Monday, October 7, 2013

Game Design Comparison - Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead



Telltale's The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain are quite the unique specimens for the current generation. They are both Adventure games, but with one macro distinction; TWD is a traditional point-and-clicker, while HR is more of a normal third-person game and uses gestures instead of a cursor. HR removed genre staples like puzzles and inventory, and TWD followed suit. Both are made to appeal to experienced and casual players alike, with a broad audience. Both have a 100% focus on an emotional story-driven experience. Both are made to be played, not beaten. With that in mind, I think this comparison is very, very appropriate, and hopefully insightful.



TWD is lauded for it's story while HR is criticized for it's own. The writing in TWD is also praised highly, whereas HR's script has incited many wats and unintentional lols. TWD's cast of characters is one of the most beloved since Mass Effect and Uncharted, while HR's cast, let's just say, hasn't inspired much fan art or cosplays. The voice actors of those characters in TWD have done a memorable and award-winning job, while everyone and their mothers have been pointing fingers at the suspicious accents in HR.



I myself consider TWD to be one of the best and most important games of all time, and it is certainly the most moving and affecting story I've ever played.

So with all that said, how in the love of Jason can Heavy Rain be better? Well it isn't objectively better as a whole experience or anything, but rather it is the better game. It's better at interactive storytelling. It's braver, it's bolder. It was the first triple-A adventure game of it's size. Most importantly though, it is the biggest single-step evolution that a genre has taken since the 3D revolution.

Note: This is more or less analyzing both of Quantic Dream's PS3 games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls at the same time, but with a focus on HR because it came out first and Beyond isn't out at the time of this writing.

Now, let's compare what things each game does better than the other:


What The Walking Dead does better
  • Story
  • Writing
  • Characters
  • Acting
  • Emotion
TWD does all that delicious story stuff way better. This we all know. Butt, guess what? All that stuff has shit-all to do with the fact that it's a video game. None of it is based on interactivity, the player's ludic experience, or the presentation. It's all in the script and the voice recordings. These are the accomplishments of the writing team and the cast, not the game designers. I know most of you are probably like, “hey bub, the story IS interactive”, and you'd be right. What I am referring to, however, is the story in and of itself, as can be represented by the screenplay/ script or someone talking about what happened in their playthrough.


What Heavy Rain does better
  • Branching narrative
  • Letting choices speak for themselves (no “they will remember that” or objective prompts)
  • Story-based fail states and no game overs
  • Dialogue presentation and implementation
  • Verb presentation and implementation
  • Dialogue and Verbs at the same time
  • Verb variety
  • Physical presence (exploring without a pointer)
  • Camera presentation and implementation
  • Action scenes
  • Less cutscenes
  • Motion Capture
  • Engine performance 
These things are gameplay-centric, and enhance the experience in all the right ways. All of the above bullets are present in The Walking Dead, but are implemented in an flat, boring, standard way; the cursor, the dialogue menu, the interaction system, the prompts, the QTE's, everything about the mechanics really, are made to be functional and nothing more. Compared to Heavy Rain, TWD feels old and dated. HR has all the same mechanics, but all of those mechanics (except for the bonehead R2 walking) have been innovated upon and elevated to something more than mere function. In just one game, literally everything that adventure games are known for has been injected with creativity and logical progression by Quantic Dream.

Let's examine them one by one:



Dialogue

1) Dynamic presentation / Realistic mechanics
  • In other games, dialogue is relegated to a sub menu. In Heavy Rain, dialogue options have a physical presence in the game's world. They are a part of the presentation. They serve not just function, but form as well.


  • During timed conversations, they float around the player character's head or body. This is a representation of brainstorming. It's the concept of thinking about what to say, of weighing your options, manifested visually. During down-time conversations that aren't timed, this effect is replaced with a calmer stack of prompts.



  • In arguments and other tense situations, the prompts will shake and move faster. This makes decision-making under stress all the more palpable. It presents intense situations as inherently different from calmer situations, and makes them stand out and feel more, well, intense. Look at how the prompt's personality changes as the tension grows in the scene: 1,  2,  3.

  • Instead of full sentences like in TWD or fragments like in Mass Effect, each dialogue option is represented by either the subject, emotion, tone, idea, or key word of the line.



This is closer to real talking. In normal conversation we usually have an idea in our head and our mouths basically do the work for us. In normal conversation, and especially arguments, we generally don't rehearse whole sentences in our head before speaking. It's a little more abstract than that. Having simple one word prompts that get across the main idea makes the decision making process fast, fluid, and efficient. This method also applies to actions.



One of the worst design decisions in The Walking Dead is the use of full sentences in the dialogue bank. This conflicts with the timer. Having to read 3 complete sentences before getting a chance to evaluate them is just frustrating. The game takes the Fallout/ Elder Scrolls route of letting you know exactly what you're going to say, but it works in those games because you can read and evaluate the options for as long as you need. It also just doesn't make sense in context; nobody rehearses entire sentences in their head before replying to someone, especially when they're on the clock. The use of single-word dialogue options also used in Alpha Protocol, another game which is overlooked for it's choices.


  • The timer is invisible. There isn't a shrinking bar to let you know time is running out. You have to judge it based on the environment that the conversation is taking place in. The silence of the scene is the timer, so when you're lagging your response, you feel it rather than see it. This is much more natural and realistic. The visible timer in TWD just makes the allotted time seem arbitrary. It's like using a "sad" meter instead of facial expressions and body language.

  • Like in TWD, silence is a valid option. If you simply don't choose anything and wait for the timer to run down, you feel that choice rather than see it, as explained above. There also isn't a "..." option, meaning the silence option never replaces the fourth available slot.


