The Question Mark: Auteurship and Celebrity Game Design

So it’s definitely looking as if Hideo Kojima, famed creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise and not much else (Boktai anyone?) has fallen out with Konami and will be leaving the company. Taking matters to the pettiest level possible, Konami has also removed his name from the box of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, a game designed and headed almost entirely by Kojima. This is notable for a couple of reasons, not the least being the fact that Konami was one of the first companies to sell a game on the back of a creator, much like movies and books often do, and are now walking back from that practice.

Hideo Kojimas supposed last Metal Gear Solid for Konami will likely be awesome for a few months before everyone sobers up and realizes it is ridiculous.
Hideo Kojima’s supposed last Metal Gear Solid for Konami will likely be awesome for a few months before everyone sobers up and realizes that it is ridiculous and makes no sense.

 

If you have ever looked at a bookshelf lately (they were the things we used to hold books before Kindles) it is legitimately difficult to tell what the names of books are as the titles are often overwhelmed by the humungous size of the author’s name. Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson – it almost doesn’t matter what the book is called or what the subject matter is. The selling point is the authors.

So many of these books seem to be called "King", they must be part of a series or something.
So many of these books seem to be called “King”, they must be part of a series or something.

Movies have sold themselves on the backs of their movie stars as well. Prominent directors also get sizable, if a disproportionate amount of credit. Only relatively recently, say from Star Wars onwards, have films been sold on the back of franchises or licensed properties instead. It is auteurship. Creators are recognized and become brands in and of themselves. Those brands can then be harnessed to sell future products with a minimal amount of communication to consumers. People will ask you if you have seen the latest Tom Cruise movie and not if you saw the awesome science-fiction movie about exo-suit warriors that relive the same day over again. Even comic books often sell themselves on the back of an author/artist creative team – hell it is pretty much how Image Comics was created.

I dont know what its about either but look at all those famous people! It has got to be good!
I don’t know what it’s about either but look at all those famous people! It has got to be good!

How is it then that this has never happened with videogames? Where are the auteurs?

There are few game designers that anyone but an avid gamer could name. Shigero Miyamoto? You and some of your videogame playing friends may know him, but the average Joe doesn’t have a clue. When Nintendo launched Pikmin, one of the first new Miyamoto franchises in years, they advertised his involvement to the faithful, but not to the general public. There was no “PIKMIN: A SHIGERO MIYAMOTO JOINT” splattered across the box. To be fair, this is often against the overall Nintendo philosophy. They tend to be focused on ideas and a sense of play. They wanted you to know how Pikmin worked, not who made it.

Obviously not true but it would be awesome. I cant get sued for doing that can I?
I can’t get sued for doing that can I?

Design Quest: So you want to be a Game Designer?

In the nascent days of computer gaming, I was into the games of Sierra On-Line. As a child, I thought this was an enormous company, rivaling the size of Hollywood but in truth it was only a small handful of developers pioneering what are now known as adventure games. The company was run by a husband and wife team, recent award winners Ken and Roberta Williams. Inspiring themselves from books, Roberta herself originally intended to be an author, and films, the Williams attempted to make their lead game developers into celebrities. Roberta was the first. When Roberta’s King’s Quest (a new version of which is releasing soon) hit it big, every subsequent Roberta Williams game launched on the strength of her name. Games like Phantasmagoria or the Laura Bow mysteries even had her photo on the back of the box.

The woman has her own ANTHOLOGY. When are we gonna see an HD remaster of this?
The woman has her own ANTHOLOGY. When are we gonna see an HD remaster of this?

Space Quest took it one step further with the developers branding themselves as “The Two Guys from Andromeda” and literally putting themselves into the game. Space Quest 3 actually involves saving them from an evil empire not so subtly spoofing Microsoft. Al Lowe was another example with his Leisure Suit Larry series being a huge success. When it came time to launch a new property – Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist (yes that’s a real game, look it up) – it was sold on the back of Lowe’s name and his now trademarked humour. Al Lowe’s face was always on the game boxes as well.

Now our hero, Freddy Pharkas, With wounded pride and earless carcass, Vowed to the heavens to give up gunnery. He'd be better off, he reckoned, With the lifelong dream that always beckoned: Pestles, not pistols, and pharmacology.
Now our hero, Freddy Pharkas, with wounded pride and earless carcass, vowed to the heavens to give up gunnery. He’d be better off, he reckoned, with the lifelong dream that always beckoned: Pestles, not pistols, and pharmacology.

Why not Celebrate the Creators?

More than even books or movies, videogames are tied to licenses and franchises. The cost of developing a triple A videogame is huge and the appetite for risk-taking is minimal. Business interests have never been more closely tied to video games than they are right now with companies like Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft often listening to investors instead of gamers.

Recently, Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Desilets broke his silence and provided his view on his firing by Ubisoft. In a nutshell, following the successful release of Assassin’s Creed 2, Desilets left Ubisoft to join THQ. When THQ folded, many of its teams and assets were bought by, ironically enough, Ubisoft. This included Desilets team. Shortly thereafter, he was fired with Ubisoft keeping the assets of the game he and his team had been working on for THQ. Lawsuits are now going back and forth and his detailed interview in the current issue of Game Informer is well worth the read. The reason things did not work with Ubisoft is because Desilets saw himself as a game designer and creator. He had revived the Prince of Persia series with Sands of Time and conceptualized and launched what is now Ubisoft’s biggest cash cow in Assassin’s Creed. He wanted the freedom to create and design with minimal interference. While that is not the same as wanting your name on the box, like Kojima desperately seems to, it is tied into building your personal brand.

Assassins Creed 2 ie the Best One was released in 2009 and remains Desilets last published game.
Assassins Creed 2 i.e. “the Best One” was released in 2009 and remains Desilets last published game, not from any lack of trying.

Giant companies would prefer not to allow creators to become known and loved because any temporary increase in sales related to highlighting a celebrity creator is counterbalanced by the growing risk that they leave or – worse yet – start publicly slagging the company. Even the amicable departure of a high-profile designer can hurt a brand. When Cliff Bleszinski left Epic, the interest in his cornerstone franchise Gears of War dropped considerably. When he left, he took a lot of the enthusiasm with him, and that is pretty much a best case departure scenario.

If ever there was a man who enjoyed the life of celebrity game designer: this is he.
If ever there was a man who enjoyed the life of celebrity game designer: this is he.

That isn’t to say that companies won’t take advantage of a designer’s name recognition. Jordan Mechner was the original creator of 1989’s Prince of Persia. He pretty made the entire original game himself, from design to programming. When Ubisoft purchased the series and sought to relaunch it, they brought in Mechner to consult on it. Mechner’s involvement was highlighted in interviews and marketing materials. There was little to no risk in doing this as it added interest and credibility to the game and Mechner was not going to remain a long term employee of Ubisoft anyway.

