Work Smarter, Not Harder

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This is a bit of a companion piece to Support Roles. While that focused on direct combat roles vs. indirect combat roles from the psychological standpoint, this focuses on the tension from a design standpoint.

In many games, higher difficulty settings, endgame content, and post-endgame content have a tendency to make encounters harder through “fake difficulty” – In FPSes, player characters are more fragile, snipers have catlike reflexes and unerring accuracy, enemies psychically know where you are, mooks can keep fighting after three .50 cal shots to the face, etc. In RPGs, the boss has infinity billion hit points, takes three actions per round, and switches between an instant kill attack, a total party kill attack, and an attack that does max damage. In fighting games, you have the SNK Boss – never flinches, barely feels your attacks, and his taunt is powerful enough to take out half your life bar. In short, this design philosophy is “Fight harder, not smarter.”

Sadly, “fight harder, not smarter” is a legitimate approach. Especially at the higher difficulty levels and post endgame content, where few players actually venture, the development costs of more refined difficulty is simply unfeasible. With the unsustainable budget bloat that plagues modern games, many noble endeavors fall victim to the uncaring knife of cost-benefit analysis. Developing a truly robust AI that can outsmart a skilled player is a lofty and laudable goal, but also a massive time and money sink.

The real shame of “fight harder, not smarter” is that it is often self-defeating. If the game is difficult because it’s cheating, The players abandon any sense of fair play – it becomes assumed that you need to exploit bugs and AI flaws to defeat the harder enemies.

As with all my other musings, I’m using the very specific examples of video games, but I’m reaching for a concept that is more universal. The rule of thumb for D&D combat encounters is “more, or bigger.” It’s a simple approach that a larger scale makes something more difficult. On a more abstract level, it’s how we get narrative structures like DragonBall Z (Oh no! This guy is going to destroy the earth! We must pool all our powers to stop him! We finally beat him, but at an extreme cost! Now there’s someone even worse! The last guy you fought was like an insect in comparison!).

And this is where there is an intersection. Shockingly, there are a very few examples where utility effects are used to make an encounter more difficult. Even worse, immunity to the player’s support effects is considered not only as a legitimate, but also a desirable approach to make encounters more difficult. When enemies do use utility effects, it’s generally directed to be annoying, rather than lethal. Poison spiders roam the forest no so much to make it more dangerous, but to punish you for not buying antidotes.

We then find ourselves treading a very thin line – utility effects need to be effective and relevant, enough to turn the tide of a battle, but not game-breaking. Enemies should be vulnerable to debuffs, but, as a general rule, not be incapacitated by these effects. Player characters should be similarly vulnerable, but not incapacitated by the same effects. Enemies should make use of buffs and healing effects, and player characters should be encouraged to do the same, but there should be limits and opportunity cost involved.

In D&D, this is addressed primarily through combat maneuvers and magic. Wizards seem to get a pass with utility effects, so that’s not really broken. Combat maneuvers are presented in a needlessly complex manner (somewhat streamlined in some versions), loaded down with flowcharts and formulae. Things make sense once it’s studied, and it is perhaps a balanced system, but there’s very little incentive to bother with the Byzantine rules unless there’s an in-character reason for attempting these maneuvers. A character specifically designed to perform a specific combat maneuver likely has a strong incentive to use that particular maneuver. Otherwise, it’s a “shoot the moon” attempt, giving up your normal action for a (narrow) chance of getting a big effect. As a general rule, given the average players and GM, combat maneuvers only come into play when a specialist uses them or when a monster gets them for free. While that may be perfectly legitimate in that you want your player characters to perform actions for character motivations, it ignores the fact that D&D, as presented by the rules in the book, consists in large part of a grid-based tactical game. The presence of utility effects is not enough on its own – there must exist incentives for the player characters and their antagonists to both use them. And this is one of the better examples.

In many games, the utility effects are actually overpowered, giving the player characters an unfair advantage – they were balanced on the assumption that most players won’t even bother. In other games, there are utility effects available, but they are worthless to the players, so the only player response is “punch the poison spiders in the face.” Neither of these approaches are satisfactory.

