Category Archives: General

A New Word for Game

The word “game” is starting to get outdated. It doesn’t fit us any more, to the point where it is holding us back.

When people started calling them games, that’s what they were. Simple sets of action-reaction rules and mechanics. You’d take your action and the system would apply the rules and respond. There were defined goals and boundaries. Pong, Galaga, Space Invaders – All resembled board games and pinball more than novels or films.

We’ve moved on. Games aren’t packages of action-reaction rules any more. Often there is no defined goal, or at least not one as clearly defined as before. Success is no longer measured in abstract points.

Doesn’t it seem strange we’re still using the same word to describe the Hungry Hungry Hippos, and Fallout 3?

No, not the same thing

Modern games are virtual worlds. Packaged experiences. Artifical realities, pre-designed and tuned to produce meaningful, interesting experiences, which we can enter and experience at will. It’s like stepping into someone else’s life at the start of the most important day of their lives. Sometimes the limitations of the universe railroad it towards a single predetermined outcome. Other times, it can go one of many ways, or never ends at all.

If we had a word for games that combined the connotations of a “novel”, “film”, “story”, and “interactive”, we’d be free of a lot of wrong connotations among mainstream culture as well. I don’t like lugging around the cultural legacy of Space Invaders whenever I try to explain to laypeople exactly what I’ve chosen to spend my life creating.  We create interesting lives you can step into at will, not games. None of this is to say there is anything wrong with true games. They’re just not the same thing as Fallout 3 or Pathologic or Fahrenheit or even Flight Simulator.

So what should we call them?

“Role Playing Games” might make sense, but it has acquired an association with collection-based gameplay and numerical character growth.

“Adventure Game” seems to have developed a connection to puzzle solving and third-person control.

“Interactive Fiction” implies a text interface.

“Interactive Movie” implies the use of full motion video and long noninteractive scenes.

We need something totally new. Alistair Reynolds called packaged experiences “experientials” in his Revelation Space series. Or, we could use Greek roots – Mnemograph would be a “written memory”, for example. But that’s kind of a mouthful.

It’s tricky to find new words for something. I’m not going to try to coin one today, but I’m hoping one will appear soon. And perhaps one of you can think of a name that doesn’t sound goofy.

Edit: This post was crossposted on my Gamasutra blog and has many more comments, in case you’re interested in reading more views on this subject.

Edit Again: Michael Samyn has a better-written post on this topic already up. And he wrote it two years ago.

Mutual Storytellers

The best thing about the old tabletop role-playing games is the Dungeon Master concept. The Dungeon Master is a person who creates and presents challenges to the other players. Since the DM can essentially do anything that a fictional world could do, he can spin, together with the players, emergent stories of incredible richness and variety. The breadth of experience creatable by a good DM is astronomically greater than in any other form of gaming.

The system works because it depends on the players making things up to entertain each other in real time. We don’t even need to think of it as a game, really. One could easily imagine it as a structured mutual storytelling activity. This mutual storytelling concept is what I want to talk about.

In some sense, all multiplayer games use the mutual storytelling. Some people say that Chess is a series of puzzles that players pose to one another. Games like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike essentially consist of two teams both trying to present the most interesting challenge possible to the other team. In Chess or TF2, the back-and-forth of challenges and solutions creates a story.

Still, we haven’t seen computer games that really focused on mutual storytelling. Left 4 Dead pushed this a bit further than before (as I mentioned in my Design Technologies 2008 article) by placing two totally asymmetrical teams in a rich narrative framework. The Infected team isn’t that far off from a Dungeon Master in D&D. The main difference is that their goal is still to kill the survivors as fast as possible, not to entertain them like a DM. But the idea of mutual storytelling has still never formed the core conceptual framework of a game.

I want to figure out if it’s possible to create a digital game where mutual storytelling is the core idea that drives the entire design. Is it possible to design a game where:

  • Players construct dynamic experiences for each other in real time
  • Players get points for constructing better experiences. Victory by force isn’t the goal, but victory by superior storytelling

The first mental model that comes to mind is to simply take Left 4 Dead and give points to the Infected team based not on how fast they kill the Survivors, but on how profound an experience they create for the survivor players. This reveals the core difficulty of this story trading game concept: how do we judge story effectiveness?

