On suspension of disbelief and open-world storytelling

By now, you probably already know about Ubisoft’s upcoming open world blockbuster Watch Dogs. In the game, you play as Aiden Pearce who has the ability to hack into the city’s—in this case Chicago’s—infrastructure and the informational database it keeps on its citizens to bend the city to his will. The key to the game’s success will be how well this actually works. In all of the existing demos and previews, the player has what appears to be complete control over countless different aspects of the environment: cameras, cell phones, trains, ATMs.

Lesser (and perhaps most other) titles would limit this functionality to combat programming limitations. For example, most people talk about how great the open world possibilities are in the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve always found them limiting. In GTA, you can do anything that causes destruction, but little else. The inability to walk into any random building just to investigate the décor is a clear indicator of the game’s focus and gameplay-driving motives. These games are not about experiencing a wide-open world. They’re about killing things and causing destruction in a world that vaguely resembles your own, which is why the recent comments by Watch Dogs senior producer Dominic Guay are so encouraging:

“One of our hopes is that the best moments players will have in the game won’t be scripted events. My hope is the thing they talk about at the office or with their friends is the thing they created themselves,” Guay said. “It’s the scenario where they had a plan and they tried to pull it off, and something wrong happened and they have to improvise. And they know — gamers know when that happens; it’s their moment. They made it happen.

“So that’s what I’m hoping — that the best memorable moments in Watch Dogs are unique to the player.”

Personal storytelling has dominated my motivations to play games over the last three years. In that time, I’ve spent well over 70% of my gaming time dedicated to a handful of games: Battlefield 3, the NBA 2k series, and to a lesser extent Skyrim. The latter of those has received the most press regarding storytelling. The possibilities of the land of Skyrim are seemingly endless, from interactions with NPCs to battles with roving packs of giants and dragons. But Battlefield has been my standby during that time.

The single player of Battlefield 3 is just as terrible as all other modern FPS single player campaigns: scripted sequences and dull storylines combine to make monotonous gameplay. But the multiplayer in Battlefield, with its emphasis on vehicular warfare and large-scale maps, is ideal for the creation of one-of-a-kind moments. (Why else would Dice run the “Only In Battlefield” campaign asking for people to send in their wildest videos?). Though my moments are never quite as spectacular as some of those on YouTube, I’ve spent countless hours talking with my friends about unbelievable, long-range headshots or moments of unlikely good fortune that have come my way in the multiplayer sessions.

What sets Battlefield apart from other modern FPS multiplayers is that these moments are inherent in the game’s infrastructure. In the Call of Duty series, players will have rounds of legend that they share with their friends, but it ultimately comes down to one thing: I killed a bunch of dudes and didn’t die. Battlefield eschews this with the addition of vehicles and large-scale moments. Some of my most memorable Battlefield moments are completely nonviolent: rising over a mountain range in a helicopter to see two enemy choppers hovering nearby or lying in wait as a tank rolls mere feet away from my ill-equipped sniper.

These moments are possible because they’re entirely unscripted. All jets and helicopters and tanks in Battlefield multiplayer are driven by human players. If an opposing tank sees you hiding in the weeds and mercilessly blows you up, good on that player for being perceptive. But there’s never a chance for some AI glitch or game malfunction (“I thought I was concealed behind cover but the AI always seems to find me”). Everything in Battlefield is organic, and this is what Guay’s comments promise regarding Watch Dogs’ potential: open world, organic moments in which the AI acts independently of your presence in the world. It’s like going unnoticed in the Matrix or Inception. Shit just happens and you’re around to see it.

The problem is, as Battlefield has aged, those moments have become more and more seldom. Players have gotten so good at the game that exploits are easier to find. In addition, most players are so familiar with the relatively limited number of maps and typical user attack patterns that one-time grand moments have turned into rote skirmishes. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns: the better everyone has gotten at the game, the more enjoyment and wonderment has been stripped from its structure.

