Why the Hell Does Depth Matter?

Depth is my primary metric of quality for a game. I believe depth is a good metric because it is “simple” and “generic”. Unfortunately it’s not simple in the way of being simple and relatable to understand. It’s simple like GDP is simple. It’s one final number that represents a whole ton of things going on under the hood. Depth is the emergent result of a lot of different things coming together in a game. Depth, like GDP, is a generic metric in that it doesn’t care what’s being invested in, it could be medical, military, education; puzzle game, RTS, RPG, FPS, or fighting game, it only matters what the final outcome is. Depth doesn’t encompass everything about a game, the same way GDP doesn’t encompass everything about an economy, but both are fairly important metrics regardless. Unlike GDP, there are less ways to fake depth and end up with a cheap result.

I define Depth as the number of states that are differentiated from one another, balanced against each other, and currently known about/preferred by the playerbase. State is the current condition something is in at a specific time. A state with regards to games is the current condition of everything present in a game at a moment in time. Depth is the sum of these states after passing through 2 filters: redundancy, and relevancy.

We start with Possibility Space, which is every single state possible. We filter those into Absolute Depth first by removing all states that are redundant, that are just copies of one another, such as rotations or mirror images of the game board in Tic Tac Toe or Go, or more powerful but functionally identical weapons in RPGs. Then we filter Absolute Depth into Relevant Depth by removing all states that are underpowered and therefore not commonly used in play, or the ones that are unknown to the player community at a given time, such as those that use undeveloped techniques or unknown mechanics. The final result is a measure of the effective complexity of the game.

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Okay, so, why the hell would the effective complexity of a game matter? What does it matter if a game is more complicated? For this, lets go back to Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. The gist of his theory of fun is that fun is derived from winning at something inconsistently, like a coin flip. Fun is also derived from improving your consistency over time. Something you can win at effortlessly is boring, and something you never win at is frustrating (this is backed up by Flow theory too). Random things can trick the brain, which is why gambling can be fun, but most people eventually catch on and stop playing, unless they delve into superstitions about luck.

However there’s also a bit of a contradiction there, if you improve your consistency over time, then won’t something that’s fun now eventually become boring when you’re 100% consistent? That’s true. Depth gives players many different measures of consistency, so while you may be consistent at one thing, now you have something else to get consistent at.

Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun posits that fun is the joy of learning (probably because learning things makes us better at surviving, so we adapted to reward learning neurologically). A deep game has a lot to learn about. Therefore a deep game is a fun game.

On top of that, the experience of playing a deep game is different from playing a shallower one. Deep games typically have more choices, and more possible consequences for those choices, requiring more complex thought about each choice. Many board games with less board states are easily solved (connect 4, checkers), where more complex ones require more arcane heuristics in order to perform well at (Go). Simpler games are more about doing 1 thing right, where deeper games are about thinking about future consequences more. Deeper games involve more interesting decisions, as per the Sid Meier definition.

Smash Bros Melee might have less buttons and less attacks than a traditional fighting game, but you can get more results from each move than you can in a fighting game, because Smash Bros is highly responsive to the relative positions of each character, and the timing with which attacks are hit. This isn’t to say that Smash Bros is necessarily better than a Fighting Game though, because both a few nuanced moves, and many differentiated moves are equally prioritized under depth theory, as long as they shake out to the same number of relevant states.

Later Smash Bros games did a lot of work to remove a lot of the nuance in Smash Bros Melee moves, by making them less responsive to differences in timing and spacing (less sweet/sour spots, reverse hits no longer work), by reducing the effect of defensive mechanics during combos, and removing options outright. These games are comparable in their options, but have less depth. This makes progress less clear, since there are no longer an array of clear techniques and strategies to master, and requires players to work harder to get smaller rewards for their effort.

Are Fan Expectations More Important Than Quality? ft. Durandal

Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.

If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.

This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.

Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?
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Gamedevs Should Not (Exactly) Copy My Criteria to Make a Successful Game

I don’t expect anyone to make a game that perfectly fits my model of what a good game should be and ignores everything else typically involved in making a commercial game, including me.
The reality is, my idea of what a good game is impractical and conflicting with making a popular or best selling game. I judge games and enjoy games for aspects that I would not prioritize during development, and a lot of aspects of making a successful game fall outside the scope of my work. I try to write articles incorporating this broader perspective too, because I’m interested in it, but the core of my philosophy is about making what I would consider a good game, rather than a successful one.
Of course, I still think that someone interested in designing a game should listen to me to some extent (why else would I write?). I still think that I am providing a unique and helpful perspective, but success will always be a medium between my perspective and what’s actually effective to reach and appeal to a wider audience than just me. There are certainly aspects of my writing and philosophy which overlap with general success, but the line is always going to be up to the developer, and it’s never going to be completely clear.

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Play Western Games on the 2nd Hardest Difficulty

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This is a rule I usually abide by for western games. There are exceptions, such as Doom 2016, Doom Eternal, Halo (except 2), Quake 1, STALKER (hardest difficulty reduces the health of all humans), or Starcraft. For the rule to apply, there need to be at least 2 harder difficulties above normal (Normal/Hard/Hardest applies, Easy/Normal/Hard does not), and the hardest difficulty needs to not be unlockable, or playable through some type of NG+. This rule can apply to some Japanese games too (such as Nier, which has some enemies on hard that regenerate health faster than you can deal damage).

For some examples of games where this is true, we have: Old Doom (Nightmare is a joke difficulty, adding respawning enemies into a game about ammo attrition), Call of Duty (Veteran is bullshit), Titanfall 2, Bioshock Infinite (1999 mode, though honestly hard is still a big annoying jump from normal, and 1999 mode isn’t much harder), God of War (hardest difficulty has enemies engage Devil Trigger for insanely high health, and they can’t be launched anymore), Diablo 3 (Inferno, on release), Torchlight 2, Mass Effect 2 (here is a forum post outright mentioning the rule), Gears of War, Batman Arkham Series (turning off counter indicators is fine, but damage is way too high and enemies have way too much health), Uncharted, Spec Ops: The Line, Serious Sam, System Shock 2, Far Cry, FEAR, and Metro 2033. Continue reading

Dead Cells Review

Dead Cells for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details

Dead Cells bills itself as a Metroidvania Roguelike. It’s a 2d platformer, where you find randomized loot and fight through procedurally generated levels. You have 5 slots on your character for items: 2 weapons, 2 tools, and an accessory. Your basic options are to use your weapons or tools, jump, double jump, roll, chug a potion, ground pound, or generic use button.

Dead Cells’ big influence is from Metroidvanias, and I think the influence is definitely positive on the game, but I don’t think it’s really a metroidvania, and I don’t think making it more like a metroidvania would be good for it. Metroidvania is a design pattern across the entire map of a game’s world, where the map loops on itself, allowing areas from later in the game to fold back on areas from earlier in the game, where objectives are dispersed across this map to encourage unique routing. Despite technically not being a metroidvania, the level structure it chose for itself is still extremely effective in its goals.

Maps in Dead Cells follow a few simple patterns, having an obvious main path with a few detour side paths (Promenade of the Condemned, Ramparts, Stilt Village); branching off into many separate paths with different exits, and teleporters to carry you back (Prison, Toxic Sewers, Ossuary); and having one clear path with few diversions (Ancient Sewer, Slumbering Sanctuary, Forgotten Sepulcher). Metroidvania structure is based on interconnection within the levels, and across the world. Since levels in Dead Cells branch without looping, they can’t have Metroidvania style interconnection. The exception is High Peak Castle, which has 4 maps in one. A main map that has a looping structure, and 3 linear sub-maps that connect different areas of the main map, thereby making even more loops. Tactically, it also has less teleporters than most of the other maps. It’s the second to last level of the game, which I feel is an appropriate ramp up in complexity. Much of the actual level design within maps is looping, even if the maps as a whole don’t loop, which is helpful for weaving around enemies, avoiding their attacks, and picking good positions to attack back from. The sewers in particular have large blocks of the map with a swiss-cheese-like composition, filled with enemies. Again, I’m being a little pedantic about Dead Cells not really being a Metroidvania. The branching maps and dense level design they took from their inspiration make exploring in Dead Cells really fun and it’s definitely a lot stronger for that influence. If they went further and made levels loop more, it would likely have taken away from the focus on quick clear times and speed that they included into the game.

