Tag Archives: Destiny

Emerging Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a magnificently glitchy game. I have seen a crewmate go through osmosis while talking to him, I’ve fought an alien dinosaur that suddenly stopped moving its body (but still glided along the jungle floor and attacked me), and, through cunning manipulation of my space-car’s six wheel drive and boost functions, have successfully driven up a vertical cliff face (though arguably that’s a feature, not a bug). Of course, there are weirder visual flaws, like most of a character’s face not moving while they speak or the world being so big that the game forgets to load the people I have to talk to to complete my quest. It’s frustrating sometimes – and downright baffling other times that a AAA game would ship like this.

But, my god, it’s fun. I’ve sunk way too many hours into exploring the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy since the game came out and have no intention of slowing down; far as I can tell I’m 30 hours and maybe 25% in. I’m having a blast. And yes, a lot of the fun is through scripted missions, where I’m told to go to x planet and do y thing; but the world of Andromeda is so big that there are so many random adventures to get to.

Like the time on Eos where I woke the Architect, a colossal robot hellbent on killing me that I alternately shot at or hopped in the Nomad (the space-car of before) and chased so I could shoot it some more. Or going spelunking in ancient ruins looking for loot and coming face to face with my first Destroyer, a war machine that put up a heckuva fight. Or – so many ors – deciding to storm a Kett base on Eos with an offensive that started with me ramming the Nomad into a few bad guys and wedging on top of an automated turret. Bugginess be damned, there’s fun to be had! With some well-crafted quests and a vast and interesting world, Andromeda’s side quests make even fetch quests feel somewhat purposeful.

What really helps it out, though, is the emergent fun that comes from the game. Emergent gameplay, as opposed to structure, is an aspect of the game that is not hard-wired into the system, but emerges from it being played. To cite an example from Jesper Juul, there is no explicit rule in Monopoly that a player will go bankrupt, but it happens because of the rules. Emergences. Hence the name.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda and emergent gameplay. Let’s take driving the Nomad through a bunch of Kett and sending them flying. At no point in the game does it say you can use your space-car as a weapon, and yet, it works. Even the self-imposed challenge of climbing up rock faces isn’t hardcoded into the game, but it’s ridiculously fun. Andromeda gives you a playground where the missions are cool, but the fun you make for yourself is fantastic.

Which makes me think back to Destiny, a game with a barebones story and an amazingly fun gameplay. My fondest memory of the game is easily the Vault of Glass raid where me and five other players navigated a treacherous maze and took on – and defeated – Atheon. Sure, the level design and all is fantastic, but what makes it so great were the folks I teamed up with: our banter and teamwork. That’s something wonderfully special that was not intended by the game’s framework, but rather encouraged and permitted. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a single player game, so there’s less chances of impromptu dance parties (seriously: every multiplayer game needs dancing emotes). But it is still host to one of the best things about games: the freedom to explore a virtual space and, ignoring intended intentions, finding new ways to interact with the world.

Which in my case has been a fine-tuned assault strategy involving charging right in with my space-car and hoping for the best.

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Bang For A Buck

Movie tickets here in New York short you around $15 a pop. Which is a lot for a movie, but we go anyway because, y’know, movies. So it’s worth it, price of admission and all that for those two hours.

Conversely, your typical new video game costs $60 at base, ignoring deluxe editions, special editions, and inevitable DLC. Which makes it come up to around a lot; Star Wars Battlefront totals out $110 if you buy the bundle for all the expansions, which I haven’t though I really enjoy the game and would appreciate the depth those expansions offer. $50 seems too steep, y’know?

The same goes for Destiny‘s newest expansion, Rise of Iron; it’s a hearty forty quid and even though I’ve already bought all the other expansions, I’m not quite ready to invest more cash. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

Then I check my playtime in the game. I’ve invested over 210 hours into Destiny. Woah (I didn’t check the number until just now). For how much I’ve paid, that’s better than 2 hours for each dollar I’ve spent. Or, in perspective, $1,575 worth of movie tickets. By that metric, Destiny has so far proven almost $1,500 cheaper. So picking up Rise of Iron seems like a steal.