I’ve written here before about the difficulty of video games, but one aspect of the discussion I omitted was the suspension of disbelief. At their best, games consume you. No longer are you sitting on your couch in Doritos-stained boxers holding a plastic controller. You’ve been transmitted into the game itself and care for the outcome of your character. This is one of the reasons FPS have come to dominate the marketplace. Aside from their lowest-common denominator rhetoric and content, the games offer a perspective that’s unmatched in the suspension of disbelief. Add to that the perfection of the control scheme, one that is effectively one-to-one between onscreen action and player control, and the suspension of disbelief becomes nearly impenetrable. That is, unless you die.

Enter Elizabeth and Bioshock Infinite. Much has been written—though not here—about Bioshock Infinite and the player’s interaction with the AI phenomenon Elizabeth, but her real value to the game is in her combat usefulness. A player is supposed to grow connected to Elizabeth throughout the game. She observes things about the environment and far-too-often tosses you a small handful of shekels. And despite trashcans and dead enemy corpses having far too many uneaten sandwiches contained in and on them, the game is relatively withholding of ammunition. With Elizabeth, you have the ability to suspend your disbelief in the heat of battle when other games would have you frantically searching the floor for discarded weapons. She tosses you ammo and salts (used to sustain your magical Vigor powers) in times of need. This allows you to manipulate the world of Bioshock Infinite in any way you see fit, building moments of grandeur without the fear of running out of resources.

This is why the infrastructure of Watch Dogs is so intriguing. Unless the designers implement gameplay breaking aspects like WiFi and cellphone jammers—which they no doubt will during at least one mission in the game to limit your capabilities—your ability to manipulate the world with seemingly endless resources promotes both complete suspension of disbelief and the creation of your own journey. If the AI truly is independent of your actions, Watch Dogs may be the truly revelatory open world urban environment that its hype promises.

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NCAA 13 review

I reviewed the really disappointing NCAA 13 for PopMatters. The moneyquote:

It’s clear that barring a massive upgrade in AI development in the next few years, EA’s football series is kind of stuck, a problem largely brought on by the rules of football more so than any failing of the developer. The main issue facing football video games currently is that there are too many players. Each team fields 11 men, but the player only controls one, meaning the outcome of any play is dependent on whether or not your AI wide receiver can get open against AI cornerbacks, for example. There are obviously considerations with regards to play calls—running man-beating passing routes against man coverage and vice versa—but anyone who has ever played an EA football game knows that there are just times when the game decides that you’re not winning. And these problems extend beyond the skill position players: if your offensive linemen are unable to block the defensive line, your play call hardly matters.

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Morality in Red Dead Redemption

My most exciting realization while playing Red Dead Redemption was an ostensibly pedestrian one. After my horse was killed in the heat of battle, I was saddled with the malnourished steed of a now-headless Mexican rebel. Galloping slowly through the Mexican wilderness it dawned on me: I can either try to rope and tame a wild stallion, the likes of which might be fast and agile, or I can put on my bandanna to obscure my face and rob a citizen at gunpoint, taking his horse and avoiding the shame of a criminal’s lifestyle.

RDR continuously grapples with morality–you’re a former gang member who’s sent to kill people in order to secure the safe return of his family–but organic moral choices like the above exemplify the greatest decision RPGs can force players to make. The game puts an emphasis on honor and fame, and doing righteous acts for random civilians awards stature and leniency throughout the world. Compromising those benefits for the sake of ease is a legitimate decision gamers have to make.

Red Dead is an action game masquerading as an RPG, which leads to many cringe-worthy actions but also helps streamline the story. Red Dead’s second act–spent south of the border, flipping between both sides of the Mexican revolution to further your own goals–explicitly pits good (Mexican rebels fighting against a corrupt government) versus evil (totalitarian Mexican army) and forces the player to assist both sides. The Mexican army is despicable: killing innocent civilians, raping their women, and oppressing human rights. The rebels are led by a womanizer who, by all accounts, is at least a good soldier who cares about his country.

