venerdì 23 settembre 2016

Game or experience? The Virginia case

One of the things making the indie gaming scene so interesting is that there are very little restraints on what developers can try, both in terms of concepts and form. Of course, such freedom of experimentation is far from a free ticket to attention or success, and I guess the guys at Variable State knew better when they set in stone the design of Virginia. But what's going on with the game, for starters? Well, today's subject is a Steam Greenlight project with an interesting hook (its story is set in the titular American state, and features two female FBI agents dealing with a bizarre case of disappearance) and an approach to game design that focuses entirely on storytelling at the expense of player agency.

What may sound like a walking simulator at first is actually a shade of that genre where dialogues are completely absent, and sound effects are sparse at best: the player is supposed to explore the surroundings, feel the mood set by the music while looking for clues, and use these cues to understand what is happening in the scene. Yes, the experience is structured in discrete, sequencial scenes intersped with various kinds of cuts (temporal, oniric etc.); interaction is limited to walking around and manipulate objects that are essential to the story with a simple left click, and fixed results. Virginia is a game that makes a clear functional point out of its stern linearity.

The whole design is in fact aimed at surrounding the player with a deeply atmospheric story told through non verbal means, where all the beats happens precisely when they have to, and characters emerges from their scripted actions - or the reactions to what little the player can do. There's an interesting, yet stark opposition between the barebone gameplay scheme and a rich visual language sporting exquisite care for framing, lighting, timings and cuts: the scale of variation is purposely leant towards the latter, and as a result, the mood and emotional impact of every scene are bumped up extraordinarily. This is not at all a first in the gaming world, as we often see AAA productions reinforce their climatic moments by briefly restraining the player's agency: Virginia, though, extends this approach throughout the whole span of the adventure.

A working gameplay structure can rely on simple one button contextual interactions, as long as it serves another basic function besides "click here to progress the story", and that's challenging the player on some level

In a touch of cleverness, here and there are scattered some very short scenes that does nothing to push the story forward, but only exists to reveal some facets of the world and its inhabitants: in one instance, the older agent stops by a convenience store leaving you in the car. A few instants later, a blue coupé with some white boys stops by your car, they give you the middle finger and then flee. In a matter of seconds, you get to understand the youngsters' relationship with the law, the female gender and the black people (both agents are black).

As you may have guessed, there's no arguing the validity of this structure in experiencial terms, but whether Virginia constitutes a proper game or not is another matter. There is so little to do in the game that some may feel compelled to say "I could have watched it on Youtube after all"... and yes they could. It's a pertinent doubt spawning a legitimate question about whether interactivity alone can turn something into a game, and if not, what type and degree of interactivity is required for this to happen. In my experience and opinion, a working gameplay structure can rely on simple one button contextual interactions, as long as it serves another basic function besides "click here to progress the story", and that's challenging the player on some level. As far as the demo goes, Virginia technically does this - you have to walk through the scenes and look for that particular clue that triggers the next event - but it's too straightforward in its approach.

Rare is the impression of working towards an objective in this experience, as powerful as the narrative rewards are. In this sense, there's an unavoidable comparison to be made with Dear Esther, a game widely criticized for its structural simplicity, but with a stronger element of challenge in the randomization of story clues at each new playthrough. The narrative may not be as elegantly exposed as in Virginia, but the player is required to reconstruct it and make it come together in his mind, thus bringing a tangible sense of accomplishment upon succeeding. The same basic mechanic, used in a different way, ultimately brings more weight to the gameplay and the meaning of the interactions, making the act of playing Dear Esther more attractive than watching it on YouTube. Virginia stays on the very edge of what we call "games", and does it knowingly.

Going by how favourably Virginia is being received by the specialized press, it can't be said that Variable State's gamble hasn't paid off: it sits comfortably into the wider spectrum of interactive experiences, naturally lending itself to other media such as VR. Ironically, working so well in video form doesn't do any good to its interactive nature.

venerdì 9 settembre 2016

Understanding PS4 Pro, an infographic

Aside from the questions it poses about the whole future of consoles marketing strategy, a quick stroll throught the Web reveals how controversial is the reasoning behind the PS4 Pro existence, its purpose and functions still not exactly clear for some customers. I made this quick infographic to clarify what the machine does when used with different TV sets, with a FAQ section addressing some of the most common doubts/complaints about the platform   

giovedì 8 settembre 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 5: The Internet overreacts to PS4 Pro

mercoledì 3 agosto 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 4: Fast engaging characters, how?

martedì 2 agosto 2016

Speed Oddities: embracing the flaws in Genki games

When we think about racing games, names like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport and Need for Speed are unquestionably the most popular in town. Over the years, we saw those series routinely set new standards in terms of polish, accessibility and mass market appeal, their influence bleeding into every declination of the genre's landscape - from hardcore simulations to pure arcade racers. Raising the people's expectations towards the category since the late nineties to such an high extent, though, had both good and not so good implications: on one hand, the overall quality of the products rose accordingly, while on the other, developers that used to do things a little bit differently ended up falling by the wayside somehow, especially in the West, and that includes the japanese Genki.

