Friday, February 16, 2018

Psych Eval - Hollow Knight

Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s heroes.

This time, I am diving into the personality of The Knight, insect hero of Hollow Knight. I’m going to take a look at the actions they take in order to build a complete picture of their personality profile. I’m choosing to frame this personality profile in a way that is specific enough to give us an idea of who The Knight is, but also vague enough that we can build a full profile with minimal information. The framework I have chosen is the Meyers-Briggs personality profile. I will attempt to sort The Knight into one of the sixteen possible personalities defined by Meyers-Briggs.

So let’s begin.

First off we have to take a look at the defining features of this character. First thing to note is that I’m writing this with gender neutral pronouns because I honestly don’t believe that a gender is ever assigned to this character. There is an implication of masculinity, because there is an implication of following in the footsteps of the king, but that is the closest the game comes to directly addressing the subject. Largely this is irrelevant, but I choose to highlight this because it points out something very important about this character: We are told next to nothing by the narrative about who we are playing. This is also the reason I wanted to write this article, because I honestly don’t even know if there will be enough meat here for me to work with.

So to continue, let’s take a look at The Knight’s appearance. This can be boiled down to pretty much just a mask and a cape. The Knight has only these two elements of clothing, and then a sword for combat. That sword is actually a nail, but the difference is pretty nonexistent, so whatever.

The Knight’s primary interaction with the world is through the sword. The Knight wanders around with basic movement and jumping abilities, and a sword to act outwardly on the world around them. As the game progresses, you unlock a series of magical attacks, movement abilities, and nail upgrades. The focus of the game design is on mobility and intelligent use of your sword, rather than on wielding fancy magical attacks. The Knight seems to be ok with only a sword by their side, and the characters The Knight meets out in the world emphasize the classic swordsman mentality you often see in cliched japanese action movies, further reinforcing the idea of relying only on your sword.

With that said, it’s notable that The Knight DOES pick up a series of charms, and a small handful of spells, all of which create a set of combat abilities outside of simple sword work. You learn a spell for attacking at range in each direction, and you can equip things that deal area of effect damage to nearby enemies. What’s notable here, however, is that The Knight only learns things that are useful at relatively short ranges. The spells that they learn are not usable frequently enough to do anything but augment sword combat, and the charms that deal alternative types of damage don’t go very far outside of The Knight’s reach with the nail. All this tells me that The Knight chooses to focus on things that allow them to keep close to their opponents. They like to get their hands dirty, as it were. If not, clearly their focus would lean more on the ranged spells that are definitely present in the game’s world.

Something else to note is the love The Knight has for THEIR nail. In many games, you would expect to find new weapons as you progress throughout the game. The Knight here does not choose this. Their own nail is the focus of the game, and as you progress, you have that one weapon upgraded with a variety of new features and finer craftsmanship at the hands of a blacksmith. Never is that nail removed from your hands, you have no ability that throws it or sets it down for any reason. You are VERY attached to your blade.

Among the charms, there are also a number of interesting abilities that tell us about The Knight. For instance, the fact that The Knight does not inherently remember where they are, and relies on a compass to tell them that. Most games give you this information as a default, but Hollow Knight does not. Obviously, this is a gameplay consideration. The designers wanted the game to require players to build a solid mental model of their world, giving up an ability slot if they wanted the easy way out. However, intentional or not, this does tell us something about our character. They are not the type to remember where they are without a little assistance. Similarly, they are not the type to think of defense. None of The Knight’s abilities are defensive in nature. The Knight evades and attacks, but never just defends themselves, except through use of a charm found while out in the world. There are a number of these charms available, so The Knight doesn’t have any qualms about acknowledging their somewhat overly-aggressive nature, but that they aren’t a default skill tells us something.

The last ability of note is the Dream Nail, which allows The Knight to see into the minds of others. They use this ability to free the souls of fallen warriors, and to better understand the ancient king who once ruled here. This is primarily a source of information gathering, but can also be used to cleanse the soul of another being, as is seen during the “true ending” which requires that players use this ability at a specific moment.

I think that just about covers The Knight’s abilities. Let’s look at their actions now. The goal in Hollow Knight is to restore the world. When you begin, Dirtmouth is basically a ghost town. As you progress, you gather more and more people together. As you explore, in fact, you continuously meet new characters all over the world. Most of the time your goal is to save them, or help them in some way. The Knight’s every action seems to be one of altruism, trying to cleanse the land by any means.

