."

The scenario mapped above is relatively simple. If the goal of each criminal is to minimize the length of time spent in prison, the most logical decision is to confess. The confessing prisoner will either free himself entirely or mitigate the potential result of even more time spent in jail while his partner goes free. In this scenario, two rational actors reach sub-optimal outcomes.As James mentions (see his image above), this situation mirrors numerous videogame dilemmas, from javelin glitching in Modern Warfare 2 to Zerg rushing in Starcraft 2. Every time a potentially fun environment is ruined by gamers exploiting glitches or loop holes the dilemma is played out on a small scale.

For many political scientists and peace theorists, the prisoner's dilemma is incredibly problematic as a predictive tool. To many, exploring its efficacy and overcoming its parameters is of great importance. After all, this simple scenario has been used by some to justify nuclear arms buildup and preemptive warfare. Despite the frequency of cooperation, and the irrationality of human beings, many people point to the prisoner's dilemma to explain why people do not get along.

Cooperation does occur, and is more frequent, as Jame's rightly points out, when players participate in an unknown or infinite number of games. Over time, despite the tit-for-tat scenarios discussed in the original piece, cooperation tends to normalize between actors. Theoretically, this scenario is met while playing any online game. There is no way to tell if you'll meet the same group of players during online matches, or to know how many matches you will play with those same individuals in the future. Yet the dilemma still occurs with startling frequency. Why?
The answer might lie in another critique of the prisoner's dilemma. The scenario as described by Dawes is predicated on neither prisoner being able to communicate with the other. At least on the international stage, this is unrealistic. The significance of communication is simple. Most actors, be they nation states or gamers, are not so irrational as to pursue sub-optimal outcomes for cruel or vindictive reasons. People, in general, actually want to get along. Rather, without communication, misperceptions occur.

Let's take the current Starcraft 3 beta for example. The dominant strategy plaguing the beta is early rushing, not allowing the opponent to experience all the game has to offer. Rushing is the most certain way to win a match. Now imagine two players who would rather play a longer, more fulfilling game. They want a good match, but above all else, they do not want to lose against a rushing opponent. Despite shared interests, they both believe the other's goal is merely to rush and win.
This same scenario can be applied to nuclear armament. Psychologist Scott Plous does just that, calling the situation the "Perceptual Dilemma." Incorrect perceptions create poor decisions and sub-optimal outcomes - which is why communication is so important. Talking is a way actors inform others of their intentions and preferences, dispelling misunderstandings.

Which brings me to an interesting question. Can the prisoner's dilemma occur in single-player games? Certainly not by traditional definitions, but the theory still holds when one-sided exploitation occurs. Imagine if a player found a way to cheat in Braid, beyond just looking at a manual. This hypothetical exploit could diminish the game's impact, worsening the experience for the players.

On the other hand, a frustrated player may misunderstand a puzzle, perceive the game itself as being unfair, and act upon a misconceived slight. I do not think it is much of a stretch to draw comparisons with the perceptual dilemma here. In this case, unclear communication between player and developer is to blame. The player chooses sub-optimal outcomes for themselves because they consider the game intentionally and resolutely unfair.
So what does this mean for game design? First, and most obvious, games should not be built with fatal exploits. Secondly, anonymity is undoubtedly a factor. That being said, the effects of anonymity are diminished when online identities are permanent. With permanent online identities, players will know when they interact with the same individuals.

Similarly, mutual enjoyment is also more likely when players interact with one another repeatedly. I think designers are under the assumption that more players, and bigger player pools, is better. In actuality, we can diminish poor decision outcomes within smaller pools of player interaction, not more. Perhaps massively-multiplayer games should be less massive.

Above all else, games should foster communication. This includes single-player games. Player's should know why sub-optimal outcomes occur, be it from they computer or player based. Many online games limit communication between enemies for a myriad of reasons, some of them justified. However, we should find ways to foster communication between players before, during, and after a competitive match. This can take the form of text or voice chat, easily understood symbols or gestures, a mailing system, or even a streamlined messaging UI. It may open the door to a few bad apples eager to verbally assault other players, but it is better than the alternative.
This is the ultimate source of paranoia. Many gamers have come to fear online play because of a handful of immature and irrational players. The mass exodus of reasonable players from this online space, to some extent, exacerbates rude online gaming culture. Many of us now associate competitive online games as venues for immaturity.

We continue to fuel our own perceptual dilemma's by giving credence to extremist players, the few who actually enjoy traditionally sub-optimal outcomes: griefers. Third parties and ban-hammer wielding moderators can handle some of the worst offenders. In a transparent environment free of irrational actors, with open channels of communication, it becomes easier to mitigate the prisoner's dilemma. Nation states do it every day, why can't we?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Self-Directed Play

Jorge and Denis make convincing arguments for conceptualizing game players as actors. In many ways, this is an apt comparison, as a player performs a crucial role within a game, imbuing it with a personal touch. More broadly, it is often useful to view theater and video games as evolutionary cousins; both formats are about exploring a given set of parameters and iteration between performances. Because of this, it is tempting to directly transpose the role of theatrical actors onto players and the role of theatrical directors onto game designers. However, doing so oversimplifies the distinction between the media and the distinct role a player assumes within a game.

