Player agency in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Over on my other blog, Cosy Catastrophes, you’ll find a review of Ubisoft’s 2010 videogame, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I won’t post the full article here as it’s not directly related to serious games – but there’s a paragraph at the end of the review which refers to a particular scene in which the player’s ability to affect the game is limited, in order to deliver the scene in a specific manner.

Not only is the content of the scene surprising (note:  if you haven’t yet played the game, beware! The review contains spoilers about one quest), but I’m really interested in the approach in terms of its mechanics. The scene joins the Tibetan village section of Uncharted 2, the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2 and chunks of Heavy Rain as examples of developers testing their ability to deliver mature stories by dictating the limits of player agency. By removing the ability for players to ‘ruin’ a scene by shooting, jumping or punching their way through supposedly emotional moments, perhaps videogames may be able to transcend their (usually) pulp fiction influences.

For the record, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood contains another example of the same technique towards the end of the main storyline, but this time it results in scenes that are frustrating and nonsensical. So there’s work still to be done.

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Designing games for children

There’s a thought-provoking article on Eurogamer today about the principles behind designing games for kids. Jonathan Smith, head of production at Traveller’s Tales and director of LEGO Star Wars, says:

Play is closely related to learning. When we have fun, we’re experimenting, discovering and developing our own abilities. This is especially true for children, who have the most at stake in situations of play and learning – the most to gain. That’s why play is more important to children. That’s why they’re the best at it.

George Andreas of Rare notes that younger players tend to be more preoccupied with short-term goals rather than thinking in the long-term – and that boys are particularly stimulated by games that allow them to conquer or control territory. Given that the pool of ‘games for chidren’ overlaps substantially with the pool for ‘games for education’, it’s odd that I can’t think of any recent examples of educational games involving these kind of (as Andreas puts it) bragging rights.

Heavy Rain and unpredictable actions

Heavy Rain is the PS3’s much-anticipated new title from director David Cage. It’s a dark serial-killer thriller with adult themes and content – and Cage claims that with this title he’s produced a new genre apart from videogames – ‘Interactive Drama’.

I haven’t yet played the full game, but I have sampled the demo on PSN. I’ve been as hyped as anyone about the potential of this game, and, as is usual, actually playing it feels like rather an anticlimax. There are obvious areas of weakness – the voice acting is standard fare and the script seems unlikely to rise above a generic level; HBO this is not.

But more worrying is the frustration of a central game mechanism: actually controlling the characters. Movement is controlled by facing in a particular direction and pressing the right trigger to walk in that direction. It sounds reasonable in theory but due to changing camera angles it can result in your character swinging around in circles.

But a bigger concern are the context-sensitive controls. During development, critics fretted whether the game would be one long QTE (quick-time-event), requiring you to push buttons with split-second timing in order to progress the story. Cage has avoided some of the pitfalls of QTEs: rather than being required, timed events can be triggered or ignored, and in theory the outcome of the scene will be affected correspondingly. In practice it seems that many scenes play out in very similar fashion either way – but failing to press the buttons doesn’t require a restart, at least (there are no restarts in Heavy Rain – characters can even die unceremoniously, and the dynamic plot continues with the remaining characters).

So the issue isn’t that button presses are QTEs. The single biggest issue is that, when a button prompt appears, you’re often unsure what will be the consequences of pressing that button. As an example, as character Shelby I spent time in the demo questioning a woman about her link to a killer. I was able to take different lines of questioning, and then made my excuses to leave. On exiting, a button prompt appeared showing a curved arrow. The possible significances of completing that button press are many: would Shelby turn around and question the woman again? Would he threaten her? Bribe her? As it turns out, the button press made Shelby reach for his wallet and produce a business card – certainly not something that would have occured to me – in my capacity of Shelby’s puppetmaster – to do.

So, this is a long-winded way of raising the issue about control schemes in interactive fiction that necessarily allows only particular input actions. While Cage has grappled impressively with the difficulties of translating gamepad actions to a simulated reality, it seems likely that in 3, 5, 10 years we’ll look back fondly at these clumsy first steps into interactivity. Perhaps Natal and PS Move, Microsoft’s and Sony’s motion-control technology, will herald a wave of interactive fictions with more literal gesture controls? Even then, developers will need to create a shorthand language to signal to the user what Shelby can take out of his back pocket, before he does it.