2) Dialogue is independent of other gameplay mechanics
  • In other games, conversations take place in pseudo-cutscenes where no other gameplay mechanics take place. In Mass Effect and most of Deus Ex for example, characters just stand around and aimlessly stare at each other, recycling the same arm-crossing and stance changing animations for hours. In The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, you stare directly into a soulless deadpan face for the entire conversation. In The Walking Dead, some conversations have Lee walking or doing other tasks while the player only does the talking.
  • In Heavy Rain, a lot of the conversations are during live play, where the player can walk, talk, and interact with the environment all at the same time. For example, when playing as Jayden at the crime scene, you walk and talk with Blake, and can look at clues as well. 

  • When a physical action can be taken while talking, it doesn't always replace one of the face button prompts. For examples: While trying to talk down Nathaniel, you are also free to shoot him at any time with the R1 button. When trying to fool the drug dealer, you can sip the drink with the right stick so you don't look suspicious, while you yourself are suspecting that he may have spiked it, so there's another battle to wage on top of the words. Having other buttons aside from the face buttons to perform actions leaves all four slots available for dialogue.
  • When you want to talk to someone, you don't click on them with a pointer initiating the dialogue mode. You walk up to them, and dialogue prompts will appear when you're in proximity. This also means you can force-end the conversation whenever you want by actually walking away, instead of just tapping the X or A button until you reach the end of the current line being spoken.
  • Sometimes new dialog options pop up if you see something new or interact with an object during the conversation.

3) The Player Character's thoughts
  • During pretty much any time of the game that's not a spoken conversation or action scene, you can hold L2 to reveal extra dialogue options that are inner monologues within the player character's head.
  • This is also a clever way to remind the player of their objective. This lets us do away with using normal text to directly tell the player to do what the designer wants them to.
  • It's always optional.

Now, having advanced (like, really advanced) design doesn't mean talking in Heavy Rain is a better experience than talking in The Walking Dead. The writing makes sure of that. Butt imagine a game written as well and acted as well as The Walking Dead utilizing this system. I can't even begin to fathom how good it would be. Hopefully Beyond approaches that level of quality, as the script and acting is already better than all of Heavy Rain in just a single demo.




Verbs

Adventure games are unique in the gameplay department because they offer players more than a controller's worth of actions. You can, quite literally, do anything. This is great. This is freeing. Pretty much everyone agrees that this has been a staple in adventure design for years. What people don't agree on, is that Quantic Dream is part of the club. Why don't they agree? Because of reasons, I guess.

Here is the general consensus in a nutshell:

Any game - I point my mouse cursor toward a door. Open door, it says. I click on that door. I now watch as my character walks into the room for me. He closes the door, and now I'm back to pointing. This is widely considered to be a video game. Okay, sounds good.

Quantic Dream - I see a door. I use the left stick to walk over to the door. There is a prompt on the door knob, meaning I can open it if I want. I turn the knob by turning the right analog stick in the same motion. The door opens. I use the left stick again to walk in or walk away if I want. This is widely considered to be a cutscene that plays itself, and not even a game.


wut

My face when I read comments about QD games

I don't know man. I just don't. Butt oh well, let's move on.


General Verbs

There are more verbs more of the time in HR than in TWD, but that doesn't really mean much. What's important, is how those verbs are interacted with. Pointing and clicking works, and that's fine. It's the same principle I mentioned above about the dialogue menu. It's function, which is necessary, but it's not form. In HR, like with talking, verbing is a matter of form and function coming together.

When in "search" mode, the player explores the environment and interacts with whatever or whoever is around.

In TWD, the player uses the cursor with a mouse or the right stick. In HR, the player uses the right analog as an action button. Most areas in TWD allow you to just click on something across the field and have Lee walk over to it automatically. Since there is no pointer in HR, when you see something or someone you want to interact with, you walk over there yourself. In TWD, when multiple objects can be clicked on, you hover the cursor over the one you want and press the action button. In HR, multiple gestures appear corresponding to which side the object is on, and you flick the right stick towards it.

Large circled dots let you know if an object can be clicked on
Arrows show you what direction to flick the stick in for whichever interaction
Beyond: Two Souls combines both systems; small non-intrusive dots, and you flick the stick in their direction

Both systems accomplish the same thing. Butt, the advantage of using the gesture system rather than a pointer has to do with immersion. You aren't aiming anything, so you can focus on body movement and feel more present and in control. You don't see a cursor around the screen, and less HUD the better. TWD and HR both have in-world HUD elements, but Beyond only has wee dots, so it's the furthest evolution of the system.

Quantic Dream offers way more ways to interact as a player with the object you picked. In TWD, you can only click on a thing, and then watch Lee interact with or use it in a cutscene. You can actually do things with things you click on in HR. I mean jeez, just look at this damn control scheme:



There are tons of ways to "use" the thing you picked in addition to stick flicks:

Slow movements




Single button presses





Holding movements / buttons





Sixaxis 


Better example (gif)   (No gore)


Also, as I demonstrated in the Dialogue section, you can explore and interact while having a conversation at the same time.

Butt of course, Heavy Rain is the one that people say is just Dragon's Lair, and "barely interactive." Some parts of TWD are literally on rails due to being a point and click game. There's even this part of 400 days where you can only walk forward, not right, not left, not back, only forward, like you're pressing play on a movie.




Action Verbs

When performing more advanced actions outside of "search mode", Quantic Dream has the upper hand again. TWD and HR both use their general verb mechanics when in more serious situations (I'm not talking about the fights yet). This means TWD is still limited to just pointing and clicking, while HR utilizes all mechanics in new ways.

One of the action mechanics that people complain about is the sixaxis. I think it's actually quite effective and implemented well, and it's used the least.

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C
Exhibit D
Beyond Exhibit A. This one was actually changed due to all the bitchin'.
Beyond Exhibit B.  I just love this shot so much. It's so simple and it feels s right when playing.

Xzibit


Action Scenes


This part is a little unfair. The Walking Dead definitely has less action scenes than QD games. I actually think there are too many action packed set pieces in HR and (at least it seems) in Beyond. Aside from that, the way the interactivity is implemented in these scenes is what makes QD games even more unique compared to it's Adventure contemporaries. That implementation isn't just unique, but also far more advanced than what Telltale put into TWD. Also, whenever there are walkers or even heated arguments in TWD, the game lags hard, which affects the enjoyment of action scenes (you can see it below).