Jordan Mechner actually wrote the screenplay for his game to become a movie. Now let us never speak of it again.
Jordan Mechner actually wrote the screenplay for his game to become a movie. Now let us never speak of it again.

Sometimes long-time company loyalty mitigates the risk for big companies as well. When Shenmue originally launched for the Sega Dreamcast, creator Yu Suzuki’s role was prominently highlighted but he had been with developer Sega for years before and was considered a safe investment. His name was still not included on the front of the game box.

Kickstart the Indy 500

One of the main criticisms levelled at having a lead designer plaster their name across a new game is that there are literally hundreds of people involved in development. It is no longer the 80s where one person can make a triple A game. The same can also be said of movies. There are many other developers like Desilets feeling chaffed by the studio model and they are increasingly forming small independent companies to make small innovative games. This is also the way that new creative voices, like Braid and the Witness’ Jonathan Blow, are getting noticed.

Kickstarter is also a boon for creators who can harness their cult status or limited fame to ask knowledgeable gamers to fund independent projects. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series, and Star Citizen is a prime example of that. He continues to set records in fundraising. Yu Suzuki is now doing the same for a sequel to Shenmue although that is not without controversy. Will companies start taking notice of this and start highlighting creators? I think that remains doubtful as it is easy to point to Star Citizen’s proof of concept, or Shenmue’s cult status as reasons for their success.

Please be good, please be good, please be good, I want you to be good so bad, please be good.
Please be good, please be good, please be good, I want you to be good so bad, please be good.

Hideo and Seek

Let us end as we began, with Hideo Kojima. While I have always felt he is somewhat of an overrated and egotistical designer, he is about as famous as they come in the gaming community. That is still not very famous mind you. He is not necessarily an ultra-rich millionaire who can ride off into the sunset, nor would he want to end his career with this Konami debacle. His last, cancelled project, Silent Hills, and how he was to work with film auteur Guillermo del Toro. Well the two are apparently not done yet and when visionary meets visionary, who knows what will result?

Yes, he put himself in his own game and yes he made himself look as cool as possible and no, he doesnt have a massive ego problem
Yes, he put himself in his own game and yes he made himself look as cool as possible and no, he doesn’t have a massive ego problem.

Should game creators and developers get more credit or attention? Or is it refreshing that video games remain the only medium still sold on ideas and concepts and not on people’s names? Let me know at exmpodcast@gmail.com or hit us up on the Twitter @exmpodcast.

The Question Mark: Gaming Comfort Food

As a sort of counter-point to my last Question Mark on the intended addictiveness of games like Destiny, I wanted to look at a growing phenomenon I am seeing in the way we play games, the way we are increasingly turning towards comfort food in gaming.  When you finish beating up the Joker’s goons in a Batman game over a couple of weeks or so, what do you turn to? Do you complete an old game you left unfinished? Pull something unplayed out of your library? Buy something new? Increasingly, players are returning to games that they play on and off throughout the year, games that serve as the “meat and potatoes” of their gaming calendars, filling the gaps between major releases and often providing more value for your purchase than anything else. This comfort food gaming varies greatly depending on the person.

Thats right, get comfortable gamers - but not so comfortable you stop reading. Get semi-comfortable.
Get comfortable gamers! Well, not so comfortable you stop reading. Get semi-comfortable.

Let’s look at some examples, starting with the one that is definitely not gaming comfort food:

The Single-Player Shorty

Single-player games with stories always do well with a broad audience. Most people who are fervently awaiting Uncharted 4 are not doing so for its multiplayer. They will play and enjoy the campaign and then either move back to their comfort food or on to the next game. These short to mid-length games include Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Knight, Dishonored and the like. While many of them crack our “favourite games” list, they rarely become the large-scale time sinks that characterizes gaming comfort food.

Earlier this year, the Internet collectively lost its shit over the length of the Order: 1886. While the game itself was admittedly not perfect, foremost amongst issues people complained about was its length, especially as was related to its price. The fact that it can be finished in an afternoon angered gamers that spent the same amount of money on a huge content-rich game like Skyrim. But did they pay too much for the Order: 1886 or too little for a game like Skyrim? More importantly, maybe some shorter games are desirable so as to provide an intense break from the longer experience of our comfort games – think watching a movie after binging two seasons of a television show.

It is like Ready at Dawn beat up a puppy, threatened to kill it and was charging you 60 bucks to save its life.
Gamers acted like the Order:1886 creators Ready at Dawn beat up a puppy, threatened to kill it and was then charging them 60 bucks to save its life.

The (Modable) Single-Player Time Sucker

There are plenty of users pouring hours into Skyrim years after launch. The same is true of other huge games like Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. A single playthrough of one of these beasts can often run over a hundred hours, never mind a replay with a different character. Add in modification tools, extra downloadable content, player-made content and so on, and you can be playing the same game almost endlessly. I am currently playing the Witcher 3 and loving it but it is tremendously long. I could see it easily becoming a game that someone could obsess over for a year, especially if their time is at a premium. Maybe some people would take breaks and come back to it after sampling other games. It could become their gaming comfort food.

I googled "vanilla Skyrim". This seems legit.
I googled “vanilla Skyrim pictures”. This seems legit.

Creation games, the most popular being Minecraft, are another form of single-player time sinks. Minecraft is often the only game a lot of people need, providing them with an open-ended endless creative playground. While I don’t spend much time on them now, as a kid I poured a ton of hours into Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures, an RPG construction kit/game. With Media Molecule announcing Dreams as a companion piece to their Little Big Planet series, I can see creative games continuing to grow on console.

These two types of games are pretty much the definition of the single player’s gaming comfort food. Finished the Last of Us? Time to get back to recreating Westeros or touring around Riften.

The Compulsive Competitive Multi-Player

The fact that people are still playing Counter-Strike in a world of advanced first-person shooters is testament to the appeal of a perfectly balanced competitive multi-player game. For many people, Call of Duty is the only game that they need with its map packs providing intravenous drips worth of additional content throughout the year as players level their characters in online combat. Sports games are the same. Jeff, one of the original hosts of our Exclamation Mark podcast, is an avid NHL player. Every year he picks up the latest game and goes online in the EA sports hockey league, building his team and testing his skill. He still plays through games like Far Cry but, as soon as they are done, he is back to lacing up the virtual skates.

This is literally crack-cocaine for some people. Mostly Canadians.
This is literally crack-cocaine for some people. Mostly Canadians.

