Blaugust Day 14: Hitman Agent 47 – Movie, Game and the Problem with Sequels

I’m really not current with these kinds of things, so it’s purely bizarre random chance that I followed a sequence of web links that led me to the realization that:

a) They’re making Hitman the video game series into a movie.

(Again. It’s a reboot, I must have missed the first, which appeared to have been roundly panned by most critics, save Roger Ebert, who might have decided to add a little more subtlety to his review after running afoul of the 4375+ comment responses to his statement that “video games aren’t art” the year before, but received a “ehhh, not too bad” from popular audiences.)

b) It’s coming out next week.

c) Hitman: Agent 47 was filmed on location in Berlin and in Singapore.

Whoooaaa. Come again? Singapore? Really? As in modern-day city-state Singapore, rather than fictitious not-at-all-anywhere-resembling-historical-fact-but-fantasy-cool Pirates of the Carribean Singapore?

Well, ok, they’re throwing in a hefty portion of superhero-like genetic super-soldiers and Hollywood-style explosions, so it’s not going to 100% reflect reality either, but still… “COOL.”

(P.S. Any Singaporean will tell you that there are not that many taxi cabs on our streets. Ever. Especially when you need to hail one down. They’re practically an endangered species.)

I think this is going to be essentially the first time that modern-day Singapore is going to be projected up on the big screen for a global (and specifically Western) audience in Hollywood fashion, not withstanding various TV documentaries (mostly about food, I’m sure), an odd Bollywood superhero movie or two, or a whole bunch of local/regional films.

Especially with the very recent additions to the Marina Bay skyline.

And I’m kind of strangely excited about the whole state of affairs.

Lazy pragmatic cynic I might be, but there’s still enough nationalistic pride left over from all that propaganda from our country’s 50th birthday and suspiciously-impending general elections to be thrilled that the world is going to see this crazy place we call home as a backdrop to a HOLLYWOOD action thriller movie, no doubt seeming as exotic as Hong Kong tends to be associated with, in that sort of action/spy movie genre.

Plus, I’m anticipating that the reaction in our local cinemas is going to be an absolutely hilarious mix of “oohs and ahhs” at the more explosively neat special effects and stunts, plus “ROFLs and LOLs” when we see some of our mundane landmarks dressed up in completely-nothing-resembling-reality fashion… like a plane hangar with black-clad rifle-bearing soldiers… that actually resides in one of our technical educational institutes for aerospace classes.

(It’s really going to crack me up if they use it as the set for the super-sekrit evil genetic lab base where superpowered Agents are made…)

Well, the trailers don’t look too bad… when judged from a brainless action movie flick perspective, mind you, I wouldn’t watch this for plot or storytelling. If it sort of manages to make coherent (if cliched) sense, it’ll already be great.

I think I’m just going to be thrilled to see home gussied up, Hollywood style.

Oh, and that they’re also cashing in on video game tie-ins these days, besides superhero and fantasy book-tie ins? Double bonus. So much mainstreaming (which leads to cultural acceptance) of my favorite hobby interests. Everybody wins.

… except I just downloaded Hitman: Codename 47 (the first game) off Steam – somehow I’ve collected the whole series in a sale and never quite got around to them – and am getting my butt kicked. Repeatedly.

I vaguely recall trying a Hitman game once upon a time, though I can’t remember which, and encountering a similar state of affairs.

Fans make a big deal out of the series giving you the freedom to complete levels via multiple solutions – some sneaky, some of the “gun them all down” variety – it’s done more often now, but back then, I think Deus Ex and Hitman were pretty much it.

What I keep personally encountering is a game series that is perfectly okay with you coming into the level completely blind, scouting it out a few times via unsuccessful attempts to get a ‘feel’ for the scripting of the NPCs and where the possible solutions are located, attempting the perfect execution of the puzzle solution several times more via death-and-repeat trial-and-error gameplay.

I think there’s a group of game players that really enjoy this sort of frustration in their gameplay. They clamor for ‘hard mode’ content like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy where they have to bang their heads against a particular section repeatedly, dying and restarting, dying and restarting, until they either pass, or better, ace it with flying colors.

