Thursday, May 28, 2009

Controllers - 70s to the 80s

div>Video games are a unique form of art since you need multiple tools to appreciate them. You need a TV to display the art, a console to play the art, and a controller to interact with the art. The controller is literally the players hands in the game's world, without it the entire artform falls apart. Even though we do not always actively think about the controller in our hands (it has become almost second nature to me even when holding a new controller) any subtle change to the design can enhance or change the way a game can play. I will be going through the most popular consoles and the most revolutionary controllers and how each one changed the way we interact.

Magnavox Odyssey

The first video game console was released in 1972. The controller is actually pretty awkward to use. It had no button, besides a reset button (nothing to do with gameplay), and had two dials on the sides to control the game. Since the game had no action buttons, games were limited to very simple games that only required movement. In fact, all the games revolved around just two blocks moving around. The only thing that makes this controller stand out was the fact it was one of the first.

The other controller later came out for the system and did revolutionize console gaming. The light gun for the Magnavox Odyssey was the first of its kind sold at retail. The gun would detect light that would flash on the screen when you pulled the trigger. If your gun was aimed at the white light then you hit your target. This light gun was the size of a rifle and looked realistic, something that has not been copied too much since (mostly because of laws stating that you cannot make realistic guns as toys).

Game types - As stated before because of the simplicity of the hardware and the controller all the games had to revolve around just 2 blocks moving around and sometimes an additional small block used as a weapon or ball.

Atari 2600

It was 5 years later in 1977 that any big change came to the home console market. The Atari 2600 was a big success and one of the things that helped it was the controller. Arcade gaming was still popular in the late 70s and early 80s and most of these games featured a joystick and a few buttons. Atari brought the joystick into the home which many gamers were already used to. Since the control was so similiar to the arcade it was easier to bring the arcade experience home. Controlling with the stick was much easier than using dials. It felt a lot more natural and offered the player more control over the content in the game. The Atari controller also placed a small red fire button on the controller. Having only one button limited the type of games that could be played, but most games at the time were fairly simple anyways. A single fire button was usually sufficiant for most games in the late 70s and early 80s. It seems simple but adding a button brought a lot more depth to the gameplay, you can now not only control the direction of the characters but the actions as well.

Game types - Because the controller was so limited with just a joystick and one action button games basically had just a single character to control and it usually could fire something, or jump but not both.


In 1980 the Intellivision hit and with it brought some new controls. Rather than having a joystick, it had a disc that could move in 16 directions. The disc was more advanced than the Atari joystick but because of its design it was not the easiest to manipulate. The controller also has a full keypad and 4 buttons on the side. The side buttons were somewhat difficult to use effectively depending on how you held the controller, while the keypad could only be used when you were not using the control disc. Because you could not manipulate the disc and the keypad at the same time players would sometimes have to use two controllers at once (one for the keys and one for directions). This was not a comfortable situation. The intellivision controller was advanced in many ways (having more buttons allowed for more action on the screen and more control over the game) but had too many hardware issues to truely be amazing.

One unique and fun thing about the controller was the overlays you could put over the keypad. Each game had its own control scheme and many players were not used to using a full keypad for console games. In order to help the player, he/she could use a controller overlay that would tell you which button did what.


Coming out 2 years later than the Intellivision, in 1982, the ColecoVision did a lot of things right with the controller. The control disc was raised and created a hybrid disc/joystick that was much easier to use. Unlike the Atari joystick you could control it with just your thumb and like the Intellivision disc it had a lot more movement. Because you only had to use your thumb it kept the rest of your hand free to press other buttons, allowing more action to happen on the screen. The keypad and overlay was also replicated from the Intellivision. Overall this controller was everything the Intellivision controller could have been if it just spent a bit more time in product testing.

Game types - Both the ColecoVision and the Intellivison were very similar in execution and games because of there similiar controllers. Games now had much more they could do and the overlay allowed for a more complex series of actions the character on the screen could prefrom.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Even though the NES came out in Japan in 1983, under the name Famicom, the controller was basically a copy of Nintendo's Game and Watch, which came out in 1980. The controller was simple as it had only two buttons and a directional pad. The directional pad was where the real change to gaming came from. It was a slightly raised cross but offered precise control. Because it was such a small directional pad it was the first controller that could be held comfortably. It just fit in the player's hand and you could access all the buttons you need with your thumbs. Taking away the complexities of the previous controllers on the market the NES quickly became an accessible and hot selling machine. Even though the controller did not have as many action buttons, because of how easy and comfortable it was to use the games could be faster and more action paced without losing the player. The joysticks and keypads of previous systems were completely scrapped, and to this day all video game controllers are built off of the foundation that the NES controller laid.