So that’s it then; entertaining-hour per dollar is the way of measuring whether something is a good deal. Buy more games, go to the cinema less often. Easy.

But what about theatre?

Plays don’t come cheap, Full-price tickets for Hamilton will short you around a $100 (roughly Battlefront+expansions, if you’re keeping track) for a single viewing of a two-and-a-half hour musical. Discounted tickets to shows like Fun Home and Vietgone, plays I’ve raved about, are $30 a piece. If we go back to our entertaining-hour per dollar metric, then plays are crazy expensive, far more than a movie and definitely a video game.

That is, of course, if you take things at a mathematical face value.

Was Fun Home worth those thirty dollars? Holy crap, yes. Seeing something live has a different aura than watching something on a screen. With a play, I figure you’re not paying your money for the story, but to have an experience. Hamilton tickets fetch such a high price because  it’s such an experience to watch it live. Similarly, the wonder of watching Fun Home done in the round, with the stage playing the role it does and being in a room full of other people is part of the ticket. And my own experience of Vietgone wouldn’t be the same without a particularly great piece of live feedback from an elderly woman during the introduction.

The whole entertaining-hour per dollar metric really falls apart as soon as you realize that entertainment isn’t just a blanket term. Of the over two-hundred hours I’ve spent playing Destiny, I can point to the experience of spending six hours venturing into the Vault of Glass with a six-person fireteam of strangers online and beating Atheon as being a highlight worth my purchase. That was an experience, of retries, strategizing, and, eventually, victory. It’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle again, and that might be why I”m holding off on Rise of Iron.

When I buy a game, I’m after an experience. I want to be thrilled by Uncharted 4 or haunted by The Last of Us; if I get that, the money was worth it. Same goes for the stage; I want to see something that I could only have seen on stage, something made special by how and where it’s done. I’ll shell out a hundred bucks on a LEGO set because I love the process of putting it together (with a record playing and a nice glass of whiskey).

It’s why when Rogue One tickets go on sale I’m spending the extra money to see it in IMAX 3D: I want the experience, I wanna be there. And at the end of the day, that’s what you’re really paying for.

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The Elusiveness of Fun

What is fun?

No, not what’s fun to do, what does “fun” mean? Johan Huizinga, a Dutch guy that wrote a lot about play and what play means, said in his Homo Ludens that “this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He goes on to lament that there’s, to his knowledge, no direct translation in a Western language that really captures what “fun” is (and if you check Wiktionary, you’ll find the translations lacking in words that really capture what fun means).

So “fun” is weird, and writing it so many times has made me start to question whether that’s how you spell it. But yeah, fun is a thing, and it’s part of what makes play, well, play. If you’re not having fun, you’re not really playing, are you?

Fun’s essential to games, then. I don’t play Settlers of Catan or the Game Of Thrones Board Game just because I feel like manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend, I play it because manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend are fun (sorry, friends/family/girlfriend). Some people don’t find those games fun, and for them it’s less playing and more of a slog.

Like I said, “fun” is weird.

Video Games, particularly those with a narrative, find themselves in an odd place when it comes to fun. Because video games have to, by nature, be fun on some level. Even something like The Last of Us, which isn’t always particularly enjoyable due to its serious nature, retains a measure of “fun” to it wherein it is, well, pleasing to play. But other games can get by with a weaker narrative simply because they’re fun. There’s nothing innovative or narratively fascinating about a plumber rescuing a princess, but Super Mario Bros is no less compelling for it.

Capturing that fun is where things get interesting. The Division recreated a swath of Midtown Manhattan but does so little with it that there’s little fun to be found in exploring a virtual New York. Clunky controls that inhibit immersion (why can’t I jump off this parapet to a surface a foot below me?) get in the way of any interest in the game’s vague story. Destiny, on the other hand, is stupidly fun on the micro level. Sure, that game’s story’s also lackluster, but developed Bungie has figured out a shoot-melee-jump cycle that’s so darn enjoyable. Because Destiny is more fun on a beat-by-beat basis, it’s more compelling than The Division.