Quick-Time Events

Here is the general consensus on the validity of quick-time events in games:

This is okay
This is not okay

This is okay
This is not okay

This is okay
This is not okay

This is "just a cutscene"

This is "not a game"

This is "pointless"





In TWD, all QTE's are, as you saw, button mashing the action button until a random prompt appears. Not only does it get old after the first episode, but it has 2 major problems:

  • The random prompt after the mashing is always at the bottom of the screen. You have to be looking at it so you know what to press. This means you don't get to focus on the action the whole time. Also, because the QTE is always in the same spot, you expect it, and are comfortable when it's about to happen.
  • No consequence for failure. When you fail one of these, along with the pointer ones, the game simply reloads the exact same part. This means there is no real tension when walkers are about. Lee isn't in any danger, because he can just retry as many times as he wants. You have to play the game the exact way the designers want you to, the right way. The story even has the advantage of zombies; If every potential bite can be canon, and Lee got infected, that would affect the story a lot. Same with other characters you need to save. It would add so much more tension when Wakers show up, and more drama due to the consequences of failure. These last two sentences spoil episode 4; -----------Lee's bite in ep4 just enforces the fact that nothing is dangerous until the writers say it is. It makes other encounters trivial and arbitrary, and forces the story to be more linear and less interactive.

Heavy Rain fixed these problems 3 and a half years ago.

  • Every prompt is overlayed on top of whatever is the focus of the action. Gotta block an attack? The prompt is on the weapon. Gotta dodge an attack? The prompt is on your head or the weapon. Gotta swing a pipe? The prompt is on the pipe. Etc, etc, etc. The gifs in the list above demonstrate all this.
  • No game overs. Hot damn is this special. Absolutely the best innovation QD implemented. The fact that when you fail you don't get any re-do's, and the story goes on, gives QD games real consequences. You can fail in many ways besides death; evidence, interrogations, convincing someone, failing a trial, etc. Death is the big one though. Since life or death scenarios are very apparent and happen sparingly, they carry more weight. Madison can die in 3 scenes. Ethan can die in 2 scenes. Jayden can die in 5 scenes. Scott can die in 2 scenes.

Here are 2 examples of how dangerous single scenes can be. There are multiple chances to fail in one encounter:


Madsion can get her throat cut here
Her back drilled there
Her back sawed there
Her throat sawed here
Her throat sawed there
Jayden can get squished in a compactor
Or choked out
Or run over by a tractor
It's not just player deaths either:

You can fail to talk the robber out of Hassan's shop, or take to long to intervene
I reacted to Nathaniel's sudden move after he surrendered and shot him. Turns out he was just pulling out a cross, and I regretted not keeping my cool. It's this scene.


One of the misguided complaints about Heavy Rain's QTE's has to do with when you fail one prompt, the sequence still continues. This is interpreted by idiots as the game "playing itself", because the character still does stuff even though the player didn't get that punch in or dodge that debris or whatever. You can fail one prompt, then another, and another, and something even more, before the fail state. These idiots can't seem to realize that failing one prompt is the equivalent of losing some health in any other game. Just because the fail state hasn't happened after one misstep, doesn't mean it will never happen. You are just closer to it now. Blunder too much, and you will get to the fail state. That's how video games have worked for 50 years.

Non-QTE's

The only form on non-button mashing in TWD is pointing and clicking.








This is more or less the same as pressing the right button at the right time, but the difference is the aiming part. That's a great mechanic, butt the wee problem with this is the fact that it's the same exact mechanic used for the general interactions. You play the same way all the time. It's not special, and doesn't feel more serious or intense. Having game overs also means there's no tension, because you can just keep doing it till you do it right.



The non-QTE action sequences in HR are more varied gameplay-wise. This is because they involve physical movement, options, and the ability to fail. For examples:
  • Rushing around Manfred's shop wiping your finger prints off the things you remember touching before the cops get there.
  • Feverishly searching through all of your evidence for proof of Ethan's innocence before Carter arrests him.
  • Gathering all of the potential tools and sharp objects in the Lizard room, and then preparing to cut off your finger.
  • Escaping the burning apartment by navigating the fire, and then searching for a safe place before the bomb goes off.
  • Following the balloon, and making your way through the sea of people at the mall while searching for Jaaaaaason.

Beyond also benefits from this variety of movement-based action, even just from what we have seen so far:
  • Searching for the group in the burning building.
  • Sneaking around a warzone.
  • Exploring a dark, evacuated hospital with a survival horror atmosphere.
  • Getting Jodie and her house ready before a date arrives, or neglecting it and just watching tv or something.

And then there's the main attraction. Aiden.

Playing as a ghost really shakes things up. Flying in first person with the ability to pass through walls and people is exhilarating. Being able to give people the chills, possess them, choke them, or just mess with them is quite the good time. You can blast objects to help Jodie and also channel visions from what looks like dead people.

Aiden can make force fields too
I don't feel like explaining Aiden in detail, but it really adds so much depth (and intrigue) that both TWD and HR don't have. Play the demo, and during the experiment, just go crazy. Fuck shit up like no one's business. Flip the table, break the windows, choke Kathleen, do it all, and don't return to Jodie to stop it. It gets so damn intense. Jodie starts screaming and bleeding, and it starts to get frightening all around. I tried it and my heart was pounding afterward. Neat stuff.




Story Choices

Interactivityness

The main difference is what the choices affect:

The Walking Dead's choices affect the characters, and Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot.

Neither focus is inherently better than the other, because it all depends on the particular story you are telling. The Avengers has the most generic and un-exciting plot ever, butt it's all about the characters and the way they work together. Meanwhile, Inception is so gosh darn amazing and enthralling because the plot keeps you on your toes and your mind sharp, wondering if they'll succeed or not. Breaking Bad is a great balance of the two. TWD's method works best for it's survival and group dynamic, and HR's method works best for it's mystery and 4 perspectives of one crime case.