I’m a little less sure about how I feel about that kind of gameplay. It does usually tilt more to the frustration=no fun side for me, rather than the other way around.

Of course, it may just be non-polished issues with the first game. The default controls are anything but. They started out in a numpad layout. There was a “WASD” option, so I hit that, and the usual S key for backward?  It was walk forward… because W was taken up with run forward. And they shifted walk backward to X. ‘R’ didn’t even stand for Reload, a convention that I thought has been in place for years of first and third party shooters that offer guns. I had to rebind practically everything before starting to play.

There were no save mid-game functions… so every time you screwed up – and you can’t help but screw up when you’re coming into it blind and don’t even know what to expect – you began all over again, mission briefing clicking and unavoidable cutscenes included.

*twitch*

Then there’s the funny thing about me and game series, which I daresay is also a problem for other people too.

I feel distinctly odd if I attempt a game sequel (or game 4 or game 5), without having played through the early games in order.

It’s like… aren’t I going to miss a significant part of the story this way, or some of that ‘historical’ experience other gamers would have had, by playing this game series in sequence?

And yet… something about game 1 or game 2 ends up being off-putting, because they’re more primitive and more raw, without the benefit of experience and iteration smoothing out those rough corners, and I find I can’t actually complete or continue the game… yet am reluctant to move on to later sequels.

I have similar problems with Assassin’s Creed, Torchlight II, Orcs Must Die 2 and so on…

(Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 would have been a similar case, except that I did get through 75% of the first game – and finally gave up with the endless side map explorations and charged through to the story’s end via walkthrough – and decided that qualified me to graduate on to 2 when it came out, which was excellent because 2 was a much better game than 1 in so many ways.

And I can see someone getting stuck on the Batman: Arkham games in a similar fashion too, though I thankfully liked that series so much I played through really fast.. just some completionist stuff on Origins left, and waiting for Arkham Knight to not suck.)

Dunno.

Maybe I just need to get over it, especially since I have plenty of hard disk space now, and install the later games and just start and -try- them.

Maybe one will click, and I can use that as a jumping off ground to play the later sequels, and treat the earlier games then as “prequels” that may or may not be played later.

This post was brought to you by the letters B for Belghast and Blaugust, and the numbers 14 and 47.

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Blaugust Day 6: Mind the Gap (GW2 / MMOs in General)

Mind the gap... the really big one...

Last night (or midnight, rather) I was idly listening to the GW2 Gamescom livestream and the panel that was mostly a recap of what we already know about Heart of Thorns and a lot of advertising to new players about how NOW is the best time to join the game.

No sub fee, buy one expansion and get the base game for free and available to play right away, probably the nicest community you’ll ever meet in online gaming, totally respectful of your time – if you want to play PvP, you can just jump in direct and immediately play without having to grind for stats in PvE; if you want to take a break for several months, you don’t have to scramble to “catch up”; beyond leveling to 80, you’ll be pretty much equal to any veteran player…

… albeit, one of the developers hedged, without the three years of gameplay experience that a veteran has.

It’s that exact skill-based knowledge/practice/experience gap that will absolutely guarantee that a new player stepping into PvP will get his face wrecked for at least the first few matches.

It’s that gap that lingers in the back of my mind casting doubts, even as I try to assure and encourage new players that the design of Guild Wars 2 puts everyone on a stats even playing field, letting friends downscale down to accompany those newly entering Tyria and still face a challenge, rather than blowing everything away with a sneeze.

It’s the gap that I suspect separates the veteran dungeon “elitists” who just want to earn four dungeon rewards in the space of one hour and not have to explain every last nuance to an unending stream of evidently-no-clue-what’s-going-on newbies from the regardless-how-long-I’ve-played-the-game I’m-still-nervous-about-grouping-in-dungeons-because-I-lack-that-specific-amount-of-repeated-practice crowd.

It’s the gap that tends to yield a very common behavior – just like Wilhelm experienced from his daughter when first starting out in Minecraft – an almost condescending god-you’re-so-slow here’s-the-RIGHT-way-to-play-this let-me-just-play-the-game-for-you impatient attitude.

People often forget to be patient during the learning curve, and to give others that space to learn at their own pace.