After a few missions, it becomes clear who you should be fighting for. Unfortunately, in order to progress the story, you have to work for both sides, which means killing many of the people you want to help. During these sequences, I felt genuinely ashamed to be taking part in the slaughters I was carrying out. I thought about my character’s legacy: when he’s gone, what stories will be told? In an effort to hide my shame, my character wore his bandanna across his face any time he was assisting the Mexican army. This didn’t stop the rebel NPCs from taking note of my two-faced approach to the war. I wanted to pledge allegiance to their ranks, but my character remained indignant, “I’m not working for anyone. I’m working for myself.” This is obviously bullshit.

RDR plays out a little bit like Portal in that you think you’re acting autonomously, when in fact the whole game has been spent at the mercy of a more powerful being (in this case, it’s the government officials who have kidnapped your family). Your ability to choose one side or the other is nonexistent. The freedom and morality that the game tries to implement become hollow shells, and there’s a sense of inevitability about the story. It doesn’t matter how morally righteous or evil you were; you had a goal and you eventually achieved it. This is the story of John Marston and your role is simply as spectator. He does despicable things; he does valiant things.

It’s an interesting dynamic to stress fame and honor in what is otherwise a purely cinematic experience. Being a criminal–or at least morally bankrupt–is effectively impossible given your frequent, necessary encounters with lawmen. In order to tell this story properly, you can’t revert to typical Rockstar-game mentalities (I can do anything I want in this open world, so let’s cause some destruction). Asking you to be morally upstanding and showing both the good and the bad of humanity completes your character, and more importantly, his story. If you could spend hours plundering towns and killing everyone you come across, Marston’s eventually reconciliation would feel empty, so the game strongly hints that you should be good, despite giving you other options.

There’s a separation of moral decisions then: the ones you’re forced to participate in–good or bad–and the smaller moments that reinforce your eventual redemption. Since they have no true impact on your legacy or the game’s end, these smaller moral choices feel like the moments between the scenes of a big-budget film, the things that are assumed or taken for granted. You live a life in RDR in the shallowest way possible, your hand being forced to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. The grandest, most important moments are those that you have the least control over and are generally the most morally questionable. It’s the smaller moments, then, the brief bits of true autonomy, that ingrain you in the world. They’re respite for not only a weary frontiersman, but also for the player, forced to do terrible things to innocent people throughout the game.

By the end of the story, despite all of the horrible things you’ve been forced to do, you genuinely want to see a happy ending for Marston. It’s the same motivation that keeps you from robbing every civilian you come across and what forces the action forward. You’ve done good deeds both for strangers and to further your own cause, and you’ve even been pulled into depravity from time to time, all in the name of redemption. By the end of the game, both the player and Marston need it.

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The evolution of technology and its effect on game difficulty

The Gameological Society–currently the best outlet for forward-thinking video game writing–recently reviewed the new Spider-Man game, The Amazing Spider-Man, and followed it up with a reader discussion of the game’s defining trait: difficulty. The review posits:

Web-swinging in 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was an acquired skill. It took days of practice—you had to learn the proper timing and how to gauge building height—before you started to actually move and feel like Spider-Man. Those first few nights with the game, I spent more time falling to the streets below and looking foolish than I did zipping through the air. Not so in The Amazing Spider-Man. In the opening moments of the game, you can simply hold down a button and steer with a joystick to unleash some vertigo-inducing acrobatics.

Even when I did, on occasion, fall to the street in The Amazing Spider-Man, an animation almost always kicked in so that Spider-Man, saving face, made a Nadia Comaneci-style landing, looking for all the world like he intended to fall to the street all along. That’s right—the game doesn’t have the guts to let me fall when I clearly deserve to fall. In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a bad or unplayable game; it’s a painfully insecure game that’s far more interested in being liked than it is in having any degree of depth.