The NES light gun also deserves a mention. It used the same technology the Magnovox one did but it was much lighter and more compact.

The Japanese Controllers were different in colour scheme as well as having one extra feature. The second controller had a microphone on it. The mic wasn't used in many games (I can only think of one) and all it did was allow the player to project his/her voice on the TV speakers.

Finally in 1993 the NES under went a re-design. The controllers were functionally the same but were now curved and felt more comfortable.

Game types - Even though it scalled back on the buttons the games were far superior to those on any console before. With just two action buttons and a control pad the NES could pull off fast action games, racing games, and RPGs with ease. However all these games were fairly simple in design.

Sega Genesis (3 button)

In 1989, Sega released its 3rd major console (the SG-1000, and the Sega master system were the previous two). The Genesis, or Mega Drive as it is called in many other parts of the world, was the first console to really bring in a revolutionary controller. As stated before too many buttons can get a bit too complicated, but the NES had only 2 buttons which limited the amount of actions the player could preform. The Sega Genesis had three buttons all lined up in a row. The player could easily rest his/her thumb in the middle and reach all three buttons. The Sega Genesis was the first 16 bit system and the first to bring truely powerful arcade quality graphics to the home. Because, it was so much more powerful than anything before it, it needed the extra inputs to keep up with how games were evolving. Sega also upgraded the D-pad making it multidirectional. Rather than having just up, down, left, and, right it also included the diagonals. This added a greater deal of control over the characters on the screen while remaining compact and easy to use.

Game Types - With an extra action button it added a new layer to the NES controller. It had many similar types of games but they could now preform more actions on the screen. The Genesis controller also allowed one of the earliest Real Time Stradegy games, "Herzog Zwei", to be played

Monday, May 25, 2009


Within the first year that the Super Nintendo (SNES) launched, it already had many great games to play. On of the most unique games that came out in these early years was Actraiser. In many ways this game does not only stand out as an early SNES game but also against games coming out today. Actraiser is part side-scroller, and part city building simulation, a merging of two genres that has not often been repeated.

Half Side-Scroller

I am going to discuss the side scrolling aspect of the game first since it is the weakest link in the series. These levels in the game are not bad by any stretch of the imagination but they are also nothing revolutionary. You play as a statue come to life (more on that later) and hack and slash your way through a level. The controls are a little stiff but it is hard to assume a big bulky knight in armor would be able to move fluidly. It is a mediocre side-scroller with nothing really catching the players attention gameplay wise. Actraiser 2 removed all the city building aspects of the game and only focused on the side scrolling. The sequel did not hold up well on its own without the extra touches that made the first game so great. However, using these action-oriented levels to break up the other parts of the game helps keep the player interested. Even though the levels do not stand on their own well, they provide a great compliment to the game.

The saving grace of the side scrolling sections of the game is the music. While the gameplay may be par the music is easily some of the best the Super Nintendo could produce. It was still early in software development for the SNES but the people at Quintet, the developers, really knew how to get the most out of the sound system. The music was fairly fast and had many layers. You could hear how each tune had its own unique place in the score and when stacked together they complimented each other making some truely unique music. Since the side scrolling aspect of the game was action oriented, the music needed to set the tone.

The music in Actraiser matched the action on the screen. The player may have just finished spending a great deal of time building a city and the music helps change the pace of the game.

Half Sim City

The part of the game that really caught people's attention was the city building aspect. After beating a platforming level and defeating the boss the land was now free to have people live there. You tell the people where to build their roads, buildings, crops, and you can change the weather. It is a simplified city building experience but it worked since the Super Nintendo controller is not as complex as a computer keyboard and mouse. The city building had to be streamlined to fit on the 6 buttons and directional pad. While building the city, monsters would fly overhead and attack. This kept the action constant even during the city building part of the game. However, the action here is much easier as you control an Angel that can shoot down any attackers. With the mix of city planning and fighting off flying monsters, the city building experience never gets stale, it is just complex enough to keep the player's mind busy but never overbearing and frustrating. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you see your city start off with a couple people and end as a large spanning metropolis. When you finish building multiple cities you can look overhead and see how the landscape of the world has changed because of you. In most games you go from level to level not seeing how you effected the world around you, in Actraiser you get the chance to make a difference.

A video of the city building aspect of Actraiser. You can see how battling monsters is manageable. The music also takes a drastic change in this part of the game. Rather than the frantic score in the platforming stages the music is a lot more mellow. 


*Note* I will be speaking a bit about religion in this post. Do not take my writings here as my particular views on religion. I am simply using the game's plot and story and trying to understand what the creators might have been saying.