League of Legends, the most profitable game on the planet, and other multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, also fall into this category. Many players limit themselves to playing this games at the expense of all others. This is part of the growing competitive scene and almost beyond what I would characterize as comfort food. For the less hardcore however, MOBAs may end up being the type of game you come back to off and on throughout a year.

Co-op Multiplayer Bonanzas

The achievement and loot-filled extravaganzas that I so derided last week, including Diablo, Borderlands and Destiny fit into this category as do large-scale MMOs like World of Warcraft and Everquest. These games provide countless hours worth of content as friends work together to chase that elusive last piece of gear or legendary weapon. While I continue to have some issues with the addictive structure and the nature of the content, I cannot deny the fun to be had in collaborating with your friends and overcoming obstacles together. Even solo, acquiring a seemingly unlimited amount of character powers, loot or skills can become a massive time sink. Many of these games release patches or expansions throughout the year to keep you invested and coming back for more.

I played Borderlands 2 off and on for a good part of a year as the DLC just kept rolling out.

I could pick up virtual crap all day -- just dont ask me to help clean up my neighbourhood unless there is a chance for a legendary.
I could pick up virtual crap all day — just don’t ask me to help clean up my neighbourhood unless there is a chance for a legendary.

Just Like Mom Used to Make

More than ever, we are seeing players engage with games long-term, often only replacing them with the next installment in a franchise. They set their gaming comfort food aside temporarily to reach for another game, often as a change of pace, before returning to their meat and potatoes, be it a game in their online Madden sport league or a new dungeon run in Diablo.

I have been playing the Witcher 3 for well over a month and have yet to reach the third section of the game. I already know that I will play Batman: Arkham Knight next and maybe Bloodborne after that. I am the type of transient gamer that moves from game to game and actually does not regularly fall back on a gaming comfort food. People like me are becoming increasingly uncommon.

Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother... Watch your mouth! Im talking bout Geralt!
I just wanted another excuse to put a Witcher 3 photo in an article.

So all you World of Warcraft players? You are not so different than the legion of Call of Duty players or Skyrim modders. With huge game releases taking longer than ever for companies to develop, the growth of timesinks and gaming comfort food continues. While not necessarily a new occurrence, it is becoming increasingly prevalent to meet the insatiable demands of the ever growing horde of hungry players with endless appetites for games.

What is your gaming comfort food? Is it maybe just dusting off an old favourite? Or is it a type of game I maybe didn’t mention? Do you like your games to have ends or to be endless? Let me by email at exmpodcast@gmail.com  

The Question Mark: Rated A for Addicting

Cigarette, the girlfriend of cigar, is addictive. It is known. It contains a drug, nicotine, which is highly addictive. The smoke inhalation, painful at first, becomes intoxicating for cigarette addicts. It is fair to say that, unlike say beer and alcohol which are addictive to certain personality types, cigarettes have been designed to be addictive to everyone. Gambling is addictive too. That is also known. It intentionally plays with human nature and human behaviour to bleed money from participants who continually believe that they have a chance to win. Wait…what does any of this have to do with videogames?

Oh baby I don't even smoke and even I want a piece of this. Apologies to all those currently trying to quit smoking.
Oh baby I don’t even smoke and even I want a piece of this. Apologies to all those currently trying to quit smoking.

Danny O’Dwyer, a fantastic videogame journalist, recently put together a 15 minute video on Destiny for his videocast “The Point”. It is really interesting and worth a watch, even if you don’t play Destiny. It dissects the behavioural science behind the workings of a game like Destiny, one that – through random drops of loot and other means – creates an addictive feedback loop similar to the effect slot machines have on gamblers. Go watch it now. I’ll wait. Beau and I discussed it at length during the last Dialogue Tree segment of the Exclamation Mark podcast where we both expressed dismay at this type of game design.

Acclaimed journalist Danny O'Dwyer. Probably not the photo he would have chosen to use. Thanks Internet!
Acclaimed gaming journalist Danny O’Dwyer. Probably not the photo he would have chosen to use. Thanks Internet!

Prior to his death, the late Roger Ebert started a conversation with regards to if videogames can be considered art. Putting that discussion aside, I think a more relevant question is when do they stop being games and become more corporate products? When do they abandon all semblance of artistry and focus solely on appeasing the unyielding demands of the bottom line? While, in his video, Danny talks about how Destiny acts as a pipeline to sell ongoing digital content, I think the more troubling aspect has less to do with the money and more to do with the insane amounts of time gamers end up investing in these products.

Call Me Maybe

Mobile gaming is the fastest growing and most lucrative section of the overall videogaming scene. With the rise of smartphones, it has become increasingly unlikely that even your mom hasn’t played a game. Everybody does it now and they don’t think about it which has enabled the beginning of some shady business practices. Apple and other large companies have had to react to games labelled “free to play” targeting both adults and, most troublingly, children with addictive mechanics. Games like Candy Crush Saga or Smurf Village capitalize on human behaviour to entice players to spend money to increase the speed of the game they are playing. Imagine if you watched a movie divided up into five sections and each section ended with a cliff-hanger. You could either wait an hour to see the next section or pay a few dollars to see it now. It is human nature to want to see it immediately. The mobile industry has, up until recently, been getting a pass on these predatory business practices. Following some well-publicized incidents, parental warnings have started popping up as well as well as Apple itself even removing the word “free” from its own App Store.

This can't end well.
This can only end well.

Everybody agrees that children generally don’t know better and so we should be protecting them from predatory sales tactics. But what about adults?

Danny’s piece on the Point made so-called “hardcore” videogame players – those often teenage or adult in age focused on console or PC gaming – take a long look in the mirror. Destiny had Activision hire a known specialist in human behaviour who had previously worked on the Halo franchise to maximize the addictive qualities of the game, ensuring that it would be continuously played well after launch and that players would shell out the cash for each new downloadable piece of content. The only thing that is new here is the admission of an actual behavioural specialist being involved – the rest has been happening for years, and not without consequence.

So many pretty colours! Achievement unlocked: OCD triggered.
So many pretty colours! Achievement unlocked: OCD triggered.

Caught in a Blizzard

The Blizzard wing of Activision-Blizzard is an organization that enjoys tremendous good will from gamers but it is one that essentially bases its business model on its players pouring hundreds of hours into the same games. It does this in two primary ways: the first is multiplayer. By providing a tight and engaging multiplayer component to games like Starcraft and Heroes of the Storm, users keep coming back searching for that thrill of victory or crush of defeat. It is the same reason people have played chess and/or Call of Duty for generations (those two games are mixed up all the time throughout history). The second method is much more nefarious and it is through the use of behavioural science to ensure users get trapped in the feedback loop that Danny mentioned. Games that randomly reward players with “rare drops” like Diablo and Hearthstone are the worst of these. Diablo 3 originally launched with an auction house that saw Blizzard taking a cut of sales from each item sold between players. The company also implemented an unnecessary “always online” policy and eventually put barriers on how you could trade with other players. Hearthstone tantalizes players when they open a new card pack with the cards dancing around in a show of sound and light as each card is revealed.

