Given that I now have a dedicated website for the Adventures of Chris HD, I thought I'd start up a more regular devlog over there. If you're interested in keeping up with the game's progress, follow me over there!
Check out the latest for the Adventures of Chris HD by lead artist Kyle Anderson :D
I think it turned out pretty well! The first demo of the game should be ready to go pretty soon. I'm excited to get to show off a little bit of it.
I had a brief, interesting conversation with my game developer cousin about the impact of YouTube and Twitch and general internet hype on indie games, particularly about the very interesting case of a game called Owlboy. So I've got some thoughts I'd like to share...
Owlboy - a retro, pixel-art platformer - has, apparently, been in development by a small team for roughly an entire decade. Early this November, it was finally released - and holy cow, was everybody excited about it! Several different gaming Youtube channels and podcasts that I listen to made sure to mention it, and every last one was really enthusiastic. Some compared it to previous successful indie titles like Shovel Knight, or to Freedom Planet. "It's a really good game. Seriously. Just go play it," various gaming authorities were saying. This is the kind of language that people used to hype up Undertale - a 2015 game that sold millions of copies. Shortly after launch, it had a really impressive 98% positive rating on Steam. Virtually all commentary was positive, occasionally effusively positive.
It has now been about a month since Owlboy's launch, and it's total ownership figures, according to Steamspy?
Somewhere around 35,000. And it's been leveled off there for some time now.
Now, if the Adventures of Chris (my game) were to get that many owners when it launches, I'd be ecstatic. But for a game that was receiving so much positive attention? So many excellent reviews? That's really not that much.
For comparison, Shovel Knight has 400,000 owners. Freedom Planet has 242,869. Both of these games also received a lot of good reviews and positive attention. Ultionus, a pixel-art platformer that DIDN'T receive much attention, and some of it negative, has 29,690. And Elliot Quest, a platformer that has received very little attention (although I love it), has 20,101 owners.
These numbers are fascinating to me, because it's very tempting to believe that, in a world with a million indie games fighting for attention and more being released every day, internet hype is the difference maker. If you can just get the attention of popular podcasters and streamers, you can make it. Owlboy seems to prove that hype really isn't the difference-maker I thought it was.
Or does it?
The fact is, I think that what Owlboy proves is less that hype is meaningless, and more that there are certain factors that even tremendous hype can't overcome.
The first one, and probably most important one, is price.
You see, Owlboy is currently priced at $24.99. That's significantly more than most platformers charge, pixel-art or otherwise. The vast majority of higher quality titles are in the $10-15 range. Dust: an Elysian Tail is $14.99, as is DuckTales: Remastered. One of the most exquisitely-detailed and expensive-looking platformers out there, Ori and the Blind Forest (Microsoft Studios), tips the scales at $19.99. Owlboy is more expensive than all of them!
You could plausibly argue that Dust and DuckTales and (especially) Ori are really under-priced for what they bring to the table. But people are weird about prices, and conventions and expectations matter a lot. When you go to buy a pixel-art platformer and see the price jacked up to $25 - well, that may not technically be a whole lot of money, but it feels pretty steep. I imagine a lot of people balked at that price. I almost did. A lot probably wishlisted the game, waiting for a sale. Some percentage certainly just didn't bother.
But I suspect there's more to it than just that, and it's an interesting psychological question. I think a lot of what drives gaming success isn't necessary internet attention (although it may help a lot), but actual, traditional gamer-to-gamer word of mouth. I wouldn't have bothered with Undertale if I didn't have people insisting that I try it. I think people very naturally share games they absolutely love, and that this sharing means more to people than more mass-media hype does. And I think Owlboy didn't really have the word-of-mouth.
What's interesting is that a game can have 95-98% positive ratings, and still not generate the kind of word-of-mouth necessary to really get a game to take off. I feel like there's a difference between liking a game enough to slap a "Recommended" review on Steam, and liking it enough to tell a friend on an individual basis that they really need to play this game. Having general positive feelings is quite different from enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm (outside of YouTube and podcasts) just isn't there.
I've been playing through Owlboy for a while now, and I may be projecting onto people, but I certainly don't feel the enthusiasm. It's not that it's a bad game, exactly. There are a few really awesome moments. The characters are cute and have big emotional expressions that I find pretty dang charming. The music is nice, if not particularly memorable or melodic. The pixel art is pretty and generally impressive. But most of the dungeons are kind of boring - and for those moments when they're not boring, they're frustrating. Long portions of the game feel like a slog. You never really feel like you're getting stronger as a character. Moving around and attacking and performing your basic moveset isn't particularly satisfying in any way.
Shovel Knight had satisfying basic mechanics. Undertale had an incredible soundtrack and a world that constantly threw interesting surprises at you. Even though there were aspects of both games that irritated me (a lot), there was a lot there in both games to really love. Owlboy doesn't have that so much.
So the only people who would pay $25 for Owlboy (and leave a positive review) are the people who really wanted to like it, which is quite different from actually liking it. And I think other people can tell the difference.
And that leads me to another curious question - why did so many people, particularly Youtubers and podcasters, want to like this game so much? Some have theorized that the initial Kickstarter 10 years ago came during a time when pixel art was actually a fresh, nostalgic idea. (It's really really not now.) I don't really buy it. I suppose that having been in development for 10 years can increase mystique and expectations for a game, but Owlboy's far from the only game to have languished for so long in the workshop.
No, I think (or is that hope?) that there are a lot of people who, like me, are basically starved for games that hit the Big Five - charm, character, music, story, and world. All of these things are expensive and/or difficult, so most indie games focus on gameplay mechanics, or clickbait-style high concepts or silly titles ("Shower With Your Dad Simulator!"), and we find ourselves longing for something - anything - that actually effectively scratches our itch for the kinds of things we care about in games. Undertale did, and its success was much deserved. Owlboy looked like it was going to (hence the excitement), but really didn't (hence the failure to spread by word-of-mouth). Some of us gamers want to get totally lost in a game, the way we did all the time back in the days of yore (also called the SNES), and it happens with frustrating rarity nowadays. Owlboy looked like just the kind of game to draw us into a consistent, charming, quirky, emotion-laden universe that we could explore and revel in. It tried. For a lot of us, though, I think, it just didn't quite get there.
So maybe having 35,000 owners isn't really all that surprising after all?
For most of my life, I would have told you that I was a huge fan of adventure games. I was so sad when, after the advent of first person shooters and other intensely competitive, reflex-based games in the mid-to-late 90's, this storied genre of game fell by the wayside. And then, a decade or so later, adventure games started to make a bit of a comeback. And I started playing some of them again, and even going back and replaying some classics from the early days that I had missed as a kid. And I realized something.
These games aren't very much fun at all.
I was wrong about myself, and had been for a while. I'm not a fan of point-and-click or text-parser adventure games. Scouring pixel art pictures for items to pick up or buttons to push, cheap instant deaths, horrifyingly obscure puzzles that nobody is going to figure out without a guidebook - the basic mechanics of an old-school adventure game just aren't very enjoyable. They're not enjoyable now, and they weren't really enjoyable when I was a kid either. Mostly, they're frustrating and irritating, if not terminally boring. So how did I wind up being so wrong about my own taste in games?
I blame Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. Although this game is essentially obscure abandonware at this point, I absolutely loved this game when it came out. Freddy Pharkas was one of the last adventure games produced by Sierra. It had full voice acting, lush hand-drawn artwork, and an absolutely hilarious script written by Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series (which had been previous called, and I am not making this up, Soft Porn Adventure, in case you were wondering about the level of humor present in Lowe's games). Granted, Pharkas had a lot of dirty jokes (that mostly sailed over my head as a kid), but it also had a lot of just good old fashioned one-liners and character-based situation comedy as well.
Pharkas was a tremendously rewarding game to play. Virtually everything you could click on - every Look, Touch, and Talk command - resulted in something that wasn't only interesting and new, but frequently hysterically funny. I would spend hours in this game just clicking on everything to see what there was to see and hear what there was to hear. I would find an inventory item and immediately run around to all the townsfolk to give it to them to see what jokes they would tell about it (particularly the Irish-Italian barber who constantly alternated between accents, and haughty, villainous banker P. H. Balance). Very few games have rewarded exploration as consistently or thoroughly as Freddy Pharkas. I find myself occasionally frustrated that pretty much no one has ever heard of this game, as I think of it as a masterpiece.
Except for one tiny little thing. Underneath all the melodic music, the lush voice acting, and the nonstop barrage of jokes, Freddy Pharkas is still a point-and-click adventure game. The puzzles are mostly frustrating, awkward, and random. There are timed puzzles that result in your grisly death if you don't solve them fast enough - not that the game will tell you this until the cow flatulence finally suffocates you or the snail stampede overruns the town. There are inventory items that can't be found unless you click on just a few tiny pixels on one screen. Worst of all, there are a number of mini-games that require you to have reflexes and aim, which I do not.
All that said, I gladly suffered through the actual gameplay mechanics to experience the world, writing, humor, music, and characters. And just for the record, not all the mechanics are bad. For example, I had a lot of fun messing around with the drugs and bottles and glass rods and such in Freddy's pharmacy lab (the old-timey pharmacy reference that comes with the game is ALSO full of hilarity). A few of the puzzles were even fun to solve, even if most of them were random and impossible to solve without a conveniently priced guidebook.