In the game you play as "The Master" and his angel looking servant. It does not take a giant leap of thought to figure out "The Master" is God and the angel looking thing is an angel. This game was made in Japan where they do not have a problem playing around with Christain theology since it is not their faith. When brought over to America many Japanese games have most of the Christian symbols and plot referring to it removed. Nintendo was especially picky about this since they did not want to offend anyone. However, Actraiser, does a much worse job of hiding its roots. At no point have the Japanese been blasphamous with their depiction of Christianity, it is just that American companies would rather nothing being said about religion at all.

"The Master" is the hero of the game and he is fighting against the evil that has taken over the world. He does this by possessing a statue of a knight in order to fight evil. After defeating evil by beating a platforming level, "The Master" sends his servant to help protect the city and guide them. At key points of the game the people pray to you and it is your job to answer their prayers (for example they need the marsh to dry up so they pray for sunshine). One of the towns is tied to a lesson about one of the ten commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." There is a false god that is leading the people astray and is even demanding sacrifices, it is your job to answer their prayers, help lead the people to the right path, and defeat the flase god.

The game ends once you solve all the worlds problems and bring everlasting peace. Since the people no longer need you and your presence is not felt anymore the churches eventually become empty. This can be seen as a commentary on how a lack of a direct presence in God can lead to apathy. Or, it could be saying that God cannot solve all our problems and asking him to do so would negate the purpose of having a God at all. It could also be implying that God has helped us in the past yet we choose to ignore him now. Anyway you take the ending, the designers were trying to get something across to the player on a more personal level.

The ending of Actraiser, a powerful and strange ending to a game. Rather than the hero being honoured and celebrated he is forgotten. 

Actraiser is a game that is not as well know as others and it never successfully spawned a franchise. But it deserves the attention that all the classic games get, and is a lot more powerful than most the games out there. It is one of the few "God" games that took the genre a step further by really making a point that you are "God" and what comes with those responsibilities.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Not all game design choices are done 100% on purpose. Sometimes game designers have to make the best of a bad situation. When video games started to come on CDs (and now DVDs and Blu-Ray) it brought a lot more to work with. The major downside to these formats though was the loading time. Unlike game cartidges, CDs had a much longer and more noticable loading time. Loading can happen when any significant change in the game occurs. The game needs time to load the new information before it can display it. This causes a pause in the gameplay that is unavoidable. Some game designers took the loading time as a challange and made the best of it.

Blank Loading screen

It is still used today and is probably the worst kind of loading. Rather than giving anything for the player to look at the screen is mostly blank with a simple loading text. Sometimes the logo of the game will be on the screen but looking at it can get very boring. Since the screen is basically static without much to do the loading time can actually seem longer than it really is. Try staring at a wall for 20 seconds. It obviously feels a lot longer than that, but if you are watching a movie for 20 seconds (especially an interesting movie) the time flys by. Sadly this type of loading is not extinct and a lot of developers still use this method. In their defence they may have not wanted to spend any time with the loading sequence and devert all their energy to the game itself.

Little Big Planet. A great game that everybody loves. But the black loading at the start of the game, feels much longer than it is.

Load it all at the start

Some bigger games know they are going to have a lot of loading. The game world may be so huge that the game designers don't want to stop the player every time he/she moves to a new area. A way to combat this is to load a large chunk of the game when the disc first starts up. This can lead to a long load at the beginning of the game but afterwards the loading moves much faster. This not only gets a lot out of the way, but it also helps keep the player in the game. One of the problems with loading is that the player is literally booted out of the game and forced to sit and stare. By having the loading at the beginning of the game the player is already out of the experience. He/she is not expecting to be playing as soon as the disc is booted up.

Grand Theft Auto is a large game with a highly detailed city. You move freely throughout the city so it is in the designers best interest to load up the majority of the game before it even starts.


Some loading screens give the player something to read while waiting. It is usually a few sentences (sometimes they change as the loading continues) which fills the player in on the games backstory. This is fairly common place since it takes almost no work from the game designers and is a lot better than a blank loading screen. Things that might not naturally come up during gameplay can be read here.

Hidden Loading

Probably the best kind of loading and one that should be used more often. Rather than taking the player out of the game at all, loading can be hidden within the game. For example say the player needs to get from one level to another. Rather than stopping the game, the levels can be joined by a small tunnel that the player must run across. The tunnel is simple but still fits into the game design. While the player is running across the tunnel the level on the other side is loading. This exact situation is used in the Castlevania games, and during vehicle sequences in Half Life 2.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night was a large game with many diverse sections of the castle to explore freely. Rather than freeze the game between areas, each section of the castle was joined by a tunnel. The time it took to run through the tunnel was the time it took to load the area.

