Ultima IV Gameplay Narrative

The videogame equivalent of show, don’t tell is often said to be do, don’t show.” It’s good advice, and when applied it can make for some very powerful experiences, e.g., Braid’s ending.

Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult guideline.

Gameplay elements are rarely designed with narrative in mind. They’re limited in quantity and tend to be blunt instruments; the mechanics of walking and jumping can only go so far in conveying complex stories. Given this limited scope, it’s not surprising that gameplay is rarely used as the main vehicle for narrative.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar had a pretty good go at it, though.

UIV is the story of the Stranger’s rise to embody eight virtues principal to the game’s setting: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. On the surface, it’s a typical CRPG of the era: there’s exploration, statistical progression, item management, NPC conversations, and combat. The twist is how these elements are cleverly subverted for storytelling purposes.

Fairly common RPG activities such as opening random treasure chests, running away from battle, and being a smart alack to NPC’s can lower various virtue-scores.

Conversely, overpaying for goods (instead of haggling down their prices), letting monsters escape from battle (and losing potential experience points), and destroying the most powerful artifact in the game (which makes combat a breeze), increase virtue. A full list of these virtue-altering actions can be found here.

UIV’s main quest involves traversing the world in order to recover 8 virtue stones and runes, learn the mantras corresponding to each virtue, max-out all 8 virtue-scores, meditate at 8 virtue shrines, obtain the 3-part key, and finally discover the the word of passage.

Once these tasks are complete, the Avatar can descend into the abyss and place the virtue stones at their respective altars. A short quiz follows where the player is questioned about the virtues, and each correct answer displays a part of the codex-symbol. When the codex is fully unveiled, the player (presumably) gets to bask in its glory and return to the real world with newly gained knowledge and experience.

It’s not an overly complex story, and its scant plot-points are almost entirely non-linear, but the narrative is closely coupled with the gameplay. UIV achieves this through various design choices.

First, the game gives a concrete role for the player to embody. It’s all fine and good to “roll” a teetotaler, pyromaniac dwarf, but it’s not nearly as much fun if this persona is restricted to the player’s imagination. Becoming the Avatar is UIV’s sole objective, so the entire gameworld naturally revolves around the player’s ability to fill the Avatar’s shoes. In addition, this is a perpetual task that encourages the player to stay in-character throughout the experience.

Secondly, UIV grafts virtue-fulfillment entirely onto existing systems. This makes the learning curve less harsh and presents interesting handicaps for familiar gameplay, e.g., avoiding hostile wildlife might not yield immediate rewards, but it aids in gradually achieving the larger goal of Avatar-hood. Since these systems are also granular, they encompass numerous ways in which the virtue scores can be affected.

Furthermore, the approach greatly reduces implementation costs. Every virtue-altering instance is not a custom, one-time cutscene, but rather an action that’s optional and repeatable. In turn, the player can actively participate in the story by partially steering where, when, and how the virtues are tested. Since many events in the game also impact more than one virtue, the overall progression is quite open-ended.

Finally, the virtue system allows the player to fail. Hints are still dispensed throughout the game — and can be actively sought out — but it’s not necessary to be aware of all the rules right from the start. There’s no game over screen if virtue is lost; no invisible wall, or awkward text prompt, or an automatic checkpoint reload. The event is simply recorded, and retributions can be made later down the road.

This makes the path to Avatar-hood a potentially bumpy (and a more interesting) tale, and prevents the game from clumsily asserting itself and its limitations.

Lots more could have been done to polish the virtue system and to make it a larger part of the gameworld, but UIV remains notable for the way it allows the player to collaborate with a pre-existing script. This is also done largely through gameplay, and, at least in part, is the reason why so many people keep playing it to this day.

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The Witcher and Fisstech

The Witcher treads a lot of common ground when it comes to RPGs, but it does so with a distinct swagger. To illustrate this, here’s a quick story.

Early on in the game, the protagonist Gerlat can accept a quest to deliver a package into a quarantined city. When he finally makes his way in, he’s arrested and his possessions confiscated.

He eventually recovers them all, except for one: the mysterious bundle he was asked to smuggle.

Jethro, the city jailer, non-chalantly informs Geralt that he’s lucky not to be in more trouble. The package contained fisstech, an illegal drug similar in properties to cocaine. It quickly becomes obvious that Jethro himself is an addict and the confiscation wasn’t exactly legal.

