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The Backseat Game Designer




This is the spoiler addendum to my Computer Game Review site. Basically, I bent over backwards to keep those reviews completely spoiler-free so as to help people decide whether or not to play a game without giving away any of its plot; opinionated soul that I am, though, I have dozens of specific opinions about each of these games that I had to cut out of the regular reviews. So here they are for anyone who might be interested: my catalog of gold stars, plot holes, revealing commentary, and exactly how I think each game could have been improved. Who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the title of a recent hit, read these pages, and be inspired to actually include non-Caucasian action sprites in his next CRPG or a choice of alternate quest endings in her next graphic adventure game. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about computer games that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site:

General Remarks

I probably seem extraordinarily picky to people reading these pages, and there's probably some truth to that. I have high standards, and I'm always thinking about how a game could be done better. On the other hand, I'm also an omniverous gamer who's been genuinely entertained by everything from playing "Hunt The Wumpus" on my dad's UNIX machine in the 70's right through the brilliant Baldur's Gate II. Heck, I didn't even mind my five-year-old son's "Bounce Down In Balloon Town" CD-ROM, at least not the first three times. So though I may seem persnickety about pointing out flaws and annoyances, and even delight in identifying directions for improvement, I hope no one will take that to mean I don't enjoy the games. If I didn't love computer games, I wouldn't be bothering with reviews or critiques in the first place. In fact, I'm hopeful that the genre will continue to improve and improve, possibly even addressing a few of my grievances and pet peeves. A girl can dream, can't she?

Anyway, though I enjoy many different styles of computer games, right now my review site is focused on computer RPG's (like the Wizardry series), graphic adventures (like Syberia), and puzzle adventures (like Myst). Generally speaking, here are some of the qualities that contribute to making a game in one of these genres truly outstanding:

1) A logical and dramatic plot. Not all games need a real plot to succeed, but a bad plot is utterly crippling... and a good one will always improve a game. Good plots have a logical sequence of events, no loose ends or contradictions, few deus-ex-machina moments ("Suddenly, Superman arrives from out of nowhere and saves your character from certain death! Whew!"), and a coherent ending that resolves the major events of the game in a satisfying way. A really excellent plot provides enough clues as you go along that the answer to a mystery could potentially be figured out by gamers, or at the very least will make us look back and say "So THAT'S why that NPC was doing that!"

2) Interactive gameplay. No matter how great a plot is, if you have no input into anything that happens, it's going to feel more like watching a movie than playing a game. And no insult intended, but there are a lot of better actors and a lot of better directors out there making real movies. We play computer games instead of just renting videos because we like participating in the action. The more a game lets gamers make choices for our character/s, the more it draws us in. Forking plot paths, optional quests, multiple quest solutions, alternate endings; these things make a game absorbing, replayable, and truly non-linear. Graphic adventure designers, in particular, are sorely in need of this lesson--that genre literally has not advanced in terms of interactivity since the 80's, and it's starting to get painful. Some CRPGs, too, have fallen under the mistaken impression that adding plenty of aimless wandering will compensate for an overly linear plot. It does not. It just adds extra boredom.

3) Rewarding character development. Leveling and skill advancement are not an element of every game, but when they are, they should involve rewarding choices that really make a difference in each character's abilities. Why would anyone think it's entertaining to gain a level and watch six characters go up another three hit points apiece? Similarly, developing a character's personality over time should involve choices made by the gamer (particularly if the game is one in which the character never changes in terms of game mechanics). Allowing players to choose from different dialogue options is a good way to give us ownership over their characters' development. Better still is to allow meaningful interactive choices (see above), particularly those which play off two or more possible interpretations of a character--Is the knight more concerned with his honor or with doing the right thing? Is the evil thief a mean SOB, or just highly self-interested?

4) Compelling characters. A game without at least one non-player character who manages to provoke an emotional reaction from me is a game with a significant disability. More than 20 years after the release of Ultima III and Planetfall, there is no excuse for a game to be peopled with uninteresting, non-interactive characters who don't matter to either the plot or the player. NPC's should not all look the same and should not all repeat the same lines. If they have voices, the voice acting should be of reasonable quality. Really good characters have interesting personalities, their own agendas, useful information to impart, and meaningful reactions to different player actions and other game events. The best have personal subplots, interact with each other as well as with the player characters, and undergo character development as the game unfolds.

5) Puzzles that are logical and integrated into the game. Not all games have puzzles, exactly--some are focused solely on quests--but any time an original puzzle, riddle, or dungeon mechanism can be properly integrated into a game it's a plus. (By "properly integrated" I mean that all puzzles should have a purpose and a logical connection to the setting they are found in. A mechanical gear puzzle that opens a door in a dwarven mine is well-integrated. An anagram puzzle that appears floating in the air when you step onto a certain map square is not.) Good puzzles and dungeon contraptions do not involve trial and error; they rely on clues available within the game, the laws of physics, and spatial, verbal, or logical reasoning. The very best ones are challenging, have satisfying solutions, and use believable mechanisms (a trap that disarms when you unhinge a wire that's holding it back or a gryphon that lets you by if you answer a riddle; not a trap that magically disarms if you answer a riddle). The best riddles, by the way, are NOT part of the same pool of twenty riddles dungeonmasters have been using since the 70's (please, not the coffin riddle or the teeth one from "The Hobbit" again!), and any response which answers the riddle should be accepted by the game as a correct solution (if either "love" or "kindness" fits, then they had better both register as correct.)