Scribblenauts as classroom literacy aid

There’s an interview on Kotaku today with Scribblenauts creator Jeremiah Slaczka. The Nintendo DS title was released in September 2009 and, although controls and interface were often criticized, critics applauded the open-ended gameplay. Puzzles within the game can be solved by typing nouns on the onscreen keyboard – if the object is stored in the game’s 22,800-word database it will appear and may be used to solve the puzzle. As an example, pre-release hype centred around one player’s ability to solve a puzzle involving robot zombies by conjuring up a time machine, traveling back in time to collect a dinosaur and then riding atop the dinosaur to attack the zombies.

The Kotaku article relates Slaczka’s views about the application of the game as an educational tool:

One mother emailed the developer to tell how she bought the game for her son who was having difficulty in school learning to read and write. The woman gave the child a game along with a cheat sheet of ten words for him to try out in the game.

“He learned how to spell those words,” he said, “and now she said he’s up to two full pages of words that he can spell and understand which I thought was a really awesome story. “

While Slaczka acknowledges that the game can be used to enhance spelling and vocabulary, he’s hesitant to stress this potential:

“It has inherent educational potential, but it was never designed with an educational slant in mind,” he said. “It was a positive byproduct more than anything else. “

In appears that Slaczka is partly wary of labeling the game as an educational title because it may hurt sales, such is the stigma surrounding ‘edutainment’. However, Scribblenauts can certainly be added to the list of games (particularly Nintendo DS games) that can be used within the classroom to engage pupils in education.

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Videogames improve working memory

TotalWar04

Following on from last week’s claim that Tetris increases brain efficiency, BBC News reports that war-simulation videogames can improve players’ ‘working memory’ – i.e. the ability to remember information and to use it. Dr Tracy Alloway, from the University of Stirling, suggests that studies have shown that videogames such as the Total War series enhance this element of intelligence, and similar effects are produced by completing Sudoku puzzles and, oddly, spending time on Facebook. Examples of activities likely to weaken working memory are text messaging, posting on Twitter and watching Youtube videos.

Gamers won’t be too surprised by the claim that playing the challenging Total War series can boost intelligence. Given that many videogames require resource-balancing and forward-planning, I wonder how less overtly strategic videogames would fare in Dr Alloway’s intelligence trials.

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Tetris increases brain efficiency

tetris

More fuel for the games-are-good-for-you argument:

Albuquerque, N.M.-based Mind Research Network said over the course of three months, it tracked adolescent girls who practiced playing Tetris. Compared to control subjects, these girls exhibited greater brain efficiency and a thicker cortex, as evidenced by brain scans.

Areas of the brain that showed thicker cortex were sections believed to play a role in “planning of complex, coordinated movements,” researchers said, and areas responsible for “coordination of visual, tactile, auditory, and internal physiological information.”

Other parts of the brain, which are associated with “critical thinking, reasoning, and language and processing,” also showed greater efficiency after practicing Tetris.

Via Serious Games Source. Photo by Hybridrain.

Information design in Casablanca and videogames

In his column in the new edition of Edge magazine, Randy Smith discusses similarities between movies and videogames. He comments that he tends to dislike old movies because of poor information design and offers the opening sequence of Casablanca as an example, where he argues that the importance of the transit papers is not made clear to the viewer. He suggests that modern movies often achieve a higher level of information design, such as the Keyser Soze reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects, which, while surprising to many viewers, is telegraphed so that few viewers will misunderstand the new information they are receiving. Smith argues that The Usual Suspects may provide a better template for good videogame narrative, simply because it ensures that all viewers come away from the experience with the same level of information.

I’ve been chewing over these comments all morning. To be fair, a large part of my disgruntlement is the suggestion that The Usual Suspects is ‘better’ than Casablanca, although I’ll try to suppress my film snobbery here. But I think this information design approach to both movies and games might be rewarding, and Randy Smith’s conclusions bother me.  (Click to read more)

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