“Weird”

What’s a ‘weird’ game?

Well, here’s an idea. If I stopped a person on the street, and they played games, if I asked which was weirder, Fortnite, or a game off of the (lovingly named and wonderful) Weird Fucking Games Twitter, which would they choose?

In popular culture, the ‘weird game’ is the polar opposite of the ‘pop game’. A pop game is a game that a random gamer would be likely to not deem ‘weird’. A pop game often has the marketing budget to drown out an entire game culture’s news cycle for a week or two, only to disappear weeks after as if it never existed. A pop game can suck up 40 hours of my time and not change me in the slightest. A pop game is often a corpgame (corporation created game). A pop game is probably not a static game.

Negate the premise of Fortnite, negate the breadth of Red Dead Redemption 2. That’s what a ‘weird game’ usually is.

I am disturbed by this definition of ‘weird’. You know what is weirder to me?

A game where you can tie up a stranger, stick them on your horse, and dump their body anywhere. (cw violence against women)

A game where you can nuke an entire town.

These kinds of things are called ‘violent’ or ‘wrong’, but we never categorize them as ‘weird’, they’re always considered ‘normal’.

Instead, most gamers think something is weird because a single line of dialogue was just a widdle bit too confewsing (っ◞‸◟c) or the art was too weird because a tree didn’t look like the ones in real life (。•́︿•̀。), or, or, a line of dialogue made them feel bad inside because it challenged their beliefs 😦 … waa waa…

Sad…

Well, I don’t have any solution for this problem. Goodbye.

Maybe let’s start using the word ‘weird’ when something deserves it.

 

 

 

 

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Sean Han Tani’s Game Of The Years #1

Welcome to my twice-a-month (haha oops maybe 6-times-a-year) series, Sean Han Tani’s Game Of The Years, where I critique a recent game that is good.

The first Sean Han Tani’s Game Of The Years  is David Kanaga’s Oikospiel (early 2017, PC), created in Unity with tools from a past programming collaborator Fernando Ramallo (Panoramical). David has done amazing game music for games like Dyad, Proteus, Vignettes, and Panoramical. You should check out his other work, especially if you are a musician!

I am going to preface this piece with the fact that I love Oikospiel. In fact the more I write criticism or analyze a game the more I probably enjoy it. It means there’s a lot to pick apart and think about. Anyways…

IS OIKOSPIEL A GAME?

Yes! But…

Oikospiel has multiple existences.

Oikospiel is commonly considered to be a game.

But it exists as a number of works.

  • A “libretto“, which is a textual description of the game’s events.
  • An original soundtrack, broken into four parts,
  • A standalone music release
  • The game itself.
  • And (like other games) it exists as people’s reviews, discussions on Twitter, let’s plays, etc.

 

I like a lot of things about Oikospiel

1. Camera angles, wow there are so many camera angles. I love this. Each camera angle is a doorway to a bunch of interesting perspective ideas. From the initial off-the-rails airplane surgery camera. To the dog camera. To the bullet camera. To the wild kokiri forest item-collecting camera. and so on. Cameras matter so much but the majority of developers tend to prioritize that of the Perfect Platformin’ Camera or the Super 3rd-Person Fightin’ Camera or Big Boy FPS Shootin’ Cam. Or as I like to say, the descendants of the Hell Design Spawn Trilogy of Mario Zeldo and DOOM, a nostalgia ouroboros from which our culture may never recover.

2. The music and sound. If I write in detail on the music I will never finish this piece, so please trust me on this one. There is a ton of experimentalism in the game from how music is formally triggered and how sound appears, to the music itself.

3. The different ways you engage with written text. E-mails, novels, text on the screen, ‘cutscenes’.

4. The use of other games within the game. Kokiri Forest appears. Recontextualizing other videogame spaces is an infinitely interesting idea.

5. It is a game that has clear intent and purpose yet is put together with pre-existing 3D assets. To make fun of it is through the traditional method – “this shits weird” – is to make yourself look like a fool. Oikospiel helps contribute to the existing canon of games whose visuals are not pretty but nonetheless convey meaning and prove that a meaningful game has no need for realistic or traditional sorts of aesthetics.

Oikospiel is the DARK SOULS of Something

Let’s Talk About Difficulty…

Is Oikospiel Difficult?

Oikospiel is a confusing game , it is a wild game – it is obtuse and hard to understand. These aren’t negative criticisms but “Objective” (lol) observations. I now present evidence in support of my Objective Observations:

  • The game’s political ideas are overshadowed (or on the other hand, maybe enhanced?) by its (intentional) ‘messy’ gameplay/visual aesthetic built from free/paid 3D models and textures available to purchase from the Unity Asset Store. It is easy to get distracted by this or wonder if you have missed something. It’s funny, because the point of some of the game’s themes are to make you think about all the work that goes into these assets – but in some way the cobbled-together visual aesthetic tends to trigger our brains to think the game is just being weird. We are cursed by gamer culture.
    • Counterargument: the messy visual style contributes to the theme of how unionizing can be powerful or important. I don’t know where this thought thread is going towards, because the messiness of the visuals works well in some ways… anyways
  • The game has various modes of displaying textual information (e-mails, documents outside the game, music scores, advertisements, even scans of books). So it’s hard to really understand the work the first time through without knowing the relation of these things to the overall game’s arc. Engagement with the written text can take place nonlinearly, you can overlook something, it’s hard to prioritize what written information is the most valuable. In some cases I interacted with some things and ended up at an earlier level of the game.
  • The game also has many modes of gameplay, from shifting your control between different animals, to making the camera angles change drastically, to changing your movement speed. The combined effect of this is confusion. We lack a constant player perspective  since we are inhabiting many virtual bodies (often a dog, though.) It is hard to keep track of the relation of one scene to another.
  • We have been conditioned, as Gamers ™ to find everything about Oikospiel “weird as heck, man!” That is, as a Gamer, I found I had to actively fight the urge to dismiss sections or text as “weird.”

