Power-Ups and Pitfalls: Ikaruga and Nights into Dreams…

[Our series, Power-Ups and Pitfalls, examines truly innovative and exceptional examples of level design in games.]

Level design is easily one of the most important disciplines in the video game industry. Things like an interesting art style, deep characters, and exciting new mechanics are all well and good but the entire game falls apart if the levels (the vehicles through which the player experiences the art, controls said characters, and preforms the mechanics) are poorly made. And that’s why we’re starting this Power-Ups and Pitfalls series, to highlight exceptional and interesting examples of level design (that and because writing about it’s a hell of a lot of fun). Both of the games we’re looking at this week manage to create fast paced and exciting levels that capitalize fully on the unique mechanics these games offer. So, without further ado:

Ikaruga (2001)

The game’s unique mechanics make this fight easier than it appears.

Like most shmupsIkaruga is a brutally difficult game– at least it’s difficult to play well (the more attempts you make, the more continues you unlock). However, what sets Ikaruga apart from other shmups is it’s simplicity. While most other games of this genre focus on gathering as many power-ups as possible to survive the extremely difficult levels (and not dying and losing said power-ups for future attempts), Ikaruga doesn’t feature speed boosts or spread shots. It structures all of its levels around one simple mechanic, the ability switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark and absorb the enemy shots of whichever polarity you currently have. Absorbing enough shots will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen that will allow you to fire a salvo of homing missiles of either polarity. Also, in order to add  a risk/reward element to the gameplay, your shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity, meaning that you’ll destroy a white enemy faster with dark polarity even though you’ll be vulnerable to it’s light shots.

Don’t worry, it get’s tougher.

The first level of Ikaruga is comparatively easy to the rest of the game. The game gives the player plenty of room to fly around the screen and, at least at the beginning, enemies don’t fire so frequently. This gives the player plenty of time to experiment with the game’s unique mechanics and get a feel for how to play. In order to defeat the first boss (pictured above), you need to be familiar with the basics of the polarity system. The second level forces the player to deal with more shots of differing polarity at the same time while making the player fly through a narrow pathways for much of the stage. Level three is where things really get tougher as it takes the narrow navigating room and increased enemy fire of level two and makes you deal with it at a much faster pace. The fourth level increases the rate of enemy fire significantly and the boss does the same, but gives you a minuscule amount of maneuvering room. Finally, the short fifth stage bombards you with projectiles of the same polarity, to get you in the habit of rapidly filling up your meter and using your super attack constantly, a strategy that will prove invaluable on the final boss.

So as you can see, Ikaruga does a stellar job of using its mechanics to create varied and increasingly challenging levels, the basis of good level design in nearly any game, but that’s only the half of it. You can play through the entire game without dying at all (a very difficult feat), and still get low rankings (C and C-) on all the levels. That’s because you weren’t taking full advantage of your scoring opportunities. Shooting three enemies of the same color will initiate a chain set at one, killing three more enemies of the same color (they can be the opposite color of the first three though) will set your chain at two, and so forth. The higher you get this chain, the higher the multiplier will be for your score and the higher your rank at the end of the stage. Surviving a stage in this game while making sure to only shoot an enemy of the color you need requires a huge amount of skill and planning, making Ikaruga’s levels optionally even more complex, while still catering to more casual players, since you can just choose to ignore the score and concentrate on surviving. This feat is why Ikaruga truly excels in level design and is definitely a game to check out, especially if you like shmups. Also, the boss theme kicks huge amounts of ass.

Nights into Dreams… (1996)

Not exactly the most self-explanatory game.

Nights into Dreams is one of those games (like Pikmin or Katamari) that is truly unlike anything else out there. What genre does it belong to? The game is a mix of adventure, action, flight, racing, even bobsledding. The game let’s you play as one of two kids (each one has four stages to play through), who have to travel to another world through their dreams to free a magic jester named Nights who then has to collect four multi colored crystals called Ideya while avoiding enemies within a time limit so he can fight the boss of the level *gasp for air*. So yeah, this isn’t the easiest game to describe. Essentially, while you’re controlling one of the kids (while searching for Nights at the beginning of the stage or after running out of time), the game is a 3D platformer/adventure, and while controlling Nights (flying around to destroy the cages the Ideya are kept in), flying as if in a 2.5D game.

In dreams, even flying through rings is fun.

Like Ikaruga, Night’s levels are entertaining, challenging, and certainly unique even when stripped down to the bare minimum needed in order to finish. But these levels also become incredibly hard to master for players who want to earn the highest possible score. During the Nights sections, which are the vast majority of the game, (if you’re good, you’ll only control the kids briefly at the start of a level), the player must collect twenty blue chips to destroy the cage holding one of the four Ideya. These chips are placed in such a way that the player can usually collect twenty within the time limit and recover the Ideya, which will allow the player to complete the stage with an adequate score. However, by exploring the levels, players can uncover hidden caches blue chips letting them claim the Ideya faster and use the remaining time to score extra points, by flying through rings, collecting stars, and other trinkets. In order to unlock the final stage in both of the kids’ quests, players must earn at least a C rank on the three previous levels. So the game forces the players to engage in some of this level exploration in order to complete the game. Some players may stop there, but the developers are hoping that this will hook other players into going for A ranks on all the levels. They’re essentially easing players into a more hardcore play-style in order to make the game (which is very different from any other) less daunting– the design allows players to “opt in” to higher levels of difficulty through exploration.


