Let Me Tell You Why You Like Small Independent Developers

Psh. Man. You know who sucks? Activation. Ooh, and EA! Those guys are awful. Sure, they release dozens of games each year that gross, like, about, I don’t know, what, A BAZILLION OF THE DOLLARS. But they’re evil and soulless and moneygrubbing corporations.

They’ve let themselves be turned into that by the way they treat games. Video games are an art, this is a truth all of us knows. Look at Shadow of Colossus or Limbo or Until Dawn or Journey or Okami or, for heaven’s sake, Portal. These are brilliantly constructed pieces of an artistic medium that make us think and make us feel.

And I mean, that’s something beautiful, isn’t it? Some of these games, man, they leave you near tears afterwards. Hell, I’ve cried after playing a few of them. Or a lot of them. I don’t know about you guys, but in my opinion, that right there is a signifier of an amazing game and an amazing piece of art both.

But big corporations don’t care about that. They’re not interested in making art, they’re interested in making money, and no amount will ever be enough for them. They do every little thing they can squeeze money out of us like blood out of a rock. Micro-transactions. DLC. Season passes. Every year it’s like there’s a new service we have to play for but can’t seem to play without.

What does that leave us with?

Small, independent developers.

Those glorious, magnificent, final bastions of hope. Glowing pillars of light to save us from the darkness. Where corporations are giant, monolithic despots who try to suck the money out of us, and small, independent developers just want to make games that people love because they love games.

Really, they have the perfect position for it. Triple-A titles might have a massive budget, but they’re also forced to act as slaves for the production companies. They have to Hollywoodize everything, have big name actors and massive cinematic events. There needs to be explosions and set-piece moments and RPG elements.

But we don’t want that, do we!? No! We want real, deep, intimate, innovative gameplay. We want something new. We don’t want a billion sequels. Massive companies don’t care, but the little guys, they know what we want.

They have freedom, the freedom they need to construct an amazing game. They might have a bewilderingly complex narrative, like The Stanley Parable. Or maybe it’ll just be simplistic, but with everything a player needs to spend hours thinking about it, like Five Nights at Freddy’s.

And! They can explore innovative game space! For example, there’s a brilliant little indie game called One Finger Death Punch. The game is about stick figures having an epic and bloody martial arts brawl, ala the Crazy 88 scene out of Kill Bill. You know what the controls are? Right and left click. That’s it, you just have to time the clicks with the approach of enemies. That’s amazing and unique and fresh and we love it.

Because that’s what small, independent developers can do. They free from the constraints of corporate shackles, able to pursue the dreams they want to craft the games we love…

And Let Me Tell You Why You Shouldn’t

…kind of. I mean yeah, all of the indie games I mentioned earlier are amazing. I’ve played them into the ground because of both how fun they are and just because they make me feel so much. I mean dang.

At the same time, though, it’s not like they’re the greatest games ever made. If I had to choose between The Stanley Parable and Rise of the Tomb Raider, sorry but I’d pick the latter.

Because, yeah, it might sound like something a sellout would say, but there’s a reason triple-A titles are that way. They work. Set piece moments? Dramatic cinematics? Explosions? All of those things are great. But not just that, consistent, quality content. Good graphics, polished gameplay, sound and level design, all of these things are infinitely easier for development teams with an actual budget.

And that doesn’t actually make them any worse for it. It’s not like indie developers have some moral imperative, some divine mandate saying that they own good stories, for example. People like to whine about how awful stories are in games nowadays but you know what? People need to stop drinking their gosh darned hatorade.

What about Fallout 4? Or the previously mentioned Until Dawn? Heck, I know they aren’t exactly the pinnacle of storytelling, but at the end of the day even the Call of Duty games have some pretty decent stories. And it has nothing to do with freedom, except maybe the triple-A tendency to leave openings for sequels. But it’s not like the sequel bug hasn’t hit the indie industry.

Let’s back it up a sec, why were even mad at larger corporations? Because they continue to make games that sell incredibly well? Oh no!

Spoiler alert people, that being successful and practicing a business model that makes money does not make you a soulless, money grubbing, monolithic entity. It makes you a business. No more and no less, and certainly not any worse than anybody else. I’m not sure at what point people lost sight of this, but literally the point of a business is to make money. For some reason that got demonized along the way and now we hate companies for giving us their stuff for free.

You know what’s the greatest reason you shouldn’t hate these companies and love indie companies? Because you don’t even want to. Look at the math. For all people claim that they hate the endless cycle of Madden’s and Call of Duty’s they still sell. Because you can say that you want new things and innovation, and to some extent you do. But not nearly as much as you think.

The simple truth is people like what’s out there, and they want more. Larger corporations, triple-A titles, they’re not going anywhere. Sure, lots of smaller game from indie developers sell well, but they also cost $10. That’s a pretty big factor in demand.

So stop yelling at EA and Activision because they offered you a product in exchange for money.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Rhythm Games

Guitar Hero and Rock Band have recently released the newest installments in their franchises, so in honor of their return to the forefront of gaming, or at least the peripheral vision of gaming, I thought I’d go ahead and tackle the subject of rhythm games.

Exciting, aren’t they? All fingers dancing up and down the frets. Strumming down, and, sometimes, up. Wammying on the wammy bar. Other music related things. These games were absolute blasts to play with a group of friends, just chilling on the couch and jamming to hip young rock music.

