Taking a break from Terminator development to bring you this! A rant on what Gears does amazingly well and what it doesn’t. This post addresses plot spoilers in both Gears of War 2 and Gears of War 3.
I didn’t entirely want to write a post about this but 140 character bursts are just not sufficient to really make my point (as I think is the case with most important points).
I think the Gears series is amazing at a lot of things. The cover, roll and run shooting is well done, and continues to be polished game after game.
It’s got a plethora of enemy types, but they have each been introduced carefully into the series, and each has its own distinctive behavior, so that we are able to strategize effectively when a teammate yells “BOOMER!”
The weapon selection is well done too — there are clear roles for each one, and we have quickly learned which weapons work the best against each enemy type (see above).
It also has great setpieces (by way of both environment and hulking bosses). They’re done in a way that makes you go “Oh, shit” and despite the hit/miss nature of the boss battles themselves, I love those moments.
And perhaps the most well-executed thing in the Gears series is the co-op campaign option. Here is a story about sticking together through thick and thin, and helping each other out. The game does an amazing job emphasizing companionship and brotherhood through both plot and mechanic.
What I don’t think Gears does well is emotional storytelling.
I don’t think it *has* to. Gears series is a great game as-is and I don’t believe that one of its key goals is to make you feel emotional over this plot. The characters are bigger than life, their catchphrases and actions are over the top and cheesy, and the game excels at playing up this “dude-bro”ness.
The problem is that it *tries*. It tries with the slow, moody trailer music that evokes feelings of fear and loss (Mad World, GoW 2; Into Dust, GoW 3). It tries with the moments in Gears 2 when Dom must kill his own wife, and with Tai’s suicide. It tries with Gears 3 when Dom sacrifices himself in order to save the rest of the team.
These are BIG things to pull with your players. Especially in the case of the Gears 3… this is a character that you have played alongside for the majority of the entire series, who has been a character foil for tough-guy Marcus and (as we keep being reminded) his brother to the end. Players in pairs have self-identified as Marcus and Dom, and I have a feeling that this sense of macho brotherhood has seeped into their personal interactions beyond the game (in a good way!).
So, Dom dies. You get a cutscene in which Marcus falls down and Anya rushes to him and comforts him for a few seconds.
And we’re off again! Whoever was in charge of controlling Dom is unceremoniously assigned a new character and things proceed without change.
What’s wrong here?
The series has spent three games leading you up to this point, has made a BIG DEAL out of this moment, and… that’s it. There are no consequences for this, no way of showing us that Marcus has felt anything at all (beyond a few sniffles) with the loss of his partner.
What could’ve been done? Of all games, I feel like AAA ones should be able to experiment a bit with how they handle these types of situations. They have the biggest captive audience and the experimental capital to spare.
What if in the chapter that followed Dom’s death, Marcus moved slower? Or reloaded crappy? Or wasn’t able to help downed teammates? Instead of just picking up and moving on (and yes, I understand that in real-life, you can’t always grieve your losses immediately… but this is a game. And we didn’t get a chance to grieve at all, save through cutscenes), we could’ve played through something different, something paced so that we felt the implications of Dom’s death instead of just shrugging it off.
Or even go abstract with the grieving. Give us a door that won’t open, no matter how many times we X-Button to punch through it. Let us keep punching and kicking it, over and over and over again. Over and over and over again. Make us feel that frustration, our inability to change certain things no matter how hard we try.
Plot twists alone don’t make a game deep. ‘Taking a risk’ by killing off a major character only works if you follow through. If you’re going to go for it, go for it all the way. Stories shouldn’t TELL you to feel sad. They should show you the impact of what happened, show you that things have changed and been affected by events that have passed. In the case of games, they should let the player FEEL the sadness through interactions themselves.
In the end, yes Gears 3 is a great game as-is. But it attempts to take credit for emotional storytelling that I don’t believe it deserves. I think in the years that pass people will look at Gears and claims it tells a compelling emotional story. It easily could’ve, but it doesn’t. Maybe Gears 4 will do better.
There is a feeling of imminent danger that I’m trying to work on with this Terminator concept at the moment.
