Saturday, July 27, 2013

How Monaco Fails Its Players

I picked up (against the better judgment of my bank account) several games during the last Steam Sale. Three of those were stealth titles of recent publication - Monaco, Gunpoint, and Mark of the Ninja (the last a gift from my friend Pat). And I bought them despite the fact that I have very real problems with the stealth genre.

Monaco has gotten the most play so far. The Girlfriend and I are moving through it, and the emotions it evokes have been a little roller-coaster-y. When it's working, it's fantastic - the art design is incredible, the character abilities well-balanced, and the challenge often invigorating. Until we hit the wrong mission, anyway. Then the alarms go off, the guards start shooting, and soon we're dead.

Now, Monaco, as far as stealth games go, is quite forgiving. You're given plenty of information about what the guards are thinking and seeing, and they have pleasantly elastic memories - if your character can stay out of sight for long enough, you'll be forgotten, and the level will go back to an un-alerted status. And in co-op, a dead player can be revived by his or her co-conspirator, making survival much easier. And yet...

There is no sensation in gaming more infuriating than loss of progress. One of the reasons we play games is that it gives us a pleasant, if artificial, sensation of achievement. We are doing things, growing stronger, passing through levels. And when those achievements are stripped from us by our own mistakes or failures, the feeling is crushing. Feeling crushed isn't why I play games.

To give a Monaco-specific example: it is a significant task to grab every single piece of loot on a floor of Monaco. It involves stealth, hacking, combat, all of your characters' skills. And if, after achieving that task, you die on another floor of the same level, it's all gone. That progress is deleted as though you'd done nothing for the last half hour of your life.

Worse, you're forced to repeat the areas you've already completed. Novelty is another important aspect of games, and by punishing players by stripping them of progress when they die, you're also stealing novelty from them. I want to experience new challenges, not be forced to re-complete ones I've already done because I died on an unrelated part of the level (this is a problem I had with Hotline Miami, as well). If a challenge kills me, I want to try that challenge again. Not spend twenty minutes doing the things that lead up to the challenge.

Am I just whining and asking to have my hand held? I don't think so. I still want hard, nasty challenges in my games, but I want the challenges to be their own reward. I don't need the stakes of knowing that failure means losing half an hour of progress in order to take the challenge seriously.

For an example of someone doing it right, look to Gunpoint. One of Tom Francis's stated design goals with the game was to never make players feel like their time had been wasted. As such, Gunpoint saves every few seconds, and after a failure, you can simply rewind a few clicks to try again. You still have to solve puzzles and execute tricky maneuvers, but there's no sense that you're being punished by the game. If you're seen, you die pretty much instantly, and then the game immediately reloads an old save; it's exactly what players have been doing when being spotted in stealth games for years, it's just automatic and far less painful.

I love Monaco. But it has made me feel legitimately upset because of how it treats its failure state, and that's not a great way to feel while playing a game. There are better ways.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Driving Me Psycho(nauts): One of the Worst Aspects of One of the Best Games

Been re-playing Psychonauts, on the theory that its hilarious dialogue and gorgeous art would make it a good game for The Girlfriend to watch me play (she enjoys it, I swear). And I was right! The only problem (and it's the thing that always trips me up when re-playing Double Fine's best game) is the tedium of some of the collection aspects of the game.

Now, to be fair, Psychonauts gets half of its collection sidequest stuff right. The game is divided between the 'real' world and the mental world, and in the real world, collection works like this: Collectible items (cards, challenge markers, scavenger hunt items, and brains) are brightly colored and mobile, making them pop against the game's backgrounds. You're given a counter in each area, telling you how many many of each collectible are left. And, most importantly, each collectible has a reasonable amount of worth. Every collectible is worth either 1, 1/2, or 1/9th of one of 101 Psi-Ranks (the game's leveling-up aspect, which is completely based on collection), and the challenges associated with each collectible are proportional to the value. A Psi-card (1/9th of a rank) is easy to grab, while a Psi Challenge Marker (1 whole rank) will involve some serious searching and acrobatics.

In the mental world, however, things are different. Here, the primary collectible is the 'figment' - rogue expressions of the subconscious of the mind you're currently in. Here's the problem with figments: Each level has roughly a hundred. They move. They're 2D in a 3D world. And they're transparent. Admittedly, the transparent neon look of the figments is cool, but it also makes quickly scanning a level for them an utter chore. And their sheer volume means that, even though you're given the number of figments in an area, the act of finding that last rogue semi-invisible, moving, random shape can be a chore of hours.

I'm not against collection sidequests at all. In a platforming game, they make much more sense than combat (never a 3D platformer's strong suit) as a metric of success. Collectibles can encourage exploration and tricky jumping, testing the core mechanics of the game. It's only when the collection becomes an exercise in frustration that I protest.

Compare Psychonauts to Mario 64. Figments are worth a variable amount of a percentage of a Psi-Rank (usually proportional to how well they're hidden), and discovering them all unlocks a hidden ending cutscene. Which is another way of saying 'There's part of the game's story that you don't get to see if you don't get every figment' (barring Youtube, of course). In Mario, the basic collectible unit is the coin. Most levels have a total of between 110 and 140 coins, and the player is rewarded with a star for collecting 100 in a single run. After that 100, the only benefit to collecting coins is health restoration. That makes the 100-coin star challenging, but not maddeningly frustrating. It's a challenge to your collection abilities, but doesn't force unpleasant, completionist behavior on the player.

The irony is, if Psychonauts DIDN'T penalize/reward you with additional story content for collecting every figment, it would make the act of completing the task (which the game never explicitly asks you to do, but which is implicitly demanded by the ____ out of _____ figment count for every mental level) even more hollow. How many games have you played where, upon reaching 100% completion, you get, at best, a text box, and then nothing else? Once you've set a goal (by 'telling' players to get EVERY figment), there must be a reward, or the player feels cheated. (All of this presumes that gameplay like this can't be its own reward, which is easy to say, given how stressful, nerve-wracking, and boring scouring a level for a single missing figment can be. At this point, you're essentially being bribed by the game into playing it in a particular way. Bad design, I think, especially when contrasted to the elegant way Mario 64 handles it). The game has asked you to do something that most players would consider unpleasant, so it has to use the carrot of unlocked content to guide you forward.

How to fix it? Glad you asked! First, there's the Mario solution: only a subset of collectibles are needed. This is probably the most pleasant way to go around this, because you can tune and playtest to find the right percentage to avoid needless player frustration. You could also go the "collectible finder" route - Saints Row 3 does this, and it works fairly well. This can go too far, of course - Far Cry 3 is overly insistent about notifying you of where collectibles are, turning the game from one of free will into one of watching the dot that represents your character as it moves across the mini-map, creeping toward a collectible icon. It's better than leaving players to waste hours in the unpleasant act of searching, but playing as a dot making his rounds on a mini-map just isn't as fun as playing as a character exploring their environment. It takes exploration, which is ostensibly what all this collecting nonsense is supposed to be in service of, and makes it safe, boring, and rote.