Unlike theater, video games collapse directing and acting into a single role. While playing a game, the player continually synthesizes directorial choices and acting interpretations. Even basic decisions, such as how to manipulate the camera or control an avatar, begin as theoretical visions and are subsequently tested within the game's rules.

Just as directors and actors combine their talents to create scenes, the melding of player intention and player execution yield in-game events. The two sides are not always in agreement: no matter much I visualize the perfect route in Mirror's Edge as a player/director, my abilities as a player/actor yield unexpected results. Sometimes this means falling off a roof (thereby ruining the scene) and sometimes this means accomplishing my goal by straying from the original plan (improvisation).

The game developer acts as the scriptwriter and technical crew by designing rules and environments. As the player/director, I produce an interpretation of the "script" by exploring the rules. This leads to individual characterization in even narratively linear games such as God of War. Will Kratos rely on his magic or use only brute force? Will he engage the aerial enemies with long range attacks or by climbing onto a platform? Is Kratos cautious and prone to defensive moves or is he a berserker who wades into the fray regardless of his health? Does he stride triumphantly through the door to Olympus or does he roll like an idiot because it gets him there faster? The answer to these questions hinges on synthesis of my tendencies as a player/director and player/actor.

We are currently seeing some high-profile games that seek to tease apart this internal relationship, which serves to make the distinction more apparent. Games like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age, and Heavy Rain all de-emphasize player/actor agency in favor of a more directorial approach.

When we call Mass Effect a "role-playing game," it is implied that the player is acting in the role of Shepard. However, because of the way the game handles choices and conversations, the player's "role" often resembles that of a director much more so than an actor. Take the following scene as an example:

This sequence puts great emphasis on the player/director dynamic and weakens the player's grasp on the player/actor dynamic. The player has little control over Shepard's actual performance and instead functions as a guiding force in shaping the scene. As often happens in theater, the actor in this scene listens to the director's instructions and then adds his personal touch.

At 2:30, when Jack says: "You eyeing me up? Because if this is just about sex, maybe you should just fucking say so," the player/director instructs Shepard to communicate "No, I want to get to know you." As a director, I read this line to mean that Shepard was interested in Jack in a platonic way. However, the in-game Shepard imbues latent sexual interest into a potentially non-sexual response by saying: "I'm in no hurry. I want to know what makes you tick first." Saying "I'm in no hurry" and qualifying his statement with "first" implies that, while he may not be in a rush, a sexual rendezvous with Jack is his ultimate destination. It is as if Shepard and the player are two different people, each with their own interpretation of the scene.

Similarly, at 3:05, the player/director responds to Jack's offer with the "Yes, I want you" dialogue option. However, Shepard communicates this by saying "I'd be lying if I said no. You're different." The directorial choice available to the player is a bold, lusty statement, but actor's execution is more guarded and coy. While the director's option puts Shepard's wishes at the forefront, Shepard's performance humbly shifts the focus back to Jack's personality.

A dialogue sequence in Mass Effect 2 is not an acting role, but a directing one. Creating a Shepard at the beginning of the game is an exercise in casting more than anything else, as the player has only partial control over how the actor will ultimately perform. During the dialogue sections, the player exerts a loose, thematic control over "actors" whose actual word choices and body language, along with their accompanying ramifications, remain mysteries until they are performed.

Ironically, the closest the player gets to controlling the acting in Mass Effect is when they dispense with words and communicate with their weapons. In combat, the player/director is free to formulate plans of attack, strategy, and thematic vision in the battle and the player/actor gets to engage with these ideas directly. Is Shepard a caring teammate who looks to limit casualties, or is he blinded by rage during battle? Does he seek to destroy enemies in face to face combat, or is he characterized by trickery and subterfuge? Does he kill out of necessity, or does he enjoy hearing the cries of the fallen? These questions and answers are both supplied by the player, and significantly add to the character, albeit in a less readily apparent way than the dialogue sequences.

Depending on their design, games force players to strike different balances between the player/director and player/actor roles. Regardless of the balance, all games share this exceedingly rare trait: they allow the player to both direct and perform a creative work. And unless, you are Clint Eastwood or Llewellyn Sinclair, that is a rare opportunity.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

EXP Podcast #67: Late for a History Lesson

It is hard to look away from the onslaught of newly released titles, which time to pique our interest with all these "fresh" ideas. But games have been around for a while now, and not every game is a glistening display of pure innovation. We have old roots that are worthy of exploration. Or, as Evan Stubbs suggests, those seeking to expand the medium have an obligation to reexamine older titles and put modern day gaming in its historical context.

