In honor of Halloween this year I decided to take a break and remember some of the things in video games that scared me in the past. While today’s Josh is brave to the point of insanity growing up however was a different story. I was a little baby, afraid of the dark, shots and so on. I remember times where playing certain video games actually kept me up at night because I was scared of them. So without further ado (and in no particular order) let the horror commence.

1. Splatter House 3 (Sega Genesis): It did not take much for me to get scared growing up. What I remembered about this game was how each level you had X amount of minutes to reach the end before something bad happens to a family member. The image that got me if I remember right was if you failed to rescue the main character’s wife and she becomes some kind of zombie thing. Remember this was back in the 16 bit era so it wasn’t exactly “Saw” material. Still it was enough to freak me out; I just watched a clip of that scene on YouTube and shit it still unnerves me.

I think it’s the eyes personally, I’ve had nightmares in the past and common themes are beings that just have the cornea remaining.

2. The Lawnmower Man (Snes): Strange as it sounds The Lawnmower Man is one of my favorite movies to watch. I am really going to sound like the world’s biggest wimp when I say this, there was nothing about this game that scared me, and it was the cartridge art that got me. The artwork was Cyber Jobe’s evil grin when he looks all robotic. I am glad that I became fearless as an adult or I would have to kick my own ass.

3. Silent Hill (Ps1):I remember my friend and me sitting in my room playing it with my door closed. Wandering around in the school wondering what the hell is going on… when my mom slams the door open asking if we wanted anything to drink. I think we both almost had heart attacks that day.

4. Resident Evil (Ps1): Dog breaking through window, nuff said.

5. Fatal Frame series: (PS2) the most recent and maybe last series I played that scared me. I’ve had to play the game on mute several times as the creepy environments and sound effects were too much for me. Funny story, I was playing the third one at GameStop several years ago with the sound muted. No one was paying attention to me when all of sudden I got attacked out of nowhere and literally jumped in the middle of the store and everyone turned to look at me.

This last one I should probably not mention but for completeness I have to. After this I think I need to arm wrestle a bear to regain some manliness points

6. Adventures of Lolo (Nes): No I did not mistype that. The part that got me as a child was the Medusa statues that if you go into their line of sight they get this expression on their face when they blast Lolo. Why that bothered me a child has been erased from my memory.

My story does have a happy ending I supposed as I’ve managed to conquer my fears. I read how people played Amnesia and couldn’t get through the demo because it was too scary for them, while I didn’t even flinch at any of the strange moments in the game. I think I’ve swung too far in the opposite direction as now there hasn’t been a game since Fatal Frame that has really scared me. It doesn’t help that I finally overcame one of my childhood fears this past year which to keep some shred of dignity I’m not going to mention.

So that I’m not the only baby around, what are some of your favorite horror moments in games that kept you awake at night?

Josh

P.S. By the way the calls are coming from inside the house and the killer is right behind you.

Happy Halloween

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A few months ago I put up an analysis on the action game genre here, during my article I talked about the concept of a “panic button” in action titles. Recently I started thinking about it more and realized that this kind of mechanic is not limited to just the action genre. For today’s article I’m going to go deeper into the mechanic and explain the right and wrong ways to implement it.

To start with in my opinion here is a base definition for the panic button mechanic:

A mechanic or system that gives the player a clear an absolute advantage for the given situation.

There are many different examples of this mechanic, from the star power up in the Mario series , Pac-Man’s power pellets and Devil May Cry’s Devil mode to name a few. What they each have in common is that they each act as the player’s ace in the hole. Before we start talking about some bad examples there are some conditions that need to be present for the mechanic to be good.

1. The panic button cannot be activated 100% of the time.

2. The panic button cannot be a one shot deal.

3. The game must never be balanced around the panic button.

4. The enemies of the game cannot circumvent the panic button.

5. No regular mechanic or system should act as a panic button.

#1 is self explanatory; something can’t be used for emergencies if you can turn it on at anytime without a limit. #2 means that the mechanic should not be usable once per game and be done with. If you limit the mechanic to that degree then most players will not even use it similar to the item hoarding issue seen in a lot of rpgs. Where the player will intentionally not use items to make things easier and instead just keep hoarding them.

As for #3 this one is special and where designers can easily get it wrong. The purpose of the mechanic is to give the player an advantage over the challenge at hand. If you balance the design of the game around the use of the panic button then you risk an imbalance in the game when the mechanic is not present which in turn raises the difficulty of the game unfairly.