You may notice the bullet points above are also what I liked about the game in some ways

Now, confusion and the previous two ideas are not bad, but they do make Oikospiel a difficult work to engage with. You need to put in time to understand the game, and not just within the game – but checking what you play against the libretto, or reading David’s thoughts on the development. I’ve only played through a few times and tend to skim the libretto to keep track of what’s going on.

I think Oikospiel could have been a little clearer / organized at times without losing much. I think I read in an interview that some scenes were more loosely connected, or shuffled around. Maybe if there was a more consistent framing narrative to the various scenes, that could have helped – or including snippets of the libretto in each act of the game. I say “maybe” because there is a lot of personality in this kind of disorganization to the game.

Unions

At this point I need to mention that I love how the themes of unionizing and labor are accentuated by the game’s use of free assets and assets other people made, as well as some wordplay with the name of the game-making software used to make the game, “Unity.” It’s the first time I’ve seen the asset store stuff used in thematic way that goes along with a game’s content. I also love the appearance of spaces from other games, like Kokiri Forest, which appears early in. Being in these 3D spaces constructed from not only Kanaga’s but others’ labor is an interesting feeling to think about.

Hard-to-understand is a type of difficulty

Oikospiel is difficult game along the lines of comprehensibility. I don’t advocate for every game being easy and clear. God forbid our standards for narrative end up in Mario’s endless hell cycle of Princess Pear being kidnapped.

I think of difficulty as a quality a game can has. If it has more of it, the game is less accessible and less people can engage with it. We tend to think of difficulty in the dexterity or strategizing aspect (Super Meat Boy / MOBAs or roguelikes, etc). But Oikospiel is difficult in a comprehension sense – it requires closer study, repeat plays, and patience. It is dense of ideas. You can’t just play it once and expect to understand everything.

I have been assigning Oikospiel to my game design class for a while now, and it’s tended to be a game  that’s hard to discuss because there is so much happening in the game and students may be quick to dismiss it. So I now assign the interviews as well to read alongside playing the game. I love games being difficult in this way – to require re-reading. We should cultivate careful reading from our players more in our games.

Perhaps there can be some theory of ‘difficult comprehensibility design’ just like we have 10,000 theories how to make the perfect Supa’ Mario Brother intro level. Just a thought

One of the things I think about a lot with narrative design is that it’s so easy to forget narrative snippets in a game when you transition from reading to various modes of gameplay. It’s very easy to become ‘lost’ in the themes/ideas a game is trying to present. I don’t advocate for games all having clear narrative arcs for all their ideas, but it’s good to think about the ‘difficulty’ of your narrative and if there are ways you can make a narrative more accessible without compromising your style or ideas too much. (Much like how making a dexterity-difficulty game have accessibility modes, like Even the Ocean, can be a really good thing.)

You don’t need a walkthrough to ‘beat’ Oikospiel, but you almost have to rely on external texts (interviews, friend commentary, etc.) to get the most out of the game, just like you need an encyclopedia to play Monster Hunter or learn how to play Dark Souls.

And in a sense these other texts form a sort of walkthrough, or even an extension of the game itself. Most of the game didn’t really click till I read Kanaga’s thoughts on game labor unions and his philosophy about the Asset Store. You can find one of those interviews here.

I don’t mind this. I like reading external texts. That’s why I made a big book about my recent game All Our Asias, to offer players another way of considering the game.

The ideal way to play Oikospiel, I think, is to merely latch on to what fascinates you about the game. The sound effects in an area. The strange broken nostalgia of walking around Kokiri Forest. Trying to unravel your thoughts about hearing Celine Dion samples. And to read some of Kanaga’s thoughts so as to help you parse and put together the game’s events.

All Our Asias

A lot of this ‘disjointed fabric’ of gameplay interaction and Oikospiel’s thematic content informed my recent game All Our Asias. In fact, All Our Asias started out with me coding a jetpack-like 3rd-person movement system inside of a 3D level I dragged in from Dark Souls (Firelink Shrine if anyone is curious.)

I loved the idea of using older games’ levels but changing the way we traverse and interact with them, and what Oikospiel did with Ocarina of Time’s Kokiri Forest was really cool. It makes us think about our nostalgic experiences and memories of that space, which was something I was thinking about with AOA’s “Memory World” concept – how can we recontextualize spaces, either physical or digital?

Oikospiel’s multiple camera angles let to me wanting to use interesting camera angles in AOA to convey different things. I didn’t do a lot of this, but I did start to more seriously think about the importance of visually framing spaces, and all the different effects you can get. One of my favorite visual moments in Oikospiel is falling from a flat surface in the sky, all the way down to the ground in front of some kind of concert hall.

I was inspired by the idea that people could take seriously a game that does not traditionally look attractive, which gave me a lot of confidence in pursuing AOA’s lo-fi art style and trying to pack it full of narrative themes and meaningful art/spaces.

And… that’s all for now. Go play Oikospiel!

 

(EXCERPT) Tokyo Lo-fi: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne

Hey all, so recently I published an essay on Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne in the Heterotopias journal – here’s an excerpt of it which I originally posted as a preview on Gamasutra.


This is an excerpt from Heterotopias 003, the third issue of the game and architecture zine, which is now available to purchase for $6. To read the rest of the article, which further analyzes the techniques used in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, go grab your copy over on itch.io.