This photo has nothing to do with this essay.
TWD is a linear story, where certain characters die or go missing no matter what. The group ends up in a certain place with a certain headcount in a certain episode no matter what. There is one ending, and most choices end up being cosmetic (like Clem's hoodie and Lee's arm). Butt, the heavyness of the choices is derived from the way the player affects and is affected by other characters. This guy hates you, she likes you, he's useless, oh now that guy likes you, Clem's sad, they don't trust you, Clem's happy, etc. These story changes carry emotion but don't affect the plot. Even big difficult choices, like the food rationing, only determine how people view Lee for that episode, but it's effective anyway.

Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot more than characters. This means that the arcs the characters go on are more rigid, but the story itself is more malleable. It's a trade off that makes sense with the story. It's a crime drama and a mystery. A who-dun-it. Finding the Origami Killer, trying to save Shaun knowing that it's possible to fail, having real life or death consequences, and the weaving of 4 player characters' actions are what keeps the story flowing. Branching paths and all that. It's an interactive story to the core.

Either one can fly really, and both work swimmingly. The reason I'd say Heavy Rain takes the cake here, however, is because not having a malleable plot makes TWD inherently less interactive as a story. It's not that choices shouldn't affect character, it's that you can have both. There's no reason not to, aside from maybe resources and dev time. If you want to tell a specific story, just make it a movie or tv show. Or make it a game, butt at least don't advertise it as a branching narrative when it isn't one.


Presentation

Telltale's choices are very obviously choices, and are presented to your face so you know you are making a choice. There is zero subtlety. No nuance. It's about as natural as a choose-your-own-adventure book with moving pictures.

The objective bar, the obvious timer, the lag, the no-shit-sherlock notifications, all that stuff. It really soils the intimacy and immersion of the moment.

Just look at it, man: Spoiler for Episode 1

This could be so much better:
  • Angle the camera the other way with person 1, Lee, and person 2 in the frame
  • Don't tell me I need to save someone like I can't see that
  • Let me use the left stick to run towards whoever I choose. It's a game not a menu.
  • Ctrl+A+Del the HUD
  • Don't tell me who I just chose like I don't know
In HR there's no need for objective reminders because player's can figure out their obvious dilemmas on their own, or even listen to the player character's thoughts. There are also no notifications of and about the choices you make. The outcomes speak for themselves. 

Oh so that's what happens when I choose "hide from truck". Interesting.
This just keeps reminding you that you're playing a game, or at worst, an arbitrary series of choose-your-own-adventure moments. The reason for the notifications is to make it feel like your choices have more weight even if they don't matter. It works for some, bit it's dishonest. It also takes away a bit of agency from the player. It's less "this is my story", and more "hey player, this is your story", if that makes any sense. At least you can turn them off, so I encourage you to play Season 2 or The Wolf Among Us like that.



Branching Narrative

The big 2; Heavy Rain has 18 different endings, and, all player characters can die. These are the main factors that differentiate HR from other choice-based games. These are also facts. Facts that most of the gaming community chooses to deny. All over the place in every comment section and internet argument, people choose to live in their own little world where HR is one long cutscene that plays out the same exact way till the end for everyone. I shouldn't have to, but I'm compelled to provide some sources because of how damn prevalent lies and misinformation about the game is. Hopefully you are convinced now if you didn't already know.



I actually hate when people complain about a lack of meaningful outcomes to their choices. All you really need is to feel like your decisions matter in order for it to be effective. The Walking Dead does this, as stated above. It is a linear story with usually 2 ways to get to each pre-defined plot point, and there is one canonical ending. The biggest choice in the game is most likely the last one, butt we won't know how it affects the story until Season 2 slides itself into our dusty disc trays and hard drives. The game is very on rails gameplay-wise, and choices are just a means to a certain end. That's okay, and works great in TWD. As long as I can choose what to say, no matter how obvious the smokescreen, or how empty the consequence, it's still more enjoyable than a cutscene and has more weight.


So while HR is an actual branching narrative in comparison, it is not better because of it. This point is about the concept of interactive narrative. David Cage wanted to make a game where player decisions had consequences, success and failure, and exclusive scenes, and he succeeded. This is just about the mediums best asset as a narrative artform. To make a story that is too big and/or has too many moving parts to be made anywhere else, is quite a feat. Telltale did not do this. Again, HR's story isn't better, but the ambition and application is well above Telltale's effort. It also doesn't help, that TWD actually being linear is not something any dev dared to admit until well after release. All of Quantic Dream's promises of malleability, however, actually came true (contrary to popular belief).




In-game Camera

Telltale and Quantic both use a cinematic, non-interactive viewpoint. Well it's a little interactive; When moving TWD'S cursor pass the borders it will move a bit, and HR let's you see different angles by pressing L1.

Quantic's cinematographer does well in form and function. Where to go is always apparent, especially with multiple angles to choose from. There are lots of good views, from sweeping crane shots to indoor static shots. The big separator though, is the conversation camera. When not moving about, the conversations have as much work done them as any great cutscene, butt with the added pizazz of framing in-world dialogue. It's a lot of animation work, butt can be seriously beautiful to watch.

Telltale uses their camera much less responsibly. Many wide shots just don't show you the right angle, and the cuts to closer angles don't help. Telltale wants to be cinematic but they just don't have as good a cinematographer. This is especially apparent at least once every episode; the liquor store, the hotel lot, the train, the house, and the tower. It tries too hard. There are a few good shots now and then, like when climbing the ladder in the elevator shaft. HR's camera can be awkward sometimes as well, especially with the bonehead R2 walking.

Luckily, Beyond improves HR's camera quite a bit, leaning more toward function, and also fixed the walking! Moving within the not-too cinematic angles in the demo was a breeze.