One of my favorite examples of this would be with The Suffering series for those that missed it, it was a third person shooter/ horror title. In both games you played as Torque who after being sent to prison had to fight monsters while trying to escape. In both titles Torque could transform into a monster himself which was the game’s panic button. In the first title Torque would easily outmatch any enemy in the game when transformed and he could only spend so much time in the form.

The second one however changed things in the wrong direction. Now Torque had to deal with metallic versions of the monsters that were completely immune to normal damage and could only be killed with the monster mode. Right off the bat this can screw the player up if they use up the monster mode before the fight and are then required to wail ineffectively on the monster to replenish their monster time. It also means that most players will conserve it for these fights instead of using it during a section that is giving them trouble.

The Suffering 2 takes this annoyance even higher with the final boss, not only do you have infinite spawning metallic enemies, but the boss has the power to knock you out of the monster mode which by the way is the only way to damage him. To say this fight was poorly design was an understatement and was the brick wall that prevented me from beating the game.

#4 Ties back to my example from The Suffering; the panic button mechanic is not really a panic button if an enemy can stop it. Now the overall strength of the panic button is debatable, for example going back to the power star in the Mario series, being invincible does not protect Mario from lava or bottomless pits. In Devil May Cry, while Dante becomes stronger in Devil mode, he will still take damage from attacks, just a smaller amount.

The designer has to make the determination of how strong the panic button will be in the game; which is a segueway to point 5. This is one of the basic rules of balance; there should not be one choice out of X that is inherently better than the rest. For example if I play a FPS and my weapon choices are a knife, a fork and a rocket launcher we all know what would be the best option.

Recently I played Alan Wake which was my first experience with a game that had horror elements using a “panic button” (and the inspiration for this entry). Both flash-bangs and flares acted as panic buttons giving the player a few seconds of respite before the enemies start to converge on Alan again; if the designer can work the use of the panic button into the game as a potential strategy that is even better.

With the Geometry Wars series the player can use a smart bomb at any time to clear the entire area, however if you do this you will not receive any points for those defeated enemies only the multiplier bonus items. This forces the player to wait for the exact time that they are about to die before using the smart bomb for maximum enemy saturation.

Starcraft 2 interesting enough has a panic button on the Terran’s side in the form of a nuclear missile. Normal use of it is to drop it in your enemy’s base to wipe it out. Crafter players I’ve seen actually use it to force an enemy army back instead of engaging their forces to give them time to retreat.

There is one game I know that had the perfect implementation of a panic button and my final example for this entry. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter for the PS2 was a strange game, both from the series perspective and from most JRPGs. Like most games I could spend an entry analyzing it but for now I want to talk about its panic button.

After a specific point in the game you unlock the power to transform the main character into a half man, half dragon creature. In this mode you are completely invulnerable to damage from any enemy including the final boss. Your attacks do increase damage and you have access to a skill that raises the damage of your next attack. This skill can be used multiple times and if you use it at least three times in a row your next attack will be strong enough to kill any enemy in the game in one hit and yes that includes the last boss.

Sounds overpowered right? Well it is however there is one other mechanic that goes with dragon mode. After unlocking dragon mode a counter appears in the upper right that goes from 0 to 100%. The counter will very slowly fill up while you are wandering around. Any use of dragon mode including its skills will cause the counter to rise dramatically, if it hits 100% at anytime during the game it’s an instant game over.

Now the use of dragon mode is in check, using it in every fight will raise the counter too high and you won’t make it to the end. This forces the player to conserve it for the times they truly need it. What I did during my game was conserve it at all times until I reached certain bosses and use it then to wipe them out in four turns. Each time I played the game I’ve never, ever fought the second to last boss as I always had enough for that fight.

One important guideline for this entry is that the panic button should not be an automatic given for any game. There are plenty of amazing titles, both from the action genre and others that don’t give the player a panic button. This is yet another one of those subtle mechanics that the designer needs to think about and the right and wrong way to implement them in their game.

Josh

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I like to consider myself someone who keeps in touch with the latest games and design in the industry; however there is one genre that I can’t help but turn my face away from and it would have to be social games. I’ve made up my mind several months ago about my position but I put off writing about it until now. I guess I should spoil this entry now, I’m not a fan of social games and it’s not just because I’m rated 10 out of 10 for introverted behavior from a psychology test I took in college.

The first strike against it comes from the game design or lack thereof. From what I’ve seen and read about them, is that there is no challenge. You push a button and shiny things happen, now if were to generalize things, then you could say that every video game ever made does that. However the big distinction is that in normal games the player has to choose what buttons to press and when, pressing “punch” when you wanted to block in a fighting game is going to make you lose.