The first option is to create an AI story judge that will rate the storytellers on the effectiveness of their story. This is problematic. It starts to get into the hard AI problem of having an AI understand real-world human concepts. I think we could get an AI to rate action pacing, for example, but what about all of those more human storytelling elements? If the storytellers can place corpses or write things on the wall to imply history to an area, for example, how does an AI rate the effectiveness of this? Say that a message scratched in a wall foreshadows a challenge which the storyteller will present later. Computer can’t read or decode language, so they couldn’t judge the effectiveness of the foreshadowing device.

We could try to step around the problem by only including storytelling devices that the computer is capable of judging. This is a pretty narrow range of tools, though. And under this system, it’s not even clear that an AI judge judging a human storyteller wouldn’t be better than just using an advanced AI Director like Left 4 Dead. I think the AI story judge idea is dead; we’d be better off just investing more resources in a more advanced AI Director.

The second option is to allow the players who experience the story to rate how cool they thought it was. This can only work if they don’t have any other incentives to rate the storytellers low or high. For example, it won’t work if they are in direct or implied competition with the storytellers. This is difficult to pull off because multiplayer gamers tend to be so competitive. I think it might be doable, though.

Here are a couple possible models:

  1. MMO Framework: The first way is to have players compete not just with the people in the current game, but within a larger framework. Imagine an MMO in which you gain experience in two ways: first, through the traditional method of playing with your character, except that now the challenges are presented to you by other players. Second, you gain experience by creating great story experiences for others, who will then judge you highly, thus giving you experience points. This doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to character advancement either. Players could simply be assigned a permanent, persistent storyteller score which is very visible to everyone, like an eBay seller’s rating. Nobody will want to play with someone who has a poor storyteller rating.
  2. Forced Points-Giving: The second way is to force players to give a fixed amount of points to dole out. Imagine a game with six players. At any time, four are storyplayers and two storytellers. The game will proceed in three rounds. Each player is a storyteller for one round and a storyplayer for two. At the end of the game, players are forced to vote on which of the two stories they played was more enjoyable. This clear choice between two experiences may be workable for most players. The “voting up your enemy” problem still exists, though. You might be afraid that the better story will be voted better than yours and thus vote for the worse one. In order for this system to work, the culture and presentation of the game would have to be very non-competitive.
  3. Eliminate Storyteller vs Storyplayer Competition: The third way is to only have storytellers in competition with storytellers, and storyplayers in competition with other storyplayers. Imagine a game with one set of storyplayers, who are always storyplayers and who, within this game, only play stories and rate them. There are also a set of storytellers who are in competition with each other, and who get to take turns telling stories to the storyplayers. Whoever pleases the storyplayers the most wins. Since the storytellers and storyplayers aren’t in competition with each other at all, storyplayers are more likely to rate their enjoyment of the stories honestly.

I’m really not sure exactly how to do this. There are still many questions to be resolved. I want to discuss this concept with anyone and everyone. So consider this an open call for discussion. Please, if you’re reading this and you have an opinion or idea, write it in the comments or email me!

Questions:

  1. Is there any precendent for multiplayer games that are scored based on players judging each other instead of objective criteria?
  2. Is there any significant proportion of players capable of or interested in creating an interesting storyline or accurately judging one presented to them?
  3. Is it possible to do this non-competitively while maintaining player interest? Could this fit into a larger noncompetitive framework, a la The Sims or Second Life?
  4. How much power can we give storytellers? If we give them unlimited power will they simply abuse it? How many tools can they handle?
  5. Can normal people really fathom the concept of constructing an experience for someone else? Is it possible to train them to do it using various tutorials and tooltips or an AI advisor?
  6. Do we need more time than a normal game session to create a really compelling story? Does this mean we need a broader framework which can spread games out over several days?