The review commenters largely agree with one another: games are much easier now and it’s your fault. That summary is reductive–there’s talk of how the ease of games makes them more inclusive as well as innovative difficulty systems–but the sentiment that games are easier now rings true in almost every comment, which I believe to be, at best, a half truth.

Technology and complexity are positively correlated in video games. Technological advances paved the way for increasingly complex and sophisticated game design, but the opposite is also true. In the nascent years of video game technology, games were understandably simplistic: functioning almost solely in two dimensions, player movements, abilities, and options were limited. With diminished resources, game designers had essentially only two ways to make games more engaging: make them incredibly long or incredibly difficult.

Both of these options required a certain amount of dedication from the gamer. The former was the road less traveled. Without the ability to save your progress, excessively long games were a chore for the player and required more hours than should be allotted to staring motionless at a television screen (eg, Sonic the Hedgehog, Kid Chameleon, et al). Therefore, designers often required technical perfection from gamers. For me, this is epitomized in titles like Mega Man 2, which required both the memorization of level progression as well as incredible feats of timing and platforming (see also: Ninja Gaiden).

The other aspect of early games that many people forget is that so many popular console titles began as money-sucking arcade games. Donkey Kong, Smash TV, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade, Contra, and their spiritual brethren were not hard because it made them better games. They were hard because you dying repeatedly was the only way for the machines to make money. When they were eventually ported to home consoles, their difficulty persisted but the need to funnel money into them disappeared making them ripe for both rabid followings and the belief that this is how games should be made.

Contemporary video games, then, are not easier because that’s what the industry demands. They’re easier because they can be while remaining engaging. Moveover, the design goals of games have changed. Arcades are dying or, more accurately, dead, so allowance eaters have been banished from the landscape. Instead, contemporary games put as much emphasis on telling/experiencing a story as they do on fighting your way through it, hence the preponderance of RPGs (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, Fallout, etc). If you’re looking for an empirically challenging video game experience in 2012, feel free to join in the Call of Duty epidemic or explore any of the myriad games being played competitively; AI will never be an adequate substitute for dedicated, thinking humans.

The problems cited with The Amazing Spider-Man in the Gameological review are not related to difficulty so much as shoddy gameplay. While the inclusion of the Web Rush feature may lighten the difficulty of the game, more damningly, as the review notes, it destroys the actual gameplay, restricting the player from experiencing the sensation of becoming Spider-Man.

Many gamers contend that the origins of gaming show the true distillation of the medium when in fact, the traits that defined those games were more a function of limited resources rather than perfected design. Comments like this

It may feel great to effortlessly zip through something, always in style and always successful, but it is a hollow experience, because without challenge nothing is achieved.

…carry an air of misunderstanding. The underlying assumption is that games, and more specifically their control scheme, are something to be conquered rather than experienced. While that was true of early games that didn’t offer much in the way of experiences–bopping Goombas on the head and saving the Princess are not deep moments–completing single-player games/modes has ceased being the premiere component of releases.

What hierarchical difficulty settings offer gamers is the ability to experience ostensibly flat, linear gaming experiences in different ways, whether that be more or more powerful enemies, limited resources, or however else difficulty settings affect gameplay. I still remember playing games on the Nintendo 64 that required the player to increase the level setting 75% of the way through the campaign because, presumably, the subsequent levels were either too difficult for easy-setting gamers or because you simply didn’t earn the right to see the story completed. The death of that feature was a major, unsung moment in the development of video games: there’s nothing here to conquer.

There’s no doubt that games are easier to complete now. The birth of save functions, death of the arcade, and the rise of competitive online gaming are probably the three biggest culprits for that, but to view those pejoratively misses the point of this and future generations of games.

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Solitude in Red Dead Redemption

Per usual, I’m late to the party on a game, but I recently picked up a used copy of Red Dead Redemption and had a few things to say about it.