When I read other people’s thoughts on social games the comparison to playing a slot machine comes up a lot and I find that apt. Which could also be why I’m not a fan of slots either, during my vacations to Las Vegas I try a slot machine at least once and the idea of sitting in front of these machines pressing a button for hours on end does not excite me. I play games both to keep my mind active and for the sheer challenge of it. This is the reason why I play most of the games I like on their harder difficulty settings (one below masochistic).

Strike two comes from the appeal of social games and how it is my antithesis. I’m not going to sugar coat it; I am not a warm and fuzzy person. You will not find me as the life of the party or the guy leaving the bar with a beautiful woman around each arm. I’ve taken great measure to shield myself from dealing with the crap of society.

I did sign up for a Face book account, after being on Face book for one day a little voice in my head said ” Josh ,did you forget? You don’t like reading about the details of other people and you are a private crazy person”. I said “thank you voice in my head” and never went on Face book again. Hanging out online with my steam friends and my blog currently fulfills my social need at this point in my life. Now let’s move away from “personal hour with Josh” and get to my next point.

The culture behind these games leaves much to be desire from me. Having to rope other people to add more things to click on does not interest me in the slightest and having to spend real money to do said tasks really rubs me the wrong way. I’ve played free to play games in my time and they at least have some meat to them. The required group mentality is also a reason why I never got hooked on MMOs but that story is for another time .

Something about how people are praising social games as some kind of miracle and wave of the future leaves me with a sick taste in my mouth. It’s time for another blunt message, nothing that I’ve seen in social games is new or exciting, what they’ve done is used basic psychological stimulus to attract non gamers.

What I’m about to say I know is going to sound insulting to the developer in question, but I want to say that I mean this with no disrespect. To me many social games remind me of the titles Pop Cap games put out, in the sense that the same hooks I see in their games are present with social games. Having that one more unlock feel to them, simple controls and bright graphics. The difference and where my respect and admiration comes in is that they build on those hooks and take basic ideas and expand upon them in game.

Games like Book Worm, Plants Vs Zombies and Peggle are easy to understand but with each new level or world besides a new reward there is always a new game-play hook to keep things fresh. This is why I own the games mentioned here and enjoyed them.

My final point of discussion I hate to say goes back to my personality. While I was at my day job I overheard two people talking about one of the ville social games. One of them said and I will paraphrase that she likes to come home after a hard day at work sit in front of the computer and just turn off her brain and play the game. If she is an example of the average user of these games it sounds like the “couch potato” mentality but for games.

For me, I personally can’t “shut off” my brain. I’m always actively thinking whether it is about game ideas or thoughts for my blog, my brain never really stops. I can’t sit in front of a TV screen for hours on end watching a show, if I’m watching TV I like to have my DS handy to play something, a magazine to read or switch to something else during the commercials.

When I’m playing video games I’m thinking about what I’m doing and what I need to do next. Even with video games I just can’t zone out for six hours playing the same game, most often in one day I will play at least a minimum of three different games. To me it feels like the social games phenomenon is just taking all those people who would sit and watch TV for hours on end and put them in front of a computer screen.

What I’m about to say may be the most egotistical thing I’ve written on my blog yet, of all my game ideas I have not once thought up an idea for a social game, the reason is that it just feels beneath my skills. Hell if I wanted to it would be easy to crank out a social game idea at any time. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to play Demon’s Souls for the PS 3 again, as we all know it is a family friendly casual title for all ages…

Josh

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Thanks to the recent sale at Toysrus I picked up Dante’s Inferno to add it to my every growing collection of action games. I would normally do a complete analysis of the game but I can actually condense my problems into a quick list. If I was wittier I could link these to the seven deadly sins, but I’m not so we’ll just have to settle for a list.

1. Clumsy Combat: Right off the bat I could tell that DI was not in the running for best action title and the combat system is exhibit A. You have a light attack, a strong attack and throwing holy magic at enemies. The problem with the system is that it leaves much to be desire, there are no true combos unlocked from the start (more on that later) and fighting feels very repetitive. Another issue is how you interact with enemies, basically you can stop them from attacking if you strike first, however if an enemy begins their attack animation you cannot knock them out of it.

This quickly becomes a problem as the player is constantly assaulted by foes from every angle and makes getting into close combat very dangerous. One enemy was designed that if you keep attacking, it will dash away quickly then dash back to you and hit you with a three hit combo. Once again you can’t knock them out of this animation and if you are stuck in your own combo animation you are going to be hit every time. When playing on hard these foes hit for a lot of damage and I’ve been killed countless times because of it.