My Favourite New Design Technologies in 2008

Technology doesn’t just mean physical devices. The word also refers to techniques. In game design, we develop technology that has nothing to do with CPUs or game engines. We develop design technologies. This is my list of the most important developments in design technology in 2008. Note that this is heavily biased towards the types of games I like to play; I’ve probably missed many important developments.

Mirror's Edge4. First-Person Body Awareness (Mirror’s Edge)

We’ve been leading up to this one for a long time. Doom introduced hand models which move when you walk. By Call of Duty 4 the player’s view itself was being pushed around when you were shot or reloaded or sprinted. Condemned has scripted sequences in which you were strangled, tackled, and thrown down stairs – all in first person. Nobody made a whole game about it until now, though. And holy crap, it worked.

Mirror’s Edge is the only game that’s made me feel like I wasn’t a floating gun. The experience of sliding under vents, smashing through doors, sprinting to top speed on a straightaway, is uniquely visceral and satisfying. It made the whole game worth it for me. I hope we’ll see this concept applied to other games soon, even if they aren’t just about freerunning.

Far Cry 23. Complete Experience Games (Far Cry 2)

In Far Cry 2, you live the life of a mercenary in a war-torn African state. This doesn’t mean, as with most games, that you live snippets of this mercenary’s life. You live the entire thing. You get to get sick with malaria and drive to the other corner of the country just for some damn pills. You get to sneak by a hundred guard stations on the way there. You get to be physically patted down every time you enter your boss’s place of business. You get to walk miles to find a car after yours was destroyed. You get to serendipitously reach a perfect viewpoint just as the sun is setting and a herd of zebras crosses the plain below.

By any traditional measure, Far Cry 2‘s crescendo moments are separated by far too much driving, walking, picking up weapons, taking phone calls, and searching for pills. For the first 8 hours I was simply annoyed with it. As I kept playing, though, I began to get more and more immersed in the world. I finally hit a point where I stepped into the persona. It finally clicked when I realized that it wasn’t really a game about shooting. It was a game about being someone else.

We’ve seen elements of this before in games like Half-Life and World of Warcraft, but no game has created this levels of immersion with the method. In Half-Life it just seemed like a clever little way to transition levels without breaking fiction or game flow. World of Warcraft is too gamey to really feel that immersive. But playing FC2 feels like living someone’s life. Most of real life is relatively slow and mundane, and so it is in FC2. That’s all right. For this game, the expanses of slow time worked because they made you really notice the little things, and made the panic moments stand out even more.

Left 4 Dead2. Narrative-Centric Multiplayer Technologies (Left 4 Dead)

There are several major pieces to this one, but they all work towards the same goal: creating a multiplayer experience focused wholly around an emergent story. The pieces are:

  • Asymmetrical Roles and Player-controlled Enemies. For a long time we’ve had this idea that players on different teams have to have basically the same role with regards to each other. Sure, teams in games like Starcraft could be asymmetrical, but they didn’t have to be. Unreal Tournament had Assault mode, which involved teams attacking and defending objectives, much like L4D, but the two teams’ abilities were still the same. We haven’t seen a major game which worked so well in which one team’s entire purpose was basically to grief the other team, in which the role of these two teams was so drastically different. It almost feels like having a dungeon master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, something I haven’t felt in a game before.
  • Named multiplayer characters. We saw hints of this in Team Fortress 2, when the developers chose to assign each class it’s own nationality, backstory, and personality. That was a knockout success. Pushing the concept even further, Valve created Left 4 Dead around four individual characters with their own personalities. Left 4 Dead is a far stronger game for being centered around the iconic individuals, as opposed to generic randomized or player-chosen survivors.
  • Context-triggered dialogue. I’ve often noticed during my own design work that players tend to miss a lot of important stuff on their first playthrough. They’ll miss dialogue, not see important scripted scenes, and so on. Left 4 Dead takes this problem and turns it into a solution, by including a large amount of dialogue, but only playing a small part of it on any particular playthrough. As players repeat the same scenarios over and over, they get more and more content each time. It’s a brilliant way to keep feeding the player new content after their tenth playthrough. It also means that the character can be deep and rich, even though they only have time to say a few lines each game. Their characterization builds up over many playthroughs.