That said, we do also have to acknowledge the body count The Knight leaves in their wake. Definitely a “Live by the sword” type of person, The Knight continually seeks out combat. Each aggressive creature in the world is an enemy to be conquered. The Knight usually allows an enemy to make the first aggressive move, as can be seen at the appearance of most bosses, but on a number of occasions The Knight will be the one to attack first, sometimes without any consideration for their opponent. One primary example of this is the Failed Champion battle, which takes place inside the dreams of a fallen warrior. Out in the real world, that warrior is being mourned by family, which The Knight has the ability to mercilessly slaughter despite their complete lack of aggression.
We also have to acknowledge the spells The Knight learns, and the ways that they acquire these. In several instances, The Knight allows themselves to be tainted by dark magic, literally becoming a shadow of vengeful anger at one point in the game. The Knight has a nail that allows them to forcibly invade the minds of other people. This is not the act of a kind person, but seems to be an action done out of necessity in order to heal the world. The Knight wantonly reads the thoughts of just about everyone around them, but only dives into the minds of those who are particularly cruel. At no point are you given the ability to weaken a villager to the point of being able to dive into their dreams, instead reserving that ability only for bosses and the dead. In all cases, the dream nail is used to cleanse, despite its invasive nature. The Knight is ok with wielding such an unseemly weapon, but only allows themselves to use it when necessary. The Knight is more ok with killing an innocent, than with invading their mind. Presumably because The Knight’s goal is to cleanse the world, which requires death but not dishonor. This is also reinforced by their spell acquisitions, which all involve taking darkness into themself in order to bring light to the world around through violent action.

The Knight endlessly sacrifices themself in order to improve life for those around. The various endings you see show The Knight sacrificing their own well-being in a variety of ways in hopes that the world might be cleansed. This works to varying degrees throughout the different endings, but the theme is always the same. The Knight sacrifices, and the world benefits.

By the same token, all of the side quests The Knight takes on are those that have The Knight catering to the wishes of others. From collecting the favorite items of various characters, to helping to support a businessman and his wife, to reuniting a confused old man with his long-lost home. Each quest you undertake is done for the emotional benefit of those around you, usually resulting in a reward in the form of charms or “geo”, the game’s currency. However, a number of the quests have no direct benefit to yourself, only helping to better the lives of those out in the world. For instance, the aforementioned old man who’s home you find with no direct benefit to yourself. Once again, The Knight proves to be an altruistic hero.

Alright, so let’s break that down into the Meyers Briggs framework and see what we get.

For those unfamiliar, Meyers-Briggs is a binary system of four unique points, all combining into a combination of 16 possible personality profiles. Every person is said to fall into categories as follows: Introvert or Extrovert, Intuitive or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, Perceiving or Judging. I’ll go into more detail as we nail these down, and we’ll proceed from left to right, starting with Introvert or Extrovert.

Introverts are those who give away their emotional energy around other people. Extroverts gain emotional energy from others. Introverts, as a result, tend to like to spend much of their time alone, while an extrovert will tend to seek out company. The Knight works alone, but travels the world for the benefit of those around them. The entire goal in Hollow Knight is to gather the remaining people back into town and to protect them. The Knight wants to rebuild a community that has been destroyed. Extrovert might be the natural assumption, based on that, but an Introvert might also do these same things, simply not spending time in large groups once the community has been restored. However, since we’re judging this only by action, I will call The Knight an Extrovert.

Intuitive people are those who extrapolate from known data. Sensing people are those who take data at its face value. An intuitive person will take information and make logical assumptions based on knowledge gained elsewhere, while a sensing person will wait for new information to be presented before making any assumptions. The Knight here is relatively clearly defined. The Knight’s mission is to seal away the corruption, and they do so by taking the darkness into themself. Over and over again, throughout the game, we are presented with other characters who are questioning whether The Knight can truly achieve their goal, whether they are walking the right path. The Knight does not know if their actions will result in healing the corruption, but they make a solid assumption and take action. As such, The Knight is definitively an Intuitive personality.

Thinking personalities are those that are driven primarily by logic and reason. Feeling personalities are those who allow their emotions to guide them. A thinking person will act based mainly on stiff logic, while a feeling person will bend to the whims of their intuition more easily. The Knight travels the land, using a dream nail to invade and destroy the minds of ancient warriors who are trapped in the places of their deaths. A number of the bosses are similarly confined in various ways. In each case, The Knight ruthlessly slaughters everyone and everything that is in the way of their goal. The Knight is systematic and heartless to the needs of the world around them. The Failed Champion example I mentioned above is a great one here, because The Knight may slaughter the siblings of the Champion and doing so affects nothing else in the game. From beginning to end of the entire game, there is not a single emotional reaction from The Knight to any of the stimulus around them. They may be altruistic, but they have hardened their heart to the atrocities around them, and as such are acting purely based on logic. The Knight, to me, is very clearly a Thinking personality.

Perceiving people like to react to the world around them as it is presented to them. Judging people like to make plans and place things into organized boxes for simpler digestion. In video games this is most clearly represented by the presence of specific quests. Judging personalities will create goals with specific plans on how to reach those goals, while a Perceiving personality will explore a space more naturally without a set goal hierarchy. The Knight definitively marks each quest location they are trying to reach on their map, and approaches their goal with a loose plan throughout. However, you don’t have discrete quests that you check off a list as you progress. The greater evidence here is a little more abstract. From the beginning of the game, The Knight has a strong sense of purpose. Every action seems to be in line with a plan. Several characters you meet comment on your plan, and your goals, as if the entire progression is a known entity. It seems that everything you do is done for a reason so well defined that even other people know all the steps. And The Knight never waivers from this path. There are no great side quests or plot twists that happen, your goal remains the same from start to finish. You are determined to see this through no matter how bad things may get. As a result of that, I have to say that The Knight must be a Judging personality.