But here’s the weird part about fun: it’s kinda arbitrary. I know people who find Destiny’s shoot-melee-jump cycle tiresome and I’m sure there are people out there who really like The Division for its core gameplay. We joke about people “hating fun” but then again, isn’t “fun” a matter of opinion?

So now we return to that first question: “what is fun?” Amusement, sure, but if games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us can be fun on some level then we’re looking at a very different sort of amusement. Engaging? It works, sure, but Fruitvale Station was engaging as all get out and not at all fun. Enjoyable comes close, but runs in to the same issue as amusement. Huizinga didn’t really define fun alone so much as in relation to play, and he has some very clear (and useful) descriptions as what play is.

Think about when you (or I, if you read this blog a bunch) refer to a movie as “fun.” What’s that mean? Civil War had an incredibly tragic climax, but it’s still fun, right? Least I thought so, since some people find Marvel movies to be droll.

Way I see it, fun is something really hard to to capture, that really lacks a solid meaning. Play is fun, I suppose, and fun is play.

No, that’s not much of a final statement, but it’s late and that’s all I’ve got right now.

Plus, I wanna go back to swinging on ropes in Uncharted 4 because that is a lotta fun.

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More Thoughts on Destiny’s Story

So with my Rationale out of the way, I picked up Destiny’s expansion-sequel The Taken King and put… many… hours into it. It’s a huge improvement on the base game and, for a change, feels like a complete game with stuff like story and what not. Which is great, because Destiny had world building in spades, and now The Taken King is building on it and giving characters actual personalities.

These personalities are revealed through some newfound conflict beyond the original good guy Guardians versus the vague-but-evil Darkness. It’s still good versus evil, but now some of the good guys bicker. Zavala disapproves of Cayde-6’s flippancy who in turn thinks Eris takes things way too seriously. Little things, to be sure, but they add a depth that was sorely lacking in the game’s first year. Story is character, after all, and character gets revealed through conflict. Points to Destiny for finally showing an understanding of how that works.

That said, the game’s always been brimming with narrative architecture. The world is rife with details that hint at a great history behind everything. There are names like Toland and Alpha Lupi that show up in gear descriptions and bits of lore that hint at so much more. Oryx, a name that shows up here and there in the first year is the titular antagonist of Taken King, making a bunch of pieces finally fall into place. Plus, Destiny’s lore is incredibly diverse: the Guardians in gear description are woman, Chinese, and Indian. There’s a variety in the background.

But does this work?

The first year of Destiny seems to point to no. One of the biggest criticisms of the Destiny was its lack of story and no amount of world building can compensate for a disappointing narrative (I’m looking at you Elysium). Halo’s story worked in part because of Cortana’s commentary on Chief’s missions and discussions with various allies about what to do next. In Taken King, Bungie imitates their older games and gives context to the gameplay. Now there’s a more tangible reason for why you’re running, shooting, and punching villains. By making the Vanguard and Ghost interesting characters with personality too, there’s a sense of being part of something larger than just the mission at hand.

More interestingly, in Taken King a lot of small tidbits are given a larger purchase. Recordings of Toland play a small role in the story and make the prior mentions resonate all the more. Because now Toland’s not just a mythical name, he’s a mythical name with a connection to a character that affects how the story plays out. There’s a reason and a why to the details that color the world.

But then, there’s no indications as to what the Kessel Run is in Star Wars except that Han Solo made it in less than 12 parsecs. Yet it adds such a sense of texture to the film — it works in Star Wars. Maybe the overabundance of details wasn’t Destiny’s big problem, maybe it really was the lack of an appropriately substantial story.

Well, there it is. Ya gotta have story.

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In Defense of Destiny’s Story

I talk about video games a lot on this blog, because I love them and play a lot of them. I also write about storytelling because it’s kinda my thing. Now, there’s a lot to say about video game narrative, which, honestly, can apply to narrative in general. Games are special because narrative — or even story of any sort — isn’t necessary for a good game (See: Pacman, or better yet,Pong).