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Dead Cells generates maps for different stages that each have a recognizable character to them that’s distinct between maps, which is really cool! It makes the experience of playing each stage distinct from the others, and gives you a level of regularity in the level/map design that lets you build expectations about how best to tackle each stage, and make informed interesting choices. The teleporters scattered across maps help you double back from dead ends, which is very helpful in the timed levels. Because most levels have a clear directionality to them, you have a general idea of whether you’re getting closer to the ending. Only the clock tower is really misleading, because it’s totally possible to go up a whole tower and it ends up being a dead end. Promenade of the condemned and ramparts both have a linear top path, with branches that go straight down with optional goodies. Clock Tower has paths straight up that occasionally branch into 2. Ancient Sewer and Ossuary are linear with some short diversions. Stilt village has a linear path to the end, but some big buildings with multiple rooms in each, one of which you need to retrieve a key from. Slumbering Sanctuary is Y shaped, having you go on a linear path to unlock all the doors in the level, but also spawning a ton of enemies, then you have the option to teleport back to the beginning of the level and retread your path for extra goodies that get unlocked, or backtrack from where you are. Forgotten Sepulcher is mostly linear with short detours, the darkness gimmick making up most of the challenge of the level. And High Peak Castle is a full looping layout, as described before.

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Dead Cells encourages you to speedrun it, and will naturally give you a movement/attack speed buff for killing 9 enemies in quick succession, letting you refresh it with each enemy you kill. Every stage has a post-stage locked room that can only be unlocked by satisfying a special condition, either completing the stage before the timer from the start of your run has gone too long, managing to kill 30-60 enemies in the previous level without taking a hit, or beating a boss without taking a hit. Speedrunning is the easiest of these conditions to clear and on normal difficulty, speedrunning can give you powerful weapons early, as well as being one of the fastest ways to farm cells. The killstreak bonus helps compensate for players who are more methodical and careful, more invested in exploring the whole level before moving on, but if you get touched, you can lose a long killstreak you were one kill away from completing, without enough enemies left in the level to make it up, which can be painful. In any case, it’s neat to see both of these play styles rewarded.

Dead Cells has a lot of control concessions made to make the game feel more smooth. All attacks let you change their facing direction right up to the moment they become active. Most attacks let you cancel out of them with a roll or jump during the startup or recovery, they even implemented Dodge Offset, so you pick up an interrupted attack string from where you left off, which is helpful because most weapons have strings where attacks grow in damage on the 2nd or 3rd hit (or where the hitboxes are different). The Rapier notably avoids dodge offset, because the first attack is the strongest. It’s frequently wise to get in a few attacks, roll or jump away, then continue where you left off. Rolls also have a TON of invincibility, even long after the point you’d expect it to wear off. These generous cancel windows, combined with punchy animations give Dead Cells a very arcadey feel, without taking away from the feeling of weight and commitment, especially on the heavier weapons.

You’re given some basic movement options to work with in Dead Cells, a double jump, roll, and ground pound (called stomp). Certain gear and runes can give you new movement capabilities, such as a dash, an even faster dash, wallclimbing/jumping, or more double jumps. The character also has automatic vaulting animations for climbing up small obstacles, up ledges, or onto platforms. These have an extremely generous snap-to area, to the point that it can be kind of annoying trying to fall down narrow pits. This vaulting system can make traversing the level feel very fluid and simple, as you platform normally, but try to aim at snap-to points for traversal. Rolling will pass straight through enemies, even letting you pass through them for a little bit after it ends.

