Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It's The Little Things! - John Sato on the Good (and Bad) in Gaming

My game blogging superior and comrade Somewhat Mystia made this wonderful post (which I totally stole the title from) about the little things that can serve to make a gaming experience better. At the end of it was this:

"Anyway, I’m going to save my final ‘little thing’ (customizeability of graphics, the UI, etc) for some other time. Mostly because I feel like John [talking about me] could do it better than me (or at least be able to dedicate more than a little blurb about it). . ."

     Well, how can I not respond to that? While I personally question the "do it better than me" part, the very least I could do is make a post on it and see how it goes. Thus, I've decided to discuss game customization, user interface, and intros/cutscenes in my own post (this one). Also, I'm gonna look at examples of how these things can be both good and bad, because I'm too lazy to make separate posts because often these things can be double-edged swords.



Game Options (Customization)


     Game Options are essentially what you see when you go to "options" in the menu. They can be anything from gameplay settings to controls to audio options. Rather than waste your time talking about concepts, let me just give you some examples.

     Good: A great example of a game with good options is Deus Ex. Let's take a look.



     It's not perfect, but it's pretty darn good. You can adjust music, sound effect, and voice volumes separately, change the mouse sensitivity (games that don't do this are scum) and turn toggle crouch and always run on/off (games that don't do this are worse than scum), you can change every key mapping, and you even change the log timeout value. Clearly, a lot of thought was put into letting gamers play this game how they wanted to. Probably the most pointless but at the same time coolest thing is being able to change your color theme from a large number of presets.

The sad thing is that this is almost as good as Blogger's color picker...
     The only irksome thing about Deus Ex's customization options is that there isn't much provision for high resolutions. On the highest one, I have to lean in to see what's on my quick equip bar. Since it doesn't look that much nicer, though, I just play on the standard resolution and it's all fine. All in all, this is an excellent set of options. The important thing here, though, is how it adds to the gaming experience. While it would be an overstatement to say that Deus Ex is all about the immersion, it does play a pretty huge part in the game. The options allow you to customize the way the game plays and feels. Because of the plethora of options, it really feels like your Deus Ex. I'll just stop here, since I assume the ways in which this enhances an immersion heavy game are obvious.

     Bad: A great example of a game with poor player options, conversely, is Anachronox.


*shudders*
     Where to begin...well, right off the bat, you can add users, but there's no way to delete them from in-game (the same is true of saves). Also, the "Interactive Mode" and "Explore Mode" are only sensitivity and camera adjustments, rather than settings for, say, when to have them turn on. Under video options, your resolution settings amount to "Low Res" and "High Res," and gamma and windowed mode options are your only other real choices. You can't turn always run on/off, and there are no changeable settings at all for battles. This...is not good. And it really shows, too. Anachronox is a buggy and honestly not-too-good game, but the lack of good customization only makes it worse. It's already frustrating in enough other ways that not being able to change even the way it runs can be the straw that breaks its back. However, even for all it's problems, Anachronox is still light years ahead of another game, Realms of the Haunting.

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-
     This is so infuriating to see, especially if you're having problems running it on your computer. Literally the only option in "Input Settings" is "Mouse Speed," and the standard controls are so ****ing terrible that I don't even want to play the game after a fresh install (I got it off GOG, which means I have DosBox and can edit the controls in there, but that takes more time and effort than I'm usually willing to put into it). Furthermore, on my current computer, the game won't run in full screen. This means that if I can't solve the problem using Windows settings, than I'm screwed, because there are no graphics settings I can edit using the game. To be blunt, this sucks hard. And that's a real shame, because Realms of the Haunting is actually a pretty awesome game (even if it does suffer from "stupid, inane adventure game puzzle" syndrome at times). It may very well be the first example of the horror, first person shooter, and adventure game genres blending together, and may be the only one to blend them well. I had this working on my old desktop (which now sits defunct in my closet...*sniff*) with some actually decent controls, and the game was a blast. It was epic, fun, atmospheric, and had some of the best FMV cutscenes I've ever seen. Which, again, is why the lack of in-game options sucks. It took me upwards of an hour to get the game working on my desktop (and to read the manual so I could play the game), and I had my brother's help that time (he actually knows how to mess with the controls in DosBox). When I see the shortcut on my laptop's desktop, though, I think, "Hey, that was a fun game. Why don't I-oh right, it'll take forever to set up, and it may not even run on my computer in anything but windowed mode. Eh...nevermind."

User Interface:


     All right, one down! (Hey, I heard that groan.) Next up is the user interface. I assume you already know what a user interface is, so I'll just get right into it.

     Good: Let's use Battle for Wesnoth, an awesome free-download game, as an example.