Final Fantasy X is actually a good example of utility effects given more meaning.  Especially in the early game, the system is like an overly complex Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, but this extends to bosses, as well – they are vulnerable to debuffs, buffs make the players more effective, etc. Unfortunately, in the late game, things pretty much devolve into “punch it in the face harder,” largely because there’s little to no evolution beyond the initial RPScLSp system. An example of a game where utility effects matter more and more as the game goes on would be Treasure of the Rudras (not released outside Japan). In the early game, you could get by on brute force, but the later bosses were simply too powerful.  If you managed to develop a solid set of spells and strategy, focusing heavily on utility effects, however, the battles actually became possible. Similarly, the enemies had no compunction with using utility effects on the players, and they managed to make the battles more difficult, rather than more annoying.

Returning to a narrative example of this concept, to emphasize the applicability beyond video games, we have One Piece. Right from the get-go, many of the main characters are phenomenally strong. As the story progresses, their opponents get progressively stronger, but the threat is rarely a matter of overwhelming strength.  Most of the tension in conflicts stems from unorthodox styles, fixing the match to give one side an unfair advantage, and otherwise presenting situations where you can’t simply punch the problem into submission. Conversely, some of the main characters are relatively weak, and they manage to defeat superhuman opponents through ingenuity rather than raw force.

While it may be cathartic to solve problems with moar dakka and bigger guns, it’s more satisfying when brains are applied as well as brawn.

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Support Roles

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And now for something completely different…

A popular mechanic for many games is a class system, giving a sense of variety and tactical decisions. Each class excels at a certain role, applying the principle of specialization of labor.  In theory, this specialization also allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts – after all, specialization of labor is absolutely integral to the basis of civilization and the manufacturing revolution.

There is, however a tension between classes, as classes can fall into two general categories: Soloable roles and Support roles.  The Soloable class is often the Fighter, able to take a hit and dish out a solid blow.  They don’t need anyone else.  Support classes tend to be things like the Tank (indestructible, low damage output), the Artillery (massive damage output, glass jaw), and Utility (low damage output, fragile, but dirty tricks).  A support class trades core competencies for greater aptitude in other areas.  Depending on the precise system, Tanks and Artillery are semi-soloable, with Tanks being slightly more soloable inclined.

Leaving us with Utility.  While Tanks and Artillery get some of the Support stigma, their value is readily apparent, as is their soloability. Many Utilities are capable of soloing, but they lack the survivability and damage output to do it as fast and successfully as soloables.

Many people dislike Utilities, whether it be playing with them or playing as them. People of course appreciate healing effects, but that usually means that anyone with healing talent is reduced to “Healer” regardless of other competencies. Or “Useless,” if their healing isn’t terribly effective.

Utility tends to work behind the scenes – their role is “make the others feel more awesome.” They trade in making allies more powerful or making enemies weaker. They also tend to be extremely good at this, to make up for their terrible offensive and defensive capabilities. This tends to be a thankless job in many settings, as fanfare is delivered for striking killing blows or making phenomenal saves.  Everyone cheers for the Quarterback, while the Linebackers, at best, are praised as a unit.

As a general rule, then, it tends to be a certain class of people that gravitate toward Utility roles. The stage crew often gets as much satisfaction from a successful play as the lead roles. The editor takes pride in turning a gifted author’s work into something readable and less fraught with cliches. These are people that don’t seek – and often don’t want – the spotlight, though they do appreciate the occasional shout-out, or even just a nod of appreciation. Interestingly, many of those naturally inclined toward Utility actually find themselves bored by the more Soloable roles – Utilities often take a wide-angle approach to a given situation, while Soloables take a narrowly-focused, more personal role. If someone’s used to being a chessmaster, they resent becoming a single piece, even if that piece is the Queen.

Which leads to a growing trend, which is somewhat distressing – the attempt to “fix” Utilities.

From a demographic standpoint, many more people want to be Soloables than Utilities. As stated, they find Utilities worthless, frustrating, or simply a headache. So people petition the designers to make the Utilities more soloable, because they want variety in their choice of soloables. The designers are then compelled to increase the soloability of Utilities, consequently weakening their utility.