Why Indie Games Need To Lighten Up

“Can their be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? My father? My mother? My… dog? Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt.”

–Samuel Beckett, Endgame

We’ve been talking, this month, of things in indie and art games that we love. But now we’re going to talk about something that frustrates us: a general trend in storytelling and narrative towards big-picture, misery-porn, thematic stories. It was inevitable we’d get here; one of us is an indie game developer and the other a writer and literary critic. The huge number of indie games that want, not to tell us a story or to put us in a particular mood, but to tell us a Big Idea about life. We live in an incredible age for games as art and the potential to communicate new ideas with them is greater than it ever has been– one of the best indie games (if not one of the best games) of the past few years was Bastion, which created a wholly unique fantasy setting and told a pretty powerful story about war and humanity that made the player an active participant in it. And yet a huge number of designers seem to think that the highest goal of their art is to deliver a truism about the nature of life. Lots of artists in lots of mediums think talking about Death or Relationships or other capital-letter Platonic concepts gives their work additional weight. But it’s especially frustrating in games, which should by their very nature be the farthest from the artist sitting down and talking to us about broad, impersonal concepts.

How EA Published a Better Story About Love and Death than Jason Rohrer

Truly a powerful moment of complex emotion.

You knew this one would come up. Passage is one of the ultimate “games-as-art” arguments, proof that games can talk about the big concepts, a game that has reportedly brought people to tears and which the creator says is an artistic statement on mortality. And, well, we think it’s kind of crap. Here’s how it goes: you walk right for five minutes, slowly aging. You can either hunt for treasure or pick up a wife, which increases your score. As you move forward, the compressed area ahead of you slowly decreases. Eventually your wife dies, then you die.

The game is about the inevitability of death, the trade-off of freedom and wealth for happiness and stability that comes through a committed relationship, and the pain of loss. How do we know this? Because that’s all the game is about. (Not to mention that the ultimate moral– outliving a loved one hurts, and eventually we all fade away– is the same as the Epic of Gilgamesh’s, making it literally the oldest observation in the history of human art). Because the gameplay’s boring, the characters are nonexistent, the art is grating, the gameplay can be done without thinking. The only amount of meaningful player interaction is the thought and effort required to understand the obvious symbolism.

Replaying Dragon Age: Origins lately (SPOILERS AHEAD), it was surprising how good a job Bioware (a company infamous for a “tell-don’t-

Alistair struggles with some manner of basic concept.

show”) approach managed to make the player’s involvement in the story a part of gameplay. Whereas most games with dialogue systems and player choice usually have that as an addition to the core gameplay, DA:O manages to make that as central as its RPG elements– building good relationships with your teammates and making sure they trust you has as big of consequences as leveling them up correctly and equipping them right. And in the game’s climax, depending on your choices, there can be a pretty powerful and tragic moment.

Alistair is the first of your allies that you meet and, unless you make a deeply questionable choice near the end, will be with you for the entire game. If you want, you can pursue a relationship with him (like in Passage, this is completely optional, although Passage doesn’t have deeply cheesy sex scenes). Along the way, you can help him grow as a person and become braver and more mature. And then comes a revelation near the final mission: either you ask something of Alistair that goes completely against his moral code, or one of you will have to sacrifice themselves to defeat the enemy and save your homeland. And, if you’ve done all these things– made friends with Alistair, started a relationship with him, helped him become a more heroic person, and let him stay true to his ideals– the game suddenly takes your choices away. Alistair approaches you at the climax of the game and says he loves you and will never, ever let you die. And so one of the game’s main characters sacrifices himself as a direct consequence of choices you made in your relationship with him. In a game where being friends and doing right by other characters has so far guaranteed their survival, the game reminds you that part of being in love means watching the person you love die, and it’s a sickening gut-punch.

Dragon Age works where Passage doesn’t because of specificity– it’s a story, not an allegory. Because Passage tries to be so broad, so universal, and puts its lesson above all else it feels cold and obvious. By wanting to make a point and express an idea more than telling a story or being fun to play, it ends up feeling empty and didactic. Dragon Age’s story is all manner of cliche and hokey, but it actually has characters to get invested in and real conflicts, and Alistair’s possible death is a result of gameplay choices the player made, rather than how far right they walked. In terms of both narrative and games, these are advantages.

Seriousness is the Death of Art

Game designers want to be taken seriously as artists, and that’s understandable. This is especially true of indie designers, who have both incredible freedom and strong financial limitations that encourage finding some manner of unique style or theme. But great art doesn’t have to as serious as so many game designers want it to be.