In Joni Kittaka and I’s eight-plus hour game Even the Ocean, I spent days fixing the animations of a mole that walks along tunnels in a single area, rather than replacing the mole with something less animation-heavy. This level of detail applied to every aspect of the game—such as cutscenes, art style revisions, and level design—contributed to the development time of three-and-a-half years.

For a long time I believed the only way to reduce the costs of content-heavy games with high-fidelity art was to make them smaller. But, recently, I’ve found another and perhaps better solution to reduce the traditional quality of the art. What stopped me from this discovery before was the prevalent attitude towards what are deemed ‘lo-fi graphics’—a widely-held view is that they are  inherently bad. But this shouldn’t be the case. They are not always a rush job or a mistake. They have, in recent years, even emerged as an art style in their own right. We can and should do more than dismiss lo-fi graphics as a historical stepping stone, inferior to photorealistic or HD art styles.

Consider games before 2010 with total or partial lo-fi art styles. Some of these older games aspired towards photorealism while lacking the hardware to do so effectively. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereon Nocturne) is a visually striking game, despite its ‘old’ graphics. First released in Japan in early 2003, it is a monster-collecting JRPG set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It had a team of about 15 artists, as opposed to the roughly 500 (counting contractors) artists that worked on Final Fantasy XV.

Nocturne  is full of ‘low-quality’ textures, objects, and spaces, yet its art style conjures an atmosphere more thematically dense and memorable than many contemporary games. Interrogating the art style shows Nocturne achieves this atmosphere through abstraction-based techniques for visual and spatial design. What is exciting about these techniques is that some of them do not require years of technical training in programming or visual arts, and thus, these techniques are easy for game developers to use to create new forms of visual expression in their games.

Nocturne’s setting

In Nocturne, Tokyo has just gone through a nuclear apocalypse, and so it has the player travel the city in order to decide how to rebuild it. Nocturne makes no attempt to create a realistic Tokyo, instead, it focuses on abstractions of public and commercial spaces like subways and malls, occasionally with more directly referenced real-world spaces, such as Shibuya Crossing.

While the artists aimed to dress the game’s spaces in realistic textures, the art direction is ethereal—this is accomplished through the eerie lack of human presence, a refusal to make accurate recreations of Tokyo spaces, and the use of unrealistic lighting. The latter is especially captivating, as it sees ambient lighting illuminate empty rooms in bizarre shades of purple or blue, lights cast in impractical ways, and shadows appearing without visible light sources.

Post-apocalypse Shinjuku Medical Center

Hospital_Receptionist

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya_CrossingSign

Blurriness, sharpness, and immersion

Without actively looking, it’s harder to notice the lack of photorealism in the floor tiles of Nocturne’s subways than it is to notice it in a poster on the wall. Advertisements, printed materials, and commercial items like clothing appear throughout Nocturne, all of which invite players to parse them for written or visual information. But these objects aren’t suited to that type of inspection and only cause the fidelity of the game to fracture. Posters and ads appear too blurry or too sharp; a stack of newspapers resembles a cube rather than individual sheets, making it clear these were objects placed as atmospheric shorthands rather than sources of information.

These types of objects act strangely in games. Look at the “Yushima Station: Safety Message” picture. If the object is blurry, like the station exit diagram on the left, it immediately separates the player’s reality from the game’s should they attempt to read it. There also exists a problem when the object is clear and readable, like the warning sign on the right, as this isn’t a game about obeying train signs, and its sharpness makes it weirdly readable when almost everything else around it is hazy. The artist who placed this sign probably wanted it to stand as a nod to the pre-apocalyptic history of the station platform, as a way to ground it in a reality closer to the player’s, but its inconsistency with the textures around it pull it more towards achieving the opposite.

One solution to this would be to remove all the posters and signs, but that may make Tokyo strangely bare. Whereas rendering the posters blurry makes them too obviously fake, having them sharp enough to read causes them to stand out too much in this indistinct world. It is better to view these ‘problems’ as a technique that can, like the train station signs, be utilized to carefully place references to reality into a less realistic space.

Yushima Station: Safety Message and Station Exit Map

Yushima_Warning

 To read the rest of this article purchase Heterotopias 003 over on itch.io.

Sean Han Tani is a developer of Anodyne (2013), Even the Ocean (2016), and currently, All Our Asias. He also lectures about game design and game music production at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

8 Ways To Not Spatially Organize Your Game (Banjo-Kazooie: Part 2)

In light of Super Mario Odyssey’s release, I realized there’s a timely angle to look at BK with. Rather than summarize the levels like with Part 1, I’ll go over some of the major causes of getting lost/confused in BK. By no means do I suggest these are bad things to do, but they may be counterproductive to your goals in a 3D game, especially if you are doing something with ‘box-garden’ design like BK (or Mario 64, etc.)

Maybe this will make your Mario Odyssey playthrough more interesting, given that it is a semi-box-garden style design? Let’s see… at number one…

1. Mismatch of Interior Size to Exterior Visual Size

See TVTropes’ “Bigger on the Inside” page.

At least BK is consistent with this! Nearly every interior space in BK is much bigger than the exterior would suggest. This is something you might *Want* to do in a 3D game. Say you have a central castle in a level that you also need to navigate the exterior grounds of. It feels better for that castle to not be huge and boring to walk around. But if the castle’s interior is proportionately small, then it might not be as exciting or interesting, unless you are working in the style of Dark Souls or similar ‘realistic’ architecture games.

The “bigger on the inside” trope, can often make areas easier to navigate (take small pokemon starting towns). But, when a particular structure that is “Bigger on the Inside” is in 3D and has too many entrances, it can become confusing.