This fiction is all about how we know that Skynet will go live if we don’t do something to prevent it, and the problem is, Skynet also knows that there’s this kid named John Connor who is causing some issues. So they’re working backwards to prevent him from existing.
At first I thought I wanted to have Skynet countdown (as Sarah Connor also counts down the years she has left) to its own imminent launch. So for every turn you took, Skynet would be one unit closer to going live. But that seemed… a little bit too tacked on, especially since we already have Sarah’s death counter.
It seems like the best way, actually, is to tie the previous idea of compounding cycles (if you reach the ‘end’ of the game and have built up a Resistance but not fully destroyed Skynet yet) with the countdown. So, if you restart the game and bring X number of resources back in order to be better equipped to take down Skynet *this time*, Skynet needs to be able to up its strength too.
So I need to find some way to increase the chance that Skynet will accelerate its own development with each successive ‘cycle’ in which you fail to take it down. Like AI, it learns from testing and failure. So there needs to be some sort of permanent tracking on how “able” Skynet is.
In my mind, I think what should happen is that the first 2-3 cycles you play, it will be very difficult to pull off a winning game. It’ll be a combination of luck and proper strategy if you can manage to gather up enough resources to do it that quickly.
By the 4-5 cycle, the player should be thinking “Okay, is THIS time I go full hog and throw all of my resources at winning this game instead of spending those resources to build the Resistance so that I can play one more round.” Most players should pull off a game winning cycle here.
Which means that by cycle 6, there should start to be a very real danger that you could actually lose, that you won’t have enough resources to either win OR build a Resistance. Making it to cycle 7-8 means that again, you’re going to need a lot of luck and strategy to NOT lose.
Of course, this all means that each cycle can’t last for very long. It’s maybe 10 minutes to execute a cycle and evaluate on whether you’ve won/lost OR can retry.
I’m pretty happy with this idea so far. It gives the game sort of a nice bell-curve of win/loss, where if you’re really good, you’ll win at cycle 1-3. If you’re average, you’ll win at around 4-6. And if you are facing a really bad bout of luck and or have been hedging your bets too much, you’re going to have a tough time winning at ALL. Few players should ever make it to cycle 10.
As a corollary to all this, I should point out that Heart Shaped Games’ Hero Generations on Facebook has been a pretty direct influence on the cycle system. That game also gives you somewhat of a bell curve; the ‘win’ is in being able to 1) create a high-fame/score hero over the course of a number of turns, and 2) also survive and get to a mate so that you can pass genes onto a new generation (and play again).
I think the curve there is extremely well done — in the first few generations, (given that you stay on the same map), you start learning where forests and resources are, so that by the time you are at generation 4 or 5, you can fairly easily make your way around the map and complete quests. However, by generations 6 or 7, things like Volcanoes start popping up and destroying resources and mucking up your plans.
Lots of great things about that game (which are being recognized by IndieCade as well!), but this particular system has obviously made a big impact on several that I’m using in Terminator, so — credit where it’s due. :)
Infodump of systems that are happening at the moment:
Sarah Connor’s Life - Number of turns you have left
Sarah Connor only has a certain number of years to live. This means you only have a certain number of turns to play through each session of the game before you MUST evaluate on whether you have met conditions for win, loss, or repeat (see previous post on Time Travel)..
Number of turns you have: 20, plus the sum of two D6 rolls. HOWEVER, over the course of the game, certain missions may grant you additional rolls to add onto the number of turns you have.
Skynet Doomsday Clock
I’d originally thought that I wanted this clock to determine the number of turns before the end of the game, but I’m leaning strongly towards making Sarah the center of the game. We already know she is working towards preventing Skynet. I think the conditions that are set up at the ‘end’ of the game to evaluate win/loss should be enough to create turn-based tension. Maybe.
Draw - Player Makes a Decision
Each turn, the player draws from a pile of “mission” cards. These range from Discover Manufacturing Plant types (destroy the plant to prevent Skynet from utilizing it for parts, or research it to obtain knowledge for the Resistance), to Confront Key AI Inventors (kill them, or convince them to become allies for you), to larger key events like Raising John Connor.