     This game has such an awesome interface. The buttons are perfectly spaced and sized, everything on the menu has easy explanations, the tips in the main menu can be changed manually, and heck, you can even access the map editor in-game as opposed to having to open from the start menu. It's just as nice in the actual game, too. Almost everything has hotkeys, but you can also access all your options by right-clicking or, alternatively, choosing them from a drop-down menu on top. Another great thing about it is how much you can interact with. You can label individual hexes on the map, and you can access all the game rules and the description and statistics of every known unit from in-game. Despite being quite complex, learning and remembering the rules of the game is a cakewalk because of how spectacular the interface is.

Arrows point to areas of interest.

     Bad: On the opposite side of things is Syndicate, a perfect example of how not to make a user interface.


...I don't get it.
     This game is so confusing to play. The mini map is...okay, but that's more than I can say for the rest of the game. Starting with the worst offender, if one of you're agents moves into a building, you have to move and fight inside it blind. Yup, you have to guess where the enemy is inside a building, and where your agent is, and where the entrances and exits are, because you can see nothing inside a building. To move agents, you must first select them either by clicking on their icon or by pressing 1-4, then click on a spot on map. There's a noticeable delay between when you select an agent and when they're actually selected, though which makes combat a pain. Which brings us to the next problem; this game is pretty much made around the idea of controlling multiple (up to four) agents, but you sure wouldn't know it from playing it. Trying to move your agents so they don't get hit, don't hit each other, and actually shoot is a nightmare of minutes-after-watching-nature-documentary-about-bugs proportions, especially with four agents. There are no names for anything and nothing to help you figure how to do something (HOW DO I GET IN THE CAR?! HOW?!). Adjusting the drug levels - which is a huge part of the game's strategy, since they change your agent's abilities - makes no sense even after reading about how to do it twice and never really seems to actually be happening, and - well, you get the idea. I mean, even the main menu is clunky and difficult to navigate. Now, you be thinking that this is a problem with the game controls, and yes, the controls are awful. But the way the game doesn't help you understand any of what is going on and, more importantly, the way the game makes it needlessly difficult for you to play (i.e. the buildings issue)? That's user interface, and makes the bad controls even worse.

Intros/Cutscenes:

     This was actually the topic that started this whole thing. At their best, intros and cutscenes make games a little cooler, a little clearer, and/or a little more coherent. At their worst, they inspire rage, frustration, and a hatred of mankind in general.

     Good: A game with almost unparalleled cutscenes is Warcraft 3.


OH, ****!
     Obviously, the first thing that makes the cinematics in this game good is that they're so freaking amazing. They're almost a decade old and they look like they're new, dang it! But they're also good because they're just used so darn well. For instance, Archimonde destroying that city? That was awesome, but not just because it looked amazing. Up until then, you had only seen Archimonde talking and giving orders. But then this cutscene happened and you fully realized just how powerful he was. It was a great way to introduce his character and the impact he had. Warcraft 3 also used its in-game cutscenes exceedingly well, not using them in such excess that they start interrupting the gameplay but using them enough that you always know exactly what's going on and why. One of the best things about Warcraft 3's visuals, though, is that they're unobtrusive. The opening intro only plays before the menu the first time you run the game, and there are no logos to sit through or skip. You open the game, and you go right to the main menu. Every cinematic and cutscene is skippable, and you can go back and view them again from the mission menu. This means that the cutscenes never get tiresome, which makes them that much more memorable and interesting.

     Bad: Any game that has unskippable intros is automatically the worst. I saw the issue summed up perfectly in a forum once. It was something like "Logos tell you who made the game, and if the intros are unpleasant, it reminds you who made the unpleasant experience." There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to play a game, but being unable to for another few minutes because of intros. Even unskippable logos are horrid (looking at you Nvidia). It's okay the first time, but it slowly starts to wear on you until even the thought of playing the game gets mentally repressed because it would mean having to sit through all that unnecessary garbage again.


     But I'm also talking about cutscenes, so I'm gonna bring up a little title called Resident Evil 5. I recently had the chance to play this with my brother, and man those cutscenes are awful. They're skippable, so it could be worse, but the problem is that they're so darn common. There was literally one at the start and end of every area for the sections we were playing, and they felt like they were about 3 minutes long each. The crown jewel was when the game actually stopped to have a cinematic that was just the camera going down a hallway. It accomplished nothing that the gameplay couldn't do just as well. That kind of thing really breaks a game's flow, and while there were other, more major problems with that game, being constantly interrupted for no good reason dragged it down even more.

     So, there you have it. That's my example-ridden take on how customization, user interface, and intros can have such an impact of the game as a whole. Thanks for reading, and once again be sure to check out Somewhat Mystia's post on it (and the entire Grass Feels Like Pants blog, really) too!

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