Posts Tagged ‘Chrono Trigger


Player Consent and Responsibility


Over four years ago (!?!?) I wrote a post concerning how games do and don’t account for ambivalence in their pacing, which boiled down to the point that sometimes the player doesn’t want to fully engage what the game has lined up next for the player, and it should give them the space to decide when to engage it.  It’s a topic that’s come back to mind as I consider how I choose to engage Dragon Age: Inquisition.  I haven’t invested enough in that game to really judge one way or the other in its specific case, but it’s led me back to a train of thought about how games are structured around player preferences to maximize engagement.

This question of how and when to engage the player is a matter of achieving player consent to engage (e.g. when to begin the final battle with Lavos in Chrono Trigger.)  While this is not something that should be employed at every turn in a game (there’s got to be some room for surprise) the experience must first begin with soliciting and confirming the user’s consent to engage in what the game has planned.  It’s easy to see how this makes sense in cases of user experience design (allow players to skip dialogue, allow them to save at critical points before proceeding, etc) but it becomes more complex when applied to the “text” of the game itself.  “Text” meaning the content of the game itself rather than how the game and player interface with one another.  The player must first choose to listen to what the game has to say before it can successfully proceed in conveying its text.  Anticipating the player’s desires and navigating their preferences would appear to be an insurmountable task.  But this is something that is worth consideration in evaluating critically successful games.

Following from consent, the game must next instill a sense of responsibility in the player to respect the game’s rules.  When the game chooses to speak, the player must understand what is being said in addition to consenting to hear it then accept responsibility for its consequences.  And only when after this process of acquiring consent and accepting responsibility can the interaction follow.  For instance, in the very beginning of Super Mario Brothers, World 1-1, we can safely assume consent is acquired being so early in the game. And responsibility is instilled by creating a coherent set of rules to determine what the game means when it speaks.  Not jumping over the goomba results in failure.  Failure results in restarting the level.  Jumping and maneuvering is required in order to navigate the spoken hazards of the level.  Thus, the game instills in the player a sense of responsibility to protect Mario against those hazards.  Failure comes at the cost of the player’s time.  This creates anticipation and tension, but if the cost is too great, then the game will lose the player’s consent even if they understand and accept responsibility for its rules.  World 1-1 mitigates this by only increasing the cost of failure by what it knows the player is capable of.  They cannot proceed to the ending of World 1-1 without demonstrating they are capable of understanding what the game has said.

How do I tie this back into Dragon Age: Inquisition? I think many times, when a game makes grand promises, I meet them with greater scrutiny.  I have less time to play them now, and I’ve played enough of them that I want early assurance that what I’m doing is novel or new.  I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of this game in particular.  I don’t have confidence I will play it well at first and, as a result, I don’t fully invest myself in it while I learn its systems.  I’ve consented to the game, but haven’t accepted full responsibility for the meaning of its text.  And that’s because it’s got so much to say! I’m not really sure what to make of it yet or why I need to care.  So, I joke around, play with the systems and wait for all of this noise to coalesce into an experience resembling what I think the designers had in mind for me.  At that point, they’ll have my full buy-in and I’ll fully play the game “in character.”  Games like Walking Dead and Saints Row IV accomplished this for me, and Dragon Age may yet as well.  In the mean time, this will be my experience:


Weekly Links for October 9th

Don't get distracted by the subtext, though, because the text is that they're going to be shooting at you.


What I’ve Been Playing

  • Portal 2
    I mowed through Peer Review in an evening.  It definitely gets two thumbs up.
  • Minecraft
    I’m starting to fall back into my old ways.  I just spent six hours on it last night.
  • Gears of War 3
    It’s that time of year again.  The time to shoot dudes.

Bonus Video


Weekly Links for May 7th


What I’ve Been Playing

Bonus Video

One year of Ruminatron5000 complete!


Weekly Links for April 23rd


What I’ve Been Playing

Bonus Video


Making Random Battles Fun?