I've never concealed my appreciation for this studio, born in 1990 and firmly rooted in the racing genre (but they did Jade Cocoon for the PS1 in 1998 too, a lovely JRPG). Awkward logo aside, most people will probably recognize them for the Shutokou Battle racing series, known outside of Japan as Tokyo Xtreme Racer, Tokyo Highway Battle, Import Tuner Challenge or Street Supremacy, depending on the publisher. Born in 1994 on the SNES, this longstanding saga had 10 main releases up until 2006, when it was officially discontinued, and something like 11 spinoffs that dabbled with its core gameplay in interesting ways. Western developers recognized Shutokou Battle's importance by embedding some of its tropes (japanese cars, the focus on tuning, high speed public roads used as racing tracks, especially at night) into hit series like Need for Speed Underground, Midnight Club and Juiced.

Despite sharing some of its elements with the titles we've just mentioned, the core racing dynamics and rules in Genki's products are apart from all of them - so far apart, in fact, that they could even be considered the main factors behind the generally mixed reception of Shutokou Battle in the West during its 10 years run. To better understand why, let's try to sum up the Genki driving experience: racing occurs mainly on the Shuto Expressway, a sprawling system of highways that encompasses four prefectures (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama), and is articulated in multi-lane routes with tunnels and elevated roads, all faithfully reproduced in the games but most importantly, blazed through at speeds far north of 186 mph (300 kph).

In Shutokou Battle, the fun emerges as the player becomes more and more aware of how to exploit the game systems' interactions - not by cherry picking and dismissing them for not being as elegant or refined than [insert any big racing game name here]

The extreme speeds makes breaking, cornering or even the basic lane changing maneuver far more dangerous and complicated than they should be, courtesy of some very deliberate vehicle dynamics: straight breaking at 300 kph screws up the cars' weight distribution, making them swerve nervously until the player tames them with equally nervous wheel corrections. Understeer affects each and every single car to various degrees, so the cornering phase has to be set up as early as possible in order to send the vehicle into a state of controllable drift: there's a precise timing for this, but randomized traffic placed in trajectory can make its evaluation pretty hard, so it's easier sometimes to just ram into the barriers and let them do the job.

martedì 26 luglio 2016

Power vs hardware design: assessing the Nintendo (NX) way

Following a report by Digital Foundry on what is supposed to be the hardware design of the still mysterious Nintendo NX, gamers have flooded the wide spectrum of social networks - be it forums, sub-reddits, Facebook or anything else - with opinions on whether the company's alleged new design is going to make it or break it. Especially when I read comments about consoles being underpowered, I realize how poor is the general understanding of why they were designed the way they were. In the same way, talks of the NX being either dead on arrival or a godsend sounds a bit silly to me. Internal software library, third party support, functions and price are what defines success in this market space, and the points every new console should be judged upon.

Sure, having 1080p/60Hz out of the box is nice, but it comes just as late in the generation as the WiiU did, with the consequences we've all seen. The NX is relatively close to launching, yet third party support looks sparse and despite the uniqueness of Nintendo's internal offering, its appeal towards an extremely diversified mainstream market doesn't seem particularly strong on the software side. For instance, I'd like to see Nintendo experiment outside of their historical brands' comfort zone, either by creating actual new IPs or better valorising the neglected ones.

Internal software library, third party support, functions and price are what defines success in the console market space, and the points every new machine should be judged upon

What about Nintendo's approach to hardware design? I believe the informations coming through Digital Foundry to be accurate: providing controllers that you can either use at home and interface with a TV screen, or carry outside of your lounge at any moment's notice caters to the same, immense smartphone users demographic that is so engaged with Pokemon GO these days. This could influence the company's home software plans massively, and I'm really interested to see if this is actually the direction Nintendo wants to go for.

It's not a matter of hardware, really. It's all about vision, strategy and contents - these are the fields where Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are going to clash hard, no matter how (or even if) they'll try to distance themselves from one another.

sabato 2 luglio 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 3: On the need for elegant game design