And so there we have it. The Knight, protagonist of Hollow Knight, is an ENTJ.

This makes a lot of sense for this character, as ENTJ is “The natural leader” personality type. They are good at acting on plans, they care about the people around them, and are naturally comfortable in very public positions. ENTJ is a very “Kingly” sort of personality, which reinforces the implication of following in the king’s footsteps that I mentioned earlier in the article.

I would also like to clarify that all of this is very clearly up for debate. My goal in this article series is to spell out my steps and to get people to understand what their gameplay says about their protagonist’s personality, regardless of their intention with their storytelling. If you disagree that The Knight is an ENTJ, feel free to comment below and explain why, I’d love to hear your thoughts! My goal is simply to break down the actions of this character such that a dialogue CAN happen, and I’m happy to pursue such a discussion at any length.

That’s all for Hollow Knight, folks! I’ve previously written a similar article to this one, but focusing on Samus Aran, protagonist of the Metroid series of games. Feel free to read that article here:

And thanks again for reading!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Psych Eval: Samus Aran

Games offer us a unique way of exploring a character. We not only see the world from their eyes, but we actually interact with the world through their choices. We use abilities in games that echo the choices the character would make when presented with a certain situation. If there is a gap in the floor that we must cross, the game might present us with a button to press to traverse the obstacle, but the choices the character has made decides what that button does. In Prince of Persia, we are given the abilities of someone who has obviously spent years training in parkour techniques, and so when confronted with incomplete ruins, and a fight for his life, the character chooses to use those techniques to survive. These sorts of abilities define the characters in our video games more accurately than even the narrative that we are presented via sound or text. When the two don’t align, we automatically look towards the actions of the player character to tell us what kind of person they really are. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Given this, I would like to take a more in-depth look at some of gaming’s most iconic heroes.

In this article, I am diving into the personality of Samus Aran, bounty hunting star of the Metroid series of games by Nintendo. I’m going to take a look at the actions she takes in order to build a complete picture of her personality profile. I’m choosing to frame this personality profile in a way that is specific enough to give us an idea of who Samus is, but also vague enough that we can build a full profile with minimal information. The framework I have chosen is the Meyers-Briggs personality profile, because of its simple formula, and ease of understanding. I will attempt to sort Samus into one of the sixteen possible personalities defined by Meyers-Briggs.

Let’s go!

To begin, let’s look at Samus’s career history. Samus is a bounty hunter. She travels through space, hunting down whatever pays well enough to be worth her interest. She has built herself a reputation with the Galactic Federation, and when reports come in of something related to the plague of terrible monsters known as Metroids, Samus is called to handle them as only she is capable. She has worked with the Galactic Federation on a number of occasions, and in doing so has made an enemy of the Space Pirate gangs, with whom she regularly battles.

Samus is most well-known for her power armor, which she uses to survive the harsh environments and creatures that she faces in her travels. This armor has its origins in an alien race of beings known as the Chozo. It is not shown exactly when or how Samus got this armor from the Chozo, but we repeatedly see their influence on her travels as she picks up powerups in their ruins. These powerups include things that enhance the laser cannon she has attached to her arm, as well as various ways of traversing the landscape, or surviving particularly harsh conditions.

So that’s Samus.

Let’s look at this information, and make a few logical extrapolations. Samus is a bounty hunter who seems to work exclusively alone. Metroid Prime 3 introduces a few characters with whom she appears to be friends, but she never works too closely with those people, merely interacting with them as is necessary/beneficial for the job at hand. Metroid: Other M confronts Samus with members of her old military unit, but she has clearly left that group for a number of reasons, so let’s ignore that bit for now. This tells us she tends to prefer to be on her own. A preference that is evident in every game in the series. The core theme of the Metroid series is that of loneliness and isolation, so Samus being a loner seems pretty much a given.

Another point of interest is her power armor. We don’t know how she got it, but we do know that she uses it in every mission we’ve seen her undertake. She never swaps out that armor for a different set, she only ever upgrades the set that she has. Even in the games where her armor is corrupted, she stubbornly continues to use it, even while risking her own life to do so. We can assume she LOVES that armor. That armor is clearly a source of intense pride, and a reminder of some great personal moment in her life. If it were not, she would not be so adamant about using it when it becomes damaged or dangerous. She also starts off every game with a clean slate, not using any of the abilities of the previous games. Obviously, this is a gameplay concession by the designers, but let’s look at it as a personal choice. If Samus loves her armor as much as she seems to do, perhaps it has become “her baby” in much the same way as a car enthusiast might think about their vehicle. While she’s on a mission, she finds upgrades to her suit that are beneficial to her task. When the mission is done, however, she removes them all and returns the suit to a state where she is most comfortable. Probably a place where she can best perform repairs and keep the suit running as long as possible, rather than stressing its power supply with extraneous parts.

