While playing Dragon Age 2 what really stuck out was the way it used your relationships with the characters to have the story feel uniquely yours, (and I already wrote about why that is an engaging way to customize a narrative.)
However as I kept playing (and eventually finishing DA2,) I started to notice something else. The narrative continuity with the characters is actually consistent. Basically when something happens in the game like a event, or even a conversation, characters act like those things just happened.
This is kind of a subtle thing, but has a potentially large effect on your engagement and immersion with the story, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as well done as it is in DA2.
In Persona 4 for example the relationships with other characters are basically siloed away from each other. If I spend a lot of time building up my character’s relationships with say Naoto, the other characters don’t acknowledge that at all and the main storyline doesn’t really acknowledge it either.
(Spoiler Warning if you haven’t played Act 2 or 3 of Dragon Age 2)
However in DA2 for example when Hawke’s mom dies all the companions react as if it happened. In fact they have missions where you go talk to them and they each in their own way try to make sure Hawke is ok. But more than that it seems to acknowledge your relationships with your companions during this event.
My Hawke had been romancing Isabela, and had slept with her once before the Hawke’s mom dying event. So when they had the conversation about Hawke’s mom it played out as if Hawke and Isabela were in the place they were with their relationship.
But besides the relationship stuff they also do it with the quest you take, and the choices you make during those quest. And you get to see those choices play out over the three acts of the game. For example meeting Templar Thrask and helping the elf mage leads to you helping Thrask with some escaped mages in act 2. After that Thrask escaped with the mages, and during act 3 he’s gathered together mages and templars who want the knight-commander to step down.
(End of spoilers)
And all of these continuity through lines which make the whole story you’re creating by playing seem consistent. Which makes the world feel consistent and believable. Which means I end up actually caring more about the characters and what is going on in the world.
I’ve found that I’ve been playing, and also seeking out, games where relationships between characters is an important element. Lately that’s been Dragon Age 2, and it’s got me wondering why I’m doing that.
I think what it is, and what draws other people to these games, are that they allow you to actually feel like you are having an affect on the game and it’s narrative. Games like BioShock and the Last of Us can tell really interesting, and well crafted stories, but in the end it’s not my story. It was a writer’s, or group of writers’, story that I played out, and everyone who plays the game is going to get that same story.
But when I play Mass Effect or Persona 4 the story feels more like my own. I know writers still crafted it, but the choices you make make it feel as though you still had a hand in it, because you did. Your game, because of those choices is going to play out differently than someone else’s.
So how do character relationships tie into this? Well right now that seems like the most effective way to give the player some agency in the story without actually giving them too much agency over the story.
Basically it gives you meaningful choices to you the player: which character do you want to spend time with? What sort of relationship do you want to have with these characters? It allows the player to craft the experience to some extent, and when those relationship choices have an effect on the gameplay it makes them feel more important.
For example lets look at Persona 4. As you go through the game you gather more people into your party, each of which you can spend time with to build your relationship with them. Doing so not only gives you more story and a better understanding of that character, but it also unlocks new skills for that character to use, it lets you create more personas of that character’s type, and if you max out the relationship their persona and it’s stats change.
And it’s not only with the characters in your party. Spending time doing other jobs, or activities around town can help you build relationships with other characters which will give you access to more personas of that person’s type. You need to do all this so that your character can powerful.
But even though there are gameplay reasons for building those relationships you find yourself really only spending time with the characters you want to spend time with, because they are the ones that interest you.
And who interests you is going to be different from who your friend is interested in. So when you end up discussing these games with other people it ends up being about what things they did differently than you did, and that makes your playthrough even feel more uniquely your own.
Which I think is really why I’m drawn to these games right now. They are some of the only games that feel like I have an effect on what’s actually happening over the course of the game, and that agency is a strength of the medium that really isn’t exploited enough.
I spent pretty much all day Saturday playing Guacamelee, and I loved almost every second of it. The great game design and control, along with the visual style, really display how amazing well crafted the whole game is.
So I found it strange when I encountered some aspects to the game that weren’t as well crafted. These aren’t particularly big things mind you, I feel a bit like I’m nitpicking to talk bout them, but in the context of how well crafted the rest of the game is they seem to stand out more than they might have otherwise.
Basically my main issue is with the dodge mechanic, specifically during the first stage final boss fight, and the fight with the Jaguar Javir. During these two boss fights dodge becomes almost completely useless. And that is a bit of a problem when it is the player’s only defensive move, and they spent the entire game until that point teaching you to use it effectively.
