Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hair splitting...hunmmmm

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A hot tip...from....SexyVideoGame Blogger...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Breaking the Fourth Wall
Internet surfing can be a surreal, meandering adventure sometimes; personally, I always end up on Wikipedia for a quick look-up, and then end up spending too much time reading articles that link to the articles that link to those that were linked in the original entry.Anyway, I stumbled upon this list of video games that break the fourth wall. Gasp! It's being considered for deletion? Quick, quick, check it out before it goes. It lists a whole bunch of games that suspend the pretense of fantasy temporarily in order to engage with the player, or to otherwise indicate that (lest you forget) you are, in fact, playing a video game. This can be anything from a vanity blip by the game development team-- say, sneaking into a crack in the map in Duke Nukem, only to be told by Levellord that "you're not supposed to be here,"-- to more elaborate stuff, like the freak-tastic devices surrounding Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear.Technically, the list could be a lot longer-- how many times have you been saving the world, only to encounter a character who instructs you to "press square to..."? That sort of thing is probably unavoidable, though; the most effective way to learn to play a game is through tutorials, and the most unobtrusive way to present a tutorial is to try and embed it in the game-- like a battle arena that teaches the combat system, or a wise sage-type NPC who spouts instruction on what to press to interact in the environment.Even when you're accustomed to and expecting that element to crop up, at least early in gameplay, it can sometimes be if not jarring, just slightly disappointing-- an interruption of a willful immersion in an interactive unreality, depending, of course, on the game. I have this fantasy of an entire gaming package, where the game itself comes with a fab story book or little artifacts or cards or something that, through indirect analogy, provides enough clues to the players that they can essentially explore, themselves, how to play. Seems to me they used to do this, to some extent, but I'd really like to see it done all-out in the modern day, making using the game as much an adventure as playing it.One of the things I liked best Back in the Day was that many of the games I played on my Apple IIe were fairly clapboard affairs; the accompanying literature was often word salad, or so it seemed to my unsophisticated mind. I was also spoon-raised on Mac freeware, point-and-click adventures that were largely buggy or entirely incomplete, entries in competitions, perhaps, that their designers never expected anyone to play with extensively. Nowadays, I wouldn't tolerate such a thing for a minute, let alone for years, and neither would anyone else in the audience. But back then, it was an adventure-- figuring out HOW to play, how to play around the bugs, and whether you could think of something that the game hadn't was probably more than half of the fun. Every new game was a blank slate, and I had a vested interest in teaching myself its ins and outs so that I could make good use of the experience. To this day, I'm not habituated to reading manuals, and prefer to stubbornly fumble my way through the beginning stages of a new game. It bewilders anyone who plays with me-- but hey, the game's gonna tell me how to play in a little while, aren't they?When Hotel Dusk: Room 215 came out, I reviewed it for Paste. I was kinda divided about it; it was too easy, too linear, and too slow. But it was also fantastically drawn, endearing and innovative. The best part was the use of the DS's touch screen, microphone, and even its hinge. You'd be confronted with a screen of objects, and then have to figure out how to manipulate them to achieve the goal. Sometimes doing the obvious-- tapping away with the stylus-- was utterly useless; you might have to use intuitive logic and blow into the microphone, or actually close the DS to flip over a jigsaw puzzle from one screen to the other. That the latter info is actually a spoiler, though, is an example of why I wish this game was as strong as it could have been. But the fact that, without explanation, I was confronted with how to best handle a situation through trial and error was one of the things I liked best.I think that there's a time and place where it's useful to break the fourth wall to create gameplay (not just to train the player). This article in the Escapist by Wired's Susan Arendt discusses Evidence: The Last Ritual, where players tracking a serial killer actually get helpful (or haunting) emails from story characters, as well as other similar games that, for example, have you use the Internet to search for clues to the next stage. I'm sure I tried things like this a few years back; without remembering many specifics, I seem to recall they didn't work very well-- elements that were supposed to be intuitive felt manufacted and heavy-handed. But I'd definitely like to see games continue to explore how to best use the barrier between player and game, whether that means building a seamless iron curtain or an effective transparency.
Posted by SVGL at 12:58 PM
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Sean Barrett said...
That sort of thing is probably unavoidable, though; the most effective way to learn to play a game is through tutorials, and the most unobtrusive way to present a tutorial is to try and embed it in the game-- like a battle arena that teaches the combat system, or a wise sage-type NPC who spouts instruction on what to press to interact in the environment.As the programmer who randomly took on the task of designing and building the tutorial levels for Looking Glass Studios' Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri (1996) back in the day, I thought about this issue and very very carefully made it so the instructor voice just told you what he wanted you to do in fictional terms, and a simultaneous text overlay pointed at the UI gadget you would need to operate to get that result. So he'd say something like "you can set a marker on your map which will show an overlay on the hud to help you see which way to go" and the text overlay would say 'right click on the map to place a marker' with an arrow pointing at the map.In hindsight, I don't think it made any difference.
May 29, 2007 8:05 PM
SVGL said...
Hey Sean,Glad you commented-- I was totally itching to hear from a programmer who'd had actual experience with this game element, as I can imagine it's challenging.One would think games where technology plays a major role would have it easier, as the tutorial could be disguised as instructing the character how to use his gadgets. I think your picture-in-picture idea sounds promising (aside from the minor point that heroes in that kind of game would probably be expert in use of their necessary gadgetry already). Why do you think it didn't make a difference-- because you had to "talk" to the player anyway?Thanks so much for stopping by!
May 29, 2007 8:28 PM
Sean Barrett said...
Some time after doing this for Terra Nova, I played Battlezone, which had a similar tech-y setting, and it had tutorials with an instructor telling you what to do, and he just told you "press the 'b' key to something-or-other". And while that is theoretically weird, it just didn't in practice feel substantially worse, distracting, or inappropriate than what I'd come up with for Terra Nova. (I agree that this is easier in a tech-y setting. In Terra Nova, you were wearing battle armor, and we actually drew the inside of your helmet at the edges of the screen, which is where the UI elements were. This made it easy to do the thing I described originally.)Let me see if I can nail down why.I mean, I'm a big fan of immersion, and I hate breaking immersion or suspension of disbelief. One of the most jarring things to me is when games say "this isn't like a videogame" (or even "this isn't a story"), just as when novels or movies do something like that.But a movie watched in a darkened theater with a big screen in front of you still has other people in it making noise, putting head-shaped silhouettes at the bottom of the screen, and other distractions. In some sense those things are constantly reminders of the fourth wall, even if the movie itself doesn't break it, but we somehow learn to tune that out.In a similar way, I think the user interface in games is already "fourth wall broken", in some sense. Unless you're physically in a cockpit simulator, you're already juggling on some level the fact that you're controlling this character indirectly, not being the character. And so there's something that happens when the tutorial instructor tells you what to do with the UI to accomplish tasks. It's info you need in the real world, after all, and even if it's technically an inappropriate boundary jump, you're probably too busy thinking about the UI task at hand to be distracted by that hand reaching across the already-broken fourth wall. (I think the fact it happens in a tutorial is significant; it's a very different thing to e.g. change controller ports in Metal Gear Solid to defeat Psycho Mantis.)At least, that's roughly how I think it felt to me, as best as I can recall many years later.
May 30, 2007 11:48 AM
SVGL said...
Sure, I think you're absolutely right-- thanks for the insight. Definitely agree that the tutorial may be a particular, or separate, sticking point in immersion, too.
May 30, 2007 12:38 PM