Most of these missions have different outcomes depending on what 1) the player chooses and 2) what the player is able to do given their resources. Let’s say the player finds a manufacturing plant that we later know to be the origin of the Terminators’ machine guns. We could destroy the plant and force future Terminators to adapt to use a different (perhaps inferior, but perhaps superior) weapon, or we could co-opt the plant for ourselves in the present time and have a weapons depot.
Spin - Something Happens
Spin happens after the actions on the mission card are completed. The spinner takes care of repetitive events that can be either good or bad. Sample outcomes:
- Most frequent: Collect Resources. Evaluate the manufacturing plants and relationships we currently have (ie not destroyed) and collect on them. Some resources are additional “rolls” to add a number of turns to the game.
- Less frequent: Terminator attack. The current time period’s Terminator model will attack. There are three types of potential outcomes here: If the player has enough weapon strength, they can attack and destroy the robot. If they have an EMP, they can try to hack the robot to become a future ally. If they cannot fight against the Terminator, the number of turns left will be reduced.
- Least frequent: Time travel. When this happens, the current weapon resources must be discarded, the Terminator model is updated based on available parts, and any extra years/turns gained are added on. I’m also considering whether some sort of boss battle (insofar as a larger evaluation/change on the state of the game) makes sense here.
Previous post has more details on why the time travel system works the way it does and what it’s intended to accomplish. :)
So in a nutshell, the game flow for each turn is simply Draw, Spin and Repeat (keeping track of the turns as you go). When you run out of turns, the state of Skynet is evaluated (whether enough parts have been taken away from the system in order to sufficiently prevent it from uprising). The three outcomes are also outlined the previous post (win/loss/compound+restart).
There’s definitely a need for some sort of character sheet, or some way to track what sort of resources we have at the moment. Once I have some content created (mission cards, etc) I’ll have to figure out what makes the most sense.
The biggest system I wanted to play with in this Terminator project was time travel.
Time travel is the truth in Terminator universe that allows any of the events to occur. Terminators wouldn’t go back in time to prevent John Connor’s existence without it. Kyle Reese doesn’t go back to bang Sarah without it. Arnold doesn’t go back to protect JC without it.
The impact that time travel makes on the story is that because it simply exists, it seems to imply that things can be changed (Judgement Day can be prevented, somehow?) if it’s properly used. No fate but what we make.
So time itself as well as changes over time have to be meaningful in this game. The way I’ve been working it out is like this:
One of the game inspirations for Terminator comes from Star Fox 64 — another one of my cultural obsessions. In particular, I dug the branching mission structure of that game, and especially that the way to navigate all those story options wasn’t through dialogue or “Press X to Choose This”, but actual play.
I also really loved that I could play through a whole session of the game in a day or so, and then play it again differently the next day. I wish that more games that “let you choose” what kind of narrative pans out were shorter, so that you could go back and try various combinations without having to spend another 30 hours on it.
So, Time Travel instances basically represent the four or five times you will be making ‘large’ impacting decisions in the game, the pivotal points that you could replay drastically different.
The last thing that adds to the time travel bit. You know how Kyle Reese was sent back in time to meet Sarah Connor and father John? Someone had to send him.
Right now, there are three outcomes at the “end” of the game.
Outcome #3 is neither win nor loss. What it is, is the opportunity to go back to the beginning of the game armed with the resources you ended the game owning, and try to reach the #2 outcome again. You get to send the knowledge of the attacks back (send Kyle back to reinitiate the cycle) and try to stop it again. And possibly again and again.
I don’t know how well this compounding is going to work. Or frankly if it’s going to be much fun to play through a second time, even with cards reshuffled and new opportunities to make decisions. But I think I’d like to test this model out to see if the idea of alternate timelines/universes implemented in a board game could make it happen. :)
Alternate universe imagining poses some problems.
As I write this, it’s 7PM on the West Coast on Friday Sept 23, and the new season of Fringe is premiering in two hours. Last season’s cliffhanger eliminated a character from the ‘prime’ universe of the TV show. And while it looks like they are going to weave that character back into the story, it’s interesting to think what changes because of that decision. Or rather, what *doesn’t* change when you remove certain elements? What are the key pieces of that universe that make it so?
It’s a fiction issues that I’m tackling with Terminator at the moment. I told myself I had to commit to a list of ‘rules’ in this universe. It’s finding out how many characteristics of what’s “prime” to the series can you remove before it ceases to be a Terminator story and is just about this waitress chick who gets knocked up and then kills some people. What lies at the core of Terminator that cannot be changed?