6) Quests that make sense and have satisfying consequences. Not all games have quests--some are focused solely on puzzles--but any time an original quest that makes sense in the context of the game can be added, it's a plus. The best games have a broad variety of quests, so that the player does not begin to feel like an errand boy or an exterminator service, and reward the gamer--not just with experience points, but with actual logical consequences. If I find the proper medicine for an ailing peasant, I want him to remember that next time I see him again. If I save a town from a curse of eternal night, I want to see the lighting improve. The best quests have more than one possible solution, involve lateral thinking or deduction, and bear some relevance to the rest of the plot and/or gameworld.

7) A consistent and interesting gameworld. The premise, setting and surroundings should create an evocative mood and an immersive feel. Contradictions and stupid cameos should be kept to a minimum. The very best games are rich in realistic and interlocking details that provoke a real emotional impact.

8) Adequate feedback. Too many games will either tell players exactly what to do at every conceivable juncture or else give us no feedback at all. The first failing makes a game too easy, but the second makes it excruciatingly boring, which is even worse. There's nothing fun about wandering aimlessly around the countryside for three days of gameplay until you happen to bump into the next NPC of importance to the plot, who you had no way of knowing you were supposed to be looking for. There's nothing fun about squinting at poorly-drawn minutiae on your gamescreen and trying to guess what they're supposed to be because the game won't let you examine them. There's nothing fun about clicking every item in your inventory randomly on a magic force field until one of them eventually causes it to dissipate and you have no idea why. The solutions to puzzles should not be given away when you click on them, but gamers should ALWAYS have a way of examining inventory items and on-screen objects, it should ALWAYS be painless for us to test our predictions about a puzzle mechanism, and unless the solution is logic-based or would work in the real world (like the puzzles in Myst, for example,) there should ALWAYS be a clue about it somewhere in the game.

9) Satisfying resolutions. Leads, storylines, and unusual events should never drop off the game's radar. It's fine for some things to be red herrings, but players should be able to pursue them far enough to determine that for ourselves. Any plot element a gamer might be likely to become really involved in should be written so that a meaningful resolution is possible. "Your character decides that isn't a very interesting matter to pursue" is a lame redirection technique in a pen and paper game, and it's just as lame in a computer game.

10) Productive play. It is very, very bad for a game to be set up so that the player can lose in Chapter One and then fail to realize this until Chapter Four (failing to pick up a critical item in the very first room, for example, and then half a game later running smack into a completely unopenable door and having to start the entire game over again). Most modern game designers are very good at testing their products to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen. Any game that fails to do this, or forces gamers to replay the game from a long-ago save for ANY reason other than their own stupidity in not laying down a more recent savegame, is way behind the 8-ball. In fact, games that have no tactical/strategic element really all ought to have the option of automatically restoring to just before a character's death. Reloading and avoiding a dungeon that is too tough for you is a valuable move in a combat-based CRPG, but not in a third-person graphic adventure game. If you die in a game like Sanitarium or The Last Express, you can't go gain another level or find a better sword, you just have to keep trying again till you don't die. That's why those two games save you some aggravation by letting you automatically restore your game to the beginning of a dangerous sequence whenever you die in it. Other adventure games should follow their lead.

11) A fair chance to win. Every game should be written so that a clever, careful player who did not make any mistakes could theoretically complete the whole thing without dying. If instant-death scenarios are used, they need to be the direct result of something the player does wrong--preferably something they should have known was risky in the first place. (Instant-killing a character when the player fails at something no gamer could have reasonably expected to be fatal, like a harmless-looking word puzzle, is a gray area--it's OK if your game has some kind of automatic-reload function, but not if your players have to replay a large chunk of the game over a mistake they could never have anticipated might be fatal.) Tricking the gamer into making a fatal mistake is fine, of course. But a good game should never ever have an instant-death scenario which is random (choosing between two unmarked levers, one of which kills you and one of which opens the escape route) or which occurs as a result of a sensible action (opening an unmarked chest which kills the whole party, even though opening previous chests has been necessary to progress in the game.) Any scenario which relies on a player reloading and using the omniscience of having died there once before is a bad scenario. A lesser but similar problem is dumping unknown monsters that are much too powerful for the party on the map with no explanation, so that the gamer's only recourse is to fight it, realize how powerful it is, reload, and go a different direction. A good adventure game gives the illusion that the main character is really on a quest, and if the hero cannot succeed without the gamer doing demiurgic contortions on his behalf, its impact will always be lessened.

Plus, it's just plain annoying. Boss monsters who are artificially made tougher by allowing them to ignore the game mechanics that constrain PCs and lesser monsters are also irritating.