I know that this is the burning question in everybody’s mind this time of year.  Actually, Entertainment Weekly took care of the real burning question: Is Kirby’s Epic Yarn the worst game of the year?  But now that that’s out of the way, we can settle down and discuss random battles, which even people who love JRPGs will admit, are even worse than Epic Yarn.

It’s not that battles being random is the problem: they aren’t random.  They occur on a semi-consistent interval which the player is aware of.  If being random were the problem, then games like Left 4 Dead, a game that throws hordes of zombies at you at unpredictable intervals, would be terrible.  What’s bad about these battles is that they change the entire game on a dime every couple of minutes, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.   It’s like being the passenger in a car being driven by someone who is constantly jerking the brakes.  In either case, the experiencing is infuriating, and JRPGs are entirely unplayable for some audiences.  As a device in a game, it’s a relic from a time when there was technically no other way to design the transition and relationship between battle and field mode.

But really, why should anyone give a crap about this sort of thing now.  JRPGs were for people who had a high tolerance for pain.  It takes an obscene amount of time and effort to build an HD JRPG world?  But there are new opportunities.  10 year old+ JRPGs are being re-released and someone still wants to buy them.  (This may just be a sign of how poor the selection at PSN is though.  Never-the-less, people still throw money at these games.)  Dragon Quest has found success and a new home in the portable market.   And there is burgeoning potential for them in the mobile app market as well.   But there’s no reason to still rely on random battles as a staple feature of JRPG style games.  There is still ample interest in the genre, though the audience is weary from awkward game mechanics that should have been left in the past.

Some games have side-stepped the problem altogether (e.g. Chrono Trigger) but maybe designers can take a cue from gamification and turn the drudgery of random battles make the whole scheme feel more like a game, as opposed to a form of hazing.  Here is how I might imagine this happening.

Notebook time!

First off, don’t even load battle mode if the player has decided that they are just going to flee once it commences.  The load/transition time is constant, and when the player isn’t going to even bother with it they will essentially disengage from the game until it has returned to field mode.  The player may not want to be distracted from their task at hand, or may not want to spend a lot of time fighting.  If they should sustain a penalty during escape (characters don’t usually escape immediately in JRPGs and run in place while taking a few hits first) then there’s no reason not to do this is field mode in order to minimize unnecessary transitions.

The game should provide the player with a sense of control.  The risks and rewards of random encounters should be managed as part of the field mode.  I would suggest something along the lines of this model: HUD elements can be seen on one side of the screen indicating the estimated number of enemies in a room.  Another element shown close by will indicate when an enemy is nearing.  If the party is aware of it sooner, they can engage it at will, and even attempt to pre-emptively strike it/them.  A button press will bring up the options to strike, or evade.  In either case, a numeric value is presented alongside the estimated number of enemies in the room.

The player can “roll” dice in an attempt to obtain a value higher than the value for the option that they select. Successfully rolling higher for strike will allow for a pre-emptive strike. Otherwise a normal battle ensues. Successfully rolling higher for evade will allow the party to escape the pursuing enemy entirely. If lower, then the risk for engagement is increased as a penalty, and the enemy will reach the party even more quickly than they would have the player had moved normally.

Eventually, the enemy catches up to the party. The player can then decide to engage immediately or roll to escape. Escape is also presented with a numeric value. Roll higher and the party evades the enemy entirely. Roll short and the battle begins. If the player rolls a one, then the enemy will strike preemptively, leaving the player at a disadvantage. A timer will decrease while the player decides what to do. If they take too long, then the enemy will preemptively strike. Defeating an enemy will gradually reduce the “estimated enemies” in the room. When this reaches zero, the room is clear and no more random battles take place. An option to engage enemies at will might be made available.

By introducing these rules and mechanics, the player can feel less like they are fighting against the game itself, and more like they are actually playing a game.  There’s no reason for these games to tie themselves to the technical limitations of the 8-bit era.  Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between elements of JRPGs that are essential to genre itself, and what ought to be discarded.  It may just be wishful thinking on my part to hope that the entire genre isn’t discarded.  I’ll cross my fingers in any case, and curse random battles as I play through Final Fantasy IX again.


