There are many variations of horror games on the market, from the mysterious Fatal Frame series, to blood gushing Dead Space and the sheer “WTF” factor of Silent Hill. I’m going to break down one of the most memorable horror segments in a game I’ve played and why a 20 minute level in a RPG has more terror in it then most 8 hour horror games. Coincidently it also features one of the worse designed levels I’ve seen in a game but that is for another analysis.

Thanks to a surprise birthday present from one of my steam friends, I started replaying Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Awhile ago I was loaned a copy of the game but could not beat it due to bugs. Now with Steam and the latest unofficial patch I began my journey again.

Note: the following sections have major spoilers for the game. If you have not played this game and intend on doing so at some point, do not read the following as I will be breaking down one of the early segments in the game.

In Bloodlines you play as a recently turned vampire, long before everything went Twilight. As a vampire you have the usual traits: super strong, hates sunlight, drinks blood etc, along with unique powers based on your vampiric clan. I’m not spending too long on the details as this is just a single level analysis. One of the first levels in the game have you being ordered by one of the higher up vampires to find a way to remove a ghost from a hotel. What follows is a level with no combat whatsoever yet it still manages to be scary for several important reasons.

1. Escalating situation: One element that I believe makes a good horror game is forcing the player into a situation that is beyond their character’s abilities. Now most designers use that as an excuse to give us characters that control like a five year old child with depth perception issues. However I feel that the character can be as strong as possible and still deliver horror with Bloodlines as a great example.

You are a fricken vampire, immortal and can send a human across the room with a single punch. What could possibly be a situation that is above your ability? How about a non corporal being that can attack from any direction?

Another misstep that designers make is putting players into a situation that is difficult due to the design of the game. For example in the earlier Silent Hill titles, there are sections when you are attacked by multiple enemies which are a pain due to the tank like controls. That similar complaint can also be said about the Fatal Frame series, just try to fight a group of ghosts and not feel frustrated.

In Alan Wake a one on one fight with any of the taken was incredibly easy. So the designers always set up fights to be against a group as that is beyond what Alan could handle. Unlike the previous examples AW has access to emergency flares and a dodge ability to get him out of danger. Now you don’t want to throw everything at the player which leads me to point two.

2. Pacing out the terror: As I mentioned at the start you will not be fighting anyone in this level, however that doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt. The ghost attacks in the form of launching objects around the hotel at you. Not every object is going to fly out to hit you however, as you won’t know until it starts to move. What makes this scary is that there is a buildup of not knowing when it is going to happen.

One of the issues I had with Dead Space being a horror game is that past the opening chapter you are always assaulted by necromorphs. If you walk into a big room you know that at some point you will be attacked. By constantly attacking the player it desensitizes until the game is not scary anymore.

In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the player is not constantly being stalked by the game’s monsters. Most of the time the player is free to explore the castle and solve puzzles. This gives the player time to relax and start to build up that feeling that they will be chased again at some point.

3. Letting the story play out: I find that horror games that don’t try to spell everything out for the player do a better job of scaring the player. Both Silent Hill and Fatal Frame leave their stories open for the player. There is never a moment when the game just stops and explains to the player what just happened.

What I liked about this level in Bloodlines was that going into it; the player’s only piece of information is that there is a bad ghost in the hotel. As you take the haunted tour through the place you’ll find bits of newspapers and information to give you an idea of what happened to the hotel. The truth is that a crazy husband thinking his wife was cheating on him kills her and his family before killing himself in a fire; the ghost wrecking havoc is of course the husband.

There is a picture that you can find from one of the children who was killed; it shows the family drawn in crayon with the father looking like a monster with fire all around him. It was just a perfect way to show the back-story in a simplistic manner.

Moving away from Bloodlines there is one aspect I want to talk about with this point and that is ending the story. Now in Bloodlines this is just a level in the game but for a full blown horror game you need to have some form of closure.

I think games like Silent Hill and Alan Wake had the right idea. There are two stories playing out in each game, the personal story of the protagonist and the overall story of the world or situation. In these games the former gets resolved in some way (not spoiling them here) but the story of the world is left open. In all the Silent Hill games we’re never told exactly what is happening in the town and Alan Wake has an ending leading to a hopeful sequel.

Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines is an example of the building blocks of creating good horror in my opinion and the detail that it’s in a RPG as opposed to a straight up horror game showed good design by the designers. We do need to have a word however about another level in the game which I think anyone who has played the game knows which one I’m talking about.