Geralt can get his hands on more fisstech by dispatching Salamander troops, henchmen of main antagonist who tend to carry the illegal substance. The drug can then be used to bribe more information out of Jethro, shedding some light on the local crime syndicates.

Eventually it’s revealed that the Salamanders were trying to squeeze out their competition by framing Ramsmeat, a local crime boss, in hopes of Geralt going after him and the two sides weakening or eliminating each other.

Following a clash between the religious Order of the Flaming Rose and the Scoia’tael, a terrorist group (or a freedom-fighter one, depending on how you look at it), the Salamanders expand their operation into the swamps.

Various factions Geralt had dealt with in the past are affected by this: the woodcutters are slaughtered, numerous brickmakers are kidnapped and put into slave labour, and a large Salamander band move into the former Scoia’tael encampment.

When Geralt rescues the brickmakers, he discovers they were made to gather plants for fisstech production. The Salamander’s treasures even contain a book on swamp plants, the very same book Geralt had to have read in order to loot local flora.

Back in Vizima, Jethro requests that Geralt follow a lead on a fisstech pusher under the guise of cleaning up the streets. In reality, the jailer simply wants to secure the source of his addiction by cracking down on its suppliers.

The trail eventually leads Geralt to the sewers and an abandoned crypt where the Salamanders produce fisstech. Among their servants he finds a frightened alchemist who rewards Geralt with a potion-recipe if he promises not to report his slacking.

When the hideout is cleaned out, the crooked jailer and the city guard storm the area in order to secure the contraband. It’s at this time that Geralt bluntly tells Jethro that all the drugs better stay confiscated or he’ll come after the jailer next.

Finally, the documents Geralt retrieves from both the Salamander cells point him to the ultimate stronghold. As Geralt storms the base, a cutscene plays out showing a Salamander leader requesting more money following the group’s recent failures.

All these events make perfect sense from gameplay, plot, and setting perspectives. The slaves need proper skills and instructions, the bad guys require funding for their operations, and powerful factions constantly vie for supremacy.

Every element serves as a gear snugly connected to another, and when the switch is pulled, the machine doesn’t grind to a halt.

What’s more, the game itself is not homogenized. Fisstech doesn’t come across as a bullet point on a worldbuilding checklist that needs to be adhered to at every turn. It’s just part of the tapestry, and there’s a lot more of it to experience.

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The Thief’s Ring

“An ancient sapphire ring.
It subdues your presence, making it difficult to be detected by enemies.”

The description for the Thief’s Ring in Demon’s Souls is innocuous enough, but it’s one of the most useful items in the game.

When I first obtained it, I scoffed at its effects. I generally tend to be underwhelmed by “ancient and powerful artifacts” that serve as nothing more than marginal stat modifiers. I also wasn’t playing a stealthy character, so it seemed like a fairly useless trinket.

Demon’s Souls is a game where a small boost can have an enormous effect, though, and a few deaths later I quickly discovered the benefits of donning the Thief’s Ring.

There’s nothing magical about it, really — it simply does what it says — but its effects are very deliberately tied into the game world and its design.

Here a few examples:

Isolating Enemies

Unlike many 3rd person brawlers, the enemies in Demon’s Souls do not patiently wait for their turn to attack the player. As a result, it’s often important to draw away individuals from a group to take them on one-on-one.

The Thief’s Ring facilitates luring enemies by preventing the player from being pelted with projectiles during the approach. What’s more, the combat in Demon’s Souls requires a lot of movement, and the Thief’s Ring makes it less likely to draw the attention of more enemies while battling a solitary opponent.

Avoiding the Dragons

The ramparts of Castle Boletaria are patrolled by hostile dragons that roast anything in their sights. These sections are quite unforgiving, but the Thief’s Ring expands the window of safety between the dragons’ fiery onslaughts.

Slaying the Geckos

Crystal Geckos are timid creatures that are almost impossible to catch with a melee attack. They can spot the player from very far away, and if they do, they skitter back and fade out of existence. The Thief’s Ring slightly dulls their awareness, making it easier to catch them and the large quantities of minerals (used to upgrade armour and weapons) that they drop.

Boss Runs

Chances are that during most everyone’s first playthrough at least a few of the boss battles will not end in victory, but the Thief’s Ring makes it easier to give ’em another shot. Simply running past enemies is often a valid option, and equipping the ring lowers the duration/distance they’ll take into account when chasing the player.