What exactly about that cultural phenomenon enthralled us so intensely? Was it the synthetic cheers of a digital crowd? The companionship of crafting a musical journey with your friends? The joy of fine tuning a solo in the practice room for hours on end?

Nope. We always just wanted two things: points and music. It might sound a little cold and clinical to say that, but honestly it’s the truth. Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

When people sit down to play these games, do they sit down for one or two songs? No, they sit down and jam to a ton of them. You make a night of it, blazing through a playlist on your own or forming an impromptu band with your friends.

And when you complete a song, you’re not done with it forever. You go back and play it again. You do it better, you do it on a higher difficulty, and you repeat the whole process until you really nail it. Sure, completing some songs at all are impressive enough on their own, can you really even say you beat the song until you beat it with three stars?

Of course not. So you go back and do it again, and again. And eventually you pull it off, for that song. But here’s the thing: there’s a bazillion songs, and your brain is screaming at you to rock the high score on all of them.
Because the game is simple. The core mechanic of rhythm games is incredibly straightforward, no matter how many extra attachments the various games try to tack on, these games are in their simplest form, just extended quick-time events set to music. It’s imminently understandable, easily repeatable, highly addictive, and perfectly conducive to trying to grab the high score.
Seriously, there’s an obscenely low threshold for repeating sections of these games. How many of you have started a song, missed a few of the first notes or messed up the opening section, and then just instantly restarted? And then you do it again! Over and over because it’s the easiest thing in the world and you want to do it perfectly so you can get a high score.

So on to the second part: we like music. Seems… almost too obvious, right? But it’s honestly the answer. In fact, it’s probably a bigger reason than the previously mentioned high score thing.

The simple thing is people love music. Even people like me for example, who like music but don’t go out of our way to learn about it and pick favorites and such, there are a ton of songs out there that are just a blast to listen to.

So rhythm games just turn the process into an activity. Instead of just zoning out sitting in a room listening to music, you can actively engage in making the music. It focuses us in even more, makes us listen to the songs, gets us to feel them in a way we wouldn’t otherwise.

Which is something we always would enjoy to do but, for most of us, rarely have the opportunity. I like music a lot, but I would never just lay in bed listening to it. It’s just not for me, so I would never otherwise get to know a lot of songs.

Rhythm games give me, and you, that opportunity. It takes something everybody already like, music, and frames it in a different way that makes it even more enjoyable to people who already like it and enjoyable in the first place to people who wouldn’t otherwise, all by engaging them with a simple quick-time event mini-game.

The simple fact of the matter is that rhythm games are little more diverse sound tracks attached to a game no more complicated than you might find, and in fact often do find, on a mobile game from an iPad. The creators took a simple concept, added another simple concept, and watched millions of people become addicted in the blink of an eye.

So why did we all stop playing? Because we did. They might be making a small comeback but there was a large stretch of years where rhythm games were basically dead. Nobody made them, and nobody played them. But if the formulae for these games was so simple and perfect, why would we ever stop playing?

The answer is simple oversaturation. There’s only so much you can play a single type of mini-game before it gets really, really boring. By the same token, there’s only so much you can listen to a song before you just get sick of it. Rhythm games suffered from both of those problems.

At the same time, people started to realize that every new release was a full game priced set of songs. There was no real room for innovation in the game, so each one was basically the same as the last but with new music. Eventually they even started selling songs individually as DLC, which really was nailing its own coffin.

That said, time has passed. The two new releases have actually added some new ideas. Maybe that’ll be what it takes to reinvigorate the genre and get people playing it just as much as before.

I mean probably not. But maybe.

Let Me Ask You Why You Like Bloodborne

I like games. I like them a whole dang lot, as it happens, which is something you’ve probably noticed. So there aren’t a whole lot of games I hate, or even that I just don’t like. I can get excited about almost any game. Even if I don’t exactly like a game, I can almost always understand and acknowledge why I others do.

So I sat down today to write my next article, a series in which I explain to people why they like things, and I decided I’d do the immensely popular Bloodborne, and other similar games likewise created by From Software. And I realized something interesting.

I have no idea why people like these games.

Honest to god, just no idea at all. I’ve watched a lot of gameplay and played a lot of the games myself, and I just don’t get it. People are absolutely crazy about these games, they have massive sales numbers and you see tons of media about them all the time. So obviously there is a reason people like them.

You’ve probably figured out the point of the change in the title from normal. If you didn’t notice it, go back. It’s clever.

So why do you like Bloodborne? Let’s try working through this methodically. We’ll start with the aesthetic, visuals and audio and overall theme. The game is set in… Victorian England? I think? It’s not exactly clear, and there’s plenty of components to the game that would obviously necessitate a limited alternate history. But it looks like Victorian England, just with utterly nonsensical architecture and incomprehensible city layouts. The monsters are a blend of deranged townsfolk, mutated deranged townsfolk, limb monsters, dog birds, and inexplicably, aliens.

Which is pretty standard stuff, all things considers. I mean the aliens feel a little out of place, but other than that everything feels pretty standard for a game with a corrupted village motif, which is itself a pretty common motif. You might be saying that the limb monsters bit is new and unique, and you’d be right unless you’ve seen literally anything produced by Japan in the last four decades.

So it’s not the overall aesthetic theme that does it for people, which leaves only actual graphical and audio specs of the game which are, to me at least, unimpressive. Honestly, I’m perplexed when people have told me the game looks amazing. If it weren’t for the sweeping vistas and fire effects, which are admittedly impressive but hardly game making, I wouldn’t have been surprised by this game’s presence on a previous console generation.