Admit it, you are just dying to know what these cards are. What if one of them is a legendary? Think of the voice macro that will play!
Admit it, you are just dying to know what these cards are. What if one of them is a legendary? Think of the voice macro that will play! You are getting chills already aren’t you?

Blizzard is not alone in these practices. Prior to the launch of their biggest cash cow, World of Warcraft, there was a sizable amount of massive multi-player games being released, seemingly every week. One of them, City of Heroes, I played extensively with my wife and some work friends. The game had you designing and playing as a super hero, fighting super villains and their henchmen in a city (hence the name). At launch, it was very simple: you undertook quests where you would beat up thugs and your character would level up and get stronger. As your character grew stronger you would receive new powers which would then allow you to beat up more thugs. And so the loop went. Many gamers became unsatisfied with this and most would point to the absence of “loot”, items that would randomly fall from defeated enemies so that your character could be further customized, both in abilities and appearance.Why did everyone want loot? Aside from Batman’s utility belt, how many super heroes are really known for walking around with a bunch of loot? Unbeknownst to them, the gamers playing were actively seeking the same form of addictiveness that they had experienced in other games in hopes of giving purpose to the nonstop beating of thugs. They wanted the dopamine rush that they got in other games when a legendary item would drop to a flash of light and sound.Successful MMORPG developers like Square Enix and Blizzard have understood this need and have played into it – getting their players to camp out for rare drops or run many multi-hour raids in hopes of getting that one item needed to fully complete their armor set.

This was unfortunately the best part of the game. Don't worry though, they eventually added some phat loot.
This was unfortunately the best part of the game. Don’t worry though, they eventually added some phat l00t.

What’s the Big Deal?

Danny’s issues with Destiny were related to how it was essentially a slot-machine for gamers, asking you to dedicate time and money in hopes of getting a rare item or some sort of dopamine boost.  This can be extremely dangerous to be people with addictive personalities. Why is it a problem and why should we care? Well, on the drastic end, because of this guy, this guy, this guy, these guys, this guy, and this guy, amongst others. They all died playing games like League of Legends, Diablo, and World of Warcraft. While again, this is on the drastic end, others have quit their jobs, left their wives, and neglected their children and so on. You cannot tell me that every moment these people have put into those games was completely enjoyable and satisfying. Many were trapped inside of a carefully crafted hamster wheel, rewarding them with random little pieces of cheese while they invested hour upon hour into the never-ending chase. As a videogame player who appreciates the artistry, escapism and freedom of expression that games can bring, it makes my blood boil to see companies continue to chase the whales, the addictive personality types that they can endlessly trap and drain of their money. It gives the entire industry a bad name.

ORANGE BEAM OF LIGHT??? GET OUT OF THE WAY, THAT'S MY ITEM! GIVE IT TO ME NOW NOW NOW
ORANGE BEAM OF LIGHT??? GET OUT OF THE WAY, THAT’S MINE! GIVE IT TO ME NOW NOW NOW

So What to Do?

It is always easier to identify a problem than to propose a solution. I don’t think all MMOs or loot-based games should vanish nor do I think being addictive is necessarily a bad thing. I do however think that if, as a company, you are hiring a human behaviour specialist in an attempt to make your game as addictive as possible then you might want to re-examine your corporate priorities. You also, at the very least, should be obligated to disclose this on your labelling in the same way that the cigarette industry has to disclose its intended addictiveness on packages here in Canada. Once you have crossed that line, you can no longer say “oh, I didn’t know” or “that guy was an exception, most of our players only play a little bit at a time”. As soon as you start designing for the whales and people with addictive personalities, you are enabling destructive behaviours as well as contributing to damaging the reputation of the entire videogame industry.

If the Entertainment Software Rating Board is able to give a game an age rating based on its content, everything from violence to the use of alcohol, it should also be able warn against intended addictiveness. As society and game development evolve, both at home and in the mobile space, we have to learn new ways in which to protect ourselves from predatory business practices. Once a gamer is aware that a game has been designed in an intentionally addictive way, they should still be free to play it but at least arm them with that knowledge before they go in.

Beau, to his credit, realizes what these games do to him, but knows he can’t escape them and is now attracted to them. Following our discussion on the show, one where he lamented the predatory and exploitative game design being used, he began excitedly talking about the new modes being added to Diablo 3, allowing him to play the game over for the hundredth time in hopes of higher chances of valuable drops. Meanwhile, Activision just announced that it would be rewarding long-time Destiny addicts with a new in-game emblem given to “only the most dedicated players” who put in the time necessary.

The trick, companies are learning, is not to let the player escape. If they escape, you may never get them back. Don’t worry though, one sweet smoky throat hit is all it will take to bring them back in.

Go on: whats another hour gonna hurt? You might still get a legendary.
Go on: what’s another hour gonna hurt? You might still get a legendary.

 

Agree? Disagree? Got something to say about any Exclamation Mark podcast or Question Mark blog, including this one? Contact us at exmpodcast@gmail.com!

RANK’EM: TOP VIDEOGAME SONGS

On this episode of Rank’em, I wanted to look at some of my favourite videogame songs. I am talking actual songs here, ones with lyrics and everything. Often when I see these sorts of lists, they are focused on musical themes (think: overworld theme from Zelda) and classical pieces. There aren’t that many games that feature awesome songs so I am even going to cheat a bit with this very list as some of these songs come from trailers for videogames. The original Gears of War popularized this practice for trailers and so if a song, be it from a trailer or a game, sticks in my head then it might crack this list.

HOUSE RULES:

Song has to be significant aspect of game or trailer, eliminating all racing games or sports games, even those curated by Jay-Z.

One song per game, this artificial limit means some games got screwed, (namely Red Dead Redemption that would normally occupy three spots on the list).

I generally don’t like metal – sorry Brutal Legend.

No pirate sea shanties – sorry Assassin’s Creed 4 – or bard songs – sorry Dragon Age and the Witcher – but you should totally check this out.

No music games – sorry Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Sorry guys, you may rock pretty hard but you are ineligible for this list. Better luck next time!
Sorry guys, you may rock pretty hard but you are ineligible for this list. Better luck next time!