And so as the player I feel completely unprepared during these two boss fights, because I haven’t had to learn to avoid attacks in any other way. As such the boss fight with Jaguar became learning what I could dodge through and what I couldn’t, and the first stage of the final boss became learning to stop dodging. Which then carried over into the second stage of that fight, since dodging during either stage doesn’t really work on any of the attacks.
However I can understand why they did this during these boss fights, since these characters are supposed to be the strongest ones. And negating my ability to dodge damage with attacks that can still hit certainly ups the challenge on these bosses, and makes them feel more powerful, and in turn makes them more challenging.
But my problem with this stems from the fact that dodge is your only defensive move, and they spent the whole game reinforcing your play style to take advantage of how powerful that move is. So to suddenly have enemies that can hit you when you dodge feels like the game is cheating you a bit, rather than actually presenting you with a stronger opponent.
They could have alleviated this problem perhaps with the introduction of an enemy with an unblockable attack. One who telegraphed it in a similar way to how the bosses would in order to teach you, or make the sudden appearance of these undodgeable attacks feel less surprising and cheap. They could have also had more than one defensive move in the game, but anything more than just dodge would probably have broken the flow and dynamicness of the fighting, which in turn would make it a whole lot less fun.
Also somewhat tangentially related to all this the final boss fight as a whole wasn’t anywhere near as good or enjoyable as the fight with Jaguar Javir. Both stages of the final boss felt like just waiting for an opening, hitting him once, and then waiting for the next opening. It didn’t really feel like a challenge, it just felt like I was punching a brick wall and eventually his meter would run out. I think this is because dodge isn’t effective at all, and so you can’t really get into a good fighting flow during either of the stages.
The Jaguar Javir fight on the other hand was far more interesting and challenging, because while I was still waiting for the openings to attack him, it was much more dynamic due to his speed and also his feints. There was still a flow and dynamicness to the fighting, but it just wasn’t like the flow of the fighting during the rest of the game.
This is because he didn’t seem to have a set attack pattern at all, and with his feints you really had to be on your toes. It felt like the culmination of everything I had been doing up to that point, and actually required to use all the skills I had learned. I think without the one undodgeable attack he has it still would have been a very challenging fight, and it also would have been a perfect final boss fight for Guacamelee.
From the second I picked up Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time something felt off. It looked like a Sly game, and sounded like one, and it seemed to control like how I remembered, but something was wrong.
After a few days of playing I realized it that I wasn’t having fun, and that there was nothing enjoyable about playing the game. The story was hollow, the levels were poorly designed, and even the new game mechanics seemed to just be lazy.
Overall it felt like a poor imitation of a Sly Cooper game, because that’s exactly what it is. It is as though they composed a list of the aspects of a Sly Cooper game, and used that as a checklist for what the game needed to have, but without understanding how those aspects worked together or why they made the games enjoyable.
The Sly Cooper games were some of my favorite games on the Playstation 2. They did some really interesting and inventive stuff gameplay wise, and found a combination of platforming, stealth, and action mechanics that seemed to work out well for them.
Additionally each game managed to be something of an evolution over the previous one. The first game, Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, was structured on a sort of hub and spoke level design. Where players started a heist in a specific location, and then had to accomplish certain tasks across various levels within the location. The order in which the player attempted the levels was pretty much up to them, although some were locked off by the player needing to accomplish something first. Then once they had completed enough of the levels they could then attempt to steal back the piece of the Thievious Raccoonus that that location’s boss had taken.
While being conventional to other 3D platformers in level progression, what set it apart was it’s characters and it’s moment-to-moment gameplay. The characters were all each distinct, and interesting. Even the villains got their own backstory which gave you an understanding of how they came to be who they were, and what motivated them now. You didn’t necessarily feel compassionate towards them, but it at least felt understandable how they got the way they were.
Gameplay wise everything meshed perfectly with the theme, and made you feel powerful in your stealthful platforming, whilst also still keeping the prospect of getting caught scary. It did this by removing a lot of the onus for skill by the player. The platforming often became more about timing than whether or not you could gauge the jump height or distance correctly thanks to the stickiness/magnet-like movement Sly possesed, which would pull Sly to the correct object you were trying to grab/reach when you hit the circle button. This didn’t work on everything, but it made it clear the game wasn’t trying to be about player precision, but rather wanted to player to feel like they were playing a master thief.
So then two years later Sly 2: Band of Thieves gets released, and it manages to actually evolve on the previous game. The game for the most part keeps the hub and spoke, however now they are not just a place you travel through to get to the levels but the hub itself become a place in which the crew’s missions can occur. This helps make the game feel like a series of levels, and more like you are actually setting up then executing a heist in the local.