Resident Evil has the best hidden loading out of all the games. Not only did it not take the player out of the game but added to the atmosphere. Resident Evil was a very scary game for its time. The player never knew what was behind a door. The loading screen was replaced by a door slowly opening, or walking down/up stairs adding to the suspense the player felt.

Mass Effect took some criticism by having its loading hidden in elevators. Personally I liked this touch. Not only was the loading more visually appealing (looking at 3d models of your characters) but the elevator played news radio and you could hear how your mission was affecting the world around you. Or like in these clips your characters talked with one another.

Special Mention

There is one final type of loading that is very rarely used. Ridge Racer had the player playing a level of the classic Galaxian while waiting for the game to load. One of the reasons more games do not have a second game during the loading sequence is that it would take too much work. Namco, the developer and publisher of the game, already owned the rights to Galaxian so it took no work to put it in the loading screen. Furthermore Galaxian is a fairly small game and it can be run over top of a loading screen with ease. If a game is too complex, the loading game would need its own loading screen. Not many developers have a back catalogue of simple fast games like Namco and developers do not want to spend time creating their own sub game for the loading screen when work could be better spent elsewhere. However, the Galaxian loading screen is still remembered by many.

Loading is a challange in which the developers must make lemonaid out of their lemons. Anyone can just throw a "now loading..." text on the screen but it takes a little extra thinking and care to turn waiting for the game to load into something more bearable and sometimes a welcome addition to the game.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Now that the Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 all offer downloadable games, it has brought on a surge of independant developers. Since they no longer have to worry about marketing their games to retail all they have to do is convince Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft to allow their game to be downloaded. Rather than worrying about a factory printing discs and packaging, all they need is a file to upload online. Thankfully all three console companies are encouraging independant developers to bring their games to them, since it is a low risk business decision (if the game sells it is profitable, if not only the time and money of the developer was wasted; the big companies barely lose a cent). Now that independant game development is a worthwhile goal some truely unique games are coming out and breaking the mold. The real gem of these indy games is Braid. I have to warn you that their will be major spoilers throughout this post and you should avoid reading it if you want to experience the game with a fresh view.

Super Mario + Time Travel

What does Super Mario have to do with Braid? The designer, Johnathan Blow, used Super Mario Bros as a basic blue print for the game. Since most people are familiar with that game he could skip out on a lot of tutorial process. When you first see an enemy it is just basic instinct that jumping on it will kill it.

The time travel aspect of the game is its real gameplay masterpiece. Braid is not just a platforming but also a puzzle game. You have to collect puzzle pieces in every level and the only way to do it is through manipulating time. In the game you have the power to rewind time. Rather than lives you simply rewind the game back to when you were alive. This gameplay mechanic is expanded when you go to each level. Every level has its own gameplay specific to it. The levels are broken down like this (a video of the first level of each part will be shown. It gives the basic idea of gameplay without spoiling anything):

Time and Forgiveness: A basic platform game. It starts off basic so you can get used to your ability to rewind time.

Time and Mystery: Some items and enemies in these levels are not effected from you rewinding time. The player has to think harder about their new skills and how to manipulate the world around them.

Time and Place: The game world moves as you do. When you go right the game goes forward in time. When you move left the game rewinds. When you are standing the game pauses. Since every step you take effects everything on the screen the whole world becomes a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Time and Decisions: After you perform an action and then rewind time, a shadow version of yourself will play out what you did before rewinding time. These levels have you basically controlling two seprate characters at the same time. Doing so causes the player to really think about every move they make.

Hesitance: (THIS VIDEO SHOWS A LOT MORE THEN THE OTHERS! Do not watch the whole thing if you don't want the puzzles spoiled). This level has a magic ring which slows down time. When the ring is dropped it forms a bubble. The closer to the center of the the bubble the slower time moves. This is the first level that really has the player thinking of the speed of time.

Untitled:(THIS VIDEO SHOWS A LOT MORE THEN THE OTHERS! Do not watch the whole thing if you don't want the puzzles spoiled). This whole world is constantly flowing in reverse. Rather than rewinding time you make time go forward. This level flips the entire game mechanic on its head.

The puzzle solving aspect of the game is one of the most satisfying aspects. Some puzzles can have the player thinking and stuck for hours but once they are figured out the player can pull it off in a matter of seconds. Because the game works the players brain in such a way, the player grows with the character. In reality the character has all the skills already but through the learning of the player, the character has a chance to show off those skills. It is a great experience to figure out a puzzle and gameplay mechanic on your own and then be able to pull it off again and agian with ease.

