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.
Continue reading

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.

Doom 2016 Review (Guest Post by Durandal)

Editor’s Note: This is another guest post by Durandal. Join our discord for more in-depth gameplay discussion.

DOOM (2016) was the first game to mix character action design with first-person shooting. Unfortunately it also half-assed the execution. But, that means there’s plenty to learn from its mistakes.

First, some context. DOOM (2016) plays nothing like DOOM (1993) (henceforth referred to as nuDoom and olDoom). In olDoom combat and exploration intertwined, but most combat in nuDoom takes place in locked-off arenas. This was done to get around the Door Problem in olDoom and encourage aggressive play. Long-term resource management through item placement shifted to short-term by having fallen enemies drop most of your resources. You will spend most of your resources in the arenas where most of the enemies are, so this change makes sense. To make up for the simple enemy AI, olDoom relied on placing the enemies by hand and designing the levels around them. Trying to kill and trying to run past the enemies were equally risky. But in nuDoom, the enemies (and the player) have more movement options. To allow the enemies and player to exert their newfound mobility, the layouts became more circular and vertical. And instead of enemy placement, encounter design in nuDoom relies more on mixing different enemy behaviors. However, enemy design and level design is where nuDoom falls flat the most.
Continue reading

What is “Souls-Like”?

A lot of people have covered this topic before. I’m more doing this to pin the idea down in case it comes up in conversation again, than because it’s something that really needs to be discussed.

Souls-like is a subgenre of Action RPG games, formed by the unique conventions of Demon’s/Dark Souls. Similar to a roguelike, the Souls series of games have come up with a number of unique conventions that many other games have taken some degree of inspiration from. Games that follow enough of these conventions can be called Souls-Like. Some of them are more influential than others.

High Influence

  • Collecting a currency that is lost on death, but stored at the place where you died, and erased when you die again.
  • There are standard action RPG trappings: levels, equipment, consumable items,
  • The player’s standard attacks have a startup of about half a second or longer (30f at 60fps)
  • Players and enemies can have their attacks interrupted by hitstun.
  • All combat actions (attacking, dodging, blocking, running, parrying) are rationed through a shared stamina bar.
  • Attacks have actual hitboxes during their animations, not paired animations.
  • There is a dodge and block ability.
  • Other players can invade your single player session to try to kill you in PVP
  • Using checkpoints resets your health, healing items, and the enemies in the level, but don’t reset items collected or changes to the level’s state.
  • Level design based on checkpoints and opening up shortcuts to earlier checkpoints.

Low Influence

  • Spells, items, and other actions have associated animations that can be interrupted by hitstun before they take effect.
  • Other players can join you to cooperate in beating levels.
  • The actions of other players on the network can have an effect on your local session, such as leaving messages behind.
  • You can warp between checkpoints.
  • Some moves have super armor, or there is a poise system that confers armor
  • No pausing, except at checkpoints
  • The controller convention of having attacks and blocking on the shoulder buttons, and item management on the Dpad.
  • Having a classless RPG system, where the only differentiation between characters is their stats and equipment, no fundamental new abilities, or permanent bonuses.
  • Having a metroidvania style interconnected world that becomes more interconnected over time.
  • There aren’t many cutscenes, or canned animations.
  • The setting of a kingdom that was once great, but some calamity connected to the main plot befell it, and now you’re wandering through its corrupted remains.
  • NPCs that all have a sinister chuckle.
  • The game is hard.


The “Silver Bullet” Game Design Problem

A long time ago, I read an article titled, “Silver Bullet Combat” that was rather coherent about describing a common problem in game design. The article is now only available as a PDF and might eventually disappear, so I’m going to reiterate it in my terms.

So the gist of silver bullet style design is that Werewolves can only be harmed by silver, but once you shoot them with something silver they die instantly. A silver bullet is an option that can simply and clearly solve a problem that has no other (viable) solution. Part of game design is trying to differentiate the player’s options from one another, by making them good at different things. The easy way to do this to give enemies special resistances that can only be penetrated if you use a specific option. The trouble is that if a problem has a specific solution, then it’s not an interesting choice to solve it. There’s no tradeoffs, and no depth. Continue reading

What should be in a review?

Include a basic summary of what the game is about and how it’s played.