And with that, let’s segue over into gameplay mechanics, starting with the types of weapons she carries, and how she uses them. Samus’s primary weapon is a beam cannon that is attached to her arm. This cannon shoots a variety of different energy projectiles, and the types can frequently be changed on the fly, as is needed for the combat scenario at hand. This cannon is also capable of switching modes to fire explosive projectile “Missiles” for a more powerful attack.

Samus’s other iconic gameplay mechanic is the morph ball. In this mode, Samus tucks herself into a ball, using her suit’s chozo technology to squeeze through tight spaces or crawl up walls. In this mode, Samus drops bombs that she uses both to defend herself, and to blow holes into the terrain to help her exploration. The bombs she uses are generally only divided into two different types, a regular bomb and a power bomb that has a much greater explosion radius and strength.

And lastly, Samus’s visor. This is a helmet attachment that samus often has upgraded alongside her weapons, but which she does not use as a weapon. The visor upgrades do, however, often get used in combat while fighting enemies that are otherwise invisible (at least in the Prime series of games, where the first-person perspective makes this more reasonable/interesting).

One thing I want to note here is what Samus considers to be essential equipment for a mission. Most of what Samus can do in the games is unlocked over the course of the game as you find those upgrades in the field. Samus usually only starts her mission with a bare essential set of upgrades on her suit. As with the armor powerups, this is obviously a gameplay concession, but it also says a lot about our protagonist all the same. We may as well accept that Samus starts every mission with a similar loadout, and whether the designers intended it or not, this tells us she considers these to be essential. Perhaps it’s because this is how she first found the suit, perhaps it’s power or maintenance reasons, but it happens all the same. So let’s look at her default loadout:

Her visor upgrades are gone. Samus has never once started a game with an upgraded visor. She generally starts her missions with the morph ball upgrade, though it is frequently lost at the start of the game and must be reacquired. While she may generally start the mission with the morph ball, often she does not have the bomb powerup to begin with, instead unlocking that early in her missions. Her beam cannon is always present from the start, but usually in only its most basic configuration. Much of the time she does not start her missions with missile launching capability, but some of the games do include it from the start. All of Samus’s various upgraded modes for her missiles or beam cannon are left to be found during the mission, rather than taken along from the start. The one exception is the charge shot that is a frequent inclusion from the beginning.

So let’s step back and examine what all this means. Samus starts her mission without any upgrades to her visor. That means that either the visor upgrades are incredibly unstable, which I have a hard time believing, or that she views them as non-essential. She can see just fine on her own, and her visor DOES tend to include some form of scanner in the games where we see directly from her perspective, so it seems this is enough for her to get the job done. This tells us that she feels one type of scanner is enough for a standard mission. As long as she can gather basic information about her surroundings, she feels comfortable. The fact that she leaves a scanner on her at all times says that she is cautious, and relies on her mind to keep her alive as much as her body, but the fact that she leaves only the one visor says that she doesn’t get lost in her studies. As long as she has enough information to survive, she’s good.

The morph ball is a tool used primarily as a means of exploration, but also as a means of escape. It is common for the games to find Samus in a situation where her morph ball is used to get out of a bad situation. The morph bomb is primarily used as a means of exploration, though it is sometimes used in combat as well. The fact that Samus leaves the morph bomb off of her list of basic equipment says that she thinks of the morph ball as primarily a means of getting into and out of tight spaces. She’s less worried about its usefulness as a combat ability, or even as an exploration ability. This shows her concern for her own well-being. It would be easy to remove this upgrade entirely, and sometimes she does, but the ability to curl up and hide in a hole until an aggressor leaves seems too good to pass up much of the time.

The arm cannon is a widely useful tool that Samus seems to find absolutely essential. She may leave off some of its abilities, but she always carries a weapon with her. So much so, that this cannon actually exists in place of her right hand. She sees more value in her ability to fight than in her ability to interact with her fingers. Granted, we have to assume she’s left-handed and can interact comfortably enough with that hand, but the fact that she removes one entire arm for the sake of firepower says quite a lot about who she is. She’s not overly aggressive, however. A person who is obsessed with power might be inclined to leave the upgrades attached no matter what. Samus seems content with only the most basic of beam weapon (though she does usually include a charge laser, so she definitely wants to keep the upper hand).

What interests me the most about her arm cannon, however, is how she decides to use it. One recurring theme throughout the series is that the doors respond to her shooting at them. This is another gameplay concession, but once again we’re going to take a look at it as if it’s not. What type of person shoots at a door’s energy field in order to pass through? Obviously these doors were not designed to exclusively be opened by having someone fire upon them. Presumably there’s a switch somewhere that would lower the shield and allow passage. I mean, we see them even in the galactic federation bases that Samus visits. No one seems to mind her shooting at them, but not everyone in those stations has a weapon either. At most, the doors might be wireless and require a type of key that doesn’t always exist, thus rendering their normal mode of interaction impossible. Samus doesn’t stop to examine this, however. There’s bound to be some other way to interact with these doors, but Samus has found a way that works and so she uses that. Different doors require blasts of different power to disable them, but always she interacts with these doors using brute force. Maybe she does it because she has anger issues, maybe she does it because she thinks it’s hilarious that an ancient civilization would make doors that are taken down by simple weapons fire, speculating on that would be pointless. All that we know is that every time Samus Aran sees a door shielded by colored energy, she shoots it.