It’s often made doubly tricky by the fact that different people learn at different paces and like different styles of learning – one may be happy being spoonfed answers and fast-tracked to success, another may find it overwhelming to be a) fed too many answers too fast and smothered with handholding or b) fed zero answers and left to scramble around lost and frustrated.

(I’ve no solutions to the above besides the suggestion that the learner should take control of their own pace of learning and speak up if they’re overwhelmed – “Slow down! Hang on! Let me figure this out on my own!” or “Halp! I’m lost! Tell me outright what to do now!”)

But despite the existence of the gap, I’m of the mind that the stats-even playing field is still the best bet.

After all, what is the alternative?

Vertically progressing stats tend to WIDEN the gap between the veteran and the newbie, assuming they play at equal rates, one starting later than the other.

Not only does the veteran have more knowledge/practice, aka “skill”, they have numerical superiority on their side in terms of levels and stats and combat performance.

Err, no. That doesn’t help things.

The newbie only has the hope of “catching up” with the veteran if the vet stops playing, and that can also happen skill-and-knowledge-wise too, stats or no stats.

A stat reset with an expansion, leveling the stats playing field temporarily?

Well, this might help, if you only care about the people -currently- playing your game.

Basically the field temporarily equalizes, beginning a new race among current participants until the disparity begins to widen out and the gap makes itself known once again.

As for those that took a break, well, tough, you’re left in the dust. Not very encouraging motivation to return, is it?

Ultimately, one is probably better off just making sure that playing field -stays- equalized at all times.

How about sloping the field so that the newbies tumble down to where the veterans are at?

That is, making it easier and easier for the newbies to “catch up” to the vets.

I suppose this is what WoW has been doing for several years now, speeding the process of leveling, making ‘on-par’ gear a lot easier to get ‘now’ as compared to ‘then,’ and so on.

One does run the risk of pissing veterans off, the ol’ “I ran uphill in the snow at midnight to attain the same level of success, and here it just falls into your lap, bow-tied and gift-wrapped” protest.

And I don’t think it actually addresses the core issue of learning the knowledge and getting the practice required for competency or mastery. It probably makes it worse, because of less learning time experienced before getting on-par stats-wise.

One intriguing possibility is the prospect of making things ‘harder’ for the veteran, skew the playing field into a slope for the veteran, as it were.

But there are issues there as well.

One is player acceptance, especially from a ‘fairness’ standpoint. For instance, I still really think the present downscaling in GW2 is more than a little borked, mostly because the vet also has access to characters of that level range and can probably game/twink to better performance results over a true newbie or a downscaled level 80 character.

Another is incentive and reward structure. MMO folks tend to only willingly do something ‘harder’ and away from the path of least resistance when there’s something in it for them, that they -want-.

I think a key aspect is autonomy, is the choice to experience something harder within the player’s control?

I didn’t have issues with GW1 hard mode at all, for example. I knew it existed, I sometimes played on it, and mostly I chose not to, because I preferred the easier feeling while traveling through the world. I’m sure others switched immediately to hard mode and never looked back.

The increase in fractal levels appears to be something along this front, allowing players to voluntarily pick their difficulty level.

It’s what I do in Trove too, I try to find that point of flow where it’s not super-easy and unrewarding, and not super-hard to the point where I’m spending ten minutes beating on one boss monster. (Might do it once to say I’ve done it, but not a productive use of time otherwise.)

The last flaw in the sloped playing field is that of separation and exclusion.

That happens naturally. You must be ‘this tall’ to ride or pass that obstacle. Not skilled enough? Guess you can’t do this or that ‘hard mode’ then. Folks that can will tend to segregate themselves away from those who can’t, posing an ever-increasing dilemma of how in the world can those-who-can’t ever learn or cross the gap then?

I suspect the gap will always be with us though.

It’s the nature of the beast, humans are learning creatures and someone who is an old hand at something will always have an advantage over someone coming in brand new for the first time.

Perhaps where we need to focus on is not so much the threat of the gap, but the threat of words like “have an advantage over” and the impulse to segregate into exclusive silos.

And that, I believe, is where the perfectly flat playing field does its best work, if accompanied by incentives to cooperate and form open, loose communities.