If it’s not the style or quality that draws people, maybe it’s the story? Well take a look at the story. You are a… person. You wake up in a city that has been beset by monsters and sickness. You then go outside and proceed to pretty much murder everything you come into contact with. Because reasons, I guess. I assume the end goal is to stop the monsters and cure the sickness, I think?

Honestly this is a complaint I’ve had with From Software for some time. They consistently make their games purposeful minimalistic from a storytelling perspective. Which is fine, I actually like minimalist stories as a concept. Portal, for example, had a very small story presence that was still beautifully impactful.

The problem Bloodborne and in fact most of the games From Software (good lord that’s an awful name for a company, I literally cringe every time I type it out) make is that they nail the minimalist part without really having much of a story. Yes, of course I’m aware that there is a story and in the grand scheme of things it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s delivered in such an awful way and utterly fails to do the thing that the story is supposed to do, i.e. draw me into the game on an emotional level.

I played a few hours of Dark Souls and about six hours of Dark Souls II and Bloodborne, and you know what I discovered about their stories? Not a dang thing. Honest to god, I was confused to start with in all three games and by the time I finally gave up (which was a long while, since I wanted to give up about twenty minutes in) I had more questions than answers. And not in the good, “oh man what a great mystery” kind of way. In the “I don’t actually care about these questions” kind of way.

I didn’t even know why I was fighting people. I mean they were monstrous, and had health bars, and attacked me. So it wasn’t exactly a stretch to figure out I was supposed to attack them. But other than self-preservation I had bugger all reason to actually try and attack these people, and self-preservation is an awful reason to attack something when it can be achieved just as easily by leaving. I mean I’m not opposed to the idea of attacking people because a game tells me I’m supposed to, but the game wasn’t even speaking to me. And if it was supposed come across as some story on moral ambiguity and why we fight and humans are the real monsters, it really missed the mark.

Not aesthetic, not story, what’s next on the list then? Gameplay? What gameplay? I’m not even sure what to call this game in terms of how the gameplay defines it. Other people argue it’s an RPG pretty strongly but I feel obligate to argue with that since there is absolutely zero you can do in the game to differentiate your story from your friend’s story. And no, playing with a one handed sword when your friend used a two handed sword doesn’t count. That’s like calling Halo an RPG because I used an SMG and they used a Battle Rifle.

There’s character customization and upgrading, albeit executed in the most mind bogglingly complex and unfun way imaginable to me via the Russian nesting doll that is its menu system. This doesn’t really constitute an RPG, though. I mean Borderlands has the same (if immensely simpler and more fun) type of RPG elements, but people call it a shooter first and an RPG second.
So maybe Bloodborne is like that. I guess it would technically be a hack and slash with RPG elements. Which is not good for the game, since its hack and slash mechanics are as fluid and deep as a cinderblock. Seriously how can anyone enjoy playing this? The combat is frustratingly clunky and the button layout makes no sense, and even when you successfully outmaneuver and defeat an opponent the thrill wears off pretty quick when you realize all you did was dodge and attack back, and that’s the only maneuver the game has to offer you.

So let’s double back. Is it the menus? Is the core of the game the leviathanesque network of menus and numbers, where you construct your character via a min-maxing process of upgrading gear, leveling attributes, and allocating resources? I mean, I absolutely hate that component of it, but I recognize that this part is just my personal preference and other people could definitely like it.

Maybe that’s it then. It’s the menus. They’re the only thing I can’t fault in the game, even though I personally find it awful. That would make the emphasis of the game is the menus themselves, and the awful quality of all the tangential components is a result of them being added afterwards as set dressing. Because the core of the game is menus.

You like the game because of the menus.

There. I’m done.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Movement Based Games

Do you guys remember the EyeToy? It was a camera you could plug into your PS2 that could, in exceptionally rough ways, detect movement and translate that to a game. It brought us such classics as AntiGrav and… I’m sure there were others. Probably.

Anyway, that was more than a decade ago, and in the time since the technology we use for video game motion controls has gotten significantly better. We have the Kinect, the PS Move, and, of course, the Wii and all of its dazzling paraphernalia. All of them work to greater or lesser degrees, and the majority of them, at least the ones that have a modern generation equivalent, are remarkably popular.

So why do we like them so much? I mean hey, if you’re reading this you’re probably a serious gamer, or at least serious enough to go looking for articles on the subject. And we serious gamers, not to perpetuate stereotypes, don’t tend to be the most outdoorsy and athletic types. As a general rule.

And yet we came out in droves to get ahold of all these movement based… things. My family got a Wii, a bunch of exciting motion games, even the Wii Fit. I had Kinect on the 360 and kept it with the One. I had the Move for the PS3 and if they make one or have already made one for the PS4, I’ll probably get it at some point I think maybe.

I know I’m not the only one. If you’re reading this I can pretty much guarantee you’ve bought at least one of those things if not more. And why? What draws us to all this movement and motion?

To answer that we have to look at why people play games in the first place. Now that is a very complicated and diverse topic but the simple answer, and the one that basically applies to everybody, is that video games are a form of escapism. Whether we play for a cathartic release or to experience an artistic medium, we’re playing games to remove ourselves briefly from our own world and experience a world that doesn’t and often couldn’t exist.

