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Conan O'Brien, Resident Evil 6, and removing an A from triple-A
October 3, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

October 3, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
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Two weeks ago, Conan O'Brien featured Resident Evil 6 on his "clueless gamer" segment, in which O'Brien, not a game enthusiast, plays through new games with the fresh eyes of an intelligent person who is not well-versed in the existing tropes of games.

This winds up being not only an excellent critique of Resident Evil 6, but also of many of the things we take for granted in triple-A games as a whole.

Believable characterization

The first thing Conan does in the game, playing through the campaign that stars RE4 protagonist Leon Kennedy, is run up to his female AI companion and say, "I'm gonna get really close to her and see what she does." Naturally, she does nothing. "At this point in real life, a woman would say something," the comedian quips. "'Get away from me. That's not funny Conan. I already have a boyfriend.'"

This is clearly done for the sake of humor, but also quickly cuts through to one of the major struggles of modern games. The more realistic our games and environments look, the more realistic we expect them to be socially, and in terms of the interactions they enable.

To that point, in a subsequent scene, O'Brien knows where he needs to go in the game, and tries to take the most direct path - but he's blocked by some scattered chairs on the ground. "Cool guy with gun blocked by small folding chairs," he jokes -- but how many game reviewers have discussed this same problem? How often have we been confounded by invisible walls? In my own playthrough of the RE6 demo, in the Chris Redfield campaign, our muscled hero with regenerative health and infinite stamina for kicking zombies can't seem to climb a mild slope.

resi slope.jpg
The unclimbable slope

Back to O'Brien, he has a bit of fun with the "praise" function, which allows you to give your AI or human partner a compliment, along with a gesture of appreciation -- in Leon's case, this is a bizarrely jerky thumbs-up. O'Brien repeats the canned, puppet-like animation a dozen-or-so times in a row, for comedic effect, as Leon says "thanks," and "'preciate it" over and over, spasming his thumbs-up-holding arm in the air as though it were pulled by an unseen string.

Again, we have a realistic looking environment, and a scenario the developers wanted to be intense, shattered by behavior that is inconsistent with the generally tough and capable characters with which we're presented. This animation would be better suited to the film A Weekend At Bernie's than a serious action game -- and yet there's a button dedicated to it.

O'Brien didn't play through the whole game in his 8 minute video, of course, so here are a few of my own additions. From the demo alone, there is a laundry list of things that kick you out of the narrative:
- zombies can hop through windows, but you can't (unless specifically allowed).
- cutscenes get rid of all pickups that may have been around before you triggered it.
- shoot a prone enemy as many times as you want, but you can't hurt them til they're "awake" and coming after you.
- stomp on a zombie's leg til its head explodes (amusing, but unfortunate)
- steal an axe from a zombie to do a special move with, then throw the axe away. "This perfectly good axe is way better than my survival knife, I'd better toss it."
- when killing enemies with guns, dropped guns are fully ignored, which feels odd when you're out of ammo.
The problem is that when a game gets so large (the game has four five-hour campaigns), it becomes sprawling and scattered. As Simon Parkin says in his Eurogamer review, "This is Resident Evil on a seemingly infinite budget, no idea too expensive, no whim beyond scope. The swollen statistics even spill out of the game and into its creation, which called upon over 600 internal and external staff to deliver it ahead of schedule."

Missing the A in "detail"

When you have such a large project, it's easy to -- inverting a metaphor -- miss the trees for the forest. Reviewers have been critical of the game's at times plodding campaign, its personality-free enemies, and its rather inane story. But even at the basic level, the level of intelligent interaction with the world, the game falls short.

RE6.jpgThe usual argument here is about suspension of disbelief - "this game takes place in a fantasy world, of course it's not realistic." Sure, there are zombies, and sure you have regenerating health - but the universe should be cohesive, and adhere to its own rules. I'm meant to believe that in a world where those things are possible, I can't climb a hill? That's actually worse than if it were a normal, completely reality-based world. Games like Uncharted 3 exemplify this handily as well - the main conflict surrounds one theoretically evil person trying to do something protagonist Nathan Drake doesn't want her to do. He has many chances to kill her, and never does - in spite of the fact he's already killed literally hundreds of people in the campaign. It's hard to suspend your disbelief that far.