Cute, cartoony, and colorful. The only time you’ll see that in this entry.

One of our favorite indie games– one of our favorite games of 2011, to be honest –was  Bastion, and it’s a fantastic work of art. It’s lush and beautiful, well-written, combines story and gameplay almost seamlessly, has fantastic music, and raises some really serious questions about war, society, and responsibility. The creeping dread as you go through it and gradually realize that the civilization you’re trying to rebuild was in fact cruel and oppressive is a beautiful example of making the player and their exploration a major facet of the story. It’s also really, really fun— combining varied hack-n-slash gameplay, RPG elements, clever and dynamic level design, and a creative and original fantasy world. You don’t just walk away from it thinking “man, war and the cycle of revenge sure is brutal,” you also think “oh man remember that time I fought a giant sandworm-gator using a pike and a pair of revolvers? That was awesome!” It had genuine emotional moments and it earned them through being a fun game.

That issue– earning an emotional payoff –is where a lot of the serious indie/art games fall down. Limbo was an unrelentingly oppressive black-and-white experience that made you feel hopeless by pitting the world against you, making you struggle to survive, and having a general tone of decay and entropy reflected in the crumbling, barren level design. The Graveyard  is a black-and-white game with a sense of despair because the old lady you play as might die and old ladies dying is sad. Loved may well raise some points about free will in a relationship and the need to be an individual, but those points would seem a lot more meaningful if it didn’t express them through finicky platforming in an uninteresting level with no story or characters– think of how Portal felt like a portrait of an abusive mother-child relationship, and used its puzzles as a way to create conflict between you and GladOS and give you a sense of struggling against her.

The general issue seems to be that “fun” is the opposite of “serious” and that serious art about serious things has to be serious. There’s something to this– if Mario suddenly stopped, turned to the camera, and lectured us about the evils of monarchical rule it would be jarring –but the purpose of a game is to be played. Of our three core principles, agency and satisfaction both require the game to give the players choices and to be fun, and so many art games either ignore the first in favor of making sure their message comes through, or the second to make sure they stay artistic. In the worst case, they’re so serious and so obsessed with having a big bold idea that they go past “unfun” and just become ugly.

Edmund is the worst case. It won contests and praise for putting the player in an uncomfortable place and exploring mature topics, but once you

Maybe if this is the level of tact you’re capable of using you should try a less sensitive topic.

get past the description “the game where you play as a rapist” there’s not much of a game there. Some platforming (because big Mario-hops over bottomless pits is thematically appropriate in a bleak game about sexual assault) and a couple rape minigames– wait, what? The combat consists of beating a woman and then pressing X repeatedly to rape her, and that’s the core gameplay. This is an extreme case, but it’s symptomatic of the problem that art and indie developers have– Paul Greasely was so focused on making a game that was dark, serious, and explored real-life issues that he thought marrying the button-press-satisfaction mechanics of platformer combat to the act of rape was a bad idea.  It doesn’t raise any serious questions, it doesn’t flesh out the female characters more than “they are there so you can play as a rapist,” and it doesn’t have any real reason to exist besides its creator’s original mission statement: “I want to make a game where you play as a rapist.” The general shallowness turns it, basically, into a gritty noir version of Custer’s Revenge. It’s the ultimate case of what we’re looking at: a fixation on being serious, dark, and meaningful, to the point where that’s the only purpose the game has.

Rape itself shouldn’t be fun, but it’s possible to talk about sexual violence in a game and still have the game be worthwhile. In No More Heroes, it’s pretty clear that Travis on some level is a sadist who gets a sexual thrill out of murder. When Travis Touchdown kills people and his phallic sword grows more and more erect, it says something about our culture’s issues with sex and violence because he’s a fleshed-out character whose dysfunctions grow from his pop-culture addiction. And the game has context that offers to flesh out these issues– it’s a game about how modern culture and geek culture combine sex and violence, how the escapist nature of violent media is scary, and how living a life defined by pop culture makes you dead to humanity. Edmund is a game about rape– not its effects, not the societal causes of it,not why people do it, just the act itself. Edmund doesn’t say anything besides “rape sure is ugly” because fleshing out characters, putting in human elements, or adding personality to the game would have made it less grim and serious.

Is There A Solution?

Yes, and it’s an obvious one. If you ever take a creative writing course, one of the first things any good teacher will tell you is to put ideas and themes on the back burner. Focus on making the language sound right. Write good characters with complex emotions. Have an interesting plot that grabs the reader. While the greatest books marry theme and story, and while philosophers made great books out of great ideas, a well-written work of fiction with an interesting plot beats one that has big ideas but nothing else every time.

Games are fiction, and they need to follow the same rules. They don’t have to be fun all the time, but they have to be more than a vehicle for the big idea.