Contextualize how you played it, so people can get an idea of your process and extrapolate how that may have shaped your review. (in playing BOTW, I made it clear that I aimed to play the game a certain way)

Make clear observations that attempt to explain how things work in a nuts-and-bolts way (pointing out velocity, acceleration, state, etc), instead of unclear descriptive words (smooth, slippery, tight, etc). Build up to a conclusion, don’t start with one and forget to justify it.

Never mark a game down for being hard. You’re allowed to say it’s too hard for you, or one part is too hard relative to others, but difficulty isn’t inherently bad. Difficulty affects depth, which is more important. Does the way the difficulty was implemented create more or less depth? (more by encouraging you to try different things instead of stick to one thing, or less by requiring a specific solution) Remember, there is no such thing as artificial difficulty, it’s hard or it isn’t. Continue reading

Why FEAR 1 Is The Most Important Hitscan Shooter – ft. Durandal

This is another guest post by Durandal. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact me on discord.

In the 00’s, developers forgot how to make singleplayer shooters with deep combat anymore. For the sake of realism most weapons were made hitscan to resemble how guns work IRL. Enemy variety suffered, since hitscan tracers don’t have as many mutable properties as projectiles do. Weapon variety suffered, since identical enemies don’t warrant a varied weapon arsenal as much. Finally level design suffered, because there isn’t a whole lot you can do with identical weapons and enemies.

So what do you do if the core gameplay lacks variety? The common approach taken by most developers was switching to another style of gameplay to avoid wearing out the core shooting. Instead of running, you’re now driving a tank. Instead of gunning, you’re now forced to be stealthy. Instead of depth, you’re shooting for breadth. Shooters became theme park rides where every half hour they introduced a new mechanic or mode of gameplay and then threw it away for good. Remember all the vehicle sections? The turret sections? The sniper sections, forced stealth sections and escort missions? They weren’t mechanically deep, but they were at least something different.

Soldier of Fortune, No One Lives Forever, the Medal of Honor games, the Call of Duty games, TimeSplitters, Black, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, XIII, the new Wolfenstein games, the Gears of War games, the Killzone games, the Resistance games, even exceptions with standout combat like the Halo games and Vanquish all fell prey to this need to completely change the mode of gameplay for the sake of variety. That’s what happens when you don’t believe your core gameplay can carry the game — when you don’t know how to iterate on hitscan combat.

Stealthily sniping spotlights on a slowly moving monorail really plays to the strengths of Vanquish’ rocket-boosting combat

And then there’s FEAR. On the surface it’s identical to other shooters at the time, save for a slo-mo power and a three-weapon limit instead of the usual two. Here you’ll be fighting the same grunts over and over using a shotgun and some assault rifle variant. Yet despite this generic premise, FEAR managed to stand out in an oversaturated market. Not because of gimmicks or unique mechanics, but somehow good hitscan combat and “good” AI. So what did FEAR do right?

First, FEAR’s combat arenas are circular — meaning each path you can take is surrounded by one or two covered flanking routes. These allow you to circle around the main path and get the drop on enemies, which beats taking guaranteed hitscan damage in a direct firefight. Without these you’re left with a hallway (similar to the left layout in the above diagram) that only allows you to move back and forth, where all you can do is sit in place and play peekaboo; only moving up when most of the enemies are dead. Circular map design (like the right layout in the above diagram) then discourages simple and repetitive strategies like these by giving you the opportunity to move around enemies.

Second, the Replica AI can also make use of these flanking routes. Since no position is safe, both you and the Replicas are always trying to outmaneuver each other for a better angle. This new dynamic gives level designers more options to play around with: arena layout, height variation, player/enemy points of entry, cover density, and other opportunities for creating varied encounters can be used without resorting to gimmicks. More importantly, the levels provide the AI with options too. Without them the Replicas would be stuck playing peekaboo, just like you. “Good” AI is pointless if it has no meaningful options to use.

Third, FEAR grants you the initiative. Before the fight begins, the Replicas will spread out across the arena, unaware of you. This allows you to scan the arena layout, set up traps, and choose how to start the fight. This not only gives you more engagement options, but gives you more courage to start in the middle of the action.