The Past Success of jRPGs

I’ve recently finished replaying Chrono Trigger, and begun playing Final Fantasy IX again.  The last five or so years haven’t been good for jRPGs (I can’t say I’ve played any newer ones, save for Lost Odyssey, or maybe Crisis Core) and they are easy pickings for criticism.  Their flaws have been made very clear by an exasperated community.  And even genre behemoths like Final Fantasy have had to do some serious soul searching to keep up with other more recently popular genres.  But when I’ve picked up older games from the genre (e.g. Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy IX) these flaws seem to be besides the point.

It’s my own opinion that neither gamers, nor developers really understood what made jRPGs popular.  Gamers were so engrossed with these games that they even became fanatically devoted to some of them.  From my own experience in that particular corner of the community, characters and “epic” stories allegedly drove their popularity.  The character’s struggles were adopted as the player’s own, and developers cranked out a ton of jRPGs based on what gamers claimed that they wanted.

Final Fantasy XIII struggled to appear like it followed the same bloated, overwrought formula, that jRPGs had become notorious for, while introducing new action oriented elements to simultaneously modernize it.  It really made me rethink whether my own fondness for earlier jRPGs was warranted.  I was surprised that over the past two years I’ve been able to replay Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy IX with a renewed sense of engagement.  I was happy to pump 40+ hours into each one.  And for all but Final Fantasy IX, I played for the first time well after their original release dates.  Even if the genre has been flagging for the last decade, it had done something right in the past.  The question in my mind is: what happened?

The genre had a boom and bust from which it might not recover.  It’s still fashionable to pick apart the genre’s flaws after years of jRPG fanatics going on, and on, and on, about how great these games are.  With some time behind the boom and bust though, I’d like to suggest an another idea of what exactly made these games successful.  While described as “role playing” games, I have begun to see them more as a variety of exploration games.  It is true that in most jRPGs you do not actually adopt the role of any particular character, and the game doesn’t respect your choices about how that character should behave (outside of some stat building.)

Earlier jRPGs provided what felt like vast over-worlds with the challenge to the player being to construct a party with the right set of skills to be able to effectively conquer it.  Each town and dungeon represents an explicit challenge to how the party is designed, which ultimately culminates with a confrontation with a villain who is trying to take the world over.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the player is trying to take it over instead.  Each leg of the journey is a puzzle to determine what combination of skills and stats will enable to you proceed forward.  Some of the solutions could be rewarding in and of themselves, but the world’s themselves could be fun to explore as well.

This was certainly one of the technical limitations of the genre.  Building a high-definition world is exponentially more resource-intensive than during the low-fi eras of the previous three generations of gaming consoles.  I am still surprised by how much detailed artwork there is just in the backgrounds of Final Fantasy IX.  Games like IX had a great sense of pacing between the puzzle solving elements of dungeon crawling and the time you’re given to relax and explore towns.  The player can enjoy music, artwork, and sub-stories, while planning how to more effectively take on the next stage of the game.

Final Fantasy VII may have been the best example of how a jRPG can give the player not just a virtual world to explore, but a game play system to explore as well.  One could plow through the game simply beefing up the power of materia stones individually, but there were many opportunities to create inventive and powerful combinations of materia as well.  The acquisition, enhancement, and configuration of materia was an engrossing way to personalize the game to your preferences while still tying back into the world itself, and the story being told.  Taken on its face, the characters and narrative are absurd, but try to put the game down once you begin to tinker with the materia system.  You could care less if Cloud is really a clone of super soldier infused with the DNA of an alien life form.

This is precisely the element that was sacrificed in the design of Final Fantasy XIII.  The pacing was streamlined to eliminate the “town” portions of the game.  Combat was simplified to eliminate details and increase the perceived speed of battles.  The illusion of freedom was eliminated entirely to focus on, and more tightly control, the game’s sub-par narrative.  All of these changes were made to address the complaints with the genre during its “bust” phase. But these complaints were made about jRPGs that were later cargo-cult imitators of more successful entries in the genre, during a time when there was an excess of them.  Final Fantasy XIII was an awkward game play experience that was both ashamed of its predecessors and hopeful that long time fans of the series would still come along for the ride.  It was an insecure game that was awkward to play.

