Wind Catcher Games

Games by Josh Raab

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Savor the Void #3

The Invisible Bow: Motion Control in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

When I first played Wii Sports, the day of the Wii’s release, I thought the visionaries at Nintendo had revolutionized gaming forever. The game was so much fun, and the technology so exciting, that I was sure I’d be playing motion-controlled adventures in no time. The release of Kinect and Move seemed to further the notion that the games of the future would be played with our bodies, not just our fingers.

But motion control has been, for the most part, a flop. After some early failed experiments in “hardcore” games—remember Red Steel?—the media, developers, and the gaming public decided that the technology was a gimmick, reserved for casual or family products. There have been a few exceptions, like Rise of Nightmares and Sorcery; while both garnered mixed reviews, such bold forays should be commended and encouraged. Otherwise, however, it seems that only dance titles and mini-game collections use motion as their primary input. This isn’t always a bad thing, as anyone who’s played WarioWare: Smooth Moves can attest. But there is still so much wasted potential. Leave it to Nintendo, the industry giant with innovative ideas and the resources to pursue them, to push the boundaries of the ground they broke themselves. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Skyward Sword is a great game. An extraordinary game. A perfectly paced epic full of humor, drama, and beauty, a scintillating exemplar of game design with tremendous aesthetic appeal. While I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite game of all time, it may well be one of the best I have ever played. Even accounting for nostalgia, it measures up to Ocarina of Time, the masterpiece of my generation’s childhood.

“But wait! You don’t review games in Savor the Void! Josh, you’re a liar and a scoundrel!” I know, but my point is this: Skyward Sword is magnificent, independent of its control scheme. It would have suffered little as, for example, an N64 game. And yet, its motion controls are not a trivial addition, as they were in its predecessor, Twilight Princess, and many other first-party Nintendo titles. Rather, motion is fully integrated into the gameplay. That, combined with its stellar overall quality, sets Skyward Sword head and shoulders above every motion-controlled game that came before it.

We’ll get to swordplay shortly, but our first example has to be the bow. Ever since I laid my hands on a Wiimote and Nunchuk, I’ve wanted to use them for virtual archery. It just seems like such a natural use for these controllers. There is one slight problem, though: to hold the “bow” in a realistic manner, the Wiimote has to point upward, not at the screen. This could make for some strange aiming. However, Skyward Sword lets the player recalibrate instantly at any time. Wherever your Wiimote is pointing, that’s the new “center” of the screen for input purposes. This is extremely convenient in many situations, allowing you to sit and play with your arm held at any angle you find comfortable. But it also happens to let you grip the “bow” realistically, if you recalibrate with the Wiimote pointing straight up. You may not be able to shoot as accurately, but the immersive, badass feeling is easily worth the sacrifice.

We’ve accounted for the Wiimote’s role in archery, but what about the Nunchuk’s? Even better. There are two ways to draw the bow. You can hold down the Wiimote’s A button, which will slowly charge a shot over a couple seconds. Or, you can press the C button on the Nunchuk and pull it back, readying a shot almost at once. From a gameplay perspective, there is no reason you would use the former, more boring option. The Nunchuk motion control is faster and, other than being trivially more difficult, has no inherent drawback compared to the Wiimote button press. This clever design decision encourages players to use the motion control, reversing the ordinary paradigm whereby “fun” motion controls are less precise and so tend to be ignored in favor of more effective conventional button inputs. This feature, along with the instant recalibration option, makes archery in Skyward Sword a delight. (I recently played a pumpkin-shooting mini-game until my arm got tired from holding the “bow” out in front of me. Again, the vertical Wiimote orientation made it harder to aim, but I was having too great a time to care.)

Of course, Link is primarily not an archer but a swordsman. Skyward Sword makes a noble and fairly successful effort to refine bladework, steering away from the flailing chaos of, say, Twilight Princess. For example, foes with weapons tend to block a specific angle of attack, and they’ll shift their guard around to keep you on your toes. A couple fights take place on narrow walled bridges that do not permit horizontal slashes. Elements like these turn combat into a sort of fast-paced puzzle, a characterization I suspect fencers and boxers may find familiar.