It’s becoming a rather basic and ubiquitous thing, but Dead Cells copies the Dark Souls style of healing, requiring you to hold down a button and go through an interruptable animation to heal yourself from a limited reservoir that heals a set percentage with each use, and is only refilled at the end of stages (though you can also heal through random drops, or buying food from merchants; and higher difficulties reduce and eventually remove your sources of healing). There’s also a mechanic called Sudden Death Prevention, which insulates you from death. Any hit that would kill while your health is over 25%, instead reduces you to 1HP. This can help preserve the fairness and integrity of encounters by avoiding 1 shots, but is also loose enough that it won’t get triggered from you getting whittled down by multiple weaker attacks.

Even early enemies have a fair amount of variety that can make your approach to them fairly different. Some enemies are strong on their own, most others require synergy from others to cover for their weaknesses. All enemies mix well together and tend to have differently shaped zones that they attack, and some can only be attacked from some angles. This means you need to think about which evasion option you’ll use, and whether you’ll end up in an unthreatened space. Since enemies cover different zones with their attacks, their attacks can overlap each other, creating unique situations based on their positioning and the environment. If you can catch an enemy alone, you can almost always overwhelm it before it gets a chance to hit back, unless it’s an elite enemy.

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Zombies cover a big horizontal sweep when they lunge. Shieldbearers do the same, except not as big, and if you attack them from the front, your attack will bounce off, so you need to roll to stay behind them, or find a way to stun them from the front. Grenadiers and its evolutions leave an explosion on top of you, which requires you to keep moving to avoid damage. Bats and Kamikaze bats both die in a single hit, but one is dangerous because it gets directly on top of you, the other because it hangs around out of range until it lunges across your space, both can be very annoying to deal with if you only have slow or short range weapons. Sweepers and other enemies have shockwave attacks that travel through the ground, and cannot be dodged through. Disgusting worms are slow and have a small attack range, but take a lot of hits to kill and launch 5 explosives when they die, so they can sponge up your damage, and if you’re in a tight space, it might be hard to avoid the fallout. Scorpions and Knife throwers can appear suddenly and quickly shoot ranged projectiles while you’re occupied with other enemies, but they can also have their ranged attacks interrupted easily. Thornys will hurt you if you backstab them, and their rollout attack leaves their backside facing you if you get hit. Impalers can create spikes under you, requiring you to move to another spot quickly or take damage. Protectors need to be prioritized because they’ll protect all nearby enemies until eliminated. Shockers need to be focused on quickly or avoided as they hit a massive circular AOE around them.

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Elite enemies can be very interesting. They have more health to prevent you from just obliterating them on the spot, and a number of special abilities, usually lasers that themselves attack a unique spatial zone, such as one that rotates around the enemy like a clock, a horizontal one that raises up across the screen, one that surrounds the elite in a large rectangular box to hurt you if you try to run away, a spherical one that surrounds the area directly next to the elite, a horizontal one that hits on both sides of the elite and needs to be jumped away from, a gem on both sides that need to both be destroyed in order to hurt the elite directly, and a gem that hovers above the elite and rains shots down on you as you try to fight it. Elites can also teleport after you once they’re below 50% health, so if you commit to fighting an elite, you better get ready to kill it or be killed.

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A lot of character progression across a given run is facilitated through levelup scrolls, of which there are about 2-4 in each level. These let you pick a stat to level up between brutality (damage focused weapons), Tactics (long range weapons), and Survival (Mostly boosts health, only the primary stat of shields and defensive powers). All of these multiply health and damage and boost the stats of mutations you have applied. You can pick a mutation after each stage, giving you a buff, I found mutations to be a bit underwhelming and they don’t get buffed much by levelups either. That said, they can help make character builds a bit more unique and I did find myself optimizing my character to overcome specific encounters, based on the weapon loadout I had available. Most of the mutations are insignificant in comparison to weapon upgrades or leveling up.