2. Holy/Unholy: This is one of those ideas that I can’t help but feel that the designers thought they were being clever with. You have two different skill trees in DI, one unholy and one holy. Different enemies you can finish off by either purifying them or destroying them which give you holy or unholy experience respectively. Get enough experience and you unlock a new tier in that tree which you can spend souls to unlock skills.

The problem is that instead of offering customization what the designers did was split the player’s available moves down the middle. The holy tree gives improvement to your cross ability while the unholy tree unlocks more combos. With how limited the move set is from the start I really question this decision. Going back to my first point it is safer to deal damage from afar with the cross skills and there is even a spell that gets unlock that recovers health and decreases damage. This makes the holy tree a safer option and just limits what you can do in game.

3. Camera concerns: The camera is not on your side while playing DI as most of the time it seems to focus on the environment and not Dante. The game features several sections that have the player jumping across platforms with the camera making it hard to gauge your jumps. To make matters worse it does not track the player during combat, I’ve fought enemies off screen while Dante is off screen as well.

4. Chameleon character: Having a camera that doesn’t keep track of the character is bad enough, having a character that blends into the background in an action game is just kicking the player when they’re down. The majority of the environments take place in caverns with colors that match it, which also are the same for Dante. I’ve lost track of Dante numerous times during combat as the designers didn’t see fit to make him stand out in the world. I don’t have this problem with games like God of War of Bayonetta where the protagonist is a ghost white bad-ass with a red stripe down his body or a super model who loses clothes as the fight wears on.

5. The wrong use of regeneration: Having full bars of health, magic and Dante’s retribution mode (think devil mode from Devil May Cry) can mean the difference of winning and losing in DI. There are fountains scattered around that can recover some of your health or magic bars but not all of them. Another mechanic the designers thought they were being clever with was if you keep dying to the same section they will slowly fill your bars on reload of the checkpoint.

The problem with this is what happens when you just barely won a fight and now you have to fight again a few minutes later with low health? What happens is that you will die from having less then max health and will have to keep repeating the section until the game decides to fill your health bar. Some encounters focus mainly on using magic spells and if you don’t have enough then you are SOL there until you die enough times for the game to throw you a bone.

With annoying fights in DI (more on that later) I’m surprised that the designers just don’t have the supply fountains restore full health or magic and save the player the time of getting their head beat in.

6. Check point confusion : Saving and check points in DI add another layer of frustration. The game checkpoints your progress allowing to restart at specific intervals if you die and also has save points that the player can save their game The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where the save points are most of the time. For example one section that took me about twenty minutes to get through full of annoying fights had no saves there, then another part had two save points about 5 minutes from each other.

This becomes frustrating for a gamer that has time constraints as if they are stuck on the third fight in a series of difficult sections and they have to leave, and then they will have to start back at square one on return.
I always favor games having a quick save option that deletes on load allowing the player to leave at any time and return exactly to where they left off.

7. Imbalanced fighting: My last point comes from a culmination of the problems with DI’s combat. When I talked about the action genre a few months ago I mentioned the concept of a “base-line” which was determining the absolute maximum encounter in an action game that a player can win easily. The importance of this was it allows the designers to balance their fights with the game-play and not create sections that go against the strength of the game.

The problem with DI is that from all the issues I have with the combat as mentioned in previous points, it makes the majority of the encounters very annoying to fight. Most fights have the player first fighting a really tough enemy, then fighting it again with friends, then maybe a third time for kicks. Encounters tend to drag on and the player is constantly put into fights that are just balanced against them, for example dealing with powerful close range enemies while long range enemies who aim very well attack you.

One of the best (or worse) examples comes later in the game that has Dante fighting an enemy who projects an anti cross magic barrier that won’t go away until he dies. This guy is joined by enemies who are normally immune to your scythe attacks until you hit them with the magic. You can just imagine how fun these fights are; now you can use your other magic to weaken them but if you are low on magic from a previous fight expect to see the game over screen a lot.

Boss fights also lack meaningful combat, the fights between larger enemies where the player must wait for the right time to attack to do damage are fine. However DI features fights with enemies the size of Dante that just become ten minute grudge matches as you just wail on them to drain their mountain of health. When playing on hard they can kill you in about three hits which turn these fights into a bore. I’m at the final fight now and my interest is starting to wane, especially how the final boss can hit me through my counter attack which is always fun.

It’s a shame about how much was off with DI, considering how much they were inspired from other action titles. Turns out when I did my original prediction last year of Bayonetta vs Dante’s Inferno I was on the money after playing both their game demos . DI is an example of how too many little problems can add up to one big mess.

Josh.

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