Here’s my take on the incontrovertible truths in the Terminator universe:
I think those four are the most important. Then I started thinking about secondary truths that are… well as they turn out, they’re not so much truths as they are trends in the series that tend to occur repeatedly and in different permutations.
So in terms of fiction, that’s what I’m working within. The alternative universes form around these set ‘rules’, and hopefully these are enough to keep the player experience within the realm of possibility in the Terminator world but with enough surprise and variation to make it interesting and new with subsequent plays. :)
So, I’ve been wanting to make a game based around the Terminator franchise since April 2009. The last episode of Sarah Connor Chronicles had just aired and introduced the notion that there might be alternative universes in the story, namely that there could have been a human resistance without John Connor as its leader.
Unfortunately for fans of the franchise, the series was cancelled and that idea was never explored. Fortunately(!) the lack of that resolution/exploration manifested itself in a really weird way. I started thinking about branching timelines that would result in multiple endings to the Skynet saga. Of course John Connor couldn’t have been humankind’s only savior after Judgement Day, right?
I’m a Terminator Nerd.
I’m going to take a break here and admit that yes, I am a huge nerd about Terminator. Of all things that I am desperately nerdy about, Terminator universe is probably the biggest one. There’s something fascinating to me about the human stories behind the rise of machines, and it’s the same reason I originally loved the idea of the Caprica tv show as a precursor to Battlestar Galactica proper. And I also think that Sarah Connor is a fascinating character — with all the biblical ties to Mary, as well as her distinctly feminine experience as an unwilling hero, AND as a mother, etc. It’s just a lot of interesting stuff to play with.
A Board Game
For the first two years, this idea existed as a video game in my mind. I wanted it to look like Fallout 3, where Sarah Connor explores a vast open world in search of the pieces of the Skynet puzzle, in order to destroy factories and kill key scientists and prevent her son from having to lead a revolution at all. And I wanted Terminator models that would adapt to the havoc she wreaked upon their production factories and utilize alternative parts/techniques, and they’d be visually distinct and their threats could be visually identified.
And I wanted there to be a dog, a really important companion to Sarah in many ways. More on this later.
About a month ago, I decided to revisit the idea. I was bored and wanted something new to think about and challenge myself with. Terminator came up, but somewhere along the way, I realized this was something I wanted to actually make and finish. And since there’s very little chance I’ll acquire the Terminator license in my lifetime and execute on the original idea, and also because I can’t program for shit, I decided to explore this idea as a board game instead.
I thought ‘board game’ would just be the easy way to assemble and design this project on my own. But even as I start rewriting the design docs and rethinking the systems, I’ve found a few great elements that could only exist in an analog game (a post for later). So that’s kind of exciting :)
Blogging the Process
Because it’s a nice breath of fresh air to have no NDAs, low risk of this idea being ‘stolen,’ and the freedom to share designs-in-progress (like Chelsea’s awesome work on Project Aurora), I’m going to try to write down as much of this as possible. It’ll also help hold me accountable to working on it (although yes, I do have that Broken Social Scene series to… salvage? Despite months of inactivity and tons of new developments in the space since my last entry there).
Today, I am at place where I have tons of note cards and sketches that need to be organized and tested and ripped up if they don’t work. What the game is so far, is, at best, a Choose Your Own Adventure fan-fiction starring Sarah Connor. I need to commit to some rules so that I can at least start testing them and seeing what’s going to work. So here goes!
Ben’s tweet earlier tonight made me go off on a thinking tangent on that oft-raised question whose answer would somehow determine games’ validity as a form of entertainment: Can a game make you cry?
I think the answer is beside the point.
Because it’s stories that make people cry. Who cares what the medium of delivery (movie/book/song/game) is?
Games for their part, can make gamers feel empowered, feel frustration, feel victory, and not just through reading/watching a story about someone overcoming an obstacle. It’s a true feeling, not a shadow of one that’s created when we watch a character in a story experience something.