Example: In level 7, Mad Monster Mansion,  the exterior  is realistically sized, to make it easier to navigate around and see, but then the inside is far larger, to make it more fun to move around in.

One problem here is you can enter the mansion through a front door or a window to the left. Though these two entrances are only a few feet apart, they lead to entirely different spaces – respectively, a gigantic dining room, and some smaller  alcove. To make matters worse, the alcove should technically be inside the dining room.

This makes it harder to make a mental map of the overall level. We don’t just have to remember that these two spaces connect. We also have to remember the additional information that the two spaces are related in an non-physically-realistic manner. This mostly matters in box-garden-style games, where you progressively consume and make a map of the level. In a more linear game, it may not matter as much. I do the “larger on the inside” thing a few times in All Our Asias. The difference with AOA, is that remembering the specific connections between spaces is not as important, thus it’s less likely to result in being lost. Though there still may be a sense of disorientation – which may be good!

2. poorly-signed, screen-transition-connected subareas

Poorly-signed means an entrance to an area is not very distinct – it’s hard to identify where the entrance is going.

A screen-transition-connected area is when you go from one subarea of a level to another and the screen fades to black, or there’s  a loading screen, etc. E.g.: Mansion to mansion exterior in the above example.

Most games need screen transitions. It is worth mentioning that the more ‘screen fades’ you have in a 3D level, the harder it will be to remember how to navigate it. How many times have you left some new building in real life, and not been sure which way to turn? The same thing happens in games. A screen transition breaks the sense of spatial continuity and causes disorientation. This becomes more of an issue the larger an environment grows.

Generally a 3D game might fix the disorientation problem with a minimap or some kind of map – something to help you get your bearings when entering a new space. But… over-reliance on a map will reduce how well a player picks up on landmarks and really learns how to navigate a space. Or the game can make the inside/outside relatively clear and with few entrances. E.g., the sandcastle puzzle in Treasure Trove Cove is a very iconic building, and so it’s easy to know where it goes from looking at it. Again, in a more linear game, this is not as big of a problem, because you can generally emphasize that the place you are *leaving* is not as important as where you’re going. But in something with a box-garden design you need to be more careful.

treasyre.PNG

This issue compounds with the interior/exterior size mismatch problem.

The worst textbook example of this, which BK does not have, is straight up teleporting you to another place without any sense of logical spatial connection. Think teleport mazes in puzzle or RPG games.

BK has this issue in a few places.

  • Mad Monster Mansion: the mansion has many window entrances, that are of course hard to keep track of because they look the same.
  • Rusty Bucket Bay: The level’s outer rim with storehouses/etc have many entrances that are hard to keep track of because of similar appearance. The main boat has many portholes you can enter with similar problems.
  • Gobi’s Valley (Level 6, which I’ll come back to soon), which features pyramids and sphinxes with entrances. What’s on the outside doesn’t always match the inside… and so it’s hard to remember where a particular challenge is. Still, there are relatively few rooms in Gobi’s Valley so it doesn’t become a huge issue.

BK does get it right, though. E.g.:

  • Mumbo’s Mountain has a single anthill. Easy to know where that goes.
  • The big turtle and crocodile in Bubblegloop Swamp. Go to a simple place.
  • Christmas Tree and single ice cave in Freezeezy Peak.

3. Swimming

Swimming in BK is a nightmare, probably its biggest mistake. There’s a short air meter, even *enemies*, sometimes a shark that chases you, and in a later level the water drains your air meter twice as fast. Not to mention, swimming is slowly and unwieldy, and you are expected to collect things underwater.

Why is it disorienting? Well, you are moving in all three dimensions, freely. Water is usually harder to see in, and because you don’t have gravity stabilizing you, and the controls are so bad, it’s super easy to get turned around or confused as to where you are going. 3rd person cameras can be a little tricky in the water. This makes levels like Clanker’s Cavern or parts of Rusty Bucket Bay much harder than they need to be.  Being in water is sort of like throwing static all over a minimap or just negating all the progress you made in trying to remember where you’ve gone in a space. Add in the air meter, and you now have pressure that makes it harder to think clearly.

I’m iffy about water. I would just leave it out of my games, or make it more of some kind of jetpack like control, where the Y-axis movement is not totally free – some way of making it less disorienting for the player. At the least, keeping your ‘water entry areas’ relatively distinct could be a good move (rather than say, a giant lake you could enter from any point on the shore.)

4. Poorly signed / laid out tunnels

It’s hard to keep your sense of direction in tunnels due to the visual uniformity. It’s also difficult to use landmarks to reference where you have come from and where you want to go. All you see is tunnel.

This is made worse by slightly curving tunnels: you can’t try to remember right angles or ‘easy’ directional changes, you can only follow the tunnel and hope you find an exit. Good way to make you feel lost, though! Mixed with a map, this can actually be okay (think the maze-like tunnel dungeons of SMT Nocturne.)

You can make tunnels harder to navigate with by making their entrances and exits discreet. Put lots of tunnels next to each other to make things even worse.

And to top it off, you could even put tunnels in the water!

Example: Navigating the water tunnels in the final leg of the hub world. This has problems: not only are you using the most disorienting mode of movement (Swimming), but you are connecting places with tunnels.

(Left: an underwater tunnel in the hub world. Right: a tunnel entrance, then the tunnel.)

Or, the tunnels in the water in Clanker’s Cavern. The entrances’ similar coloration makes it easy to forget which tunnel you’ve visited.

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 11.25.36 AM.png

5. Lack of Color Variation in Level

Gobi’s Valley: everything is Yellow.