Backtrack-Farming

Upon defeating a boss, the player can warp back to the boss’ lair from the Nexus hub. This not only provides a shortcut going forward, but it also allows the player to go back through a completed area in order to obtain more items and souls (the game’s equivalent of gold and experience).

What makes this backtracking different from playing through the same area from the start is that enemies tend to face only one direction. Combined with the Thief’s Ring, this makes it quite easy to sneak up on them and unleash a backstab, a special attack that deals extra damage and yields more souls.

Scaling the Shrine of Storms

Equipping the Thief’s Ring is practically the only way to travel up narrow mountain paths without being shredded by flying Storm Beasts.

Defeating the Old Hero

The blind boss of the Adjudicator Archstone is quite a fearsome opponent, but it’s actually quite easy to stay out of his reach with the Thief’s Ring equipped.

Invading Other Worlds

Player vs. Player combat is not greatly affected by the Thief’s Ring, but it does partially obscure the invader. This makes it more likely that the battle might begin with a sneaky backstab.

Even without any significant gameplay mutators, though, it’s still quite unsettling to see a swirling, red aura make a beeline for the player’s character.

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The Irresistible

Whenever an airship boss is defeated in Super Mario Bros. 3, a wand drops from the top of the screen. Picking it up is required to move on to the next world, but doing so in mid-air is not.

Despite this, jumping for the wand is a common behaviour. It’s fun to sync up Mario’s ascent with the wand’s descend, fascilitating a dramatic grab that culminates with Mario falling back down to earth and saving the day.

It’s a very satisfying moment, but there are no gameplay ramifications to simply letting the wand settle on the floor before picking it up. Jumping for it is simply hard to resist.

irresistible, adj.

  1. A representation of an optional action that does not result in any significant gameplay reward, yet is commonly carried out by a large percentage of players.

Let’s take a look at a couple more examples.

Mega Man

In the original Mega Man games, end-level bosses are always prefaced by an empty, single-screen room with two doors. These are a clear indicator that the end is just beyond the next turn, at which point many players choose to jump straight into the boss’ lair.

When Mega Man connects with the door, the action freezes as the entrance opens up and the screen scrolls to reveal the final segment of the map. There’s no reason to jump at the door, but it results in some areal acrobatics that firmly deposit Mega Man in the next area with punctuating, “It’s on!” flair.

Street Fighter III

Many fighting games used to disable collisions or simply cut-off player input whenever a round of combat ended. Street Fighter III was one of the first to buck the trend, enabling the victor to execute a few extra moves following his opponent’s loss. This proved quite satisfying as it allowed the winner to finish off a combo — a naturally stylish string of attacks. Furthermore, it represented a contrast to the rest of the game by providing a short window of time during which some free hits could be scored.

I don’t believe these “bonus shots” increased the super bar meter or affected the end-battle grade, but if they did, the rewards were minimal.

Metroid Prime

Doorways in Metroid Prime are triggered by the player shooting them, at which point they open up after a variable amount of time (usually between 0-6 seconds). The reason for this is to hide data being streamed in the background, which leaves the player largely idle. At this point, concern over whether the shot was registered — and plain frustration — tend to set in, resulting in more blasts bombarding the door.

Unlike the other two examples, this is more of a “get on with it” behaviour that helps to vent frustration rather than being satisfying in itself.


These irresistible actions seem to be largely accidental; as far as the games are concerned, there’s no reason for players to engage in them. They can be quite important to the overall experience, though, and once identified, they often become a defining part of a series or genre.

Are there any “irresistibles” you engage in on a frequent basis?

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Why Resident Evil 5’s Co-Op Worked so Well

Resident Evil 5 is notorious for its stiff controls, frustrating partner-AI, obtuse interface, questionable quicktime events, and an incredibly silly storyline. As one would expect, these elements don’t make for the most compelling single-player experience.

However, the game’s co-op mode is incredibly fun and rewarding.

For all its faults, Resident Evil 5 has some very high production values.

The Standard Co-op Setup

Most action games encourage players to work together by turning a Prisoner’s Dilemma into a Trust Dilemma, i.e., making it so that helping each other out is always the most beneficial course of action for everyone involved. To achieve this, friendly-fire and other possible sources of griefing are diminished or removed, enemies are tweaked to take on the firepower of multiple players, and player-goals are designed around non-competitive challenges, e.g., everyone gets an achievement for defeating the boss instead of one person getting an achievement for the most kills.