So I've now come to the realization that, while I may have loved an adventure game, that doesn't really mean I love adventure games as a genre. When I tried my hand at other adventure games, recent and old, I found that a whole lot of them had all the frustration and awkwardness of Freddy Pharkas, but none of the charm or humor. To be fair, some of the Space Quest titles were still reasonably fun, and I did have a good time playing Strong Bad's parody game Peasant's Quest. But other than that, most other adventure games have been simultaneously boring and irritating. This includes lauded and otherwise high quality titles such as Grim Fandango, Dragonsphere (which at least has a nice nostalgic feeling), Secret of Monkey Island, and the Telltale Strong Bad series, among various other Flash adventure games and escape rooms I've tried.
Does this mean I've given up on finding another Freddy Pharkas cold turkey?
Eh... probably not, unfortunately.
Because deep down, I still yearn for a game as satisfying to explore, as hilariously written, and as colorful and irreverent, as Freddy Pharkas.
Also because I'm a moron.
I realize this is going to make me sound just a tad crazy, but I've really begun to loathe these things:
In video games.
They seem to have become increasingly popular over the last 5-10 years - and not just in phone games, where you might actually expect poor design choices, but everywhere. And they've started driving me crazy.
Do you remember playing Super Mario Bros as a child? If you're anything like me, you probably had a really hard time as the levels started to progress - those blasted Hammer Brothers, those long, bottomless pits, those flying fish. The first few levels were really easy, but it got difficult. Nonetheless, the challenge could really pay off - finally reaching that flag pole at the end of the level was a really satisfying event. It felt like an achievement. The game even gave you fireworks.
There was another satisfying feeling playing Super Mario Bros - that feeling you got when you found a "secret." Maybe it was an invisible extra life mushroom, or a pipe you could go down for a bonus stage, or a warp zone. Maybe you didn't really "find" it so much as your friend told you about it - but it was nonetheless a nice feeling. It not only felt like you discovered something, but that you discovered something you weren't supposed to. You were gaming the system a little bit (or a lot). You had access to special, insider knowledge.
The trouble with report cards is that they corrode both of these warm fuzzy feelings. When you beat a level in Mario, you had beaten it. If you found a secret, you had gamed the system. When a report card pops up at the end of the level, telling you that you didn't find all the Star Coins or that you didn't kill all the monsters or beat the level fast enough to get 100%, that damages both concepts. It's sort of like the gods of the game telling you, "You know, Sonic, that was really great the way you beat Dr. Robotnik and rescued all the animals, but really, if you think about it, you could've done it better. Also, you missed a bunch of gems and rings on the way. Don't you want to try again and get all the gems and rings you missed? Huh?"
The real answer to this is NO. I DON'T want to play the level again. I want to feel satisfied that I beat the level NOW, and then I want to be presented with NEW variety of content (because I am a selfish, entitled millenial, according to Newsweek's age range at least... sigh). I don't want to be told that I missed three "secrets" and, in order to get 100%, I have to go back and scour the level for fake walls and hidden details. Secrets are supposed to be secret! They should be bonuses.
It reminds me a lot of my 9th grade biology teacher. He made us do these handwritten "lab notebooks," and graded them with a meticulous eye for detail. At the beginning of the semester, he informed us that in order to get an A on our lab notebook, we would have to go "above and beyond" in some way. For me, this was particularly frustrating, because I valued my grade point average (a little too much, as it turned out). "Above and beyond" is great if it gives you real bonus points. That's fine. But to say I have to go "above and beyond" to get an A? That's not "above and beyond!" That's "expected!" That's the opposite of "above and beyond!" (Fortunately, as you can see, I am totally over this now. *cough*)
With these in-game report cards, what used to feel like an A (just beating the level) now feels like a C, or worse. And what used to feel like bonus points now feels like an A. It's... it's... satisfaction deflation, is what it is!
They also take you out of the game world, if you're the type of person who likes to feel immersed in video games. No sane Mario would care whether he had found all 5 dragon coins in a level - he just wants to save the Princess! Popping up a report card is like a direct kick to to your, uh... sense of immersion - you're not really on a quest to kill Dracula or beat Ganon or whatever - you're just playing a game. It's not a dungeon, it's an obstacle course. And don't you think you could be beating the game better?
Of course there are game genres where report cards are perfectly fine - sports games and collect-a-thons most notably, where the organic goal of the game is to check items off a list or execute a task optimally. That's fine.
And part of me understands the temptation to include the report cards. I even thought about putting them in my own game (The Adventures of Chris). Like achievements, report cards are a way of artificially padding out content by adding in extra challenges to existing levels. Instead of just one level where you only have to beat it, now it's like two or three levels where you have to get through it FAST or get through it COMPLETELY, etc etc. Unlike achievements, however, report cards are much harder to ignore. Achievements are bonuses for people who like them (which is great). Report cards are judgments for people who don't (which is less great).
So, to all my eventual players, I apologize for even thinking about putting report cards in my game. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, the way that I will someday, some year, find it in my heart to forgive my 9th grade biology teacher.
I've got this theory about art forms - I think it applies pretty well to musical theater, video games, theme park attractions, and even movies - maybe more than that. I'm curious to hear what you think about it.
I think any new art form goes (roughly) through a series of phases:
1. Experimental Phase
When an art form is brand new, things are pretty exciting - people are basically just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. At this phase, a smaller percentage of the population has any interest in the art form, so expectations are low, and people can get away with more. Future fans often look back on this phase with tremendous nostalgia, remembering the surprising successes, but this phase is generally characterized by a very high proportion of pure garbage. Production values are low - there's not a lot of money to go around. Attention from traditional media and from cultural elites is frequently VERY low, even sometimes contemptuous. But early successes start to mount. Some companies start to figure out what works and what doesn't. Lessons are learned, and popularity starts to build. Surprising successes start to mount.
2. Golden Age
Now companies take lessons learned from the experimental phase and mature them - they add money, better technology, more well-thought out processes, organizational structures, and the results are brilliant. With more resources, the things that worked from the early years are expanded on and done RIGHT. Companies are still taking risks, but the costs are starting to get higher - pure experimentalism is waning. The industry seems to be maturing, although at this phase the art form has likely not reached maximum cultural penetration. But within its own new community at least, the art form now seems to have achieved a perfect melding of popular success and critical acclaim.
And then, at a certain point, one or more big companies decide to spend a LOT of money and a LOT of organizational effort and a LOT of novel technology on the biggest and best effort yet. This combination of maximum resources plus the lessons learned from the early, experimental years marks one or more works that are seen as masterpieces - tremendous breakthroughs in form, technology, or scope. These works redefine the art form, and establish that it's capable of far more than traditionally believed. The potential audience for the art form now expands tremendously, believing that this breakthrough is just one more iteration in the infinite improvement and expansion of the art form. However, the costs of creating similar blockbusters have now skyrocketed, and the barrier to entry for the art form is now higher than ever.
4. Commodification Phase
A split results - the established companies with resources can continue to produce blockbusters, while new entrants struggle for attention. The big companies become tremendously risk averse, as budgets soar. They start to prefer productions that seem like reliable, guaranteed successes - safe bets like franchise installments, sequels, technical advances on familiar formulas. Freshness and novelty are punished more highly, even if everyone claims to want them - failures cost more and are punished more heavily by the larger audience. Simultaneously, smaller producers can't compete in terms of resources and marketing, and so have to rely on innovation - occasionally, this innovation stills scores a success and breaks through to the established companies, but this is relatively rare, and these successes may not be easily repeated, and so leave no particular legacy. The rarity of these breaks stems mostly from smaller companies' own need to mitigate risk - without large budgets, they may start to rely on other mechanisms to survive, such as academia, non-profits, independent financing, and government grants. All of these erode the likelihood of innovations succeeding, because they erode the connection between artistic success and financial rewards. If the artist fails, the artist suffers less consequence, and is therefore less motivated to truly connect with the audience.
5. Stultification Phase/Death
Eventually (sometimes VERY eventually), the extreme risk aversion of the established companies starts to do them in. The audience grows bored of the same things over and over again, and lacking freshness, move on to other art forms. This does not, however, necessarily result in any additional success for the lower-budget independents that now face less competition from big names. Habits learned while trying to survive during the previous phase - reliance on non-commercial funding sources, moral resentment at the broader culture they perceived to have rejected them - cause the art form to dwindle yet further, until it's eventually on life support driven entirely by nostalgia, academic interest, and even a sense of cultural mores - people "should" be interested in this art form because of what it's capable of. Unfortunately for the remaining diehards, people tend to respond better to art forms they do like, rather than art forms they should like.
So how would I apply this template to actual American art forms? Does my theory even work very well? Well, let's see...
I would put the experimental phase from the beginnings of garage and university hackers, through the Atari, right up until about the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System, with the golden age really getting established during the 16-bit era. The beginnings of 3D games (Playstation era) represent the first breakthroughs - with the biggest coming with the XBox and PS2, greatly expanding the audience for video games (as well as budgets). At this point, commodification sets in, and has been going strong for a long time. There are occasional hints that some former big players are struggling/declining, but I don't see stultification setting in quite yet.
I would put the experimental phase through the early twentieth century, maturing into the golden age in the 50's and 60's, when musicals were probably at their maximum combined cultural and financial height. The decline in the 70's admittedly doesn't fit my pattern very well, but the huge blockbuster successes of the Lloyd Webber shows (as well as Les Mis and other mega-musicals) in the 80's seems like a clear "breakthrough" period, greatly raising the budgets and the public's expectation for the form, as well as making a tremendous amount of money for a few players. The Disney musicals and blockbuster imitators of the 90's and 2000's represent commodification fairly well - although success rates seem lower here than in games (Disney with the best track record). Where do more recent critical and commercial successes like Hamilton and Book of Mormon fit in? Couldn't say. Will they spawn successful imitators?