Gaming’s Rare Feminist Heroes

Video games have not had an easy time portraying women. Part of this is, of course, gamer culture (researching this post proved it was much easier to find articles on the hottest women in gaming than on the best female characters). But even without the issues of their customer base, it’s hard to find examples of female protagonists in games that aren’t offensive. Even the ones who legitimately kick ass do so in a way that feels almost apologetic– most female action heroes in games who aren’t BloodRayne-level pinups are de-feminized, hyper-aggressive, and usually terribly written and intensely unlikeable. Even Samus Aran– one of gaming’s first and most famous female heroes –still rewards the player by taking off more of her armor depending on how quickly players got through the game.

When critics talk about Aliens’  Ripley as a great feminist action hero (and given that Aliens gets quoted, referenced, or ripped-off in about half the games released, you’d think developers might remember this), they point out that she can be feminine and kick ass without treating it as a paradox, still grapples with maternal pangs, and that the issue of her gender is an important one to the character and story without the story becoming dominated by it. So today, we’re going to look at two video game heroines that both live up to this standard in very different ways.

A. Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI

This outfit is actually pretty subdued for a Yoshitaka Amano character.

Even though Terra has the distinction of being the first female main character in a Final Fantasy game (and the only one until Final Fantasy XIII happened), she has the misfortune of starring in a game where the main villain, the demented and outlandish Kefka Palazzo, overshadows everyone else. So why not give her some time to shine?

Like many video game characters (including the one we’ll be discussing next), Terra suffers from amnesia at the start of her story (well– technically she’s under mind control but this is soon undone). Her story arc involves her gradually recovering fragments of her lost memories along with learning and coming to terms with the source of her unusual abilities. While this character type may be fairly common in video games, Terra stands apart from the rest because these developments are well executed, give or take a few poorly translated and written lines. Some flashbacks show excerpts of her past which effectively raise interest in the story. The fact that she was an unwilling pawn of steampunk nazis explains why she’s hesitant to accept her unique abilities and heritage throughout the story, though aside from a few key scenes, these hesitations usually don’t carry over into battles.

Like many JRPG heroes, Terra can have a bit of a mopey side.

So the above shows why Terra is a good character (and by extension a good female character), but why exactly did we choose her for this entry? Because her feminine qualities are emphasized just enough to make her character unique without completely dominating the tone of the game. Throughout the first half of the game, Terra struggles with her inability to experience human emotions, especially love, most likely due to her half-Human half-Esper status and her prolonged imprisonment before the game begins. This character arc is completed in the second half of the game, which happens a year after the first half once the world has completely gone to hell and all the party members have been scattered.  Terra is encountered again while attempting act as a mother to a village of children who’s parent’s were all killed during the mid-game apocalypse. Ultimately, through this act she realizes that she can experience human love and learns to fully control her powers and accept who she is. Terra grows and develops through characteristics that are typically thought of as feminine (maternal instinct, etc), whereas many female game heroes have to “overcome” their femininity by becoming violent asskickers. Whereas for Lara Croft, Samus, and other iconic women in games, femininity is a weakness, for Terra it’s a strength. She also serves as a great contrast to arch villain Kefka, who’s insane and completely selfish quest for godhood can be seen as a distortion of male ambition and power. The game has Terra grow into a powerful figure while acknowledging that she’s a woman, but not going so far as to constantly scream in your ear “Look, she’s a woman but she also tough! Isn’t that great!? Aren’t we so progressive!?”

B. Bayonetta from …Bayonetta

If you haven’t played it, imagine a super-Japanese Kill Bill as written by William Blake.

To get the most obvious hurdle out of the way: yes, Bayonetta is insanely sexual. Yes, the game’s director (Hideki Kamiya, who designed the similarly-oversexed Devil May Cry) readily admits that Bayonetta is his “perfect woman.” But like with Terra, Bayonetta is a powerful character through predominantly feminine traits, although these traits come from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Firstly, Bayonetta may just be the most intimidating woman to ever star in a game, both sexually and in terms of her skill and danger. On the sexual front, she’s six-and-a-half feet of legs, coolly dismissive of every character in the game, and wearing teetering heels that are also guns. But she’s also by far the most competent and important figure in her game: there’s no man to ever rescue her, she’s consistently the smartest, coolest, and most prepared person around, and, oh yes, the final boss fight of the game involves her punching God into the sun. She’s also well-written, clever, and genuinely kind to the people she cares about (game designers think that making a female character an asshole counts as making her strong). Unlike many other game heroines (Samus in Metroid: Other M or even Terra), Bayonetta is cool and in control the entire time.

All Hail the Glam Pope.