The system is not completely intuitive. My first instinct was to make grand, dramatic motions, but these are (predictably) imprecise. I found that what I thought was a downward diagonal slash was actually a horizontal attack, or that my one-handed thrust became a two-handed spin attack. Small, measured motions provide much finer control. It’s not that the Wii MotionPlus can’t handle sweeping gestures; as far as I can tell, the sensor is perfectly accurate. Really, it’s more that my body isn’t trained to move with geometric precision. This made for some difficult battles, especially the first boss fight, which requires great accuracy before I had time to really get comfortable with the motions.

As a side note, this could have been ameliorated with better on-screen feedback, for example by showing the path of your swipe. Such an interface element might be awkward and immersion-breaking in a Zelda game, but developers, bear it in mind! Players come to every game untrained; feedback is what teaches them. I want to see more precision and more difficulty in motion-control games. (This is the driving idea behind my Imitation Heroes design.)

A couple more notes on the melee combat in Skyward Sword. Pointing your Wiimote up to charge a “Skyward Strike” can feel pretty cool, if a bit silly. It’s doubly satisfying after you realize you can delay your attack; the decoupling of charge and strike emphasizes the release of energy, adding a sense of magical force to the motion. The fatal blow mechanic is similarly empowering. You are only required to swing the controllers upward, causing Link to leap at a stunned foe, but I always found myself slamming downward as well, in time with the killing blow. This superfluous but compelling action is a wonderful illustration of the immersive capacity of motion control, its ability to batter down the barrier between player and avatar.

Skyward Sword strikes a solid balance between encouraging such immersion and bowing to the expediencies of gameplay. Some trivial actions, for example rolling or throwing items like pots and bombs, use motion controls. Others, like drinking from bottles or filling them up, suggest obvious motion controls but are in fact handled through conventional button pressing. I feel that the distinction lies in the nature of these actions. It’s fun to chuck a breakable pot into a wall, or bowl a bomb down a tunnel. Scooping liquid into a bottle, on the other hand, is pretty mundane. Drinking is not only boring, but also a vital combat action; assigning it a potentially awkward motion control could impede the player’s battle effectiveness and thereby create frustration. (This apparently happened in Sorcery.) The decision to keep select actions motion-free cannot be taken for granted, and deserves applause.

There’s one action that should never use motion control: character movement. I want to emphasize this point. I got to test a pre-release of Rise of Nightmares, and I felt the same way about its movement control scheme as all the reviewers seem to have: it was super awkward and added nothing to the game. Putting the player on rails, like Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest or most of Kinect Star Wars, is an okay solution but entails massive limitations. For now, the joystick is by far the best character movement input we have, and thankfully Skyward Sword stands by it, at least for walking.

There are two other main methods of locomotion for Link: flying and swimming. Flight involves steering a giant bird around by tilting the Wiimote. Like swordplay, this is tricky to get the hang of, but it soon becomes smooth and satisfying. Underwater movement is not so happy. While also mostly based on tilting, it never stops being awkward and difficult. Fortunately, Link flies much more often than he swims.

I’d like to end by calling out two motions in particular. The first is drawing glyphs. This is very rare; you can only do it on special walls and at a few specific points in the story. But it is incredible. I have a huge thing for glyphs (a design fetish?) and I’ll explain why. There is an ancient connection between symbols and magic. At some level, everyone understands that if you draw the right symbol in the right place at the right time, you will channel a secret power and gain the keys to the world. I’m speaking as, I suppose, an anthropologist here; I don’t literally believe what I just wrote. But put away your rational mantle, and deep down… don’t you?

That is part of the potential power of motion control. I’d like to drop the hippie crap (it is a little embarrassing), but it remains relevant to the final control we’ll examine: dowsing. This is the traditional art of taking a stick and walking around until you mystically sense water, or something. I emphatically do not believe in dowsing, but there is something to it here. In Skyward Sword, you “dowse” by aiming the Wiimote around the screen. Audiovisual cues indicate whether you’re looking in the direction of the thing you’re dowsing for. It could be just as easily done by moving a reticle around the screen with a mouse or joystick, but the fact that you’re physically pointing makes it feel more real, as though the controller is a magical artifact. (Another side note: the Move controller, with its glowing head, has tremendous potential in this regard. The controller-free Kinect has zero, but lends itself to exploring the power of gestures. Developers take note!)