Theme Park Attractions
Theme park attractions have always been higher budget, so the "experimental" phase is necessarily less experimental, but you can still the pattern. Amusement park rides, ghost trains, tunnels of love, etc. take us through the early twentieth century into Disneyland, when Disney launches a golden age with the New Orleans Square attractions - Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Disney's death puts an artificial brake on progress until the 80's, when Eisner and Wells open up the floodgates and the golden age resumes aright - with fantastic attractions like Tower of Terror and the Indiana Jones Adventure. I would place the true "breakthough" attraction, however, at Universal's Spider Man, which was such a tremendous step forward that it now seems the virtually EVERY new attraction must imitate it. Budgets are now so high that both Disney and Universal rely almost exclusively on franchises now - will we see stultification in the near future, or will billions more dollars spent on franchises save them?
I know a lot less about film so I could be way off on this, but I see the "breakthroughs" as films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park - films that showed the success of high-budget continuous action and high-budget computer graphics, respectively. Commodification seems to have set in very strongly over the last decade, with franchises seemingly permanently entrenched - but it remains to be seen whether the medium will truly stultify, as opera and straight plays have.
First a warning: When it comes to GIVING criticism for people's creative projects, I don't have any tips at all, except to say: "Don't!"
This is because when people say, "Would you please critique my creative project?" what they really MEAN is, "Would you please give my creative project an unqualified, vein-rupturing rave review, tempered with a few minor criticisms so I know you're sincere, e.g. 'If your fifth sentence had just one more comma in it, this story could easily rival Dante's Inferno in terms of cultural power. Also, this totally validates you as a human being.'"
I know this is true, because when I ask for criticism that is precisely what I mean. Unfortunately, I have a marked tendency to prefer to give my work to the sort of person who doesn't care much whether I feel validated, such as my immediate blood relatives, which occasionally results in (shudder) honest feedback. It might sound awful, but in reality, honest feedback is actually quite terrible.
Sometimes, however, honest feedback is necessary, especially if you intend for your work to be enjoyed by an audience that is less imaginary than usual. In theory, honest feedback is absolutely critical (get it?) for allowing you to temper and tweak and make your work better. I have discovered, however, that there is an art to receiving it. Fortunately for you, I have now withstood many years of receiving honest feedback as a member of various critique groups, and I have learned no more than five useful tips that I will now share with you.
Tip #1: Don't Argue
One of the most common mistakes made by folks new to the receiving-criticism game is that they FIGHT BACK. "My novel does NOT seem derivative!" they are all the time saying, or "I don't CARE whether or not you emitted a guffaw, that joke about Al Gore was both timely and hysterical - a laugh riot, if you will!" In the world of criticism, this is amateur hour stuff.
It's perfectly natural, of course, to be defensive when someone criticizes your work - after all, it might seem like they're attacking you personally. The reason for that, of course, is because they ARE attacking you personally, in so far as you have invested yourself personally in your work, which they are now saying negative things about, sometimes known as attacking. That's ok. That's what you WANT. You want your work to get stronger, therefore, you need people's honest reactions, which will be inhibited if you become defensive and make them feel uncomfortable about sharing their true feelings.
Ha ha! I am, of course, kidding. We all know that you don't actually want your work to become stronger - you want it to be acknowledged as maximally strong in its current form. It is for this reason that I highly recommend giving yourself as much emotional room as possible to make adjustments to your work - think in "draft" terms, not in terms of finished product (until it really is finished).
Remind yourself that many successful creative projects were done in an iterative fashion - numerous drafts, over and over again. If you go back and look at early drafts or versions of many successful works - Wicked, Banjo-Kazooie, the screenplay to Jurassic Park, the art style for Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story - you'll note that, not only did the finished product NOT spring fully-formed from the skull of a genius, but that the early versions were frequently TERRIBLE. It took many drafts, over and over, to get it right. And that's totally ok! Give yourself space to make changes.
Don't ask for criticism if you don't actually want it, and then, if you do, just smile and nod until they've said what they want to say, and either take it or ignore it as you see fit. Doesn't mean you can't ask questions or communicate with the critic AT ALL, only that defensive behavior accomplishes nothing but discouraging honest feedback. That's why defensiveness is best hidden, so you can reject people's terrible advice later in private.
Tip #2: Listen to their Emotional Reactions, Not Their Recommendations
Critics will frequently attempt to temper their negative criticisms of your work by offering friendly suggestions for how to "fix" it. In their mind, it shows that they are engaged and excited by your work, and therefore hope you will mind less that they just called your central protagonist "bland."
This is very thoughtful of them, but as a general rule, please do not give their recommendations the time of day.* It might be tempting to, if you are anything like me, because you are so eager to please everybody that you just want to take ALL the notes, even if it results in a wildly incoherent piece that no longer reflects your unified vision or the central appeal that drove you to make it in the first place. But you need to restrain yourself. There are often multiple ways to solve a problem, and the best solution is most likely to come from YOU. A piece works better when all the parts have a unified goal - your goal will likely be different than your critic's.
That said, you DO need to listen to the emotional reaction BEHIND the recommendation. That is actually very useful information.
For example, suppose I am trying to write an emotionally serious film noir screenplay. Then suppose I give it to someone who responds with, "You know what would be GREAT? If this were more tongue-in-cheek. Think of how hilarious it would be if your detective said blah blah blah" and starts throwing out jokes. You might even find some of the jokes funny.
But there's a problem - writing an ironic, self-mocking film was NOT your goal. You want something serious. That's completely ok. But is this guy's criticism therefore worthless? Not necessarily! After politely questioning him, you might discover that the reason for his recommendation is that he finds your dialog cheesy in places. Going "tongue-in-cheek" might sound like an encouraging idea, when it is, in fact, a criticism of your corny sentimentality. By layering on the sarcasm, your critic may feel that the film can be saved from its over-the-top cheese.
You may not like hearing it, but that's EXACTLY the information you need. Having parsed his totally useless recommendation into a sincere and useful emotional reaction, you can now figure out whether you want to bring the cheese level down, and if so, how, without taking your gritty film noir into Roger Rabbit territory.
Tip #3: Beware Their Generalizations
In my experience, frequently broad general criticisms of your work can be addressed with relatively small tweaks. This isn't always true, of course, but it's something to be careful about.
While reworking Act Two of my musical, Drawin' on the Walls, I presented a dialog scene to my critique group. A number of people responded that it was "too wordy." It "dragged," it seemed to go on and on, etc. I even inspired a debate between a few members as to how appropriate "naturalistic" dialog is in musical theater.
When these same critique group members saw the production, a couple of them made sure to tell me how much faster and tighter the dialog seemed in that one scene! I had cut exactly one tiny section consisting of four brief lines.
I believe that critics (including myself) have a remarkable tendency to inappropriately generalize. We can declare that the humor of a whole screenplay "doesn't work" because one or two jokes fell flat. We can declare an entire song lyric hopelessly confusing because of one difficult-to-make-out word early on.
I think this is perfectly natural, however, even unavoidable. It's the nature of art and entertainment. Adding one tiny spoonful of dog poop to a chocolate pudding doesn't make it slightly bad, it makes the whole thing terrible. Another musical I wrote was criticized by a friend for being "full of way too many convenient coincidences." The only one he ever kept referring to, however, was a single, particularly egregious one towards the end, and he couldn't think of any others. Apparently, that single coincidence was so awkward and obvious that it colored the entire musical for him!
When critics respond with generalities, try to (politely) ferret out specific moments that felt off if you can. That's much more likely to help you then blindly trying to "fix" an entire piece that may not need that much fixing.
Tip #4: Beware Your Influence
The best criticism is, I believe, criticism where you are not even present. Even if you take my advice in tip #1 and don't argue (please please don't argue), you can still inhibit truly honest and useful feedback just by being there. It might seem sometimes critics relish the thought of tearing your work to shreds, but generally speaking, most people HATE giving negative feedback. They would rather politely say non-committal things than risk hurting your feelings.
But even if you make it clear that you will not be emotionally injured by honest feedback, your presence STILL has an impact - people are far less likely to stop reading the novel after page 26, change the channel, or stop playing your video game if you asked them for feedback, and especially if you're in the room with them while they take in your work! Sometimes the most useful feedback is that your novel didn't keep them interested enough to keep turning pages.
This doesn't mean that this kind of feedback is useless, of course, only that you need to be aware of its limitations. Finding honest people who don't care about your feelings is helpful, naturally, but receiving feedback through a proxy, or even passively watching usage statistics (if you have access to such things) can also help mitigate the impact of your influence.
Tip #5: Don't Share Things Too Early / Don't Ask People to Imagine Too Much
This one has bitten me numerous times.
My most embarrassing example probably comes from one of my programmer day jobs - I once showed off a new system to a potential customer that had a very makeshift, ugly user interface. It was only preliminary, of course - all the work had been done under the hood - and somehow, I figured it would be useful to get feedback on the "general concept" of the software even though practically no consideration had been given to the user experience. Naturally, we were careful to warn people that the UI was only a temporary one to demonstrate the basic concept.
"That's too many button presses!" "This layout is confusing!" "I need a simpler interface!" And so on, and so on... At the time I was pretty dang frustrated, but then I realized that I am an idiot. Of course they focused on the temporary user interface. That's the only thing they can actually see. I was basically asking them to design a better interface in their head and then evaluate the software with THAT interface, instead of the one I actually presented to them. I can warn them all day that the UI is temporary - that doesn't mean they can suddenly imagine a better one.