My favorite shot from one of the gameplay trailers
Also, you can control the camera with the right stick but it's pointless. It's obviously just there because of people's bitchin' that games need a movable camera like they never played God of War. You can always see where you're supposed to go with the angles they give you. Natural gamer instincts lead players to moving the camera constantly, but it screws everything up because it's not a conventional orbit cam and has auto center. You can see them flailing the camera in their let's plays and then they start complaining that they can't see shit. Just ignore it when moving, and you should be fine.




Animation

This counts towards Beyond for everything, butt only the body animations for HR.

Both Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead have less than stellar facial animation. Telltale hasn't the time and manpower to hand-animate all that dialogue, and Quantic had a rough first try at facial capture. Everyone agrees on HR but people seem to think otherwise about TWD.

It's not difficult to see that TWD does not have good facial animation. It's pure function and no form. Eyes go sad when sad, angry when angry, but with no fluidity and poor lip sync. It's not as absurd as faces in Mafia 2, Farcry 2, or dear lord, Jeff Gordon in GT5, but it leaves much to be desired. Telltale isn't Naughty Dog or Rockstar, so at least it's understandable.
There's also the body animation in cutscenes. Telltale didn't use motion capture, which would have freed up a lot of animator time for the faces. When another small team like Double Fine can animate hours of body and faces by hand in Brutal Legend with near Disney results, it gets me wondering why Telltale can't do the same for one episode.

Heavy Rain's faces are as wonky as TWD's, but the character models are much bigger and more realistic, which makes things worse. Only during extremes does it look good. The bodies on the other hand are motion captured with as good results as one can expect. Both TWD and HR use realistically proportioned humans for stories based in reality, so motion capture is a must.


Thankfully, Beyond: Two Souls has everything down right, and it looks phenomenal. The eyes are no longer dead, and the lip sync is picture perfect. Also dat detail. Creating their PS4 engine first then down scaling for Beyond is surely paying off.

Also, the acting we've seen so far is is great, as expected from Ms. Page and Mr. Dafoe
Cage seems to have gotten better at directing his actors. Let's hope he continues learning for the better



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Closing

David Cage

Imagine if Heavy Rain's story was written as well as The Walking Dead's. Or if TWD had all the gameplay engineering of HR. That's the kind of game I want to play someday. If no one will make it, then I guess I'll have to, if I get the chance (hire me pls).

I think the main reason for HR's story being bollocks is that Mr. Cage wrote his 2000 page branching script all by himself. Telltale on the other hand has a team of writers. No one can write eight hours interactive dialogue and branching plot by their lonesome in a single year and make it gold throughout. I wouldn't trust writers like Aaron Sorkin, Tolkien, or even Shakespeare with such a task. It's just ridiculous. Single-writer films rarely creep past three hours, TV shows have writing staff, and even single-writer giant games like Assassin's Creed and L.A. Noire are written practically up to release. Other developers making dialogue games like Bioware also have a writing staff.


I'm going to back up my theory that Mr. Cage isn't as bad a writer as we think with another point; his shorts are great. Before Quantic Dream starts development of a new game, they build a new engine by way of tech demo. These demos are in-engine real time short films that showcase whats new with their tech. For HR it was The Casting, for Beyond it was Kara, and for PS4 it's The Dark Sorcerer. These shorts show what Cage can do with a more stable scale. Kara won “Best Experimental Film” at the '12 LA Shorts Fest and was even eligible for an Oscar nomination. TheDark Sorcerer is pretty funny, and considerably longer than the others yet still manages to be interesting till the end. Give em a watch, or at least do yourself a favor and watch the incredible Kara (hint: it's better written and more emotional than the entirety of Heavy Rain).

I can't believe how one unpopular developer making one game at a time can be seen as some kind of destructive force in the industry. I also can't see how people can really think he is some kind of frustrated wanna-be film director; he has like 16 years of experience in the games industry, and obviously has the energy, resources, and recognition that would make it easy for him to go into Hollywood n some capacity. He always talks about how games have the potential to tell better stories than movies.



And I mean jeez, look at all the shit he did with one game; Developers will innovate their genres over the course of a bunch sequels and multiple generations and still not compare to the jump between Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain. Even Telltale! Look how long did it took for them to even consider something as simple as removing puzzles and inventory. Cage did it 2 years earlier. Still nobody else has implemented the in-world choices and prompts. Still nobody else has released a triple-A story game with normal people and no monsters or weapons. Think about that. Beyond is the only other game like Heavy Rain, and it's also by David Cage. What a damn shame.

When more and more people call him a hack, I just lose more interest in this medium and the industry. It's like there's no point in trying something different. It's not even just regular game players and internet commenters. Even well known journalists harbor a frighteningly personal resentment towards Cage and anything he says or makes.

I'm a fan of Jim Sterling, but when he and the other editors at Destructoid actively encourage Cage-hate, they vicariously damage the image of all developers who have the same intentions. Jim also made sure his Beyond review has no merit, as he obviously reviewed his opinion of Mr. Cage instead of the game.

Quantic Dream

The extreme negative reception and perception of Quantic Dream games has a detrimental effect on the industry and the community. All these innovations and logical applications of interactive systems that this essay talks about are still only being done by Quantic and Cage. I don't want to be so cynical as to claim that it's due to developers just being lazy in comparison. Instead, I'm going to assume that the backlash Cage and his games receive is the main deterrent. No one wants to do something that someone will say, "is like what Heavy Rain does", because millions of people will see that as a bad thing no matter the context. 

The irrational hate and lies are so deep now and so ingrained in the community that there may be no hope. Dialogue choices will stay in menus forever, button prompting will stay static forever, checkpoints will stay mandatory, and "story-based" games will continue to actually just be shooters with good cutscenes. This is my fear. I have almost no reason to believe that another developer will start the train of adopting QD's methods and building upon them, and that makes me sad.