So ok. We’ve started making assumptions based on assumptions, and have stretched the game lore about as far as it’ll go before snapping into tiny bits. So let’s start in on the Meyers-Briggs personality profile. For those unfamiliar, Meyers-Briggs is a binary system of four unique points, all combining into a combination of 16 possible personality profiles. Every person is said to fall into categories as follows: Introvert or Extrovert, Intuitive or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, Perceiving or Judging. I’ll go into more detail as we nail these down, and we’ll proceed from left to right, starting with Introvert or Extrovert.

Introverts are people who feel drained by social situations, while Extroverts are those who feel energized by the same. An Introvert tends to spend time in their own company, while an Extrovert tends to be a social creature. For our protagonist, this one’s easy. Samus is clearly an Introvert. She spends her time alone for long periods of time, her ship is designed with only a single seat, she left her military unit to work on her own, pretty much every facet of Samus’s personality reinforces that she is an Introvert. The theme of the games tends to be isolation, as well, so this makes perfect sense.

Intuitive people extrapolate based on data that they are given, while Sensing people look at that information at face value. An Intuitive person will write long articles dissecting the personality of a video game character who clearly isn’t meant to have a defined personality, while a Sensing person will roll their eyes and think them a complete moron. This one’s a bit more difficult. Samus’s penchant for shooting through doors because it works would seem to be a Sensing personality trait, while her use of so many interchangeable weapon types and abilities would lend itself more towards Intuition. Military people tend to be Sensing, but Samus left her military role and began a life as a free agent, which would imply that role does not suit her. Her choices of weapons and armor seem to reinforce her survival instincts, rather than her desire to seek knowledge. An Intuitive person would seemingly keep more of the unique suit upgrades between missions, and so for this very tenuous reason I will say that Samus is a Sensing personality type. (if you see evidence to the contrary, do please point it out in the comments)

Thinking people use their minds to make decisions based on logic, while Feeling people use their hearts to decide based on what they believe. A Thinking person may kill a child if it would save hundreds of other lives in the process, while a Feeling person may find this choice impossible to make. In the case of Samus, we must return to our list of evidence. Samus wears a suit of armor that gives her a great tactical advantage, but she wears that armor often at the expense of her own health. She uses tactical visor upgrades in order to gather more info about her surroundings, but she disables these between missions, preferring to rely on her own abilities. The strongest evidence I have here is at the ending of Metroid II (this will be a spoiler if, somehow, you have not seen/played/heard about Metroid II). Samus is on a mission to wipe out all the Metroids when she comes across a baby Metroid and takes it home with her. Her job is to destroy them all, but when faced with a baby she allows it to live, and takes it back with her. This is clearly an emotional decision, and one that a Thinking person would absolutely never choose. For these reasons, I feel confident in declaring Samus as a Feeling personality.

Judging people prefer to live within a structured environment, while Perceiving people prefer to leave their options open. A Judging person will want to decide where to make their dinner plans in advance, while a Perceiving person will prefer to wait until it’s time for dinner and then figure it out on the fly. Samus Aran spends the Metroid series reacting to the events around her. She has a loose mission that sends her to these planets, but she never seems to have an exact plan of attack. Each game has you exploring your surroundings until some new information pops up and gives you a more specific goal, but you never have a discrete list of tasks to accomplish. This is a pretty strong indication that Samus is a Perceiving personality. She prefers to leave her options open to new input from her surroundings.

Taking all of that together, we arrive at ISFP. To the best of my ability to interpret Meyers-Briggs, this is Samus’s personality profile. I’m happy to debate this, if you have a more thorough understanding of the subject, please feel free to comment below with all the ways I am horribly wrong.

Here's a random image from the internet that claims these other characters are also ISFP! Who knows, maybe it's right?!

So what does this knowledge give us? Why did we do all this? Well, knowing what personality type Samus is can allow us to further develop her story. We could design future Metroid games in a way that reinforces her personality, or challenges that personality with tasks that she might not be comfortable facing. We can use this knowledge to reinforce her personality with environmental clues or actions. More importantly, however, is simply the exploration and information gathering that was required to build this personality profile. You may disagree with my choices, but knowing what information I used to arrive at my conclusions will allow you to argue my points. This will also arm you with the knowledge of what your in-game actions say about your characters. Yes, it’s utterly absurd to think that Nintendo had any specific plan for why Samus starts each game with a new weapon loadout. You can tell by how they’ve tended to imply that Samus has all her upgrades, but loses them to some electrical accident at the start of a game, and must then re-find them. However, the more we understand about what our games say about our characters, the more we can adjust. Eventually, we will arrive at a point where every action in a game will reinforce the protagonist’s personality perfectly, and there will be no disconnect between a player’s motivation and the motivations of the player character. The more games able to do this effectively, the better, and hopefully my exploration of this idea here will help bring that reality closer for more people.

