On Survival Modes (Day 27)

Survival Modes are a great metaphor for life – you’re given endless challenges to overcome, but doing so grants rewards (that are ultimately meaningless and then you die). Alright, it’s not a great metaphor, I guess, but you get my point.

For clarity, I’m talking about traditional “survival modes” where you fight an endless wave of enemies, rather than the modern “survival modes” where you have to drink your own pee in Minecraft or whatever.

Survival Modes tend to exist in action-heavy games, especially in fighting games. This makes a lot of sense, especially as a kind of training tool; there’s no better way to improve your “not getting stabbed” skills than fighting infinite enemies in a row while trying to not get stabbed.

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I’m not necessarily a huge fan, if only because I find these modes tend to be too stressful. Knowing I’m eventually doomed to die regardless of my actions is a bit of a crappy feeling (like in the real world!), so I like to avoid it in games where I can.

Having said that, it’s a great way to learn, especially in games with complex fighting systems. If you can only improve via practice, what better practice than as many fights as you can possibly handle?

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My favourite survival mode by far comes in the form of Devil May Cry 3’s “Bloody Palace”. It throws players into arena after arena, and once every enemy is defeated, 3 separate portals to the next floor will appear. There are a total of 9999 floors, and players can take any of these 3 portals at any time – one takes you up 1 floor, the other 10 floors and the final one 100 floors.

This feels like a real “best of both worlds” approach. Want a survival mode you can beat? Take it 100 floors at a time and try to reach the ending (it’s an insane challenge even with the 100 floor boost). Otherwise, take it 10 or even 1 floor at a time to get as much combat as you could want.

How about you? Do you have a preferred survival mode? Do you feel the same way I do (or are you passionately opposed)? Let me know in the comments!

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On Unlockable Difficulty Levels (Day 26)

Most games have various levels of difficulty, usually ranging from “Easy” to “Hard”. Some games go a step further and have one or more above hard, usually something like “Nightmare” or, for the less imaginative developers, “Very Hard”. These modes are typically a bit unbalanced (in favor of the game) and are occasionally ludicrously difficult, introducing mechanics like “No Saving” or “One Hit Kills”.

That’s all good and fine – my problem is when developers lock these difficulty levels behind some arbitrary gate. When I picked up Resident Evil 4 HD on the PS4, I realised I had to go back through it on Normal difficulty to unlock the hard mode (in this case, “Professional” difficult).

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This sucks, and I see no good reason for it. Why make the player jump through arbitrary hoops to unlock a suitable difficulty? I’ve played Resident Evil 4 to completion about nine times now, as well as sinking several hours into the bonus modes – normal mode is boring.

Even in games I haven’t played before, the standard difficulty is often catered to a casual crowd, because of course it is – the standard mode is built for the standard audience. As someone who plays an ungodly amount of games, I’m perfectly happy to dive into a higher difficulty off the bat, but that’s rarely an option.

It’s just something I don’t fully understand. Why make players jump through arbitrary hoops just to unlock a difficulty that suits their skill level? Should a setting that properly balances the game be a hidden unlockable? What if you wanted to enable subtitles – should that option be a rare drop from a boss?

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To me, locked difficulties feel like an antiquated holdover from when almost nobody was good at games, by virtue of the fact that they weren’t nearly as common. I guarantee that most people were terrible at Devil May Cry when it released, because it was a new kind of game. On the other hand, a whole bunch of people could have jumped comfortably into DmC: Devil May Cry, because the genre was old hat by the time it released.

I understand that some developers may have reservations about allowing players to dive right into the hardest mode without experiencing the game first, but it’s their decision; some people prefer to do that. If the option exists to lower the difficulty level later, all the better.

How do you feel about locked difficulty levels? Do you have an argument as to why they should exist at all? Let me know in the comments!

On Iron Sights (Day 25)

“Iron Sights” is the term used to describe the process of looking down the barrel of a gun in order to aim more effectively. This is opposed to “firing from the hip”, which is shooting while just using the crosshairs (or an estimate of the centre of your screen) to aim.