As a general rule, telling critics to "imagine that this is better" will not work. Imagination is hard, and it's not fair to require them to use too much of it to evaluate your work. This is tough, because it's very tempting to seek feedback when your work is at an early stage, to make sure your work is going in a generally good direction. Sometimes, you may feel that seeking early feedback is critical because otherwise you might spend a lot of money, time, and effort on the next steps of the project and you want some security before you do.
Unfortunately, that's a lot to ask. Some preliminary forms are perfectly good for judging isolated aspects of the final work - an outline for the spine of the story, a colorboard or a rough sketch for the general look and feel, a staged reading of a musical for the songs and dialog, etc. But asking people to judge a song by the lyric only, for example, may be a bridge too far.
With my game The Adventures of Chris, I would occasionally send out early prototypes for feedback that were FAR from anything that a human being should ever have been exposed to. As a result, people would get hung up on stuff that I thought they should obviously know wasn't going to be in the final product. Honestly, I wasn't being fair to them. After all, I don't like it when artists send ME sketches and say, "Judge this as if there were a lot more detail." That's very difficult to do. Anything you can do to bring your project more fully to life is worth doing, especially at early stages. The less the critic has to fill in the blanks for you, the better your feedback will be!
And unfortunately, I've learned that sometimes I've just got to take a risk, and trust that my vision for the project is going to work. I won't always be able to get meaningful feedback before any given step of the process. That's just how it is.
So what'd you think of my five tips? This pretty much deserves an immediate Pulitzer, right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!?!?!
* 5:29 PM
(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
I find, in my advanced age of 33, that I am frequently alone in my opinions. A couple nights ago I saw the new Star Wars movie, and just about everybody seemed to love it. Tomatometer.com records almost perfect rave status. How weird, and isolating, then, to have found it mostly boring. I wonder if anyone else out there agrees with me...
For me, the appeal of Star Wars was never really the story, or the characters, or the dialog - it was the world. Star Wars created a gritty, expansive universe governed by its own internally consistent rules that made it feel like it could be a real place. It had incredible fantasy - lightsaber duels, X-Wing battles, force powers - tied to a very grounded world of farm boys and sand-crusted machines - the most effective combination. (Harry Potter did something similar.) The appeal of Luke Skywalker was not that his character was particularly interesting as a character, but that in his slightly gawky awkwardness, in his ordinariness, he was basically a stand-in for all the slightly gawky, awkward kids in the audience - Luke Skywalker was you.
Just like the silent protagonist of Chrono Trigger or a million video games, Luke represented the audience - when he got to explore and discover this awesome universe, we got to explore and discover it along with him. When Yoda trained him on the force and twisted his brain, we got trained and twisted right along with him. When he yearned for an adventure out beyond the two suns of Tatooine, so did we. When he stared out over the smoking corpses of his family and wanted revenge, so did we. Just as we could easily imagine ourselves being Harry Potter or Hermione Granger, we could easily imagine ourselves being Luke Skywalker - an ordinary kid who gets to do extraordinary things.
Well, what about "The Force Awakens?" For me, it was... a movie. Not a bad movie, really. A lot of stuff happened. None of that stuff was awful (well, maybe some of the lame, unfunny attempts at one-liners were awful), none of it was as bad as the prequels, but it didn't hit that Star Wars sweet spot either. Why not? It was the same world, wasn't it? Didn't J.J. Abrams go to immense trouble to recreate the feel of the original films? Isn't it still gritty and grounded? Isn't there still awesome in the form of light sabers and X-Wings and the force? Yeah, but instead of feeling like I'm seeing this awesome world afresh, I felt like I was just seeing it again. And I already have "A New Hope" on Blu-ray.
Why? Why so weak? Why did the action sequences just make me want to check my watch repeatedly? Why did the movie drag so much after the first third or so? Why did the stakes feel so low when they should've felt maximally high? I think the answer is simple - no Luke Skywalker.
By that I do NOT mean "no Mark Hamill' (although I would have liked to have seen more of him personally). I mean there was no character who let us see the world afresh. I've been to Disney World many many times, but I got to see it and experience it anew when we took my 3-year-old nephew along with us the last time. I got to experience Disney afresh by seeing and experiencing his reactions. When he loved Dumbo, I got to love Dumbo, too. I needed something similar in "The Force Awakens."
They tried, though. Kind of. The movie introduces three young people to become the Luke, Leia, and Han of the next generation - Rey, Finn, and Poe. Could any of these have been the Luke of the movie? Poe is barely present in the movie, so not him. What about Finn? Of the three new guys, Finn had the most relatable emotions - he had actual flaws and an actual personality. He definitely could've been the Luke of the movie - but the movie didn't seem that interested in him. His emotional journey as an AWOL Stormtrooper is basically wrapped up in the first ten minutes of the film, and the rest of his arc is consumed in a weird, ambiguous, and totally uninteresting crush on Rey. We get a few moments of Finn learning to shoot from a laser turret, but his whoops and hollers of "This is so cool!" felt strangely fake and unearned, like something he was supposed to feel rather than something he actually felt. Maybe they happened too fast, or seemed too out of place for someone who ought to have been scared for his life, but the moments didn't work at all. I needed something like watching Grant and Ellie stare up in awe at the brachiosaurus at the top of "Jurassic Park," but instead got something weird and fake. Finn never got to learn anything about himself or explore his powers, like Luke did - he just got to be there a lot. (I wish they had made HIM the incipient Jedi...)
So what about Rey? Is Rey the new Luke? It feels like she's supposed to be. She starts off all sandy and dirty on a desert planet, finds a droid with a map in it, and gets swept off into an adventure. She gets to find out that she has special force powers. So she should be the Luke of the movie. And yet, Rey is a total non-character from start to finish. Well, that's not completely fair - we do get a few fleeting moments of real emotion when she sees green for the first time, and when she's hungry as a lonely scavenger. I liked those moments. But mostly, she's just a movie character - smart, capable, knowledgeable, and thoroughly, utterly boring. Are we supposed to believe that this kid grew up on a desert wasteland fighting for every morsel of food? She ought to be Eliza Doolittle or the Artful Dodger - a foul-mouthed, scrappy, cynical, hardened, low-class, uncouth sort of character, not a high-class Keira Knightley figure wandering a desert with no friends or relationships for any discernable reason. Her character feels false from top to bottom. Luke and Harry may not have been interesting as characters, but they were at least authentic and realistic portrayals of ordinary kids. Finn gets to be an authentic person, but bland Rey gets to be the central protagonist.
What's more, Rey is the one who learns she has Jedi powers. Never mind that she doesn't seem to have to go through an emotional journey like Luke did with Yoda, learning about aggression and the nature of the force, which is bad enough. (Rey's powers are more like Peter Parker's spider bite - she just starts having them.) No, the real problem is that the movie skimps on letting us feel Rey's journey as she discovers her power. We get a brief interrogation scene played for laughs where she learns she can control minds, and then she runs off into the station to learn about her powers unseen by us. Movies like "Spider Man" and "The Incredibles" got awesome mileage out of showing the fear and ultimate exhilaration of learning you have superpowers. Dash learning he can run over water is maybe my favorite film moment of all time. "The Force Awakens" should have done something similar with Rey, but that key emotional connection is given frustratingly short shrift. What would it be like to learn you have cool force powers? Rey doesn't get to answer that question for us very much.
Instead, we get lots and lots of boring action sequences, punctuated by fake-feeling, unfunny one-liners and a whole whole lot of winking, fourth-wall breaking fan service. (The entire shootout/chase sequence on the freighter with Han Solo should've been cut early on) It all felt like typical movie stuff, not like Star Wars. Maybe if I liked typical movie stuff more I'd be less bothered, but I find most typical movies boring beyond belief. Star Wars I liked.
Moreover, you want to hear something heretical? I think "The Force Awakens" desperately needed George Lucas. Not to write a line of dialog, of course, or to direct, but to imagine something crazy, goofy, and surprising. "The Phantom Menace" did a lot of terrible things, but it was new and different. It was wacky and unpredictable and took us somewhere we'd never been. It had new awesome - pod racers and Darth Maul's double light saber and "Duel of the Fates" (ok, that's John Williams more than George Lucas but I still love it). It was outrageous and inventive. Nobody saw "The Phantom Menace" coming. "The Force Awakens" felt predictable beat by beat.
Other sins the movie committed? There's plenty for everyone:
- The villain, Kylo Ren, starts out awesome and menacing but gets WEAKER as the movie progresses - threat should INCREASE as the movie continues.
- We get brief hints of an actually interesting story that happened BETWEEN Return of the Jedi and this movie, just enough to frustrate us that there's a better movie they could've made out of this material
- The world doesn't make any sense - what is the nature of the Republic and the First Order? Why is Luke's lightsaber where they found it? Why does everyone want to find Luke so bad? What is happening at any given moment in the film? Yeah, ok, Lucas bored us to tears with politics and world-building and exposition in the prequels, but the answer isn't to get rid of it entirely. I like understanding what's going on sometimes!
- Nothing grotesque, dark, or shocking - not a single bloody severed arm or smoking corpse - everything felt very safe and pablum.
- Even after doing so much to avoid the sins of the prequels, Abrams STILL gives us two fake-looking cartoon characters in key positions.
- No new John Williams music that's worth anything.
When I came out of "The Phantom Menace," I actually thought to myself, "That was HORRIFYINGLY AWFUL. But against my better judgment, I know I'm going to see the next one in the theaters." When I came out of "The Force Awakens," I thought, "That was... a movie, I guess? When the next one comes out, I think I'll wait for the home theater release."