Forget for a moment the beautiful, seamless graphics and impeccable gunplay. RDR’s greatest attribute is its pace, which is brought about both by its physical architecture and the structure of its quests. The game does a great job of conveying the vastness of late 1800s Western America. While the world is enormous, very little of it is settled or usable in any functional manner. You ride your horse from place to place on beaten down paths that end up feeling a lot like city streets: some are larger than others and you often run into other cowboys riding along them, but it’s a good idea to stick to the roads because they’re the fastest way to get where you’re going. That said, you can ride off into the wilderness if you want. There are both innocuous (rabbits, deer, wild horses) and aggressive (mountain lions, wolves, snakes) wildlife that you come across, and if you want to chase them down, you’re more than welcome to, but you always get the sense that you’re in imminent danger when you travel too far from the beaten path. If you couldn’t immediately look at a worldmap, you could easily get lost in a deserted field.

That sense of danger also extends to people, as well. Unlike a lot of shooters, a few bullets will kill you, which makes you skeptical about nearly every stranger you come across–the game does a good job disguising who is in genuine need and who is out to kill and rob you–and every valley that you ride through. Often, when riding through one of these crevices that seem perfect for an ambush, I’ll push my horse to its limit to escape these areas (often without the hint of bad guys).

Because you’re alone so frequently, you constantly feel exposed. Falling for someone’s roadside trap–”Why don’t you take a load off for a minute” bang-bang-bang you’re dead–almost always ensures that you’re a goner. Once, I saw a stagecoach stopped at the side of the road and decided to slow down and check it out. As I pulled even with it, there were four bandits standing with weapons drawn that immediately killed me. These moments are relatively rare, and there are plenty of times where people are genuinely broken down and seeking help, but because you’re always exposed and susceptible to these elements, you quickly start to take things more cautiously, approaching slowly from distance and sometimes coming in on foot.

When you get into towns, there aren’t many people to interact with. You can buy things from the general store or weapon store or, in some towns, play poker and blackjack in the saloons, but other than those NPCs, various town folk are just digital apparitions that will take offense to you running them over with your horse. There’s no ability to have random, stock conversations with people, which is both good and bad. I feel like I want to talk to people every once in a while–about what, I don’t know–but the inability to interact increases your sense of being alone: none of these people want to talk to you so don’t linger in this city too long because frankly, there’s not much to do. So you get back on your horse and hit the open road again.

Resources are sparse as well. Bullets are easy to come across because almost everyone you kill gives you some ammo and you can always refill at the various houses that you buy throughout the world (I currently own three different rooms in three different cities). But things like money and health are relatively hard to come by. No one carries more than about $6 at any time (guns cost $150-$300 that I’ve seen; houses about $100) so you can’t just stockpile resources inordinately. If you want to save up to buy a gun, you really have to start engaging in a lot of side quests, which are generally organic in the world.

The main quests are done in an interesting way, as well. Early on, you encounter four different people who matter in the game, all of which send you on different types of quests. The girl who saves your life during the game’s intro owns a small farm and needs you for menial tasks like herding cattle, watching the farm at night, and roping wild horses. You get your fill of cinematic gunfights with the Marshall of a neighboring town who usually calls on you to ride into battle with him*. And then there’s the riff raff: a snake oil salesman and a grave robber, both of whom ask you to help out with tasks throughout the game. It appears that you can decide to progress any one of these characters’ storylines at your own speed. If you don’t want to do any of the homey, around the farm stuff, you don’t have to. But it’s nice that they include those as a diversion from your typical shoot’em up quests.

It’s precisely those menial fetch quests that give RDR such a worldly air. It would be easy to turn a Western game into a constant gunfight: lawless bandits on the trails, constant duels in cities, massive gunfights in shanty towns, etc. None of that would establish a very engaging, realistic world though. That I can sit down and play Texas Hold’em in the back of a saloon when I’m looking to make a few extra dollars is the kind of pacing that authenticity demands.

