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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XIII
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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XIII

December 21, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Turning the Avatar Stupid or Incompetent in a Cutscene

This one is so obvious I can't believe I didn't mention it years ago. Someone named Jan wrote to say that in Max Payne 3, Max in the cutscenes (which are numerous) is very different from Max as the player plays him. Having fought huge numbers of armed men successfully before, the player arrives at a critical confrontation only to have control taken away from him. Instead of the battle he was expecting, he is shown a cutscene in which he fails to do something that he could handle easily in gameplay.

Certain kinds of interactive stories have a tendency to seize control of the avatar in order to insert narrative plot material, leaving the player wondering who's role-playing this character anyway, him or the game? It's okay to introduce plot twists and unexpected developments in the game world at these moments. It's not fair -- and very frustrating -- to make the avatar perform below the player's own competence level or do something blatantly stupid. Valve's games, notably, don't do this.

There's a place for cutscenes and scripted sequences, and in story-heavy games with strongly characterized avatars (such as adventure games) it's reasonable for the avatar to have a mind of his own at times. But whatever the avatar does outside the player's control, it had better be similar to the things he does under the player's control. Games are not movies, and when you give the player a role to play, the player, not the designer, is the actor.

Extreme Changes of Brightness or Sound

We're all annoyed by TV commercials that are far louder than the content they're sponsoring. (These are now illegal in the United States.) Games can do it too, and not only with sound.

Colin Williamson writes, "The game in question is Assassin's Creed III, a very dark game which signals every gameplay transition or cutscene start with a smash cut to an all-white screen. If you're playing in a dark room or, even worse, on a projector, this is the equivalent to a full assault on your retinas."

This is the reason the fade-in and fade-out were invented for film decades ago -- in a darkened cinema, a sudden cut to an all-white screen is abusive. In audio production there's a technique called dynamic range compression (nothing to do with data compression) in which the equipment amplifies quiet sounds and reduces loud ones to keep the dynamic range within comfortable limits so that the listener doesn't have to adjust his volume control all the time. This doesn't prevent him from cranking his speakers, but it does avoid violent shocks.

Garrulous and Indiscreet NPCs

Tess Snider says all that needs to be said:

When was the last time you were walking down the street, and some complete stranger randomly paused next to you, and started telling you why he came to the city, who his rival was, or how his business is going? If it did happen, wouldn't you think he was crazy? In Skyrim, almost all NPCs do this. It's so weird and annoying that people have made mods to make it go away.

Skyrim isn't the only offender on this count, though. Throughout RPG-dom we see weirdly trusting NPCs who insist on telling us all sorts of personal information that we really don't need to know and which no normal person would ever share with a complete stranger. No wonder bandits robbed them blind.

Tess thinks this has to do with frustrated writers who are bored writing variations on "howdy" for NPC greetings and want to express themselves a bit more. I think it may be borrowed from TV cop shows, in which a lot of exposition has to be crammed into a limited amount of time, resulting in witnesses who provide far too much information:

Cop: "Did you hear any unusual noises at about 10 last night?"

Witness: "No... I sleep in the back of the house. My husband and I started sleeping in separate bedrooms after our third child was born. Things really haven't been the same between us since."

Whatever the reason, don't do it. Read your dialog aloud to see if it sounds like actual conversation. Really chatty people do exist, but they're rare.

Invisible Walls

So many people have sent in variations on this complaint that I can't credit them all. An invisible wall is a barrier in a 3D space that prevents the player from entering a zone that the visible environment, and all the rest of the game's mechanics, tell him he should be able to enter. (I've already discussed a related problem, having to stand on, or jump from, a tiny precise location in a 3D space.)

One of many, many examples is the waist-high barbed wire fence around the Chernobyl exclusion zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Invisible walls are conceptually similar to, but implemented differently from, the wooden doors that you can open with a key but can't break down in an RPG. They're a failure to implement a visually credible reason for the player's inability to go someplace that he ought to be able to go.

Let's use some common sense here, people. Unless the avatar is in a wheelchair, a low fence is not an obstacle. If the avatar is supposed to be a commando or a superhero, a six-foot fence isn't one either. Nor is a pane of glass. It's also unfair to construct a visually enticing area beyond an invisible wall. If you signal that an area is worth exploring, then it needs to be explorable. Keep the areas inside the boundaries of your world more interesting than the ones outside.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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