Whether or not I believe in glyphs or dowsing, I do believe one thing for certain: motion control has the potential to change gaming as we know it. Companies need to take risks with it. Indie developers need easier access to it. Skyward Sword shows us that it is not a gimmick, but it also doesn’t guarantee fun by itself. The task of making great games remains a difficult one, regardless of the control scheme. But there is so much opportunity here. I want to explore it more… don’t you?

–Josh, 7/22/12


Savor the Void #2 (Part 2)

The Battle of Tanagra: Organic Warfare in the Hegemony Series

In the first half of this article I defined the term organic warfare, considered other games as counter-examples, and went over some of the factors that allow the Hegemony titles to deliver this rare experience. These included their near-exclusive focus on war; their single-player, real-time nature; their skillful AI; and their elegant handling of logistics, troop movement, combat, and siege. Of course, that roster is not exhaustive, so I may end up addressing other aspects of their design in this half. Now, as promised, I will examine the gameplay in greater detail, attempting to determine exactly what feels organic and why.

Beginning at a broad level, warfare in Hegemony comes in two main flavors: invasions and raids. The player expands by launching large-scale assaults into hostile territory, and must repulse enemy armies to hold onto conquered lands. When manpower is lacking, the player can send smaller raiding parties, weakening foes too powerful to destroy outright. The AI loves to do this, constantly harassing the player’s borders and coasts, though different factions have varying aggression levels. From a tactical perspective, troops may engage in many types of military action, most importantly reconnaissance maneuvers, skirmishes, pitched battles, sieges, and blockades.

I covered raids a bit in the previous piece, stating the natural value of light infantry and cavalry in carrying them out. These swift units can dash in and out of enemy territory with impunity, capturing unguarded possessions, burning farms, and disrupting supply routes. Most cavalry will need to flee if the enemy mounts any reasonable defense, but light infantry can actually defeat enemy heavy infantry by darting around open terrain and turning to hurl a few javelins when they’ve fled to a safe enough distance. With sufficient care, 10 peltasts can defeat 40 hoplites, or at least distract and annoy them for a long time.

This may sound like an exploit, but it doesn’t feel like one. AI hoplites will charge if they have the stamina, so the player’s fragile light infantry need to be carefully managed, as they’ll rout quickly if caught in close combat. Furthermore, enemies won’t stray too far from home, and will retreat if in serious trouble. History also supports the power of hit-and-run tactics. Greek light infantry proved so effective that hoplites shed most of their armor over the course of the Archaic and Classical periods, their iconic bronze panoply eventually reduced to a metal skullcap and shield. This was an attempt to increase battlefield mobility, awareness, and endurance, as peltasts were running circles around the ponderous phalanxes.

If anything, Hegemony doesn’t go far enough, as forests and hills don’t slow heavy units or benefit light troops. According to Thucydides, Athenian and allied hoplites suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of local skirmishers in Aetolia due to exactly such rough and unfamiliar terrain. Even though the game doesn’t incorporate this advantage, the light infantry maneuvering it does allow is nevertheless realistic.

Since this is such a good way of dealing with enemy hoplites, defensive garrisons often benefit from the presence of peltasts. Cavalry can drive off enemy skirmishers and hurry from town to town in response to shifting threats. Heavy infantry are essential for holding narrow passes or fighting off large invasions, while cheap spearmen are good for keeping the peace, since occupied towns will rebel if left empty.

Each faction boasts different unit types and aggression levels, so the player needs to constantly tailor his defenses as his borders grow and his armies march for new fronts. The AI seems to have some sense for when a region is poorly manned, and negligent players can expect to face incursions until the frontier is strengthened. Likewise, the AI won’t throw itself at an impregnable fortress, though it may well send minor raids. Watch towers are an indispensable component of defensive strategy, giving the player time to prepare appropriately when the enemy crosses the border.