It's not that Animal Kingdom is a bad park. It's actually got a lot going for it -- intricate detail, some good rides, and some excellent shows. I'd still rather go to Animal Kingdom than Six Flags (although I like Six Flags, too). So I need to emphasize -- Animal Kingdom is a fine park. It's just not... well... at the same level as the other Disney parks. It's missing something.
Now if you're the average theme park goer, I imagine you might respond, "Duh, Chris! Of course it's missing something: rides and restaurants!" Animal Kingdom has a reputation as being barely more than a half-day park, and its list of attractions can seem fairly sparse compared to the Magic Kingdom. I don't know that I agree with that particularly - if you consider the animal trails and exhibits to be attractions, which I do, there's plenty to fill a day with.
Even if it was only a half-day park, there's no reason it couldn't be an excellent half-day park. But it's still lacking that missing ingredient. And what is that ingredient?
Well, as fun as the various attractions are and as much I love eating at the parks, the thing that really appeals to me about Disney are those moments of just being enveloped in beautiful design. It hits me frequently when I'm walking around World Showcase at Epcot as the sun goes down and the lights come up. It hits me walking past the dim lights at night in Frontierland, or looking down Sunset Boulevard at the Tower of Terror, or looking up at the Chinese Theater, or entering the Mexico pavilion, or coming out of Space Mountain into Tomorrowland at night, or sitting in Gaston's Tavern and listening to the music, or hearing the train whistle or Haunted Mansion wolf-howl anywhere in Magic Kingdom. I love those moments. I don't know that I've ever had a single one in Animal Kingdom. I've had enjoyable times. But I haven't had that beautiful moment of appreciation.
I realize that this is hugely subjective, so there are probably some folks who do feel those moments in Animal Kingdom (can't imagine why, though), but I have talked to a number of people who seemed to agree with me - there's just something kind of "blah" about Animal Kingdom that's hard to put into words. The thing that's weird is that Animal Kingdom, by any formula, ought to be the best park of them all. Unlike, say, California Adventure when it opened, Animal Kingdom does not feel cheap or tacky (well, except for that one area... COUGH). It has an amazing level of authentic details, layer upon layer of realistic touches. It has a unified vision - the brainchild essentially of one very talented guy, Imagineer Joe Rohde. In a sense, the park does everything "right." And yet...
After reading and listening to a lot of interviews with the creators of Animal Kingdom (as well as other Disney parks), I've got a theory as to why Animal Kingdom is so weak. It's not really the lack of rides, the focus on animals, or the relative lack of table service restaurants. Animal Kingdom fails to deliver those magic moments because it's not really trying. It has the wrong goals.
This can happen in any artistic endeavor. If you're an artist of any kind, it pays to ask yourself - what's driving you to make it? The successful artists frequently seem to have a relentless focus on the emotional experience of the audience - making a connection. How is the audience going to feel when this or that happens in my musical, or they get to this or that chapter of my novel? It's no guarantee of success, obviously, but making a connection with the audience is profoundly challenging. It therefore helps out a lot if you're actually trying to achieve the goal. With a surprising frequency, however, I hear artists explain their motivations for producing their art and it's something ancillary to its emotional impact.
I've read creative people enthuse over solving tricky problems, creating a world, imparting a particular "message" through their art, addressing some particular social ill, or even simply "being" a writer or an artist or whatever. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but if they're the only driver, the odds are fairly high the project is going to fail at connecting with the audience - because none of these things directly do. "I want to make something scary" has a FAR higher chance of success than "I want to subvert the traditional quest narrative" (even if it really needs subverting).
Listening to Joe Rohde and other Imagineers talk about Animal Kingdom, it becomes fairly clear that connecting emotionally with the audience is not, and never was, a high priority. They like to gush about how organic the park is, how if a tree falls over they just leave it, how the paths twist naturally through the landscape. They talk about how authentic the exquisite detailing is in the queue for Expedition Everest - how accurately it recreates real structures in Nepal. They talk about the importance of nature, how nature is the ultimate good, in quasi-religious tones.
They do NOT, however, talk about how they want their audience to feel inspired, relaxed, reassured, thrilled, scared, happy, sad, enraged, or anything. And consequently, few people feel those things at Disney's Animal Kingdom. You can tell in the design, the moment you walk in the park.
The entrances to Disneyland (and the Magic Kingdom) are famously designed like a movie - building anticipation until just the right moment when you round the corner and get the big reveal of the castle at the end of Main Street. Everything is arranged for maximum emotional impact. Now consider the entrance to Animal Kingdom. Called "the Oasis," their equivalent of Main Street is a few winding paths through the woods - no shops, only a few light animal viewing locations. Being named the Oasis, it might sound like it's all about creating a relaxed feeling in guests, but in execution, it's really not. The music is not soothing. There aren't a lot of places to sit. It's the entrance to a theme park, so it's crowded, and it's outdoors in Florida, so it's going to be hot and muggy. The design of winding paths isn't particularly relaxing in and of itself, but it's designed not to be relaxing but to appear undesigned, which is not the same thing. Nature, of course, is an awesome and beautiful thing, which is why, if one wants to see nature, one goes to, say, a national park, where nature lives. One does not go to a theme park, which is all about appreciating enveloping, immersive design. Animal Kingdom is a theme park trying very hard not to be a theme park. It's a theme park trying to be nothing. It almost succeeds.
Instead of a beautiful, towering castle or a grandiose floating silver golf ball as a central icon, Animal Kingdom gives us a giant tree made of leaves that aren't quite the right color. It's surrounded by a lot of real trees to give it an organic look and feel, meaning after you emerge from the Oasis into the center hub-like area, it takes you a second to realize you're even looking at the park icon. If you know what's going on, you might appreciate the organic design on an intellectual level, but it's not going to make any particular emotional connection with you - and why should it? It's not trying to.
Discovery Island, the central hub area, is confusing and maze-like, with isolated store buildings here and there but no logical layout. This is true throughout the park, but while it does make it easy to get lost, the real crime is that it prevents ordered design from doing its thing. In other parks, pathways are arranged to entice you to walk further in. Walt liked to put tall attractions at the end of pathways, calling them "wienies" (cough) so that people would be attracted to the far reaches of the park. Cinderella Castle, the Tower of Terror, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad all function as wienies. The circular layout of World Showcase around a lagoon means that virtually every country's pavilion functions as a wienie, too. The lack of straight paths and the attempts to make everything look natural means there aren't a lot of well-designed sight lines, which means there aren't a lot of wienies in Animal Kingdom - only the massive Expedition Everest really qualifies.
Even the attractions themselves fail to make much of an emotional connection. Everest is a nice roller coaster, and Dinosaur is a reasonably fun "dark ride," but they're both terrible at building anticipation. Unlike Tower of Terror, which brilliantly builds suspense from the moment you see it at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Everest sits there like a very tall lump. There are no touches designed to suggest danger. No eerie music. No darkness or lighting effects. No dangerous-looking, crumbling architecture. Nothing threatening at all. What indications there are of the danger of the yeti inside are subtle. You shouldn't have to read a paragraph in a museum exhibit to feel some suspense. Until the moment your train goes through the initial temple on its ascent into the mountain you might as well be in line for the carousel, given the complete lack of emotional engagement you feel (unless you're scared of roller coasters, of course, in which case, you're already at DEFCON 1).
The same is true of Dinosaur. The queue area gives you a museum exhibit narrated by Bill Nye the Science Guy. The exterior is a fairly bland looking building. It's supposed to be a thrill ride. Who would know?
Or take the Harambe village area, probably the area with the most layers of detail and most areas to explore. Compare Harambe to your average World Showcase national pavilion. In Epcot, the countries are essentially reduced to picture postcards with restaurants - hardly an authentic representation of a modern nation. Harambe, however, while it represents a fictional part of Africa, is alive with broken bricks and decaying newspapers plastered on old walls. You can tell the instant you step in to Harambe that some Imagineer did a whole lot of research. And it doesn't matter. Not really.
As inauthentic as a picture postcard is, a picture postcard is striking. Maybe it's pretty, maybe it's charming, maybe it's exciting, maybe it's funny, but it's something. It serves an emotional function and hence, requires design. It captures an emotional height and makes an emotional connection. I don't need authentic. I don't need organic reality. I experience organic reality every day! That's not why anyone goes to a theme park. I need something to be authentic enough to not spoil the illusion, and then I need it to deliver something awesome. Something that makes an emotional connection. It could be serenity like the Japan pavilion, mystery and atmosphere like the Mexico pavilion, charm like the Germany pavilion, or even (dare I say it) grand patriotism like the America pavilion. What does Harambe make you feel? It's just kind of there. And yet it's so detailed! So intricately crafted! But to what end? The whole area has no answer to the emotional "why?"!
(World Showcase actually almost fell prey to the same kind of thinking. In the early planning phases, Disney was talking about having each country be represented by an identical, bland modern structure of some kind. The thinking was that all countries would then appear equal. This was rightly discarded as a horrifyingly stupid idea. Sure, you might avoid giving a few extremely sensitive people offense, but you lose the personality, the flavor, the joy of seeing the traditional architecture of each country! Fortunately, in Epcot at least, making an emotional connection won out over ancillary concerns.)
I love the safari ride. I love Finding Nemo: the Musical (I would). I love Flights of Wonder. Animal Kingdom is not a bad park. It's just not as awesome as it could be.
If it tried, though, I bet it really could be...