Compare this to entering a new room only to find several Replicas inside already firing at you. Here your only options are to rush in for a better position, or retreat behind the doorway and take potshots. The former will kill you; the latter is boring, because it leaves you with no other viable movement options. There the Replicas can only flush you out with grenades, or waltz into your choke point one-by-one. Even if the room ahead is a well-designed circular arena, it’s wasted if you’re already pushed out of it when the fight begins.

But there’s another aspect to FEAR that sets it apart, and that’s information warfare. Here you have to deal with a fog of war. Enemies are spread out in such a way where you can’t see them all at once, and you’re rarely given a full overview of an arena. So without perfect information, you have to improvise through prediction and info gathering.

One such layer of information is sound, like how the sound of footsteps can give one’s position away. The Replicas are very vocal not just to appear smart, but also to give you more information. This way you can hear what their status is, or what they’re about to do next. Other sources of information may include lighting. Shadows reveal enemies around corners, and Replicas get alerted to your flashlight. And by knowing that Replicas prefer to flank, you can predict the path they’re more likely to take.

Compared to shooters with a similar focus on positioning like Quake 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, FEAR’s info warfare is very basic. The former pit do pit you against actual human opponents, after all. But FEAR proves there’s untapped potential for singleplayer hitscan shooters where the AI can outmaneuver you. FEAR only doesn’t take the idea that far. To that end, there could be secondary objectives. Vying for resources or having to capture/defend a target would expand the mindgames; force both parties to consider more than killing each other. Diverse enemy behaviours (sneaky, distant, aggressive) could expand what you can predict/exploit. More movement options (destructible surfaces, teleporting, grappling hooks) could expand how you approach each other. Tools such as radars and drones could expand how to gather information. Both parties could spread misinformation using holograms, cloaking devices, traps, and smoke grenades. Most of the Siege operators would make for interesting enemy types, actually.

The flanking game is what makes FEAR great, but the slo-mo power and being able to carry up to 10 instant-heal medkits conflicts with that. Both allow you to tank damage that would have killed you otherwise. And because slo-mo energy refills fast and medkits are handed out like candy, you have a lot of resources to tank through enemy fire; playing down the flanking game in favor of a shallower yet more effective playstyle.

Mechanics that mitigate damage (regenerating health/shields, portable medkits, slo-mo) do allow more aggressive playstyles in the face of hitscan. But these tend to have the opposite effect of encouraging thoughtless brute-force playstyles. Why think about movement if I can tank most damage anyways? To compensate, games could offer you tools to gain the positional advantage. In Crysis and Vanquish you can spend your energy for a positional advantage (Maximum Cloak/Speed, knee thrusters) or an offensive advantage (Maximum Power/Armor, slo-mo). So could FEAR’s slo-mo energy also be used for a speed boost.

FEAR managed to remain engaging despite its limited enemy/weapon variety and it being all hitscan by adopting a new design paradigm. One where positioning and constant movement are emphasized rather than tanking damage or trench warfare, proving that interesting combat can be had with only hitscan. Sadly, no singleplayer game tried to follow in FEAR’s footsteps since, despite the massive unexplored potential of this new paradigm that Rainbow Six: Siege also hints at.

SFV Proposed fixes

SFV’s final version is approaching, and I realized that I hadn’t published this, so I might as well get it out.

SFV is kind of a mess, kind of controversial. I’ve done my fair share of defending it in the early days, but I eventually quit the game because I wasn’t really happy with it or the direction it was going in. I’d say that the core issue with the game is forced commitment. People had a lot of issues with SFIV being non-committal, things like invincible backdashes, crouch tech, safe sweeps, uppercut FADC, too many features like this tend to make the game about forcing the opponent to endure your shit and hoping they eventually mess up. On the other hand, having high commitment to everything makes the game more like rock paper scissors, as things more cleanly win or lose versus one another, and you don’t have ways to hedge your bets to get a draw.

I admit I’m not an expert player, and since I quit a while back, I don’t really know what’s up with the current round of patches or more character specific issues. If I were to do a balance patch, I’d exclusively buff lower tier characters. I don’t think the top tier have any degenerate tactics that need nerfing, they’re good all-around and don’t violate the spirit of the game, and it’s been this way for the majority of the game’s life. I’d probably revert each character to the point they were at their best, or slightly below that point if their best was truly broken (Mika, Abigail), but largely buff lower tier characters.