Finally, it’s the game’s saving function that fully draws you into the world. In order to save, your character has to go to sleep, either by setting up a campsite or buying/renting a room at the nearest town. Traversing the wide-open trails is harrowing enough when you’re alone at high noon, but doing so at night when you struggle to see what’s ahead of you brings a whole new sense of impending doom. Taking a nap (6 hours to be exact) often puts you on the other side of the day/night cycle. So despite the fact that you’re not eating, going to the bathroom, and whatever other bodily functions are required of humans, the need to sleep engulfs you in the universe.

All of this is to say that the world of RDR feels genuinely like the frontier. There are tons of areas to explore but as a lone cowboy, it’s both dangerous and probably fruitless. You’re terrified that everyone is trying to kill you, and the people who aren’t couldn’t care less that you exist because they’re just trying to get by themselves. There’s a good balance of thieves and regular townsfolk and the inclusion of the homestead is a really crafty way to add tutorials and a sense of place/real life. But its your solitude and perpetual sense of impending doom that sucks you wholly into the gameworld.

* Riding in tandem with people is done really well. You don’t do it often, but when you do, the game makes it easy to keep pace with your compatriots and there’s generally some kind of character-building chatter going on. It’s also nice to ride with people that you know are armed and on your side because it makes you relax a little bit.

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The Splatters review

I reviewed the XBox LIVE Arcade puzzler The Splatters for PopMatters. Moneyquote:

The Splatters is the worst kind of puzzle game: one that doesn’t really feel like a puzzler at all. The mystery behind the game – uncovering how to solve puzzles and feeling out the mechanics so that you can organically learn how to grapple with complex levels—is revealed after the first tutorial: “Oh, it’s like those other games.” Once you’re given all of the excess abilities, there exists only a few guess-and-check moments in levels before the proper strategy becomes abundantly clear. The biggest obstacle is usually the unreliable physics of exploded, cascading goo that doesn’t properly moisturize the objectives (I.e., “bombs,” essentially color-coded fish eggs that need to be adequately saturated).

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When speed produces reality

Though I had long suspected it, yesterday I realized that I have been playing NBA 2k12′s My Player mode on the easiest level setting. Having played the game long enough, I understood what increasing the difficulty setting would entail. The ability to make shots, defend well, and improve in the clutch are all a series of real-time algorithms. Your success in any area of the game depends on your ability to manipulate a handful of actions to achieve the optimal opportunity. (For example, when you’re running the fast break, forcing a pass to a corner three-point shooter–you can direct players to positions on the court by throwing certain passes–is often unsuccessful unless the player intends to go to that spot organically. It is too easy to throw those passes and you’re penalized for making the easy–read: wrong–decision.) Increasing the difficulty in the game, therefore, makes it harder to manipulate those algorithms in order to create the best outcome.

On lower level settings, you can begin to predict what the AI is going to do. There’s a limited number of animations that it processes and after playing for several hours, gaming the system becomes a habit. But it’s not until you up the difficulty that you realize why: speed.

I often noted when leveling up my character’s attributes that there’s a significant leap at every 0 and 5 (75, 80, 85, 90, etc). As you improve your passing ability, the accuracy of your passes does not necessarily increase, but you will notice more opportunities to make passes, the logic being that great passers will see things that other players don’t. Your ability to make those passes relies on how quickly you recognize the actions/animations and can execute the proper pass. Though you see more opportunities, you’re likely going to miss them the first several times that they appear. It’s not until you’re conditioned to seeing these openings that you’re ready to make the proper play at the proper time.

NBA 2k12, regardless of your player’s abilities, is rendered to look like real basketball. So how does the game begin to unveil these new opportunities without looking unrealistic and more importantly, make them look organic? The answer is speed, more precisely, the speed of animations. This revelation doesn’t really come to light until you increase the difficulty setting, where animations begin firing significantly quicker, offering both less room for error and more opportunities for new animations.