Iron Sights became extremely popular, I think, around the time of the success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I haven’t done a scrap of research on that, to be clear, it’s a total guess.

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In some ways, iron sights are more immersive and ‘realistic’ than aiming with crosshairs, if only because they’re diegetic.  They also present an interesting tactical decision to be made – take the time to lift your gun for precision aiming, or take the loss of accuracy to start firing immediately from the hip?

I assume that was always the idea behind iron sights, but in practice many games rely on it anyway, despite offering the option of hip fire.

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Often, firing the hip is entirely worthless, but firing down the sights is pinpoint accurate. There’s no real decision to be made in many of these cases, because aiming is always best, even in split second moments.

How do you feel about iron sights? Do you prefer the crosshair-laden days of yore? Let me know in the comments!

On Stealth Kills (Day 24)

This one’s super broad, and as usual I’m only going to lightly touch on the idea. Here, the term “stealth kills” refers to the ability to instantly kill an enemy that’s unaware of the playable character’s presence.

Like anything, the effectiveness of the system depends on the systems surrounding it, so I’m just going to be talking about it in a very general sense.

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I’m of two minds about the system. On one hand, it encourages even violent players to stay hidden as much as possible, only attacking guards by virtue of stealth. On the other, a totally silent kill discourages sneaking by multiple enemies, especially when it’s possibly to silently clear entire rooms.

Basically, I think the ability to kill in stealth games often undermines the stealth itself. In the ungodly amount of time I’ve spent sneaking around in games – stealth being one of my favourite mechanics – I find it extremely easy to default to mass murder if I can do so without raising an alarm.

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It’s often the best method of playing the game in a genre that encourages multiple play styles. Pure stealth is much harder than silently killing guards along the way (since they’re no longer a threat) and killing guards quietly is almost always easier than going in loud.

So I think stealth kills aren’t necessarily a great addition to stealth games, despite the popularity of the idea. Some games – like the tragically underrated ‘Splinter Cell: Blacklist’ – encourage playing with different styles in different attempts, and they’re a fine addition in those cases.

How about you? Do you love or hate them, or feel a sad kind of indifference? Let me know in the comments!

On Double Jumping (Day 23)

Here, “double jumping” refers to the act of jumping once, then jumping again (off nothing) while still airborne. It’s amazing.

To me, it exemplifies the idea of splitting gameplay and narrative into two separate wholes. Only very rarely is the ability to double jump worked into the games narrative in any form, but most of us just accept that we can do it and move on.

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Devil May Cry justifies its simple jump by showing the character generate a platform to jump off. 

A lot of time is spent on making absurd game mechanics believable, if not realistic. However, I think that the popularity of double jumping is a kind of permenantly reminder that maybe it’s not always necessary.

How do you feel about double jumping? Do you love it, or just like it a whole lot? Or are you some kind of fun-hating monster who finds it too ridiculous to enjoy? Let me know in the comments!

PS. These posts will often be short throughout the week as I’m now working full time with a fairly insane commute each way, so I usually write these in transit. On the weekends I may have time to make them a bit longer, but expect them to be on the short side in general. Thanks for reading!

 

On Wall Running (Day 22)

“Wall Running” – as the brightest among you may have observed – is the process of running along a wall. In games, this is often done horizontally, often in direct spite of the idea of arbitrary rules like “physics” and “gravity”.

Wall Running is a classic part of games, and like the double-jump or a sense of purpose is something that can only typically exist in the world of gaming.

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It’s basically always the same thing, at least to my knowledge. In the game, run horizontally toward a flat wall and jump at it, then your character will run along it (sometimes you may have to hold the jump button). In games, it’s typically a part of a more complex “parkour” system, so the simple mechanic and controls make perfect sense.

The best of these games layer this with the ability to jump off the wall and “reset” your wall running capacity. For example, some games will gave you 10 steps along a wall before you run out of momentum and fall – in many games (like Overwatch) – the ability to run is reset when you leap off a wall and hit another one, even if you hit it instantly and at a bad angle.