I also include the AI director as a part of this, but it’s significant enough by itself to warrant it’s own entry.

Left 4 Dead1. AI Director (Left 4 Dead)

We’ve been building up to this one for a long time. Pac Man and Space Invaders had static enemy placement via code. Wolfenstein had designer-placed enemies in unique levels. Half-Life had scripted spawns and events in unique levels. By Call of Duty 4, this scripting had evolved and became more elaborate until it was so fluid that the script triggers were almost invisible.

But it was still a stupid system. Every time a player clears a room and knows that, even though he is on an alien planet full of monsters, he can sit around for as long as he wants without being bothered, we’re breaking pacing, immersion, realism. We’ve been doing this for so long and I don’t think we even noticed it any more.

Valve has finally broken this faulty paradigm. We’ve now got a working, centralized software entity which is focused exclusively on tracking and managing the player’s experience as a whole. And it works wonderfully.

L4D didn’t even push it that far, either. All it really does is spawn enemies and pickups. But there’s still potential for so much more. It’s probably better than Valve kept the design focused because it’s a first step, but I think that there is much more potential to this incredibly simple concept. We could see it extended to open-world games like Fallout 3, and create wildlands encounters based on your loadout, your quests, and your playstyle. We can have it revise level paths, time of day, or NPC attitudes. We can have it draw from a library of rich situations it can throw at you, instead of just crowds of enemies. We can script or trigger events based on player state and have them play out wherever the player is, instead of being tied to a trigger in some location. We can focus on designing player experiences instead of just physical spaces.

My Favourite Bioshock Audio Log

Played through Bioshock again recently. This audio log jumped out at me:

“On the surface, I once bought a forest. The Parasites claimed that the land belonged to God, and demanded that I establish a public park there. Why? So the rabble could stand slack-jawed under the canopy and pretend that it was paradise earned. When Congress moved to nationalize my forest, I burnt it to the ground. God did not plant the seeds of this Arcadia, I did.”
-Andrew Ryan

Stupid is Smart

Naive design is what a 14 year old video gamer does when you ask him what kind of game he would want to play. He doesn’t know anything about design theory or analysis. He doesn’t understand game balance, player training, system performance. For him, everything in the game is real.

I don’t recommend doing naive design alone. But it’s an awesome part of a designer’s toolbox for two reasons.

First, it’s an awesome way of coming up with new ideas. Dwarf Fortress is a great example. The interface is so incomprehensible that reading the online wiki is an absolute necessity. I’ve read the Adams brothers’ changelog and as far as I can tell, there’s almost no design thought process at all. And the final product is impenetrable, totally unbalanced, downright mean. This is a game whose slogan is, “Losing is fun!”

Dwarf Fortress, aka Headache Inducing Graphics

Dwarf Fortress also has some of the most unique and compelling dynamics of any game I’ve ever played. Dwarves track a stupidly large number of “thoughts”, all of which affect their mood and behaviour. They’ve each got a thousand variables, skill levels, relationships. There are a hundred resources, all acquired in different ways, many of which are impossible to find. These mechanics are laughably information-heavy. There’s way too much to keep track of. But some of the dynamics which arise from this soup of variables are heartwarmingly (and heartbreakingly) lifelike. This is all unique to DF. None of this could have been developed by a trained designer.

Besides brainstorming, there’s another reason why naive design is useful.  It’s also a great sanity check on a finished design.

Naive design means taking on the viewpoint of the majority of our players. Gamers don’t care about design theory. As I wrote in my Scaffolding and Masonry article, they break games into a totally different set of conceptual pieces than us. Many analytically valid designs seem rather uninteresting from the naive viewpoint. Designers should all try just forgetting all our design theory now and then and seeing if what we’re making really makes sense to random people on the street. They’re the people we’re selling to, after all.

So, step back every now and then and suppress the analytical mind. Sometimes, stupid is smart.