A movie makes me cry when that chick in the Notebook can’t remember the love of her life while he’s sitting right in front of her. But that’s the story, not the medium. To be completely frank, a game makes me cry when I can’t beat that goddamn fourth level in Child of Eden for the tenth time. That’s crying because *I’m* sad, not because the character in the story is sad and I’m experiencing empathy.
That’s what games are good at. They give us interactivity and as a result, we experience actual emotions when playing them.
Social and mobile gaming has brought a massive new audience to the industry, but there are still larger cultural barriers that need to be chipped away at before games are embraced (not just consumed).
Part of it is marketing against stereotypes, but the other part is also appeal. That is, appeal beyond just making it available on Facebook and every smartphone or adding motion controls and putting it on the Wii. There’s a rift between so-called core and casual gamers that extends beyond just FPS versus FB, console versus iOS, and it has to do with how we as developers and as core gamers view the new guys.
I tend towards a fairly optimistic and inclusive view of gaming on most days; in a nutshell, I think games can and should be played by everyone as forms of entertainment and of genuine “good” enlightening, world-changing, satisfying experiences. But even though you can find Angry Birds everywhere and even the most out of loop consumer knows about Nintendo, I found myself on the defense during my recent vacation.
Specifically, I found myself defending games as a worthwhile accessible pastime. Here are some types of things that I was told during casual conversations about games.
“It’s too hard, I’m not a gamer.” (Or its variant: “You’re so good at video games, I’ll never beat your score.”)
“I don’t want to play Fruit Ninja, I don’t want to get addicted to it.”
“I bet those the guys you meet are the worst since they just play games all the time.”
These were people playing Angry Birds on their iPads and Bejeweled on their phones on dozens of occasions throughout the day, and it struck me as odd that they didn’t view this activity as anything… valuable? There was lack of confidence, self policing, and disdain for ‘those types of people that play games too much’. The few moments of joy I saw were extremely specific to getting a high score or passing a level — not about the experience as a whole.
‘Core’ gamers, the type that former target demos for marketers used to encompass — they embrace games in a way that this new casual crowd just doesn’t yet. This is what you hear when you talk to gamers.
“I can’t wait to play Mass Effect 3.”
“I love when you’re shooting ten million things at once in Geometry Wars and the music changes when you drop a bomb.”
“That last battle in Gears of War was so poorly designed but it felt so fucking good to finally beat it.” (Okay this last one was mine.)
Here there’s anticipation, exhilaration, and rewarding frustration (eustress, as Jane McGonigal would say). There’s a value seen in the experience as a whole, and I think a feel of accomplishment rather than resentment after playing a game for a few hours.
Circling back to before — I think part of it is the gamer stereotype that is just gradually slowly breaking down thanks to Facebook, Wii and iOS/mobile gaming. But there’s another part that I began to suspect, which has more to do with the type and style of casual games that we make.
There’s a wholly separate topic of all the reasons gamers love games (akin to the Aesthetics discussion in the MDA framework) but most importantly, I think ‘core’ games are much more aspirational and empowering than casual ones.
Casual games are largely about chores and repetitive, unchanging tasks. Basically, only the ‘Submission’ type of Aesthetic and only small bits of the other ones. Diner Dash is about being a struggling waitress. You can’t win at Bejeweled. Angry Birds is frustrating 90% of the time. Fruit Ninja is about food prep. Farmville… yeah. Where is the inspiration in this stuff? Where in these types of games could you conceive of having an “I loved that part where…” player narrative? Where’s the personal narrative at all?
In core games we get to change the world. We get powerups that make us jump higher, move faster. We get sweet technology in the form of not only guns but also body modifications and superpowers. We have huge spanning narratives. We get to play god.
Part of this rises from our own stereotype of the non-gamer. Us “real gamers” dismiss them just as they dismiss us. We make ‘easy’ and repetitive games for this new crowd that’s supposed to be changing the industry. We look down on their skills and interest level and make games that are so largely shallow that it’s no wonder they don’t value the medium.
This is something I think we should work on more. Accessible but beautiful games for people who don’t self identify as gamers. Give them something to embrace and experience and be proud of sharing. Let them into our coveted ‘gamer’ circle and ease up on creating simple game mechanics just because we assume these users to be inattentive and dumb. Is the status quo Zynga player the highest we’re willing to aim? I don’t think so.