Josh

P.S I’ve heard that the Thief series also has great levels around the idea of horror however I admit that I have not played the series.

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To say that there are a lot of RPGs in the market today would be an understatement. From JRPGS to CRPGs there is a lot of grinding to be had. The majority of RPGs out there keep their mechanics somewhat basic. The Dragon Quest series still uses the same turn based system from the NES days and everyone knows my thoughts on Bioware by now. While World of Warcraft has become the current standard of MMO based combat.

So why aren’t there more unique RPGs out there? Why aren’t we up to the six iteration of The World Ends With You by now? Well there are two good reasons, first is that unique mechanics are a harder sell to gamers compared to the same old. Second it is harder to design and balance a unique system when you don’t have a framework to go on.

I’m not a psychologist which doesn’t give me much to talk about point one, however I want to talk about the design decisions that go into making unique RPGs.

1. Balance: When it comes to balance in single player games most often it is used to describe the interaction between the player and the AI. The big question, do both parties abide by the same game system? There are times when you want symmetrical balance and times that you don’t.

In Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, while the game is on the difficult side it is fair in the sense that the same rules apply to both parties. Both the player and the enemies can increase the # of turns they can do in a round by hitting the opposing team’s weakness. Having the right composition of team mates can shut down the other team making the fight trivial. Now with that said the enemies do have some amenities in the form of unique skills for boss fights, such as powerful buffs or instant kills that the player does not get.

This is where balance gets a little asymmetrical. It does not bring the game down however as this becomes the challenge of the game, finding a way to get around these unique skills. An example of when things are too asymmetrical would be in the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. In these games there are a majority of skills that are just plain useless and the act of inflicting status aliments does not work on any bosses but they do work against the player.

Another symmetrical example would be the Etrian Odyssey series, aliments are very powerful and both the player’s party and enemies can be affected by them. It is a change of pace to be able to silence bosses as oppose to other JRPGS.

Sometimes you can just say “screw it” to balance and design the most out there game systems that you can think of and it still works. Resonance of Fate features one of the craziest combat systems I’ve seen on the console platform. I did a five part analysis on it which you can find here so I’m not going to describe it again. The balance is asymmetrical on the player’s side. The player can jump over enemies, fully customize guns and set up to do insane damage which the AI cannot. The designers reel it in somewhat by making the enemies more powerful than the usual fare and the limitations of the heroic gauge.

In Final Fantasy 13 the designers created a “role system” that the player designates each team member a role in combat which affects their abilities and attributes, now I only played a few hours of FF 13 but from what I saw the enemies don’t abide by that system at all.

Sometimes asymmetrical balance can seem like both sides are playing their own variation of the same game. In Radiant Historia the enemies constantly outnumber the player’s team and are set up on a 3×3 grid; the player’s team is lined up on the right side of the board. The enemy can place down powerful buffs on specific points on the grid which they can stand on to receive bonuses which the player can’t. The player on the other hand can push and pull the enemies around the grid to set up combos and attack multiple enemies with a single attack.

This type of asymmetrical balance brings back memories of Starcraft 1 and 2’s three sided balance. In which each side plays the same game but does it with different units and tactics.

2. Rule Breaking: This is a tricky system to talk about. Rule breaking refers to having mechanics or abilities in game that effectively break the unique rules the designer set up.

Going back to Nocturne, those boss abilities that will increase the # of turns would be an example of rule breaking. Another mechanic in Nocturne is being able to add abilities to your team mates that will remove their weakness.

Most often the concept of rule breaking occurs in RPGS that feature symmetrical balance, if both sides aren’t doing the same exact thing it’s hard to distinguish something that breaks the rules. There are two sides to this; if the rule breaking occurs on the AI’s side then it can be considered a challenge for the player to overcome.

However if the rule breaking is on the player’s side then it is more about “gaming” the system and is most often used by expert players. One example from Resonance of Fate is how once you select a party member their active gauge counts down during movement, if you end the turn early and quickly select that same member again you can then attack the enemy with a full gauge.

SRPGS are famous for having these types of loop-holes for expert players to find. The SRPGS from Nippon Ichi each have their own way for the player to flat out break the game by finding ways around the basic rules set up and the designers did that on purpose.