Perhaps in the future, if we see a resurgence in the genre, there will be less emphasis placed on the narrative and role playing aspects of the games, and more emphasis placed on all the ways players can explore an elaborately designed game space.  Or perhaps, we will continue to see other genres adopt the broken pieces of jRPGs and integrate them into their own games.  In any case, I hope the gaming community will remember them fondly, and not just the endless cash-ins of games past.


Ambivalent Gaming

[Check out a recent post that follows from this one!]

When thinking about interactivity, it is easy to think of verbs: things that are done. And when thinking about games, interactivity is the next concept to come to mind, as well as things you actively do in the game. Rarely does inactivity factor into the conception of interactivity. Halo, of course, isn’t remembered for the times where you’re not shooting guns.  And Super Mario Bros. isn’t remembered for that time you didn’t decide to smash a block. But are these moments being overlooked in favor of the yay button? Aren’t activity and inactivity two sides of the same coin? The oscillation between the two states is part of the idea of game pacing: when is enough action enough? When is it too boring? And when is it overwhelming? For relatively low-cost decisions (shoot, don’t shoot) determining when enough is enough is a straight forward task.

As more variables are introduced into game play though, the appropriate balance will be based more and more on personal preferences. The tendency of console games is to introduce novel twists on familiar game play, or to layer multiple game play concepts on top of one another. For instance, Mass Effect layers action with role-playing game mechanics.  It sells itself on the fact that the game play is complex in a way that requires you to imprint your preferences on it. But as game play becomes more complex, player preferences are not clear, even to the player. The result can be ambivalence. Should the player invest in one long term strategy, or another? How does he or she know when they are ready to complete a task? Most importantly: how does the designer know when the player knows these things? They can’t.

Ambivalence is something that a game needs to take into account, in addition to all of the things that can happen once a decision is reached. If the player is prodded into making a decision before they are ready, then they are less likely to invest in that decision, and the game becomes that much less meaningful to them. Discussion of interactivity is predominantly about the breadth of choice, and whether or not the player can create something that is uniquely their own. But if the player is forced to decide amongst 16 choices in the span of several minutes, those choices aren’t going to mean much, even if they are unique.

One example of ambivalence being considered well in a game is Chrono Trigger. Specifically the decision when to engage the game’s final boss, Lavos.  It can be confronted anytime after the mid-way point of the game. There’s no question about whether or not to fight Lavos in the first place. It is clearly established as the arch-enemy of the game. The question is, when does the player feel ready to engage an enemy with a seemingly infinite amount of power. There is no single prompt for the player to go and defeat it. The player fights Lavos when he or she feels genuinely ready. And for that, I feel that Chrono Trigger makes that fight more memorable to the player by leaving room for ambivalence.

For an example of where ambivalence is not taken into account, look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The sequences with the Dr. border on being comedic. With little warning, the player must answer intimate questions. While I believe it was designed such that the questions are directed to the player, the game presents itself as being from Harry Mason’s perspective. In effect, these deeply personal questions are actually about Harry, and your role is to interpret what you perceive to be Harry’s answers. Without knowing Harry all that well, these questions are meaningless. And without an option to defer on questions and then answer them later, there is no weight to any decisions that are made. The psychology warning at the beginning of the game is entirely unwarranted. I was more afraid of the fact that Chrono Trigger knew I stole an old man’s lunch than Shattered Memories trying to pry at subconscious fears.

It may also be fair to say that part of success of sandbox games lies in player determined pacing, and deferment of significant decisions in favor of other types of game play. Games like Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption are rewarding in how freely you can explore the worlds being presented. You’re not being rushed into making a game changing decision or some sort of moral choice. And even if deciding to hunt buffalo or harvest wheat are less significant questions, they are more meaningful to the player than being forced to make a binary choice between good and evil.

Further reading: Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions

No pressure

Posts filed under…


My Twitter

  • Hi. This is Peter. Please leave your name and number after the tone. 2 years ago