Offensive intelligence is no less critical. There is no espionage system, so cavalry or ships can provide necessary reconnaissance. After scoping out an area for conquest, the player will need to prepare, as haphazard invasions are guaranteed to fail. Good preparation is complex. First, a route must be chosen, by land or sea. Most areas have multiple natural approaches, each with drawbacks and advantages, so this can be a critical choice.

The Isthmus of Corinth won’t fall easily. Better approach by sea, or land elsewhere in the Peloponnese and come up from behind.

Next, an army of sufficient size, with an appropriate unit mix, must assemble at a staging point. This can be a city, a fort, or even a field; Hegemony includes a “camp and forage” command to facilitate this last option. If the best location happens to be in hostile hands, the player may want to launch a preliminary assault. For example, in my Sandbox campaign with the Phocians, I conquered the Athenian-held island of Corcyra to serve as a naval base for my invasion of Epirus. Scyros and Aegina fulfilled the same purpose in the strategic action which opened Part 1 of this article, part of my Ionian War game.

With the men gathered, the player must ensure that enough supplies are available to feed them during the trek and subsequent siege. The larger the army, the more they eat and the slower they move; these factors combine to discourage massive hordes. Witness the massive Persian invasions of Greece, devouring entire harvests and drinking rivers dry. If the area has plentiful farmland, summer and fall are the best campaigning seasons, as the troops can plunder farms at their most productive. On the other hand, new flocks appear in the winter…

Get away from my sheep, dammit!

…so the time to invade mountainous areas may be the end of autumn, as the AI will quickly send units to haul the lambs into the safety of their cities. Since ships can’t move long distances during winter, spring or summer are most auspicious for long-distance naval movements. All that said, there is flexibility here: food can be transported manually, beached ships recover health, and so on. The game guides the player in realistic ways, but clever planning can overcome its barriers.

Once the invasion is underway, the player must take care to see it through. For example, sending a screening force of empty triremes can save the men aboard a transport fleet; even if the scout ships sink, no soldiers are aboard them to drown. Likewise, the player may not want to send infantry to assault a city’s walls right away. At any time, the whole garrison can come pouring out, overwhelming the besiegers.

In many cases, the superior option is to lure the foe into a pitched battle outside. The AI isn’t stupid enough to come out for no reason, but the player can draw them out by ravaging the countryside: seizing mines and forts, capturing or burning farms, and blocking off supply routes. Catapults can cause serious damage to walls without exposing themselves to danger, forcing the enemy to sally forth to destroy them. Decoy attacks can send AI reinforcements running to other towns, leaving the player’s true target undefended. Again, enemies are smart about this, and such a diversion has to be well executed. When it works, it feels natural, as though you’ve just outsmarted an actual foe, as opposed to tricking some dumb algorithm. These all seem like natural considerations and strategies for an ancient general.

With the Megarian garrison distracted by the battle at Tanagra…

…it’s time to pounce.

Let’s take a moment to examine pitched battles more closely. Geography heavily affects their course; for instance, a battle in a narrow pass will likely be determined by the quality and quantity of heavy infantry present on each side. Open fields favor cavalry and flanking maneuvers, though a battleline of phalangites or hoplites is essential as well. Hegemony’s map, which is based on satellite imagery of the Aegean region, offers a wide variety of terrain to fight in, keeping the player on his toes. The forces required to invade the mountainous kingdom of Epirus are quite different from those needed to subdue the tribal horsemen of the Danube valley or take on the Athenian maritime empire.

As a rule, though, mixed-unit tactics will win the day. Battles follow a natural sequence of shock, melee, and pursuit, and different unit types are built for different phases. Heavy infantry can defeat other troops in close combat, but when two hoplite squads are duking it out, light infantry support can give one side the edge. Quick-moving cavalry are ideal for charging peltasts and chasing down fleeing foes, but won’t last long in hand-to-hand fighting.

All this is fairly standard, but what’s amazing is how battles seem to just happen, and how naturally each unit’s attributes feed into the system to create an organic command experience. Proper “battles” rarely happen in many games; for example, Civilization tends to have amorphous, drawn-out wars. Total War games bring them about by a clear contrivance: opposing armies passing near each other are obliged to engage in formal combat or else retreat a fixed distance. In Hegemony, the transition from strategic to tactical movement is seamless, but proper pitched battles still occur—just like in real life!