3. Programming: While I am taking courses on C++ for game design, I did do programming back in high school and college and have developed a great understanding of computer logic or how the computer will interpret commands different from a human. To put it bluntly, the easier the system in a game the easier it is to program and AI for it. The more unique your game systems are, the harder it will be for the AI to understand and use it.

Imagine if the Resonance of Fate designers gave the AI the same abilities as the player, with heroic actions and trinity attacks. They would have to redesign the AI to understand these concepts and to use them effectively. That would require a hell of a lot more time and money as oppose to just letting the player use it and boosting the enemy stats to compensate. There are ways to get around this by moving complex systems away from the AI.

In Nocturne the system is basic turned based combat with several options available. So to give the game a sense of challenge without complicating it, the designers gave the AI unique abilities that fall within the options both sides have. The real complexity of Nocturne involves resistances and abilities and these exist outside of the combat system and the AI doesn’t need to be programmed differently to understand them.

Another example of complexity without killing the AI comes from The World Ends With You. TWEWY is an insane game with multiple unique systems and dual fights for the player to control. The designers put all the complexity on the player’s end leaving the AI with just the task of attacking the player.

This is also where asymmetrical balance can help. With Radiant Historia it would have required more programming to create an AI that can understand and utilize combos and moving players around a grid, so instead of that the designers created different rules for the AI and players to abide by.

Being able to think about how the enemy AI will affect your design is an important detail to understand. Remember, no matter how crazy you create your mechanics you still need to worry about an AI and how it will interact with the mechanics as well.

Finishing this up, I realized that while I am focusing on RPGs, the same lessons can be applied to other genres. Action games always deal with asymmetrical balance as you have a unique protagonist dealing with hordes of enemies. In strategy games the use of a “super weapon” to wipe everything out could be use an example of rule breaking.

Figuring out how your unique game mechanics will actually play out in game and perhaps more importantly, how the AI will understand them is one of the many challenges of designing a game.

Josh

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Monday Night Combat was originally an XBL downloadable game which then came out on the PC. While it is an interesting combination of several popular team based games it doesn’t get everything right in my opinion.

MNC takes place in the future where entertainment has evolved into the show: Monday Night Combat, where genetically enhanced clones or “Pros” fight and die for our amusement. The graphics style definitely takes a page from Team Fortress 2, characters are bright and animated and you don’t have to worry about things getting too gruesome.

The objective of MNC is to destroy the “money ball” each base has one in the center of it and the first one to have its health reduce to zero loses. Each team has bots that are spawned in their base; the bots follow a predetermined course to the enemy base. Pros can spend money to buy bots from their base along with setting up turrets.

The bots are required to take down the opposing money ball’s shields which keep it immune from damage. Once the shield is down the ball is vulnerable to attack; after a few minutes of being left alone the money ball will recover its shield and the process will be restarted.

There are six classes in MNC: Assault, Assassin, Gunner, Sniper, Tank and Support. Each class is completely different from one another in weapons and skills. The only similarity between each class is that each one can upgrade their skills by spending money. Three of the skills are ones the player can activate while playing such as the assassin’s cloaking ability. The fourth skill is passive and gives each class a specific buff, such as increasing bullet penetration of the sniper’s gun.

A side benefit of boosting skills is raising the attributes of your character in the areas of offense, defense and skill usage. While raising skills is beneficial, it won’t make you overpowered. A fully maxed out pro is still capable of dying from a non upgraded pro.

Figuring out the best way to spend your money is part of the challenge in MNC. When pushing for offense you want to buy additional bots to help out, but if the enemy begins to push back additional turrets may stem the tide. In the middle of each map is “the annihilator”, when activated this will destroy all enemy bots on the map; it does have a cool down time but can be just what the doctor ordered.

MNC does have its faults however. You can definitely tell that this was a game ported to the PC as it lacks several quality of life features, such as: an easy way to voice chat, sort server list by friends, going through menus to name a few.

Next to my time spent with League of Legends, MNC is a game that requires an even number of players due to how the mechanics were designed and if the teams are uneven the game starts to break down in my opinion. The reason is at the money ball, the bots do not do enough damage to the ball to score a win. For that you need pros focusing on it, if a team is out numbered there just won’t be enough people to attack the ball while the shields are down. Also with the low re-spawn rates even if the outnumbered team does wipe out the other team, they will be back on the field fast.