If you’re not competing head to head versus each other, or if success is not hinged on 100% top-of-the-line 24/7 optimal performance from all participants, the fact that one player is somewhat better than another becomes less divisive or disagreeable.

Player B may be contributing less than player A, but hey, they are still contributing, and depending on how the game tweaks matters, the combined rewards for player B’s mere presence might benefit all.

Being even stats-wise reduces the number of hoops player B has to jump through to reach equivalency with player A, they just need to focus on the actual knowledge accrual and practice that player A has, rather than spend hours grinding from Tier 1 to Tier X.

The one critique that I can think of regarding this goes like so: “What if Player B is incapable of gaining the knowledge and practice of Player A?”

Vertically progressing stats would give Player B the ‘hope’ of matching Player A’s performance, if he or she puts in the time required to obtain better stats than Player A.

(We are, of course, assuming that Player A doesn’t use that same time to improve stats-wise, staying on-par or even getting better in terms of stats, while still staying ahead in terms of knowledge and practice.)

I guess it boils down to what we value. Especially in our games.

Is it more respectable for someone to be better than another person, due to having more knowledge or practice at something? Does it feel ‘fair’ as in “beaten fair-and-square?”

Is it worth more respect for someone to be better than another person, by clocking in the hours and ‘showing up,’ regardless of actual productivity or performance?

Is it worth more respect, even, for someone to be better than another by the virtue of how much real life cash they decide to put into a game?

Are there other measures of a person, beyond skill, time and money, that we are, for now, not really quantifying or rewarding – such as the person’s actual character (as in character development) behind the avatar, or attitude, or sportsmanlike conduct, or sociability or leadership or ability to be a community nucleus and pull in others to work and play as a team?

Perhaps we should support more games which are cognizant of and in congruence with what we value, and less of those that do not.

Maybe we need to be less obsessed with measurement altogether, less concerned with a gap that’s always going to exist and ranking people on this side as ‘better’ than people on the other side, then trying to figure out how to help someone ‘cross the gap.’

Maybe that’s a pipe dream, since there are, after all, gaps that should be crossed, such as gaps of poverty (something that cripples performance, yields a poor standard of living) or education (knowledge/skill) in real life.

Or maybe it’s just about having a baseline. We would probably want to (ideally) bring everyone across a poverty gap, but when we start to obsess over slight differences and segregate ourselves based on earning a hundred dollars more or less, well, that might be taking things too far.

Speaking of which, that’s about as far as that metaphor will stretch, methinks, so I shall stop.

No real answers here, just some food for thought.

Oh, and on your way out… Do mind that gap.

This post was brought to you by the letter B for Belghast and Blaugust, and the number 6.

On Difficulty and Performance in Games

I have not played Team Fortress 2 in three months.

I have never played Team Fortress 2 on a regular basis, though I did, once upon a time, play an engineer in Team Fortress Classic daily for 4+ hours until I regularly topped PUG server leaderboards or at least came in second place.

Would you not laugh at me if I were to join a random TF2 server as an engineer and expect/demand the same performance result right off the bat?

I played Batman: Arkham Asylum ages ago.

I was a fearsome terror that flapped in the night, chaining the sickest combos that stretched to the 20s and 30s, to the point that I was playing the challenge arenas and hitting most of the achievements and trying to improve my score little by little.

Years later, I picked up Batman: Arkham City…

…and my Batman SUCKED.

I couldn’t even chain 5 attacks. I was getting beat up by ordinary thugs on the street.

Obviously, this is the designers’ fault because they set the difficulty level too hard.

Couldn’t be me. I was a Batman GOD before this.

I have not played Skyrim in more than a year.

If I were to buy one of their DLC expansions and log back into my old character, who finished the game some time ago, what are the odds that I will be able to dive headfirst into the content without dying several times while I try to remember which button does what again, and how is my character set up to fight?

I guess this means this is a poor content addition and I should just give up now because I keep dying. It is too hard.

huh

P.S. Full disclosure: It took me about halfway through Arkham City before I finally got the hang of the correct timing to press the appropriate buttons and remembered how to chain combos effectively and felt like Batman again.

I expect to do as badly for Arkham Knight this year.