The other form of character progression in a run is through assembling a loadout with randomly dropped Gear. Gear is divided between melee weapons, ranged weapons, shields, traps & turrets, grenades, and powers. You have 4 equip slots, the first 2 holding weapons and shields from the first 3 categories, the second 2 holding utility gear from the latter 3 categories. Many locations in the game drop gear, from treasure chests to shops, to rooms where you can choose 1 item between 2 or 3 selections, all of the same value. Helpfully, the in-game timer is paused during in these rooms to help you make decisions (though you can turn this setting off).

Most weapons have a condition that triggers critical hits, such as striking repeatedly, hitting the enemy from a particular side (assuming the enemy has sides), pushing the enemy against a wall, being at close range or far, attacking after a roll, hitting multiple enemies, or multiple in quick succession, letting you charge it for a crit, or critting when the enemy has a certain status condition. Others might not crit, but still have useful properties, like inflicting a status condition, bypassing shields, knocking enemies back, lassoing you to the enemy, freezing enemies, or hitting across a unique zone. Together these can really affect what angle you try to attack enemies from in terms of distance, high or low, front or behind, how many you target at once, etc. Because multiple enemies can be overwhelming, crowd control is a big deal, and which weapons you have available affects your ability to manage a crowd.

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Weapons also have randomized loot effects that helps distinguish them from one another, and make your loadout more unique across playthroughs. Sometimes I’ve gotten abilities that synergize very well for massive combos, and debated giving them up for weapons with lower base damage than the combo, but a higher crit damage under more dangerous circumstances. Most special effects either inflict statuses or deal bonus damage to enemies currently affected by status conditions, so trying to line those up between your weapons adds a small layer of adaptation to your runs and can sometimes shift you away from your preferred weapons to pick up a high damage combo based on random drops happening to line up with each other. The overall table of effects is massive and many are tailored to specific weapon categories. Figuring out how to synergize weapon effects on the fly can be very fun during runs. Also seeing when you are about to have a special effect combo with another, and rerolling or watching out for the right effect to complete the combo. It adds a layer of meta strategy to how you approach a run, and it has a big effect on your damage output. I normally don’t use throwing knives, but getting a weapon that deals extra damage on bleeding enemies can make it worthwhile.

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Skills are gear that occupies the second two inventory slots, divided between Traps and Turrets, Grenades, and Powers. Skills work on cooldowns that take a while to refill, which can cost you time if you really want to use skills on multiple enemies in a row. Traps and turrets deal damage over time, sometimes inflicting status effects for even more DPS. The effect of these can depend on how mobile the enemy is, or the terrain. They tend to inflict more damage overall than grenades, but it takes longer for that damage to play out, which can be better or worse depending on whether a grenade would have oneshot the enemy or if you’re in for the long haul. Traps and turrets also effect different areas, such as a certain patch of ground, or anything onscreen along a horizontal line, or holding the enemy in place. Grenades vary between damage and status effects, some of which stun or hold enemies in place briefly, but in my experience the stun effects aren’t very helpful in comparison to that of the wolf trap or freezing weapons. Powers have a lot of varied effects that I’m not gonna bother listing here.

Dead Cells is an extremely fair game. All enemies have telegraphed attacks with a clear way to avoid them and even your most basic combat options are enough to beat any enemy. It’s always possible to get into any enemy’s face and smack them, then move out of the way when they’re going to attack. I feel like the hand of the king was more overwhelming than most, but I only fought him like 3-4 times total, so I can’t really judge. You have free reign of when to engage enemies, so if you end up in an inescapable situation, it’s your fault. The times when I died, I immediately said to myself, “Darn, should have done this.” I feel like across the many weapons you encounter on a given playthrough and all the mulligans you’re given, it’s nearly impossible to assemble a completely ineffectual loadout as long as you’re deliberately trying to succeed. Getting extremely effective layouts is more rare, but I’m not a speed runner (and they rely on static drops or custom game modes to reduce drop randomness), so it doesn’t really matter to me.

