The Art of Living Dangerously

The Art of Living Dangerously

When it comes to action games, how you die is just as important as how you stay alive.

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For me, I think one of the keys to a QTE segment is to have the button combinations feel appropriate to the kinds of actions your character is taking. The worse designed QTEs have button selections that seem entirely arbitrary, and so you cannot develop an instinct to be using them ahead of time. It also breaks your immersion because it requires more conscious awareness of the controls. Appropriate controls give a greater sense of agency.

That's why the standout moments for me in Tomb Raider were


"if Drake dies during the climb, it kills the pacing."

Yeah, it kills the Hollywood style pacing. Sorry, but it's just not working in the way most games do, it's not engaging me even if I am vaguely involved having to roughly point the thumbstick in the right direction and push the button to continue.

It's not like I have to put myself in their shoes and really have to figure out what is the best way to climb out of this, I just have to figure out which is the one way to get the scripted sequence to move forward.

This would honestly work better as just a movie, the gameplay engagement here is so paper thin, it's only having technical player involvement.

Uncharted depends on a trick, a trick that is all too easy to see through.

Going on about how non-interactive audio-visual output confer the danger the character is in, yeah, this isn't game design any more, this is MOVIE MAKING 101! We all know how movies are made.

QTE are just another example of developers only reading from the Big Book of Movie Making Techniques and trying to foist to most bonehead simplistic gameplay elements as so way to excuse how they have blatantly given up trying to make a game. And it is VERY tempting to just make a movie out of the assets you have, you have the most complaint cameraman in the world, actors who will submit to as many retakes as you can cycle animators in and out, and low low cost of running and resetting the virtual set.

But this isn't really involving the player, which is what makes games special... how the type of interactivity leads to personal involvement and engaging with the character or element in the story.

NOTE: COD4's sinking-ship escape scene worked as you were backtracking through a familiar layout of corridors yet the environment was tilted adding some challenge. It's similar to Metroid's "Countdown escape" challenge. But the focus there is not on the "cool thing behind you" but on navigating through what is ahead of you and the looming unseen danger, not a constantly encroaching one.

I actually found the train car sequence in Uncharted 2 the most irritating part of the game:

1) Goddamn it was long sequence just to follow a single path up.
2) Every single handhold Drake grabs for breaks or bends. Every. Single. One. It's one thing when this happens in an ancient ruin, but this is a modern train car that was perfectly intact a few minutes ago. Not every metal or wooden handhold is going to be weakened that quickly. It's also tension-sapping--if I already know every handhold is going to break, I'm not going to be surprised or worried about it.
3) Not only do you have to do it at the beginning of the game, you have to do it again about 2/3 in!

I actually preferred the climbing sections of Tomb Raider 2013. There's maybe two or three times a ledge gives way on you, and a handful of times where you need to do the "grab a handhold" move--but at least that requires input on my part.

For me, I think one of the keys to a QTE segment is to have the button combinations feel appropriate to the kinds of actions your character is taking. The worse designed QTEs have button selections that seem entirely arbitrary, and so you cannot develop an instinct to be using them ahead of time. It also breaks your immersion because it requires more conscious awareness of the controls. Appropriate controls give a greater sense of agency.

That's why the standout moments for me in Tomb Raider were...

Those ones were...okay, I guess. The splinter one at least was a bit of a tutorial, since it taught the mechanic you'd use to lever open boxes and doors later (i.e., "Mash this button"). And I guess the other one was a basic combat tutorial, but it was so irritating to pull off on PC I had to plug in a gamepad just to get through it. And a few other QTEs too. A pox on all QTEs.

The one thing I didn't like about Tomb Raider's QTE's was the one's where you had to wiggle the analogue stick from side to side, because for some reason I'm just useless at those. I can mash a single button repeatedly like a pro, and I found the hitting the one button within the optimum time window one's a piece of cake, but I peculiarly lose all concept of dexterity when I'm asked to move my thumb from side to side quickly and smoothly.

First off, that was a really well-written article--I enjoyed it a lot.

Personally, I like the on-rails model of Heavy Rain. Regardless of your opinion about the game's overall enjoyability, I think most people would agree that it does a lot right within the QTE model. It displays button prompts in a natural and unobtrusive manner, and most importantly, failing prompts doesn't end the game, making the overall experience feel more organic.

The most spectacular stuff I've seen in games has been in BF3 multiplayer. Scripted action sequences can not compare to two jet fighters colliding above you and the burning wreckage killing an enemy squad you were hiding from. The fact that this stuff happens unscripted makes it much more impressive than a cutscene with button presses any day. I hope the next.console generation will allow more emergent action sequences as it has more power available for AI.

I love the opening to Uncharted 2, you don't know how Drake got there, you don't know why he's bleeding, you just know you have to get him off of that train quick!

As Robert said in the article, the combination of scenery, weather, music and sound effects leads to a...
(fire alarm, leave building, stand in the cold, come back to computer)

intriguing start to the game.

As much as I love this article, I really disagree with the 'crumbling scenery = danger' idea. That may look hazardous if it's your first or second game, but after you've seen it done the platforms breaking as you jump on them becomes less engaging because you know it was supposed to happen. I don't jump over a gap just as the platform I'm standing on breaks and think 'Whew! Nearly died!', I think 'Gee, how convenient that it didn't collapse while I was working out the controls'.

It's telling that many people like Uncharted 2 more than 3, because those "tricks" were new (mostly). I found the opening compelling and one of the best game openings ever. Like Mass Effect 2 it's spectacle with all the hallmarks of danger but you can't really die.