Pretend, for a moment, that the following cosine wave is the time it takes to perform any given animation in NBA 2k12 (we’ll use, for example, a player driving to the basket) on the easiest level setting:

The only way to make the game easier (other than allowing someone to hit an inordinate amount of shots) is to increase leniency. If NBA 2k12 played at the actual speed of an NBA game, 90% of all people who play it wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the pace and movement of the game. That’s why professional athletes can do what they do. So the game slows down individual animations and allows players to react to them at their own speed. If, on the lowest difficulty setting, it takes three seconds for the animation of someone driving to the basket to completely run, that doesn’t allow for much more time for other, subsequent animations to also appear.

One of the complaints I’ve always had about the game is that players do unnatural things. They take shots at inopportune times, take extra dribbles allowing defenders to recover, and various other illogical actions that wouldn’t occur in the real world. But it’s clear that those wonky animations arise because the speed of the game restricts itself from processing more realistic behavior. If Carmelo Anthony performs his “drive to the basket” animation in three seconds, given the time constraints of basketball (the shot clock, offensive and defensive three second rules, etc) he may have to force a shot in an unnatural position because he doesn’t have time to perform another animation–the first took too long to perform.

Now imagine that the speed of the animations has been increased (ie, more difficult level setting). Assume the first wavelength below represents the same drive to the basket animation as the graph above. However, now the game possesses the processing time to including a second wavelength/subsequent animation:

Not only can Carmelo Anthony now drive to the basket, but the game can process another animation. In this scenario, Melo can get himself out of a hairy situation if he, say, drives into traffic and needs to perform a double clutch reverse layup.

But this dynamic goes both ways. Now, forcing opponents into unsuitable defensive positions is much more difficult. On lower level settings, performing a few dribble moves might trigger a specific defensive animation from your opponent that frees you for a shot for, let’s say 1.5 seconds. But when the defensive player corrects himself more quickly, your window for opportunity decreases significantly. Where a stepback jumper move may have produced a 1.5-second maximum probability of making the shot (ie, you can press the shoot button at any time in that period), with increased difficulty, the defender will more quickly recover from your stepback move and defend your shot more closely, giving you only a half-a-second window to take your shot at the optimal level.

The reason I bring this up is because this is how real sports work. As great players work their way through progressively more difficult competition, the game becomes faster. They dominate at lower levels of competition because they can anticipate and read what their opponents will do–in addition to overpowering the competition and hitting an inordinate amount of shots. (I have always felt that NBA 2k12 approximated college basketball much better than professional basketball because of the reliance on set plays, picks, and unathletic, unnatural shots. It’s clear now that it was simply the speed of the game that was a hindrance to a professional hoops simulation.) But when they get to the pro level, windows of maximum performance narrow, more opportunities arise to make plays, and teams/players are more severely penalized for reading a play incorrectly.

Think for a moment about David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay about Roger Federer and the physics of tennis, “Federer as Religious Experience“:

After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.

This is how NBA 2k12 is structured because of its emphasis on speed. At a lower level setting, everything seems slow. Your player isn’t actually any more talented than any of the computer-controlled teammates/opponents. There’s an objective scale that places your character in a spectrum of everyone else in the league. However, the game opens up slowly for you, making passing lanes appear to hover for inordinate amounts of time and defenders to sag off of you for just long enough to get a good shot away. As you increase the difficulty, those windows close and the game feels more frantic but I would suspect, with more time playing these difficult level settings, those openings will appear more frequent and substantial as well.

It’s a testament to the development team that they’ve been able to produce such a dynamic. NBA 2k12 was already one of the best sports games on the market but it’s also the only one to get better (and more realistic) when the difficulty is increased. In other sports games, increasing the difficulty usually means your opposition will have insider information about the plays you’ve called or have superhuman powers. But NBA 2k12 bases its entire structure around speed, allowing it to increase the difficulty and realism without making the game artificially harder.

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