IGC on Gaming: June 4, 2017

Informed Access

The July, 2017 issue of Game Informer magazine has a special feature on gaming accessibility. I was interviewed for the piece by the very generous Javy Gwaltney. Mega thanks to him and Game Informer (and my good friend Ian Hamilton for recommending me to GI for the piece) for the opportunity. I was given an advanced copy of the feature and was very happy how it came out.

My stance on accessibility often surprises people. Being a gamer with epilepsy is tough, and sometimes missing out on a game because it’s a risk for my condition can be demoralizing. But, I’ve always strongly advocated that a developer’s creative vision has to come before anyone’s accessibility needs. Once that vision has been met, accessibility options can then be added in a way that doesn’t compromise it. A lot of times people don’t understand why that’s important. Isn’t playing any version of the game enough?

No. It’s really not.

I have the perfect analogy to prove this. When I was twelve years old, long before I developed epilepsy, I had the rare privilege of riding Space Mountain at Disneyland with the lights on and the special effects turned off. For those that don’t know, Space Mountain is an indoor roller coaster with the gimmick being that you can’t see the track in front of you. The actual ride itself is fairly tame as far as rollercoasters go. Relatively slow. No inversions. It’s sort of neat to see how well-used the space the coaster is set in is, but otherwise it’s kinda boring. The thrill of Space Mountain is entirely dependent on the darkness and the special effects.

The sense of speed with the lights on is almost non-existent. It leaves one of the most thrilling experiences in the park a toothless bore. For some games, the types of accessibility features needed for specific medical conditions can completely alter the intent of the developer. I’ve often wondered why some disabled gamers would want to play a stripped-down version of a game that doesn’t remotely reflect the developer’s vision.

I have epilepsy now. I’ll probably never be able to ride Space Mountain again (insert Ric Flair joke here). Disneyland actually does accommodate multiple disabilities. They can help people in wheelchairs or other mobility-related conditions to have access to most of the rides in the park. Some rides have features for the hearing-impaired. But, when it comes to Space Mountain, Disney can do nothing for my specific condition, epilepsy, except make the ride experience worse. Now here’s my question: wouldn’t I just be making more problems than I need to for the people at Disney to say “I still want to ride it” when I can just ride something else? Some people say that it’s up to game developers to include accessibility features, or else. Or else.. what? If you have a disability that prevents you from playing a game, and that game can’t possibly be tooled to suit your specific needs, well I’m sorry but not everything is accessible to everyone.

Despite what haters might believe, I’ve been a diehard Golden State Warriors fan my entire life. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would play in three straight NBA Finals. How much does it suck for me that I can’t ever attend a game, see Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in person, because indoor sporting events are like epilepsy dirty-bombs with all the flashbulbs and strobey team introductions? It sucks quite badly. But the Warriors can’t ban flash photography for the other 20,000+ fans in attendance so that people like me would be able to attend. If you would even think to ask that, I’d actually consider you a bit of an asshole, ya know?

My mascot Sweetie has her game-face on.

I advocate for developers to include accessibility options. But that’s not always possible or viable. Sometimes those options would add significant time to the development cycle, which costs money. For something like survival-horror games themed around bright, flashing lights, the options I would need would completely remove the game’s atmosphere. And ultimately, even if they cover my specific triggers, which are the most common in the world, they’ve only lessened the risk for about 25% of the photosensitive-epileptic population. Nobody can possibly include features for everyone’s specific disability. If you get pissy at a developer for that, I’m sorry but you’re the asshole, not them. Ask for accessibility OPTIONS, but if they can’t be included in a way that retains the developer’s intended experience, find something else to play. Having epilepsy does not entitle me to play any game, nor does anyone who has any disability have any entitlement to demand anything of any game developer. In the immortal words of Frank Underwood, you are entitled to nothing.

Questions and Answers

I love doing these.

My amigo David Jagneaux asks: What are some of the most common, but easily avoidable, mistakes or mishandlings you see in modern indie game development?

Poorly handled difficult curves. I’ve editorialized on this before but it’s been a while.

Indie developers often forget they’re the best players at their own games. They play their own stuff over and over, get really good at it, forget that they’re making a game for everyone, and ramp up the difficulty to challenge themselves. This phenomena isn’t exclusive to indies. I was contacted by someone involved in the production of the original NES Battletoads who told me that game’s notorious difficulty spike was a result of that very issue.

The solution is simple: do whatever you need to do to get third-party testers. Do NOT offer them help playing your game. Just sit down, shut up, and watch. Offering them solutions defeats the point unless you plan on including a clone of yourself with every copy you sell at retail.