Art Style

The world of Braid looks like a painting. You can even see the paint brush strokes in the artwork. This meshes video games with visual art. The game looks like a painting come to life. Johnathan Blow is a believer in video games as an art form and it shows. He tied his game to a more respected art form in order to use it as a vehicle to enhance his world. Even the puzzle pieces you gather through the game create paintings that hang in the overworld. The levels are always colourful and fun to look at. Even simple screenshots can capture someones imagination, and this aspect works even better in motion. Furthermore the art direction looks simple but when you look at it more closely you can see all the detail. This mirrors the gameplay and story of braid which on the surface seems simple but in reality is much deeper and complex.

Johnathan Blow isn't soley responsible for the artwork. Johnathan would give a basic outline of the level and puzzle and David Hellman, a famous web comic artist, would draw over it, then together they would polish it. David Hellman used a great deal of symbolism in his art in order to drive the players emotions. When Hellman was explaining the split nature of the game he said, ("In the case of the "parallel realities" world, I represented the theme by combining luxurious domestic objects (nice furniture and fabrics) with rugged outdoor objects (swampy water, rotting piers and nautical rope). The result is incongruous, but intentionally so! Hopefully players will have two simultaneous reactions – "what a nice ottoman" and "what a yucky swamp" – again reiterating the theme of splitting, or staying or going")

You can see what Hellman is saying in this screenshot.


Johnathan Blow took a unique step with not writing his own music. In fact the music in the game was not even created for the game specifically. He instead bought the rights to use licensed music from Magnatune, (an indy record label). He bought songs from the artisits Cheryl Ann Fulton, Shira Kammen and Jami Sieber. Each of the songs are long enough that they avoid any noticable loop. Johnathan Blow also used the music to influence the artwork in the game. Rather than creating a level from scratch and then adding music later, the music came first and the levels were created with the feeling and mood of the soundtrack in mind.

The music in braid is light and sound almost magical, which is fitting considering the way the game plays. This is the first level of the game, where the player does not have to think as hard. The music is very welcoming and fun, which is perfect for getting the player used to the game world.

The final level has a more menacing tone to it. Throughout the game even though the challanges are getting harder the music still stays light. In order to let the player know the end is approaching the music changes into something a bit more dramatic. Even with this change the transition is not jarring and it still maintains the overall feel of the music before.


Side scrollers and puzzle games are not particularly well known for their storylines. Typically they depend on the platforming skills or the puzzle solving to engage the player. In Braid the main focus still is the gameplay and puzzles but there still is a storyline deep within it, and it is so complex that many players have different interpretations of it. The storyline plays through books that you can read before entering a level. You can run right past them if you want and ignore the story and the game isn't hurt by it. But if you read all the books you can get a larger idea of the goal of the game.

An example of the books in Braid. As you can see Johnathan Blow put a lot of effort into his text. The story is never clearly laid out, and it takes a bit more analysis to understand.

The one thing that is clear is you are saving a princess, and there is a past relationship with her that has become strained. The game actually starts at world 2 and goes sequentially up to to world 6. The last level of the game (after world 6) is world 1. In this level you actually see how the game storyline starts. You see your princess and she seems to be running away from a knight. As you go through the level you are overcoming obsticles to meet up with the princess. Once you get to her the game then plays in reverse and you see what really happened. You are not saving the princess, the knight is. You are actually the villain.

The ending to Braid played out. You can see how it originally looks like you are saving the princess when in fact you are trying to capture her.

There is a theory that the overall storyline of Braid is actually about the making of the atomic bomb. The following are clues that support this theory (even though it is in no way the official meaning behind the game:

  • There is a bang right before trying to capture the princess

  • Some of the text after the ending may imply that you are playing as a scientist and the search for the princess is the search for the atomic bomb. The text in question is, "He worked his ruler and his compass. He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. He was searching for the Princess, and he would not stop until he found her, for he was hungry."

  • The overworld of the game is burning, suggesting a great disaster took place

  • The worlds in the game get darker and darker

  • There is also text at the end of the game that reads, "Now we are all sons of bitches" which is a direct quote of Kenneth Bainbridge's, a physicist at Harvard, reaction to the atomic bomb.

Again this theory is not supported by Johnathan Blow but it is also not denyed by him. He created the story purposely to get people thinking. It can be a complex allegory for the Atomic Bomb and its destruction, or it could be a story of a man who lost his love through a mistake and wants her back, or it could be a simple platforming puzzle game.

Braid is a game that looks and plays simple but it is far heavier on closer examination. I have only played through the game once and I think it is one of those games that would benefit from a second play through in order to get more pieces of the puzzle that make up Johnathan Blows vision. Like most great forms of art, Braid works on so many levels and can be appreciated on each of them.

Friday, May 15, 2009


One of the most common trends in games has nothing to do with gameplay at all. Cutscenes are basically little movies that force the player to sit and watch. They can be used for many different things and can have positive or negative effects on the overall game experience. I will look at the good and bad of cutscenes.