When I was a kid, as a diehard Super Nintendo fanboy, I thought myself flatly superior to the "Sega kids," both morally and objectively. With them, it was always about "graphics." That was always the most important thing. Whatever games had the best "graphics," or at least pretended to have the best graphics, those were the games to play. I sneered at them regularly. Gameplay was obviously the most important thing, I thought. Why waste time on pretty games that played horribly, when the Super Nintendo was right there with a fantastic library of games that were actually FUN, the equal of which has not yet been produced? All those kids who cared about graphics were just the pawns of cynical advertisers, shelling out hard-earned cash for glittery garbage. (Nintendo, on the other hand, was pure as the driven snow.)
This dynamic continued right on up 'til the present day with me. Instead of SNES vs. Sega, however, it became about AAA vs "indie." Right about the time of the GameCube, I started having trouble maintaining interest in console games. A lot of games seemed to be trying to become ever more cinematic, which I had (and still have) no interest in. Some games basically felt like elaborate movies interrupted by sequences of Simon Says ("Now push X! Now push B! Quick!"). Other games were gigantic, sprawling, complicated messes requiring never-ending tutorials. Big, expensive games would come out that even had basic gameplay issues - poor camera control, bland storytelling, awkward mechanics. The graphics were beautiful, of course, but the games weren't any fun for me to play.
So sure, buying indie games basically meant taking a huge risk on quality - but sometimes you could find an excellent title here and there, if you got lucky. Somewhere, deep inside, I imagined myself virtuous and noble somehow, taking a chance on indie games. After all, they couldn't afford good graphics so they HAD to rely on good gameplay. Having cheap graphics is obviously no guarantee of good gameplay, but if the art isn't expensive, it makes it much easier to adjust, iterate, and fix problems with the rest of the game. The lower the cost of developing art assets, the more likely the fundamentals of the game can be fixed. Levels can be dropped and added, new mechanics can be introduced, and so on. Hence, I figured I knew what was really important about a game. It frustrated me to no end that the big game studios seemed exclusively focused on making games pretty rather than making them fun.
And then I had a rather unpleasant realization: I'm a gigantic game-buying hypocrite.
I realized this when I was reading a debate about indie games on a forum somewhere. A bunch of gamers were arguing over what indie games "should" be priced, as though there was some objective, correct answer to that question. The interesting thing to me was that there was actually a fairly large minority of gamers who felt like people ought to be willing to pay more for indie titles - the infamous "race to the bottom," they argued, was making it harder for small studios to survive in the current market. Who can make a living in an environment where $0.99 feels like WAY too much for a game? They argued that if gamers were willing to pay more for indie titles, we'd get better quality games.
The argument made a certain amount of sense, I guess, until I read a reply from a rather obnoxious forum member. This guy was pretty upfront about his feelings on the subject. He was perfectly happy to shell out $60 for a mediocre game from a AAA studio because he knew that they had whole teams of artists and programmers bringing the game to life. He had no intention of ever paying that kind of money for an indie game that, no matter how fun or well-designed it was, could have been made by one guy in his basement.
WHAT?! was pretty much my initial thought. Why should that make any difference at all to what you're willing to pay? Isn't fun, isn't good design the WHOLE POINT of buying games? Who cares what the developers had to spend to make it? Was Waterworld a fantastic movie because it was expensive?
But then I realized - I behave exactly the same way when buying games. He was simply articulating what I felt deep down - as irrational and goofy as it might seem. I was in denial. As it happens, I am perfectly willing to spend $60 on a AAA game that I play for a couple hours and abandon, or that even sits in its shrink wrap for all eternity. On the other hand, for a game like Anagram Mathica, a word puzzle game for Android that I've wasted hours and hours and hours of my life trying to solve, I would not pay more than a buck or two. Why? Why am I happy to pay so much money for a mediocrity like Starcraft II but no money at all for a game that I love?
Because I could imagine myself building my own version of Anagram Mathica in a couple days, and I could never produce Starcraft II myself. It doesn't matter that the game is lackluster and tepid compared to it's brilliant predecessor. Just like that guy on the forums, I knew that Starcraft II required a huge team of artists and programmers to create, and I factored that into my buying decision. The fun of the game was a distant consideration. The graphics may not matter to my enjoyment of the game, but they absolutely matter to what I'm willing to pay for it.
So I realized I'm a hypocrite. I may self-righteously champion the virtues of the low-resolution-but-brilliantly-fun game all day long, but I'm still not willing to pay for it. And that's key. Game companies can only be all about the fun until they run out of capital. At some point, they have to make games people will pay for. And if I'm not willing to pay for a good game with cheap graphics, then I'm not going to get a good game with cheap graphics. Studios are going to keep putting out the cinematic garbage that people will pay for. And it will be my fault as much as anyone else's.
Is there a solution to this problem?
I suppose I could start donating to those few indie game studios that made games I love. For all the hours of fun I had playing Anagram Mathica or Elliot Quest or Maldita Castilla I could pay extra. Every little bit helps, right? Or maybe some platforms could start selling "fair trade" indie games (in brown packages!), where you pay extra not only for the brilliant indie game but for the patina of righteousness you get from supporting a worthy cause. Or maybe I can get super preachy on Twitter and convert people to the cause of paying more for a game than they feel should have to! That's gotta work! Right?
So is there a solution to this problem?
No. There is not.
The original Japanese Final Fantasy III didn't come to the US for many years, and in the form of a 3D remake. I've been playing through the OUYA port lately, and this song really struck me. I find it quite haunting. It plays when you visit your homeworld and find virtually the entire surface flooded - the music combined with the isolating feeling of flying around nothing in your airship was quite effective. (And this in a game that doesn't generally hit emotional notes of any kind!)
I'm not the only person who thinks Ultima VII (1992) was a fantastic role-playing game. I may be the only person who likes it for the reasons that I do, though, as (you may have noticed) I am very weird. Maybe not, though. Let's see what you think!
Ultima VII was famously the game where you could go buy sacks of grain from a farmer, put them into a mill and grind them into flour, which you could then take into a bakery and put on a table, add water from a bucket (that you filled from a well), and bake into bread, which you could then feed to your extremely whiny party members to get them to stop saying things like, "I could use some food" over and over. It was also the game where you could watch as every single individual townsperson walked around town according to their daily schedule, working, eating at the tavern, maybe going to their "Fellowship" meeting, and going to bed. You could sit at the tavern and watch all the townspeople gather and make chit-chat with each other. At the time, and even to a large extent today, the game seemed absurdly detailed and lifelike.
You could do practically anything you wanted - go anywhere, kill anybody (although your party members might leave you in disgust). When I first played the game, it took me a while to make the huge mental shift into its world. The game starts outside of a stable housing a gory murder victim. Naturally, this being a video game, I immediately walked into the stables and started stuffing absolutely everything into my backpack - horseshoes, brooms, hay, a bucket of blood from the murder scene - because, hey, it's not nailed down, is it? It nearly caused my fifth-grade brain to melt out of my ears when I realized that none of this stuff existed for me - the horseshoe wasn't an item or an upgrade or the solution to a puzzle. There was a horseshoe because I was in a stable and there are horseshoes in a stable. I could pick it up and take it with me because... why not?
Ultima VII was perhaps the first game I ever played where it seemed clear that the world did not exist merely to serve me as a game player. The store owners did NOT keep their stores open 24 hours a day for my benefit. If they were at dinner or asleep, I was out of luck. If I invaded someone's house, they yelled at me. If I broke all their jars and looted the (mostly useless) stuff inside of them, the jars did not respawn when I left the house and came back in - they were broken for the rest of the game. It felt real in a strange way. Goofy as it may sound, it's like there was a world I was visiting.
Ultima VII gets a lot of credit for this, and rightly so. However, lots of other games that followed have accomplished at least that much, and I haven't enjoyed them nearly as much. But Ultima VII I still love. Whereas Skyrim - a far more elaborate and advanced (and easier to play) game - is a pleasant diversion for a few hours, even now Ultima VII can draw me eagerly back to the computer to explore some more. What's the difference?
I think the answer is that Ultima VII follows the "Pirates of the Caribbean Principle." The game is all about extremes - the characters and stories are loud, colorful, and instantly accessible. The amazing thing about Ultima VII is not just that there's a lot of detail, but that so much of the detail is actually interesting. Any developer with enough budget and time can fill a world with "lore" and lifelike mechanics and details. It takes a real storyteller, however, to make an entire world that's actually worth exploring.
Virtually every townsperson in Ultima VII has a well-defined and colorful personality, including shopkeepers. The barmaid in Trinsic is over-flirtatious, the barmaid in Jhelom is enormous and can beat you in arm wrestling, the barmaid in Skara Brae is unaware she's dead, etc. They all have a brightly drawn, distinctive character portrait and a unique voice. More significantly, they all have an opinion and frequently an agenda. It may have to do with the main quest of the game (the mysterious quasi-religious organization known as "the Fellowship"), or maybe with the story going on in that particular town, but hardly anybody exists merely to sell you arrows or to fill out the population. Ultima as a series was not necessarily known for being a story-driven game, but Ultima VII is a brilliant exercise in basic storytelling principles - keep conflict on the rise, use bold colors and strong characterizations, eliminate extraneous details.