Honourable Mention: Cyberpunk 2077: “Bullets” – Archive

On the heels of my article last week on CD Projekt’s the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I wanted to highlight these awesome trailer released years ago for a game that has yet to come out. CD Projeckt has admitted that the trailer was partially used to gauge interest in the project and the wicked “Bullets” really helped ramp up excitement for it. The fact that the game is unreleased means that this can only be an honorable mention.

  1. Assassin’s Creed: “Lonely Soul” – UNKLE

A lot of people disliked the first Assassin’s Creed, often characterizing it as a glorified tech demo. While it is true that it was a lot simpler than much of what came later, it was also more focused. You truly felt alone in a big world and this trailer really captures that. It also highlights the anachronistic nature of the series: the slick future meeting the ancient past. Very cool.

  1. Alan Wake: “War” – Poets of the Fall

Remedy very much enjoys Poets of the Fall as evidenced by the Finnish band’s presence in both Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake, the latter of which featured many songs scoring some significant story moments and action scenes. Of those “War”, although cheesy, was probably my favourite and it gets the nod here.

  1. Gears of War 2, “How it Ends” – DeVotchKa

For a certain generation of gamer, “Mad World”, the Gary Jules remix of a Tears for Fears song featured prominently in a series of trailers and television ads will always represent the destroyed beauty of Gears of War. Gears of War 3 even acknowledged the enduring popularity of the song with a few notes playing from it at an emotional moment. That being said, the DeVotchKa song used in the trailer of Gears 2 took advantage of the emotional stock players now had in the characters to deliver a more powerful experience and I much prefer the song so it bumps Mr. Jules here.

  1. Portal: “Still Alive” – GLADOS (Jonathan Coulton)

Where to rank a comedy song? Well what if it is an exquisitely made comedy song that captures the humour of the game while being peppered by inside jokes, fan service and cake? Some may disagree but #7 works for Glados. The song itself is hilarious and remains superior to its sequel “Want You Gone” in Portal 2. It is also a part of gaming culture at this point. I have to dock it some points though because I often find myself skipping it when it comes on my iPod. The song works in context but requires a certain mood to be appreciated. I am making a note here: huge success.

  1. Jet Set Radio: “Improvise” – Jurassic 5

I am somewhat breaking my own rules here a bit here as by including this, I am opening the flood gates to sports games and Tony Hawk games in particular. To that I say, the Jet Set games are not traditional sports games. They are experiences that are intrinsically attached to the music being played. Most of that music was done by Hideki Naganuma but I am going to go with the one track by Jurassic 5 as the one I turn up whenever it is on.

  1. The Witcher 3: “Oats in the Water” – Ben Howard

The newest entry on the list comes from the launch trailer for the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (which I wrote about last week). Paired with the visuals, the song creates a strong sense of mood and builds to a climax reflecting the story and action in the game. This trailer sold me on a game I had been on the fence about playing and I am glad that I did. Also, unlike some of the music on this list, while it works well in the trailer, it can also stand alone.

  1. Grand Theft Auto V: “Sleepwalking” – The Chain Gang of 1974

Ever since Grand Theft Auto III popularized the in-game radio station format, there have been a lot of songs included in Grand Theft Auto games. Unfortunately, while everyone has a favourite, few ever rise above the crop. In my mind, Vice City had the best overall soundtrack and was also the first game in the series to feature popular licensed music. By GTAIV and V, there was so much content, it is almost ridiculously difficult to pick a standout song. That is why I am glad that Rockstar did it for us, highlighting “Sleepwalking” in the trailer for GTA V. That song represents the three protagonists of the game quite well and is the one that I now most associate with GTA.

  1. Bioshock Infinite: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker

Here we are in the top 3 and honestly, all of these songs could top the list. They all are actually notably featured in the end credits of their respective games. Of the three, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” ups the ante further by being performed by the game’s voice actors Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker. While the full live-action version of the song in the credits is really fun to watch, it is the short but poignant moment in the game where your character Booker DeWitt picks up a guitar and performs the traditional hymn with Elizabeth that really pushes this one up the charts. It helps that the song provides an important clue to understanding the game’s plot as well.

  1. Metal Gear Solid 3: “Way to Fall” – Starsailor

Metal Gear Solid 3 is often looked at as the high water mark was the Metal Gear franchise. Part of this is the music. Many will point to the game’s main James Bond-esque theme “Snake Eater” as the standout track. For my money though, nothing hits harder than Way to Fall as the credits rolls to conclude the game. In a series that it is mostly known for ridiculousness, it captured a pretty awesome human moment. In narrative-heavy games, much like in movies, a strong end credits song can put an exclamation mark (double pun intended) on the whole package. So with that build up out of the way, let’s get to number one…

  1. Red Dead Redemption: “Dead Man’s Gun” – Ashtar Command

Whenever people talk about the music of Red Dead Redemption, and believe me, they do it often, they rightfully talk about “Far Away” by José González. The song, an original composition for the game, plays as your character, John Marston, arrives in Mexico for the first time. That moment, as your horse gallops away from the border, is a powerful one, as is the later moment when you finally return home to the sounds of Jamie Lidell’s “Compass”. Both songs play during actual gameplay and I found myself slowing my progress so I could hear the pieces in their entirety. For me, however, the most powerful song of Red Dead plays during the end credits following the game’s epilogue. Spoilers aside, Ashtar Command’s “Dead Man’s Gun” doubles down on ending a game, drawing from the mood and themes of the countless hours that came before to cap a helluva journey.

Just buy the soundtrack already.

Agree? Disagree? What are some of your favourite videogame songs? Tell us below or email at exmpodcast@gmail.com

 

The Question Mark: Bewitched by the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

As I am getting used to writing this blog, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing and recommending games. There are sites for that. What I do want, however, is to sometimes take a moment and dissect a game I am playing – especially if it is leaving an impression. This provides the dual function of expanding on any thoughts that I have during the Exclamation Mark podcast as well as giving my poor wife’s ears a break. So, after about four podcasts of gushing, it is a surprise to nobody that the first game I want to look at is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother... Watch your mouth! Im talking bout Geralt!
Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother… Watch your mouth! I’m talking ’bout Geralt!

Game of the Year

I think the collective feeling about last year is that it was a shit year for videogames. Most Game of the Year awards went to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that I still feel is genuinely good, bordering on great. The fact that Hearthstone, a collectible card game, was even in the running (and was probably my pick for Game of the Year) is a testament to what a weak year it was. Videogames take multiple years to develop and – as delays pile up – it is very possible to end up with a year like 2014. I would argue that with game like Ori and the Blind Forest, Heroes of the Storm, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Bloodborne on the table, 2015 may have surpassed it already. With The Witcher 3, 2015 has now blown 2014 out of the water. Upcoming games like Fallout 4 have their work cut out for them.