I would love to see more discussion below, so please do comment with your thoughts. What did I do wrong here? How can I improve my approach? How is my approach fundamentally flawed? Fire away, folks!

Until next time,

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mario: 64 v Odyssey

Mario Odyssey sees us returning to the 3D Mario formula established by Mario 64, but how has time changed the way Nintendo designs its Mario games? Let’s take a look at the mechanics and pacing of Stars and Moons in the two games and figure out what has changed in the last 20 years.

Mario 64 was a game trying to define itself in a completely new dimension. Nintendo took cues from puzzle box toy design, and adapted those concepts to a 3D Mario title. This led to the inclusion of Stars, rather than relying on players simply moving from one side of a level to the other, as was the standard in 2D. Stars play the role of the articulation points you find on a puzzle box, each press, twist, or move leading you closer to solving the “puzzle” that is each world. The worlds would unfold, much as in a puzzle box, upon finding a star. This would reveal new areas and allow further exploration, which allowed player to find yet more stars. The levels were designed as 3D dioramas to further benefit from this point, meaning that rather than exploring a natural environment, Mario was running around on a toy. Once Mario popped out of the painting, he would return to the real world, where he would explore a more natural environment before plunging back into a toy box once again. In the case of one level, Big Boo’s Haunt, the toy box is a literal object that you find in the world and dive into.

Mario Odyssey takes a completely different approach. Rather than looking at toyboxes, Mario Odyssey expands upon previous 3D games and the concepts learned in each. The levels are designed to emulate specific worlds that Mario is visiting, and the landscapes found are a little more natural in their flow. Rather than being an easily-digestible diorama, each level is a sprawling landscape, and you may never be able to see the whole at once, nor are you intended to understand how each piece fits together. Instead, you are meant to drop into a land and explore the strange new culture there. The Moons, your collectible in this game, are no longer articulation points on a puzzle box, but rather replace the treasures you find while exploring a new place. Some are hidden behind progression locks, such as a boss fight, but others are simply waiting for you in a shop, or lying in a literal pile of garbage for you to stumble over. Mario Odyssey firmly states that the best way to explore a new country is take in every possible corner of that country, and it consistently rewards that exploration, incentivizing players to travel to even the most obscure areas of the level to find a moon.

Mario 64 features 120 unique stars. Each of them is a specific challenge for the player to test themselves against. The game progresses through a numerical lock system, each battle with Bowser being a reward for reaching a certain number of stars. The final door unlocks at 70 stars, leaving the remaining 50 stars as accessory, only required for completionists trying to reach the full 120 count.

Mario Odyssey features…… um….. A lot of moons…. I’m calling it quits at something around 530, personally. I’ve completed the game, beaten the bonus levels at the end, explored every kingdom and gotten every item I care to get. The game actually sells you moons, meaning that as far as I can tell there is no final numerical value of moons that you are rewarded for achieving. This game seems to be less about a test of skill, and more about exploring new lands until you can leave fulfilled, whatever that means for you. I’m sure there’s some specific reward for unlocking every moon, but when each world can have 70+ moons, I get fatigued and feel no motivation to collect them all. Frankly, there are so many bonus levels in Mario Odyssey that seeing one more for collecting every moon couldn’t possibly be as rewarding  as it would need to be to motivate me. That’s my personal style, you folks feel free to enjoy your 100% runs.

But that in itself is what I find interesting about these two games. Mario 64 is a mountain to be climbed. It is a challenge to be overcome. Every star in the game tests you on a specific skill or interaction. I charted out each star in Mario 64 to better understand the type of challenge each star offers, and how that challenge changes from level to level over the course of the game.

As you can see, the game starts off being primarily about exploration, learning to navigate the game, and ends primarily being about testing advanced skills. Jumps become more difficult, levels more punishing, simply progressing through Rainbow Ride is a difficult experience.

Odyssey is not that mountain. While the star types available in Mario 64 are still present in Odyssey, there are also several new varieties. Stars that reward you for shopping, or talking to NPCs, or even just for walking over a particular spot. Odyssey isn’t a mountain to be climbed, it’s the mountain, the base camp, and the mall in the town that sits nearby full of people who have never even considered the idea of climbing the mountain.

Mario 64 challenged its players to beat it, but Odyssey just wants you to have fun along the way. Where you end up isn’t important, it’s the journey.

So now, let’s switch gears a little and examine that journey. I want to compare the level layout of a Mario 64 level with a similar level in Mario Odyssey. I’m going to choose the two first levels for this, but with a caveat. I’m not going to look at Cap Kingdom, because that kingdom effectively serves as Odyssey’s version of Peach’s Castle, allowing the players a safe space within which to explore the controls and get the feel of the game. It’s not a direct comparison, there IS stuff to do in that space, but it’s not a full level either. Instead, I’m going to look at Cascade Kingdom and how it compares to Bob-omb Battlefield.