Motion controls, then, should feel like a fairly obvious extension of that premise. When we play games we want to be immersed in them. What better way to be immersed than by actually doing the things your character is on screen? I don’t want to just have my character go running and jumping through a forest, I want to actually run and jump through a forest. I don’t want to play as a jedi dashing around killing droids with a lightsaber, I want to BE a jedi dashing around killing droids with a lightsaber.

No, a Kinect will not actually make me such a thing. But it will certainly get me closer than a controller will.

It’s the simple act of immersing into escapism. You stand there doing all of these fun little things, acting wild and silly and active and it’s all just so exciting. Sometimes it’s even just small things, like in Alien: Isolation. It’s a first person horror game, and you have the option of tilting your head from side to side to peek around corners. That’s just fricking cool.

And yet…

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Non-Movement Based Games More

…movement based games haven’t truly taken off, not really. I mean sure, there’s a million different Just Dances and half as many Wii Fit variants. Dance Central, every sports game known to man, bowling out the wazoo.
But.

What else really is there? Other than the odd heavily themed but mostly unsuccessful game like Star Wars: Kinect, where the game is built entirely around the motion controls but in a method more advanced than simple mini-games, (a concept that hopefully won’t make it to titles like Assassin’s Creed) there’s not a lot out there.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all the sports and extreme white water rafting and endless amounts of dancing. But there comes a point where you realize, this is pretty much it. Until the technology gets EVEN better, we’ve pretty much hit the peak. Motion controls just aren’t where they need to be in order to pull off more complicated games, or to add significant features to otherwise serious games.

The latter of which, is a serious issue. There’s a lot for integrating motion controls in small but meaningful ways into games that use a regular controller for everything else. For example, you could make a throwing motion while playing an FPS to toss the grenade, instead of hitting the button. The problem is that this is harder than just pressing the button, and in most games, that difference is going to matter.

Not to mention, it gets tiring. This was perhaps the fatal flaw of Mad World, a brutal and inexplicably adult hack and slash game for the Wii. In the game players take on the role of Jack and fight through a massive and incredibly gory gladiatorial arena, utilizing motion controls to feel visceral joy as you rend your opponents and leave their entrails splattered across the walls. Which sounds awesome, and is awesome, at first. But then a horrible realization sets in.

Pressing X to slash is easy. You can do it thousands of times without caring. But waggle to slash? Every attack in the game is delivered via a particular Wii motion, and when you think about how often during a game you have to slash in a hack and slash style game, you begin to realize how unfortunate that is. I mean sure, I like the idea of waving the remote to attack, but when I have to do it hundreds of times every hour? I’m going to get tired, and frankly so would you. Even if you didn’t get tired, you’d get sore, and you’d stop having fun pretty quick.

That’s kind of the rub of motion controls, frankly. They’re just not efficient. And, they don’t actually succeed at what they set out to do. You remember earlier when I talked about escapism and immersion? Well motion controls, despite what you might think, really don’t help with that at all.
Consider this: when we play a game, we are living vicariously through the abilities and story of a character in the game. We want them to do exactly what we want, because we want to be them. We want the transition of our thoughts to their actions to be as seamless as possible.

When motion controls are involved, this becomes a several step process. We first decide our actions, then think them, then move, then the game detects our movement, then it inputs it into the game. That’s a lot of steps, and it takes a long time. The whole process can often take as long as second. That might not seem like much, but when every action you take lags a second behind your thoughts, it adds up fast. Suddenly you’re half a minute behind or even just dead. Because motion controls just aren’t efficient. They don’t do a good job translating our thoughts instantly to the character in the game.

You know what does though?

Buttons.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Games With Great Stories That Aren’t Just Stories or Story Games

So first off, I’d like to apologize for that title. I know, it’s more than a little wordy, but believe it or not that was the end product of twenty minutes spent trying to reduce a very long description into merely a mouthful. Fun fact this is called a lexical gap, when a language doesn’t have a single word to describe something and has to resort to a group of words. Which is somewhat humorous as lexical gap is, by itself, a lexical gap.

But anyway!

Story telling in video games is something that has been rather hit or miss for a long time. In the beginning with text based games story was basically all you had. As technology has advanced in fits and bursts storytelling has often been left in the wayside, eager to catch up a few years later. Presently, we are in a beautiful era where story is at the forefront, and even fairly basic indie games can not only have fantastic stories, but are often carried by them. All of this is a topic that has been explored, and much better explained, by another article series on our sight, Games for Non-Gamers.

Even if you think a lot of modern games have absolutely amazing stories, it still has to be acknowledged that there is quite a spectrum. Some are dramatically better than others, and at the top of the spectrum, for obvious reasons, is a whole bunch of RPGs. Directly underneath those are games like Uncharted and The Last of Us, which, if nothing else, should be a good indication of how skilled Naughty Dog is as a developer.

So what put’s these games so high on the list? What makes them top tier story games, aside from the simplistic answer of ‘they have a good story’. Which, if you really thought I was going to answer with that, you obviously have not read my previous articles.

In fact there are two very important reasons that these games and a lot of the RPGs above them (which I won’t be focusing on too much right now since I talked about them a good deal last week). These reasons are: stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there, and incidental dialogue.

Alright so, stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there, to continue the trend of lexical gaps forcing me to make very longwinded explanations. This is one of those things in games that everybody tends to make fun of in a vacuum but nobody can actually find a better idea for.

