Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.
This week, we got news that 2013’s much maligned SimCity reboot would finally be getting a mode that would let you play the game without connecting to the Internet. StagefrightBaby thinks an online SimCity can work, just not the way this one was put together:
I have no interest in ever playing this game, but I can't help but read almost every article I see about it. It's truly been one of the most fascinating disasters I've ever witnessed. So keep in mind everything I'm saying is coming from someone with no experience beyond SimCity 2000.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with an online SimCity, but it needs to be simple, optional, and incentivized. Unlike 2013’s game, maybe it would be best to keep the interactive touchpoints simple, so you don't need to bog down servers and so you can replicate player interaction with artificial intelligence partners when offline. With the right design choices, you can create a situation where people can either be content with the offline AI or hop online for a more complex player-to-player experience. Something like Civilization, but more reliant on occasional check-ins than marathon play sessions. And if Electronic Arts really wants to push the online play, they can have little rewards that are only available through the online mode. It's not a competitive game, so those can be real game-altering rewards, not just cosmetic things.
While the always-online mode got all the bad press, my understanding is that the “Agent system” is what really screwed things up. Tying actions to onscreen actors, like citizens and vehicles, accomplishes some stronger context for visuals. But who wants to play a SimCity game zoomed all the way in, literally and figuratively?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of online-only, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of The Cloud, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of GlassBox, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, but only in a very small area, we were all going direct to the nearest employer, we were all going direct the other way…in traffic.
Don’t Save Me
In his review of the gorgeously drawn Viking RPG The Banner Saga, Drew Toal outlined a handful of the game’s bristly edges, potential flaws that work together to create a harrowing and satisfying journey. One example he cited was the game’s uncontrollable automatic saving, which seems programmed to lock-in your game right after anything terrible happens. Whovian was the first to lament this trend, which has popped up in a few games:
Once upon a time, you needed a code, procured after a game over, to save your game. Then came save points and memory cards, and it was good. Then came the autosave alongside new technology, and that, too, was good. But there’s no need to artificially increase the difficulty of your game by limiting or, in the case of this game, outright banning user-created saves. A fair compromise is a difficulty slider. I get it. They’re trying to make the game as bleak as possible, but it comes with the risk of losing or frustrating a wider audience.
This kicked off a great discussion thread regarding the pros and cons of this kind of forced automatic saving that’s worth reading. Girard staged a defense of the feature, in games other than The Banner Saga at least:
I think there are numerous valid design reasons for limiting player saves—whether it’s preventing the exploitation of saving and resetting that can take players out of your game and into a metagame, or deliberately shaping the level and type of difficulty through mechanics (Dark Souls would not be the same if you could “save anywhere”), or to make things easier on the player by ensuring that they can only save at places where they're not stuck in an unwinnable position (make the player save at the inn with full health rather than let them overwrite that save with one at 1 HP outside the boss’ door).
However, the way the auto-saving works in this game seems to encourage the player to get stuck in unwinnable states, which is just flat-out crappy design.
Anthony John Agnello brought us word of an online art project that seeks to pull the paintings out of classic video games and let them stand on their own. The inclusion of many of the paintings that act as portals to Super Mario 64’s fantastical levels gave Merve some warm fuzzies:
I loved the paintings in Super Mario 64. Conventional wisdom would state that one stops imagining the world on the other side of a painting when one grows up, but I don’t think that’s the case. I played the game years after it came out, through
emulationperfectly legal means, and I was still struck by how awesome it was to hop into a painting and find myself in a completely different world. It’s all I’d ever wanted to do as a kid, and now, as an adult, I had finally made that possible. The Goombas and Bob-ombs weren’t just pictures on a wall. I was hanging out with them (and occasionally stomping on them)!
Nintendo games seem to be especially skilled at tapping into one’s inner child. By turning the scenery into a core game mechanic, Nintendo not only got me to consider bits of the environment as more than just pretty things to look at, they also reminded me of a time when every little object or curiosity was imbued with a sense of mystery and magic.
Man, I wish I could be 6 again.
Cut The Cutscenes
Anthony also wrote an Adapt And Die column that examined why the 2009 Ghostbusters: The Video Game, while a decent game in its own right, failed at being a good Ghostbusters game. Pgoodso disagreed with Anthony’s opinion on the importance of improvisation when it came to creating the original film’s jokes and honed in on a different reason for why the game’s comedy suffered:
The problem is the inability of the developers to marry their design goals (creating an action game about catching ghosts) with the reality that the comedy of their source material (and thus, the focus of their narrative) has almost nothing to do with ghost-catching. What about ghostbusting is inherently funny? The comedy of the movie has less to do with ghostbusting itself and more to do with the protagonists’ bumbling, nearly accidental status as Ghostbusters, the fact that they treat it like workaday contract labor, and them dealing with the people that didn’t believe them.
The game should have had a “tap A as quickly as possible to get any other job besides ghostbusting” section at the beginning if it wanted to more closely follow the comedic sensibility of its source. There could have been a section where the player had to actually interact with skeptical friends, family, media, and potential customers instead of merely indicate the existence of those things in cinematic sequences. Heck, maybe a section where the player becomes a ghost and scares the crap out of their compatriots. The solution to some of the ghost cases should have been something more situational instead of focused on the proton pack (maybe the Rookie asks the librarian ghost about the latest Stephanie Meyers book and it just leaves in disgust). Instead, the comedy happens around the game—in cinematics and voiceover—not in it.
That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!