When it comes to triple-A games, at least one of those As should come from believability. And that's where games like Resident Evil 6 are running off the rails, before they even get to their bloated campaigns or convoluted stories. Reviewers notice these details, and they inform the entire experience for players within the first five minutes of play. You've got to notice the trees and the forest both.

To end with another quote from master game reviewer O'Brien; "It's Resident Evil 6 - I hope this helped."


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Comments


[User Banned]
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Simon Ludgate
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I wonder if the sprawling 4-story campaign is an excuse, rather than a reason, for a lot of the problems the game has. It doesn't seem like making a tighter, more coherent campaign would eliminate any of the problems either Brandon or Conan describe, such as invisible walls or ammo disappearing. It seems to me that they failed at core systems design, irrespective of the world size those systems were implemented within.

Eric Geer
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Maybe if they hadn't spread so thin on 4 story campaign they would have saw some of the more obvious flaws of the game.

Simon Ludgate
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I don't think that's the case. Most of the criticisms lobbed at RE6 are broad and cover all the campaigns. That's not the sign of a team that failed to see obvious flaws due to having too much game; that's a sign that the team that thought those "flaws" were the right thing to do.

RE6 joins a long line of recent releases poorly received by gamers, leaving dumbfounded developers scratching their heads and saying "well, we thought it was going to be a great game..."

It's increasingly obvious that developers need to be willing to bring in external experts to analyze design documents and early prototypes to catch these fundamental design flaws early enough in development that they can be fixed.

Ron Dippold
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I've seen several tales of work at large Japanese game firms where people 'silo'. Someone thinks a game needs this feature and just works on that feature - sometimes because they threw bodies at the project but didn't really provide any direction. You might have a couple people on one thing, but they're just focused on that one thing and it's up to the director/producer to integrate it smoothly with the rest of the game (or not). This is how you can end up with those strange little side-systems, like crafting in Star Ocean 2 or cooking in the Tales games.

Anyhow, if you combined siloing with no design document and nobody in charge it's easy to see how you'd end up with the sloppy inconsistent mess of RE6. It seems to consist of a whole bunch of unpolished incoherent pieces hastily bolted together.

So yes, what you said.

A W
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So where is the removal of the A in triple A. I thought that was just a term for games that sold well and had multiple squeals.

Chris Hendricks
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Great, now you've made me picture a video game squealing with delight.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Not really. To my knowledge it is more about being the highest quality of games with fattest budget purses.

A W
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I meant sequel Chris, but the spell check got me mixed up :P. (not editing for the comedic effect.)

Ah Rasmus, Well movies fall int to the AAA category as well, however not every movie made with a AAA budget equates to AAA storytelling or AAA box office success.

Harold Myles
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When I hear AAA I think large budget, in production and marketing. Doesn't really say anything for quality or popularity.

I think it began as a marketing term that has now backfired. When I hear AAA I think 'crap.'

Dean Boytor
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The paragraph:
[The first thing Conan does in the game, playing through the campaign that stars RE4 protagonist Leon Kennedy, is run up to his female AI companion and say, "I'm gonna get really close to her and see what she does."]
Is something I personally do myself.

One of the most interesting, as well as challenging concept is "Ethos"; to bring life, emotion and feeling to something that does not naturally posses these things. Breathing life into a void of pixels.

Id like to Bring up Demons Souls not to point out its challenging design but the way an NPC looks your way when you approach them (granted this isn't the only game that does this but its something currently fresh in my mind). I could go on about dialog but its off topic. Strange enough just a simple nod or acknowledgement to your character from a NPC has an amazing effect on player experience.

It does seem RE6 has some flaws, hopefully players will be able to look past them, hopefully... :P

Michael Joseph
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"Id like to Bring up Demons Souls... the way an NPC looks your way when you approach them "

Very good point. There are more ways to simulate a living breathing world than just making things graphically more accurate. In a sense this is like regarding the entire game world as a user interface that not only constantly acknowledges the player's presence in the world but provides feedback cues that tip off the user about things. eg That neutral NPC character appears it could switch from neutral to hostile if I get too close because it has switched it's stance and wont turn it's back on me. or this NPC is obviously afraid or is hiding something from me because its acting very nervous.

