Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Instruments Vs. Ideas in the console gaming space

I find the title to this article to be sufficiently effective in typewriting terms, but if Blogger allowed for subtitles, I would have probably gone for a more explicative "... or what people don't get about roles in the gaming industry". As you might have heard, something very interesting is happening in the console space, where Sony and Microsoft are bringing about the latest technological trends (VR, 4K rendering, and the introduction of HDR colour gamma) in pretty different ways - the former by creating an enhanced version of the current PS4, the latter by going generational with a new and exponentially more powerful platform. It's a moment of intense water testing for the companies, and the console market as a whole is poised to massively change its configuration from the next year on. Looking at the social networks output, the general gaming public is not too happy about the situation.

Some complains about companies jumping too soon onto the 4K bandwagon, while forsaking the implicit promise of this generation - true 1080p/60fps gaming. Others, apparently more concerned with a general lack of innovation in game design, are asking console manifacturers to put the technological theme aside, and instead focus on giving devs more ways to express their creativity. The oxymoron here is strikingly obvious: what should manifacturers do other than providing the hi-tech gadgetry needed to flex the software makers' creative muscles (and offering appropriate promotion, of course)? In terms of pure game design, higher resolutions and color depth have next to no impact on gameplay features, but the thing is, every developer is entitled to use the additional power as they see fit. Having a 4K capable machine doesn't mean you have to run your software at that resolution, especially if you plan to have lots of on-screen objects, advanced AI, physics or any combination of those.

That's to say that nowadays, if a team has a really good idea and the talent to back it up, chances are the available machines are powerful enough to turn it into an actual product

That's to say that nowadays, if a team has a really good idea and the talent to back it up, chances are the available machines are powerful enough to turn it into an actual product. Traditional consoles are perfectly good instruments. Paying a little bit of attention, people should be able to realize that a good chunk of the most brilliant gameplay concept of the last decade can be replicated on much less powerful machines than those they were brought on - the demake culture has made a whole point out of this. The problem is, a sizeable part of the gaming audience is neither able to, nor concerned with, assessing the basic relationship between ideas and instruments.

This leads to sadly frequent, yet almost comical misunderstandings such as comparing the VR phenomenon with the 3DTV one to prove how the former is actually just a gimmick and it's going nowhere after these days' boom... Believe it or not, some people are actually convinced of that. Instead, they should realize how VR constitutes a new instrument with enormous potential to deliver radically different experiences than what we're accustomed to - new design ideas that stems from VR and makes real sense exclusively in that purview. In other words, it's the manifacturers' most appropriate answer to those concerned with the lack of new avenues for creativity (*): once game creators will have found their footing with it, we can realistically expect them to develop a specialized creative mindset and come up with something really evolutive. And that, sirs, is how the roles really are laid out.

(*) unless Nintendo NX turns out to be something truly groundbreaking, but nothing seems to suggest it at the moment.

Friday, 23 September 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.

Friday, 9 September 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   

Thursday, 8 September 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 5: The Internet overreacts to PS4 Pro