Where it all started

Cutscenes started off as simple filler between levels. The old Pac Man game had a simple cutscene of pac man and the ghosts running around. Some early games had a short cutscene that introduced the story. These early cutscenes were seconds long. They were not too flashy or that important. If the option was there many players skipped them and went on with the game.

One of the more famous cutscenes was at the beginning of the first Double Dragon game. It was short but set up the story well enough. In the few seconds it plays you understand that a girl is kidnapped and you have to save her.

The early Ninja Gaiden games for NES showed the first hints of cutscenes to come. They were not long but much more fleshed out than most. Camera angles changed and plenty of dialogue was said. Here is part one of a compilation of the cutscenes in the first game.

Eventually game designers decided to add a bit more dialogue to the scenes and try and flesh out the story a bit more. Early RPGs usually had long extended scenes that had the player just reading what other's were saying in the game. It was a natural progression to move these moments into scenes with better direction. Gameplay would stop as the characters moved around the screens themselves and set up key story line points.

Final Fantasy VI is know for its longer cutscenes. While still done in 2D sprites you can see how the game was striving to be cinematic. In the most famous cutscene from the game you watch an opera.

Finally the Playstation landed developers and found themselves with powerful new hardware that ran CDs. CD gaming offered much more space to play with than cart based games. Designers found many ways to try and fill up their game discs. One of these ways was having long cutscenes done in stunning graphics. They were usually rendered in higher resolutions and saved as movie files on the disc. These were show pieces for the hardware and the format. After this the modern era of the cutscene was born and popularized.

Again it was a Final Fantasy that took the cutscenes further. Final Fantasy VII featured longer scenes that were directed as almost mini action flicks. It successfully brought the RPG genre mainstream in North America and it did so mostly because of the cutscenes. Ever since RPGs have been know for their cinematic scenes, as a way to push the story forward. This particular scene depicts the death of Aeris.

Cutscene as a Reward

One of the more common ways many games, even not particuarly story driven ones, use cutscenes is by offering them as a reward. Cutscenes are a way to play out some action and story without involving the player. This may seem counter productive to the artform, but when done properly it is satisfying. Players can get fatigued while playing and sometimes are forced to do the same type of gameplay over and over again for a long time to reach their goal. Once their goal is finished it can be nice to drop the controller down for a bit and watch the outcome unfold.

After beating a level in Halo 2, the non-stop action takes a break from the player and you watch what happens at the end of the level. Its a clean way to give the player a break while at the same time keeping up the mood.

The main reward of a game is the ending, and cutscenes owe a lot of their history to endings. Since the game is technically over, the player is expecting to be done playing the game. Its a cool way to wrap up the story to have the player watch his accomplishments throughout the game being paid off.

The Tekken Fighting series is know for its well done endings. You get a different and unique ending for each character you beat the game with.

The Interactive Cutscene

The whole original point of a cutscene was to take control away from the player and show him/her what the designer wants without interferrence. However, a new form of cutscene is appearing that not only brings the story forward and has intense action squences but never takes control away from the player. The interactive cutscene is normally only in First Person Shooters. The eyes of the hero are the eyes of the camera. While a major story point unfolds in front of the player he can still move the protagonist around to see everything from different angles. The pioneer of this style of cutscene are the designers at Valve software and their Half Life series. Half Life's basic story is about an alien invasion. Throughout the Half Life games, large scale action squences unfold, sometimes while the player is in the middle of doing something else. In games without interactive cutscenes if a building were to blow up, chances are the gameplay would stop and there would be a new camera angle showing the building collapsing. In Half Life Episode One when the Citadel is exploding and taking out the whole city around it the player is free to look around as he is on the train escaping. He can watch the action unfold, or look down at the ground. It may seem counter-productive to create entire set pieces and only hope the player pays attention to them, but by adding this layer of interactivity it lets the player feel more attached to the character and their surroundings. Taking players out of the gameplay to watch something can take a player out of the game, with an interactive cutscene they are never without the controller in their hand.

Half Life Episode 1 ends with the Citadel blowing up. Gordon Freeman can look and move as he wants to. Because you are seeing the scene through the eyes of the protagonist you are more likely to feel a connection to the scene. It also helps make the game world seem more real since you are never taken out of gameplay.

Bioshock rarely takes the player out of control. You are always watching the game through Jack's eyes. This sets up many dynamic scenarios.

The other type of interactive cutscenes, called quick time events, are a bit less interactive but still encourages players to keep the controller in their hand. During a cutscene that takes the player out of gameplay sometimes a button may flash up on the screen. If the player does not press the button fast enough their hero will die during the cutscene. This ensures that the player has more of an attachment with their character, since they have to play closer attention to the screen, while still being able to create the full cinematic experience of a cutscene.