Why is this so important to me? Well, I see QD's games as the current pinnacle of cinematic interactive story design. I used them as the jumping off point for my own design philosophy. I've been working on it for a few years, and (presumably) have solved all the little problems that QD games have. My aim is to take what Cage has started with Heavy Rain and Beyond, and make it better. Design the next step after David's tremendous strides. I do think I have it. The only problem is, it looks like the gaming community hates big steps, so I worry that I'll ever be able to do anything with it.


Come on Aiden, I think they get the message.

Beyond: Two Souls is out. I hope you will support it.


-----------------------------


Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more posts!

https://twitter.com/Boojro

17 comments:

  1. Wow, this is a wonderful article. As a game designer who's working forward to make games that are inspired by the QD interactive drama format, this is not only a great piece on a game that I feel is not only incredibly innovative and ahead of its time, but has drawn so much hate as you pointed out. You've summed up everything I've tried to say when defending HR and this new style of game.

    This article will certainly be nailed up in my head to stay pumped and not get discouraged - dorky, I know. Though I'd hate to be Cage with the review scores on Beyond.

    Great read, I'll be a regular visitor to this site!

    Chris M Ferguson

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    1. Thank you so much!

      You seem to share the same concerns I do about the encouragement. I really don't want this type of design to be swept under the rug, so I'm doing what I can to stay positive and try to show others it's potential.

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  2. Another inspiring and thought-provoking essay, but I believe it does have a few issues that require closer inspection. Hey, we have a discussion! :)

    I do think that some of the QD solutions that you have identified as superior to TT solutions are actually inferior when you zoom in on them even more. Sometimes, they are indeed better, and it’s just the execution that suffers, but sometimes they are, at the end of the day, worse.

    Let’s go one by one, but I will, of course, only talk about the things I disagree with, skipping the whole lot that is spot on (amazing work there). This post will be in a few parts due to the 4096 characters limit and my tireless fingers :)

    - The floating prompts are great, but way too often dealing with them is “fighting the UI”. If a game offers me options I cannot read in time then it’s the game’s problem, not mine. Trying to decipher fast moving, shaking action prompts (that are often an odd mix of verbs, nouns and adjectives) with hard-to-read button icons (QD removed the color coding of the buttons for stylish UI presence in the game world) is not a simulation of tension, it’s a simulation of annoyance. Note that I absolutely love the core idea, but I simply think that QD did not execute on it properly.

    - Replacing a sentence with a single word actually adds to the problem. Not only I have to decipher the prompts on the basic level (i.e. “WTF is written there?”), I also have to decipher their meaning. I don’t know of a person who can clearly understand what are going to be the consequences of choosing between Shelter, Caress, and Sorry (taken from one of the GIFs). So deciphering a prompt is a two-step process, and that is simply two steps too many. As a player, I want to be weighing my choices, not deciphering the UI and creator’s intent.

    - Let’s take a closer look at the “one word” action prompts. Here is another problem. If am one with the protagonist, I don’t want and should not be second guessing them, because that breaks the player-protagonist emo-link. In TWD when I am offered a sentence to choose from, I am then never surprised with what actually comes out of my character’s mouth (even though what they say is – to avoid boredom – never exactly the same as the proposed sentence). In QD games, I never really know what’s going to happen. Even when I choose something as simple as “Evade” (when my character is asked a hard question), what happens next is a surprise. This is a dissonance. It’s me. I play this game. I am Jodie or Ethan or whoever. But my actions result in a surprise. That’s not helping me maintain the emo-link.

    - Apart from the core problem, QD also does not execute on the idea properly. Good luck trying to understand what is the difference between Evade, Vague, and Change Subject (Heavy Rain), or Cold and Distant (Beyond).

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  3. - As a side note: how to avoid TWD’s long sentences and QD’s (often enigmatic and confusing) action prompts that result in a surprise? I am not 100% sure, as this requires extensive testing, but one idea would be to agree to three words max and focus on the expected result, not on the action itself.

    Example: you play a detective and need to interrogate a man to get a crucial piece of information. The man says: “I will tell you nothing”.

    Here’s TWD’s choice:

    1. But if you will, a twenty dollar bill will change an owner.
    2. If you don’t, I will break your face.
    3. Be a decent man, answer my question, you have nothing to lose here.

    Here’s a QD game’s carousel that mixes bad ideas and bad execution (mixing verbs and adjectives):

    1. Bribe. <-- Ok, but really bribe or merely make a promise you can then retract from?!
    2. Angry. <-- Ok, but why exactly is the man supposed to get scared?
    3. Calm. <-- No idea what that would result in!

    Here’s my idea’s carousel in an example incarnation (there can be more):

    1. Promise a bribe
    2. Threaten to punch him
    3. Appeal to decency

    Of course, this idea can have more incarnations and further enhancements, e.g. if a game teaches the player that anything with a question mark is just “an inner monologue” that results in all talk and no action yet, then we can have it as:

    1. Bribe?
    2. Threaten?
    3. Reason?

    All right, but I took a detour here, this is not a game design exercise, but my comment to your analysis ;) So, uhm, let’s move on :)

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  4. - The invisible timer is not a better solution for a simple reason: you are stripped of many senses in a video game, and even what you see is just a small fragment of what you are able to see and thus “read” in real life. The role of UI is to compensate for this loss. Otherwise it’s second guessing the designer again, no matter how well crafted the scene is.

    - The QTEs in all games suffer from the same problem: instead of focusing on the action, we focus on the UI. However, QTEs in QD games additionally suffer from a bad UI itself. I mentioned this before, but the decision to go with one color for buttons in Heavy Rain was wrong. I had all PlayStations in history, and I still cannot quickly say where “X” is located. I am sure this partly due to “X” being also on Xbox gamepad, but in a different place… Beyond is no better in that respect, relying on dots that were hard to read spatially and enemy movements of confusing direction in relation to Jodie. In short, QTEs must test player’s skills, and not have him, as we designers call it, “fight the UI”.

    - All “safe failures” (e.g. you do not manage to protect your face in time and get punched by a guy, but it does not result in Game Over) are just a waste of time, being fluff (e.g. yeah, he punched you, so what, the fight continues, you can win, and the punch had no real effect). You learn quickly – both in HR and Beyond – that you can fail often during action sequences without any real consequences. This removes almost all tension from a fight. This is solvable (e.g. a “safe failure” always sets you up for much more dangerous follow up), but was not executed properly in most cases (although to be fair it was done right is some, e.g. the train fight in Beyond had its moments where “safe failure” sent the entire action in a completely new direction).

    - Deaths were a completely wrong direction for Heavy Rain. This is a meaningless “choice”. Most people did not want their character to die due to a failed wonky QTE, so they just resorted to loading a savegame. This is no different to TWD having its rare “life threatening” QTEs instantly replayed, but at least in TWD there is the “instantly” part. Anyway, “let my hero die or not” is not a choice, really, when it’s the result of a “choice” not done Sophie’s Choice style. The savegame is right around the corner. Note that TWD essentially removed the need or the wish to load a savegame in all their games, except when you launch another session with the game after taking a break.

    - People are hard on David Cage not because he’s a visionary (if so, people would jump on Jenova Chen as well), but because for every amazing and revolutionary thing he does he follows up with something atrocious. Check out this link -- http://www.1up.com/previews/souls-displays-david-cage-disrespect -- how can one not go berserk when the creator openly, proudly admits to the wrong way of doing things? Sadly, there’s more: Cage often repeats everybody else is wasting time, his way is the only way (he softened up lately, thankfully), equals improved visuals with a sure way to enhance emotions (cartoons prove it’s a silly way of thinking), and – the most painful sin of all – makes core, inexcusable mistakes in his designs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that games can be divided into “before Fahrenheit” and “after Fahrenheit”, and I think the man is bordering on genius. I just wish he surrounded himself with more smart designers and writers, and let them influence his work. This solo thing is not working.

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    1. " This is a meaningless “choice”. Most people did not want their character to die due to a failed wonky QTE, so they just resorted to loading a savegame. "

      I was really surprised that people did this actually. When playing Heavy Rain it never entered my mind that I should reload a save in order for a character to stay alive. I just took it as part of the story. However, I guess that I was very much into "the game will take care of the story for you" and from early on I decided to just go along with whatever would happen.

      But in the end having characters die, made the experience a lot worse. There were a lot of interesting-sounding (I never replayed to see them) scenes that I missed out on, and I do not really think this is fair. Having someone who cheats (ie reloads save) have a better experience that someone who plays the game "properly" does not seem right to me.

      It then gets interesting whether the perma death of the characters really do anything. There were some scenes (like being trapped in the basement by the mad doctor) that got really, really tense for me, but at this point in the story I was not aware that the characters could die. So I am unsure if it would have been any worse if the character death was removed (this of course depends on if I had to replay it 10+ times though, which would most likely foul my remembered experience no matter how could the first attempt was). I actually think that any lasting effect (eg get a scar, limp, etc) might have been just as powerful.

      And if the permanent character death is not crucial for excitement, then there is really no purpose for it at all. It just means more development work, and it also means many players will get subpar experiences.

      My thinking is that choices/branching are not intrinsically meaningful, but is just a tool for agency and engagement. For gameplay heavy games, it could have replay value, but I find that more playthroughs with different paths waters down the experience. The result is not a brand new experience but just the same one you read but with some changes in the scenes. I find that much power from stories comes from they NOT being able to be changed. That you can sort of ponder the happenings. If you just go back and fix mistakes, then the impact is lost.

      This is very noticeable in games with multiple endings, where the choice is very close to the end (Amnesia: TDD big culprit here!). You boot the game again, try some other option, and repeat until all endings have been seen. This just throws away meaning from the ending, and even if one of the endings are awesome, the effect is really lowered. Imagine The Last Of Us, if it would be possible to make some choice that at the very end, which changed how the tale ended.

      So I think that choices/branching should occur when the player would felt cheated if it didn't. For instance if it is clear the the player could take care of a situation without violence (*cough* Last of Us ending *cough*) then this choice is required in order to fit with the player's assumed action boundaries (which also ties into agency). Death is rarely like this, unless you sacrifice a character to accomplish a goal or similar.

      But much of the branching in Heavy Rain does not stem from this. It is there because of the belief that choice is intrinsically good. I do not think this is true at all, and that Heavy Rain could have benefited a lot from cutting down on its branching structure. The only real motivation to have much of it, is pure PR. It sounds good, but it does not do anything to improve the experience.

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    2. Now I sort of slipped here, I there is a big reason for choices: to make the player feel like they earn the progress. I am in the progress of writing a blog on this, but summed up: If telegraphed properly that a choice has happened + make the player think when making the choice, it feels better to play subsequent scene as you have had some doing into them coming into life. If you just progress through a game without earning any of it, it makes it harder (but not impossible), to keep player engaged.

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    3. Multiple playthroughs are evil. A perfect choice system game would never allow for the player to go back in time (encrypted auto-save on an online server before the results of a choice are displayed to the player). But, to be honest, it’s okay to leave that decision in the hands of the players: I never replay such games (I live with the consequences of my choices), but if someone wants to mess around, why not? To successfully fight against the savegame abuse a much wiser thing is to focus on a kind of experience that at the end makes the player sing “I did it my way” – and this way remove the need or wish for replays (other than sheer curiosity).

      Also, personally I don’t mind that I am missing content in a choice system game. That is the whole point of it (and kind of an extra proof that my choices were actually meaningful). The only problem I have is when making a choice makes me actually experience less game (e.g. I make a decision that results in the game skipping over an hour of gameplay) – but even that is a minor problem if the entire experience leaves a mark.

      “My thinking is that choices/branching are not intrinsically meaningful, but is just a tool for agency and engagement.” – I cannot believe you just presented agency as something that’s not „intrinsically meaningful” :)

      I think choices are actually crucial if you want to make the most impact with the story. If we agree that choices are great for gameplay (how do I attack, when do I attack, with what weapon, etc?) then why should not they work in favor of the story? And considering that the current trend is to merge gameplay and story into one cohesive narrative experience – and thus make them indistinguishable one from another – the element of choice becomes even more important.

