I don't know if I'm going to be buying a PS5 anytime soon (or ever), so I may not have an opportunity to play Miles Morales, which is Insomniac's follow-up to its smash hit 2018 game Marvel's Spider-Man. Instead, I decided to go back and play the DLC for the 2018 game, "The City That Never Sleeps", which I had bought, but never got around to playing. This got me thinking more about how Insomniac implemented the web-swinging mechanics, and what I hope they'll do to iterate and improve the mechanic in future games.

This blog post is a transcript of the video essay above.

I had previously mentioned Marvel's Spider-Man essay about open world gaming's possible recent inflection point, but I didn't go into much detail. Basically, I just threw it in as an example of a recent open world game in which the traversal of the map had a large mechanical focus, turning the map into more of a play space and less of a convoluted, time-wasting mission-select screen. I didn't spend more time talking about Spider-Man, however, because as much as I like Insomniac's game, and as fun as the web-swinging is, I still felt like the web-swinging traversal in that game was pretty simple, and the environment did not act as much of an obstacle to the level of the other games in those videos.

Besides, Insomniac's Spider-Man didn't stray very far from the boring checklist-inspired open world design that my earlier videos were railing against. Traversal doesn't consume resources other than the player's time, and the player isn't responsible for balancing Peter's heroic and personal lives (the tension between the two has always been a big part of the Spider-Man story), nor are there any other mechanics that try to pull the player towards one set of content to the exclusion of another, and so where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you chose to get there is largely meaningless. It's any other open world game you've played in the last 10 years. The web-swinging is just a much more stylish and spectacular method of moving from filler content to filler content.

Spider-Man games make for an interesting case study in open world game design.

Spider-Man games in total do represent their own interesting microcosm of the virtues of open world, sandbox game design, and also of the ways in which open world games can fall flat on their faces and fail miserably. Spider-Man could make for an interesting case study to go along with Death Stranding.

Since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game, mainstream Spider-Man games have mostly been open world games. The most notable exceptions being Beenox's Shattered Dimensions (which was pretty good) and Edge of Time (which was awful). All the other Spidey games that I've played have been open world games in which you web swing around a virtual Manhattan to reach story missions or to thwart ambient crimes. The quality of these games has been very hit-or-miss, but (as we'll discuss soon) many of them still have their unique merits.

Beenox's Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time are notable Spider-Man games that are not open world games.

Web of Shadows, for instance, had lots of problems with its writing, pacing, and animation, but its novel aerial and wall-crawling combat mechanics made excellent use of the map's verticality in ways that other Spidey games (and open world games in general) rarely even approach. I won't be talking much about this game because I traded in my copy a long time ago, and I don't feel like blowing $45 of Patreon contributions on a game that I'll likely play for 10 minutes just to capture footage and refresh my memory of how the game played. So my apologies if you're a big Web of Shadows fan.

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Madden NFL - title

I had previously written about how the Madden NFL video game series from Electronic Arts has failed to simulate football by using a shortened quarter length to keep games around 30 minutes long. These shortened games lead to a rushed pace of play, fundamentally change the strategy of football, and also affect other aspects of balance and game design that are not easily fixed by simply setting the game to 15-minute quarters.

This time, I'm going to move away from the rules of the game, and look at more specific game mechanics that fail to simulate how real football players actually play football. This installment, and the next, will look at how real NFL quarterbacks make reads and go through progressions, and then at how defensive pressure packages are used to disrupt those reads and progressions to force the quarterback to make bad decisions. Then we'll look at how Madden completely fails to model these aspects of football, and the various ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to fix or cover up these problems over the years. Some have worked; others have been little more than band-aid solutions.

The companion isn't the sole focus of the narrative this time around.

How Madden succeeds at simulating football: pre-snap reads

Let's start with some good faith towards EA and Madden and talk about the things that the game actually does get fairly right: pre-snap reads. As a QB in Madden, you'll be looking at whether the middle of the field is open or closed before the snap, and this will give you a reasonably accurate idea of whether the route concept that you called will be successful. If you call a cover 2-beating post or dagger concept, but the defense comes out in a Cover-3 look, with a safety in the middle third, then you will be well-served to either adjust the routes using hot routes, audible out of the play entirely, or call a timeout to regroup and come up with another play.

Madden players can make sure
that a blitzing Mike LB is blocked.

Over the past few years, Madden has also gradually introduced concepts such as reading the Mike linebacker. This determines who the blockers will prioritize blocking, which can be important if the defense sends multiple blitzers. Identifying the most dangerous blitzer as the "Mike" ensures that someone on your offensive line will try to block him. Usually, this will be the inside-most blitzer (the one lined up closest to the center). You can also slide pass protection left or right to deal with an overload blitz, and can also assign a double team in order to neutralize a particularly dangerous pass rusher.

To Madden's credit, it gets most of this stuff right. Hopefully all the mechanics that I just mentioned are still in the game by the time you're reading this, and they haven't been stripped out by Tiburon in order to make room for some new gimmicky feature...

A Madden user can make many of the same reads that a real NFL quarterback would. The game will even highlight the key reads before the snap on certain plays to remind the user how to execute the selected play. Good stuff. I don't have many complaints here. Defenses can even disguise coverages, can fake blitzes, and use other similar tactics to try to fool the human user and force a bad read. Again, good stuff. The problems begin when a CPU QB steps on the field, and only get worse when the ball is snapped.

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This series of blog post will also presented as a video essay on YouTube.