A Sequel in Name Only

The last game I felt this passionately about was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. That game was mature, cinematic and impactful. It was also accessible. It had a short and powerful name with no colons or dashes in it. It wasn’t a sequel and it was exquisitely streamlined for console play. When people would ask me what I was playing, I could say “The Last of Us” and they generally wanted to know more. When they hear the name “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” it sounds like I am talking about a B-movie I found in the Shoppers Drug Mart discount bin.

Dere be treasure in dem dere bins!
Dere be treasure in dem dere bins! Yes I am aware that this photo is of a CD bin. Ask your parents.

The harsh truth is that nobody really played the Witcher 1 and only a few more played the Witcher 2 and that was because it was on XBOX360. The games are adaptations of the work of a Polish author that – believe it or not – have not been completely translated to English. Yes, that’s right, this is a triple A game experience based on the written works of an international author. It would be like playing a game adaptation of the third part of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. How does this even happen much less get greenlit?

Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game.
Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game. Stranger things have happened.

Passion on Display

It happens due to the passion of a game developer, in this case CD Projeckt Red. The company successfully funds itself through revenue generated by their Good Old Games (GOG) online store. They can afford to make the games that they want to play and their small team decided that they want the Witcher (disclaimer: they are also Polish so it might be like if us Canadians made that Neil Young MMO I have been suggesting – first boss: Justin Bieber). A one hundred man (and women) team may not sound big, but compared to the Ubisofts and Bethesdas, it is tiny. Compared to what they realized in the creation of the world of the Witcher, it is flabbergasting.

In my MMO, you would play as a bard named "Neil" and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.
In my MMO, you would play as a bard named “Neil” and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.

A World of War and Monsters

Temeria, the world of the Witcher is ridiculously shitty. It would be near the bottom of my list of “videogame worlds to live in”, right after the hellscape that is Street Cleaning Simulator. War-torn and ravaged by monsters, it is beyond saving, you can only hope to survive it and maybe make a little coin on the side. A Witcher is a human that was genetically mutated and given powers that allow it to track and kill monsters – a true monster hunter for hire. Technically, the Witchers skill set, including magical spells and dual swords (one for the humans, one for the fiends) make him more like a Jedi than any fantasy character I have seen. He even has a Jedi Mind Trick type ability!

Hello darkness my old friend.
Hello darkness my old friend.

The monsters are amazingly designed and legitimately creepy. Not to offer any spoilers but there is one encounter in particularly that I felt was even emotionally challenging. The variety of creatures is huge and does an admirable job of mixing western and Slavic folk traditions to create a bestiary of epic fiends.

A World of Size and Density

It seems that in this post-Skyrim world, open world games are chasing the square footage. From the streets of San Andreas to the mountains of Kyrat to the wilds of Ferelden, bigger is the new better. By that metric, the Witcher 3 is the best yet but square footage seldom tells the whole tale. Think of an open-world game you have played, it could be an action adventure, an RPG, a shooter. What do they have in common? Fetch quests, meaningless collect-o-thons where you repeat the same actions over and over and over again. How many rifts can you close in Dragon Age? How many towers can you climb in Far Cry? How many gangs can you hack in Watchdogs? The Witcher 3 does away with this mentality entirely. It coats every significant collectable, every quest, every Witcher contract, every event with context, quality and personality. Each piece of extra content could be favourably compared to the core story content of any similar game. What is remarkable is not only that they were successfully able to do this but that they were successfully able to do it at the size and scale that they are doing it. It takes hours of gameplay to really understand this. At one point it will just hit you that everything there is to do in this world is satisfying and enjoyable with no filler and that is when the true appreciation of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt begins.

Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?
Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?

Finesse and Function

In the past I have felt like open-world games in general and RPGs in particular, have used their size and scope and sense of exploration to excuse subpar gameplay. Skyrim and Fallout offer somewhat mediocre first person shooter-type experiences. Dragon Age: Inquisition is essentially MMO-combat with hot keys and skills refreshing all the time. The Witcher offers full action, a system that offers a variety of ways of tackling a fight but makes you think before every move. We just saw For Honor revealed at E3 by Ubisoft, a game devoted entirely to melee combat, and as soon as I saw it, I remember thinking that the Witcher 3 was already offering a similar experience. Quality gameplay in a rich fantasy world. It seems like those two things should have been paired together a long time ago yet, here we are. This is the standard that future games will have to meet. They will no longer be able to coast on the size of their worlds.

Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.
Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.

A Few Issues

As much as I would like it to be so, the Witcher 3 is not a perfect game. What it does well, it does so magnificently well that it often overshadows the failings… but there are failings. In the end, it is not a game for everyone. You are playing a character with a pre-established personality in Geralt of Rivia. While you can make choices that impact both the world and the type of personality that Geralt exhibits, he is still who you are playing. In a way, it reminded me of Mass Effect games although here – despite some sections where you play as his ward Ciri – you are mostly limited to playing a white man with a gruff personality. I would say it is a bit akin to Red Dead Redemption: Fantasy Version.

I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.
I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.

Another sizable issue surrounds inventory management which, while improved over the previous two games, is still overly complicated and cumbersome, making it scary and inaccessible to many console players. It is an evolution of the game’s PC roots but could perhaps have been done more elegantly.

I am playing on PS4 and while there isn’t much loading (no loading screens in-game), there is a sizable load when you die. This can lead to frustrating situations when fighting a giant monster that seemingly has your number.

Tip #1: Play it Right You Noob!

Now I am sure you want to stop reading and run out and buy the game right now and while that is definitely a good idea, I would leave you with some tips. I am about a third of the way through which I realize doesn’t sound far but it will make more sense when you actually start playing the game. Here are a few recommendations that I would make for new players to get full enjoyment out of the game:

Skip Witcher 1 and 2! I really wish someone had told me this earlier as I was reluctant to buy the game having not completed either of Geralt’s previous two quests. The third game is so much better that I wouldn’t let not having played the first two limit you. If anything, they may put you off playing this one.

Watch a YouTube video first! While the story of Wild Hunt is fairly self-contained, you would get a better appreciation of the world, the books and the characters if you just watch a five minute YouTube video. There are a couple of decent ones out there. This is particularly helpful if this is your first Witcher game.

Play on a Hard Difficulty! I am playing on the second highest difficulty. To do any less, for a game like this, is to do yourself a disservice. There are game mechanics, namely identifying monsters’ weaknesses and preparing for them, that are much more relevant when the game is harder. You will still generally feel like a badass, but you have to gauge risk a lot more. Definitely worth playing on a harder level.