12) A minimum of interface tedium. It should be simple and quick to access anything in inventory. Whoever got the idea that it would be neat for inventory items to break periodically and need to be transferred back and forth to the one member of the party with repair skill ought to be shot. Watching a character or party walk slowly across a familiar screen over and over is very boring; players should be able to shortcut across any screen we have seen before. Players should not have to sit on our hands waiting for repetitive dialogue or animations to finish. Animations (especially things like elevator rides) and individual lines of dialogue should all be skippable with the "escape" key. If there are multiple PC's, it should be easy to switch back and forth between them from all screens. There should be no obstacles to saving the game whenever and wherever necessary. The less obtrusive the interface is, the more fun the game will be to play.

13) A minimum of wasted time. Yes, I will admit that it is blatantly unrealistic for every action, every conversation, every object to contribute directly to the plot or the character development or at least the ambience of the game. However, this is one of those cases where realism is less important than entertainment. No one wants to role-play their character going to the bathroom or waiting in line at the pharmacy. And similarly, no one wants to be forced into performing long tasks that turn out to be meaningless. Being unable to progress in your game without retrieving a key to a chest from some dungeon, only to find that the chest is empty anyway and suddenly receive a summons from an unrelated prince to do the next plot-related task, is tremendously frustrating. If a quest doesn't matter, make it optional.

14) A minimum of bugs. Enough said.

15) A minimum of off-screen requirements. This is probably my most personal and most controversial criterion, but I firmly believe CRPG's, puzzle and adventure games should not rely excessively on timed elements, manual dexterity, or catching clues solely from the audio. I know some people do enjoy realtime challenges and the like, but there are a lot of gamers out there who have small children, carpal tunnel, hearing impediments, and/or an annoying boss who is going to yell at them if he catches them playing a game with audio on their lunch break. There's no reason a game in this day and age shouldn't have a captioning option, and it isn't hard to make realtime sequences optional. Any game that requires the player to attend to it in realtime for uninterrupted blocks of more than ten minutes apiece in order to progress is going to be losing players; that's just the way it is. For a game to really appeal to me personally, realtime play should be either nonexistent, optional, sparingly used, or easy to circumvent.

16) Graphics and audio that don't suck. I don't actually demand graphic or voice-acting excellence from a computer game, but I need the sound and graphics not to be so bad that they distract me from enjoying the game. This is another good reason to make sure the game is captioned--no audio at all is often better than really rotten audio. As for graphics, I generally find that well-done graphics from another era (say, the two-dimensional sprites from World of Xeen) are better than badly-done graphics on the cutting edge of technology (say, the crappy movie-style bluescreening on Phantasmagoria.) This is particularly true of classic games, where the cutting edge doesn't even have the appeal of being cutting edge anymore (does anyone really have the patience to sit through the original "Doom" anymore)?

17) Customizable characters. Not all games allow you to customize the protagonist/s (in most graphical adventures, for example, there is generally one pre-set main character, and there are many other issues of over-linearity that genre is going to have to address before there's any hope of that changing). However, in a game that does allow you to customize a hero to your liking, it's simply unconscionable for there to be no options or substandard options for female and non-white characters. Moving a female character around town listening to everyone call her "him" and all the female characters flirt with her was annoying in the 80's, and it's just plain pathetic now that so many games have shown exactly how to break that mold. Every game with customizable main characters owes it to their players to beta-test it at LEAST once with a female character. There's even less excuse for action sprites all looking the same--even those old Gold Box games could slap different hair and skin colors on their sprites. But disturbingly, even some modern games that do offer color options seem to provide more "green" and "gray" skin tones than "brown" or "black" ones. Okay, I'll admit there may not be that many African-American or Hispanic gamers there are out there, but it's damn well got to be more than the number of green and gray gamers. Come on, folks! This is as simple as a programming tweak could get. I recently played a game that had meticulous detail to the shadows cast on the floor tiles by flickering torchlight, yet every single action sprite in the game was pale-skinned with black hair. The appearance of the heroes you spend the entire game staring at is more important than any other graphics issue. On a related note, it is really annoying when graphic-adventure designers don't bother to change the clothes the hero wears from day to day. Even just different color shirts, which would be trivial to program. It would make the passage of time seem so much more real.

Specific Game Critiques

Alone in the Dark Baldur's Gate 2 Arcanum Black Mirror
Chemicus Creature of Kapu Cave Curse of Blackmoor Manor Curse of Monkey Island
Daggerfall Danger By Design Danger on Deception Island Escape from Monkey Island
Exile The Final Scene Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake Haunted Carousel
Journey to the Center of the Earth Keepsake Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon Longest Journey
Message in a Haunted Mansion Murder on the Orient Express Myst Mystery of the Mummy
Nancy Drew Critiques Nibiru The Omega Stone Phantasmagoria
Physicus A Quiet Weekend In Capri Return to Krondor Return to Mysterious Island
Riddle of the Sphinx Riven Secret Files: Tunguska Secret of the Old Clock
Secret of the Scarlet Hand Secret of Shadow Ranch Secrets Can Kill Sinking Island
Stay Tuned For Danger Syberia Timescape Pompeii Treasure in the Royal Tower
White Wolf of Icicle Creek The Witcher Wizards and Warriors Worlds of Xeen

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