More importantly, Bayonetta’s sexuality serves a serious narrative and thematic purpose. Make no mistake: despite its ludicrous stupidity, Bayonetta is a very smart game. Its core storyline is the war between the oppressed Umbra Witches (associated with the moon, cats, and other symbols of female sexuality) and the Lumen Sages, a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church. The grand plot of the game’s flamboyant Pope (the literal Patriarch) is to enslave Bayonetta and control her feminine magic in order to call God to earth, essentially an attempt to constrain female sexuality. The game’s female angels– Joy –are sexually submissive: offering themselves to the player and inviting the camera to ogle them. Female sexuality from the side of the villains is in the service of male lust or power, whereas Bayonetta is sexual solely for her own sake. This is woven into combat, as well: Bayonetta can perform over-the-top sexual taunts which will enrage nearby angels beyond the point of reason, and many of her more powerful attacks (like summoning a giant demonic high heel to stomp her enemies) are weaponized sexual humiliation. Bayonetta owning and reveling in her sexuality isn’t just a character element: it’s her embracing the very thing that her enemies hate her for. For all its cheesy sexiness, the game’s core story is that of a third-wave feminist using her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarch.

Like Terra, Bayonetta is also extremely feminine. Whereas most game heroes aren’t allowed to be feminine– think of Samus, who spends all of her time as a hero in genderless power armor –Bayonetta struts about in heels, is represented by cats and butterflies, eats lollipops, and becomes a mother figure (to a younger version of herself from the past). Bayonetta is Princess Peach levels of girly, and the game never plays it for irony: she’s an extremely womanly woman who happens to be an amazing hero.

In Praise of the Games that Ruined Shooters

It is, at times, hard to find a temperate voice in gaming. The gaming press has a reputation for being adulatory and terrified of actively criticizing the industry that buys their adds and gives them their stories– best embodied by the infamous Kane and Lynch scandal — whereas  there’s a pretty strong feeling among a lot of gamers outside the absolute mainstream that the medium is dying and nothing will ever be good again (We’d give you a link for that one, but just Google “modern gaming sucks” for a wall of identical complaints).

And, especially in the field of shooters, there are two games in particular that this second camp likes to hold up as the harbingers of the apocalypse, games that took the sacred medium of gaming away from us true gamers and delivered it to the corporate-run, fratboy masses of people who could never beat a Mega Man title and are strangling the lifeblood from this industry. Modern Warfare and Halo. These are the games that turned every shooter into either over-testosteroned space marines or a faceless goon shooting a parade of foreigners through his iron-sights in a brown/gray world.

And we’re going to tell you why those games are fantastic.


The fact that Halo inspired the Gears of War series alone is reason enough to be wary of it, but the impact it had on shooters can’t be denied– it made Space Marines a go-to template beyond even what Doom had been able to do, turned multiplayer into a standard requirement for shooters, firmly cemented the console as the home of popular shooters, and put a stake through the heart of the old Half-Life style FPS (except Valve’s own games and the decidedly retro BioShock).

Halo also made a lot of its own elements a part of the standard shooter through its success: limited weapon space, a dedicated grenade button, semi-regenerating health, a melee attack button instead of a melee weapon, vehicle sections. These had all been in other games, but it’s pretty rare to find a post-Halo shooter that does incorporate at least half of them, and usually all of them.

Halo’s strong sense of design communicates to the player that these enemies are the worst and should be hated.

But, taken as it was and not as the Game to Rule All Games, the first Halo was pretty damn good. It was bright and colorful with vivid and energetic art design (a trend the series kept up even in its later, weaker installments), and that alone sets it above the brown-green-gray sea of a lot of modern shooters. The enemy design in particular is fantastic: all of the enemies pop out from the landscape, and it’s easy to tell at a glance what kind of threat they pose, how scared you should be, and what tactics are best against them. They all utilize very different tactics when fighting the player, which helps to vary the gameplay greatly. Each type of enemy feels as if they occupy their own distinct role in the Covenant Military. Halo also had absolutely gorgeous level and world design: the environments you fought in felt ancient and awesome, and the game puts the player in a diverse array of natural environments and interesting settings. Playing the game today, one of the biggest surprises is how well it’s aged visually compared to so many other games from 2001: put it alongside Grand Theft Auto III or Black and White and Halo doesn’t simply look graphically better: it looks more alive, more vivid, and still has a real sense of originality and excitement to its worlds.

Halo also did some things very, very right as far as gameplay is concerned. The biggest one of these was a sense of balance: whereas the basic norm in shooters was to give the player increasingly more powerful guns as they go along (best shown in the genius Doom Comic), Halo was one of the shooters to push towards making all weapons relatively equal. Sure, the pistol was infamously overpowered and the rocket launcher was still a rocket launcher, but the player’s choice of weapons essentially boiled down to what they’d be facing and how they played (this is one of the things that made its multiplayer so popular– it did away with the situation where one player gets the Golden Gun and is able to dominate the entire game). And since the grenades and the melee attack each have their own buttons, they become a valuable part of combat scenarios and expand the options given to the player. This balanced set of weapons extended to the enemy encounters: fighting a stronger enemy (a cloaked Elite, an Elite with a sword, a Hunter) didn’t require the player to grab a bigger better gun, it required them to act quickly and use a different strategy. These ideas may not sound too impressive, but considering that before Halo the biggest and most influential shooter was the original Half-Life (which, for all its greatness, was guilty of perpetuating a lot of these problems) they represent some pretty major steps forward for the genre.