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Following in the roguelite design trend, there are permanent upgrades you can unlock with currency (cells) you earn in runs. Most of these are new gear that gets added everywhere across the game. You can upgrade the number of healing potions you have, you can add a random weapon or shield at the start, gain the ability to sell any piece of gear at a fraction of the cost, retain gold from the previous run (up to a maximum), and add new options to shops. There are also Runes that can be obtained by fighting elite enemies that spawn in particular parts of particular levels, instantly giving you permanent upgrades, mostly in the form of new traversal options, granting access to levels that are normally gated behind vines, teleportation sarcophagi, breakable floors, or tall towers that must be walljumped up. You collect blueprints from enemies that enable you to unlock new gear and mutations as you play. Some blueprints are in static positions, but most are rare enemy drops. The Hunter grenade is an item that lets you get a blueprint guaranteed from an enemy by turning it into an elite enemy, and weakening it, much like a pokemon battle, making the process of getting blueprints out of specific enemies less tedious. The legendary forge always appears after completing the first boss stage, allowing you to increase the drop rate of higher level gear you discover across runs, even up to 100% and across 3 tiers of upgrade. You are by no means required to get these upgrades to complete the game, and the game is specifically designed to be completable regardless of whether or not you have unlocked a variety of weapons and other upgrades.

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You gain a new boss stem cell every time you complete a run on a new difficulty level. Later difficulty levels have different combinations of enemies, with new effects and more health/damage, and less healing readily available, but temper it with allowing you to upgrade weapons further, and gain more levelup scrolls during levels so you can ascend to a higher level of power. There are many doors leading to bonus rooms that can only be opened when you’re on a certain minimum difficulty, with more becoming available as you go. I’ve only made it to very hard mode, but looking at the list of changes between difficulties, the higher difficulties look extremely scary, demanding a level of perfection, while also bombarding you with enemies that track you tightly with teleportation.

Dead Cells actually has a number of hidden or subtle mechanics, such as Rally, taken from Bloodborne, where you can recover immediately lost health by attacking enemies. Breach is Dead Cells’ version of Poise from Dark Souls. Enemies and weapons take/inflict different amounts of breach damage, depending on the enemy’s state, and too much breach damage will inflict the stunned status on enemies, preventing them from acting for a second. This can be useful for crowd control. There is a speed buff granted for killing 9 enemies in quick succession, letting you refresh it with each enemy you kill. Curses will kill you instantly if you take damage, unless you can kill 10+ enemies first. Liquids on the floor can be frozen or electrified, and prevent enemies from burning. Breaking through doors will instantly stun enemies, and some weapons even take advantage of this. These touches can be really significant in your moment to moment strategy, even if they’re subtle.

Dead Cells is extremely successful at its core competencies. It has a genuinely varied set of enemies and weapons that interact uniquely and synergize amongst each other. It has level design that frequently changes how you approach encounters. The only thing I’d say holds it back is that each weapon can only perform 1 attack, and while there are certainly synergies between the elemental types and critical hits of different weapons, only having 2 weapons and 2 cooldown powers is kind of limiting. There could be more movement and defensive options and there could be more types of obstacles in the levels than just spikes, chainballs, and acid/poison pools. Even so, it asks you to carefully consider your position, movement, and choice of option in a way that is different per encounter, and which naturally shifts over the course of most encounters. You can approach a lot of early encounters as rushing down whichever of the 2 enemies is more vulnerable, then locking down the lone enemy that remains, but this gets harder on higher difficulties and later stages as you have more to worry about, and enemies get more competent individually. Dead Cells has a large number of combat abilities that by themselves would be very deep in an NES era game, and lets you pair them up and play off the environment with them. When encounters have 3-4 enemies, or 2 complex late-game enemies is when I feel like the game really starts to shine, as you can’t perform a quick rushdown and unload all your ammo and abilities to get an enemy out of the way quickly, or focus fire an enemy without worrying about another interrupting you.