The core premise is simple: as the player roams around the game world they repeatedly come across diary entrees or audio logs that detail events that transpired in the past. In essence, these come across as enticingly potent short stories woven into the narrative.

Now faithful readers will connect this idea to my last article and the concept of an empty world. Essentially, storytelling is most impactful when it hits a delicate blend of being given to the player and forcing them to figure it out. When a game is 40% telling the story, 40% showing the story, and 20% player putting the pieces together, you have a beautifully delivered narrative.

Stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there perfectly embodies this when done right. It comes up a lot in horror games, like Dead Space or the aforementioned The Last of Us. In both games it is very common for players to find stuff that’s written… You know what screw this, I’m just going to abbreviate that to Stuff and you’ll get what I mean, yeah?

So in both games the players find Stuff all the time, and it can often narrate the situation before them. There’s a section in The Last of Us where the player enters a system of drains near the coast. Before entering they scavenge a boat and find a Stuff written as a journal entry where a man explains that he is going to enter the drains and try to hold up with some survivors. A large amount of zombies indicates it didn’t go well, and as the player navigates the area they find more Stuff revealing that the boat man developed a community here that was eventually overrun and resorted to a last stand, where you find several dead bodies. Upon finally exiting the drains through a jammed door, they find the actual entrance has been barricaded with a message scrawled on the wall warning people away from the area.

The whole thing is poignant and sad and indicative of brilliant storytelling. The level was there for game pacing purposes; Naughty Dog wanted another section with unbroken zombie fighting. Instead of shoehorning in a rushed subplot or a senseless subplot that bloated the game, they gave you this story from the past, a story for you to discover as you played. It kept you interested and prevented the otherwise monotonous section from fatiguing you.

So we have Stuff, and that kind of makes sense despite how long it takes to adequately describe it. What about incidental dialogue though? What the heck even is that?

Incidental dialogue is the stuff that happens in between the more the more direct storytelling. When characters talk to each other it is called dialogue, and that usually happens during set-piece moments or cutscenes, moments where there isn’t anything else going on but the narrative itself.
Incidental dialogue, on the other hand, is what the characters to say to each other outside of these dramatic moments. The random jokes or bits of dialogue that happen as you wonder across a field or maneuver through an otherwise empty building to loot.

These moments are of tremendous value, giving us insight into the characters outside of simply their progress through the story. They let us see the characters in a different light, learning about their opinions and personalities in a new way that helps develop them and give life to a story beyond simply it’s plot. Characterization is what drives the story of a game from good to stupendous, and incidental dialogue is what makes this happen.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Destiny. Now I know, the story of Destiny wasn’t exactly delivered in quite the spectacular fashion a lot of us were hoping for, that’s true. But there’s a lot here that’s still pretty amazing, particularly as the expansion were released, and extra particularly with the release of The Taken King. Despite its somewhat lackluster introduction, the new dialogue and voice action for the character of Ghost in the expansion is some of the best I’ve seen in a while.

There’s a mission where you’re rushing to assist an AI called Rasputin and, during a lull in combat, your Ghost takes a moment to chide you:

“As a fellow inorganic life form, I would like to tell you that Rasputin has a much better setup than I do. He has a secret bunker, and space weapons. I live in your backpack.”

It’s simple, and small, and completely irrelevant to the story, but that line of dialogue does so much to make me understand and care about Ghost. In the original game the quirky little robot came across as simply a, well, NOT quirky little robot. A floating, emotionless automaton sent by the Traveler to open doors for you. But in the expansion? He has life and personality. He’s silly and fun loving, caring about you and his job but still with enough emotion to be wistful and envious of other robots.

And I got all that from one line of dialogue.

It’s stuff like that, peppered throughout and delivered in such a way that it doesn’t NEED to be noticed but simply CAN be, that truly develops the story of these games to the extreme. We know Ghost is a quirky little robot. We know Ellie from The Last of Us loves puns. We know that Iron Bull and Sera from Dragon Age: Inquisition are both happy-go-lucky murder hobos. This all made incredibly clear to us because of all the random and incredibly enjoyable things they say to each other when nothing else is going on.

Good storytelling is done in a subtle fashion. It’s Stuff like that can make a player happy. See what I did there, with the capital S? That’s subtle storytelling. Frigging nailed it.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Fallout

So in case you’re living in a hole and missed E3 this year, Bethesda announced the upcoming release of Fallout 4. And when I say upcoming, I mean, like, impending. God dang November, impending, which is pretty awesome, and a good move on Bethesda’s part.

The excitement for this game is, frankly, obscene. Pretty much everyone in the world is jazzed about Fallout 4, and for good reason. The last two games in the series, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, were both absolutely amazing games. What’s more the most recent entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, which shares a large number of characteristics with Fallout and also made by Bethesda, was a stellar entry into the open-world RPG genre.

Yet, one has to wonder: why exactly is the series so popular? Obviously the story, theme, and gameplay is all amazing, it’s impossible to doubt that. But it’s hardly the only open-world RPG with those things, as Skyrim can attest. Still, Fallout 4 has been one of the most hotly anticipated games in years, with a much more present, or at least more vocal, base of supporters eagerly awaiting the games release.

So why? What differentiates the Fallout series from other, similar game? The answer to this question isn’t as simple as the ones in my previous article and, frankly, is probably a lot more controversial. The reason we all, myself included, love the Fallout games so incredibly much is for two very simple reasons: your story is yours, and the rest of the world is empty.