My first foray into long-form video analysis was a cathartic, hour-long, breakdown of how EA and Tiburon's design philosophy causes its Madden NFL video game series to feel disappointing and stagnant. That video was mostly about how EA's insistance on releasing the game annually forces them to come up with gimmicky features that they can plaster on the back of the box and on marketing material to try to re-sell the game every year, while neglecting the core problems and bugs that are the real thing holding the game back.

The fact that Ultimate Team is the biggest money-maker, and the impetus of the game's design efforts certainly doesn't help. You'd think that wanting to have a competitive, e-sport-level product would lead to the developers (and the competitive players) emphasizing and demanding solid, robust gameplay. Apparently not.

I will discuss how and why things are done in real football.

I'm starting up a new series of blog posts and video essays dissecting the failures of the Madden NFL video games' ability to simulate the sport of football. I'll start by talking about how and why something is done in real football (with an emphasis on NFL football). Then I'll dissect the ways in which modern Madden games (that is any Madden since 2008) completely fails to model that respective aspect of football. If relevant, I'll even address the silly ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to cover up the problems with band-aid solutions. Lastly, I'll even propose my own suggestions for how EA could potentially resolve the issues I'm going to bring up. So there will be some constructive criticism to go along with the complaining.

Before I begin the critique, I want to say that I'm not making this content simply to shit all over Madden or EA for the sake of shitting all over Madden or EA. Not that they don't deserve it. I'm doing this because I love football, and I love football video gaming, and I want our football video games to be better -- whether those games come from EA, 2K, or any other developer. I've also written reviews and done video breakdowns of the successes and failures of the indie football games in 2019, but I'm not going to go into the same level of nit-picking with those, since they are from studios that are severely limited by a low budget and lack of manpower. Madden, on the other hand, is developed by a corporate conglomerate with 30 years of experience making sports video games, hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around, and has a staff of hundreds of people working on it, almost a hundred of which are programmers. Bottom line is that EA has lots of money and the resources, and they have the exclusive rights to the NFL at least through 2026 (and used to have the exclusive rights to NCAA football as well). EA could make the definitive football video game. They just choose not to.

EA Sports logo NFL

Besides, almost everything I'm going to say in this series will likely apply to indie games as well. Those indie games have been getting consistently better, so there's a chance they might get more of this stuff right before Madden manages to. So I'm going to be directing most of my criticism towards EA's multi-million-dollar Madden series because I expect Madden to be able to do these things right.

...

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I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

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Silent Hill 3

Last year, YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf posted a video titled "The Problem with Silent Hill 3: the Downfall of Team Silent". In that video, Super Eyepatch Wolf asserts that the design of Silent Hill 3 changed early in development, as a result of pressure from Konami. He claims that early designs for the game were going to be a more personal, introspective tale, in the vein of Silent Hill 2.

YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf posted a video last year asserting that Silent Hill 3
was originally going to be more similar to Silent Hill 2's personal and introspective story and style.

Konami may not have been happy with this early design because -- believe it or not -- there were apparently many vocal fans of the first Silent Hill game who were upset that Silent Hill 2 had not continued the story set forth by the first game. So Konami mandated that Team Silent make Silent Hill 3 be more of a continuation of the first Silent Hill, and so SH3 was re-written as a direct sequel to the first game, and returned to the narrative of a cult trying to birth a demon god.

I've adapted this blog post into a YouTube video response to Super Eyepatch Wolf.

It's hard to believe, but when it was first released, Silent Hill 2 was not universally regarded as the "gold standard" of video game horror. You can look at middling contemporary reviews from publications like Gamespot and GameInformer. In those days, the series was perceived as being "about occultism", and Silent Hill 2 was a stark deviation. Now, with a generation of gamers having grown up playing and loving Silent Hill 2, there's an effort now to re-frame the entire series as having always been about a haunted town torturing the guilty, even though three out of four of the original games are explicitly about a cult trying to re-birth its demon god, and repressed personal guilt is only featured in one of those four games.

Silent Hill 2 was the only of the original 4 games to be about the protagonist being punished for repressed guilt.

But that may not have always been the plan...

If Super Eyepatch Wolf is correct, then Team Silent may have wanted to pivot the narrative focus of the series away from occultism and towards more personal stories like SH2 -- though, importantly, not necessarily about repressed guilt or amnesia!

I have a complicated relationship with the question of "what is Silent Hill about?" Readers of my personal blog will know that I've rigorously defended the idea of Silent Hill (as a series) being about occultism, and that new entries in the series should respect that history, rather than trying to re-frame the entire series (and the nature of the town itself) to be about a haunted town that summons people to face their hidden guilt.

That being said, it isn't that I have a particular attachment to occult stories, even though a lot of the games that I like (such as Demon's Souls and Blooborne) also have strong occult threads. I also am definitely not opposed to more thoughtful, introspective stories. Silent Hill 2 is my favorite game in the series because of that thoughtful, introspective story! Rather, I've found all the third-party-developed games after Silent Hill 4 to be highly derivative of Silent Hill 2 and not particularly good.

Silent Hill 3 pivoted hard back towards the occult inspirations of the first game.
But is that really what Team Silent wanted?

Super Eyepatch Wolf does have some quotes and evidence to support the idea that Silent Hill 3 was originally intended to be a very different game -- all of which was taken from a single interview. But there's not much (if any) information about what the actual story of that game may have been. Nobody on Team Silent has (as far as I know) talked about it, nor do we have a leaked design document like what we have for Silent Hill: Cold Heart (the Wii-exclusive that eventually transformed into Shattered Memories).

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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