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It’s a simple addition that makes players consider their environment in completely different ways. Suddenly, horizontal walls become new avenues of exploration, rather than what is essentially “wasted” space.

Other games like the Prince of Persia series will mix it up in a few ways, namely by adding traps. Timing wall running jumps is basically like timing in any other jump in gaming, but it complex parkour sequences it can be a lot of fun.

Many games also mark their walls with something to help identify which walls can be used, like in the image above. This is an easy and useful diegetic clue, though for my money it rarely makes any sense (what exactly caused those marks, and why are they always identical?). Not that that really matters, at least to many players. Do you enjoy wall running? Have any favourite examples of where or why? Let me know in the comments!

On Being Unable to Pause (Day 21)

Pausing is such a commonplace feature that only its absence warrants mention. It’s a necessary part of games; only a select few of us can play games without interruption and in those cases, the ability to pause can be a life saver.

Some games opt to neglect this feature, usually because the game can’t be saved for whatever reason – most commonly because the game is multiplayer, or features multiplayer components. It’s impossible to save a game that other people are playing, unless it’s some kind of unique abstraction of the idea (like passive mode in Grand Theft Auto V).

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Dark Souls is a mostly single-player game that disallows saving. In this case, it’s because the game features a unique form of online play where other players can invade your game to try and kill your character. This can happen practically anywhere, and being able to save would be problematic – you’d either have to disable player saving when an invasion was imminent, or disallow players from invading paused games and both systems have a similar level of problems to deal with.

Similarly, no MMO can be saved – World of Warcraft, for example, has millions of players and hundreds of thousands of them are online at any given time. Pausing the entire game is out of the question, though a system where you “pause” your character could be extremely helpful.

I understand and accept all of that, but it’s not exactly ideal. Why, for example, can you not pause Dark Souls while playing offline? Pausing doesn’t give you any kind of advantage, unless perhaps you have a congenital heart defect and need to take a breather when playing games. This problem – to me, at least – is excusable in the Souls series because the game very much encourages players to be online, where the absence of pausing makes perfect sense.

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When I reviewed Salt & Sanctuary – a game I mostly enjoyed – I criticised it for copying a lot of what made Dark Souls great without developing any kind of understanding as to what made those things work.

Salt & Sanctuary is extremely derivative,  and the fact that you can’t pause the game at any point is baffling. It seems to have been excluded because Souls did it, rather than for any reason I can discern. To be clear – there’s absolutely no form of online play in the game. No invasions or cooperations, and also no pausing.

Similarly, a game I love very much (despite not yet being released) is Nioh. I’ve played an ungodly amount of the alpha, beta and now the last chance trial, and it astounds me that you also can’t pause in that game. Again, no connectivity – it’s a “Souls-like” game, but lacks a convincing reason as to why it can’t be paused.

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This stuff was fine when I was 14 and lived at home. Now that I have a partner, a full-time job and other normal obligations, it’s kind of a joke. It’s not as if I’m an exceptionally busy person and am taking calls every few minutes, but just a normal level of stuff is way more than enough to warrant the ability to pause a game. I imagine that if you have children, games like this are largely unplayable.

I mentioned this about a year ago on Reddit – because a year ago I hadn’t yet learned to not argue on Reddit – and the response was “then this isn’t the kind of game for you”. Yes, I agree. That’s the problem! It would be a game for me (and many, many more) with the simple ability to pause. Games aren’t and never should be prioritised over the real world, and unless the core design of the game technically forbids it (like with online connectivity), then I’m yet to see a compelling reason as to why it’s excluded from so many titles.

One I’ve heard is that “fights [in the game] get your heart rate up and being able to pause lets you calm down”. Firstly, that doesn’t at all sound like a bad thing to me. Secondly, I sort of get it – I’ve had my heart pump faster than I’d like to admit when I’m on the knife’s edge in a game, but if it’s at a point where it’s physically affecting your ability to play, you need to see a doctor immediately.

Have I missed something extremely important? Is this just an incoherent rant? How do you feel about games that don’t let you pause? Let me know in the comments!