Jon Blow’s MIGS Keynote and Thematic Iteration

I didn’t get a chance to take in Jon Blow’s MIGS keynote from November until now. Well, I just listened to it.

First, you need to listen to this talk. I’ve heard (and said) a lot of ideas that orbit around much of what Blow discusses, but I’ve never heard these concepts crystallized so effectively. It’s worth listening to on it’s own, and you also won’t get this essay if you haven’t listened to it yet.

I’m going to offer a solution to Blow’s “hard problem” of creating an interactive system that coherently expresses meaning.

Blow says that games have more trouble than other media in conveying meaning because we have so many other things to worry about. For a coherent meaning to emerge, he says, the “dynamical meaning” expressed by the design and gameplay must dovetail with the meaning of the embedded story. This is difficult because we can’t predict a priori what the design is going to look like when the game is finished.

Furthermore, the player himself is an agent of chaos. He will destroy all of your carefully-crafted pacing and story beats. He will ignore important dialogue, or strip his clothes off before the funeral scene. How do we create an experience which will express our desired meaning with this madman running amok on stage?

The hole in Blow’s reasoning is that he seems to assume that we need to decide on the meaning of our games before we create them. He explicitly condemns the simple “message-centric” type of story, but he still thinks that authors need to have a priori control over the meaning of their creation.

They don’t. The first part of the solution is to let go of the idea that we can or must be able to make a game to convey an arbitrarily chosen meaning. As Blow correctly says, it’s nearly impossible. But this doesn’t mean we can’t add meaning to our game.

Other media have exactly the same sorts of problems in combining different elements which are pulling the meaning in different directions. A filmmaker may want to characterize someone with some dialogue, but what if the pacing demands an action scene? A novelist may want to characterize the doctor as the bad guy, but what if the plot requires him to save someone’s life? These creators don’t have to deal with a beast as unpredicable as an interactive game design mucking with their stories, but the problem is still there. And they’ve developed ways of solving it. So let’s learn from them.

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Stephen King has sold 350 million novels. He practices freewriting – writing without planning and allowing the story to emerge during the writing process. The Dark Tower series was started when King simply sat down at a typewriter in 1970 and wrote a single sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” King wrote a seven-book megasaga from that one line, without planning any of it. When a dying woman asked him, before he had finished the saga, how the series was going to end, he couldn’t tell her. He didn’t know.

How does King create meaning, then? He iterates.

After he writes the initial draft, he goes back over it and tries to figure out what themes and motifs naturally emerge from the plot. He then tweaks the story to emphasize those concepts.

For example, King freewrote Carrie straight forward, without planning. After he finished, he read through his draft and noticed that blood appeared repeatedly in the story. He then went back through and emphasized the blood even more, adding it to other scenes, describing it more deeply, and imbuing it with meaning. Thus blood became a repeated motif, and concepts associated with blood became themes of the story. He didn’t know that blood would be important until after he had written the story.

We can do this in games. In fact, we already have. Blow mentions the Little Sister Adam harvesting mechanic from Bioshock in his talk. I work at 2K Boston and though I didn’t work on Bioshock itself, I’ve talked with the designers who were around when Bioshock was being created. For most of development, the save/harvest Little Sister mechanic did not exist. Originally, Jack could only save the little sisters, and there was no narrative reference to any kind of moral dilemma between surviving and saving the little girls. The save/harvest mechanic was only introduced late in development as a gameplay choice. It then became part of the story, and finally was threaded into the theme of the entire game.

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Certainly, this could have been done better – Blow specifically criticizes the save/harvest mechanic because the story seems to contradict the design. I still think that the mechanic was a success, if only because so many people gushed so much about it. Imagine how much stronger the game could have been if the developers had chosen a theme that arose even more naturally from the design.

Iteration is one of our bread and butter tools, but we currently only iterate to maximize “fun”. There’s no reason, however, why we shouldn’t be willing to iterate on theme as well. Take a “theme pass” on the game in the last three months of development, just as Stephen King did with Carrie. Play the game, figure out what you think it means, emphasize those concepts in the art, the dialogue, and perhaps even the gameplay.