Runner-up is spongy enemies or busy-work design. Don’t mistake sponginess for difficulty. There’s no reason why a first boss in a platformer should take 20+ hits to kill. It’s padding. Inadequate checkpoint systems, lack of saving, forcing players to start full stages over, etc. There’s more to a game’s pace than level-design, and stuff like I mentioned kills the flow of a game.

Guacamelee! is probably the worst offender I’ve played in terms of busy-work combat. It could have, SHOULD HAVE, been one of the best indies I’ve played. Good level-layout, inventive story, fun upgrades. It’s everything you want in a Metroidvania. But the combat is a spongy, cheap, aggravating chore. It turned what should have been an all-time indie great into a frustrating slog.

Gorkon666 asks “All time favorite horror game?

Horror games are sort of a tricky thing with me. I was one of those kids whose parents didn’t allow her to play M rated games as a kid, afraid that they would turn me into a foul-mouthed, blood-thirsty psychopath. The results speak for themselves. By time I was old enough to play such games, I had epilepsy, which is about as compatible with horror as Pixy Stix are for a diabetic.

If Resident Evil 4 counts as horror, that would be it. If not, Eternal Darkness. I haven’t gotten to play stuff like Five Nights at Freddy’s or the Fatal Frame games and probably never will get to.

@DJ_Link asks “Can you name one or more things that games try to borrow from older games as nostalgia/homage but doesn’t suit well nowadays?

Lives systems are kind of pointless, and always have been for home video games. They make sense for games that cost a quarter-per-play at the arcades. At home, they’re busy-work sinks at best.

Rabite890 asks “What series (any company or system) is the most abused and which is the most neglected?

Most Abused: Sonic The Hedgehog, obviously. Hell, I’ve done my share of it myself with my Sonic CD and Sonic 4 reviews. I didn’t grow up in the Sonic era, when the games were revolutionary and 2D platformers ruled the day, so I can’t play them in the same context they were cherished under. If I had grown up when Genesis was new, I’m sure I would have enjoyed Sonic. I know this is probably true because ten-year-old me liked Sonic Adventure and 12-year-old me liked Sonic Advance. 20+ year old me? Not so much. Sonic’s last gasp of relevance was when he was announced as a tackling dummy in Smash Bros. Brawl, but really, has there been a consistently worse 3D platform series than Sonic’s games? Maybe the character’s speed-gimmick doesn’t lend itself to good 3D platforming, but actually I think the second stage of Sonic Adventure shows there is something resembling potential there. Sega really ought to pull a Tomb Raider and give the franchise’s 3D reins to someone with an inspired idea, and the 2D reins to an indie developer like Image & Form that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Probably doesn’t help that they keep remaking the same game over and over. Nintendo does that too but at least the games they remake were good to begin with.

Most Neglected: I have never played a Punch-Out game I didn’t love. So why the fuck are there only three? Now granted, Punch-Out is a series based entirely around punching ethnic stereotypes in the face. We now live in an era where college students scream profanities at their professors for suggesting that Pocahontas Halloween costumes aren’t necessarily racist. Shit like Great Tiger or Piston Honda is not going to fly in 2017.

If only there was a solution. I mean, in theory Nintendo could remove all the possibly offensive ethnic caricatures and replace them with their iconic franchise mascots (the most famous of which is a possibly offensive ethnic caricature but hey, I’m going somewhere with this). This would actually make the Punch-Out!! concept much more desirable if Little Mac was facing Link or Kirby in a boxing match instead of Disco Kid or Mr. Sandman. But Nintendo obviously isn’t going to release a game based around their cash cows beating the living shit out of each other so that idea is a non-starter.

Advertisements

IGC on Gaming: April 19, 2017

Clarification on Back When it was Gooditus

The NES Classic, Virtual Console, Mario All-Stars, Modern Warfare Remastered, etc. are not examples of Back When it was Gooditus. While there are no doubt nostalgia-loving types who will swear that those represent “when games were good”, there’s no public perception that those franchises are on the decline. They’re quick cash-ins, not apologies for waning quality or whimpering reminders of a time where they were relevant.

A re-release of a game like Resident Evil 4, so soon after #5 or #6 hit, serves as sobering reminder that the series was once good and isn’t anymore, reinforcing the perception that the best days are behind them and thus future installments are likely to be mediocre as well. When that is the case, that’s Back When it was Gooditus.

Hell, you can’t even call this a cash-in since Nintendo pulled the plug long before they stopped making money on it. It should have been shaped like a penis because it was a dick move.