Healing a defenseless comrade is another common mechanic that ensures players try to help each other out. Letting a partner die diminishes the chance of success — or can even result in a game-over screen — so all members of a team can usually depend on friendly aid. This in turn fosters a reciprocal relationship facilitated by special indicators that display the location and status of everyone else in the group.

In addition to resuscitating nearly-defeated partners, RE5 also lets one player save the other from various health-draining, potentially-lethal grappling encounters.

Forcing gameplay-cooperation at specific script-points is common as well, e.g., having one player boost another to higher ground in order to proceed. While these sound good on paper, such statically-defined activities are rarely as satisfying as letting the players come up with their own strategy for traversing a level. With that said, scripted gateways serve to differentiate the gameplay and ensure that each player feels like part of the team.

All of these co-op elements are present in RE5, but there are many more as well.

All The Extras

A great example of something that’s conducive to cooperative play is RE5’s shared-healing mechanic. Whenever any healing item is used (except for the eggs), both characters get healed if they’re standing close to each other. This encourages players to communicate and plan rendezvous points in order to get the most value out of their reserves.

Communication is also made easier by the fact that all firearms come equipped with laser sights. Laser sights allow players to point directly at areas of interest simply by aiming at them. The visible laser-pointers reduce the amount of explaining needed for proper communication, and they’re cleverly implemented as they give a secondary function to an existing mechanic.

Looks like both of them could use a little healing.

Another interesting element is that both players must activate the map-exit in order to transition to the next area. Some players complained about this being a bit inconvenient, but I personally thought it was a great decision. Having a loading screen suddenly pop into view while sniping an enemy can be quite jarring. The wait mechanic prevents this from happening, and it allows both players to fully explore each area without feeling rushed.

Whenever one player activates the exit, his point-of-view also swirls around to show his teammate. This is a neat little touch as it informs the player to the whereabouts of his partner, which in turn let’s him quickly decide whether to stick around at the exit or go back into the field.

Money is another important asset in RE5, and here the game takes a cue from a various co-op RPGs. In order to prevent players from squabbling over treasure, both players simply receive the full monetary value of each collectible. While this is definitely not realistic, it prevents anyone from worrying about splitting the loot and keeps the focus on the action.

Finally, the level and enemy designs make it beneficial to communicate and devise on-the-spot tactics. Maps tend to be closed off arenas with multiple paths, and they allow players to split up and cover each other from different vantage points. This is especially important when fighting the more powerful enemies as attacking them from alternating directions helps expose their weak spots.

The above mechanics enhance the standard cooperative template, but there’s one more element that makes RE5 special.

From Good To Great

Each player has a 9-slot inventory, and all items take up a single slot. Some items can stack within a slot as well, but only up to a point.

While this might seem like plenty of space, the real estate is at a constant premium.

The 9-item inventory greatly affects how the game is played.

The weapons in RE5 are differentiated by their damage output, area of effect, firing rate, range, penetration, clip size, and chance of scoring a critical hit. The enemies and environments are well tuned to these attributes, creating situations where one firearm is much more useful than the others. Since each weapon also requires a custom ammo-type, it’s impossible for a single player to hoard all the goodies. Instead, each player must take on a specialized role.

For example, one player keeps a group of enemies at bay with a shotgun while the other snipes some archers in the background. Or one player pilots a vehicle while the other showers fast-moving opponents with a semi-automatic. Or one player leads a boss up a path with some explosive barrels, while the other uses his handgun to blow them up from above.

In addition to the standard firearms, though, the inventories must also accommodate healing items, armour jackets, and miscellaneous other collectibles such as proximity bombs and stun rods. It’s very easy to fill up the available slots, but the ability to trade items alleviates the issue.

Trading also encourages additional cooperation, especially when one player’s path leads him to stacks of ammo for the other player’s weapons. Although enemies never drop ammunition for weapons neither of the players possess, forking paths often force players to collect items they don’t really want. This in turn creates a unique flow to the game: an area is entered, its enemies are dispatched, the players scavenge for loot, and finally they regroup to heal up, trade, and get ready for the next challenge. The pattern doesn’t keep the players tightly tethered together, but it always brings them back to help each other out.

Successful cooperation is eventually rewarded with plenty of unlockable costumes and gameplay modifiers.

Like most co-op games, RE5 ultimately needs players to cooperate with each other; progress can’t be made if one person refuses to play along. If both people are on the same page, though, the game’s rich tactics and inter-player interactions elevate it above the co-op modes of its contemporaries.

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