There is no surer sign of a good time than “Captain Keyes is here.”

And now we do what most critics (who don’t work for the industry) wouldn’t be caught dead doing: praising Halo‘s story.  Whereas the later Halo games seemed to labor under the pretensions that a) they were telling a sweeping sci-fi epic and b) the player actually cared about the aliens’ motivations and politics, the first game’s story is a masterpiece of economy. The writing in it is fairly sharp and does a good job of  putting the player in the world, but it never overreaches. It doesn’t need to explain why aliens hate humans or what their culture is (and does a pretty good job through incidental dialogue, the environment, and its sense of design of giving you that information anyway), nor does it burden you with millenia of galactic history. What plot developments it has, it handles very well, like the introduction of the Flood. Whereas the later games veered closer and closer to space opera, the first Halo feels like a simple space adventure from the soldier’s point of view, consistently likeable characters, and hints at a bigger picture.  Although we’ll be the first to admit that Halo 3‘s plot is stupid and self-involved, we need more games who take the first Halo‘s approach to storytelling: enough story to give a sense of tension, but never, ever expecting us to be amazed by it or letting it get in the way of the actual game.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare’s cultural presence is essentially a bigger version of Halo‘s: even more successful, even more reviled (to the point that, while researching this article, we found Halo fans worrying that Halo 4 would be a bad game by imitating Modern Warfare). It came out the same year as  the “trilogy” part of the “five-game trilogy, followed by another trilogy” of Halo ended, and basically transformed the world of shooters. Even we’re guilty of complaining about this in our last article, and it’s a valid complaint– Modern Warfare’s astronomical success, paired with Activision’s… let’s just say “evil”, basically led to half the shooters of the past five years resembling it.

But, even more than Halo, the game deserved success (and Infinity Ward didn’t deserve their infamous treatment by Activision). It was

This is one of many, many levels that will make you feel guilty for playing it.

one of the best games of 2007  (and it had to compete with Bioshock, Portal, Mass Effect, and Super Mario Galaxy), and stands as one of the only successful anti-war video games ever made. Whereas the MW series since then has gotten ever more jingoistic, foreigner-hating, and morally questionable, the first game is absolutely full of moments that encapsulate how unsettling and wrong war and our modern approach to it is. There’s the famous “Aftermath” level, where a character you’ve been controlling half the game dies of radiation poisoning and the game only briefly highlights his name on a scrolling list of the thousands of casualties, there’s “Death From Above,” where you control an American aircraft gunner and the main characters (a British SAS division) and their conflict are reduced to tiny blips that your character is audibly bored with as you blanket an entire village with fire, and even the game’s opening credits are a chilling and evocative look at geopolitics. Whereas Modern Warfare 3 feels like an unironic Team America game, the series’ first installment is one of the only games about war that manages to be fun to play, but make war and the nationalism that accompanies it look pretty awful.

Captain Price: candidate for most badass moustache in video games

And, like Halo, we have to judge it by the era it came out in rather than by its sequels and imitators. When it came out, the idea of a war game grounded in modern, realistic conflict was still fairly new, and the gameplay elements we’ve come to hate were part of that. Playing the game when it first came out, we weren’t yet sick of fighting in bleak Middle-Eastern cities and gray Russian bases. The very fact that a good game was talking about American action in the Middle East and making the player feel like a real, on-the-ground soldier was refreshing and felt like a bold step forward (instead of just being yet another Nazi shooting gallery). And, without those objections, the intense chaos of the combat and the fact that it always feels as though you’re getting through just by the skin of your teeth is something truly praiseworthy. The game also does a great job of immersing you in its military setting. The first few missions feel like they’re teaching you how to move and fight as a squad (though some of the later missions throw these tactics out the window), and the game gives you Captain Price, a commanding officer who’s a great character and someone actually worth following. The game can feel exhausting at times, but its frantic and confusing combat is both thrilling and an important aspect of its story and themes. It accomplishes a rare thing: it’s an incredibly fun game that also feels like a relief when you finally turn it off, and it does a fantastic job of always, always making the player feel like they’re seconds from death.

In the end, we have to judge these games by their own standards. If they hadn’t been behemoths of the industry, if we hadn’t had to live with their legacy, would it be so easy to hate them? And if every shooter nowadays looks like Halo or Modern Warfare, is it really fair to blame them?

What Makes a Good Sandbox?

The two of us recently finished Saint’s Row the Third, and beating it raised some questions. It definitely succeeds in what it set out to do– in terms of over-the-top thrills, explosions, crude humor, and general zaniness it’s basically unmatched among any release of the past year, and the gameplay is tight and fun. But there was a sense of disappointment. Compared to its predecessor the game world felt smaller and less varied, and the game’s emphasis on climactic set pieces and giving the player shiny toys to play with led to a lack of focus (zombie fighting? laser guns? flying aircraft carriers? Wasn’t this series supposed to be about gangbangers?). It’s as fun as Saint’s Row 2, but said fun comes mostly from the missions this time around instead of the sandbox elements.