Another issue is coming in late, unlike games like Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead, filling an empty spot can lead to frustration. If you are joining a game in which the other team is already fully leveled you will be in for some trouble as the combination of enhanced skills and stats will make life difficult for you. If a team is so outnumbered that the enemy is already in their base, most often the newly arrived players will not be able to tilt the balance. Even when you have even teams the game still has some issues.

Games that go over 15 minutes become a stalemate when you have both teams fully leveled. Even with the annihilator there really isn’t anything that a team can do to break the stalemate other then the game entering sudden death. When the game enters sudden death, both sides spawn the strongest bots and both money balls lose their shields. At this point the game becomes a mad dash to the opposite side to inflict as much damage as possible.

League of Legends was able to get around this issue of stalemates; there is always an expensive item to buy or going after the strongest creep in the game to get a team wide buff. Also with the spawn timer increasing with the player’s level it means wiping out the other team when at the level cap usually means victory. I’ve had several occasions where my team was way behind in kills come back by wiping out the other team in a team fight. When a MNC match starts to drag on, I noticed people start to leave which starts to tilt the balance one way, then back again when people rejoin.

Minions in League of Legends are considerably more useful then the bots in MNC. They are capable of pushing forward on their own and once you get super minions attacking the nexus, they can do the job themselves. Here, the bots in the late game become more of a nuisance as most pros can dispatch them quickly. Even the ultimate bot: the jackbot can be killed in five seconds with help from a grapple by an assassin or sniper. I liked the idea of each class able to buy different types of bots and I wish it was taken further by being able to enhance them.

The Meta game is also another area that MNC lacks currently. For doing specific achievements in game you can unlock “pro tags” which show up on your pro’s profile. Currently they do not serve any purpose other than cosmetic. After each match you will earn money that can be used to buy these pro tags, other than that there are custom classes. There are also armor re-skins available, but they lack the insane variety seen in Team Fortress 2 or the overhaul of the skins in League of Legends.

A custom class allows you to choose what endorsements or buffs that you want a specific class to have in game. The game doesn’t really tell you how much things are improved which in some cases makes it hard to tell if your endorsements are doing anything. Compared to the crafting in TF 2 or being able to tweak your champion in LoL, MNC seems behind the times when it comes to the Meta game.

While MNC tries to emulate the team based combat of popular games like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends, it unfortunately lacks the features and mechanics that made these games popular in my opinion. The lack of a real Meta game hurts MNC as it provides no reason for someone not to drop out.

The different maps don’t introduce any new rules or mechanics into the mix; there isn’t a huge change in strategy compared to the different maps of Team Fortress 2. Granted there is more map variety then in League of Legends, but League of Legends is more about the champions then it is about the map.

I find it funny that I played MNC before going to League of Legends as the problems that I have with MNC; I can appreciate League of Legends more for finding ways around them. For people looking for a light hearted team based game, MNC can scratch that itch, I know several people from my steam group who got tired of the Meta game of Team Fortress 2 and migrated to MNC.

For me however I have a combination of Left 4 Dead 2 and League of Legends to sate my multi-player need so unfortunately I won’t be making MVP anytime soon.

Josh

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When it comes to the Metal Gear franchise, I have a strange love-hate relationship with it. On one hand I’ve never been a huge fan of stealth based game-play, yet I’ve played and enjoyed each of the Metal Gear games to some extent. MGS4 marks a return to the console platform for the series after a few unique titles on the PsP with the Acid and Tactical Ops spin offs. With MGS 4, Kojima Productions injected some new designs into the formula and while they were interesting, however I can’t help but feel that some of it clashes with the MGS formula.

I’m going to say something about the story that may be surprising. Having played all the MGS games to come out I have to say that the story of MGS 4 pissed me off and I’m not completely sure why. Kojima attempted to bring the plot points from the previous titles but instead it felt like instead he invalidated the previous games.

This is hard to explain as I don’t know how knowledgeable everyone is on the MGS mythos so I can’t cite specific examples. Imagine if in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that we learn half way through the last book that every person that Frodo met was actually an agent of Sauron (the bad guy) and that there was no reason for the fellowship to travel to Mordor.

MGS4 just seems like lazy writing to me, with cut scenes that have stupid plot holes. I think we need a new definition for a cut scene that goes over 20 minutes. I hope that someone who is more skilled in storytelling analysis did examine MGS 4 as in my opinion this is an example of how not to do a cinematic
game. To be fair I liked the beginning and thought the final ending was well done, but those two points feel undervalued due to the convoluted and just messed up story.

