Skateparks (January, 2021)

Welcome, this is the first installment of Saving Game… Do Not Turn Off The Console, a monthly newsletter recording my life goings ons and the games I am playing along the way.

A new year is an opportunity for new habits! Did you make resolutions for this year? Writing and reflecting at the end of every month is one of mine, but so was returning to personal projects and, well, fate had other plans. My hard drive failed, and while I was able to recover most of my documents I did lose three years worth of personal photos. In terms of recorded memories, it’s a whole era of my life, up in smoke!

I’ve been thinking about impermanence more than usual, as I’m sure many other people are. I’ve had recent deaths hit closer to home than ever before, and last year I had to pack up as much of my belongings as I could under the threat of needing to move overnight. This pandemic has knocked everyone off their expected tracks, so what are we supposed to do?

For my part, I did what I always do: play videogames. Play is an activity done for its own sake, so games can feel good for grounding yourself in the moment. If I lose my belongings, the people around me, and parts of my own past, at least I can have the present — the action of the moment.

Incidentally, the games I researched this month were linked by “playground design patterns,” to steal a term from my friend Kevin Wong. In these games there are many tools or methods for achieving the objectives, allowing play to be at its most freeform and expressive.

TONY HAWK PRO SKATER 1+2 (2020)

When I was a kid we had the demo disk for Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS), which contained just the first level; but it was all we needed. The deep, expressive character controls and core gameplay could let you dig into a single location forever. I hadn’t touched the game in years, but I was eager to see what made it tick under a more analytical lens.

I was not disappointed! THPS uses a very elegant and simple system to drive its expressive gameplay. Each trick takes a certain amount of time to execute, and must be completed before the player hits the ground, otherwise the player wipes out. As the player spends time with the game they internalize the timing of each of the actions, and can better execute them within the natural timing windows created whenever they are airborne. This is nearly identical to the gameplay systems in most action games, where players learn how many swings of a sword they can make while an enemy winds up their own attack. The biggest difference is that in THPS, there is no antagonist. The player is responsible for all the timing windows, so you are playing against yourself.

People always talk about how fighting games are like dancing, and wondering how to adapt those systems to a less competitive or violent presentation. After playing this I think a dancing game would be more like THPS than like Street Fighter. And on that subject…

FLOOR KIDS (2017)

I checked out Floor Kids, a breakdancing videogame, to see how it compares. The hand-drawn animation is really incredible, and it is worth checking out for that alone. To my surprise, Floor Kids encourages player expression in a VERY different way, but is no less effective than THPS.

The core mechanic asks players to switch between styles of actions while maintaining button presses on a beat. Each action can flow into any other action, and the scoring system generally rewards everything except for sticking with one type of action for too long. As a result, there are no “wrong” choices besides not making a choice. This would be random and boring if not for the requirement to stick to the relentless beat. There is no time for the player to think about what move to do next, they just have to act. This combination forces the player to express. It feels like dancing — not in the precise and masterful way that THPS does — but in the way that a beat is going on, all eyes are on you and you have to move. No time to think. What do you feel?

HITMAN 1 – 3 (2016 – 2021)

The Hitman games are sometimes called “skateparks of death.” They are freeform like a Tony Hawk game, with simple objectives that can be accomplished in countless ways. Every map has more to discover each time it is explored, and from the beginning every level was designed to support a month of player attention. 

Unlike THPS or Floor Kids, Hitman has tiered levels of player expression. Players can follow “Mission Stories” that spell out every step to reach the goal. These usually take players through the most highly produced set-pieces in the level, but are so prescriptive as to be tedious. These can be disabled or ignored, and instead the player can naturally overhear or discover “Intel” that offers suggestions for wacky ideas. There are “Escalations” that narrow constraints to create more difficult challenges, and demand more creativity to solve. At the furthest end of expression, there are “Contracts” which allow players to create their own user-generated challenges.

The most fascinating part of Hitman III, for me, was after the game ended. The credits for all three games in the trilogy played back to back, and it very starkly illustrated how this latest entry had significantly less resources than either of the preceding titles. Hitman (2016) had a core dev team twice the size of this last one, and several additional departments and development partners. This is to be expected given the studio history: IO Interactive has released the series under a different publisher for every entry, and self-published this last one.

People who do not work in games may not be able to appreciate what a big deal this is. Publishers can offer vast amounts of resources, not limited to the money for expanded staff, but also licenses for development products, relationships to platforms and other studios, and testing specialists. It couldn’t have been a simple task to live up to the quality bar set by the higher budget titles. How did they do it?

IO Interactive were able to release the title thanks to the series’ episodic framework. Each level is self-contained, with their own stories and progression mechanics. This allows players to tackle levels in whatever order they want, and it allows the devs to add in levels following an established format without much risk. It even allows each sequel to import the preceding games’ content, which is rad! Normally people complain about sequels not “innovating” enough, but with Hitman everyone is happy to just have more levels. Thanks to this, the systems and assets developed in the first game do not need to be re-developed. Crowd faces only need to be modeled once, the character controller only needs to be programmed once, the UI system only needs to be designed once, the weapon effects only need to be made once, etc.

However, the episodic format may have also been responsible for some of this game’s problems. The reason the series was developed in a modular style was because the first game was released episodically — a single level at a time. Unfortunately this has been proven time and time again to be a disastrous business move. Journalists will talk about the first episode when it releases, but most players prefer to wait until the entire game is complete before deciding whether it is worth spending money on. Each subsequent episode is talked about less and less, and by the time the last one comes out all the players who were on the fence earlier won’t even hear about it. I am willing to wager that this release style impacted the sales for the first game and played a part in why Square Enix axed the studio. Whether this is true or not, IO Interactive abandoned this release strategy for the second and third game.

There’s no way to know if a different architecture for the game would have saved it from being punted around so many studios, but it undoubtedly allowed this entry to exist. The budget for this game is evidently wounded. Apologies for the bluntness, but Hitman III is the poorest of the lot. The levels are sparser and less intricate. Many of the objectives depend on gimmicks. The new gameplay addition is a camera that can scan codes from afar, but does not change gameplay in the slightest. The final level was clearly cut during production and taped together with whatever assets they could afford. This game was made with fewer resources, and that fact is not invisible.

But I love this game. Without it there would not be a complete Hitman. The series has gone through an entire console generation, three publishers, two business models, and unjustly bled most of the people who created it. It is better to finish this series of games, definitively, while they still can. It could not have been easy to land this plane, and it didn’t land without skids, but it is impressive that they did. I am so happy to have a tidy package with this massive trilogy of excellent games. Well done, IOI.

Other games I played:

  • Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (SNES)
    • I cut an entire other essay length piece on this game, to be maybe posted at a later date.
  • Harvest Moon (SNES)
    • Still the best one.
  • Among Us
  • 13 Sentinels
  • Fire Emblem: Gilmore Girls (GBA ROM Hack)
    • I have played hundreds of hours of FE games, but I couldn’t beat this parody game…  I am a fake fan.
  • Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
  • A Sailor Moon jigsaw puzzle
  • Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (GC)
    • This game costs like $500 these days but I am not yet sure it justifies the price.

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