That last one may come as a surprise, because to a lot of people Ultima VII is all about the extraneous details - the villager's daily schedules, the working blacksmith equipment, etc. But I think if you'll look closely, you'll see that as "sprawling" as the game might appear, it's actually extremely TIGHT. City populations are actually very small (And why is 95% of the population of Britannia single? That can't last...), and the world itself is actually not that large size-wise. Most of the towns are really quite close to each other (a fact that is obscured by the limited top-down viewpoint of the game). Like Ocarina of Time, the world isn't big so much as full, which is to be preferred. Each character in each town has a little role to play in either the larger quest or that town's mini-story. And no, there aren't hundreds of unrelated miniquests to do. Usually, each town has one main story and maybe a couple of tiny side stories to explore, but very few (if any) of these qualify as "side quests" in the traditional RPG sense. No one asks you to "kill ten bears" or to go get a staff from a dungeon halfway around the world unless it's relevant to the main, single-threaded storyline. What's more, there are secrets and treasures to find everywhere. One of the great design principles of Miyamoto (designer of Mario, Zelda, and other Nintendo titles) is rewarding exploration, and Ultima VII follows suit. The game's world might not really be "for me," in the same way that King's Quest or Final Fantasy was, but there was still a whole lot of treasure at the end of just about any given dungeon.
I should probably note that when I say Ultima VII is a brilliant storytelling game, that I don't mean that there's a whole lot of plot or cutscenes in the game. In fact, apart from the brief beginning and end, there are NO cutscenes. Due to the nature of the game, you are constantly arriving to a town just after story has occurred - a grisly, ritualistic murder was committed, a wussy little man was challenged to a duel to the death by a warrior's guild, etc. So even though you uncover clues to the story after the fact, there is still a story being told. What's more, a story is being told in the very interactions and agendas of the characters you interact with. "Plot" might be sparse in Ultima VII, but "story" is not. (I should also mention how fantastically grateful I am that every book in Ultima VII contains only a blurb of text!)
What's frustrating to me is that I seldom hear game developers or game reviewers expound on these principles (screenwriters, musical theater writers, theme park attraction designers do though), even though they seem critically important to me. It's possible I'm one of only a few who values them in application to the games world, although back in the 90's it seemed like they were just understood. Given that the games that I do love are loved by many others, however, suggests that I'm not alone in valuing these things - or, at least, I hope I'm not.
Maybe one day we can have another Ultima VII. Until then, I guess I'll just have to settle for the somewhat duller, emptier world of Skyrim.
Nah, I'm gonna play Ultima VII again.
The boss of the Siberian ice cave level in the Adventures of Chris is getting a bit of an overhaul... Check out the awesome new concept sketch by Ricardo van Duuren!
Lagoon was not the best Super Nintendo Zelda-like RPG, but it had a certain simplicity and charm about it that made it worth spending some time with it. A lot of that charm was the soundtrack. One of my favorites is the theme from Voloh - a plaintive, medieval waltz with a sad, quiet quality:
The Adventures of Chris HD revamp is coming along - it's been a bit of a slow start, but we've got sketches and finished animation frames and more on the way! I'm excited to update you as more artwork comes in, and the game starts to take shape...
In the meantime, check out these awesome sketches by animator Ivana Libiaková from models by lead artist Ricardo van Duuren!
I remember this one part from Final Fantasy II ("Final Fantasy IV" for you video game purists out there), where the heroes are tasked with defending a castle from a continual onslaught of monsters from the villain's army. At this point in the storyline, the heroes are supposed to be fighting a desperate, last-ditch battle in an attempt to save the castle in a hopeless, undermanned situation. The trouble is, gameplay-wise, the bad guys are actually pretty easy. Even as a 10-year-old I was able to dispatch them without too much difficulty. But after each round of combat, the heroes would announce, "We can't hold this position any longer! Fall back to the next room!" And I'm just sitting there, ignorant ten-year-old that I am, going "I JUST BEAT THE BAD GUYS. WE'RE HOLDING OUT JUST FINE." Even though I won every individual battle, the sequence ends with Golbez, the generic-feeling Darth-Vader-like bad guy, sweeping in with his big purple cape and stealing the castle's magic crystal, as well as kidnapping the hero's girlfriend. It was a bit of a frustrating feeling. I won the battle, so why should I lose the story?
Well, now that I'm older, I appreciate the tricky balance that the game designers were trying to achieve with this. The fact is, even though they didn't quite finesse the situation, they did achieve a significant victory. I might have been a little frustrated and confused, but I was still very invested in the plotline, and I still felt like I had "won" that section of the plot somehow. I had to see what happened next, but I still felt like I had made progress in the game. That's a tricky balance that a number of more recent games have failed to achieve, believe it or not.
In order for the player to be invested in a game's story, the threat level has to feel like it's generally increasing. It doesn't have to always increase (and probably shouldn't, as that gets exhausting), but the general arc needs to push the suspense meter higher as the game progresses. This is a fairly basic storytelling principle. You get your hero up a tree in Act I, throw rocks at him in Act II, etc. The hero has to keep LOSING until finally, at the climax, the hero either finally wins ("quest") or is totally defeated ("tragedy"). The trouble is that in the context of a video game, the player needs to feel constantly rewarded - small-scale victories eventually leading to the grand, final victory when the game is won. These concepts would seem to be mutually exclusive. How can I write a story that keeps increasing the dramatic stakes while at the same time making the player feel like they're making steady progress? How can the player both lose battles and win battles at the same time?
Final Fantasy II accomplished this by essentially divorcing the gameplay from the story at key moments. Yes, your heroes win the individual battles they fight - but those battles are only a small part of the larger story, over which they have no control, and which is getting worse and worse for the heroes. This occasionally results in feelings of frustration, but more frequently it keeps the player's interest alive. Here are some more examples from Final Fantasy II:
- Game Success: The player reaches the castle of Damcyan / Story Failure: The castle has already been destroyed by Golbez
- Game Success: The player rescues Yang from monsters / Story Failure: The monsters have already killed the rest of Fabul's army
- Game Success: The player slays the evil king of Baron / Story Failure: The king was just Golbez's puppet
- Game Success: The player defeats the demonic dancing dolls / Story Failure: Golbez's severed hand takes the crystal anyway
In this way, the game (roughly) manages to make the player feel like the story's stakes are increasing AND that the player is somehow making progress and achieving goals.
Contrast this with the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The introduction starts out pretty strongly - it turns out that the entire land of Hyrule has been overtaken by a mysterious dimension called "Twilight," turning the kingdom into a playground for freaky monsters and all the people into ghosts. The trouble is that the villains are never stronger than they are at the beginning. As Link clears each temple in succession, the Twilight gradually recedes from the land until it's restricted to a single pyramid around Hyrule Castle. The story stakes actually go DOWN as Link makes progress in the game - the villain gets weaker and weaker until Link finally finishes the job in the last act.
Granted, Zelda has never been much of a story-driven game, so it's somewhat forgivable. But Ocarina of Time, a previous Zelda title, handled it better. Do you remember how, halfway through the game, you're teleported 10 years into the future and Hyrule Castle Town is destroyed and swarming with moaning zombies? How Hyrule Castle has been replaced with Ganon's volcanic palace? That was an excellent, disturbing moment, and represented a more successful raising of stakes. Young Link may have successfully found the three amulets in the past (gameplay achievement!), but now that he's in the future, it's a whole new ballgame (story stakes are raised!).
So it can be done. Golbez proves it!
Ok, so this may not be "overlooked" as much as "new," but I've been enjoying playing the Zelda-II-inspired adventure game Elliot Quest on my OUYA, and the soundtrack by Michael Chait is generally nice and tuneful. Whaddya know... an indie game with actual melodies! A few of the songs skirt awfully close to famous retro themes in a few places,* but I'm not complaining. I'm a particular fan of the second half of "Hero in the Land of Fire." The main Elliot Quest theme (used as a random battle theme) is also enjoyable. Take a listen to the whole soundtrack here.
* I count musical references to "Gerudo Valley" from Ocarina of Time, "Lost Woods" from Link to the Past, and "Level Select" from the original Star Fox. Any others?
Well, I got an email I wasn't expecting yesterday - The Adventures of Chris was greenlit on Steam! The reason I wasn't expecting it is because, according to my Steam-provided stats, I wasn't that close to 100% of the way to the "Top 100" in terms of yes votes. I figured I had a long slog ahead of me. Yesterday, however, the good folks at Valve decided to greenlight a whole bunch of games, including mine. It doesn't feel like as much of an accomplishment as I'd hoped - better to reach the goal line than to have the goal line suddenly moved forward a whole lot. However, for the record, not all games got greenlit, so I suppose it's something! And hey, one way or another... THE ADVENTURES OF CHRIS WILL BE ON STEAM :D
I am, however, going to hold off on releasing The Adventures of Chris on Steam until the HD revamp is complete - I only get one launch, and I want it to be as awesome as possible! I'm thinking it would be good to find a way to make the original AIR app available as a bonus download, for those who want to experience the original, shorter, retro-styled version, but I'm not sure yet what I want to do on that front. Thoughts are welcome.
You ever played Battletoads for original NES? I've played it many times, but I've never beaten it, and by "beaten it," I mean "gotten past level 3." The game starts out smooth and easy, and then VERY SUDDENLY becomes difficult enough to quality as player abuse in violation of several United Nations statutes. And yet, I keep going back to the game, over and over, to repeatedly ram my flying motorcycle into an oncoming wall. Is it some sick gamer form of Stockholm Syndrome? Yes. There may, however, be something else involved - something potentially useful for modern game developers to note. After all, I know I'm not the only one who played those first three levels of Battletoads over and over...