      However – here comes the big one ;) – all we (designers) really care about is not a choice, but the illusion of a choice. In its extreme form, by achieving perfect ludonarrative empathy (as Brian nicely called it) we can even end up in a completely 100% linear game that will just feel to the players like all they have done was their very own choice.

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    4. "I cannot believe you just presented agency as something that’s not „intrinsically meaningful"
      And I didn't! :) I mean that choice serves agency (and later on a sense of earning) and that is what makes it interesting. And a big part of this, is your thinking while making the choice, which makes you connect to the gameworld in your thinking. But thinking about a choice, is not the same as having system that allows for choice and branches. In movies and books, hard choices can be really effectful (simple example would be stuff in the Saw movies), even if we are not making them. But important here is that the actual outcome of the choice is not what is so meaningful, but our mental gymnastics when trying to determine the right course of action.

      Just so I am clear here: What I am trying to say is that the interesting part is not to have a this giant structure that provides outcomes for the player. Because, outcomes are not really that interesting in their own right, basically because there is so much chaos involved so any choice can really go whichever way. In a fictional narrative, you are really in the writers hands. If they want to, they can turn the best of choices into a really bad situation. You can never break free by being given choices in a story like this. You are still just following a long for the right. Hence, this is why I say that choices and branching or not inherently meaningful for the experience. It is the secondary effects that are potent.

      And this is very different from choices made during shooting. Here you have proper tactics. There is no pre written drama that you follow. You are dropped into a system and the choices you make will ripple across the system. You are now trying to pathfind through a simulation in order to reach a certain goal. This is very different from making choices in a narrative focused game. In a Doom, Sim City, Star Craft, etc the choices I my are very different from the choices in The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, on pretty much every level. HR and TWD is all about imaginary choices. We start to wonder stuff like "But if I do this, Kenny might not like me!" despite Kenny not really existing at all in any proper sense and is just a prewritten character. But in Doom, when I pick what enemy to shoot first, the objects in my choice are very real. The thoughts in my head are completing stuff that is in some sense "exists".

      What is interesting here is that we now start closing in on the whole Chris Crawford thinking. So what is so cool about choices in TWD and HR is that we start to think as if these characters really cared about our actions, as if their route was not lying on a disc, ready to play out. The seem "real" and we treat with a lot more complex underpinnings than what is really there. But this of course is a lie, and if you go with Crawford then proper interactive storytelling can only come with choices with characters are systemically the same as the choices you make in Doom.

      "all we (designers) really care about is not a choice, but the illusion of a choice."
      True, true. I think we are in sort of agreement, but I feel we might think of it a bit differently, so my rant is hopefully not in vain :)

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    5. And also wanna add:

      "but if someone wants to mess around, why not?"
      Yes, yes and yes. You go over this a lot in the Trolling article, but just feel like repeating: If we start worrying about player screwing around, then we will just spend resources where they do not matter. And as you say, lets instead make the player understand, and encourage through design, that they should play in a certain manner to get the best experience.

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  5. I feel like a lot of the engagement in the fight scenes did come from the fact that I thought the characters could die at any moment. It was advertised as such and so I expected it. If they hadn't said anything I would have expected a traditional game over screen and probably wouldn't have been as engaged. So in order to keep their promise they had to do it. Also players/reviewers are obviously going to test it, so it has to be there or the reviews will mention it as a negative and it will drag your game's score down. So I think the death scenes itself are not that important, but rather the fact that they exist which increases the tension and makes the game more enjoyable.

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  6. "Any game - I point my mouse cursor toward a door. Open door, it says. I click on that door. I now watch as my character walks into the room for me. He closes the door, and now I'm back to pointing. This is widely considered to be a video game. Okay, sounds good.

    Quantic Dream - I see a door. I use the left stick to walk over to the door. There is a prompt on the door knob, meaning I can open it if I want. I turn the knob by turning the right analog stick in the same motion. The door opens. I use the left stick again to walk in or walk away if I want. This is widely considered to be a cutscene that plays itself, and not even a game."

    I would say that they're both games, but the second approach has a really annoying object interaction UI. :)

    Also, have you tried playing TWD with the choice UI disabled? I haven't, but I saw the option and I'm curious how much that fixes the problems you bring up in this article.

    As much as I prefer a very different game design/storytelling strategy than you do, I really enjoyed this article. You hit the nail on the head with:

    "The Walking Dead's choices affect the characters, and Heavy Rain's choices affect the plot."

    It's helped me realize that when it comes to storytelling, I don't WANT my choices to affect the plot. I want to know what happens, dammit!

    And I see no way around the problems that the others brought up with branching storylines--when you're dividing finite resources between 18 possible endings instead of 1 definite one, there's going to be a decreased level of quality no matter what.

    Anyway, great article, really enjoyed it. Is there a way I can subscribe to your blog via email? Am I just too stupid to see the button? I'm not using blogger or an RSS feed and would like to keep reading your stuff.

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    1. With the option to turn off the UI in TWD, I guess you move the cursor around until a prompt appears.

      I'm not sure about subscribing via email, but it might work that way if you use Gmail due to Google+. You can follow the blog that way by clicking on the Pikachu on the right side of this page.
      You can also follow me on twitter where I'll be posting new links: https://twitter.com/Boojro
      Other than that, you can always bookmark. If none of these will work for you I can send you new links straight via email no problem.

      Thanks!

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    2. Ah, yeah, that probably will work. I always forget about Google+. And it sent me an email about this, so I guess it's working!

      Thanks.

      Delete
  7. Very good article, except it makes it hard to read since you use "butt" every time you mean to use "but".

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. This is a smash article stay pumped and not get discouraged - dorky, I know. Read More http://goo.gl/57mUXf

    ReplyDelete

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