But I think there has to be a philosophical commitment to this sort of design early on because otherwise these features are too easy to cut as the ship date approaches.

But yeah, today it's all about raiding the friendly NPCs house right before their very eyes whilst they just sit there doing nothing. Some of these tropes still exist I think because we do a quick cost benefit analysis on a napkin and decide it's not worth it when instead you can just make a 1 gazillion square kilometer game world instead. Bigger is better right?

Michael Alexander
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As soon as Conan made that example, I immediately flashed back to Metal Gear Solid. After you have Meryl following you around, stop, and stare at her... she makes it clear she finds this uncomfortable. Especially if you look at her chest, if I remember correctly. I also think there were even comments made if you attempted to go in the Women's restroom.
Several other games over the past decade have done this as well, to varying degrees, so it's somewhat disappointing that a NEW game like this can't even manage to bring that aspect into play. Even a simple head tracking when you come in distance would give the illusion that the NPC is aware of you and your existance is acknowledged. For now, at least in RE6... dry hump all you want, she just doesn't care.

Dean Boytor
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Michael,
I couldn't agree more. A lot of time NPC's are just statues that have nice things in their houses ^^, which is an ok mechanic when the game calls for it. But when your teamed up with an NPC, its good to know how they feel judging by their expression or how that look at you.

In the next Bioshock installment I look forward in seeing how Elizabeth acts around the main character away from the cut scenes!

Wylie Garvin
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The Hitman series of games has this feature. I remember being impressed when playing Hitman: Code 47 for the very first time... NPCs walk down the street and if you're within a certain distance, they simply look in your direction (a simple procedural lookat).

Its a trivially simple thing, but it gives you a feeling of "being watched" in a game that's all about sneaking around and boldly walking into areas you're not supposed to be in while dressed in someone else's clothing. Its amazing how much this simple bit of code added to the feeling of immersion when playing the game.

brandon sheffield
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this is also how I play games myself, which is what got me to thinking about this editorial in the first place!

Ramon Carroll
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Michael,

I'm not sure about that, because games like RDR, AC, and GTA seem to handle the whole realistic Npc interaction thing pretty well, and they are pretty large games. I think the problem is deeper...

Matthew Cleere
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Just thought I'd mention that your player character in Super Mariokart (that's the original one on the Super Nintendo from circa 1992) turned his/her head when passing NPC's on the track. Standard fare folks.

Bart Stewart
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On an unrelated note, coming to this .php page automatically pops up and starts a video.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Well, to make a counterpoint, for the example with the woman. Its not that its hard to do. Its not that you dont want to do it. Its that you're working with with fixed ressources, and by this point everything is already stretched thin. When you add something you have to cut something else. What are going to cut to free memory for the voice of the woman telling you to back off? Where are you going to free the CPU cycles to have procedural head turning on those NPCs? Or to add dynamic physics (and then collision sound effects) on all those chairs for all that matter?

You have to make choices and the more detail you put into something (especially npcs), the fewer of them can be in the game at the same time.

Glenn McMath
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You're right, there's an inherent trade off for any choice you make. I think the issue is that people think the developers of RE6 made the wrong choices. All of these simple oversights (or decisions) add up to break the player's immersion in the game world. The result is that the game has a long but (reportedly) unsatisfactory campaign.

If these were decisions, they chose poorly. A campaign that compromised on length or environmental detail to fix these (and the many other) issues would have been preferable to most players.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Who said "Glitches are what people complain about when they aren't busy having fun" ? I love that little piece of wisdom.

I believe its the same thing with these little details. If players are having a blast, they will not even notice huge issues, and if they do, they will brush it away. If they're bored they will start to notice every little things.

Jean Auguste
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Bart,


you ruined the immersion so your note is not totally unrelated.

Bart Stewart
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Pardon me while I drag all of Gamasutra back into the magic circle. ;)

Alan Saud
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Oh come on, you can't break locked doors in RE1 or burn anything with fire spell in Onimusha?
If you care about realism then stick to simulation games.