One of the things I remember most fondly about games from the 80's and 90's is how just about any game, even tiny little games, tried to build their own comic book universe around it. When you started Battletoads, you were shown a "radical" logo and character introductions as though you were witnessing the next incarnation of the Ninja Turtles (or, at least, that's what the developers were clearly hoping you'd think). Before even the first level, you were introduced to the Battletoads' anthropomorphic bird boss, the evil queen villain, and the Battletoads' spaceship in short order, letting you know that not only was there a context and a story and a world for this game, but easily for an entire possible Saturday morning cartoon and/or breakfast cereal. In a quick, efficient manner, the developers made it very clear that you weren't just playing a game, you were entering a franchise - I mean, another world. That appeals to me. Even the unfulfilled promise of that appeals to me.
It wasn't just Battletoads, either, or games that relied on existing intellectual property. Consider Mega Man X, Sonic the Hedgehog, F-Zero, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Banjo Kazooie, and on and on. It wasn't just RPGs and adventure games that gave us comic book worlds to explore, but racing games, strategy games (Starcraft!), and every rip-off fighting game to plague the front nook of a Pizza Hut. Even, to some extent, Mario. They all came with an attached comic book universe. (Why is this "Scorpion" guy fighting, and why won't his character description stay on the screen for more than 2 seconds?!) It was as though the developers knew that it wasn't enough to simply give players an isolated game experience - they had to touch something else in the player, something a little deeper, so that they could go above and beyond, and with, a little luck, sell them toys.
I consider this a tremendous positive. For a kid to buy a toy based on a game, or whine at their parents until they bought the toy for them, that kid had to love the game. A comic book universe was a longstanding strategy for accomplishing this - give the kids an alternative world to imagine themselves in, or to play with, or to argue about. The keyword here, by the way, is "alternative." The idea is for this other world to be somehow more awesome than the daily grind. There has to be something about the alternative world to love.
A lot of modern games, in my admittedly limited experience, don't have comic book universes. They have "lore." I really hate lore. I shouldn't, given how much I love exploring rich worlds created by other people, but every time I've played a game that had "lore," I wound up finding a bunch of literal tomes of information scattered around that I couldn't care less about. Why are so many buildings in Dragon Age: Origins littered with books that read like script treatments from George Lucas - this and that empire fought this and that kingdom for such-and-such years, until such-and-such hero did blah-blah-blah? (Even worse, there are games like Final Fantasy XIII that can not be understood unless you read them!) This isn't creating an awesome alternative reality. This is creating a boring pile of data. Lore seems to have become synonymous with "details" or "information." If you want to develop a history textbook for your world, fine. I'd rather have a Saturday morning cartoon. Or an action figure. Or, to be more honest, the sort of world that lends itself to that kind of cynical toy manufacturing - because that world would need to be rich in strong character design, heightened reality, colorful places, and the promise of many more adventures to come.
It can certainly be fun as a game designer to come up with a detailed geopolitical history of a place - it might even seem justifiable because it creates a pool of material to draw from later, especially if your name is Chris Metzen and World of Warcraft releases an expansion that goes back in time to actually give all those confusing old names and places you came up with some significance at long last. I find, however, that the television writer's strategy for creating lore ("make it up on an episode-by-episode basis to serve the needs of the immediate story") tends to paradoxically work better in practice, as it focuses on the audience's emotional needs rather than the needs of the world itself (or of logic, which isn't as important as some claim).
A lot of indie platformers these days don't even try to create a comic book universe to live in - they focus on puzzle solving, or interesting physics models, or on ascending the challenge curve. These games can be quite fun, certainly, but it's hard (for me at least) to fall in love with them, or even in moderate interest with them. Some games do try, fortunately, but miss the mark a bit - I intend to review one I played recently in more detail later.
With my own platformer, The Adventures of Chris, I often worried that I hadn't really given full justice to the comic book universe I wanted to create for it. I relied a lot on fourth-wall breaking humor, which I enjoy, but which also can up the "silliness" quotient too far, and break the illusion that a comic book world needs to sustain itself (yeah, I know, a comic book world can actually be TOO silly). So, for this reason, I'm playing around with revamping the script a bit as I revamp the graphics and music - ramping the silliness down somewhat (but not all the way), adding more emotional heft to Chris's journey, and fleshing out the world of villains and magic he finds himself swept up in just a little bit more. After all, I want to invest you a little more in an alternative world. I want you to have something to latch on to, something to help you believe that there's more to this world than just the glimpse the game provides. I want to give you something as awesome, if possible, as the first two-and-a-half levels of Battletoads.
I want to sell you toys.
You ever play an old game called The 7th Guest? It was a haunted-house-themed "CD-ROM game" back when "CD-ROM" was a shiny, brand-spanking-new concept. It was a multimedia game, even. (Until then, games had only been able to employ one media.) It was truly the dawn of a new era -- an era of Microsoft Encarta articles about tapirs whenever you wanted.
A lot of people remember the game a little... less than fondly. This may or may not be because, in some respects, the game was terrible. And yet, I love the game. I still love it even after all these years. It has a weird grip on me that I've been trying to explain. I'm certain a fair chunk of it is nostalgia, but I strongly suspect that there's something more there. And I think modern games could actually benefit from studying it ... in certain respects.
I am perfectly willing to grant you that the game was flawed - the acting in the full-motion video left everything to be desired, the puzzles were often brutally frustrating, and the storyline was random and confusing, if it could even be called a storyline at all. What's more, the puzzles - arguably the central "game" of The 7th Guest, were all isolated experiences seemingly divorced from any larger story or purpose. This seemed to annoy a lot of people.
Some folks will defend The 7th Guest in spite of these things - they'll say it had an excellent, excellent soundtrack by The Fat Man (which is true), and that the house itself was creepy and well-designed (which is true). However, I would like to take a different tack and defend it on the basis of some of the very reasons that so many people disdain it. Hear me out on this.
Since The 7th Guest, I've tried a number of horror-themed puzzle games (mostly on mobile and web platforms, where this sort of genre seems to thrive) and they all bore me to tears. They all have a suitably dark, creepy haunted house to explore, with lots of old artifacts to pick up and play with, and generally lots of old letters and books to read, with the idea that by reading a bunch of dimly-lit text, you will uncover the mystery behind the moderately scary house you're trapped in for whatever reason. These games typically have a more reasonable, even believable, storyline, and all the puzzles are nicely integrated into the environment and story. I've seen one game go through a lot of trouble to justify why the builder of the house saw fit to require three different statue pieces to unlock a door, etc etc.
The thing that annoys me is that, (for me at least) that kind of thing profoundly doesn't matter. I don't need my storylines to make a lick of real sense. I need them to make emotional sense, to carry me along on a wave of feelings - I don't need anything "explained." I don't want to read any text to explain the storyline. That's boring. Heck, that's almost as boring as zombies.
The 7th Guest, by contrast, was especially threatening to me as a kid precisely because it made no sense. The lack of sense, whether intentional or not, created a real sense of mystery. The storyline was presented in chunks in no particular order, some of which seemed to contradict the events in other chunks. As a kid, I was certain I was missing something, and that vague, oblique style of storytelling worked very well - mostly by preventing me from ever feeling like I really knew what was going on. Knowledge is power, after all, and in a horror game you really want your user to feel powerless. Explanations, logic, reasonableness, internal consistency - all these things are the enemy of suspense, mystery, horror, and emotional manipulation. Don't play by the player's mental rules - threaten them at every turn! Especially when you're making a horror game.
The 7th Guest was an excellent mood game as well. Virtually the entire game is presented as one continual tracking shot - a deliberate design decision that means the reality of the game is never broken. Camera cuts are comforting because they remind you there's an editor between you and the thing you're watching - it's a distancing device. Remove all cuts, and there you are - just you, all alone, in this empty house.
The lack of ability to directly control your POV helped as well - you could give direction with the animated, beckoning skeletal hand, but once you clicked, the house seemed to kind of take you wherever it wanted you to go, at whatever random speed it wanted, through whatever object it wanted. You didn't even know who or what you were supposed to be yourself. The environment was threatening in a surreal, quiet kind of way - dark, cavernous reaches of rooms you were unable to explore, strange color palettes, that big, strange, sweeping staircase in the foyer, etc. You were never really afraid something was going to jump out at you, but you were never allowed to feel settled. You were at the game's mercy in a way that inventory-collecting, weapon-firing games can simply never achieve by their very nature.
The randomness of the game helped create the feeling that you were in a world where magic and ghosts reigned - there were no rules that you had any power over. Hands could reach at you through a painting, dishes could fly around for no reason, a doll could suffocate a baby that you're not sure whether it ever was a real baby or not... You could travel down a drain or through a telescope - whatever the game wanted. No reasons, no explanations.
The music was also very well done (it's one of my favorite game soundtracks), but sometimes the most effective thing about the music was its bizarre absence for long stretches, or its continuation past when it "should" have ended. The voice of Stauf, the evil toymaker whose spirit rules the house, is always very clearly in control. The puzzles might seem isolated and random, but as a kid, I never had any doubt that they were all part of some sick game being played on me. His voice, more than anything else, helped blur the line between reality and fantasy for me as a kid. He always knew where I was, watching me play. There was no indication that his power was in any way limited or defeatable, making him an excellent villain. It made the game awesomely unsettling without the use of jump scares, gore, or depressing elements.
I imagine that if you've played this game for the first time as an adult rather than a kid, it wouldn't affect you the way it affected me. In fact, you'll probably react the way many of my friends reacted when I showed it to them as adults - you'll get really frustrated at the puzzles and laugh at the cheesy ghost acting. And there are probably more effectively unsettling non-jump-scare/non-gore horror games out in the modern era that I haven't played (if you have a recommendation let me know!). But in spite of it all, I still have a soft spot for The 7th Guest. And I probably always will.