God of War uses quick time events as an ending to a battle. It allows Kratos to pull off more brutal moves that would not be possible in gameplay alone. This particular battle is from God of War 2 and its intense Pegasus battle.

Way too Long!

Now that cutscenes are common place in a game some designers forget that they are making a game at times. As I said before a cutscene should be a break from the game. Sometimes cutscenes turn from a nice break to a very long interruption in the gameplay. At a point designers need to figure out if they want to make a game or a movie. The Metal Gear Solid Series is a prime example of this. I admit that I love the series but I do see a flaw in how long the cutscenes are. Thankfully the gameplay that is there is so good that it is worth sitting through the long cinematics. A game should not neccesarily play like this however. The cutscene should be a reward for playing; playing should not be a reward for watching a cutscene. At one point I sat through 2 back to back cutscenes that nearly totaled an hour. When cutscenes over stay their welcome the game stops becoming a game, and is now a short movie. Cutscenes can compliment the medium but they can also overtake it.

Why can't I play this?

For me the worst kind of cutscene is one where I sit there wishing I was playing the scene and not watching it. At the best of times cutscenes should show moments that the player could not realistically control. But if you are approaching a character and are ready to fight only to see the battle played out in a movie, it doesn't just take you out of the game it also makes the player angry. There is almost no point to replace a battle in a gameplay with a battle being played out in a movie. A cutscene can play out the end of the fight to give it a dynamic finish, or start off the fight to set it up the exact way the designer wants, but it should never completely replace the battle. If the cutscene can realistically be translated into gameplay it probably should. Hideo Kojima (director of the Metal Gear Solid Series) even admitted to his mistakes when he said, "In MGS4, yes, I put everything in the cut sequences, which I kind of regret to some extent, because maybe there is a new approach which I should think about. I'm always thinking about it -- making it interactive but at the same time telling the story part and the drama even more emotionally"

In Resident Evil 5 you come across a motor cycle gang. rather then having an epic battle with them you are forced to sit and watch the entire fight unfold. It would have worked much better as a boss battle then a cutscene.

Cutscenes can be a great tool for the game designer but they can also put a lot of players off. When used properly they can be a well needed break or reward for the player. When too long or used instead of gameplay they can take the player out of the interactive element of the game. Still it is something every game has to one extent or another, and everyone has their preferences on how they should be used.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Super Metroid

When Super Metroid came out, people were completely blown away. Still to this day Super Metroid is a masterpiece that has continued to capture gamers. When game journalists talk about the greatest games ever made, Super Metroid is often in the top ten. But why does Super Metroid stand out among the rest of the series? Why does it stand out against a long line of amazing Super Nintendo games? And why does it still play just as good today as it did back in 1994? I recently played the game and found that even among most of the newer games I buy Super Metroid can stand head and shoulders above them.

Origins of Metroid

I can't talk about Super Metroid without getting into the original NES game, Metroid. The original game was released in 1986, while the NES was still growing. When the game came out people everywhere were entraced with the game and it quickly became a hit. It played very differently than most games of the day. While it was still a side-scroller it had no level progression. Samus Aran, the hero of the Metroid series, is just dropped into a world and it is up to the player to figure out where to go. The goal of the game was to earn different power ups, each one adding to Samus' techniques allowing her to get through previously blocked areas. People spent hours trying to figure out where they were and where to go next, or would pick up the latest Nintendo Power to get a map of the game. In hindsight, the game was actually a little too confusing, without a map in the game and the basic graphics of the NES it was hard to tell if you were progressing or backtracking. While it was still a major breakthrough in video game design it still needed a bit more polish to become a truely great game.

Samus is a WHAT????? (Character design)

One of the greatest moments in Metroid, or any other video game, was the ending to the original NES game. When you beat the game Samus takes off her helmet and you find out she is a girl. This moment is not just a cheesy reveal but plays on typical video game cliches. 99% of games are starring male characters, and the games that do star females usually feature her dressed in some pretty pink outfit, or barely wearing anything at all being overly sexualized. Samus Aran is the complete opposite of this. She is dressed in full body armor without a hint of skin appearing. Also Female characters in games follow specific gameplay traits, namely they are fast and weak. Samus Aran isn't particularly fast, and she is anything but weak under all her armor and weapons. The game designers, rather than coming out and telling everyone Samus was a girl, decided to hide the true identity until the end of the game. This was the game designers covering their bases. Games are mostly designed and played by males. It does not take a leap in logic to see that if everyone knew Samus Aran was a girl little boys might not want to pick up the game, and would rather play Contra again. By hiding her true gender until the end, it let players know it is not so bad playing as a strong female.

Super Metroid: Like Metroid but Super.