I’m really conflicted on the score to give this game. My anti-hype gut says 8, my personal like and enjoyment of the game says 9, and a lot of my mechanical reasoning wavers between 8 and 9. I think I’ve given some games on its level a 10, so it’s a really tough call. I think I have to go with a 9.

A Critique of Doom Eternal’s Story

Doom Eternal - Doomguy Confronts Khan Maykr Scene - YouTube
There have been some complaints about the story of Doom Eternal in comparison to Doom 2016, and I’ve gotta say, I agree. Doom Eternal’s story is disappointing, largely because it doesn’t build on the premise of 2016 and introduces a bunch of characters that we don’t get any time to become attached to as villains. That said, this has absolutely no bearing on Doom Eternal’s quality as a game. It’s a vastly better game than its predecessor, and is one of the best FPS games ever released, very possibly the most tightly tuned FPS game ever released, in a way reminiscent of fighting games, in a way stylish action games should be envious of.

I know I have a bit of a reputation for being “fuck story”, but it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories or enjoy analysis of them. I’m willing to put up with an actively bad and obtrusive story in the name of a good game and likewise I can appreciate good stories from bad games (Legacy of Kain Soul Reaver is my go-to example for this). I don’t want to build a platform where I’m expected to have a nonsense hardline position where it doesn’t make sense.

Some people have been complaining about the story of Doom Eternal, and I think their complaints have merits. Anyone saying the lame story makes the game bad can shove it.

I enjoyed Doom 2016’s dismissal of story elements by the main character. I thought the core concept of 2016 was good, corporation leverages hell to power energy crisis earth, devolving into intracompany demon cults going rogue and fucking everything up. Hayden is like, “but energy tho” and Doomguy does not give a single fuck. We have a neat sequel hook of Hayden betraying us at the end, and Eternal just does absolutely nothing with that. Continue reading

Nuzzles: Not a Puzzle

CODE FOR DOOR C489 Kia or Welcon 58880

The Legend of Zelda and its imitators, Okami, Darksiders, God of War 2018, Beyond Good and Evil, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, have a particular style of “puzzle”, where you need to notice a switch somewhere and activate it. The developers of Darksiders coined a term for this, “Nuzzle”, short for “Not a Puzzle”. Nuzzles can be useful for teaching a player how to use a puzzle mechanic for the first time. Zelda style games tend to have items or abilities that you unlock which can be used to flip switches that cannot be flipped by any other means. When you get a new ability, it helps to have a simple example of what it can interact with and how it works. The Witness does this in each area that introduces a new puzzle symbol, by having a sequence of 5-10 nuzzles that demonstrate how it works in the simplest way possible, expecting you to learn how the puzzle symbol works via induction so that you can reason out puzzle solutions with deduction.

A nuzzle can be broadly identified as a 1-step puzzle, or a riddle. Nuzzles don’t test critical thinking skills, they simply test if the player is paying attention, or remembers what the switch operating mechanic is at all. Of course this is critical for tutorial purposes, new or inexperienced players need guidance to know how to solve puzzles, but the trouble comes in when Nuzzles are deployed broadly long after the basic puzzle mechanics are understood, as a replacement or filler for puzzles, which is what Zelda-like games tend to do long after puzzle mechanics have already been introduced (such as when you’re asked to light 2 torches in the final dungeon of the game, or hit a sequence of switches in the order they tell you when there are no enemies in the room, and no other confounding factors, such as time limits, or additional puzzle mechanics). Continue reading

The Souls Story Formula

The Souls series and its imitators have a pretty consistent formula for their stories and lore that generates a cool “story-sense” for games about exploration without straightforward cutscenes, but the formula has a particular weakness too.

The first setup is that there’s a great kingdom, or town, or space station, or so on that has a rich history, and many geographically distinct areas. This kingdom was usually great because it relied on something dangerous, like souls, the first flame, or the blood of the great ones. Continue reading

What makes good combat?

Combat in a video game is good when you have a variety of options (discrete verbs that have unique animations, state, or use of unique entities) or sub-options (things like position, timing, rotation etc that modify the function of a verb) which have varied outcomes, and determining which option/suboption to use for a more/less optimal outcome in a given situation is unclear, but can be logically deduced.