That’s the genesis of what we want to try and pick at this week.  What makes a good sandbox, and how can games built around sandbox mechanics use this?

[When we say “sandbox” in this context we mostly mean the kind of games that used to be called “GTA Clones”– ones that put the player in a (usually urban) environment and focus on freeform play– rather than open-world RPGS (like Skyrim) or Metroidvanias]


This should be what makes a sandbox what it is. We say “should” because even the best sandbox games can fall apart on this front. It’s easy to give the players a world to play in, but it’s harder to leave them with that freedom once they’re supposed to be engaging in the story and pre-designed missions.

The bank robbery mission is as awesome as a game version of Michael Mann’s Heat, but also about as linear and carefully orchestrated.

Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its stellar quality, has serious issues in this regard. Liberty City is an amazing, living environment and you have incredible freedom in wandering around, breathing in the life of the city, getting hot-water hotdogs off the street, and shooting pigeons in their face. But this isn’t present in the missions: you drive to the mission point and go through a fairly-linear shooting mission. Some of them are great (GTAIV is one of this blog’s absolute favorite games), but it is a frustration that one of the most organic and immersive worlds in gaming becomes a shooter when the player decides to engage with the game’s central story.

The worst offenders are several of the car/motorcycle chase missions, in which the target vehicle can’t be destroyed or stopped until it reaches a pre-determined point on the map– moments when a game that makes the player feel an incredible sense of agency and freedom suddenly feels artificial.

A sandbox that really, really gets this right, however, is Just Cause 2. It’s an almost polar opposite of GTA IV— colorful, frenetic, with shallow characters and a world that rarely feels like more than a big set of sandcastles for you to knock over. But it also does an absolutely amazing job of making the player feel like a complete uncontrollable wildcard. This is in part due to the player’s  incredible mobility– with a Zelda-style hookshot, the ability to surf on top of moving vehicles, and an infinite supply of parachutes, the player can rocket around the game’s wide-open spaces and becomes impossible to pin down. It’s also due to fairly smart mission design. Even

You can seriously go from booting the game up to riding a passenger plane in 30 seconds and four button presses.

the game’s more linear missions end up feeling fairly chaotic and keeping the player on their toes (such as one where you grapple from the bumpers of a convoy of vehicles, shooting off police pursuers and defusing the bombs strapped to the cars), whereas the game’s main objectives boil down to “destabilizing” the local dictatorship by running around causing chaos.

Just Cause 2 is, in all fairness, not nearly as good of a game as Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s pure, cheesy fun, not a powerfully-written crime drama about the evil of the American dream. But as a sandbox it absolutely excels– a sandbox game will, by its very form, be about chaos, and the game’s decision to resist corralling the player and give them truly extreme levels of mobility and frenetic, loosely-structured missions make it the rare sandbox where you feel as free in the missions as you do when exploring the world.

Things to Do

A sandbox isn’t a sandbox without the sand— not just an open world, but things to do in it. There are  two cases of sandbox games from recent years that both failed in this regard: Mafia II and L.A. Noire. We’re almost certainly going to talk about L.A. Noire in a later column devoted solely to its inspired and muddled attempts to do bold new things, so instead, Mafia II.

Get used to this view. You will see a lot of it.

It was Goodfellas done as a competent third-person shooter, with over-long driving missions in between the shooting sessions. Your options outside of the main story were limited to: stealing cars and driving them to a dock or junkyard, buying clothes, and robbing stores. You could pick fights with cops or shoot civilians, but the ability to rampage and cause trouble felt almost perfunctory (the fact that the civilians walking the streets rarely did anything but walk along the sidewalk didn’t make the world feel particularly deep, either). It was a sandbox game about the Mafia that punished you for speeding. To stretch the sandbox metaphor: Mafia II didn’t have any sand. It didn’t have any toys. It wasn’t a box. It was the parking lot outside an arcade where you pushed shopping carts around to earn the money to go inside and play the fun shooter games.

A game that makes the decision to include an open world– and that asks the player to drive across this world –needs to justify it either by providing diversions or enriching the atmosphere, and Mafia II didn’t. Exploring its pseudo-New-York doesn’t flesh out the game’s themes or story (unlike Liberty City, it’s not a satiric take or particularly different from the real New York, and the game could have easily put up a “New York, 1943” title card at the beginning and achieved the same effect). Instead, the inclusion of the sandbox simply paired every mission with an equal– or longer –period of driving.