I know, you’re probably yelling about the second bit but give me a sec. We’ll get there, and I want to address the first bit first. That’s why I put it first. It’s a writing technique called parallelism, look it up.

Your story in the Fallout games is unequivocally yours. You start the game by either reinventing yourself or, in the case of Fallout 3, actually inventing yourself. From then on your story unfolds exactly as you want it to, with the decisions being made by you representing actual, reasonable decisions a person would make in those situations, with the very real option being for you to not make a decision and just ignore it.

For example in Fallout 3 there is a small village called Andale. It is home to a few families who live a peaceful, if Spartan life. It’s quiet and out of the way, with ample access to food and water. It’s idyllic, and visiting the village in your wanderings sees you met by the townsfolk and offered a meal and a place to sleep. There’s almost no reason to actually come to the village unless you stumble upon it.

But staying in the village for any length of time reveals a terrible secret: the entire village is comprised of cannibals, and the old man and children in the village aren’t crazy about the idea. You can either oppose them, killing the cannibals, inform them of the old man’s attempt to gain your aid, or just leave.

And that’s it. And that’s beautiful. The short story has absolutely no impact on your story overall. It doesn’t weave itself into the main narrative and it doesn’t force you into a sudden position of importance you didn’t want. The village doesn’t reveal itself to be a guild, with a chain of quests that result in you being the Grandmaster of the Cannibals and leave you with a group of people who care about you tremendously but whom you’ll never see again because there isn’t a reason for you to come back.

The world shapes you because of the decisions you make, and you in turn shape the world, but it never makes the mistake of forcing you to have massive impact everywhere you go. Which might seem like a bad thing but really, that’s awesome.

Think about it: in Skyrim you have the opportunity to complete dozens of quests. A very large portion of them, however, involve affiliation with some group or another that results in you not only being a member of the group, but actually the leader of it. If the quest doesn’t involve joining a group, it still often leads you into a position of power and relegates you to being some quasi-chosen one.

Now I love being the chosen one as much as the next guy, but you know what the problem with being the chosen one is? You don’t get to make any choices. I mean yeah, there’s usually a binary good or evil choice thrown into the mix but that’s not really a choice most of the time. In Fallout it’s not about good or evil, though karma is always a factor. It’s about the decision itself, every one of them a beautiful spectrum of gray, and how those decisions shape your character. You’re not just good or bad, you have opinions and reactions.

So onto the second of my points, the one most people are probably having a hard time swallowing. The Fallout world, believe it or not, is empty. ‘But wait,’ you say with arms outstretched, ‘what about all the things! There’s missions, and people, and places to explore. There’s tons of stuff in these games, you don’t what you’re talking about!’

Calm down there sparky. Yes, obviously the Fallout universe has tons of stuff there. Dozens of missions, tenfold that in people to talk to, and a whole bunch of places to just peak your head in. Here’s the thing, all of these things for you to do out in the bountiful world add up to very few actual NPC’s, particularly few that you run into during quests.

So why is that good? It harkens back to my first point, in that it doesn’t take away from your story. Let’s keep comparing it to Skyrim for a second here. In that game, every quest you find is just some random story that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things and is only affected by you because it drags you into it, pulling you away from the infinitely more important and time sensitive main mission and putting you on a pedestal as the chosen one of some backwoods farm.

Fallout, on the other hand, has quests you find that are just some random story that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and that’s the point. You’re a lone wanderer, traveling around the wasteland and just trying to survive. Any interaction you have with the world isn’t because you’re a chosen one or some kind of murder-hobo-mercenary, it’s because you felt like doing something. You’re your own person, and your interactions with the world or lack thereof are your own.

But beyond that, the empty world is just more interesting. When you go to a new place you aren’t looking at yet another group of people squabbling or stealing or doing… something. You’re looking at the aftermath of dozens or hundreds of detailed stories, piecing them together. You don’t find a silly thief locked in a closet with a broken lockpick, you find a rotted out door with a skeleton in a closet, clutching a book on lockpicking with a pack of bobby pins. There’s a story there, and that method of storytelling just feels so much cooler. It perfectly sells the lone wanderer vibe.

You know an example that sells this point even better? The Vaults. The Vaults are these dungeon-like locations scattered about the wasteland where people tried to survive the nuclear apocalypse, except a bunch of them were also social experiments where they did crazy things like stick one guy with a hundred women, or give a quarter the required food ration but triple the supply of weapons. When you delve into these Vaults, all of the inhabitants are (usually) long dead, and you are left to wander through the abandon complex trying to put together the pieces and figure out what happened. Simply put, it is brilliant.

And that, my fearless readers, is why the Fallout games are so uproariously popular. It’s a novel setting, but it focuses on your story first and executes the other stories through a brilliant implementation of storytelling that absolutely enraptures you. This universe is empty, and it is beautiful for it. In this case, less really does mean more.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like MOBAs

League of Legends is a completely free-to-play game. You could experience the entirety of it without ever spending a dime. And yet I have probably spent more money on it than any other game I own, and I’ve certainly logged more hours on it than any other.

But why is that? What is it about LoL and games like it, games like DOTA 2, Heroes of the Storm, and Smite, that just keeps us coming back for more? The reasons are are simple, when you really think about it, and they’re the things all MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) have in common: they compress advancement into a short period of time, they have a tremendous amount of variance, and he most cleverly disguised math you’ve ever not seen.