Join us this week while Scott and I discuss stealth mechanics of the past, the art of building upon genre, the Beatles, Braid, and the risks and rewards of gamer time travel. As usual, you can find Evan's original article on the subject in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Do developers have an obligation to contextualize their work in a historical context?
- Does the historical knowledge of a medium or genre improve or diminish your play experience?
- Is effective to read about old games versus just playing them? Or do we need a hands on experience to appreciate gaming history?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 51 sec
- Learning from History by Evan Stubbs, via RedKingsDream
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rehearsing Movement

A recent article on Vorpal Bunny Ranch caught my attention with a compelling perspective on the role of players. In his piece, All men and women are merely players, Denis Farr discusses the act of play as a sort of theatrical rehearsal. The bounded space of a game is the stage, script, sound, and lighting all in one. The actors are the players and the developers are the writers and directors. Cooperatively or otherwise, players explore the limits of the production while experiencing the narrative along the way.

Denis goes on to extrapolate his approach by describing a scene in Mass Effect in which an unknown Asari touches his character, an uncomfortably forward gesture. The result is an act of narrative wrangling, in which Denis justifies the action on screen the way an actor may justify disagreeable commands from the director. In this case, how a scene resonates on screen is dependent on blocking. It is this often unappreciated artistry that interests me today and the inherently difficult production of realistic blocking.

For those unfamiliar with theatre, blocking is a term referring to the placement and movement of actors during a performance. It was coined by W.S. Gilbert, who moved blocks around a miniature set to represent actors maneuvering on stage. This act is similar to playing a game where, for the most part, we control our avatars around an established environment. Successfully appeasing players while relinquishing them of control, perhaps necessary to sensibly block the movement of characters on screen, is an impressive feat of design.
It is interesting, then, that Denis uses Mass Effect as an example. Mass Effect 2 improves on the conversation animations from its predecessor immensely. I have become so accustomed to conversation in which all parties just stand there staring at each other that ME2 was a shock. NPCs react to conversation queues, backing up, walking about, leaning against a railing, or turning around for example. Shepard and her crew are particularly mobile, displaying a range of gestures, from hugging to hitting. Sean Sands of Gamers With Jobs puts it well when he states:

"Scenes aren't just set up as instances of action and inaction, so much as they are directed and framed in a theatrical sense. Staging and blocking are considered during crucial interactions, and characters are framed in ways that add weight and tension."

The ability to make Paragon or Renegade decisions during dialogue, immediately interrupting a scene, is a clever way to add player agency to these scripted events. To follow the theatre example, it provides more room for actor exploration. Conversations in ME2 are only slightly interactive, yet still compelling, in no small part due to realistic blocking which adjusts according to player decisions.

When blocking is constrained in some other games, however, the audience can be less than forgiving. Uncharted 2 features a scene in which Drake walks around a Tibetan village high in the mountains. The game forces the player to walk, not run. Continuing with the rehearsal analogy, limiting player movement is one way the developer controls blocking. There are those who criticize this scene for exhibiting too much authorial control. While that may be the case, it can be difficult to find ways to overcome the problem. There is a fundamental conflict between realistic blocking and player agency.

The rehearsal analogy may help explain why limited movement in games irritates some players. Prior to the Tibetan village, there is a reasonable assumption on part of the player that the rules of play will not change. They have already been established by the developer and clearly communicated to the player. Drake can run, period. Therefore, running is part of the actor's available repertoire. Removing the ability to run is akin to a director suddenly asking her performers to hop on one leg. Hopping may fit the scene, but it severely inhibits the understood parameters by which the actors explore the stage. It comes off as cheap and unfair.
It is actually more palatable to impose blocking during non-interactivity, primarily cut scenes. Cut scenes are just not as riveting as participation however. Fortunately, Bioware designed the dialogue system in Mass Effect 2 such that player agency during conversations is predicated on relinquishing blocking to the developers. All the communication options reflect the player's general sentiment, not the exact words Commander Shepard will employ. These abbreviated options signify to the player the agreement between themselves and the creators. In exchange for dialogue exploration, players relinquish control of blocking to the game's creators.

Unlike UC2, ME2 appears fair because the actor and director are conversing and exploring the scenes together. The Renegade and Paragon options cleverly assuage any residual tedium from interactivity, giving the player/actor another tool to engage with the scene. The environment Bioware creates is much more akin to a rehearsal than the performance demanded by UC2. Naughty Dog's decision was made with good intentions - sensible blocking is crucial for developing compelling in-game scenarios. It just so happens the top-down production of realistic blocking inherently conflicts with player participation - the one way a player/actor explores a performance. Most players show animosity towards undue interference, just like most actors. Developers need to stage scenes accordingly.