  • Increase pushback on sweeps (making sweeps unsafe was a good move from SFIV, but making them unsafe when spaced is too far)
  • Increase pushback and decrease startup/recovery of fireballs to be closer to SFIV standards (fireballs being unsafe on block as well as being very high commit is a large part of why they’re bad)
  • Revert command grab recoveries to before season 2.5 (having them vulnerable to neutral jump is reasonable, having them vulnerable to many jump back punishes is crazy)
  • Increase distance moved backwards on air reset, to prevent jab anti-air from air resetting
  • Make all reversal uppercut moves invincible without spending meter, or at least invincible up to the first active frame.
  • Remove counterhit property from backdash, make it airborne from frame 1 (lets you use backdash to evade throws and minimize melee damage without avoiding it completely, giving you another wakeup option vs throws without letting you ignore meaty pressure like invincible backdashes) Alternatively, just remove the counterhit property, but make it throw invincible at the start for like 6 frames, so you can get a combo, but not like a crush combo.
  • Increase the number of normals with enough frame advantage to link into other normals (linking routes on most characters are rather boring due to this). Avoid doing this for light attacks, unless they cannot be self-chained or linked into from other light attacks.
  • Decrease the hurtbox size under jumping attacks so they’re closer in dimensions to the hitbox size (weakens anti-air jabs significantly, makes AA in general slightly less guaranteed)
  • Increase the duration that hurtboxes stay out after a move whiffs, animate to generally match the limb as it retracts, rather than jerkily appearing/disappearing (make whiff punishing more viable)
  • Increase the range of the hitbox on poking moves, in particular crouching medium kicks, so that they feel less stubby.
  • Allow any special that is forward jump only to be performed on neutral and back jumps, except divekicks, where only EX versions can be performed on back jumps.
  • Allow chip kills with EX moves (a decent compromise from only supers chip killing and allowing any special to chip kill)
  • Bump up character walk speeds slightly, like 6-10%.
  • Make overheads safer on block, or only punishable with light attacks (decent risk, low reward instead of  moderately high risk, low reward).
  • Make it so crush counter moves are never plus on block, and so poking ones are not plus on normal hit.
  • Add charge partitioning??? (this one is kind of off the wall, and I don’t really know how it would affect the game)
  • Make limb hurtboxes slimmer, so limbs that visually appear to go over/under each other do so with more reliability.
  • Reduce min heights on air specials.
  • change all hits of all attacks to be JP6 at minimum, make all EX attacks JP∞. (More Juggle Potential would open up the combo system a lot without much more effort, dunno if this would fuck anything up, but whatever, I’m not here to do a careful study)
  • change V-reversal to be more similar to GG’s dead angle attacks, rather than GG’s bursts. So 10-13 frames rather than 17-18 frames, early frames are completely invincible, later frames vulnerable to attacks.
  • Bring back advantage on throw, increase throw invincibility on wakeup to 4-5f, so you need to scare the person knocked down into throwing, like in every other game.

I don’t really have a solid solution for “robbery V-triggers”, V-triggers that can result in extremely high damage combos for late-game comebacks. Nerfing them is the obvious solution, but that would seriously reduce the number of skillful combos in the game and change the feel of many characters. I think a more healthy move for the game would probably be to integrate a lot of the alternate V-Trigger movesets as basic moves, and removing V-trigger entirely, or toning it down significantly, but there’s no clear solution.

Similarly, I don’t have a solid solution for the way that nearly all combos are too easy. I think average combo length is good currently, and making average combos harder would require either reducing hitstop (like 3rd strike), or reducing the buffer (which honestly wouldn’t be a horrible idea, a 1f buffer instead of 2f. The smallest link window being 2f wouldn’t be terrible). However I feel like these changes would also hurt the accessibility of the game. Over time Capcom has implemented V-Triggers that allow for harder combos, thanks to negative edge, quick stance cancels, quirky button combinations or the like, but working more skillful combos into the game without also increasing combo length and the difficulty of basic combos is an extremely tricky problem. Having more meaty-only combos, or combos based on delays or moving hitboxes could increase combo difficulty and situationality.

It’s relatively easy to mod SFV, if someone wants to make a mod with all these changes, that would be pretty cool.