So, compressing advancement into a short period of time. What exactly does that mean? An easy way of thinking about it is to look at the level progression present in MMO’s like World of Warcraft and, believe it or not, the multiplayer component of FPS’s like Call of Duty.

As you play through these games you unlock new content for your character. This can be in the form of new powers, abilities, and gear for WoW or new perks, equipment, and guns for CoD. Obviously these are dramatically different games but at their core they revolve around this same system. Players are initially drawn into the game because of gameplay but the hook that keeps driving them forward is the promise of more stuff, stuff that is strung out beautifully along the level progression to always be tantalizing.

MOBA’s work fundamentally the same way, but with one key difference: instead of requiring hours or days of logged time in the game, the entire process takes half an hour to an hour. Players rush through level progression, gaining new powers, upgrades, and items every half a minute instead of every few hours.

And then, at games end, the whole thing is reset. The next time the player starts a game and chooses a character they’re back at level one with the minimum gold. In a different situation having to start over so often would be remarkably discouraging, since so much time would be invested. But with MOBA’s the player only ever “loses” a half an hour, an insignificant amount of time they can recoup in the span of a single game.

This ties into the second point in MOBA’s favor remarkably well, and that is the massive degree of variance. Think for a moment about any modern FPS. In the multiplayer of such games (with a few notable exceptions) players are all essentially the same aside from their chosen weapons and equipment. Everybody has access to all of these things as well, and everybody has the same core mechanics of running, jumping, shooting, etc.

But in a MOBA, that isn’t the case. There’s still the same core mechanics shared for every players: a small team, usually five, with a large number of weak bots fighting an opposing force and attempting to destroy several structures to win. The difference is that players aren’t going into the game as equals.

MOBA’s always have a large roster of characters. Heroes of the Storm, despite being a relatively new game, still has a whopping 43 available heroes, and longer running games can have rosters three times that. Each of these available characters have completely different abilities and stats, resulting in a completely unique game experience every single time as only ten are ever used in a single game. Even if the same ten are used from one game to a next the individual situations that occur in the game could vary drastically.

Now I suppose it is important I clarify something here. I’ve expounded upon the tremendous value of the variance MOBA’s have, but it’s unfair to say other games don’t have it as well. Call of Duty for example has larger teams with access to dozens of different weapons and pieces of gear, so the game definitely varies a lot and every game will have a unique experience.

The distinction that should be made is that when I say MOBA’s have tremendous variance, what I mean is that they have tremendous meaningful variance. If I round a corner in CoD and don’t see a guy hidden in the room, I’m dead. I just am, there’s nothing to it.

Now if I round a corner in Heroes of the Storm, things are going to be quite different. There’re 43 different people it could be, and my response to each of them is going to be different. None of them can kill me in the blink of an eye, so I’m going to get the chance to respond, and how I do that requires an immense amount of split second decision making on my part.

Which leads me right into my last point: these games do a beautiful job of hiding some fantastic math. Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, the in game number crunching isn’t concealed at all, and on purpose. You know how much health you have, how much damage you do, and the ratio at which your abilities are affected by your stats. None of that is hidden, and for good reason, as it goes a long way to help you gauging a situation.

But I’m not talking about that math, I’m talking about your math. The math players do in the fraction of second it takes for you to activate one ability or another. The math you run through in your head that you don’t even notice every time you decide whether or not you can fight an enemy, how you would fight them, should you fight them.

It’s like catching a ball. When a ball gets thrown at you, you can catch it. Anybody can, children can, it’s an astonishingly easy thing. If you tried to sit down and draw up the physics involved, equations and all, you wouldn’t be able to. Well most of you wouldn’t, I’m sure there are some physicist nerds out there. The exact same thing applies to MOBA’s, where you have to run through a bewilderingly large number of computations in order to make a judgement.

Obviously this is true in most games, but it is specifically true in MOBA’s, and mostly because of the meaningful variance I mentioned earlier. To be really good at these games you might have to at any given point understand the exact abilities and skills of ten unique characters and guess what they will do in the next few seconds, and based on the result make a decision for yourself.

These three things combine to create a dizzying array leaves players happy and eager to come back for more. Obviously game balance is a huge factor and a number of smaller considerations play a big part, but at the end of the day we keep coming back because there’s so much there. So much to unlock, to do, and to think about.

Let Me Tell You Why You Like Horror Games

Ah, horror games. They leave us emotionally exhausted, physically weary, bleary eyed, and saddled with the embarrassment of shouting remarkably crude things into the void. Yet we keep coming back for more, and people keep making more. Some of the most common and popular independently developed games of the last five years are horror titles.

These games exist to scare the heck out of us, which seems like something we shouldn’t really enjoy. So why exactly do we like them? The answer to that lies in two seemingly non-sensible facts: that horror is the very best kind of fear, and that fear is remarkably similar to comedy.

Let me address the first one to start with. I’m willing to bet most of you didn’t even realize there were different kinds of fear, which is not unreasonable given how modern society likes to smooth over and homogenize words. But the fact of the matter is there are several kinds, and while the exact nature of them can be argued I like to narrow it down to dread, phobia, unease, terror, and horror.

Let’s get the easy ones out of the way. Unease is when things just kind of vaguely creep you out or there is an obvious reason to fear them. Heights make people uneasy, because falling off of them will kill you. Dread is the sense of fear you have for a future event you don’t want to happen but expect to. It’s also a simple one and the event itself doesn’t even have to be the bad for the dread to hit you hard. Many people dread having to give a public speech. Phobia is a fear of something that extends beyond the rational. Nothing bad will happen if you walk through a small tunnel, but people with claustrophobia will be in immense fear regardless.