Carl Chavez
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Thank you, Alan, for making Anthony and Christian agree on something for the first time in weeks... ^_^

Glenn McMath
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I definitely agree with Christian, but I think the locked door scenario can be an issue. In most situations players won't have their immersion shattered by a locked door, but only if the developers are presenting it consistently as a barrier to progress. If for example, there are other doors that look similar (seem to be constructed with the same materials) that the player CAN break, or if they show the characters breaking down doors in cutscenes, then suddenly players might start wondering "why the hell am I looking for this rooster key again?"

But that might be an issue for down the road. Maybe we should work on navigable slopes and chairs first, yes?

[User Banned]
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Jeremy Alessi
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I think Conan's segment is great because it forces us to poke fun at ourselves and our attempts to recreate reality with games.

I think it's silly to expect games to fix these problems, or to even consider these issues as problems in the first place. Games are for fun not to replace life. Conan was having fun, the game succeeded as a piece of entertainment however unintentional the case may be.

Bottom line Conan makes fun of the world for a living, I wouldn't read that much into it.

Robert Schmidt
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Yes and no. Is a game reality, no. No one expects it to be. Is the reason the character was blocked by a chair or a small hill because this is a game? No. It was a level designer who was thinking of the problem backwards, what can I put here to keep the character from moving into this area, instead of, what would a person expect to be able to do in this environment. It reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan films, full of B.S. contrived to lead the viewer down the path but making no sense from any objective perspective. I am an alien who is deathly allergic to water but I go to a planet that is mostly water without a space suit. I have a six inch spike protruding from my wrist which I use to kill my victim, who I am gently holding in my arms, by slowly releasing a poisonous gas from it as I wave it under his nose. Its not the media, its the story tellers that is at fault.

Michael Joseph
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@Robert Schmidt

I liked the movie Signs! lol.

We mistakenly assume the crop circles in the film suggests aliens and that initial erroneous assumption leads to much misunderstandings. What you imagined to be aliens were more likely demons vulnerable to holy water (his daughter's gift). Ironicly, demons unable to break open a pantry door makes a lot more sense.

I don't really think it's a stretch to say that the contrivances within 'Signs' are the clues to the occurrence of a miracle... a miracle which served it's purpose. A miracle that wasn't for the viewer, but for the characters and in that sense the miracle is gauged only on it's effectiveness with respect to achieving a certain outcome for them. In other words it's not gauged on how neatly it fits into logic and reason. There's no sense is trying to make sense of a miracle is there? The divine pretense of the miracle is alien invasion and the characters are mislead to believe that and so is the audience, but all the signs are there that it's a super natural event.

Who says there really was an actual global alien invasion? Just like the crop circle phenomenons themselves, this could have been an entirely isolated event. You have to question if the outside world itself received any of the news reports that the main characters thought to have watched.

If we consider the concept of the film - a formerly devout Christian minister who loses his faith, hears revelation (his wife's gift), and years later through a miracle witnesses the revalation unfold and regains his faith. You may not care for these sorts of super natural stories particularly when you had the expectation that it was going to be a science fiction film, but it's not fair to criticize the film just because you wanted it to be something it's not.

Jeremy Alessi
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Going with the Signs example, my point is that this is all in the eye of the beholder. You can take any creative piece and either ask yourself what the creator is trying to communicate through the medium or impose what you think upon it. Conan is paid to impose his ridiculous sense of humor upon things.

My physics professor was an amazing guy who also coincidentally happened to be a guest on Conan's old show. Conan decided to impose "crackpot" upon him. At the time I thought it was pretty disrespectful. Really, he was just trying to get some laughs. The same thing applies here.

Games are a communication medium. They do their job with a representation similar to reality but they aren't reality. The chairs and the hill were nice attempts to cover up the fact that the game is actually an experience created for you to follow (albeit through subtle clues instead of being force fed like a movie).

Think of dreams more than reality. We classify certain objects with certain properties. The hill and a bunch of fallen chairs would both be classified as obstacles. Any player who is more concerned with actually enjoying the experience of the game is going to read them as such pretty quickly. That's all that matters.

And really, who's going to take the time to move or potentially trip on a bunch of chairs when he or she's being hunted by zombies ;)

Robert Schmidt
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Graphics easy, AI hard. I think we need to add more cycles to AI but how do you show AI on the package or in the 30 sec trailer? When are we going to start seeing dedicated AI cards?