Then they over use it. Same thing with CoD4. It innovated with opening credits from an NPC's view, varied gameplay from all out assaults, stealth night missions and avoidance, the AC-130 level was a shock, and of course the main character death. They were new experiences in gaming. So what do they do for MW2? The same damn tricks, and done to death, and it felt terrible. I personally hated it. It seemed to miss the whole point completely. Now games like Uncharted 3 and Assassin's Creed and CoD annoy me because they keep using the same "innovation" hoping to surprise us and it just doesn't. A magic trick loses it's appeal when you know how it's done. Like someone above said you know Drake going to make it, but you also know it'll look like he almost won't. It's predictable now.

It seems more and more common now that I'm not allowed to play the game. Mostly so as not to interfere with "the vision" of the game developers. Assassin's Creed burnt me out simply because you just hold one button to climb. You don't keep pressing it for each movement, you just hold it down and the computer/console does all the impressive work. "Look at how cool YOU are!" it tries to convince me "Nope. Just holding down 'A' here, not feeling like a hero"

My new gripe is this idea of giving the player full agency but no room to move. CoD drove me nuts with this in Black Ops. In a number of missions YOU have to move the character BUT you can only go on one path. That whole russian missile level starts with you following a character for about 5-10 minutes. You have agency but god forbid you don't do as you're told. It's not true agency if only one course of action is available. The worst part is the blackbird take-off. You have to push the button to start the engines (press R1) but I found out you don't need to pull back on the RS to take-off?? It'll just do it anyway? The irony of course is that they don't won't to break immersion, or take the player out of the experience, so the stick a giant (Pull RS back to take-off) right in the middle of the screen? Yeah, that helps immersion.

I'm not sure I agree that death ruins pacing? It certainly does with dumb QTEs and set-pieces. Mostly because you're largely disengaged already. But think of the early Mario platformers, and Dark Souls. They both use the learn-through-death system. You will rarely beat a Mario level the first time through. You will die. Just like Dark Souls. But you learned something, that's your progress and pace. How MUCH did you learn? How well did you learn it? No one says "but it really ruined the pacing", (as long as you get a bit further each time of course). But the thing they have these other games don't? Full agency, nearly all the time. You never lose control of your character, the mechanics don't change to QTEs, you are in charge. But manipulate the player into a novel set-piece, reduce their agency and change the rules and THEN they die. That feels like it's the developers fault. It feels unfair. It ruins the pacing.

It'd be like riding a bike on a stunt track, and imagine you're doing well. Then suddenly they pull you off the bike, put you in a mining cart on wheels, then after 30 seconds tell you slingshot targets to progress, when you haven't touched a slingshot until now.

You also missed the biggest flaw and irony of QTEs. They have them so they can show you a spectacular set-piece, but you can't watch it because you're concentrating so hard looking for button prompts you're really not watching the background. The run-away/sliding escapes and chases are better but that's because you still have control and you watch the screen, not the button-prompts. They're were a crutch to begin with, and now they're generic. Hopefully the writing is one the wall for QTEs.

I'm not sure about the "innovative" aspect (even moreso within the Tomb Raider series) about wanting to avoid death because it's gruesome, and inspires one to survive. That was exactly the type of situation you would encounter in the early Core Design Tomb Raider games. In fact, it was such a staple of the series that when Crystal Dynamics started the whole "rag-doll on ice" skidding deaths and fade to blacks, fans of the series really felt that it cheapened the tension of the game and complained, extensively. Of course, it was a required move to lower the age rating of the game, but it also deprived the games on the older squishy-sound, spike death so commonly encountered in earlier games. You also had the death by raptor gnarling, electrocution, bone-crushing falls, splatterred by traps, throat-clutching drowing,etc. Lara is/was a badass explorer, but you were always pretty aware that one false step or timing meant being bloodily sliced up by some ancient blade trap. You always felt you were awesome and agile, but also pretty fragile. It's not new, but it's refreshing to see it come back to the series.

Another reason why games shouldn't be designed as movies. Games have their own pacing depending on what the player does. You need to consider more than the tension created by the story's progress through a series of set pieces.

I have to disagree with this. Games aren't movies, they don't have to be paced as movies, and the advantage of games over movies is that the danger in which the character is can be real, not just feel real. If the player makes some mistakes during a frantic sequence, they die and have to reload the last checkpoint, that's the pacing. Period. The players aren't dumb, they know that the sequence is scripted, mostly because they make a major mistake and the character doesn't die, so the whole sense of peril and tension is lost. Of course, the mistakes that are considered major by players will perhaps diminish as the action/adventure games advance in this direction, but why would we want that? Why should the game go easy on the player by simulating danger for the player character, when it could be in actual danger? To know that this is not a scripted sequence, and the slightest mistake will get you killed, and you'd have to restart the whole chapter/dungeon/section/whatever and go through that shit again, that's a perfect way to make the player nervous, more careful, and afraid. And I don't think the pacing is as worrisome as the article makes it. At least for me, as long as I'm playing, I have no problem with it. Sure I get annoyed that I have to start climbing that huge tower again or something, but it was nobody's fault but my own, most of the time. And when I get past that particular segment of crushing difficulty, I'd be happier for it.

Also, who feels tense during death-defying scenes in movies, anyway? Everyone knows that the lead will make it out alive, so where's the tension in that? Whenever I watch such a scene, I feel visceral glee and adrenaline pumping through my system, as the main character defies the laws of physics, consumes much more energy than his body can stock, or punch a baddie while hanging from a cliff. And if he dies, I'm just desensisized; "Well, he had it coming!" I'd say in my head as I help myself to another handful of chips.

Also also, don't compare games with movies! Seriously, it cripples them!


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