These three types of fear aren’t that effective in video games for very a simple reason: they deal directly with danger to you, and most people just aren’t that worried about what happens to their avatar in a game. You can’t have a phobia of something when you know it isn’t real. Unease is just another challenge to fight through. Dread doesn’t exist since the very concept of a game is a task to played through.

Now admittedly some games have found clever work arounds to make these fears impactful. Games likes Heavy Rain and Until Dawn have you play as multiple characters. When a given character dies they stay dead, with that woven into the narrative of the story. It makes dread and unease very real parts of the game, because suddenly the world isn’t just a space to be navigated but a massive and complicated death trap ready to steal your favorite characters.
Terror is a shocking fear. It is a sudden and jarring fear of something tumultuous that you have trouble even registering. A bomb exploding is a terrifying thing. It can flip the world around you on its head in a moment. Terror is a powerful form of fear, but it usually only last a short while, and rarely sticks with people beyond he moment itself the way some others do.
This seems like it should be an effective fear for video games, and in a way it is. The problem comes from overuse and cheapness of the experience. Terrifying moments in video games are almost always jump scares, and jump scares are truly deplorable things. Every time you round a corner and a monster lunges at you with a dramatic music stab, particularly if it’s in a cut scene, it is the literal equivalent of someone jumping out and yelling boo.

Jump scares are forced and canned moments of faux terror that don’t work because you aren’t in danger and have no impact because they have no meaning beyond the shock of the moment. Games use jump scares plenty because they get visceral and immediate reactions, but relying on them too strongly has a negative end result. If a game utilizes jump scares too much you likely don’t go back to play it or remember it particularly favorably. This is a weakness in games like Dead Space, which has fantastic ambience but a plethora of cheap scares.

Lastly is horror, and this is the big one. Horror is a fear of something that is profoundly wrong. It doesn’t drive you to action or send scattering away, but does the opposite, leaving you rooted in place with a mixture of nausea and disbelief. Before pop culture stripped them of much of their mysticism, zombies were a perfect example of horror. People die, and they don’t come back. They don’t eat other people. They get tired and give up. Zombies don’t do any of that. They are the antithesis of many of the aspects of humanity we use to define it, and that is horrifying.

Horror is the true king of fear in video games, as evidenced by it being the name of the genre. Horror is horror no matter what, and thus is the only form of fear that transcends the medium. The other forms of fear revolve around concern for safety, but a horrifying thing is just as horrifying regardless of whether or not you’re in danger.

Further, horror is an amazing tool to use to when turning a situation around on the protagonist. Think of Silent Hill II, a game in which you are a man wandering around a mist and monster filled town following a message from your supposedly dead wife.

The game delights in showing you all manner of horrifying things, like buxom and mutilated nurses that try seduce you despite their apparent state of undeath, and culminates in a horrifying revelation. The main character killed his wife out of mercy because she was dying in pain, and the events of the game have been a paranormal guilt trip at actions YOU, as the controller of the man, have participated in.

So what about the other fact I mentioned, about horror being like comedy? It’s not as far fetch as it sounds. Both of them, form an entertainment perspective revolve around the same core structure. They want to build up an expectation in you, and then either resolve it or subvert it. A definition of humor is a situation that runs unexpectedly counter to what is expected. You set up a story, and the punchline comes out of left field.

Horror is the same way. A game can build a moment, indicating something awful is about to happen, a situation present in the first level of literally every horror game, and then finally unveil it in an event that is both dramatic and disturbingly cathartic. Or it can build to the same moment and the hit you from the other direction completely.

In Dead Space: Extraction players take on the role of a miner fighting his way to the surface through a horde of other miners who have gone berserk. At the levels end, players are horrified to discover that the other miners were perfectly normal, and the pay were playing as the lone miner who had gone berserk and begun killing everyone.

A great example of the opposite is the popular indie title Five Nights at Freddy’s. The game involves you as a security guard watching over a Chuck E Cheese-style restaurant through security cameras as a gang of animatronic, anthropomorphic animals try to kill you. It brims with tension, with the disturbing robots moving from room to room unseen and staring back at you, making noises in places you can’t see, and ultimately lunging in the room to scream and kill you when you aren’t looking.

Thee game builds to these moments. It unabashedly tells you what is coming, and then it does everything in its power to make you hate that moment. What results is a heady combination of terror and horror. The game is in first person and the character has no description, so the player functionally takes on the role and allows dread and unease to also seep into the mix.

You might be asking, “But wait, I thought you said jump scares are bad? That Freddy’s game sounds like nothing but jump scares!” And you’d be right to a degree. Five Nights at Freddy’s and its three sequels do rely heavily on jump scares, but they function differently. They don’t exist on their own, but as tools to accent other things in the game. When the robots jump out and kill you in those games, it isn’t because you rounded a corner the developers wanted to be spooky. It’s because you messed up, failing to contain the monsters. You deserve to die and be startled, and the event itself is the end result of dramatic tension building, a cathartic release of fear the player stores up as the game pokes and prods them.

At the end of the day people love to be afraid. Movies are obviously a good place to experience this but video games are the unquestionable king of scoring the audience for fun. The key is leaving people in a state of concern for how they perceive their reality, and doing it in an unexpected way.

For example, turn around. I’m right behind you.