Benjamin Branch
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"Hey, I just saved her life, right? You'd think she'd sleep with me."
I think Rockstar tried something like this once...

I think that it is good for comanies to hear the things Conan said from a famous non-gamer. Since the 90s the big push has been for better graphics, but now that we are reaching realism to the point of being taken for granted, (Note, Conan did not stop to comment on how incredibly pretty or well textured the folding chair was.) how interactive the environment is should be taken into focus.

Not to say all of the things he critiqued are really problems. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most gamers I know appreciate some amount of enemy variety. Also if you go too free world, you can loose focus on your genre, which may not be a good thing. That said, there is a reason people like games where they can pick up basically anything that isn't bolted down to the floor. There is a reason why someone can still be impressed with "They let me get away with that?" moments when playing a game like the first Deus Ex, despite it's looking fairly outdated. People tend to expect some sort of cause and effect in reality, and it's nice to see games to allow some form of consequences for actions.

Least, that's my two cents.

Kenneth Blaney
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However, his "Minecraft" review is the exact opposite. He comments that Mojang needs to head down to Lenscrafters so they can figure out what the real world looks like.

Granted, "Minecraft" is, for lack of a better term, Minecraftian and you really can't grasp it in a short span of time without someone holding your hand the whole way through. But his statement echoes one I've heard a whole bunch. That is, the "bad graphics" make the game appear cheap and amateurish to the point where people are shocked at the price point ("It should be free with graphics like this," said a Call of Duty loving co-worker) and at how much RAM/CPU/GPU it can use.

Bob Johnson
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The tradeoff of realistic graphics. Unrealistic everything else.

I would love to see a 2d sprite game with a AAA budget.

Arthur De Martino
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Conan review was actually really good. First time I see anything like that. He is obviously paid/Is there as a marketing tool but his insight shows through.

I'll echo the feelings that Resident Evil as a whole has a over complex plot.

Daniel Martinez
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I miss Conan.

Alejandro Aguado
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Great article, this is what you get when you only throw money to the problem to see if you can fix that. They get their data with the betatests and feedback but they forget that normally, the details and the humanity that the game designer create in a game is more important than crossing out the list of things some random people told them to do.

No matter how many people works in your game if the game is inconsistent, if someone is going to play and find all this kind of things that don't make sense. Each of them made by a different person so is normal that there's no coherence in the final work, giving that sensation of "lack of detail", or maybe just interest.

Ron Dippold
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So, since we all slagged RE6 (me too, it's a hot mess!) I guess it's only fair to mention that they've shipped a record 4.5M copies of it. I'm very interested in some sales figures now, since it's useful to acknowledge that users do not necessarily purchase quality - to put this diplomatically.

Skylar Kreisher
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We are quickly approaching visual realism in games. While clunky mechanics, artificial boundaries and complicated controls are major concerns, these are all things we know how to fix and are prepared to overcome.

However, the major issue that's holding games back, in my opinion, is the human element. How many times did Conan comment on how cool his character looked and yet how goofy he acted. Or the empty interactions between his character and the female companion.

If we in the industry want games to reach players on a personal level we need to start talking about human element. Avatar the movie didn't break all the records for sales just because it had fantastic visuals; it succeeded because the CG characters were believable. We need the characters in our games to feel less like pre-programmed robots and more like living breathing people.

[User Banned]
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Jay Anne
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This is a misleading article. None of these criticisms are specific to the current state of games. These criticisms would have been true of a game made 15 years ago that had lower production values and visual fidelity. They are violations of very basic game design principles. In fact, these problems were present in Resident Evil 1. It's a stretch to say that this is something new and specific to the current state of AAA games.

It feels like the editorial tone of this site is starting to turn against AAA games in ways that don't feel genuine or useful.

[User Banned]
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Jay Anne
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@Joshua
I agree with your first point, and it could fit better with a better example than Resident Evil. I hope that nobody is thinking of Resident Evil as a game about presenting ideas.

I disagree with your second point. Most games still convey their "ideas" through cinematics. These cinematics work the same way as traditional movies. Having realistic visuals don't hinder traditional movies from communicating their ideas.