Don’t Quit on White Orchard! You begin the game in the village of White Orchard and, while a microcosm for the gameplay you will experience, it doesn’t give you an effective sense of scale or adventure. I could see people dropping before they even really get going.

More to Come

I have a lot left to experience in the Witcher and there are supposedly expansions packs (remember those?) coming later this year. Those expansions have now become my most anticipated games of 2015. CD Projeckt Red’s next game bears a title associated with one of my favourite genres of fiction: Cyberpunk 2077. Imagining the density and quality of narrative and gameplay of the Witcher 3 married to a new world set in my favourite genre is very exciting and I can’t wait to know more about that one.

Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell... I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!
Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell… I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!

Is there a game mentioned on the Exclamation Mark that you want to hear more about? Do you have comments on the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Let us know! Exmpodcast@gmail.com

The Question Mark – RANK’EM – E3 2015

So E3 2015 is in the books and I think everyone collectively agrees that it was a solid show. You had a little bit of sequels, a dash of remakes, and some significant new intellectual properties. Add in a smidge of surprises and you have a yummy cocktail of gaming goodness. Instead of exploring a topic as I do each week in the Question Mark, I am going to use this pulpit to highlight what most appealed to me from this year’s E3 announcements. Bear in mind that I was not there, did not try anything and am judging everything from the press conferences and online coverage (of which there was a lot!). Also, I would highlight that I made my choices based on my excitement level for each game as compared to how I felt before the conference, which cut out games like Batman: Arkham Knight which I am already very jazzed for and E3 didn’t really add anything new.

So finally, without further ado, here are my click-bait friendly faves from the conference:

Honourable Mention: My youth. Final Fantasy VII, Shenmue and the original Gears of War are some of my all-time favourite videogames and I am happy to see them get revitalized or relaunched. I do firmly believe that these games succeeded partially due to when they released and I am unconvinced that they will be big hits now, or even games that I spend a significant amount of time on. That being said, it was cool to see them being recognized, particularly by Sony.

Hey! Ryo! Hey! Somehow I doubt your adventures will stand the test of time.
Hey! Ryo! Hey! Somehow I doubt your adventures will stand the test of time.

10. For Honor: This new IP from Ubisoft looks promising, although it may end up being a glorified tech demo in the vein of the first Assassin’s Creed. I did enjoy the first AC and I enjoy what I like to call “thumb candy”, that slick feeling of being in control. It looks like For Honor may offer that feeling through a new and innovative control system.

9. Dreams: Again, this is theoretically amazing stuff. The fact that Sony launched their conference with a Japanese emotional adventure game, a procedurally generated universe, and then Dreams, a creative dreamscape sandbox, shows how far games have come. I prefer to play and not necessarily create. I haven’t touched Minecraft or Little Big Planet. I am excited to know that this game exists though and I am aware of the possibilities. Hopefully somebody makes something super cool in it.

So. Much. Cuteness. Completely unlike any of my dreams.
So. Much. Cuteness. Completely unlike any of my dreams.

8. Uncharted 4: I made my wife watch the exciting car ride video that closed Sony’s E3 conference and she said what I am sure a lot of people are thinking “Ehhh, it just looks like more Uncharted” to which I would say: EXACTLY. Enough time has passed since the last game for me to get sufficiently excited although it is very possible that they have gone to the same well too many times. Hopefully, this is actually the last Uncharted and Naughty Dog goes and lends its considerable talents to a new game.

Oh Drake, you are so dreamy. I will miss you when you hopefully never come back.
Oh Drake, you are so dreamy. I will miss you when you hopefully never come back.

7. Fallout 4: Announced prior to the show, I am excited for this game despite the fact that I doubt it can surpass what CD Projeckt Red has done with the Witcher. The more of these giant games, the better!

6. Super Mario Maker: The only Nintendo presence on this list, I feel like this could be a tool/game that is used for years and outlives the system that it is launching on. It reminds me of Mario Paint for Super Nintendo in a way. Like Dreams, this is more of a creation toolkit but unlike Dreams, it is one that I could see myself using. If the rest of Nintendo’s Wii U content wasn’t so barebones, I might have considered picking one up.

Super Mario Maker: Teaching budding level designers how to troll their friends since 2015
Super Mario Maker: Teaching budding level designers how to troll their friends since 2015

5. Horizon: Zero Dawn: Okay, let’s get this out of the way immediately: what a dumbass title. I get that every new IP is launched with eyes to future expansion but can we please just save the subtitles for sequels? What was wrong with “Horizon”? Also, Zero Dawn sounds stupid and repetitive. Why not call it Zero Dawn: The New Beginning, Part 1? Ridiculous. Anyway, rant over. The game looks awesome and I like the sci-fi meets cavemen concept. This is the type of original concept work that generally puts video games ahead of movies. I also like the female protagonist and the gameplay. Nothing ground breaking but everything looks solid and enjoyable.

4. Sea of Thieves: Rare was another big player in my teen years with its Nintendo 64 catalogue one of the most impressive for any individual publisher in a console’s lifespan. Sea of Thieves has all the charm of a Rare classic. I also love Monkey Island and comedic pirate games and I can see this filling that void. My concerns stem mostly from the MMO aspects as I generally prefer single-player experiences. Knowing my luck, I will end up being one of the deckhands pulling the ropes. Sounds glamorous.

3. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: I am a fanboy for this series and have played and finished every single one. I had some trepidation with Mankind Divided as I felt that it might be an overreach for Eidos Montreal (particularly after Thief) or that it would negate the choices that concluded Human Revolution. While I still have some of those concerns, my fanboyism and the stylish trailers are winning me over.

Yes, I know we used this photo for a previous EXM but what can I say? We love us some Deus Ex!
Yes, I know we used this photo for a previous EXM but what can I say? We love us some Deus Ex!

2. No Man’s Sky / Star Citizen: I am lumping these two games together due to the similar theme of space exploration. Star Citizen didn’t get much of a showing and may still be a long way off. No Man’s Sky performed much better and is staggering in its scope. The procedural generation technology is very impressive but I am left to wonder how repetitive the game may end up being. It seems rather wide open but will there be a story or campaign? I could see myself enjoying it for a few evenings and then growing bored. Hopefully that isn’t the case. The concept is extremely exciting.

Look at all the purty colours. If you look closely, you can see that all the plants are poisonous.
Look at all the purty colours. If you look closely, you can see that all the plants are poisonous.

1. VR + Hololens: Look, by and large these conferences are about one thing: selling you the future. You must believe in the potential for new experiences and new technologies that will deliver something beyond what you are playing right now. My age and experience has made me less interested in sequels and remakes – I want new shit. In particular, I want something that will blow my mind. I think virtual reality gaming will be that thing and the highlight of the show for me was seeing giant companies like Microsoft (through Oculus, Valve, and its Hololens) and Sony (through its own Morpheus) jump on board the bandwagon. This could be a fad, like motion controls, or it could be the future. Either way, I am excited to find out.