Gobis_Valley_entry

While this at-a-distance picture looks fine, you’re much closer to things in the game’s 3rd person camera, and so even the structural distinctions might get lost amongst the overall Yellow. It’s good that the borders of Gobi’s Valley are brown, at least. Anyways, it follows that if everything is a similar color, it’s harder to tell parts of the level apart.

260px-Banjo-Kazooie_Mumbo's_Mountain_Entrance_and_Lake

Compare Mumbo’s Mountain where paths lead you around and there’s clearer color distinctions with the grass, hills, water, central mountain.

6. Lines of sight to other parts of the level broken by walls

When you can’t see to the rest of a level, you can easily feel lost or boxed in… in some ways this is a less intense ‘tunnel effect’. You aren’t sure where you are going or how you are oriented. Mad Monster Mansion has this problem: the hedge fences are tall, uniformly dark, so it’s really hard to tell what side of the mansion you’re on sometimes.  Click Clock Wood can be tough to remember where you are (at first) because your line of sight to the other side of the level is cut off by the central giant tree.

Compare Rusty Bucket Bay, which has a central boat in a pool, then a perimeter area. You can at least see what side of the boat you are on, so it’s easy to tell where you are overall in the level (though not necessarily easy to get to somewhere due to the water – RBB has its issues.)

BK pretty consistently increases the ‘broken lines of sight’ as the levels get bigger, partially because of more landmarks / more open space. In some ways, BK’s difficulty comes from having to remember more and more of a 3D space in your head. I think spatial organization topic is why Mumbo’s Mountain (Level 1) feels so strong – it’s really easy to get a sense of the level’s scale at a glance.

Level 4, Bubblegloop swamp (mentioned later), breaks lines of sight – but because it organizes its space in a hub-spoke form, it’s not too bad to navigate. I kind of like the hub-spoke structure: put challenges or singular things at the end of a spoke, so people know how to navigate back to the hub to find the next thing they didn’t do or see.

7. Lack of Landmarks

I wanted to throw this one in here, BK actually does this really well. But  if you are designing something in an ‘box-garden’ fashion like BK, you should make sure the sections of the level have some distinct feature to them – a landmark – that can be used for players to navigate with and judge their sense of place. One issue I’ve seen with first-time Unity students is making the terrain tool and creating high, bumpy and indistinct mountains. A good way to make landmarks is to do concept sketches of a level and include distinct sections/buildings/geological forms.

Landmark examples…

  • The termite hill in Mumbo’s Mountain.
  • The central mountain of Treasure Trove Cove.
  • Clanker, in clanker’s cavern.
  • Freezeezy Peak’s Snowman.
  • Click Clock Wood’s mumbo house.

I really love the structure of Bubblegloop Swamp – while I think its color choices can be a bit uniform and confusing, it has a central location with different branches, and each branch has clear landmarks to let you know what the branch is. My one complaint is the maze in the bottom left, which is hard to see from the center, and thus, hard to remember that there’s a Mumbo hut there (a place you need to go to transform into an alligator.)

banjo-kazooie_bubble_gloop_swamp_notes

8. Excessive + confusing vertical layering

This relates a little to how swimming can get confusing, with having too much freedom of movement in 3D space. When a level starts to build tons of vertical layers, it gets harder to remember where you are – you aren’t just thinking about your flat, X-Z plane position, but also the vertical Y position.

In BK, most clear is the sense of place you lose when climbing up the giant tree in Click Clock Wood (see 2:35 on here). While you can sort of remember where you generally are on the spiral path, it’s hard to remember what is all the way below you.

Treasure Trove Cove initially feels daunting because you have both the ground-level paths and the rocky-raised-structure paths.

This is also why a lot of early 2D platformers can be confusing – too much vertical layering, and the camera is very close to the player so it’s hard to see what’s around you.  (Watch Toy Story 2 for a while.) Maybe this is also why Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid feature minimaps. This is partially why Even the Ocean featured mostly linear levels.

It’s not like you can’t vertically layer spaces or have vertical variation – but it might be good to keep the vertically layered space linear (like the timed challenge in Bubblegloop Swamp – see 1:34).

Now compare that to say, the scaffolding of an apartment building construction site, with intersecting scaffolding – that could get confusing, fast, depending on the level design!

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 3.50.21 PM.png


That’s all for Banjo-Kazooie – it’s a nice game to check out if you haven’t, at least for the first 2 levels !

If you’d like to stay up to date, please subscribe to my blog, or follow me on Twitter!

I’m Sean Han Tani and I worked on Anodyne and Even the Ocean. I write a lot of music and also teach music and game design at SAIC in Chicago. Now, I’m working on a 3D game coming out this year, All Our Asias.

You can check out more of my writing here.

Banjo Kazooie (1998, N64): Part 1

Why Are You Playing Banjo-Kazooie

Due to a future project which might involve a light amount of 3D platforming, I have been replaying a few 3D platformers as research. Mostly to look at how they organize their use of space in establishing a level’s identity, how players are directed around the space.

I first played Hat in Time (2017), which is a recent non-AAA release. Polished, but quite visually noisy in most of its areas. It’s hard to visually parse and features gigantic, busy, and often cramped environments. There’s tons of pickups everywhere you look. Telling of this is the fact the very first ability you get is to show you where your next objective is. From the levels I played (up to the 4th chapter with the mountains) I will say that at least there were some good landmarks for navigation, and the individual missions felt distinct and interesting… but I think this kind of mission structure may just not be for me.