[User Banned]
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Jay Anne
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@Joshua
I misunderstood your use of the word "ideas". I thought you meant "ideas" as in "deeper commentary", like social or cultural ideas. With the way you are using the word now, I don't think you should be using the word "ideas". I think you are referring to levels of abstraction. Due to increased realism and verisimilitude, it is harder to understand what's going on during gameplay. The boundaries of a realistic rock is harder to read than a simple cartoon rock. The purpose of a realistic military ammo box is harder to discern than a bright red box with bullet icons. There's more noise making the design language harder to read.

While I agree with you that this makes things more difficult, the criticisms in the article aren't suffering due to that particular issue, so my original point still stands. The waist high rock that represents an invisible wall that blocks a hallway would still be frustrating if it was an easily-readable cartoon looking rock. Also, you will find that clarity of communication is difficult even with more abstract visuals.

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Matt Wilson
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The real conversation here is game vs. simulation. Plainly, we're expecting computer games to become more and more like simulations, with "realism", instead of self-contained choice and randomization systems, but why?
Monopoly is still fun to sit down with over an afternoon, that hasn't changed!

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k s
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On the who invisible walls thing, I hate them with a passion so I don't use them in my own games. I make sure if it looks like you can move somewhere you can actually move there! When I was building the maps for my second game I made a mistake in setting passability and found I had to added more details to prevent this (I didn't write the engine I used for it). It just doesn't seem right to be able to see a space but run up against an invisible wall.

I felt oblivion (and Skyrim too if I'm not mistaken) did a decent job with this, if you passed outside the play your character would automatically turn around and return to the play area.

Laura Stewart
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Oblivion stops you and tells you that you can't go that way, you need to turn around. So you stand there, while the deer you were hunting keeps on going.

Maria Jayne
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Why people are obsessed with making games look real when they don't feel real is really an indication that those people would prefer to be watching rather than playing. That is why so many games suffer extensive cut scenes, quick time events and cinematic moments that remove the player from the experience.

That's why triple A is still profitable, because they haven't tapped into more gamers, they tapped into mainstream movie goers. Making games easier also taps into this source of revenue and also causes it's share of problems for anybody who wants to play a game rather than watch it. Still, it's a big fat source of money when you can look like a movie in a tv trailer, unyet convince someone to spend five or six times more on a video game than a cinema ticket.

I believe this is why indie games are so popular, because they're being made as games rather than movies.

Dave Hoskins
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Agreed on every point.
Some games start with 20 minutes of terrible story cut scene, in which you only have to press a single button. It's horrible and really boring, I just want to play!!

Bruno Xavier
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Uncanny Valley.

David Oso
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"our muscled hero with regenerative health and infinite stamina for kicking zombies can't seem to climb a mild slope."

lolz

Diego Leao
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Although I also don't quite like invisible walls, I understand why they are there. I can't see how the game would be better by allowing going through any barrier just to discover that there is nothing there to see, and then having to backtrack.

I remember a game that I stared at a woman, and she said something like "what are you looking at?". Although amusing, did that added anything to my experience? What if all games did that, wouldn't it be anoying? "Hey girl, I'm looking at the building behind you, just shut the frak up or move away!"

I agree with some points of this article, but it kind of nitpicks a lot of unnecessary issues, clouding the good critiscism. You have to understand that games, such as movies, are streamlined versions of reality (or alternative reality) - you don't want to have your characters ask for water all the time, or to go to the bathroom, or ask for a break in the middle of your epic exploration (unless you are playing a "Day Z" kind of game, of course).

Prabir Biswas
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"'Get away from me. That's not funny Conan. I already have a boyfriend.'"

Not Agree with this, sure if realities like this are included in the game, it will be more fun. But have anyone consider, the actual facts behind this kind of implementation??

Imagine this : Leon and Sara (The female companion), are together for the whole game play (more then 20 hrs of game play [not sure about the actual time]). during this time Leon can come close to her like thousands of time, and each time she must say something ( of course if she say the same this it will seems robotic and again not realistic) , so to implement each of these dialogs based on real situation will cost the company an entire Development team, dialog artists , animation team and much more.

And at the end of day actual gamers don't care about realities like this. Since this is an Horror/ action game , not a SIM game, where people would look for realistic Human interactions.

I think a game should not be judge in a different context , which not gonna make any valid point for the game.


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