The Question Mark – Manual Transmission

Buying a new doohicky is one of those things that tends to elicit varying degrees of endorphins depending on the person. In general, everyone gets a little rush when they make a large purchase. That rush is amplified if the purchase is non-essential, perhaps part of your hobby: the camper buying a new tent; the reader buying a new book; the driver, a new car; the stamp collector, a new…. book for stamps? Videogames are no exception.

This is super exciting for somebody.
This is super exciting for somebody.

Nothing feels better than knowing you have a new game in your hands as you exit the store. It is full of unlimited possibilities. You have yet to learn the rules, the possibilities or limitations. It is a blank slate, despite all you may know about it from previews you have read or videos you have seen. It is the rush of making a significant purchase mixed with the excitement of anticipation. As you pull off the shrink wrap surrounding a game, it feels like an ice cream Sunday, ready to be devoured. And the cherry on top? Well that my friends, is the game manual. Or, at least it used to be. Apparently there is a growing cherry shortage here in North America.

A Thing of Beauty

A well-designed game manual is not an easy thing to pull off. In the era of digital distribution, a manual is superfluous. We are in the age of “on-disc” digital manuals, as if someone would start a new videogame, watch the opening cinematic and then choose to open a fancied-up .PDF file. Manuals now feel like a company looking to check a box and meet a requirement instead of trying to contribute to the overall experience. With well-designed tutorials, the manual seems like an increasingly outdated way of explaining a game’s mechanics. But it wasn’t always like this.

Look at all that swag! This is how things used to work. That Baldurs Gate manual could double as a paperweight.
Look at all that swag! This is how things used to work. That Baldur’s Gate manual could double as a paperweight.

Nintendo always recognized the importance of a good manual. In the 8-bit (and even 16-bit) era it was difficult to properly represent something with in-game graphics. I remember looking at the character drawings in a Final Fantasy IV manual and just having my brain blown at how cool everything looked. People still make fun of the original Mega Man box art. It was an awful attempt at replicating a pixelated game in live-action.

Check out those state of the art high-resolution graphics!
Check out those state of the art high-resolution graphics! Somebody took the time to up-res this image. Good for them.

Box art had always been important for that but nothing fleshed out a virtual world like a manual. I remember sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car coming back from Toys R Us with Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy. It was a monochrome game on a portal system barely capable of NES graphics yet the manual just popped it full of life. It told a bit of the backstory of the island on which you would play the game and included coloured pictures showing all of Link’s actions and items. By the time I sat down at home ready to play, I was totally pumped for a great adventure.

Limitless potential in your hands!
A world to explore! Limitless potential in your hands!

Sierra adventure games on PC always had amazing manuals, often weaved into the lore of the game world. As I mentioned on the Exclamation Mark, my personal favourite was the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School manuals for each Hero’s Quest (Quest for Glory) game. They included write-ups on whatever world the game took place in, snazzy drawings and even a bestiary. The Sierra manuals built up the lore and history of the world, adding to the overall experience.

These things were the shit if you pardon my French.
These things were the shit if you pardon my French.

The second Quest for Glory game even included a map of the maze-like city of Shapeir. This was my first taste of videogame maps and also an early taste of in-game copyright as the city was borderline impenetrable without that map.

CD-R: Copyright Done Right?

Waaaaaay back, when I started into the world of PC games, piracy was already a problem. It was a simple process to copy the contents of one disk onto another. Blank disks were available at any computer supply store. Games were traded at my school like baseball or hockey cards (to be fair, I went to nerdy schools and had nerdy friends). Looking to curb all this illegal distribution from the under-10 set, game companies began including tests to determine if you actually owned the game. This was before games were cracked and before the Internet. How could game companies confirm you own the game and not penalize the rightful owner? Well, what if you needed information from the game box to unlock the game? This is still prevalent today in the form of CD-keys but, back in the 80s and 90s was done through the one piece of content in the box: the game manual.

As I said, I was really into Sierra adventure games: King’s Quest, Police Quest, Hero’s Quest, I couldn’t get enough. I even talked my folks into letting me play Leisure Suit Larry! Sierra was feeling the burn of piracy, and – not being a particularly large company – began testing copyright in the same way they tested your age before playing Larry, through a series of prompted questions prior to the game starting. The company’s first sequels, games like Police Quest 2 and Larry 2, asked the user to identify characters that they would only know from pictures in the game manual.

Oh come on Sierra! Larry doesnt even know that many women!
Oh come on Sierra! Larry doesn’t even know that many women! At least follow canon.

Continuously proving that you actually paid for the game began pissing off users and Sierra began to try to be sneakier with its copy protection. Games like Laura Bow and the Dagger of Amon Ra and Conquests of Camelot began including puzzles that relied on knowledge of the game’s lore – information that was only included inside of the manual. There was often no in-game notification given to players to suggest where the information needed to pass the puzzles lay. Even legitimate game owner might not think to check the manual. It started frustrating everyone.

Glass Half-Full

Building a game world is hard though. Game developers can only reach players through sight and sound and graphics are only now getting anywhere close to photorealistic. Manuals and maps provide a window into a greater world, a window that can be touched. Beau talked about a cloth map he received with an Ultima game. Before even starting the game, the player got a sense of time and place – they would be stepping into a world of scale and one that still used cloth in this way. Compared to the actual limited graphics of the game you were about to play, it was a powerful tool. But is it one that is still needed? We download our games digitally more than ever before. As gamers age and have more money, there is now a market for collector’s editions and nerdy swag. Why give away things for free? This has been devolving for a long time. First many companies stopped using coloured inks and provided a minimalist manual in black and white, then some started forsaking manuals altogether, and now it is less likely than not to find one tucked in the cover. Digital versions remain the same price as the on-disc versions and I feel that if retailers want to compete, they are going to need to insist on developers including some choice swag. Something has got to give.

Attention developers: this is how you do it. Thank you CD Projeckt Red.
Attention developers: this is how you do it. Thank you CD Projeckt Red.

I miss manuals and still very much value maps. My recent unboxing of the Witcher 3 included a thank you note from the developer (!), a manual, a CD with the soundtrack, a lore compendium, and a detailed colour map. Did I pay more for all this? No, it was something that the developer CD Projeckt Red still values. Before even starting the Witcher 3, I was already excited. This is becoming a lost art, one that I hope craftspeople like CD Projeckt Red and Rockstar Games manage to keep alive in a world that increasingly values the bottom line above all else.