Imagine doing this for Left 4 Dead. Stop reading now. Think about Left 4 Dead as it exists. What is it about? What does the design want to say?

My first thought was to say that the game is about the inevitability of death. I wanted to make one of the characters a mortician and add a bunch of nihilisitc dialogue about the heat death of the universe. But this theme doesn’t fit. Death is not inevitable in Left 4 Dead. It’s not what the game wants to talk about.

Recognizing this, I started searching for another thematic seed. This is the beauty of choosing theme after finishing most of the design. If the design contradicts the theme, just change the theme!

Next, I chose to think that it is about how strangers come together (or are forced together) in a time of crisis. Now imagine we do one more development pass on the game to grow this thematic seed. The theme already exists naturally in the game. Now we’re making it much more important. Imagine dialogue revealing that Bill and Francis were enemies before the infection, but were forced into a friendship afterwards. Imagine that pills and ammo are given by wounded NPCs who donate their last supplies to try to help people they don’t even know. Imagine that the news chopper pilot and the boat captain are given dialogue to indicate that they are risking their own lives to come help the four player survivors, who are total strangers to them and to whom they owe no loyalty. Imagine that the chopper pilot dies if you don’t survive to the end of the No Mercy campaign. Imagine the guy in the church in Death Toll, instead of trying to kill you, tries to help you, but draws the zombies accidentally while doing so and dies because of it. Imagine making Bill a racist who doesn’t trust black people. Suddenly, the game isn’t just fun, it’s about something.

None of these changes would corrupt the design. Blow says, “Late gameplay changes are very expensive!” This is true. But you don’t need significant gameplay changes to emphasize a pre-existing thematic seed if you choose the seed well. It takes very little. My Left 4 Dead example doesn’t include any real gameplay changes at all – only some new animations, art, and dialogue.

We can do this for any game. They all have seeds of meaning that we could grow. We only need to listen to and emphasize what the design wants to say, instead of trying to force it to say something we decided on beforehand.

Video Games Feed the Male Need to Dominate

A new study apparently reveals that popular video games satisfy men’s need to dominate.

First, I’m happy to say that I called it first.

Second, I’d be interested to see if video games would be less popular in a society that provides more outlets for these instincts. Aside from rough sports, we’re pretty starved for ways to express our dominant instincts. This type of repressed aggression and boredom probably contributes to youth crime. Maybe our ancestors, who had many more outlets for male aggression, might have had no interest at all in playing shooter games.

Escaping the Black Swan

There are fundamental differences between games and life.

Games have defined boundaries. All the possibilities are known. Cause and effect are clear and well understood. Progress is consistent and tends to be permanent. You always know how to move forward, and you can always feel your progress.

Real life is the opposite of all this. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Cause and effect are almost always muddled, and frequently impossible to sort out. Progress is slow, random, often invisible, and frequently reversed.

There’s a fantastic book called Black Swan. I read it a few years ago. It crystallized a lot of ideas that had been floating around in my head for some time. It’s been a strong influence on my thinking ever since.

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The basic idea is that unpredictable events – called black swans – are the most important factors affecting how the real world changes over time. It is human nature is to deceive ourselves with the idea of cause and effect through stories and hindsight. We like to think that we can track trends, see where we’re going. That the future isn’t an impenetrable fog.

In real life, nothing is predictable. Most of the things that will change our lives over the next 50 years don’t have names yet. Take the financial crisis. A year ago, what would people say if you told them that the low price of oil would be causing problems today? They’d think you were crazy. But it’s exactly what’s happening now. Oil-dependent economies are in trouble now that their product is suddenly worth so little on the market. They were bitten by a black swan, along with the rest of us.

Black swans are disturbing. They bother people, me included. I like to feel like I’m getting somewhere in life. Like I know where I’m going. I want to see the path. I don’t like seeing my progress reversed in my bank account, my learning, or my social life. I’ve accepted that growth in all of these areas is unsteady and noisy in real life. But it’s still annoying.

