Kenneth on Games: Difficulty in “Dead Cells”

The nature of procedural level generation makes it hard for designers to implement a smooth difficulty curve. Instead, each level is treated as a static plateau of difficulty, with large jumps from level to level. With old-fashioned hand-placed levels, designers can create scenarios that have a much smoother flow of difficulty, even within the same level. But Dead Cells manages to get the best of both worlds: randomly generated levels with self-contained difficulty curves.

WARNING: Spoilers for late-game enemy types.

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Kenneth on Games: Rakan and Xayah in “League of Legends”

Rakan and Xayah have brought a new level of synergy to the League: their abilities explicitly reference each other by name for an additional effect. This has never happened to the same degree, and it raises a lot of questions about balance. But before those, we have to address some definitions: what exactly is synergy? How can we categorize it? What makes Rakan/Xayah’s synergy different from any other pair, and how can this distinction help us understand League’s design?

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Kenneth on Games: The Logic Virus in “Nier: Automata”

Many triple-A JRPGs rely heavily on suspension of disbelief to carry their narratives. Titles like Nier: Automata overload the player with so much immediate emotion that they’re not given any time to think about the massive inconsistencies. These plot holes are explained if the player spends a long time searching for collectibles like notebooks or diaries that explain what is happening, but this process tells a story through text rather than showing it through play. What if this didn’t have to be the case?

WARNING: Massive spoilers for Nier: Automata.

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Kenneth on Games: Jumping in “Nier: Automata”

Nier: Automata has the unenviable job of merging open-world RPG design with hack-and-slash combat. These two directions don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but sometimes the designers need to take a side. Platinum Games is practically the face of the spectacle fighter genre, so it’s no surprise that they lean towards their comfort zone when the option is available. This divide can be noticed in one of the most mundane details: how the characters jump.

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Nier: Automata, footage from a boss battle is used to illustrate a point.

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Kenneth on Games: Factory Zero in “Deus Ex: A Criminal Past”

In my previous essay on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I talked about how the reboot series will rarely force players to go through a combat area that they had previously completed, in order to maintain the illusion of having many choices. The latest DLC, A Criminal Past, goes against this hypothesis. You start in block A of a prison complex and must make your way to block B, which is nearly identical. Why would they break their previously established pattern?

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Kenneth on Games: The First Encounter in “Mirror’s Edge”

Now that every single game has parkour, it’s hard to appreciate how innovative the original Mirror’s Edge was. The designers had to break the ingrained assumption that enemies are meant to be defeated, and instead incentivize players to run away while somehow making them feel badass and powerful for doing so. When you encounter hostile cops for the first time, the level uses several creative tricks that nudge players to play the game differently than they would play any other game.

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Kenneth on Games: Rerolling in “Fire Emblem Heroes”

Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t the first maliciously monetized mobile game to have rerolling, and it certainly won’t be the last. Like other “gacha” games, you spend in-game currency to get a random character for your team. Some characters are objectively better than others, and when you start the game for the first time you get a large chunk of these currencies. This results in the phenomenon of rerolling, where people will uninstall the game and constantly retry their first time until they get a very powerful hero. Why would a game designer ever want such a thing?

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Kenneth on Games: Dodging in “Batman: Arkham Knight”

Back when the Arkham series was going at full blast, it seemed inevitable that its freeflow combat system would get copied and used in all sorts of games, from Mad Max to Shadow of Mordor. Now, we can see that it hasn’t happened. Developers have learned the limitations of what freeflow combat can and can’t do, and a lot of that is tied to how it relies on an overloaded dodge maneuver. One single mechanic can skew the design of a whole series in a suboptimal direction.

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Kenneth on Games: Disruptions in “Overcooked”

Overcooked is a game that lives and dies by its level design. The basic game mechanics are so simple that one would wonder if it was even possible to build a game around them. To maintain a feeling of “simple-but-difficult” the designers make heavy usage of special disruptions in the levels. Most of the time, these disruptions really sell the game and make it a lot more fun. Sometimes, they don’t.

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Kenneth on Games: Decision Making in “Thumper”

Thumper is a “rhythm violence” game where you are a space beetle and you are confronting a maniacal giant head from the future. It doesn’t make much sense from the description, and even though Thumper is best described as a rhythm game it’s a bit of a stretch. Most rhythm games don’t offer many opportunities for decision making, whereas Thumper is designed around giving the player a little bit of control over their fate, and then toying with that amount over the course of your wild ride.

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