In 1994 Super Metroid came out and it was bascially everything Metroid could have been and more. In many ways Metroid was so far ahead of its time, technology had to catch up to it for it to be fully realized. Super Metroid came out looking better, sounding better, and it had a map so you didn't get lost. Keeping with the tradition of the first game, you are just dropped into a world and its up to the player to figure out how to progress. The newly added map fills in only when you get to an area, or when you get to a map room, which helps keep the game mysterious while not becoming frustrating.


I mentioned before how important exploration is to the Metroid series. Much like Zelda the way you level up your character is not gaining experience points, but by finding new weapons and abilities that enhance the gameplay. This not only gives an organic feel to your character growing over time, but adds to the open world game design. One of the major pitfalls, that developers can fall into, is backtracking through older areas. Seeing the same environment over again and fighting the same enemies can get boring. Luckily, the map is designed in such a way that the anytime you have to backtrack you have your new weapons and abilities that change the gameplay of the familiar area. Old areas feel new, and old fighting enemies become easier. The way Samus plays at the beginning of the game is very different from how she plays at the end. The change is so gradual over the game that the player is never overloaded with too much to learn at once. Because of this, there is a sense of pride the player has when they see how much they helped Samus accomplish. This ties the player to the hero in a way that very few games can do, which is why so many people have fond memories playing this game. Being able to connect the player and Samus is a true form of art.

One of the best moments of Samus learning new skills is the wall jump. This is unlike every other ability you gain, which has you just picking up an item and simply being able to perform it after that. At one point in the game you are stuck in a pit. There is no way out but up. The only problem is you have no weapon or ability that lets you fly. At the bottom of the pit are a few alien creatures and they are jumping up the walls. It's up to the player to learn from the creatures by mimicking their movements and timing. Rather than Samus just learning the move, the player actually has to practice and master it to get out of the situation. This further links Samus to the player, as both of them are learning new gameplay techniques over the course of the game.


Their are many bosses scattered throughout Super Metroid. They are all much bigger than a normal enemy in the game, and they take a lot more skill to defeat. Usually you can only beat bosses by using your new found powers, along with a mix of convential gameplay. Sometimes it takes as much puzzle solving to beat it as it does to find it. The overall theme of the game is still strong while in the heat of an epic battle. Even when the action on screen looks tense, the only way to beat a boss is with strategy. Some bosses even have multiple ways to beat it, giving each player a different experience. One such boss can be killed with patience and well timed shots, or you can literally sacrifice Samus' health and let the boss capture you and then drag yourself and it into an eletric field. One way is fast, and easy but dangerous, and the other is slow and takes skill. In many ways the bosses are perfect conclusions to each section of the game. The player needs to use everything he/she learned to defeat the boss. There is a sense of accomplishment after defeating the boss that is almost unmatched in most other games.

The Music

Metroid is unique in more ways than just its gameplay. The music for the series is some of the most unique in any video game. Samus Aran looks like a big tough bounty hunter with an array of weapons and you would think the music would reflect that. However, it is too easy and common to simply create an action oriented score. Rather than fall into the typical traps, the composers decidided to emphasize the mysterious atmosphere. Through most of the game the music is creepy, and slow. The musical score of the game has more in common with horror movies than action. Since this game constantly has the player on his/her toes guessing what to do next, the music enhances this mood.

The game opens with very eerie sounding music. It slowly builds until the title hits the screen. But even at its peak the music still maintains the creepy atmosphere. 

A typical song in Super Metroid, this particular song is for Brinstar. As you move from area to area the music changes but the theme of the music never does. Since most of the game happens underground or in enclosed spaces the music has a low echo sound to it. Since the game is fairly complex and non linear the music throughout all the areas should keep with the players emotion of confusion.

The music does pick up a few times throughout the game. The most common time the music gets a faster pace is the boss fights. It is the only area in the game where the player's main concern is battle. The music has to pick up in order to set the player in the mood for quicker thinking and faster reflexes. Even though the music is faster it still maintains the overall theme of the game. The music is still low sounding and keeps the echo. The transition from the slower exploration music to the boss battles is smooth because of this.

Playing Super Metroid is a truely unique experience. Even within its own genre it stands out. With the slow progression through the game the player is connected to Samus like almost no other. Samus' adventure feels just like it is your adventure. The mood throughout the game, while creepy and eerie, still has the odd effect of welcoming the player and pushing him/her to see what comes next. The original Metroid was so revolutionary that it helped create a new sub-genre, Metroidvania games (the "vania" part of the word comes from the game Castlevania which also helped mold this particular type of game). Super Metroid in many ways has still not been surpassed in this category of games. It takes a true piece of art to stand the test of time (well over 10 years) and still be fresh, accessible, and a great experience.