Mario 64’s first star is at the top of the mountain, in the hands of a giant bob-omb king who you must defeat. The level has you traverse a complex space filled with an assortment of traps and challenges that you must overcome before reaching the top of the mountain. There is a giant chain chomp, a number of goombas, and a spiral staircase of rolling boulders all trying to stop you from reaching the top. Once you do, you are challenged by a relatively simple boss fight that teaches you the mechanic you’ll need to beat the game’s recurring boss, Bowser.

Those of you who have played Odyssey might already see the similarities. Cascade Kingdom’s main task is marked for you at the top of the area, a floating platform above a large island. There is a giant chain chomp, a field of a new type of mini-goomba who sprout out from the ground, and then a zig-zagging 2D “staircase” that you must ascend to reach the boss fight. The boss fight is also an introduction to the game’s recurring bosses, but it’s an introduction to the second of four rabbits, not the first, so it doesn’t quite pack the same punch.

The main difference here is that the boss star in Odyssey is a triple moon, not a single moon, and that it won’t be the first moon you get in this level. When you start Cascade Kingdom, your first goal is roughly 50 feet in front of you, at the gateway between the area where you land and the rest of the level. The game has you take control of a chain chomp, this level’s core mechanic, and break open a wall. This unleashes your first power moon. At this point, you are given the task to continue climbing the mountain, and on the journey to the top you have the chance to get a number of other power moons. This early moon emphasizes the pacing you’ll see throughout the rest of Odyssey, where power moons are not the destination, but objects along the road. To further that point, upon completing the boss challenge, the rest of the level opens up. A number of new elements appear in the level, ready for you to continue your time here if you so choose. Notable, for our comparison, is the presence of a koopa race near the start of the level, echoing the second star in Mario 64. Also notable is the fact that this is where the similarities basically stop. Bob-omb Battlefield’s next star involves a cannon mechanic that isn’t present in Odyssey (at least not in the same way), and while there are loose similarities in other power moons, none of them are as obviously inspired by Mario 64. Incidentally, by the time you run out of similarities, the game urges you onward into the next level.

Mario Odyssey is happy to provide nods to its predecessor, but very quickly moves on to find its own cadence. Which of the two games is better will only come out in time, as we see how Odyssey appears once the shiny newness wears off, but regardless of its final reputation it’s quite an interesting game to study, thanks to its myriad of new mechanics, and perhaps even more for its old mechanics. A game that borrows from its past while making a new statement about the joys of travel and experiencing something new.

And with that, I’ll leave you to contemplate these two games. What other similarities have you noticed in the two games? What do you think Odyssey should, or should not, have borrowed from Mario 64? Comment below, and thanks for reading!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Relationships in Overwatch

People love people. People love to learn about the complex interactions that happen between other people. When it comes to video games, a very quick way to grab your audience’s attention is to give them characters to invest their mental energy into, and leaving them blanks to fill in will keep them invested into the long term.

Overwatch is a multiplayer FPS title that has risen to popularity based on its excellent use of relationships, both narratively and in game design. In this article, I want to examine how Overwatch represents its relationships in a minimalist fashion while still giving its audience enough meat that they don’t go hungry. Let’s dive in!

To start, I want to look at Ana and Pharah. Ana is a former leader of Overwatch who earned the respect of her peers through years of working together. She is the type of person who will defend what is right, even if it means breaking a few rules along the way. Pharah is a scrappy young fighter who aspires to join Overwatch and defend justice with a rigid strength learned from her powerful mother. She is a cop through-and-through. No nonsense power and strength that will fight for what is right at all costs. While Ana will bend any rules to defend what she believes is right, Pharah is much more rigid and direct, like a blunt instrument version of Ana.

Their relationship is one of mother and daughter. Ana has tried to keep her daughter out of Overwatch to keep Pharah safe, but must now work side-by-side with her instead. Their relationship is strained due to Ana having faked her death some time ago, as well as Ana’s strict parenting style that left Pharah feeling a bit cold and unloved.

So I’ve gone quite in-depth with these characters already, but how do I know all this information? Voice lines. When you join a match in Overwatch, the character you choose will say a few words that gives you a brief impression of who they are and what motivates them. So let’s take a quick look at the two we’ve been examining thus far using a small selection of lines from each:

Ana’s Voice Lines:
Never stop fighting for what you believe in.”
There's nothing I haven't seen before. Stick together. We will complete our mission.”
“Stick to the plan, and if you get into trouble, I'll bail you out.

Pharah’s Voice Lines:

I will protect the innocent.”
All systems checked out, ready for combat maneuvers.”
“Remember your training, and we'll get through this just fine.”

Here we can see the relationship I described above. The last lines I quoted for each are basically the same sentence, just phrased differently based on each woman’s personality. Pharah speaks with the same team-focused mentality as her mother, but with less of the subtlety.

When two characters are on the field in Overwatch, they will sometimes banter back and forth with quick voice clips. While the voice lines spoken by the character in isolation will tell us a bit about who they are, these multi-character voice lines tell us about their relationships. For instance, here are two of the voice lines Pharah says when talking to other characters.