Games allow us to escape from the black swans. There are no black swans in Albion or Azeroth or Rapture. All threats are predictable and quantifiable, progress is measurable and permanent. We design games this way. Don’t hurt the player unless he really asks for it. Make sure the player knows what he’s receiving and what he needs to do. Draw a glowing line on the floor for him if you need to.

Perhaps this is one reason why people play games. People often say that games are escapist entertainment, but usually don’t say exactly what we’re escaping from. We’re escaping from the black swan.

The Force Unleashed: Buried Awesomeness

I played the X360 version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed recently. In a phrase, it’s awesomeness buried deep.

One of the coolest abilities in the game is Force Grip. Force Grip allows you to pick up objects and people at a distance and move them anywhere on all three movement axes. The left stick controls the movement of the object on the horizontal plane, the right stick controls the movement of the object along a plane perpendicular to your camera. This means you can pick guys up and knock them into other guys, use big objects to crush people or sweep them aside, and push active environmental hazards around to destroy your enemies.

There is one spot in the game with big lasers on gimbals which you can push around with the force. Push the laser so it passes over your enemy and he burns up. Another level features huge flexible pipes which spout a constant stream of carbonite. Move the pipe so it sprays your enemies and they are frozen into a lump and dropped on the ground.

The whole thing is damn stylish. There’s nothing like picking up a stormtrooper, gently moving him over an open pit, and dropping him straight down. Or grabbing a trio of droids and slamming them into the ceiling, killing them and creating a rain of sparks and shattered glass from the destroyed ceiling lights. You can even pick up Jawas, place them gently in front of you, and punt them like a football.

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The sad thing about all this awesomeness is that most people will never see it.

I work with pro game designers who finished the game without ever learning most of the systems. One of them even sat down and decided to spend some time to learn Force Grip. He went into the training mission and just played with Force Grip. He never got it, and eventually gave up. It’s hard. It took me hours and I have years of experience messing around with coordinate systems in 3dsmax.

I personally spent 80% of the game dying repeatedly when I would get knocked down and wait for my guy’s ragdoll to settle and for him to do his getting-up animation. Nobody ever mentioned that you can arrest your fall by pressing the jump button while you are falling through the air.

But I only realized that there was a combo system for lightsaber moves when I noticed all the combo control sequences listed in my character upgrade screen.

Train Me, My Master

Having deep, expert-level moves in a game isn’t inherently bad. The problem is when many people finish the game without ever learning to control it properly.

A lot of people probably never learned to use Force Grip at all, and never learned to do things with the lightsaber besides button-mashing.  They basically only played half the game.

The only training the game really gives you are a few on-screen tooltips to tell you how to do basic new moves as you acquire them, and a series of “training missions” which you can optionally activate. The training missions aren’t really effective, though since they’re all basically just simple 20-second challenges inside the same circular room. The tooltips are great, but they only tell you the bare minimum of what you need to know.

The game should have included fun, mandatory training sequences. It should have included an on-screen combo feedback readout. It should have had a default-on optional HUD element that tells you what each of your controls does in the current context, a la Assassin’s Creed.

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Difficult Targeting Makes Puppies Cry

Another big quirk of the game is that your Force powers are targeted not by the orientation of your camera, but by the orientation of your character. The advantages are:

-You can change targets instantaneously by moving your character in any direction
-The camera can be fixed during boss battles
-They only had to make animations of your character casting effects forwards.

The disadvantage is a serious lack of precision causing constant mis-targeting and you will often be targeting someone off screen.

But, It’s Actually Pretty Good

Don’t let any of my bitching prevent you from getting the game. Consider this article a guide on how to enjoy Force Unleashed. Read the damn combo descriptions and learn to use the combos as you unlock them. Learn to use Force Grip properly. And for God’s sake, when they knock you down, mash the jump button!

It’s just so sad that most people will never get most of the game. And that’s Too Bad. If you’re making a game, make sure that the majority of the awesome stuff in it is accessible. Otherwise it might as well not be there at all.

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