Screenshot: Assassin's Creed II/Ubisoft

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Drink It In

This week, Alexander Chatziioannou took some time to talk to us about his compulsion to walk in video games, something many players avoid like the plague. Using examples like The Witcher 3 and Dark Souls, he broke down that impulse and searched for the ways slowing down can make games better. For one, it provides digital sightseers the time and serenity to take in their surroundings, and some games are so pretty that they simply demand that kind of attention. The Spice Weasel called out Assassin’s Creed’s excellence in this field:

Walking through Assassin’s Creed II was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had with a video game. They absolutely nailed Venice and actually managed to capture some of that awe it inspires. It’s best experienced by walking through, ignoring the map until you eventually pass a doorway and see San Marcos square emerge in front of you. I’ve walked more in AC games than I have in all other games combined.

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Merve reckoned a player’s pace in a video game reflects their pace as real-life tourists:

One thing a lot of modern 3-D games do well is making players feel like tourists in virtual worlds. Something you’ll notice about the way people play these games is that the pace at which they play them is reflective of the way they behave as tourists. People who like to pause and soak in the sights are the kind of people who amble through video game worlds at a languid pace. Me, on the other hand, I like to move relatively quickly as a tourist, but I stop fairly frequently to take photos of things I find interesting or beautiful, and that’s exactly how I play video games; I give my F12 key a good workout.

And Unexpected Dave added some anecdotal evidence to that theory:

I’ve never found that moving at top speed makes it any harder to enjoy the scenery. Even driving in a vehicle in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, there’s plenty of time to soak up the sights. But then again, I tend to go as fast as propriety allows in real life, too. In life, as in most open-world games, you tend to visit the same places over and over. The Halifax Public Gardens and the Presidium on Mass Effect‘s Citadel are beautiful places, but I can’t stop and gawk at them everyday. Most of the time, I have a job to do.

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A vew of the Citadel Presidium in Mass Effect. Screenshot: Mass Effect Wiki

ItsTheShadsy piggybacked off that thought and brought up games that are built to look good in motion:

There’s a lot of reward in stopping to look through denser scenery, but I have to agree that speed and beauty aren’t always exclusive. Games love to paint with big strokes, and I find that the level of detail in those game environments tends to be tailored to whatever the typical movement speed is, with natural breaks to stop and stare. Take something like “The Covenant” in Halo 3, a pretty spectacular-looking level. The awe of the setting comes from the sweeping vistas, giant geometric forms, and other compositions that linger in the background for a while as you play. When you hop in a Hornet and start the big aerial battle, you get full view of the cliffsides and ocean. It’s spectacular, and the area is staged in such a dramatic, huge way that you don’t need to stop and look it over once the fight is over. You can, and it has a very different feeling when it’s totally still, but the game builds the sight-seeing right into the normal action.

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DL suffers from the same obsession as Alexander and talked about how games eventually wear a walker down:

The graphical fidelity and diversity of modern games has drawn me in to the “virtual worlds” I dreamed were possible as a child. I longed to soak in sweeping vistas without pop-in and artificial fog—I think one of the reasons I loved the space exploration game Frontier: Elite II was the effectively infinite draw distance. Now that I have that, I’ll often sit atop a clock tower and repeatedly synchronize (to use an Assassin’s Creed example), taking in the city, its layout, and the distant terrains.

I’m regularly using “part-throttle” on my walking speed—for characters like Bayonetta, 3-D Mario, Edward Kenway, and even first-person Adam Jensen—because it matches a realistic pace of my own. The immersion is much greater when walking than when the world is buzzing by at 15 miles-per-hour, and the animations for walking are always more realistic than those for running. Edward Kenway’s swords clipping through his legs, Bayonetta’s awkwardly wide gait, and Mario’s flailing arms break some of the illusion. Plus, no one can run at those speeds consistently for that length of time. Adding fatigue would be horrible as a play mechanic, so I completely understand, but I will impose my own limitations when I tire of it.

But after a period of time (probably about 8 hours of consecutive play), familiarity begins to breed contempt, and my impatience with not making progress means the eventual utilization of fast travel and/or the altogether cessation of play. By giving me menial tasks, challenges, and objectives, the designers have undermined the world they built and the narrative they have created with it. I probably need to get Skyrim at some point; I hear it has plenty of lore to go with its environment, even if I accidentally pick up a spoon for the hundredth time, but I have so many unfinished places to see.

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The other half of Alexander’s argument concerned role-playing: Compared to real life, it’s just plain weird to be running everywhere all the time. Venerable Monk agreed:

I’ve definitely felt Chatziioannou’s aversion to sprinting in role-playing games before. It just feels weird to be the only person in sight that’s dashing to their destination and out of breath when they arrive. Perhaps my own unhurried demeanor in the real world is finding its way into the persona of my chosen in-game avatar. When you get out of your car at the store or the bank, few people would sprint up to the door and kick it in, but I’ve found that my typical pace is even more leisurely than average, with my partner often striding ahead before realizing I’ve fallen behind.

That brings me to a related point that always bothers me about games that include a walking pace. In a lot of role-playing games, you’re expected to meet someone, walk with them to a new destination, and socialize along the way. It’s a plot device nearly every modern role-playing game employs as a way to introduce you to a character or deliver a key bit of exposition without pulling the player into a cut-scene. I generally appreciate these quiet moments before getting to the next objective, but almost every developer botches them in a fundamental way: Nearly all of these games fail to include a walking speed that matches the default speed of the NPCs!

Walking alongside another person is something we all learn to do from a very young age, to the point where we don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. It’s so ubiquitous that it feels completely jarring to me when I have to sprint every few yards to catch up to an NPC or wait around for them in order to keep hearing their dialogue on our trip. Some developers solve this problem by making the NPCs wait for you if you’re screwing around, but that feels almost as weird because their dialogue generally doesn’t match their physical cues of impatience. Borderlands, of all games, points this out by having the NPCs loop an annoyed line of dialog after having to wait for a while, but that’s the exception to the rule.

So what could developers do about it? One solution is to simply make the NPC follow you, or at least attempt to keep up with whatever pace you’ve chosen. But that doesn’t make any sense if the NPC is supposed to be showing you the way to the next objective. Red Dead Redemption handled this pretty well on horseback, where holding the “giddyup” button will allow you to match the speed of the horse in front of you. That makes a lot of sense, and would be even more realistic if your horse just knew it was supposed to follow the leader, and you had to command it to do otherwise.

My idea to make things work on foot is to ramp down the player’s max walking input to match the walking speed of the NPC they’re supposed to be following when they’re within a certain radius of said NPC. If you handle it like a negative feedback loop, pressing the analog stick all the way forward would automatically cause you to catch up to the NPC, and getting ahead of them a bit would slow you back down. Basically what we’re already doing in the back of our minds when walking alongside someone and holding a conversation. Of course, this speed matching algorithm would have to drop away in certain contexts, like encounters with hostile enemies, but I’m sure it could be implemented in a way that feels natural to the player, rather than restrictive.

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Let’s Playlist!

The time was right for the return of Let’s Playlist, the feature where we provide the foundation of a themed game-music playlist and ask you lovely folks to help build it out into a beautiful goliath. The theme this time around was “beat the heat,” nothing but the chillest video game summer jams. We added 25 reader suggestions to our initial batch, bringing the full playlist to a total of 35 breezy tracks, and truthfully, I think this is my favorite selection yet. You can find the full playlist embedded above, and if you’d rather peruse the raw list on YouTube, give this link a good clicking. Here are all the reader submissions we included:

On a related note, after Unexpected Dave mentioned he has no idea what the lyrics of his We Love Katamari nominee mean, Once I Was Cool did the best they could with a translation and the results are beautiful:

I gave my best shot at translating that song, but artificially forcing a subject when none was specified set our cat on fire, and now the people at the hospital are begging me not to muddle the imagery any further or else my daughter won’t ever wake from her coma. So here is Google Translate’s take; may it take their servers with it.

It is flowed distorted cloud sea breeze
Trying to skip blowing whistle
Dance also dance leaves the end summer
It floated your smile to tea

Listen to my heart
Hear…
While swaying wave of beating
Looking for your dream
I wandered I…
Continue looking like a maze…

Once it reflects the Magic Mirror winter sky
Let dance Kimi secret on one eye

Listen to my heart
Hear…
While swaying breath of the month
Looking for your dream
I wandered I…
Continue looking like a maze…

Overlap shining star
Blue flame
It continues to draw a miracle
Shape no night

Listen to my heart
Hear…
While swaying wave of beating
Looking for your dream
I wandered I…
Continue looking like a maze…

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That does it for this week, Gameologinasties. Thank you for reading and commenting. Have a great weekend, and may you all continue looking like a maze!