Another big change is that Sly’s crew of Bentley and Murray take on a much larger role than they did in the first game. Each character also possesses their own distinct playstyle when using them for a mission, or just for exploring the environment. Bentley uses darts to attack enemies from a distance, while Murray is a brawler who engages enemies in close quarters.
Each character’s style completely alters how you approach a given situation, and with the addition of a health bar instead of the one hit and you’re dead system of the first game. Combat in the game actually becomes something fun, which also in turn also makes failing to be stealthy also less punishing since you can fight your way out of a bad situation if you are good enough.
This leads to Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves where Sly is tasked with not only putting his crew back together, but also expanding it in order to get access to and break into his family’s vault. Which is being guarded by Dr. M. Again like with Sly 2 this game built on what came before it and improved on the open-world aspects of it’s hub and spoke level design, and added new characters in each location that helped to vary up the gameplay, but also played in a unique way compared to the other characters.
But most importantly what the game did better than it’s previous iterations was the writing. The first game was about Sly getting revenge on Clockwerk and his gang who killed Sly’s parents, and stole his families book of secrets. The second game is basically about Sly establishing who he is now that he got his revenge, and finds him hopping around the world to collect the remains of Clockwerk which are being used for rather nefarious purposes. The third ends up being not only about Sly’s legacy, and the legacy of the Cooper family, but also about relationships.
Sly has to first fix his relationships with his friends after the events of the previous game, and then has to get help from two of his old enemies in order to break into the family vault. On top of that there is a relationship forming between mouse girl Penelope and Bentley, which plays into Sly thinking about his feelings/relationship with police woman Carmelita Fox.
Then there is Dr. M who is guarding the vault who it turns out to be a former member of Sly’s father’s crew. But unlike Sly his father seems to have been a bit of a dick and not treated his crew members well or as equals. Which plays right into the themes of legacy in the game since we see his father’s legacy, and how Sly’s legacy will be different in comparison, all set in the Cooper family vault (aka it’s legacy.)
So then what Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time does is very similar to the setup of Sly 3 with new characters introduced in each local, which in this case are different ancestors of Sly. Unfortunately pretty much all of them control exactly like Sly (except the prehistoric Cooper,) but each possesses an ability that Sly does not. And those abilities weren’t particularly interesting, or enjoyable enough to use to make it worth having them as separate character.
This goes almost double for the costume mechanic, which feels so tacked onto the game. You pretty much only use each costume twice: when you first get it, and just before/during the boss fight of the locale you got it in. And none of them, besides arguably the Arabian thief outfit, actually do anything that is useful outside of those situations.
Only the Arabian thief outfit was fun to use, and that was pretty much because it was like using Sly normally, but now you could slow time. Which is an ability that is useful and powerful outside of the required times you needed to use it, whilst the other abilities you gained from the other suits all felt like they were impeding what you could do so you could do this one specific thing that the platforming puzzle was designed to make you do.
Possibly the biggest problem though is that the time travel story could have played into the gameplay in much more interesting way. Granted the story as a whole could have been much improved, including it’s attempts to have little character arcs for Bentley and Murray that both fall flat, and feel like more of an aside, rather than tied into what was going on. Bentley’s is especially poorly handled by having his missing girlfriend Penelope suddenly show up as the villain of second to last local, after not mentioning her existence since the opening cutscene. Then her reason for turning bad is just confusing, and doesn’t really make sense, when it should have been something that perhaps felt more understandable than, “It’s a means to an end.”
Putting that aside, the fact that the story involved techniques disappearing from Cooper family book is actually a perfect excuse to have the player re-learn Sly’s abilities over the course of the game. Except instead of learning them from the book he can learn them from his ancestor directly, and thus it’s not effected by the stuff in the book going away. They in turn could have been slightly different, or more powerful, and thus allow for the way the game played to break away and grow a bit from how the original trilogy played. It’s been almost eight years since Sly 3 and there are a lot of new ideas, and new games they could have used as inspiration to evolve or possibly revolutionize the series to make it modern.
And that is perhaps the biggest fault with the game, that after almost eight years what they made was a bad version of an eight year old game. With that much separation they could have, and should have, tried to do something more that what the original trilogy had done. They should have done something that made us forget that Sucker Punch had originally made the Sly game, and really made a new series of Sly game’s that were their own.
Instead if you want to see what the gameplay of Playstation 3 Sly game could have been look at inFamous 1 and 2. In those games flying, jumping, and sliding around the environment Cole are the best parts of those games, (especially in 2,) and it makes me think that Sucker Punch could have made an amazing open world Sly Cooper game.