Examples of this abound throughout games. In Team Fortress, the Medics are fragile and have relatively weak attacks. This is balanced by allowing healing to be counted for assists, as well as providing them with the only submachine guns in the game. In City of Heroes, Controllers had their hard controls weakened, in exchange for “containment” – an ability that dramatically increases their damage output. These are relatively good examples, as the classes remain Utilities, but aren’t quite as helpless when they’re alone.

For a less beneficial example, we turn to an unfortunate example – unfortunate because it already gets enough grief on the internet as it is.  I am, of course, referring to Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, or D&D 4E (and the coming 5E). In previous editions, there was quite a range of power level, especially if you’re talking about everything falling under the d20 umbrella. Generally, there was a balance between Utility and Soloability, with the ever unavoidable exceptions, and many of the less combat-capable were extremely useful outside of combat. Alternately, their value in combat was less for their own combat capabilities and more for making their allies better.

But that was not to remain the case. As one of the most popular D&D memes is “Bards Suck,” the designers decided to start from the perspective of the Soloability proponents. Thus, all classes were developed to be nearly interchangeable with balance – different classes meant slightly different flavors, but everyone worked in a relatively similar manner. Healing was reduced to a short-term concern, an d particular effort was made to ensure that no class would be a “heal bot.” Control effects were lumped together with light artillery – maintaining perhaps the greatest degree of utility, but still focusing heavily on damage output.

There are largely three problems with “fixing” Utilities. The most obvious drawback is the fact that there are people that truly enjoy and desire Utility play.  “Fixing” utilities simply drives them away, as the implication is that they’re not really wanted. The second issue is similarly apparent – at best you end up with a variety of fruit-flavored fighters, at worst you end up with Frankenstein’s monsters that aren’t very good at anything. Finally, you have the intangible – the primary role of the utilities is to make their allies feel more powerful. When utilities are weakened, it can lead to everyone feeling less powerful.

So, even if Utilities aren’t your thing, let them live. There are people who love staying out of the spotlight, especially when they can do more from out there. Besides, it’s more civilized. Utilities allow for a team to work together – a group of Soloables is simply soloing in tandem – there is much less need, desire, or appreciation for cohesion.

Visual Novels

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Visual Novels are a strange creature, with the term only now really reaching mainstream Western culture through such avenues as the Phoenix Wright series and the newly minted Zero Escape series, originally known as the game 999 – Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors. Arguably, visual novels have been present in the west for ages, though not recognized as such.

Visual novels have a bit of an identity crisis. This is perhaps because of the broad definition. Stripped to the most basic elements, it appears that visual novels require a graphical element and a story conveyed through the written word.  Most visual novels include music and sound effects, they often include animation, and an increasing number are partially or fully voiced.  So, by the strict definition, a visual novel can encompass anything from an illustrated ebook (which many would consider a stretch) to a fully animated, fully voiced presentation – essentially a movie with subtitles and user prompts.  Visual novels generally – but not always – have choices at pivotal points, in the vein of Choose Your Own Adventure books.  So, to qualify as a visual novel, it appears to require the visual element, the text element, and user-prompted progression, often with a multiple choice element.

Definition aside, the general approach of Visual Novels is a text window with a background designating the location and portraits of the characters interacting with the main character (generally portraits from the knees up). At key points when the text description seems insufficient, there will be a CG (I’m guessing it stands for Custom Graphic, but the acronym’s never actually been explained to me).  Again, this is not the ideal for Visual Novels – it is only the norm.

Likely due in part to the unclear identity, there is discussion and debate over whether Visual Novels can be considered Video Games. From a technical standpoint, they bear a strong resemblance to video games, packaged in a similar manner, with a presentation bearing many of the tropes of video game design (i.e. save/load feature, “victory” and “defeat,” etc.) The waters get muddied even further as Visual Novels mover further and further away from static images and text. If we were to classify Visual Novels as a sort of Video Game, they would likely be the most obvious form of non-Toy video game.

999 is pretty universally considered a Visual Novel.  Oddly enough, there appears to be less certainty that Phoenix Wright is a visual novel, despite the seeming closer adherence to Visual Novel conventions. 999 has loads and loads of text, a Forking Multipath structure, and a few (limited) animations. 999 is also an example of a Visual Novel hybrid. In between the visual novel sequences, there are “room escape” segments, in which you explore a room Myst-style (or Monkey Island), use random objects in resourceful ways, all to find a way to get out of the room.  In this way, 999 is half Toy and half Visual Novel.