But, contrary to what game designers like Jonathan Blow think, games can tell excellent stories. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an emotional story that rivals great film and has found its way into many of my papers for school. Bungie too has told great stories through the Halo games. No, they may not on the same level as The Last of Us, but the original trilogy did tell a solid story, ODSThad great characters, and Reach was genuinely sad at times. All of these games are very linear and have a very traditional narrative. Which is great.

Destiny, on the other hand, is very loosely linear. There are story missions for you to do, but there’s no urgency with which you have to do them, and thus you can spend plenty of time exploring the world at large and taking on side missions. Story information itself is dispersed through the occasional story-focused cutscene and through bits of dialogue with your companion, the AI Ghost. This all to say, there’s very little in the way of explicit storytelling.

The game’s gotten a lot of flak for this. Here’s this grand expansive world with hints of incredible backstory, but where’s the actual story? Where’s the character development? Where’re the big arcs and twists? The story, apparently, feels too nebulous to be worthwhile. Granted, the gameplay more than makes up for it, but the way its critics see it, a weak story is Destiny’s greatest flaw.

But Destiny’s story isn’t weak, it’s open. Modern Warfare 2 had a woefully weak story, with underdeveloped characters and a plot that made very little sense. Sure, it was spelled out for you, but there really wasn’t much there. See, a lot of Destiny is conveyed through spatial and environmental storytelling. The very world of Destiny: the ancient ruins on Venus, the decaying colony on the Moon, the colonyships in Old Russia’s Cosmodrome; they all harken to something older and greater than what we see now. Mentions of the fall, of the Hive taking over the Moon, all this hint at something big. This is what Destiny does: the incredible world building does much of the heavy narrative lifting. Those scraps of story which, combined with the Grimoire accessed online or through the companion app, paint a great world for the player to inhabit. In there you go on these missions and carry out the main story, with lots of empty spaces in between.

These empty spaces is where you come in. Destiny wants you to use your imagination. There’s so much empty space in the story it’s easy to fill it up with your own ideas as to what happened. It’s like playing with your toys again, where you’re given the character and a little bit of story and let lose to make up how it plays out. This is the strength of Destiny’s story: Your imagination. Yes, it’s drastically different from a lot of modern — or even adult — storytelling, but it’s this open-endedness that sets Destiny apart. Here the player is free to create their own story. The nature of fireteams, the backstory of your Guardian, even some of the relations between characters, it’s all up to you.

This is what I’m loving as I play through Destiny, the freedom to wander through the world. I’m still not yet done with the game (almost finished the last mission on Venus) due to not only real life commitments, but also plain getting distracted by every Patrol mission and Strike in Destiny. But unlike Assassin’s Creed 4 where spending hours sidetrack hurt the plot’s pacing and any emotional attachment; Destiny’s side-missions and even competitive multiplayer feel like an addition to the overall narrative arch. It’s as if Bungie’s opening up a big sandbox and inviting you to play.

 

For more on spatial and environmental storytelling, read Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture. If you have a PS3 and want to play Destiny with someone cool, let me know.

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Background Details

There’s a building I can see outside my window that’s under construction. I’m not sure what it’s going to be or where exactly it is, but it looks to be somewhere in TriBeCa. The basic structure of it is there, there’s a crane going up the side, and it looks like the skeleton of a monolith as there aren’t any external walls up yet. There are tiny lights on each floor that glint in the daylight.

To my sci-fi-addled mind it looks like something you’d see in the background of Destiny, or maybe a new spaceship being built in Star Trek. It looks cool, almost otherworldly.

In other words, it’s something that could help tell a story. Visual storytelling (comics, movies, television, video games; anything that requires you to look at images) depends heavily on details to give life to the scene. Filling the background of the scene with details lends credibility and reality to the world.

This can be done in very subtle ways. In early seasons of How I Met Your Mother there were a pair of swords hanging on the wall of Ted and Marshall’s apartment. They were referenced on occasion, used once, but for the most part were sort of just there. That said, these two friends who met in college having swords on their wall added a sense of history to them, more so, than, say, a wreath would have (needless to say, Chekhov was probably very happy when they finally used them in a duel).

