Posts Tagged gta

The Uncanny Valley Of Videogames


I’ve recently praised the use of states and derided their absence, but it’s not a one-way street.

To put it simply, states are great for abstractions. They fit unrealistic settings very well, and give us clear signs of what’s actually going on inside the game. They can also diminish the need for complex transitions while making the best use out of limited resources. A clear benefit of this approach is gameplay that can rely on instant, i.e., twitch, responses. For example, a character in Street Fighter II can go from doing a leg sweep to a backflip in a split second without looking too awkward.


Despite being a 3D game, Wind Waker -- like most Zelda titles -- made great use of state-based mechanics.

States are not directly tied to arcade titles, though, nor are they unfit for 3D games. The correlation here is between states and the lack of realism, not states and projection types. The further a game gets away from what we know of real life, the more explanation and experimentation it requires. Sure, Super Mario Bros. might be pretty intuitive, but you can’t really tell how fast Mario can run and jump until you try it out yourself (or see it happen). Conversely, when initially approaching Call of Duty 4, there are many preconceptions for how the characters should move and animate because of their depictions.

Of course CoD4 isn’t a life simulation, but it does aim for what “feels” right and consistently follows its own rules. As does SMB, actually — both titles have a real sense of verisimilitude. One’s just more abstract than the other, and as a result can get away with being much less realistic.

Which leads me to my main point: as the fidelity of games approaches real life, state-based mechanics increasingly detract from that illusion.

But first, let’s take a look at two drastically different titles: Snow Bros. 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV.

In Snow Bros. 2, the enemies have a few basic states. There’s walk, jump, covered in snow (1/4, 2/4, 3/4, or fully), and a couple more. The physics behind movements are very basic, while the transitions are instant. As soon as an enemy gets hit with a shot, its visual representation changes to an animation that shows it on its back struggling to get free.


Say what you will about Assassin's Creed, but the way it allowed Altair to interact with his environment spoiled the audience of third-person action games.

In GTA IV, all game objects respond to a wide variety of variables. The cars don’t have a simple moving/idle/dead state, and their visual representation is a reflection of their physical properties. The cars accelerate on a curve and dip with each turn, while a drunken character’s skeleton animates him as he hangs on to the door handle.

Trying to apply the state mechanics of Snow Bros. 2 to GTA IV would result in ludicrous situations that would detract from its sense of realism. In fact, making the world feel more organic was one of the major improvement of GTA IV over GTA III.

And this gradual raising-of-the-bar is to be expected in videogames in general. Dialogues were once just text, with the occasional frame or two of a “talking head.” These days they’re fully voiced and lipsynced, and character models even emote and use body language. However, many games that rely on a realistic presentation still insist on state-based mechanics. I think one of the more notable examples of this is the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII.

Here’s a video of its demo:

Various fans have praised this game’s detail and fidelity, providing glowing commentary on its rendering of hair and other such tidbits. Well, it is quite a long stretch from the deformed pixel art of the older titles, but it’s also a clear example of dissonance between visuals and mechanics. The player character’s movement has an instant acceleration, and, when she gets stuck on a wall, she performs that old running-man animation. The topography of the obstacle at the 0:52 mark is also quite complex, but its collidable surface is represented by a giant, invisible block. Furthermore, traversing this obstacle is done with a single button press that initiates an instant and perfect jump. This movement is entirely scripted, and it looks quite awkward and unreal when contrasted with the scope of the environment and the proportions of the character.

Now I’m not sure if this is technically an example of the uncanny. After all, that phenomenon describes a feeling of unease brought on by an almost-but-not-quite-real object, and I don’t think anyone would describe the above example as being entirely realistic. Still, the uncanny concept deals with the contradictions between what’s expected and what’s witnessed, and I think high-fidelity games that rely on state-driven mechanics embody that point quite well.

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Fun With YouTube

Recently I’ve been browsing YouTube for some examples of JRPG combat mechanics. This little search led me to a low-level, initial equipment playthrough of Final Fantasy IV (Advance). It was a pretty interesting watch, and it reminded me of just how much varied content exists on the site.┬áSure, you have your usual gameplay footage, corporate trailers and fan reviews, but there’s a lot more beyond that.


Broadcast Yourself. And videogame clips.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Cattle Prod

I’ve previously talked about the Alamo standoff, a technique in which the player’s physical progress is halted, so I figured I’d take a quick look at the opposite end of the spectrum: forcing the player to move forward.


The iconic escape sequence from the intro of Super Metroid.

Now there are plenty of ways to encourage the player to physically make progress in a game (collectibles, for instance), but forcing him to do so is a bit different. One approach is to simply take the player on an automated ride where his input bears little to no effect on the actual traversal, e.g., autoscrolling stages in shmups, or wholly scripted camera movement in light-gun games. Another possibility, and the one I’ll be focusing on, is what I like to call the “cattle prod.” But first, a quick definition:

game death, n.

  1. An event in which the player fails to adequately advance through a challenge, often resulting in a restart at the last checkpoint/save spot or a “gave over” scenario.


Super Adventure Island's cattle prod is the very intuitive hunger mechanic that requires the player to constantly pick up fruits. Not only is this concept very easy to grasp, but it also fits in with the game's setting and is supported by the extremely horizontal level design.

Game death is a pretty nebulous concept, e.g., losing a race and having to repeat it doesn’t have to actually involve anyone or anything being killed. However, it is also the ultimate consequence of not properly following the directions dictated by the cattle prod(s).

With that in mind, we can now talk about what makes a cattle prod work. Namely, diminishing resources that can bring on game death.

Cattle prods are manifested in various ways, e.g., time limits, combo meters, autoscrolling walls, currencies, decaying health, unstoppable enemies, etc. The overall feeling they tend to bring on is that of tension (and the possible satisfaction of overcoming a challenge) although that intensity varies greatly from case to case.

From what I’ve noticed, there’s three main factors that play into the stress level of a cattle prod:

1). Player Knowledge.

The more information the player possesses, the better he will be equipped to judge the situation at hand. Traversing a familiar level while being accompanied by a minimap that displays various points of interest is a lot less intimidating than being given a time limit and thrown into a hostile and unknown area.


Although Crackdown's races were actually pretty easy, the rapid checkpoint approach definitely increased their intensity.

2). Player Power.

The stronger the player is, the lesser the impact of any possible cattle prods. For example, if an RTS match begins with the player at a fully outfitted base with a lot of units and resources to mine, he won’t be too worried (at least not immediately) about succeeding. However, remove the base, provide only a handful of starting units, severely diminish possible resources and create a massive opposing army, and the stress levels quickly increase.

3). Resource Availability/Lifespan.

The more sparse the resource and the quicker it runs out, the more intense the overall experience. If a checkpoint is fifteen minutes away in a rally-style racing game, the player tends to trust the designer to give him plenty of time to reach that goal. However, if a checkpoint can be seen just a block down the street but the player only has 10 seconds to reach it, the experience becomes much more rushed and hectic.

The dials on these 3 factors can be turned independently — something that’s particularly important when using multiple impetus mechanics at one time. In the end, though, they all represent a single concept:

cattle prod, n.

  1. A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.

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