This is, to me, the epitome of “organic warfare,” and quite probably the main reason I’m writing this article. Cavalry are useful in reconnaissance for the exact same reason they’re useful in pursuit. The large size of heavy infantry units makes them hard to maneuver and feed, but indispensable in melee and siege. Their “armor” may be abstract, represented by statistics of speed and defense that bear no necessary relation to each other, but it’s easy to imagine one factor both slowing them down and making them hard to kill. Everything just makes sense.

And it’s not just an internally coherent system: the history matches up too. At the start of the Peloponnesian War, King Archidamus of Sparta ravaged the Attic countryside. Confident as the Peloponnesian troops were in their combat superiority, they nevertheless lacked the technical skill to overcome the Athenian Long Walls. Pericles, knowing that the city could be supplied by sea as long as those walls held, forbade the Athenians from marching forth, refusing to risk the security of the city in a pitched battle against the dreaded Spartan war machine.

Year after year, the Spartans and their allies returned to burn the fields, but they accomplished almost nothing of value. (They did accidentally facilitate the spread of the devastating Athenian plague by penning up a huge population in a space not fit to hold them, at least not under sanitary conditions.) Meanwhile the Athenians raided the Peloponnesian coast, harrying the Spartan allies and wearing down their reserves of patience and money.

Plague aside, Hegemony allows for very similar events to happen unscripted. Huge quantities of food can be transported by sea over any distance; the system of population and recruitment allows for wars of attrition; and sieging a well-stocked city by land is a slow and dangerous process. This last factor goes double for the Peloponnesian War campaigns in Wars of Ancient Greece, where catapults are not available.

A note on catapults. Philip’s use of these weapons represented a major advancement in offensive siegecraft, greatly reducing the time and danger involved in taking a city by force. Therefore their power makes sense in Philip of Macedon. However, they do feel out of place in the second Hegemony title’s Sandbox mode: while the player can build them as any faction, the AI never does so. From a design perspective, this imbalance may make up for the lack of “objectives,” which provide bonuses when completed in the other campaigns. While the exclusive ability to use catapults gives the player a similar boost in the Sandbox mode, perhaps maintaining the right challenge level, it feels like an unnatural advantage.

However, on a similar topic, the game perfectly demonstrates the military role of citadels and forts: they are bases from which armies can march out against invaders, and to which they can retreat when threatened. If you have ever wondered how a castle actually controls the countryside, there you have it. Borders in Hegemony, while shown on the map, are fairly abstract: soldiers do not follow different rules of movement, supply, or combat in enemy and friendly territory, as they do in many games. It is a testament to Hegemony’s organic nature that the conquest of towns and forts remains nevertheless critical for the safety of advancing armies.

A final point: these fortified bases represent such major obstacles that virtually every one requires a conscious plan to seize. Aside from keeping the player constantly engaged, this engenders a sense of gradual conquest which seems appropriate to the period. There was no Hellenic blitzkrieg. Rather, massive armies often failed to take tiny walled towns, or at least only succeeded in doing so after long months of siege. The story of the ten-year Trojan War, while exaggerated in the details, is a good illustration. As mentioned, though, catapults do upset this balance, as does the new alliance option in Wars of Ancient Greece, which essentially causes an entire faction to join the player for a fee. Diplomacy was a major factor in ancient Greek interstate politics, but Hegemony does not handle it well.

Still, to focus purely on the military, Hegemony creates an experience like none other. When I studied ancient history in college, I read about all these things: the impact of geography, the importance of logistics, the convenience of naval transport, the difficulty of siege. But I didn’t know exactly how they worked. Hegemony brings them to life in a way that makes it all click better than any other strategy game I’ve played.

To return to where we started, perhaps that understanding is what allowed me to conquer not only Oichalia and Megara, but Tanagra as well. It was a fiercely fought battle, with hundreds of casualties on both sides, but by the end my Peloponnesians stood on Athens’ doorstep. It wasn’t long until we swarmed beyond Eleusis into the great city herself. A generation of war had ended. We had won.

–Josh, 7/8/12

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