Super Mario 64 

Then I turned on Super Mario 64 (1996, N64) for the first time in years. I had somewhat idealized it as a champion of ‘box garden’ design, but the structure of picking a star, doing it, being booted from the level – felt dry to me. The movement (and I know I am about to commit a Game Criticism Sin), to be honest, with the N64 controller, feels clunky and indeterminate. Wall jumping is a nightmare, as is trying to navigate the Bowser levels without feeling like you are one weird input away from just falling to your death. I will say that movement on open fields feels nice. Triple and long jumps are great.

But to me, the idea of having missions that guide you as to what to do, feels more like quests in an open world rather than exploring and uncovering a ‘box garden’. Banjo Kazooie feels like a much stronger example of box garden design, as I’ll get to shortly.

 

Spyro the Dragon

Then, I turned to Spyro the Dragon (1998, PSX) – which I had thought was kind of similar to Banjo-Kazooie and M64, but it turned out to be much different than I had assumed.

Spyro the Dragon feels akin to vacuuming dust from carpets. You are constantly being rewarded with the sense of cleaning and clearing a mess, and this action of cleaning feels constant. Flame a box to get gems. Get gems. Kill enemy to get gems. Glide. Collect a Dragon. Your attention is constantly being pulled towards the goal of “g-g-gotta get more g-gems…”

To see what its levels feel like – watch the below video of a late-game level at 2x speed. One problem with the general level design is that it can be hard to tell where you are due to the vague looking tunnels and outdoors spaces. Since Spyro moves so quickly, perhaps the levels ended up being somewhat big to account for this, which would lead to a higher difficulty of players creating mental landmarks, since you are seeing relatively indistinct architecture at each moment. In addition, you’re mostly killing hordes enemies or collecting gems – neither of which are particularly memorable when it comes to remembering a space. And once you ‘complete’ the level, it feels quite dead and empty…

Spyro the Dragon reminds me of how we would ‘activate’ flat and open space in Anodyne by adding simple enemies. Effective and engrossing, maybe, but not that interesting.

I will say that there are layers and shortcuts/hidden paths in Spyro the Dragon – one of the first levels, Stone Hill, consists of spaces that are depressions in a large hill. Surprisingly the game lets you run around on the upper ground looking over these depressions. It gives a strange feeling of violating the borders of the game’s world. But, it didn’t hold my interest past the first few hours… a better Spyro the Dragon would have taken advantage of the interesting crisscrossing paths, removed the crazy number of gems to collect, reduce the combat (which is not that engaging), and maybe focus more on finding dragon statues.

 

Okay Finally Banjo-Kazooie

I’ll be posting about BK in three parts, for three of its levels each. A primer about Banjo Kazooie: You play as an anthropomorphic talking bear “Banjo” with a talking bird, “Kazooie”. Your sister has been kidnapped by a witch. The witch wants to take the sister’s beauty, and make herself beautiful. Of course, this is at the top of a tower in the witch’s lair, which is also right next to Banjo’s house. To get through the lair, you need to find many of the game’s 900 musical “notes” and 100 gold, jigsaw-shaped “jiggies”. These are hidden in 9 ‘open-box-garden’ levels you enter from the witch’s lair. The lair functions as a hub world you progress deeper into. You also need to learn new moves such as flying, invincibility, etc., and transform into small creatures.

Jiggies are used to open new levels, notes are used to progress through ‘note doors’ in the lair. To open a level, you need to find the corresponding ‘jigsaw puzzle’ for the level, give it a needed # of jigsaws, and then find the level’s entrance.

Jiggies are either rewards for challenges (minigames, short boss fights, finding 5 of some special collectible for the level), or are hidden in challenging places. Notes must all be picked up in one go – if you don’t get all 100, and leave, you start from zero. However, Notes are usually not hidden in an obscure way, and often are used to draw your attention to the major landmarks of a level (at least, so far, four levels into my playthrough.)

Already from reading how the game lays out its goals and resources, you can tell there’s a strong core loop to the game: uncovering more of the hub world involves exploring more of the levels.

Okay, Level 1: Mumbo’s Mountain

Mumbo’s Mountain is almost a perfect 3-course meal. It is potentially the rough start to a beautiful children’s game of short, 30-minute long levels with recognizable landmarks and simple but satisfying challenges. Of course… it’s not. The levels in BK get longer and larger…growth, 10x-ing, raising more levels of seed funding… games – the levels always get bigger, huh?

Here’s a playthrough of the level.

(Note: the silver skulls are tokens which are needed to transform you into a creature.)

I’m not going to waste too much time about normal game design analysis of how the level teaches you stuff, but focus more on the feeling of the space. You can’t tell from the map but you start in the bottom-right, and the top half of the map is elevated. The center horizontal chunk of the map is all slopes of varying steepness. The level can be clearly separated into a few landmarks: the SW monkey-palm-tree region , SE fields/river region, NW ruins, NE village, central termite hull, and the large slopes on the left and right. Each has a different set of challenges.

The overall effect is this cozy, small landmark tour. You never feel overwhelmed or lost by the scale, part of this is also thanks to how the level takes place in a large depression (look at the cliff walls surrounding the level.)

I love this level: I don’t know if I would necessarily make a game with the kind of collection mechanics BK has, but I do love how each area has a different feeling yet works together as a whole.

Level 2: Treasure Trove Cove

Speedrun video

(Note: the bird heads are 5 colored “Jinjos” which you need to collect to get a Jiggy.)

The landmarking here is still distinct, yet a little harder to parse at first. One issue here is the gigantic mountain that takes up a lot of this level , and the raised walkable rock structures. Still, we have some nice variation, especially in verticality here: the S part is a series of stepped pools, there are some climbable structures in the W side, the N side has high-jump pillars, there’s a mini-game in the top-right, the bottom-right is a small boss fight, and we have a central Pirate Ship . There’s also the Huge Landmark of the level – the big mountain, which has a lighthouse on top as well as a large opening beneath it which allows you to cross from W to E in the level.

This kind of size can quickly become dangerous, but because there is not too much layered verticality to the level, and most of the action takes place on a ring-sized shape outside of the center (rather than equally throughout the level’s map), it doesn’t become too overwhelming.

Level 3: Clanker’s Cavern

Speedrun

The strangeness of this level didn’t really strike me until playing it now, at 25. It’s a garbage dump, but the garbage disposal is this disgusting mechanical/organic fish thing.

Using the right-image as reference, you start in the S, swim through to the central chamber, which has “Clanker”, the big meat-machine-fish. This is kind of a hint as to how later levels will increasingly feature separate spaces that become harder to keep track of.

The central cavern has a nice structure – you climb or swim around the perimeter of the chamber’s oval-shape, and sometimes go through tunnels to find stuff. However, tunnels are tough to make – they’re easy to get mixed up and you forget where you go sometimes, especially since you access these tunnels via swimming.

You do a lot of swimming in this level, which sucks and makes it hard to orient yourself. Eventually you can enter Clanker, which is a linear layout with a few challenges. It’s a cute concept, but features… swimming. Still, it’s a good concept of building-in-a-building: it’s really clear as to how you enter or exit Clanker.

General Thoughts

  • Is hiding things in 3D just Terrible in general? It’s so easy to miss stuff around a corner. I prefer the idea of distinct landmarks you can go to and then explore.
  • Is the addition of swimming just Selling Out To Complexity? Why on earth did this game – or any game – need swimming, which is usually hampered by slow, unwieldy controls?
  • Scattered goals are irritating and bothersome to keep track of – stuff like the Jinjos.
  • The Note Score concept is Bad – just let people keep the notes!
  • I didn’t mention this, but each level has a “Witch Switch” (You can see it in the Mumbo Mountain map). Pressing this changes something in the hub world, allowing you to collect one of the hub world’s 10 jiggies. Sometimes you need to use a level’s creature transformation in order to get to this jiggy. I like that level of cross-interaction: not too complex. Banjo-Tooie, the sequel to BK, would go on to create far more complicated and hard to keep track of interactions between levels and the hub world.

In part 2 I’ll talk about the next 3 levels, in which fatigue of the game starts to set in. I have always gotten kind of bored around the 60% mark in BK, but I’d like to investigate why.

9 Hot E3 2017 Observations

 

  1. Though apparent at the time, it is now clear that the “indie” movement was co-opted by large companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in an attempt to beat each other out in the recent console war. Few indie games were shown in press conferences – surprisingly, Microsoft did the best job (Ashen, Tacoma, Cuphead, The Last Night). I think Sony has given up on indies at E3 entirely. A handful of indie games were shown in the PC Gaming show, only to quickly cut to a minutes-long discussion of the latest gritty robot military hell shooter.
  2. However, the indie games shown often have a lot of work put into art style or are in being created by studios of 4-6+. Though showing these games is nice, it still sends a message that there is absolutely no place (in a big company’s marketing bandwidth) for games with extreme experimentalism or art styles that buck trends.
  3. Most AAA games are lost in a downward spiral of pursuing higher and higher fidelity graphics. Indie games, too… ! Endless multiplayer shooters with ‘photorealistic’ graphics, without any questioning from developers as to why this is a worthwhile at all goal. Likewise, games have difficulty keeping up with the huge art budgets, so it’s rare to find interesting art styles. There is a disturbing uniformity amongst the AAA announcements. This manifests itself in Japan as games with your generic Anime style or Shounen Manga JRPG Plot, or in US/Canada/Europe as Another Gray Shooter/Fucking Zombie Game.
  4. The VR evangelism is still strong from Sony and other companies, but outside of practical uses such as medicine and research, on the level of popular culture there are not many signs VR is amounting to much other than a toy for the well-off to play largely the same games, or a platform for art world artists to impress their art world critics and friends through their first steps into digital space.
    1. For the near future, I think VR will mostly be relegated to VR theaters or gallery spaces, or lower-end experiences such as Gear VR. I think this is fine as the means for the general public to engage with VR games/films/art/etc, but there should be lower financial/visual quality bars for artists/developers to meet to show their work. Forcing a creator to implicitly need to meet a sales bar will only hurt the quality of future work, or leave future VR work to those with the resources to create something popular/marketable.
  5. There is little interesting design or art direction experimentation in AAA. There are and always be interesting little touches, designs and polish to any AAA game worth ‘mining’ and using as influence, and many recent AAA games are fun and good, but overall things are more or less the same, with some progress here and there. Occasionally something *really* interesting pops up: the climbing in Breath of the Wild (in an otherwise average game), commanding your dog in The Last Guardian. Yes, Nintendo showed a lot of fun-looking stuff, but when you really look at it, there isn’t much fundamentally different in say, Kirby, Yoshi, or Mario, etc. Perhaps you change the way you collect the Green Goblets of Good or whatever, or you’re in Cookie Town instead of Castle Town, but things kind of feel the same.
    1. Perhaps the most depressing example of lack of design/art direction innovation are the constant HD remasters, such as the newly announced Shadow of the Colossus Remake, Mario Superstar Saga remakes, Metroid 2 remakes. While some games could desperately use design revamps and remasters, largely these feel like cash-ins that also operate under the false assumption that upgrading textures and graphics automatically improves a game. What would really be interesting would be to see remakes that don’t ‘upgrade’ the art stylebut still fix design problems. I think it is a fact that some older art styles, such as on the SNES or PSX, can create artistic themes other than nostalgia that are *impossible to create* through the pursuit of “HD”.
  6. It’s interesting to think about how as AAA companies move away from creating sequels or games in the style of what fans want (Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, top-down SNES RPGs, Metroidvanias), we see indies coming in and creating these games that fans demand.  Games that satisfy these criteria can become immensely popular: Undertale for Earthbound, Stardew Valley for Harvest Moon, Ooblets for Pokemon/Animal Crossing, Tunic for 2D zelda, Hyper Light Drifter for SNES 2D action RPGs, Owlboy and many more for metroidvanias, etc. Often you will find a popular indie game satisfying a niche that AAA no longer creates for.
  7. Looking at all these E3 trailers, I still feel the pressure of games needing to look “Good” or “Polished”, and a focus on a game needing to be designed to create good ‘marketing fuel’ – being able to show well in short clips or what not, to have their premises easily and quickly digestible. This kind of competition and how fans engage and relate to the games creates an environment where it’s really hard for an experimental work to ‘make it’ – or even be seen, as it is drowned out by more popular-appeal games.
  8. This pressure to create a ‘marketing fuel’ game also inherently reduces the amount of risk-taking in the design process. You see the effects of this most prominently in AAA, but it’s pretty common in indie as well – most games you see might innovate in a few tiny ways, but are largely beholden to its predecessors it looks to improve on. I think it would help for new games to try and take larger ‘leaps’ from predecessors, rather than make a few improvements/innovations – to create something that cannot be easily defined as a mix of “X, Y, Z” – to create the anti-elevator pitch.
  9. The same goes with art styles – we have computers and can create literally any image on earth, but the range of art styles I see tend to feel frustratingly stuck in a small range of choices. I think it might help to view the art direction/style more as an Artistic Tool rather than a Marketing Tool.

Towers and Navigation in Breath of the Wild

The towers and navigation in Zelda: Breath of the Wild (hereon BotW) have problems.

Towers, revealing the landscape

Viewing and pinning landmarks from the top of the tower tied into the theme of using landmarks as navigation. To understand the landscape as an environment to remember, rather than an obstacle blocking the way between a fast travel point and the goal.

The best moments of this navigation were creating pins on landmarks – a strange looking rock out cropping. Oddly shaped trees. A meadow I haven’t seen. The worst – pinning shrines. Adding a chore to my list, a destination which, once I arrive, would often be a passable puzzle box or easy fight.

BotW could have taken a page from Shadow of the Colossus – create a vague map, one without precise roads or area names shown all at once. Never let it fill in with detail, but let the player fill it with their own markings. Forget reaching the top of a tower and revealing 200 place names. I want to see the name only when I walk into the space, and I want to reach these spaces through the use of the tower.

Smaller size for better exploration

BotW’s tutorial plateau is the best part of the game in terms of learning about a landscape through surveying and exploring. In the plateau, we gain this ability to survey the land and decide where to go, to see a forest, a small mountain, and go and check it out – yet, because we are confined to the plateau, there is not as much distraction of the infinite other places to see.

The plateau is how all of the areas in BotW should have been designed. A contained, small geography, which is easy enough to keep in one’s mind while exploring, small enough to become as familiar as one’s morning commute.

Still an open world, but where you rarely need to fast travel.

As in other open world games, fast travel in BotW parallels the creation of public transit hub – neighborhoods centered around train stations, leading us to forget about what lies along the paths in between. Convenient in real life, but flattening with respect to a game’s landscape. BotW’s world feels more like a series of tiny islands we barely think about, warping from one to the next. It’s fun to uncover new places, but rarely did I establish a relationship with one environment, because of how I was constantly in transit.

To be sure, exploration between shrines in BotW is engaging, but it becomes watered down when the game hangs quest, shrine, and Korok seed collection over our heads. It’s hard to focus on that joy BotW does so well, when we’re also looking out for shrines, a certain item, or odd markings that lead to Korok seeds.

I like to imagine a BotW which keeps its towers but removes their Google-Maps-ifying of the landscapes I travelled to reach it. I wonder about how a game might be influenced by Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, to use its ideas of dense, layered levels with exteriors and interiors – and transfer that thinking to creating an enhanced BotW tutorial plateau.

jseoifjseioj.PNG

It is no surprise that the second strongest area of BotW is Eventide Island, a tiny, but multifaceted island where you must complete challenging tasks, stripped of most of your items and weapons, only using what you can find. BotW shines when you must actually Think about the items and things you encounter in the landscape, as the game progresses more and more situations become setpieces to steamroll through.

Interiority 

As Tevis Thompson mentioned , there is no underworld in BotW. A few moments do achieve a sense of this – Tevis’ examples: the final castle mimicking traditional 3D action games, Divine Beasts where the traditional ceilings become activated parts of the dungeon space, the introduction. And a few more I like: a cave hidden in a deep hole, where you must go through a small river. A giant skeleton inside of a hidden cave in a remote mountain.  A temple filled with Guardians at the end of a quiet canyon. A shrine at the end of a hidden, underground, snaking and icy river. The hidden passages of the tedious labyrinth areas. The approach towards the clan hideout.

Shrines though technically interiors – do not count, with their uniform aesthetics leaving me with a sense of confusion of place in the same way visiting a Starbucks in Chicago and then in Tokyo does. Their spaces are totally disconnected from the entrances in a nonphysical way.

BotW has made a great argument for open world designs, but as one might expect, BotW falls to the issues of scale that plague many other open world games. At least one solution lies in scaling down these worlds.

I look forward to what game designers come up with in response to BotW.

Next time – a few words about the musical spaces of BotW’s shrines, as well as thoughts on the design of how players find shrines in BotW.