For all its epic-ness and grandeur, The Lord of The Rings films are filled with smaller, tiny details. Carved on helmets are runes which, should you have the bother to translate them from Tolkien’s appendices, say stuff actually relevant to the world. One of the buildings in the background of Minas Tirith is a ratcatcher, for example. Another one of these details is found in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs. There’s a lamp in the uppermost room which, if you look closely, was made from the helmets of Soldiers of Gondor. It’s a tiny detail, one that most people won’t notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the film. As I’ve said before, it’s these little details make a world seem real.

Which brings me back to Destiny and the spaceship-under-construction building out my window. Much of the game’s storytelling is done through environmental details. You’re not necessarily shown the story or the game’s background lore, but it’s there. When you enter Old Russia’s Cosmodrome you can see ruined buildings all about and, rising over the horizon, a huge spaceship with what look like futuristic space shuttles attached around the side. You’ve heard details about a Golden Age, expansion, and colonyships, but seeing that massive spaceship decaying in the distance adds a reality to it.

For a game so sparse on explicit storytelling, it does wonders with the little things. Item descriptions mention how the Titans raised the Wall or the exploits of some Saint-14. We’re not told more details than that, but, again, it adds to the feeling of depth and bigness of the world. Even things like seeing the crest of the Vanguards on a wall add further reality to it. The world feels like it’s breathing. These details make it seem alive.

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Becoming Legend

On Thursday a new trailer dropped for Bungie’s Destiny. In the vein of trailers for Bungie’s prior games (like Halo 3: ODST’s trailer, which remains one of my favorite pieces of marketing ever), it doesn’t really tell you much about what the game is like. It’s live action, for crying out loud, not a cutscene, or let alone actual gameplay. Which almost begs the question, how does the game even play?

Only, no, the trailer actually does an impressive job of summing up what Destiny’s gonna be. Rather than advertising actual gameplay, something that’s been covered plenty by news sites, the trailer looks at the tone of the game itself, while still teasing gameplay elements. How? Let’s get into it.

Right off the bat, we’re informed that humans haven’t been on the Moon in hundreds of years. That line alone tells us so much about the setting of the game. It’s obviously future science fiction with spaceships and such, so why haven’t humans been on the moon in hundreds of years? There’s a sense of awe and mystery conveyed, further enhanced by the long abandoned lander module and American flag. That we next see an alien base (that the heroes assault) further adds to that feeling of a mysterious future. The game’s action takes place after there’s been a massive shift in the status quo. The trailer doesn’t clearly say what, just that it happened.

This setting is further hinted at when we see them arrive on Venus: gone is the oppressive sulfuric acid atmosphere, instead there are verdant forests, rivers, and the ruins of a long abandoned structure in the distance. It’s mythic in the vein of The Lord of The Rings where the Argonath statues guarding the Anduin harken to an eons old civilization. Destiny plays with the same imagery and atmosphere, only this time in science fiction. Gone is the gritty and angst-ridden tone much modern science fiction takes, instead is an idealistic planetary romance, a direction that far too few storytellers take, in any form of fiction.

But what of the actual players? Here too is where the trailer positively shines. There’s banter between the three players throughout it, but, in keeping with the tone, it’s all very light hearted and full of a sense of romantic adventure. They make quips at each other which, sure, is a little heavy on the cheese, but mirrors the sheer fun of playing Destiny. Gameplay in the beta (released for a few days over the summer) felt a lot like how the players/characters in this treat it: it’s a power fantasy in a way, but more than that it’s an adventure. The social aspect of Destiny is played up here too; as a self-described shared world shooter, teaming up with friends (or strangers) is part and parcel to the game. The trailer plays up that aspect, and rightfully so as it’s one of the things that really sets Destiny apart.

There are a few other hints of gameplay in the trailer; summoning the Sparrow speeder-bikes, each class’s unique abilities, and, of course, shooting aliens. Like the setting and social nature, these are all part of what the game will be.

Destiny comes out on Tuesday. Even before this trailer I was excited, now that I’ve seen this, I can’t wait. Of course, there is that mountain of homework to get through, so we’ll see how things progress.

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