With that rant out of my system we can talk about the game-play. As in previous MGS titles your time will be spent split between being stealthy and fighting. There are two new game-play elements in MGS 4, first is the concept of being stealthy during a war.

In previous MGS titles Snake was always the lone person in a conflict, one against an army. In MGS 4 he’s infiltrating areas while there is a battle going on. I find the concept of performing operations in a war-zone while not actually fighting in the war interesting. You can get involve with the local conflict or just use it as cover.

Second is being able to buy new weapons. Early on into the first act you’ll meet a gun launderer who will exchange guns you pick up for points that can be used at his shop. Every gun is rated in different categories such as reload speed or damage and many of them can be modify with parts like scopes and silencers. I do wish that there were more things to upgrade such as enhancing the attributes of your guns as eventually you’ll have your preferred weapons and won’t really need to get anything else.

With those positives mentioned there are a few problems. MGS 4’s design is both bloated and simplistic at the same time. In the game you have an overload of items, multiple types of recovery items, at least 3 different grenades, several types of mines, all those guns I talked about and more. The issue is that the majority of these items you will never need nor will the game challenge you to use them.

Your second gun found is a tranquilizer shooting silenced pistol, with that gun you won’t need to use anything else to knock someone out. The next step is getting a silenced weapon that does damage, with that you are set. I don’t see any reason to use claymore mines or C4 when they just over complicate the situation. Every MGS game has magazines you can put on the ground to distract the guards, yet I have never used one of them in all the times I’ve played as I didn’t need them.

With all the guns you have access to; a lot of them are just plain useless next to guns with better stats. If you have a gun that is rated D and a gun that is rated B, which one would you pick? So much of MGS 4’s design feels unneeded and underused. The boss fights this time around weren’t as memorable as previous games, except for three fights which were done very well.

On the matter of simplistic, the game design doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with everything. The stealth elements are haphazard. There were plenty of times that I was discovered when a few minutes ago I did the same thing and was fine. Mechanics such as holding up a guard or hiding bodies are not needed since leaving an area removes any worry about having your actions found.

The concept of fighting during a war zone was a good idea but it never goes anywhere. In fact past Act 3 you won’t be doing that anymore. Enemies infinitely re-spawn unless you actually push forward which ruins any sense of momentum in combat. Even more frustrating is that fighting in a war zone still uses the same less than stellar stealth mechanics.

During a huge battle with bullets and explosions flying around, if I poke my head up next to allies, if the enemy sees Snake they go into alert. Another example is during a huge fight I use a non silenced gun to kill a guard and that puts them into caution status, because they could recognize the gunshot being different then the other twenty guns being fired at the same time.

Another problem I have which has carried itself from previous Metal Gear titles is the fact that there is no reason to do anything in each area other than going from point A to point B. In MGS 3 as you are going through the areas you will come across military bases that you could destroy (however I don’t remember if the game tells you that you could do that). The problem is that the affects from doing this only last for the rest of the section and once again aren’t worth the time or effort.

I know that I’m coming down hard on MGS 4 which is odd since I enjoyed MGS 3. I was expecting more to do instead of spending the majority of my time watching cut scenes. The boss fights and locales were more varied in Snake Eater and even though there were still some bloated design with the items there was more game-play.

For example every Metal Gear has at least one section that is supposed to be the culmination of stealth to challenge the player. In MGS 2 it was controlling Raiden when he is strip of his weapons. In MGS 4 however the final stealth section was poorly done in my opinion. There was only one way to go and thanks to enemies spawning you are required to fight your way in.

Both MGS 3 and MGS 4 feature a “sniper fight” and in Snake Eater I thought that fight was one of the best boss fights in the entire MGS series and I may just write up an analysis solely on that encounter. In MGS 4 however the fight didn’t feel as epic with the one trick of the boss and the re-spawning enemies amounting to an annoyance.

Also it could be me but MGS 4 also feels shorter than previous games in the series. Skipping the cut scenes leaves very little game time, I think the third act minus cut scenes amounts to about 20-25 minutes of actual play.

I would say that MGS 4 is strictly a fan’s only experience but being at least 3 years late I think my message is a little past due. For me my two favorites would be MGS 3 and Peace Walker for the PsP. MGS 3 for having the most variety in my opinion and Peacewalker for trimming the fat out of MGS’s design.

Josh.

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