Phoenix Wright also presents the loads and loads of text, portraits and text boxes, and actually has arguably less Toy to it.  The Investigation portions are a quasi-Network narrative (i.e. much more Linear with the appearance of choice), while the Courtroom portions are a heavily Branching Linear with pre-decisional looping (i.e. everything repeats until you make a decision).  This ties into an entirely unnecessary failure condition to give a weak appearance of Toy. Strictly speaking, the entire Ace Attorney (i.e. Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, Investigations) series is a terrible Toy, yet is more likely to be considered a video game rather than a Visual Novel.

I would argue that the reason Ace Attorney is considered a Video game is because it has a strong similarity with the Adventure games of yore, such as Monkey Island, King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, etc.  However, each of these games hold some similarity to visual novels.  Many JRPGs also resemble Visual Novels, with a plethora of portraits and text boxes.  Arguably, the Mass Effect Series is a visual novel – instead of 999‘s room escapes, it has third-person shooter segments with RPG elements. Considering it is the narrative and choices that people talk about with Mass Effect, not the mediocre third-person shooter, it could be argued that Mass Effect deserves to be considered a Visual Novel.

There is, however, one notorious element which relegates Visual Novels to a marginalized class – the eroge.

What is an eroge?  Like Visual Novel, the term is broad and vague. It’s a Japanese-originated portmanteau of English words (they do that a LOT).  It is a combination of “erotic” and “game.” If a game contains sexual content, it’s placed in the eroge bucket.  Mass Effect and Monkey Island fans don’t want to be associated with Japanese fetish porn (can’t blame them), so they distance themselves from the concept of a Visual Novel, because Visual Novels are associated with eroge. And yes, if Mass Effect is a Visual Novel, it’s also an eroge.

Not all eroge are created equal. On one end of the spectrum, you have a half-hearted attempt at plot to serve as an excuse to hop from one explicit scene to the next.  Those are porn, plain and simple. Then you have an actual effort at a story, sprinkled liberally with explicit scenes.  This is harder to categorize, because there are some truly compelling stories, buried under layers of porn.  Some of the stories had later versions with the explicit content removed, but most never receive a clean rerelease. So, for the most part, you have the narrative equivalent of an ice cream sundae drizzled with motor oil, which is a shame.  Finally, there are stories which happen to have explicit content, but the content is properly contextualized in the narrative.  With the game elements of many Visual Novels, this becomes an unfortunate “Sex as a reward,” though not always the case.  Even at that, this latter category seems to have a very strong stigma against it.  This likely ties to the perception of Visual Novels as Video Games, Video Games as Toys, and Toys as being purely for kids.  There are several movies which have explicit content, often entirely gratuitous, and they receive critical acclaim.  When a Visual Novel has explicit content, even if it is measured, tasteful, and relevant to the plot, it is dismissed as some sort of twisted juvenile porn.

Whether or not it is proper to address explicit material in a narrative is a question of art as a whole. There are several factors, as I have previously addressed, but it is not a judgement that can be made on the basis of medium, only on content, intent, and interpretation. And even then, the final element of the experience is the individual.  An individual, in the proper (or improper) disposition, can find pornography in great art, or great art buried in pornography.  One should obviously avoid the former, but it must be a solemn and well-considered decision to attempt the latter – the experience will change the individual, so it is best to be prudent in determining what should be experienced.

Narrative Structures

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Time for a change in pace.  Narrative Structure, in the sense used in this post, refers to the flow and progression of the story.  Arguably, the narrative structures mentioned here are more prominent in interactive media, but they can just as easily appear in books or movies.

Linear

This is the simplest and most straightforward structure.  You start at the beginning and continue forward until you reach the end.  Strictly speaking, Linear structure tends to be the superstructure of any narrative, but there are rare cases where there is no sense of Linearity.

