A little while ago I dug into Scary Girl for not being a very fun game. This brought up some discussion about what actually makes a good 2D platformer, so I decided to expand on the topic. Below is a list of what I see as three common aspects of many classic platforming titles. These point are not the only things that made those games great, but they’re a shared base that appears again and again.
Good Old Games has posted a couple editorials dealing with the original two Fallout games. The articles include feedback from Tim Cain, Brian Fargo, Chris Taylor and various other Black Isle ex-pats. A lot of the information contained within has been made public in the past, but here are a few interesting tid-bits:
- A lot of storyline elements were purposefully left vague so as to not contradict the wide variety of player actions.
- One of the amusing bugs that popped up involved a man-launching bazooka.
- Tim Cain attributed Fallout’s distinct style to a variety of contradictory concepts — “Funny but dark, nostalgic but futuristic, optimistic but depressing.”
- The companions/party members, included the beloved Dogmeat, were a last-minute addition.
- Ron Perlman apparently hated Fallout 2′s ending.
Elsewhere, Edge has a two part interview with Chris Avellone, one of the lead men behind Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. It’s an interesting read, especially the parts referencing Interplay’s downfall.
It’s actually all too believable that Baldur’s Gate 3 was cancelled due to some incompetent accounting that allowed the license to expire. This kind of shit seems to happen way more often than one would imagine.
And on a slightly unrelated note, I have to say that the GoG service has really grown on me. Relatively cheap prices, no DRM (the games don’t even “phone home,” so you can play them without an internet connection), PDF manuals, wallpapers, soundtracks, brand new strategy guides and support for mods. And there’s plenty of games choose from as well — Die by the Sword, Gorky 17, Lionheart and Disciples II might not have been perfect, but they all had their fair share of significant bits.
Truth be told, Fallout 3 is just a slightly upgraded Oblivion with all the same highs and lows. It’s also been discussed to death, so instead of a long rant, I’m going to bring up something that hasn’t really been mentioned:
The aesthetics of the famed V.A.T.S. are basically those of a digital camera.
As V.A.T.S. is activated, the action stops and the player hears the whirl of a small motor. The shutter opens, and the lens extends out. Auto-targeting the most obvious foe, the camera zooms in and focuses on him/her/it, blurring the rest of the background. A minimalist HUD pops up, resembling the bland interface of many digital camera LCD screens. Accompanied by simple confirmation sound effects, the player chooses his desired target. The lens retracts, and the attack begins.
It’s pretty clever, actually. After all, V.A.T.S represents a complete pause in the action, and what better way to bring that out than with some audio and visual effects we associate with still photos?
The videogame field is very competitive, with every company — no matter how big or small — trying to sell a product. As a result, it’s a breeding ground for elevator pitches. These often revolve around such bullet points as “We have this unique take on cover gameplay!” or “It’s a hidden-object game with a real inventory!”
As John Davison pointed out, though, videogames are not really a niche product. They compete for attention with TV, movies, YouTube, Facebook, etc., so I’m a little surprised that more elevator pitches don’t concentrate on universal themes. So what exactly are themes? Well, here’s a pretty thorough summary from Wikipedia:
“A theme is an idea, message, or lesson conveyed by a written text. This message is usually about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas. Most themes are implied rather than explicitly stated. The theme is different from the superficial outlay of the text; it is normally the meaning of the text on a more abstract level.”
Yes, themes are more a staple of the literary world, but they’re very powerful when it comes to evoking emotions. Consequently, when you’re trying to get a general audience to emphasize with your product, the premise of a theme is much more identifiable than a gameplay element.
Not that games are completely devoid of themes. Quite the contrary, actually. However, most game themes are usually repeated over and over again. They’re the epic struggles of good vs. evil, or the hero quest, but there are many more possibilities. An interesting thing about themes, too, is that they can quite naturally affect and steer gameplay elements (often in new and unique ways).
Here are a few quick examples.
1). Triumph through perseverance.
A sports game centering around an athlete’s fall from grace due to a (seemingly) career-ending injury. This could fit virtually any sports genre and take the athlete through a quest for a second shot at the big leagues. Starting with rehabilitation, various minigames (or handicapped scenarios of the full game) could act as something of a tutorial, guiding the player through all the necessary steps on the path to a successful comeback.
2). Honour and familial bonds.
A strategy game following the life of a disgraced warlord in feudal Japan. In order to protect his family and subordinates, the shogun went against the proper code of conduct, which was then used by his politicking general to overthrow him. The game itself could revolve around a quest for retribution while implementing various elements of Bushido into strategic combat.
3). Liberation from slavery.
There aren’t too many fantasy settings that go for a post-apocalyptic feel, and even fewer videogames (Soul Reaver being the only non-licensed one I can think of), but I’ve always been interested in scenarios where the good guys don’t win. Namely, what happens afterwards? Well, how ’bout a typical Tolkien-derived RPG that breaks a few cliches? Enslaved humans that often suffer from Stockholm syndrome, Orc sympathizers that are helping with an underground rebellion, a struggle for freedom in the face of an oncoming genocide, etc.
Of course many videogames have minimal narrative and virtually no storyline, but those too can be thematically summed up, i.e., what is the game about, exactly? This summary doesn’t even have to mention any actual gameplay mechanics, just evoke enticing possibilities. Take for instance Mario Party, Guitar Hero and Wii Fit — none of these games have much in the way of a “plot,” but their titles alone are quite iconic. And they also sold bucketloads of copies.
Zak McKracken was Lucasarts’ second ever SCUMM title. It didn’t really have the same impact as the various Monkey Island or Indiana Jones games, but it contained loads of personality and a few interesting twists on adventure game mechanics.
The good stuff:
- Zak McKracken, the game’s protagonist, dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize but is stuck working for The National Inquisitor, a trashy tabloid. Despite Zak’s disgruntlement, his job is a very good excuse to have the player investigate suspicious phenomenona and travel to exotic locales.
- The game came packaged with a print version of the National Inquisitor and featured headlines such as “Two-Headed Squirrel Attacks Two Campers At Once!” and “Scrambled Son Tries To Kill Parents With Eggs.” Incidentally, not everything in the newspaper is supposed to be fabricated — a concept that was a big part of Men in Black.
- The game’s story revolves around a devious alien plot to overthrow humanity. This is achieved by a group of aliens — disguised in Groucho-style masks — running a phone company that’s slowly eroding earth’s intelligence through dial tones.
- Being exposed to the aliens’ Mindbender machine results in game commands being sucked out from the user interface. This is a rather clever way of simulating Zak getting stupid. It also serves to gate the player and justify some rather perplexing behaviour.
- The National Inquisitor doesn’t have the biggest budget, so Zak must pay for his own flights. Aside from being another logical gating mechanic, it also serves to tease the player with impossibly expensive flights. It’s debatable whether such red herrings are actually a good thing, but they add the illusion of scale.
- A vital way of getting the funds to travel around the world is winning the lottery.
- International flights also double as copy-protection, requiring the player to enter “Visa Codes” (that are provided in the game’s manual) when travelling outside of the US.
- Zak can “mind-meld” with animals and control them, but this is often just an amusing distraction, e.g., making your goldfish smile or having a yak poop.
- The game is split into five main parts, each one involving getting a piece of “The Device.” It’s a very non-linear approach — especially for an adventure game — as it allows the player to explore and the world in almost any order he wishes.
- The game’s female characters were based on at-the-time significant others of the various individuals on the development team. One of these women was notorious for dyeing her hair, so her in-game equivalent appears with differently coloured hair every time she takes off her space helmet.
- Zak’s pet goldfish is named Sushi.