On the other hand, an open world made almost entirely of “stuff to do” can be found in the hyper-stylized WWII sandbox The Saboteur. The game’s premise basically promised nothing but a parade of chaos diversions: “you play an angry and often-drunk ex-IRA racecar driver. You are in occupied Paris. Here’s a sack of bombs– every time you blow up Nazis, you get more money to buy more bombs.” The game’s world is absolutely riddled with watchtowers, zeppelins, SS officers, and anti-aircraft turrets, all of which can be permanently destroyed. It also gives the player multiple approaches, letting you steal Nazi uniforms to infiltrate ares, clamber across rooftops, or just throw C4 and rockets around wildly. There’s a real, tangible, reward to this too– you can scout out the area of an upcoming mission, destroy the sniper perches and watchtowers ahead of time, and clear out roadblocks along your escape route.

The only problem with the art design is that it makes Nazi occupation look absolutely beautiful.

It’s also a world that responds to you doing diversions– “liberated” zones (freed by doing major side missions) have less Nazis and more hiding places, whereas areas that haven’t been inspired to start le Resistance are crawling with potential enemies. Most impressively– and in a great choice that made The Saboteur a cult classic despite its serious issues,” the areas under tight Nazi control are bathed in a bleak high-contrast black-and-white, with only blood, fire, mission objectives, and the red of the swastika still in color, whereas freeing them bathes the areas in vibrant, hypersaturated colors (think a game that alternates between the visual styles of Sin City and a spaghetti Western). It fills the game world with things to do (more than any sane player will ever finish), and makes the world  visually  stunning to boot (the prettiest parts being the blood and explosions caused by indulging in the side activities). If nothing else, it contains an optional side mission in which you assassinate an SS officer during his wedding, which is officiated by Steve Blum. Every game should have side missions where Steve Blum asks you to “in the name of all that is holy, blow his fucking head off.”

A Living World

The best sandboxes– see GTAIV above– aren’t just big, open, and varied. They also feel like a world that the player inhabits, instead of just playing in. Whereas most games solely react to the player’s actions, a sandbox requires a world that believably lives and breathes. The player can’t simply interact with the world– the world itself has to interact with the player and  seem to operate autonomously.

Want to start a giant, bloody fight with an army of mascots? Only when the game wants you to.

This may summarize our biggest frustration with Saint’s Row The Third. The second game was full of weird interactions and bizarre patterns: you could start a war with the pimps by punching one in the face, hijack an ambulance and respond to emergency calls, or just listen to passers-by talk about what was going on in the quests (a brilliant one: “I think the story of the Saints would make a great anime!”).  In SR3, though, everyone on the sidewalk is walking from one place to the other. They’ll occasionally comment on something crazy you do. You can’t tear  fire hydrants out of the ground, the enemy gangs won’t fight each other. You’ll see plenty of crazy things, but even the men in hot dog suits riding scooters are just silently riding them in predetermined paths.

The game delivers spectacle aplenty, and the main story and its side missions have plenty of wild, crazy moments. But the real joy of the sandbox as a genre is that it allows the player to create their own spectacle by playing around with the world’s own rhythms and life, and SR3 doesn’t offer too much in that regard. The reason that rampaging wildly in GTAIV and other crime games is so fun is because it makes the player feel like a madman wreaking havoc in a real, deep world, but SR3’s relative lifelessness turns the world from a plaything to a set.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an absolute triumph at creating this kind of world. It’s surprising that there haven’t been more Western sanboxes– the only one that comes to mind is Gun, which was decent if nowhere near the same quality as RDR –given that the genres are both so strongly dependent on setting and that the Old West is as sprawling, morally gray, and beautiful a setting as you could hope for. This is a fact Red Dead realizes: one of the game’s biggest draws (besides the usual high quality of writing and characters we’ve come to expect from Rockstar) is the way that it really does make the player feel like a  Western  hero. And it does this, in large part, by making the world feel real and alive.

Part of the success in this department is the incorporation of random encounters and events– things that were too small to be side

It’s also the best cougar-knife-fighting game on the market.

missions, but that the player can run into and either ignore or intervene in. The way these encounters are designed fleshes out the world and gives a real sense of freedom: the game doesn’t simply give you the mission to stop an execution, but when you’re riding through Mexico and see a group of soldiers by the side of the road about to shoot someone it’s hard to resist intervening. Some of them repeat too often– one would think the shopkeep in Armadillo might invest in a gun after the fifth time he’s robbed –but on your travels through the (intensely beautiful, wonderfully varied) world, there are plenty of moments where it’s easy to sit back and watch the world run without your interference.

There’s also many, many even smaller and more detailed ways that the game drives you to interact with the world. There’s the option to hunt– in which you make that world a little less alive –a train that runs throughout the world and which the player can ride alongside for its entire route, wild horses to be lassoed and broken, bandit dens to eliminate, and a whole host of big and small adventures to have. Whereas Saint’s Row feels like an over-the-top gangster story, Red Dead Redemption feels like the entire genre of the Western in a big and vibrant way, folding elements and scenes from  Sergio Leone, The Great Silence, Dead Man, The Searchers, Blood Meridian, the myth f Jesse James, and other landmarks of the genre. Making the game feel so alive and rich  transforms it from the tragic story of John Marston to the tragic story of the West itself.