Branching

This is a slight variation from Linear.  In a Branching narrative, there are side paths, but they return to the core narrative while retaining the status quo.  A filler arc in a television show is a Branch.  A scene in a movie that provides no contribution to the plot is a Branch.  In dungeons in RPGs, Branches manifest as “go the wrong way for more treasure.”  Branches aren’t always bad; they aren’t always detrimental to the narrative.  For example, a Branch can provide characterization of other insights into the narrative or interpretation, without actually pushing the plot forward.  Arguably, Citizen Kane‘s narrative is a reporter trying to figure out what “Rosebud” means.  90% of the movie, then, is Branches.

Multipath

Another variation of linear.  Multipath is like branching, but the branch rejoins the story at a different point than the departure, allowing two routes through the narrative.  This is easier to see in video games, where one path takes you over the mountain, while another takes you through the mountain.  At the end, you’ve arrived at the same point, but you took different routes to get there.  Super Mario Bros. is on the surface Linear, but secret pipes, beanstalks, and warp zones reveal the hidden Multipath aspects.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)(AKA The Lost Levels)  added reverse warp zones, making the narrative recursive, but still a Linear Multipath.

Forking

Unlike Branching and Multipath, a Forking structure never returns to the source.  Most Choose Your Own Adventure books used a Forking structure, with the occasional instance of Multipath.  The movie Clue was presented in theatres in a forking structure, with three different endings, randomly chosen.  The DVD version presents a choice at the beginning, between the theatrical random ending and the VHS all three endings.  Therefore, the DVD version actually has two Forks – one at the beginning, and one at the end of the former path.

Network

A Network is, in its purest sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Linear structure.  In a Networked narrative, there are several Nodes, or points of interest, and paths between the Nodes, connecting many – but not necessarily all – to each other.  There are few examples of a pure Network narrative, but, in fairness, there are few pure Linear narratives as well.  Memento is probably an effective example of a Network used in a non-interactive medium – there are several points of interest throughout the presentation, but they are not presented in a Linear manner.

Gated Network

A Gated Network is essentially a Network with a mild Linear superstructure.  There is something necessary to progress the plot forward, but there is no narrative compulsion to achieve that goal at any specific point.  The Legend of Zelda is a simple Gated Network – you have freedom of movement among nodes, but need some items to bypass obstacles (soft gates), and need to complete narrative goals to reach the final dungeon (hard gate).

Putting it Together

Any specific example is likely to use many of these structures in a nested format.  The Megaman series is a gated network with a hard gate (defeat all the robot masters) leading to a linear second half.  In the earlier games, the Network is a Linear Network, as each node can only be visited (completed) once.  Each node within the Network (as well as the post-Network levels) is itself a Linear narrative, generally with Branches and the occasional Multipath.  Later games even experiemented with Forks in the sub-nodes.  Mass Effect 2 presents Linear interpersonal narratives with Forks.  Each conversation is a combination of Linear Multipath and Linear Fork, as well.  This is all encapsulated in a Gated Network which is seeded with a few linear nodes.  And event hat comes off as an oversimplification.

Flags and Variables

Flags and Variables are not inherent to narrative structure, and largely only present in video games from a technical standpoint, but they are necessary in understanding and dissecting a narrative structure.  Branches, Forks, and Multipaths are occasionally presented as a direct choice, but they are often the result of flags and variables set by previous choices.  Flags are a binary value – it is true or it is false.  When an event triggers a flag, the flag is set to “true” or “false” or, in some circumstances, is toggled (i.e. switched from true to false or vice-versa).  Flags occasionally appeared in Choose Your Own Adventure books that included Branches or Multipath – “If you have the MacGuffin, turn to page 20.  If you do not have the MacGuffin, turn to page 127.”  Variables work in roughly the same way as Flags (i.e. as logic gates), but are incremental.  When an event triggers a variable, a number is added to or subtracted from the stored variable.  In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they would be presented as “If you have five or more vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 63.  If you have fewer than four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 16.  If you have four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 140.”  Returning to the Mass Effect 2 example, certain conversation options require a minimum variable (generally Paragon or Renegade value).  After the loyalty arc for any potential romantic partners, the “Interested in Romance” flag for that individual is set to “true,” and remains true until the wrong thing is said.  When the “Interested in Romance” flag is false, the characters have much less to say, though they may have new dialog due to the “loyalty” flag being true.