If elements of your combat system are random (have output randomness, as opposed to input randomness), such as randomizing which attack you’ll perform when you press a button, then the best option for a scenario cannot be logically deduced. The same is true if the way that attacks function is unclear or inconsistent (like funky hitboxes producing drastically different outcomes with similar inputs, or the visuals not clearly communicating how the move works). Ideally the player should be able to visualize in their mind the outcome of different inputs, working it out like a math problem (“oh, I could have done that instead”). This makes a game fair and understandable.
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What the fuck is Paired Animation?

You’ve seen paired animation before, even if you didn’t know what it was called. Many people have frequently called these “canned animations” or some such. I first discovered the technical name for it is Paired Animation when I saw a production video on Assassin’s Creed Origins, that happens to define what it means.

“We’ve drastically changed the paradigm of what is fight. In previous [Assassin’s Creed games], we used what we call technically a paired animation system. Which means when you swing your weapon, the hero and enemy align, they play an animation together, you wait for it to finish, and then you continue fighting. We went to a hitbox system, which means that anytime you swing your weapon, no matter the distance or if anyone is around you, you’re gonna swing. That means that distance matters. The speed of your weapon, your position relevant to other enemies, [it all] matters. If you have a big spear and are swinging it around you can hit multiple enemies at the same time. It’s not just about the damage anymore, [but about] speed, length, position and the number of enemies you’re fighting.”

In short, it’s when both a player and enemy are involved in the same animation, one of the player attacking, and one of the enemy being hit, neither being allowed to move independently while this is going on. This approach allows animators to have the player manipulate the enemy’s body and limbs in the animation directly. This is necessary for things like catching an opponent’s punch.

So where have you seen Paired animation before? Assassin’s Creed is the obvious one, every game before Origins had paired animations for all combat. The Batman Arkham series uses paired animations for all punches, counters, and takedowns, plus jumping on top of an enemy’s head. Dark souls uses paired animations for backstabs and ripostes, plus opening doors and operating devices. Doom 2016 and Eternal use paired animations for glory kills and chainsawing. Every fighting game in existence uses paired animations for throws/grabs.

So what’s bad about paired animations? Many reasons were listed in the Asscreed developer’s quote. Paired animations don’t let you hit multiple enemies with large weapon, because they’d need to make a specific animation that hit multiple enemies and a coded way to transition into it smoothly (Deus Ex HR did this, but it cut to black so it could set the enemies up, otherwise the transition would be jarring). They don’t factor in the length of your weapons, because most weapons have distance-closing animations, letting you snap to a target. And the speed of the move doesn’t matter, because you can’t be interrupted by the opponent you’re attacking, since they’re caught in the damage receiving animation from you.

The key problem with paired animations is the way that they snap onto enemies. Snapping in general can be problematic, because it erases specific circumstances, normalizing them into the same outcomes every time. Paired animations don’t care what was going on before they started, your spacing, velocity, movement, they take whatever happened and deliver a uniform result. Many paired animations are also invincible, because it’s difficult to resolve what would happen if they were interrupted. This leads to the awkward circumstance of trying to initiate a paired animation on purpose to go through other attacks, or coming out of a paired animation with an attack directly on top of you. One clever move for Nioh from Dark Souls, was removing backstabs and instead giving bonus damage to hits from behind. Parries in Nioh are still frequently paired animations.

When is okay to use paired animations? Paired animations are good for actions that specifically require them, obviously, such as grapples, and operating objects. In most fighting games, throws make both participants immune to damage. In the Smash Bros series, people can still be hit during a grab, but there is hyper armor applied during the throw part of the animation, to guarantee it finishes successfully. Paired animations are acceptable in circumstances where 1 tap will eliminate an enemy completely, since it would already always have the same result, and already doesn’t depend on circumstance. Examples would be takedowns in Deus Ex Human Revolution, or Glory Kills in Doom 2016.