Winston: Pharah. Your mother was a hero to me. To all of us.

Pharah: You probably knew her better than me.

Soldier: 76: Your mother would've been proud of you.
Pharah: You didn't know my mother very well, then.

We learn, from these, that Pharah’s relationship with her mother is tense and difficult. We get the sense that Ana was always too busy with her job to give Pharah the love and attention a child needs. From these, we might assume that Pharah hates her mother, but let’s look at what happens when mother and daughter speak directly:

Pharah: Mum, I know why you didn't want me to join Overwatch; but it's still what I want.
Ana: I didn't want that life for you, but I know that it's your decision, and I will support it.

Pharah: I always dreamed of the day we would fight together.
Ana: Wanting a better life for you is all I ever dreamed of.

Here, we see a slightly different dynamic. The two actually get along quite well, they love each other, but there is tension based on Ana’s career choice and the difficulties inherent in that. That tension is caused by Pharah’s desire to walk in her mother’s shoes and join Overwatch. What’s interesting is that this relationship is represented in the gameplay between these two as well!

Basically a sniper!

Ana is a sniper character who fires bullets capable of hitting both enemies and allies. Allies get healed when hit by a bullet, enemies take damage. While other characters have skillsets that emphasize mobility or control, Ana’s skillset is built around emphasizing her sniper fire. She has a grenade that does healing in a wide radius (or prevents healing for enemies in that radius), and a sleep dart that allows her to stop anyone who gets in too close. All together, her skills make her a very nuanced fighter capable of dealing plentiful damage to enemy lines, controlling the field with her sleep dart, and keeping her own team healed all at the same time. She’s very subtle and capable, and has earned herself a prime position in competitive matches.

Pharah is a rocketeer character who shoots ballistics that do area effect damage. She has a jump jet system that allows her to fly into the air, and maintain her flight for some time before hitting the ground. Pharah’s kit is built around her rocket, with her only other ability being a concussive shot that scatters enemies in a large area. Like her mother, Pharah’s best served by being at range. However, while Ana is a character of great nuance who can fill many roles, Pharah is very direct in her attacking role.

What’s interesting about the dynamic here is that Pharah clearly learned from her mother’s fighting style, but replaced sniper for rocket launcher and healing grenade for concussive rocket. Still, Pharah retains the linear, ranged primary attack, the area effect secondary crowd control ability, and the slow forward movement speed. As with her voice lines, Pharah very much plays like the blunt instrument version of her mother. While Ana is a knife in the dark, Pharah is a Sword of Divine Retribution, striking down anything in her path.

Overwatch doesn’t stop there, however. Along with specific voice lines and clever gameplay interactions, each character also has a series of customization options that players can carry with them into battle. The ones most relevant to this discussion are the stickers.

As with many FPS titles, Overwatch allows players to spray imagery onto the walls of the game world. This gives players a fun little communication tool to claim an area as their own or to declare their dominance in a moment of skillful display. However, these stickers also give the player further information about the character they’ve chosen. Thus far I’ve discussed Pharah and Ana and how their relationship has been handled by the Blizzard team, but I’ve left out a rather important bit of information in my discussion. Who is Pharah’s father?

Pharah’s dad is not specifically mentioned in the game by voice lines or any other interaction. What we DO hear in a voice line is a bit of flirting between Ana and the tank character, Reinhardt.

Ana: Reinhardt, I must say you are looking quite well. This life must agree with you.
Reinhardt: And you are looking as lovely as ever.

Which is innocent enough, but then we also got a glimpse at their relationship when they were given these two matching sprays:


Fan speculation ignited with people theorizing that Reinhardt was, in fact, Pharah’s father. The lack of information presented to players allowed them to fill in the gaps on their own and begin lengthy discussions based on what was available to them. This speculation lasted right up until a recent patch included the following spray:

This one clearly shows Pharah’s family at her birth, strongly implying that the man present in the image is her father. While there’s no direct confirmation anywhere, the implication is fairly clear and fans have largely taken that to heart.

What’s interesting here is that Blizzard has very effectively taken what should be a completely inconsequential mechanic for their game, and turned it into an effective storytelling tool. While most games are happy to let their players use their sprays as markers for their team, or to convey some message to an opponent, Blizzard takes it a step further and also tosses in a little more personality into the game. It wasn’t essential, in a multiplayer FPS title, but it’s this type of small detail that elevates a good game into a great game. By giving players just a little bit more information about the characters they are playing, Blizzard makes those players invest that much more into the title. This investment keeps them interested, and that interest drives loot box sales, and recommendations to friends, benefiting the company on a business level.

Overwatch truly uses every moment in the game in order to convey the personalities of its characters. From the intro screen that shows a random character animating over a background, to the tiniest little spray that a player can choose to put into the world, not a single moment is wasted. Despite the fact that Overwatch is not a genre that usually gets associated with storytelling, it does a better job of conveying a story than most games that are. I strongly believe it’s this narrative that has helped to push Overwatch above other, similar games that have been released recently, and will keep the title at the top of the charts for some time to come.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!