Despite the fact that such a perception benefits nobody, some games actually market based around the concept of “gaming was better way back when.” Take Yooka-Laylee, a game that raised funds on Kickstarter and was marketed under the guise that gamers would believe that 3D platformers were better during the N64 era. And it worked! It set crowd-funding records and had the type of buzz most games could only dream of. Then it released and, while almost nobody is calling it a bad game, it seems to have underwhelmed most people. Of course it did. It’s based on recreating the feel of games from twenty-years-ago. Twenty! It’s okay to reminisce about the good ‘ole days, but actually going back to them almost always disappoints. Gaming has come a long ways.

Why do your Shovel Knights or your Steamworlds, games that try to invoke that bygone era, rise above that? Because it’s more about using nostalgia as a framework for something newer and fresher. Shovel Knight has no lives system, a darker tone, and works as an emotional narrative, something 2D platform games of the 80s or early 90s simply didn’t aim for. Yooka-Laylee seems to make the same mistake so many modern attempts at stoking that nostalgic fire do: copy the gameplay instead of paying tribute to the essence.

I Don’t Get Nostalgic

A few years ago, I got Shadow of the Colossus HD on PS3 for Christmas. Oh, and Ico was included. I never liked Ico to begin with. Baffling to me that gamers all agree that escort missions suck and NPCs with bad AI suck, but a game based around escorting an NPC with bad AI through a series of overly long and complex puzzles while fighting the spongiest busy-work enemies ever is somehow considered a masterpiece.

Ico is the Japanese word for “boredom.”

But hey, Shadow of the Colossus! One of my all-time favorites!

And then I played it.

“Christ, I remember being frustrated with the horse. I don’t remember wanting to kill and eat it.”

“Christ, did the bosses always shake this much when you were holding onto them?”

“What the fuck was the point of making the world so big when there’s almost nothing to do besides shoot lizards?”

I didn’t really enjoy any aspect of that play-through. Yet it was the exact same game I played six years earlier. Did it change? No. Had I? Not really. So what was the problem? The simple fact that I had already gotten everything I could out of it. The sense of wonder and discovery that drove me forward in 2005 could never hope to be re-created. I already knew what came next. There was nothing left to see. There was nothing new to explore. In 2005, upon entering the lair of every Colossus, I would be downright awestruck as the giants started to move, wondering how on Earth I would be expected to slay them. The second time around? I knew what they looked like, I knew how they moved, I knew what their weaknesses were.

Everything I hated about my 2011 play-through of Shadow of the Colossus was there in 2005. But, those faults were drowned out by the scope and scale and the sense of discovery. Without that freshness, the flaws stood out that much more and nothing could distract from them. I wish I had never replayed Shadow of the Colossus. It could never have hoped to be for me what it had been in 2005. Maybe it was unfair to expect it to be.

“You know that game we cancelled? Let’s just uncancel it and fix nothing about it that got it cancelled in the first place. What could go wrong?” My worst game of 2016 winner, The Last Guardian.

That was pretty much my last experience trying to recreate the magic with a game I had previously loved. I had done it in 2008 with Banjo-Kazooie’s Xbox 360 re-release, and then again in 2010 with Perfect Dark on XBLA. Even with HD upgrades and online play for Perfect Dark, the thrill was gone. Memories are a bitch to compete against. Memories of games are always a little brighter, always a little more happy, always a lot more refined and sharper, than reality is. I got Banjo-Kazooie on my 9th birthday, before experiencing work or relationships or anguish or pressure of any kind. Of course my memory of it is going to be as rosy as an alcoholic’s nose. My life was easier back then. I didn’t have other things on my mind. More important things. If you’re an adult playing games today with bills and drama hanging over you, of course you’ll be thinking “didn’t games used to make me happier?”

Actually, they didn’t. You were happier before you had to worry about stuff. It’s not the games that got bad. It’s you that got older. Games are better than ever. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re completely stress-free, sit down with a quality game that you’ve never played before. I bet you anything it grabs a little of that old-timey game-induced happiness you used to feel and don’t anymore. It’s not the games. It’s you.

Mailbag

@mocliamtoh wants to know “Are there any genres you would describe as distinctly or inherently indie?

Inherently? No. Distinctly? No. Crafting games are generally associated with indies, but I’m not so sure they define the community. If any genre does, I would say it’s the 2D platformer. It makes sense when you think about it. Most indie developers grew up in the NES/SNES/Genesis era, when platformers ruled the day. They probably began to dream of making their own game around that time, and logically that game would be based on what was the meal-ticket of that era. Indie 2D platformer might be over-saturated, but people need to realize that they’re not just games. They’re dreams being realized. That’s why they’re the surest bet for quality on the scene.

%d bloggers like this: