Friday, March 24, 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Equipment Entrophy

A glass holding water to the midway mark...is it half empty or half full?  If you think the former you might be an optimistic by nature, while if you feel the latter then perhaps you are a pessimist.  A similar system can be applied to how people react to mechanics in games.  The collector (the type of player who wants to gather up everything) doesn't like inventory limits.  The methodical, cautious player hates having to depend on a checkpoint system.  Then, there is the powermonger who cannot stand having a finite wellspring of strength from which to draw upon.

This is where durability and weapons come into the picture.  When you think about it, having a sword that can only be swung so many times isn't all that strange.  After all, guns in video games almost always have limited supplies of ammunition.  Once exhausted the firearm becomes (nearly) useless.  So what is the issue with melee weaponry?  Well...there's a key difference here in that you can find and grab more ammo for a gun easy enough in most games, but reconstituting a sword is usually not such a simple process.  Sometimes this kind of repair work can be done in the field.  In Betrayal at Krondor players could apply whetstones to blades, oil to bow strings, and hammers to armor in order to maintain their gear.  However, it was inevitably a losing battle.  Because of diminishing returns, weapons and armor would eventually break requiring replacement or expensive refurbishment by an NPC vendor.  Adding to the headache, repair items had a limited number of uses as well.  The Souls series utilized similar mechanics with weapons and other equipment becoming worn out from combat.  Here too items could be used to rejuvenate battle-damaged gear, or a cost could be paid at certain locations for a full restoration.  Sadly, these kinds of maintenance mechanics in games tend to subtract from the overall experience, rather than add anything meaningful to it.  The same can be said for how they are implemented in most survival crafting games.  I think Factorio is a great game, but having to periodically make a new pickaxe because the old one broke from wear and tear is a pointless nuisance.  Some would argue that it's more realistic, but I'm not so sure...

I can't say I'm an expert on metallurgy, but when it comes to iron there two basic ways to go; high carbon cast iron (which is hard and brittle), or low carbon wrought iron (which is softer and more resilient).  Obviously, neither has a clear-cut advantage, which is why skilled weaponsmiths try to combine the best of both types of metal.  Take your average katana, for example, the edge is hard iron to make it cut better, but the backing is soft to make it so the blade is less likely to break.  Steel is obviously the ideal metal, but it's fairly labour intensive to make and the knowledge of how to do so wasn't widespread until after the end of the Middle Ages.  Hence, blades tended to chip and dull over time.  In video game terms though this sounds like swords should have a base damage rating with a renewable "sharpness" damage bonus that slowly goes down as the weapon sees use.  Instead, most systems have weapons remain perfectly fine until some arbitrary numerical value hits zero at which point they suddenly become useless.  It's a bit silly, but that's not to say medieval weapons never suffered from sudden catastrophic failures.

Corrosion, microscopic cracks as well as impurities or imperfections could (and frequently did) lead to a broken blade.  During the Dark Ages it happened so often weapon design was informed by it.  A good example is the viking era sword which is easy to identify by its rather flat looking point.  This might seem like an odd choice considering it reduces the effectiveness of stabbing attacks, but the reason for it is a thicker tip is a lot less likely to get snapped off in combat.  In fact, there are a number of special defensive weapons such as parrying daggers, jitte, and sai that are specifically meant to catch an opponent's blade with the intention of breaking it or removing it from the wielder's grasp.  Completely accidental breaks were also common.  It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a sword gets stuck in something then bent at a weird angle.  The most often referenced incidence I've seen in historical accounts though is blades being broken over helmets.  It makes sense considering mail and leather absorb impacts to a degree while helmets were usually solid pieces of metal that deflect or outright stopped incoming attacks.  By the time plate armor became widely worn on the battlefield though most weaponry had gone the direction of oversized needles and can openers (rather than long-edged weaponry).  So, let's try to apply some of this to video games.

If we use the recently released Breath of the Wild as a template you'd need a system that accounts for quality, condition and type of weapon as well as the hardness of the point of impact.  Degradation and the risk of a broken blade depend on these variables each time the player hits something.  In other words, Link should be able to slice up a bunch of unarmored Bokoblins mostly trouble-free, but by the same token is taking a big risk hacking away at a Stone Talus.  As is, I think the weapons in this iteration of Zelda are deliberately incredibly fragile in order to encourage players to use everything they can get their hands on.  It's not a bad mechanic, but it would probably be more at home in a side-scrolling brawler than an action RPG.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Breath of the Cloud, Link to the Atlas

If you're not familiar with the film Cloud Atlas, it was a 2012 release (adapted from a novel of the same name) that featured a lot of big name talent attached to a very unconventional plot structure.  Unlike traditional movies that have a beginning middle and end, Cloud Atlas attempts to weave six stories (each separated by widely different times and places) into a single overarching narrative about reincarnation, karma and the course of human advancement.  Whether or not it successfully executes on its premise is debatable, but I personally enjoyed the uniqueness of the narrative structure and found myself pondering how it could be applied to a video game.

Enter The Legend of Zelda, one of the longest running franchises in the history of the medium.  Needless to say the writers over at Nintendo love to tell (and retell) the classic hero's journey.  While it can be said that each part stands on its own, thematic and visual elements resurface in subsequent iterations, creating a kind of continuity between various entries in the series.  This has led to a lot of speculation amongst fans that there might be a metanarrative loosely binding the entire IP together.  It's easy to dismiss all the theories and ideas presented on the internet as pure speculation, but hints sprinkled throughout the games themselves have implied that there is a recurring cycle tied to the Triforce.  In particular, it's three components are always represented by three distinct characters; Princess Zelda (Wisdom), Link (Courage), and Ganon (Power).  In all the games thus far each character has always been bestowed with the same piece of the Triforce, but what if that were to change?  Let's look at all the possible arrangements:
 save image

Obviously the first possibility is the default, while possibilities 2 and 3 represent a role reversal and gender swap respectively.  Much how an actor (or actress) in Cloud Atlas plays radically different roles from one life to the next, possibilities 4 and 5 are unusual in that they cast Zelda in the role of a villainess.  It's something I like to think of as "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" situation (named after the movie or book, take your pick).  The most outlandish arrangement to me though has to be the sixth and final possibility.  Not only is Zelda the heroine and central focus of the story, but she is up against a villainous Link with Ganon(dorf) in a supporting role.  What would this normally antagonistic character be like in such a situation?  Would he be an wise old hermit living a quiet existence in some remote corner of a vast desert?  Or would be a royal spymaster, playing a deadly game of intrigue in the court of tyrannical Link the Usurper?  Perhaps he could be the deposed but rightful heir to the Kingdom of Hyrule?  In which case he might be trying to regain his throne with the help of a courageous girl garbed in green.  Needless to say, there are a lot of interesting interpretations even within the realm of a single possibility.

Changes to The Legend of Zelda formula have always been incremental and gameplay focused.  In some cases this has necessitated slight alterations to the basic story structure, but ultimately it has always been about the protagonist (Link) defeating the antagonist (Ganon) and saving the damsel in distress (Princess Zelda).  Suffice it to say, I think Nintendo should really consider mixing things up a bit more in the story department.  If nothing else it would give them a nice new jumping off point for the inevitable sequel to Breath of the Wild.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For Honor...or not

...and
que slo mo walk toward the camera
Ubisoft should really consider adding a "no" between the "U" and "play" for their peer-to-peer multiplayer service.  Not just for that service's mandatory installation requirements or the poor net code that comes with it, but because of the borderline insults For Honor waves in the faces of consumers.  It's a full priced video game with microtransactions that introduce pay-to-win elements into certain game modes.  The single player component, aside from being a decent tutorial, is pretty lackluster and the story (as many have already pointed out) is just an excuse to have warriors from vastly different times and places do battle against one another.

Of course the big question on every arm-chair duelist's lips is "who would win such a hypothetical fight?" to which the correct answer is "whichever side does the best job of maximizing their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses."  You can argue and debate forever about whether a katana is better than a bastard sword, or whether harring foes with horseback archers is more effective than a flanking charge with lancers, but the simple truth is you're quibbling over clipped copper pennies when the gold and gems here are the minds and bodies of the people equipped with all that gear.

Teacher, is this going to be on the test?
Take something as basic as sword stances; holding a sword high over the head makes downward cuts a quick way to attack, but it also tips an opponent off to your most likely move.  A middle (guard) stance puts the blade between you and your enemy making it less difficult to parry or defend against a charging attack, but also gives your opponent an easy means of gauging your weapon's reach.  Alternatively, there a low stance in which the sword tip is often aimed downward and away from an opponent.  It's the least used, generally speaking, because it provides none of the advantages of the other two stances.  However, it does make feints and other forms of deception a bit more likely to succeed.

So, which do you use and when?  It depends largely on your capabilities and those of your foe.  If there were a surefire technique everyone would use it, which would mean it's is no longer a guaranteed way to win.  One of the basic axioms of melee combat is "every attack has a counter, and every counter can be countered.

In his treatise "The Art of War," Sun Tzu wrote "all war is based on deception,"  and by extrapolating that and applying it to hand-to-hand combat we can conclude that doing something an opponent isn't able to anticipate might very well be the key to victory.  In other words, you don't become Miyamoto Musashi by doing what's expected.  Turning your back to an opponent, even for a split second is generally considered a bad idea (for obvious reasons), but I've seen more than a few UFC fights won by doing exactly that.  "Amatures!" is what many professional fencers might say not realizing that a lot of the love taps that count as hits in their sport of choice wouldn't even put a dent in the combat effectiveness of a well armored adrenaline-fulled foe.  Sure, powerful attacks are slower than a quick flick or jab, but sooner or later you got to commit; though knowing when is the best time to do so, is the tricky part.

They set us up the bomb?
You said it, pal...
Getting back to electronics entertainment, how well does For Honor do at capturing all this?  Aside from the misleading title, pretty nicely actually....obviously some compromises had to be made for the sake of the medium, it is a video game after all....but, yeah, the dueling system is great.  Too bad the rest of the game is garbage.

Oh well...maybe someday they'll make a sequel that cleans up all the issues that surround, what is at its core, one of the best approximations to date of face-to-face medieval combat.  Maybe they'll even give it a more appropriate sounding name.  Hmmm...I got it - For Justice!    

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Watch your Language

It would have been cooler if they
spelled it "Æloy" instead of "Aloy"
Well, Horizon Zero Dawn is out and it seems to have fallen into the quandary of critical acclaim, but consumer indifference. Part of this might be coming from the fact that it's a PS4 exclusive, sour grapes and all that...However, another reason could very well be the sheer amount of open-world games that have been released in recent years; Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, MGSV, The Witcher, Mad Max, Tomb Raider, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor and a bunch of titles by Rockstar. These are just some examples utilizing the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective. There's also a whole slew of other titles that are first-person open-world games (Skyrim, Far Cry, etc.). In my case though, I'm not totally burned out on the genre, plus I own a PS4. That said, I'm not entirely into the idea of playing Horizon Zero Dawn, and the reason has to do with the language used.

I'm not talking about swearing or cursing here, rather the problem I have with this game has to do with the blandness of the dialogue. It's functional, but really lacking in texture and flavor. You see...here's the thing, languages are influenced and shaped by the culture in which they are used. Now, I know some people might take that to mean I want characters that talk like neanderthals, "Me friend. Hunt metal dog, yes?" and so on. No, not really...the caveman speech thing is an old cultural misconception. In any geographical location containing hunter-gatherers there's going to be tribes that have their own dialects, accents, styles of speech and so on. Because of limited contact, this can make it difficult for people from two different tribes to communicate with each other. In order to get around this potential barrier there's usually a common local (trade) language that only has a small number of shared words. Because of the limited vocabulary, conversations between different tribes can sound crude. However, individuals from the same tribe aren't subject to this handicap so their speech patterns are capable of being more refined. So, getting back to it, I'm not asking for that kind of primitive. What I would like to see is more attention paid to how lifestyle informs language.

Another post-apocalyptic 
fantasy open-world game 
featuring a bow wielding 
hero fighting robots? 
 Hmmm....
A great way to exemplify my point is with units of measurement. Time, in our postmodern society, is usually expressed in amounts like hours, minutes or seconds, but in a world that doesn't have clocks or wristwatches, time has to be referenced by the position of the sun in the sky, or phases of the moon. Very short increments of time are expressed in heartbeats or breaths. The same goes for distance - no centimeters or miles, just hand-spans, paces or (my personal favorite straight out of feudal Japan) how many pairs of zori a walking person would wear out. Counting is tricky too. From one to twenty isn't hard (just use your fingers and toes!), but large amounts often require comparisons to well known quantities. Case in point, when the native american chieftain asks the main character from the film Dances with Wolves how many white settlers are coming, he replies "more than the stars." There really isn't any other way to communicate the idea of millions in a hunter-gatherer society. Of course video games love to embrace the G.R.R. Martin school of world design and avoid any kind of spoken numerics. It can be so bad in some games that quest-givers will basically say things along the lines of "I need you to get a thing for a thing" without mentioning any details. Instead it's left to a text pop-up to explain what is actually required of the player.

Now, before I wrap up this blogpost, I should stress I'm not encouraging video game writers to use a bunch of incomprehensible future-speak such as Zackery from the novel Cloud Atlas or the Lost Tribe from the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. To me the sweet spot is Immortan Joe:
"Return my treasures to me, and I myself will carry you through the gates of Valhalla. You shall ride eternal. Shiny, and chrome!"
Alright, I get it. His warboys are basically post-apocalyptic housecarls. Of course YMMV, but as it stands now mechanics in open-world games have been recycled ad-nauseum, and anything that will differentiate one such game from the pack is a good thing, I think, especially since Zelda: Breath of the Wild is coming out a few days after.